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