Old School #271: Cog Board

Old School #271: Cog Board

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.

osgear-hs1Like freewheels. And gears in general.

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.

osgear-borderThe 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.

Then someone figured out they could put a fourth cog onto the freewheel by extending the outside shoulder, position one.

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.

Img_0005 croppedSure 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.

DSC04198aLet’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.

f492a114The answer was the cog board.

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.

 Special thanks to my buddy Bulissimo for all the technical help on this one. That’s his Regina cog case, too. Desgrange 1200.2








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  1. Champs

    Welcome to the present, same as the past.

    Consider the 1x mountain group: attainability has not followed its increase in popularity, sparking many aftermarket wide-range cassette conversions. There is nothing older, yet newer, than the cobbled-together cogset and mountain biking cottage industry.

  2. tedder

    Whoa. Great history. I knew the hazy story from 5 to 11 cogs, but not the 1 to 5 part. The early freewheels (right? not cassette or freehub?) were basically the Matryoshka dolls of gearing.

    1. Chuck Schmidt

      Before Henri Desgrange made derailleurs legal in the 1937 TdF, racers used a single chainring with a two-cog freewheel on each side of the hub; 14-15 and 16-17 being the typical gearing because the length of the drop-out limited the gear range (no chain tensioner). You got off the bike and turned the wheel for gear changes. -Chuck of Velo-Retro

    2. Author
      Rick Vosper

      “Matryoshka dolls of gearing?” What a great image!

      Re cassettes and freehubs, The basic freehub concept was devised and manufactured by British company Bayliss-Wiley in 1938. But despite its huge mechanical advantages, the design was never really popular until Shimano brought out its freehub version in 1978, and even then not until it matched to cassette cogsets and indexed shifting in the early ’80s.

  3. tedder

    Oh yeah- forgot something. There’s a private collection/bike museum in Bédoin France (base of Ventoux) with a good selection of historic TDF bikes. It was really easy to see the technological advance by looking closely at them. Here’s someone else’s pic of it; most of the historic bikes aren’t pictured.


    I should have my photos up in a few weeks.

  4. SBarner

    If I had bought the Regina cog board and it’s former wooden case from the shop when it became obsolete in the 1980s, I certainly wouldn’t admit to it now, as I would quickly be inundated with requests for the same position and sized cogs that were always in short supply when the board hung at the shop. The 13 and 15 tooth cogs for the last two positions of both 5 and 6 speeds were perpetually empty, and I usually brought several replacements back when I would make road trips to Marinoni’s shop near Montreal. I don’t know that there ever was a true cog board for the Regina Oro and Corsa freewheels (they were the same, but for the “gold” plating on the Oro cogs), but one of the shop rats put a nice finish on a piece of 3/4″ plywood and screwed in L-hooks to hold the cogs, since it was a royal pain to find what you wanted in that wooden case.

    Atom and Regina had some type of incestuous relationship going for awhile, as early Atom cogs will at least mostly interchange with Regina, and some Atom bodies were stamped “Made in Italy”. The cogs looked a little different–blacker and with sharper edges, but the threading and offset of the cogs and bodies of some Atom freewheels, up to the mid 1970s, were the same–at least for the most part.

    This style of all-threaded cogs had several inherent problems, perhaps the greatest being the challenge of how to get the last cog off. Regina had a couple of special tools for this–one, a clamp to grip the middle threaded portion, the other designed to thread on and then be locked into place. Even with these tools, getting all the cogs off the body at once was often a real challenge. Since the body was originally designed for three cogs, it was relatively narrow, which put more stress on the smaller, outside bearing and made the body more sensitive to play. The trick was to remove the outer race and take out one of the thin shims so there was as little play as possible without binding. We usually found that the Oro bodies sounded a little better than the Corsa bodies, but there really was no difference between the two, at least that you could see.

    The biggest issues with Regina freewheels were with the cogs. In order to allow the largest two position cogs to be interchangeable, they needed to have a symmetrical profile, since there was a lip on one side of the cog. In order to allow a 21 to be used in either the first or second position (Regina counted positions starting with the largest) it had to be able to be installed in either direction. The top of the tooth had an M-shaped cross-section and, combined with many of the chain profiles of the day, made the setup capable of having the inner side plates of the chain sit on the middle of the M and skate across the cog, without engaging. If that happened when you were in the middle of a shift, just as the bunch was taking off, or as you were climbing a hill, it could, at best, leave you with a bad case of potty mouth. The other issue with the non-scalare bodies was that the larger cogs, as a result of their threaded mounting, would “oilcan,” or take on a dish after being cranked down hard by a strong rider. the larger the cog, or the stronger the rider, the more this would occur, most often on the position 1 & 2 cogs, increasing the space between them and increasing the likelihood of skating on the pos. 2 cog. A really strong rider could do this on a 22, while pretty much any cog of 26 teeth or larger will be noticeably oilcanned on any used Regina freewheel of this type. Why Regina made cogs as large as 31 teeth is a mystery to me. Perhaps they knew that, given the tooth profile and the capabilities of the wide-range derailleurs of the day, it was unlikely the rider would be able to shift into it, anyway.

