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« Gears: On Reflection | Main | Practical Gearing »

Gearing in the 1950s

My previous article about gearing made me think back the early 1950s when I started racing. My first lightweight bike had a single chainwheel and a four-speed freewheel with 1/8 inch wide chain and sprockets.

Then I upgraded to a five-speed freewheel with a double chainwheel, or “Double-Clanger” as we called them. Chain shifting was by a lever operated changer, pictured above.

The 1/8 inch wide chain was pretty much standard from very early on in the development of the chain driven bicycle.

The five-speed freewheel used a 3/32 inch wide chain and sprockets; this was the standard width chain up until the late 1980s when rear gears went beyond six-speed.

I’m not sure when the 3/32 chain came into being, but I have the impression that it was fairly new in the early 1950s, because there were a number of people still using three and four speed 1/8” freewheels.

Typically, the number of sprocket teeth on a five speed were 14, 16, 18, 20, 23, the chainwheels where 47/50, there was also a 49/52 chainwheel available.

The three teeth difference on the two chainwheels is about the same difference a one tooth on the rear freewheel. (See gear table left.)

The rear sprockets were usually at least two teeth difference, so the small one step gap on the chainrings gave the in-between gears.

I’m not sure what the thinking was behind this set up, I am guessing it just took a while for manufacturers and riders to experiment with a wider gap on the front chainrings.

Three and four speed freewheels with one tooth difference were popular in the UK for Time-Trialing, which is probably why some riders stayed with them.

The above ten-speed set up was more in line with what the European Pros were using. I'm sure for the Grand Tours the pros used even lower gears on the mountain stages; 14, 16, 18, 21, 25 would more likely be used.

Everyone from the pros on down trained and raced on much lower gears than people ride today. I usually raced on 79 to 84 inches, and trained as low as 63 to 67 inches.

This made me think of an amusing phenomenon of that era. In the early 1950s there were a lot of bicycles on the road; not just racing cyclists but people who used a bike as transport. Few working class people owned cars in the UK at that time; that became more common in the late 1950s and 1960s.

Most of these “Utility” riders used a roadster or a sports roadster bike, heavy steel, usually with a Sturmey-Archer hub gear. These were three or four speed; with a top gear around 86 inches. The middle gear would be around 70 inches, and the bottom about 60 inches.

It was not unusual to be out training with the local “Chain Gang,” twiddling along in a 60 something gear, when a “Tuggo” (Our term for a non-racing cyclist.) would come flying past us in their 86 inch top gear.

One has to remember these utility riders were also pretty fit; they rode everywhere, and it is not difficult to pass a rider using an 86 inch gear, when he is spinning his eyeballs out in a mid 60s gear.

We usually ignored them completely and let them have their moment of glory, because we would always catch them on the next hill, but usually they turned into the nearest pub, which probably accounted for their hurry.

Bikes and gears were less complicated back then, but then so too was life. Fond memories



Reader Comments (14)

Thanks Dave, enjoyed that! You are an encyclopedia of information.

May 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLloyd Lemons

In the 1960's we still had 5 speed. For racing the more advanced riders used 44/54 chainrings and 14,15,16, 21, 23 blocks. That gave us 10 useable gears but the double changes were a nightmare on some courses.
When I first saw a 6 speed block I fell about laughing and asked "why the f**k do you need six!"

May 27, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterkenem

Makes me feel spoiled with the current 8,9, & 10 gears I now have on my current rides. Thanks for sharing your experiences from your racing days. Each time the component makers increased the number of rear sprockets I didn't know if I should complain about the planned obsolesence of my current gear or rejoice that there will be discounts/firesale on "old" stuff as the early adopters "upgrade" their rides.

May 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterStelvio

I think, for me, the most interesting aspect of this topic is looking back at the early cyclists and how they competed and climbed with the available gearing. It simply boggles my mind. And yes, I know...it was all they had, but still.

I find this article timely as I just received in the mail, from Italy, a 5 speed Everest freewheel that I will be using on my 1971 Masi once the frame/fork are brought back to new. I've been looking at this thing all evening wondering how riders climbed using this thing (14-16-18-20-22), although I do ride my singlespeed all over SF and surrounding territory with a 42-18. Guess the simplicity of the 5 speed is what intirgues me; 42-22 will be all I've got, so no need complaining...just pedal, stupid...and I do.

Thanks for all of the interesting topics, Dave!!

May 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMaltese Falcon

yep amazing. They all managed on much higher low gears and much lower high gears!

The 1964 Paris-Roubaix is still the fastest on record at over 28 mph. While I am sure there was a huge tail wind, their top gear was likely "only" 52x13.

May 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJW

Found this post by chance while fiddling with bike position and looking out for info. It so happens that this is something I can't figure out too: these days it's been all about gearing and what riders are/will be using in the Mortirolo and Gavia at the Giro.

With the compact cranks (which are pretty recent) now they can get a gear roughly 40% lower than 'back in the day'. Were riders then just plain stronger on the mountains or what? Their bikes proportions and fit had anything to do with it?

Maybe Dave could give us his 2 cents on the subject...

May 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJao

I read your blog almost daily. Thanks for sharing your experiences. I personally enjoy the tech focused entries the most. I am in the process of building a custom cassette for an 8 speeder, and this article has changed my thinking about gearing.

Its amazing how this article and the prior article have echoed my past couple of weeks. My girlfriend just started riding with me as well. Its a great way to spend time together. She also made the jump to a dedicated road bike rather than a hybrid or entry level roadie. But with 10 cogs out back, its seems difficult for her to pick a gear sometimes. I guess with a 6 speed, like I started with, you just got in the more appropriate gear and pedaled. Now its almost like there are too many options for the new rider. The new drivetrains are very slick though. Hope you two have fun out there together

May 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterZach

Interesting history, as always.

Nice bike ... love that chainring, and the shifter is ... too cool.

May 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRider

I have to laugh at your experience with tuggos as I have had my own similar experiences. Picture two cleancut young men on bicycles, crisp white shirts, ties, dress slacks, and dress shoes. I couldn't for the life of me shake the two missionaries on my rear wheel and I was wearing racing shorts and a jersey. How embarassing! If the LDS church sponsored a racing team, cycling may never be the same.

May 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJim

There is a rumor that some of those LDS missionaries are on dope :-)

May 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDave Moulton

Strange as it seems, my mentor started out the same way, up in Canada. His first racing bike had a four speed cluster, but soon moved to a five speed freewheel. He also had a direct shift front derailleur. He started racing again when he hit 60, and just quit the racing scene this year. (He still rides)

May 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGrump

Zach...interesting point about too many options for the rider. It's why I love my singlespeed so much. I don't have to think...I just pedal. I believe Dave mentioned, you simply dont have a chance to dawdle...you just do what you need to do to get over hills. And..in SF, there are hills. When I jump on my Campy equipped 10 speed, I immediately start trying to find the "right gear". As I get older, the less I have to think, the better I am!

Dave, I may move to your gearing for the two "older" frames I just purchased and see how they work for me. That 48/39 sounds intriguing.

May 31, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMaltese Falcon

Hi to you, I would like some information regards my Henry Burton bike It was bought second hand in 1959 I think it was 2-3 years old it has a campagnolo 5 speed set up with same quick release wheels, alloy rims, the frame is Reynolds 531 double butted tubing,with wienman side pull brakes. I am considering re-furbing the bike and would be grateful where I can find the spares from if the buget can stand it yours most grateful Rob Hyde

September 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRob Hyde

Dear Dave,

What do you think of the renewed interest in the so called "compact cranks"?

September 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAnirudh

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