As my mentor, Dave Skiver, was leading me out of the darkness of my solo touring days, through the dawn of my experience in club racing, and into the blazing sunshine of federation racing, he came up with a rather pithy statement. "It’s funny," Dave said, "You train by spinning a small gear really fast, then you race in a much bigger gear that you spin slightly slower." Our early season training was done in fixed gear, 42X16 and smaller, then we would change the setup on our bicycles back to derailleurs for the racing season. In-season training was, for the most part, in small gears with high RPM. This small gear, high RPM mode of training seemed to reflect the principle of the early-season gear limit. Before repeal in 1980, there was a gear restriction in effect for club races through the month of April, with limits of seventy-six-inches for the mass-start events, and a whopping eighty-one-inches for the TT at the end of the month.
(This rule was by no means arbitrary. Seventy-six works out to be a 42X15, and eighty-one a 42X14.) The limit is, of course, no longer in effect. Good idea or bad, it became politicized during the gradual transformation of Thursday Nights from developmental racing to the so-called "Thursday Night World Championships."
Gear restrictions on adult cyclists? I don't think it's going too far out on a limb to say that most novice cyclists, adults included, push too big a gear. Taking the too-big-a-gear axiom to the extreme (the faster one can spin the better) may not be an oversimplification of the principle behind the old limit. Consider Merckx's hour, then the sobering measure of how fast fast is. His 52X14 (7.93 meters) divided into 49.431 kilometers is equal to 6,233 turns of the crank, or 104 RPMs. Can mere mortals realize their potential through emulation? We can try…52X14 @ 62 RPMs? No, the only thing we can do is transpose 104 RPMs on to a gear we mortals can handle. Having that settled, the next question is: Does one train above, at, or below 104? Does one enter the realm of optimum RPM through the front door or the back? Club founder Mark Tyson, MVW icon Gary Dauer, and legendary all-sport training animal, George Peuhl, all chose the former, setting an example for the rest of us to follow, letting their RPMs do the talking.
There were some exceptions, like 1980 champ, Andy Fichthorn, who chose to pedal to the beat of his own drummer. Looking back today, Andy's different beat was ahead of the times. Far from being a big gear masher, his pedal stroke took advantage of the fact that the real power is between eleven and seven o'clock on the downstroke. Another exception was Jim House, who started the time-honored tradition of defection to the Wolverines for a season or two. The MVW did not then offer a complete training program. These were the early days of the modern cycling renaissance and information was difficult to obtain outside the large clubs and the national team.
I never considered these alternate paths when I first started riding with the Wheelmen. I became, instead, a member in the cult of spin. In my view, the riding style of the top riders seemed to reinforce both the gear restriction and the spin, spin, spin method of training. These were the days when Gary Dauer would terrorize the peloton with vicious attacks and long pursuits on his eighty-six inch single freewheel. Gary also owned the TT records, all of which were set on a fixed gear in the mid-eighty-inch range. George Peuhl was notorious for putting everyone into oxygen debt. During the occasional tail-wind stretch, he might even shift into his forty-seven-tooth big chain-wheel. And there was Mark Tyson, who, if one was dumb enough to lead out, could always spin by you, legs-a-blur, at the line. These styles combined to form a paradigm that reinforced the gear-limit doctrine. [The photo shows Dauer (l) and Tyson (r) at the 3/19/78 Equinox Tour.]
When it became seen as an unfair advantage for those with the most fast-twitch muscles in the April World Championship points chase, whatever merits that could have been found in the gear restriction were set aside. The old guard had moved on, someone showed up with a copy of Robert's Rules of Order at the winter meeting of 1980, and, since the limit had not been etched in stone, parliamentary procedure prevailed. But the cult of spin did not instantly dissolve on that day. There were still self-imposed gear limits on training rides, with something of an unwritten handicapping system, minus one tooth for riders who could spin exceptionally fast, and plus one tooth for those who could not spin at all. We would even negotiate gears for "jam sessions" and sprint signs. These formalities started to fade when Cliff Meuller joined the group, then completely disappeared when Mr. Tony Parkinson made his first visit to the "Colonies." These outside influences eventually changed the way we all trained when those who followed the new school began to see results. I'll take a stab at that Skiver pith and say that today the training has become more like the racing. It has been a slow, evolutionary process. Dauer, Peuhl and Tyson were by no measure behind the times; each of their respective styles would today be suited to their physical makeup. They ruled in their day. They were the Sultans of Spin.