    The Suntour Winner was exponentially better than the Regina freewheels, and Regina’s belated attempt with the CX floundered as a result of its combination of high price and terrible reliability. SunTour solved all of the problems I’ve outlined about the classic Regina design, and upped the ante with excellent quality, superior bearing surfaces, and solid quality control. They made a huge variety of ranges and were always on the forefront of innovation, perhaps most notably with narrow, “Ultra” spacing that allowed you to squeeze in an extra cog without spreading the rear triangle. Funny that Suntour didn’t successfully market a chain to go with their freewheels, leaving the affordable Sedisport as the long-wearing chain of choice. The Winner even had an adjustable body, so you could get all the play out, and it had tighter clearances, which helped keep dirt out, especially with the later bodies with their brass “seals.”

    The Suntour Winner cog board replaced the Regina cog set and some, unnamed employee bought it when the boss got tired of the hassle of inventorying it every January. By then, we were moving more Suntour freewheels in a month than we probably sold in our history of stocking Reginas. About the only issue I ever saw with Suntour freewheels was that the Perfect and Pro Compe bodies seemed to have a propensity for having the outer race loosen up. It happened enough that it was dubbed the “Suntour Freewheel Discombobulation Syndrome,” and it happened to me once on the last leg of a thousand-mile tandem tour, just as it was getting dark. Luckily, I caught it before it had dumped all its bearings, but I’ll never forget being on the shoulder of a busy road, trying to spot the pin spanner holes in the race in the dark so I could get a screwdriver on it before smacking it with a rock.

    Good times.

  5. John Kopp

    My wife and I have four bicycles, three Treks and a Paramont tandem, all acquired late 70’s. All have Suntour five speed freewheels as well as deraileurs. So I sm quite familiar with cog boards. I so hope that they are still around, because I know nothing about any freewheel with more than six cogs. Most of my freewheels fave been modified because i mostly rode club rides for turing, so the small cogs of thirteen or fourteen teeth were never used, so we tried to make our smallest cog a fifteen or sixteen, but of course that depended on what was available for the second cog. That was 30 years ago, so forgot about how complicated it was. Hope I don’t have to change anything now. I imagine I would have to find an old mechanic with a big supply of old parts.

  6. David Feldman

    Having worked continuously as a bike mechanic since the mid-70’s, I do miss the boards. I miss Suntour freewheels as a product, but cog boards are also something that’s become more and more contemporary–they were “green.” Even with a tiny bike repair business I recycle a dozen cassettes a month much of the year most of which still have half or more of their cogs perfectly good. Why can’t we have cog boards with mix and match gearing possibilities? Despite manufacturer propaganda, it’s possible to crossbreed cassettes to get a customer’s desired gearing and not degrade shifting. We wouldn’t be discarding cassettes with a majority of good cogs left on them. Speaking for myself it would be great to have a 14-34 10 speed touring cassette! So, don’t call cog boards “retro,” “old school” or bullshit like that–call them “pre-fraudulent.”

    1. Rick Vosper

      Hi David, and sorry for the late reply. The answer is, it’s relatively easy (just drive or tap out the cassette’s retaining pin), but you’d have to cannibalize a bunch of freewheels to get a workable cog supply. Who knows? You could create a one-of-a-kind 11-speed cog board.

      Some of the early ’80s cassettes came without the pin, making it them racers’ dream: assemble the cogs you needed during the week, race ’em on Sunday, then rebuild as necessary for next week. No need to own a bunch of different cassettes. Special thanks to Terry “The Flying Fossil” Shaw for teaching me that trick.

    2. Padraig

      Shimano and SRAM say they’ve moved away from this because it’s important to have proper alignment of the ramps, pickup teeth and release teeth on their cogs within the cassettes. While I haven’t studied them, I’ve been told that an 18 placed next to a 17 will be different than an 18 placed next to a 15.

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