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« The ideal handling bicycle | Main | Gearing in the 1950s »

Gears: On Reflection

When I posted the first article on gearing a week ago, it was not my intention to extend it into a series. However, it is a subject that has caused me to reflect on how things were, and to speculate how we arrived at where we are today.

Going back to the turn of the last century, because Britain was initially the center of the bicycle industry, the bicycle chain was quickly established at half an inch pitch. It has remained the standard worldwide ever since, even in countries where the metric system has always been in place.

Although chains are made in all manner of pitches for industrial use, ½ inch pitch has always worked fine on bicycles, and there is little reason to change it. I seem to remember Shimano introduced a one centimeter pitch chain for track bikes back in the 1980s, but it was short lived.

Sprocket and chain width was set at one eighth of an inch, and remained so for 50 or 60 years. The introduction of the five-speed freewheel made it necessary to make the sprockets narrower, and the 3/32 inch wide chain came into being.

The six-speed freewheel was introduced (I believe.) in the early 1970s, and was achieved by widening the spacing between the frame’s rear dropouts, from 120mm. to 126mm.

This remained the standard set up until about the time I left the bike business in 1993. I know this because all the frames I built in the US had 126mm. rear spacing.

Soon after gears quickly went from 6 to 7, 8, 9, and 10 speeds; and with it 130mm. rear spacing; all within a relatively short span of years, considering how long the 5 and 6 speed was the standard.

The reason this came about? Index shifting, MTBs and the power of the American market.

I remember when Shimano first introduced index or click-shifting in the late 1980s, I was one who scoffed at it, along with most Europeans.

I remember talking to people from Campagnolo and they likened the idea to “Putting frets on a fiddle.” A violin has no markings where to place your fingers to play a given note; throughout history people learn by experience where to place their fingers.

It was the same with shifting gear on a derailleur. People like me who grew up using friction shift gears could not understand why anyone would want to complicate something so simple.

Of course the mountain bike was a whole different story, down tube shifters were not practical, and it lent itself to a ratchet type, handlebar gear control. Also, here was a whole new generation of users not raised on the traditions of road bike use.

Throughout history, the design of the racing bicycle, and its components, was always dictated by what the European professional riders used. The MTB was an American phenomenon and the rules changed.

I remember Campagnolo lost a huge share of the component market in the US to Shimano, because they were slow to get into index shifting, and spent several years playing catch up.

Click shifting made it possible to go up to 10 speeds. Although it may have been possible with friction shift; never-the-less it would not have been practical.

One commenter asked if riders were stronger in the old days; I don’t think so, we just made do with what we had.

The Tour de France was run on single gear bikes up until the late 1930s, and the riders went over the same mountains they do today; plus the roads were often no better than dirt tracks.

Our top gears were in the 90s, but we trained on very low gears and so learned to pedal fast. At the other end, I never had a gear that was lower than 50 inches, and never found a hill I couldn’t climb on it.

I was always taught that in terms of energy spent it was better to climb a hill on the highest gear possible. I don’t know how that jibes with today’s thinking, but when 50 inches was your lowest gear  you had no choice but to stay on top of it and keep the revs at a reasonable level, or you were finished.

With today’s gears in the 30s and 40s, it is only natural that you are going to use them, and spinning a low gear on a steep gradient is exhausting.

I am not talking of a slow walking pace, but one of racing speeds. It takes a special rider of great stamina to do that   


Top picture is my current set up. I was lucky enough to find a 48 chainring on eBay; it was actually an inner ring, but works fine as an outer. The inner ring is a 39. With a 14 to 19 straight up six-speed freewheel it gives me gears from 92 to 55 inches. Pretty close to the range I had in the 1950s 



Reader Comments (18)

I agree about too-low gears..I'm a sixty year old guy, and I still run 53/39 and 12-23 gears, even for the Death Ride; 4500 meters of climbing, to 3000 meters altitude. Too low a gear= more time on the bike. And whatever you do-don't walk! Walking in the road is dangerous, hot, slow, and uncool as well! If climbing becomes too much, choose a pleasant spot and take a break! I remember my first hard climb; the old highway to Donner summit, 1976. I rode in my jeans (dumb) but managed to climb to the summit, stopping a few times at shady spots to catch my breath and admire the view. recently I see my buddies buy compact gearing, which gives a lower gear, but they always seem to drop their chains at the beginning of the climb- ouch! Thanks for the great posts, Dave!

