This question popped up and led someone to my site sometime this morning, and it’s a fantastic question: Is a high-end road bike faster than an average one.
The short answer is not “No, an average road bike is every bit as fast as a high-end road bike”, but it’s close. Now, I’m going to assume the person who searched this topic isn’t anywhere near pro fast… If they were, they’d already know that the high-end bikes are faster, but only “technically” and for the upper echelon of the cycling community. This person didn’t ask the right question: Is the speed gained by purchasing a high-end road bike worth the cost? That’s the question. If you’re just looking for speed, most cyclists would do best to look first at fitness, then aerodynamics before the bike. For instance, for the average cyclist, a decent aerodynamic cycling helmet will gain the rider more speed than a set of aero rims – at about 1/7th of the cost. The big-ticket items are for the pros. Take your handlebar as a shining example. That’s a round piece of tubing (carbon fiber or aluminum) and they typically run about $90 – but you can buy an aerodynamically superior bar that’s shaped like a wing at the top so it slices through the wind a bit better, they run north of $300 and they say the bar alone will knock off something like 14 seconds over 100 miles. Now, is 14 seconds over a hundred miles worth three hundred bucks to me, your slightly above average cyclist? Hell no. But to a pro that could be the difference between a yellow jersey and “who did come in second place anyway, I can’t remember”…or even a stage win. In that case, it’s worth every penny!
As far as speed goes, yes they’re faster, but not by much – and just for definition, this is assuming the average road bike compared to the high-end road bike by the way. Assume average is around $2,500. High end would be closer to $7,000. Low end, less than $1,000 to high-end, the difference is a bit greater.
Now let’s head off into the weeds a bit for the benefit of the dear reader (chuckle) because this gets interesting, and I’m not done yet.
If we look at your entry-level road bike – aluminum frame, carbon fork and mid-range components (say Shimano Sora or Tiagra), you’re looking at a price range from $800-$1,300. Compare that with an average road bike with a full carbon frame and upper middle-class components (Shimano 105 or Ultegra), the biggest difference is in comfort and durability, not speed. The higher end components are vastly more durable as you go up. Also, the difference in comfort is astoundingly evident between an aluminum frame and a carbon frame. An aluminum frame is very rigid so you feel every bump in the road. On the other hand a carbon frame smooths out the pavement considerably by absorbing imperfections in the road. I’ve ridden both (low-end and average) and I can say with utter certainty: I will never go back to an aluminum framed bike. The carbon frame and high-end (Ultegra) components are worth every penny. This gets even more interesting though. The ultra high-end components (Dura-Ace Di2), while lighter with superior shifting, are touchier to keep tuned (in fairness, I’ve never ridden a bike with those components – I’m going by what I’ve been told and read).
The last little tidbit that should be covered in the quest for finding the right bike and components is wheels. I run older aluminum rims and I’m quite happy with them. They’re old Rolf Vector’s and they are known for being one of the most durable wheels ever made, though they are heavy (they have a thick side-wall). My buddy Steve, on the other hand, runs on some very nice high-end carbon rims and said that the difference in feel compared to aluminum wheels is almost the same as going from an aluminum frame to a carbon frame. I haven’t found it necessary to switch – yet, but a decent set of wheels would be next on my list… If I didn’t have eyes on a new bike.
Finally, there is a question of weight. A bike’s weight can be important, but only if you’re in top physical condition and you don’t have any weight to drop off of you. For instance, I can lose two pounds in a week (in season) if I really want to. The cost involved in dropping two pounds off of a bike can be into thousands of dollars, about half of the cost of going from an average road bike ($2,500) to a high-end road bike ($7,000). Wheels are a good place to start for the big weight, then crank, bars, etc. While that won’t make you faster on the flats and downhills, it will make climbing hills and mountain roads easier, but again you have to weigh the costs to the benefits.
Put simply, elite bikes are of use to elite cyclists – and they look really freakin’ cool. A $15,000 bike will not make it so someone who normally cruises around at 16 mph can keep up with the local advanced group… If you’ve got the money though, more power to you. I’ll still cream you on my used ’99 Trek 5200. It cost me all of $950 (after saddle and pedals).
UPDATE: 8/23/2013 I actually bought a high end road bike, technically. I’ve now got a Specialized Venge Comp, one of the most aerodynamically sound bicycles available, but it’s the low-end version of the high-end bike. My previous statements in this post are all confirmed. The bike does not pedal itself, it is not a Honda. On the other hand, it’s very smooth. It is very fast on good asphalt and rides quite a bit better than my 5200 on rough roads – and the Venge is known (incorrectly in my experience) as a very rigid, even unforgiving ride. The S-Works Venge may be that stiff, but the Comp is a very nice ride.