The Kentucky Wheelman brought several classic road bikes to NAHBS this year, each showcasing a different style and some very interesting ways of making the parts work. While so much is remarkably similar, the bicycles from the 1800’s and early 1900’s also show just how much has changed.

This 1920 Wastyn is the most modern of the three they displayed was built by Belgian Emil Wastyn after moving to America in 1910. This early model preceded his building of the very first Schwinn Paramount nearly two decades later (quick history of the brand here).

Hit ‘more’ to turn back the clock…


The rear brake caliper was made by Bowden of Tyseley, in the UK, and used small coil springs attached to the seatstays to retract the pads (click to enlarge). Some Wastyn’s had a small damper near the headset to soften the steering response coming from the less than ideal road surfaces…an idea rehashed in the early 90’s on mountain bikes!


Hope you had long fingers.

1920 Wastyn bicycle with Bowden brake calipers

Perhaps this is where “BSA” bottom brackets really got there name?


This High Wheeler comes from 1887. The bigger wheels were all about increasing speed, but required a stronger rider to take advantage of the increased circumference. The advent of chains and gears brought about the advent of smaller “safety” bicycles that could attain the high speeds desired without the impracticality of a high wheeler. Otherwise, maybe we’d have a rash of 50″ plus bike taking over enduro.


Considering the year, none of these bikes were cheap. This same bike would be $3,240 in 2014 U.S. dollars!



Click to enlarge both flyers.



The 1892 American Rambler Cushion Bicycle brought mechanical frame suspension to the table and was made by Gormully & Jeffery Mfg Co., in Chicago. The rear end pivoted around the bottom bracket to keep the chainstay length the same, which was necessary since it was a fixed gear bike. Note the top tube, essentially just a steel bar.


The cushion was provided party by the metal springs at the top. Without damping, it probably made for a bit of bounce under hard efforts. Fortunately, these weren’t used for much interval training.

nahbs15-1892-GJ-American-Rambler-bicycle04 nahbs15-1892-GJ-American-Rambler-bicycle03


This one would run about $4,411 in 2014 dollars.


The rest of the bike’s comfort came from a sprung leather saddle and the 1-1/4″ cushioned tires


  1. That’s an interesting headset on the first bike.

    But BR is wrong about a bigger wheel needing a stronger rider. A 50″ wheel is… 50 gear inches, which pretty much anyone could spin. That’s equivalent to 34×18. What you needed was long legs.

  2. Don’t forget about pi, anonymous. A 50″ diameter wheel would result in 157 gear inches, or something similar to a 60×10 ratio on today’s road bikes.

    I preemptively apologize if my maths or understandings of gear inches are wrong.

  3. 50″ wheel is 50 gear inches. That’s the point of gear inches. It converts the gear ratio and wheel size of a safety to the equivalent diameter wheel of an ordinary.

    Put in a 27″ diameter wheel with a 1:1 gear ratio and it will spit out 27 gear inches.

    An ordinary has a 1:1 ratio. Road bikes can get a 4:1 ratio or higher, but a road bike has a diameter/circumference of more than half of a 50″ wheel. Even a 50″ wheel is a low gear when it is 1:1.

  4. anonymous is correct- gear inch is calculated by (chainring divided by cog) multiplied by wheel diameter. 34 x 18 gear combination on a road bike would travel approx. 157″ (depending on tire size) the same as a 50″ wheel on a high wheeler would. has a great calculator for gear ratios.

  5. ‘BSA’ is a contraction of ‘The British Small Arms Company Ltd.’ which started manufacturing bicycles in the 1880s in Birmingham (England) in the plant in which they had manufactured guns etc. previously. The business was a significant cycle manufacturer and later also became important manufacturers of motorcycles (BSA) and cars (including Daimler and Lanchester) whilst continuing to make guns. I think the bike business was sold to Raleigh in the ’50s.

  6. @anonymous is right about gear inches, but note that gear inches don’t take crank length into account. The cranks are a part of your gearing, so Sheldon Brown added them to his “gain ratio” calculation – arguably a better measure than gear inches.

    Current bikes have have standardised almost exclusively on 170/175 mm cranks so for them it doesn’t matter much, but it varies a lot on high wheelers (and unicycles). To be fast on a high wheeler you choose the biggest wheel your leg length allows, and then the shortest cranks your strength allows. I’ve heard of 80 mm cranks, for example. You can spin shorter cranks faster, and the shorter the cranks the bigger the wheel can be, too.

  7. Gear inches is the number of inches the bike will travel with one revolution of the crankset. A 50″ diameter wheel would equal 157.07 inches as this is the circumference of the wheel and that is how far the bike would travel with one revolution of the cranks.

  8. @Robert Gear inches is the diameter of the main wheel of a high wheeler, or the corresponding gearing on a safety bicycle, given the same crank length. A 50″ high wheeler has 50 gear inches, as anonymous stated above. See also Sheldon Brown:
    “Gear Inches: One of the three comprehensive systems for numbering the gear values for bicycle gears. It is the equivalent diameter of the drive wheel on a high-wheel bicycle.”

  9. Well, I learned something new today, making this a good day already.

    Also, love the bikes. It’s amazing how little some things have changed in the last 100+ years. I wonder how those old school carbon fiber (wooden) rims on the first bike would stack up against some 202s in a wind tunnel.

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