May 31, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDoug P

Brochure for the Shimano 10mm pitch Dura-Ace track ensemble:


May 31, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJeff H

Thanks for the link. I see the Shimano 10mm. pitch equipment was out in the mid 1970s, earlier than I had remembered.

June 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDave Moulton

I think any discussion on gearing needs to include the terrain being ridden for context. Here in Vermont, I am happy to have and use the full range my 50/34 compact and 12-27 cassette affords, and for my trip to the Alps 3 years ago, I unashamedly used every low gear on a triple crank. I am not 25 years old any more, I do not race, I ride only about 3000 mile/year these days, and limiting my range of gears would only limit the places I can go with my bike. What's the point?

June 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJon

From the catalogs it looks like racers aren't using any lower gears than they did in the past, they just have smaller jump between the gears. The last Campy gruppo I bought came with 11-23 10 speed on the rear and 53/39 front. Campy 11 speed has similar options, just smaller jumps between the gears and the ability to cover more of them in a single throw should a big jump be needed.

June 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterOpus the Poet

If you look at that Shimano catalog page, you can see, in the comparison pictures in the bottom right, Dura-Ace 10 derailleurs and road cranks! They had a full-scale takeover planned. Maybe if they had introduced the road group first, things would be very different today. I get the impression that track racers are very resistant to change.

June 1, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterdokydoky

My problem with climbing steep roads involves my mass, 110Kg ish, and the short wheel base my fancy bike has. The front end gets too light. I can lift teh front right off the road to move it from side to side. I have to stand and lean well forward or get down into the drops. I too like the simplicity of my fixie.

In some ways I wish the bike development in this country was not driven as much by road racers. I would say that here we have more weekend cyclist than commuters and this hurts teh development of our infrastructure to support cycling. IMHO.

June 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRalph

For what is worth, maybe some laughs, this is my set up on my road bike.

Compact Crank: 50/34
10 Speed Rear Cluster: 11-34

I can get up a tree in 34 x 34

With this set up I ride 500 - 600 miles a month and I do lots of double centuries, all with an arthritic knee.

June 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLanceOldstrong

I live in a hilly area and ride and race on 7 speeds, both bikes set up the same; 52/42 chainrings and 12-21 cassette (the difference between the bikes is downtube shifters vs STI). So that's about 53 to 114 inches. I find that I can rarely push the 52-12 combination unless I'm going downhill or have a tailwind, but I still use it more than the 42-21 combination which I very rarely get into. I often climb out of the saddle though, it must be said.

I find a 7 speed more than adequate and frankly I'm dreading the time when I can't get replacement parts and will have to migrate to a 10 speed. What will I do with all those superfluous gears?

June 1, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterlemmiwinks


It sounds as though you are fighting the bike. Are you finding that your upper body tires quickly on climbs? The trick is to put the energy usage where it is needed and when climbing, it's the legs. An exercise I used to use when I coached was to have the junior riders take their hands off of the bars in a climb, sit up, and flap their arms slowly like a bird. This got them to relax the upper body and they became better climbers. The only time we taught a rigid upper body and arms was for trackies starting a pursuit or a kilo when they were wedging thier forearms againts the bars whilst in the drops. If you find yourself with a deathgrip on the bars or the brakehoods, you aren't relaxed and your cycling and bike handling suffer. Relax and enjoy!

June 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJim

I agree it was the mtb IS that awakened roadies. Using friction shifters for years I too got into mtb in the mid 80s and loved it when IS evolved to help with difficult, loose base, climbs.

I have stayed with FS on my older road bikes but have tried IS on more recently built ones. Even have my young sons use FS for the experience and appreciation for differences.

