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.