You’re an OldSchoolCyclist when you know what a cog board is.
Back in the day when men were men, shorts were wool, and both were itchy; before indexed shifting or clip-in pedals, there were screw-on freewheels, and there was the Cog Board. and we liked it that way.
Well, sort of.
Freewheels (ruota libera in Italian) had been around for a long time, since 1869 in fact, when a New York cyclist named William Van Anden started putting them on the front wheel of his front-wheel drive velocipedes. There were no gears; the freewheel was just there for coasting purposes. But it was a freewheel, nonetheless.
Van Anden never sold many freewheel-equipped bikes, though. Cyclists of 150 years ago, much like the Pro Tour mechanics today, thought bicycles were already plenty complicated without newfangled doohickeys that just added weight and didn’t really improve performance.
Freewheels saw some acceptance as part of coaster brakes, but no one thought of them as a gearing device until 1924 when the French company Le Cyclo put a two-speed version onto a threaded hub (dubbed, according to Old School legend, “the cyclotourist’s aberration” by racers). Dual chainrings and front and rear derailleurs followed within a few years.
By the 1930s, there were triple chainrings and four-cog freewheels and eighty years worth of arms race started.
Except it didn’t.
With its usual foresight, the Tour de France banned (multiple) gears from 1919 until 1937. In the image above, the French rider at left is using a Super Champion (yes, that Super Champion) Osgear system. Italian legend Gino Bartali is at right with a Vittoria (yes, that Vittoria) Margherita gear.
The Osgear was developed in 1928, but actual derailleurs did not become common road racing equipment until 1938 when Simplex introduced a cable-shifted system. In 1949 Tulio somebody introduced the first commercially successful parallelogram derailleur, the Gran Sport. And then the arms race started for real.
Except it didn’t.
While European racing evolved quickly, one cycling backwater didn’t adopt multiple gears until well into the 1950s(!) —not even at the 1956 Olympic trials. It wasn’t that they were illegal, exactly, more like the riders just didn’t trust ‘em. In fact, if you brought an (external) multi-gear rig into most regular bike shops in those days, you’d likely get kicked out. (We won’t mention the name of this provincial boondocks nation, but you’d probably recognize its initials.)
So, what has all this got to do with cogs and cog boards? Everything, plus the Queen of the Peloton.
The Queen was Regina, and Regina freewheels ruled the competitive cycling scene back in the day, originally with a stepped-system three-speed freewheel body. And that three-position body led to forty years of mechanical insanity only the Italians could devise.
By “stepped,” we mean the freewheel body had three shelves, or sizes, or “positions” cogs could attach to.
The two smaller positions (second and third) had normal right-hand threads, and those cogs butted against a shoulder on the body. Cog 1, the lowest (and physically largest) position was left-hand threaded so it would screw on backwards and butt against the inside shoulder of cog two.
Clear? Didn’t think so. Suffice it to say there were three cog sizes, three positions, three speeds, no problem.
Four cogs, still three positions, not so bad.
Next Regina realized it could thread the inside of that new fourth cog to accept a fifth, which allowed for the coveted thirteen (which would otherwise have been too small to go onto the freewheel body). But to make a 13-17 straight block, they then needed another position to accept a sixteen, which was now third cog instead of second. Regina called the new body Scolare.
Now we had five cogs, five positions, plus there were now two different freewheel bodies, one that could be used for straight blocks. Simple, right? Mechanics didn’t think so, either.
But that new second position became unnecessary when Regina added yet another cog by screwing a smaller sixth cog into the fifth—which itself screwed, patient readers will recall, into the fourth—putting a sixth cog into a sixth position that would then fit a 16T on the old four-position freewheel body to make a 13-18 straight block. So the Scolare body didn’t actually go away, but it became redundant.
Sure the “new” six-speed necessitated a 126mm rear end instead of the traditional 120 (or 110 for an old three-speed freewheel, same as a track bike), but that was a small price to pay for a six-speed straight block with an 18 on top.
Then the peloton started demanding higher gears. To respond, the options were either increasing the size of the big chainring (to make a 56×13), or creating a twelve-tooth cog for the sixth position in the rear (giving 53×12). Problem was, front derailleurs of the day wouldn’t handle the drop from 56 to 42 (of course they could have just used a 44T inner chainring, but there weren’t any, which is a story for another time), so it was up to Regina to make a twelve. And they did.
Of course the twelve needed a thirteen to screw into, just as the thirteen screwed into the fourteen, Now there were still six positions and six cogs on the same old four-speed body. But the move brought back the earlier problem with the 16T cog. So the Scolare body became necessary again, at least for straight blocks.
Let’s not even get into seven and eight-speed freewheels (see image above showing a more recent Regina 7-speed CX freewheel; note the different mounting positions and cog types). Plus competing, multiple and totally incompatible systems from MM Atom, Malliard, Sachs, Simplex; the Japanese upstarts Suntour and Shimano; and, soon enough, Campagnolo.
It was like playing 3D Tetris in the dark where every size and shape was different and everything stacked together in patterns designed by that famous cyclist MC Escher. As you might expect, it was also a nightmare keeping track of all the different manufacturers’ different cog types in all those different positions and configurations and freewheel bodies. Mechanics didn’t like it, but they had to deal with it.
Suppliers sold huge wooden cases full of cogs and bodies arranged in their respective positions, but they were expensive, obscenely heavy, and of limited use for understanding the different systems.
Basically, a cog board was a map: a large, poster-like affair on stiff cardboard, with life-size illustrations of all the different cogs from that manufacturer and their relative positions on different freewheel bodies, sort of like the outlines of tools on the pegboard behind mechanics’ workbenches.
Like a workbench pegboard, the cog board had hooks, and from those hooks hung the actual cogs. Also like a pegboard, the cog board sometimes hung on the back of a workbench, but more often on a wall or any other damn place there was room for it within relatively easy reach of the mechs.
The board also had profile illustrations of how the different body/position systems worked, making it relatively easy for a harried wrench to locate and install the right cog needed to build or rebuild a particular freewheel.
The first cog boards were issued by Suntour, some old timers claim, but other suppliers quickly followed suit. The cog board concept was so wonderfully useful, even the French adopted it.
For some reason, perhaps due to the differing weight of the cogs, the boards always hung crooked (note image). Crookedness, smeared grease, beat-up stickers from a dozen different brands, and of course, sheer tonnage of the cogs themselves were the hallmark of a proper cog board. And, at least potentially, a proper bike shop.
For Old School cyclists, all you had to do when entering a new shop was stroll back to the service area and glance casually at the walls. If there was at least one crooked, beat-to-hell cog board—and preferably two or three—it showed they meant serious business.
If not, well, you turned around and walked back out.