Monday, October 24, 2011

Racing gears, then and now.

We have a small club here in Toronto for those interested in vintage and “Classic” bikes. The No-Click Club meets once a month and we endeavour to get a member to present a talk on a relevant subject. The name “No-Click” refers to bikes built before the days of clipless pedals (click in) and indexed gears (click in). Generally this refers to bikes made before 1980.
Occasionally we organize rides on the quieter, and often dirt, roads north of Toronto. About a dozen members turn up on a variety of old bikes. On the last ride, I took out my 1951 Cinelli which was one of three vintage Cinellis present. It was the first time I have ridden it since it was restored and, in fact, the first time I had ridden it in 40 years. It rode very well--as well as any of my much more modern bikes. Although, one major feature, the derailleurs, are not nearly as good. In the late 1950’s and early 60’s when I was racing on this bike the components were ‘state of the art’. The derailleurs are Campagnolo Gran Sport with down tube levers. They are non-indexed of course. At the time I thought they worked really well but now compared to modern equipment they are terrible.
The other noticeable feature is the gear ratios. For all of my ten years of racing in Britain I used the same ratios. A five speed freewheel with 14/16/18/21/24 teeth and TA double chainrings with 48/52 teeth. This was standard on almost every race bike at the time, even the European stars riding the Alps and Pyrenees rode similar ratios. What a contrast to today.
While at the Giro d’Italia this year I managed to spend a few hours with Geoff Brown, a friend who is the Garmin Cervelo Team head mechanic. He was preparing the bikes for the next day’s mountain time trial. For the steep ascent he was fitting ten speed cassettes with sprockets from 11-32 teeth and chainrings with 36T and 52T. That gives a gear range of 30-127 inches compared to the ratios on my Cinelli of 54-100 inches. Even ten years ago it was rare to see a sprocket on a pro bike larger than 26 teeth with an inner ring of 39 teeth. That’s a bottom gear of 40 inches.
Over the years racing cyclists’ gear ranges have become steadily wider. In the early 1950’s, 47/50 on the front with a five speed freewheel with 15-23T on the back was almost standard. By the later 60’s and early seventies 52/42 and a six speed freewheel with 13-23 was the popular choice. The 1980’s brought seven speed freewheels with the possibility of 12 tooth first position sprockets and the popularity of 53T chainrings. The 1990’s brought cassette hubs with eight sprockets and new design cranksets with 39T inner rings. Since then the number of sprockets has increased to ten or eleven with the smallest having 11 teeth.
It wasn’t until the last couple of years that the low gear ratios used by the pros were lower than 39x25. Now we see very large sprockets with 30 or 32T and so called “compact” cranksets with 34T inner rings.
Why did it take so long for the lower gears to become popular? The number of gears available on modern bikes makes it possible. It was always possible to obtain large sprockets in the past but with only five or six cogs on the back the gaps between the gears becomes too great for efficient riding. We have the ten and eleven speed cassettes to thank for the wider gear ranges and the small gaps between ratios. The introduction of easily accessible shift levers combined with the brake levers make it very convenient to select those gears.
Today’s gears and shifters are by far the greatest improvement in racing bikes in the sixty years that I have been around them.


Anonymous said...


Very interesting. It's amazing to think that the sprinters were using a 52/14 combination as the high gear!

I am curious as to what in particular is terrible about your Gran Sport derailleurs/shifter. Are they bad in relation to later campy friction shifting? Or or you comparing them to modern indexed shifting?

Ron Clark

Mike Barry said...

Yes I am comparing them to modern day indexed shifting but even compared with some of the later non-indexed derailleurs they are bad. The shifting in slow and imprecise. The later chains and profiled sprockets made a big difference. The Record, Nuovo Record and Super Record were a bit better but not much.

Anonymous said...

Mike, I agree with you on the Campag performance of that era. The Simplex downtube levers helped a bit, but the Simplex rear derailleur was superior to even Super Record.

The current Campag groups are a pleasure to use, however.

Regards, Marco Sobrevinas

fred said...

[For the steep ascent he was fitting ten speed cassettes with sprockets from 11-32 teeth and chainrings with 36T and 52T. ]

What comes around, goes around!

Mike: Great to see you back blogging again. I kind of lost track as things went quiet for a while there.

I'm quite taken aback at those ratios, albeit I've gone as wide as chain length and dérailleur length will permit for years. Why waste all of those ratios for the sake of a convention that the machine will never be used for?

My immediate question would be that, btw: cage length.

I had always assumed the reason for an overall narrow ratio was to reduce weight and slop in the drive train.

Unless I've read this wrong, this is virtually off-road gearing, is it not?

Again, like yourself, I wonder why it took so long to realize that once you get off a machine on a hill, you've immediately lost your huge mechanical advantage and efficiency.

On the open flat, the tractive gearing loses its advantage, but even in the city, with stop and go traffic, the low gearing can be an incredible advantage, and a lot easier on knees and drive train too.

But my question endures, chain and cage length?

Also (and I do this, and my early Mavic dérailleur remains in fantastic shape) I short the chain, I forget your term for that, such that there's insufficient length if the largest sprocket and chainwheel are selected together. That shouldn't happen anyway, but that have been a few times....and no lasting harm other than user panic.

Needless to say, my Simplex levers are as shiny and utilitarian as new. I've never had a better shifting machine in my life, "clickless" of course.

I'm truly impressed with an cycling group that pre-dates the clicking.

Just remember this: They don't put frets on violins either...for damn good reason!

Anyone who can play goes by feel.

Hope to do a few miles with you folks soon.


fred said...

Clarification on prior post:
[On the open flat, *once up to speed* the tractive gearing loses its *apparent* advantage, but even in the city, with stop and go traffic, the low gearing can be an incredible advantage, and a lot easier on knees and drive train too.]

Which amplifies Mike's discussion a year or so back on the (insert a politically incorrect term of your choice) idiocy of the fixed wheel, even freewheel single-gear, fashion rage. I even see it in very hilly cities like here in Guelph. For couriers even!

But then again, one with adept gearing should be gracious enough not to pass them from stop-lights without pulling a wheelie past them. It gets them very