My friends who have taken up cycling in recent years choose IS every time. I appreciate the ease of fixing FS and have yet to take an IS apart to repair.

And to Ralph, yes the recreational-weekend group riding cyclists (who get to the path or ride in a SUV/bike on back) impairs the politics of improving cycling infrastructure as they typically have little empathy for the lone commuter cyclist.

June 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJack

Just FYI, You can run 9, or 10 speeds with friction shifters. My current set-up is a Campagnolo Super Record Derailleur with Simplex Retro-friction shifters and a 9 speed Campy Cassette (12-24) & 9 speed chain. The great thing about modern index shifting is that 90% of the shifting is actually in the cassette-chain. My set-up shifts so smoothly, most of the guys I ride with think that my set-up is an early index system (it's not). I have also run 10 speed cassettes & chains with no problems. You do need to replace the jockey wheels with 9-10 speed versions, and you may have to forgo use of your inner cog if you can't find a modern replacement inner jockey wheel cage that will fit your derailleur. Fortunately, the wheel spacing for the SR derailleur is the same as any campy 8 & 9 speed derailleur!

June 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTony

I like to share the work between my legs and my cardiovascular system when I ride long steep hills (spinning in lower gears, instead of mashing big ones). Buying a cheap 14-34 freewheel made it possible for me to routinely tackle grades from 15% to 25% that are common where I live. This did more to improve the range and enjoyment of my bicycle riding than any other purchase. My current gear set up goes from 30 to 100 inches with 39/53 chainrings. Works great for me, and I wouldn't trade for either a modern system with lots of ever tinier steps between gears, or an older system with a narrower overall range between low and high gears.

June 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

After reading about your gear range, I just set up my road bike with a 1X5: a 48 single chainring, and 13/15/17/20/24 5-speed cassette. ( I took apart a 7-speed cassette and used spacers on one end to make up the width.)

This gives me a gear-inch range of 54-64-76-86-99.

I am loving this setup so far. I like having a large jump between gears. Some other advantages are very good chainline ( the chainring is lined up with the middle 17 sprocket, so the chain has to move only 2 sprockets either way ) really good shifting and very quiet running, especially in the higher gears.

It is much simpler and more intuitive having only one shifter to move up or down, too.

June 5, 2010 | Unregistered Commenteranonymous

I've been riding for over thirty years and there is ABSOLUTELY NO topic more boring and inane than to hear about a rider's choices with regard to gearing.

Ride whatever works for you but please don't preach about your often bizarre and idiosyncratic choices. No one cares. There are better ways to demonstrate your individuality. There is no better way to alienate new riders or bore fellow riders than to talk in those bike-centric terms like 39 x 14, or 52 x 12, etc. etc.

No one cares. Talk about your ride, or your dog, or where you ate, or the scenery. Don't tell others what YOU think should be adequate for them. It is rude and pointless. Let your goddamn legs do the talking and if the gears work for you, then ride. If not, find some ones that do.

June 24, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermike

Did you even read the piece? It is mostly about history, and people tell me all the time that is what they want.
However, it does prove the old adage, 'You can't please all the people all the time."

June 25, 2010 | Registered CommenterDave Moulton

Mike, we know most other riders find this stuff boring & inane (unless we have Asperger's!). Thats why we post on sites like this. (and I didn't see any comments making the bold assertion that their weird, idiosyncratic set-ups are the best choice, it's just what they like to run!) This is really about having fun: some people play video games, some bowl, some carve and paint wooden ducks, some ride bikes they buy and have serviced at their local bike shop, and some really weird ones like to buy old bikes and fiddle with the parts. Hey, its the same techno-geek thing you see on vintage automobile sites, but a whole lot cheaper!

June 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTony

I also run a 9 speed system with friction shifters. The joy of friction shifters is that I can move between any number system of cassette with greater freedom. I'm using bar-end shifters since the bike does not have any downtube bosses for shifters.

July 5, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterpoweredbypoptarts

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