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Is A High-End Road Bike Faster Than An Average One?

February 2013
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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.


10 Comments

  1. IowaTriBob says:

    Excellent post! This past summer I bought my first entry level road bike – a Felt Z100 at just under $900 and couldn’t be happier. I figured until I can push some serious watts and ride at a fast speed consistenly (all my strength and endurance and nothing to do with the bike) I’d go with a solid entry level. Although I’d love to try a carbon frame, the Z100 is all aluminum, after reading this.

  2. John says:

    I just started into road cycling. Found it interesting that when asked what they ride many cyclists first respond with the price and then the name. Seems like the technology has more value socially than practically.

    • bgddyjim says:

      That’s very interesting – here in Michigan, price is rarely discussed unless the person asking is looking to upgrade. For instance, my 5200 has another year on it, so when a guy I ride with occasionally showed up with a new Madone 5.2 I asked what he paid to compare it against the Venge I want to buy… Otherwise, we just stick with make and model.

      Part of this has to do with experience too. The more experienced (or less egotistical?) cyclist will expect that you’ll know how much it was by the make and model, unless they got a good deal. 😉

  3. The performance improvement in components/component groups gets smaller as the price goes up. Most vendors have a level of components that perform as well as their top level, they just weigh more. This weight advantage is small and will only be a practical advantage to bicycle racers who can finish races within minutes of the top finishers.
    The component groups which present no performance disadvantages other than weight, (or social prestige), are currently as follows; Shimano/Ultegra/Deore XT, SRAM/Force/XO, & Campagnolo/Chorus.
    The performance compromises as the cost goes down are in small incremental steps; for example a comparison of Shimano’s Ultegra vs. 105 road derailleur systems will serve as an example. It is much easier to shift to a lower gear on the rear sprocket under load with Ultegra than with 105, etc.

    • bgddyjim says:

      Exactly. Though I would add, having ridden both 105 and Ultegra extensively, that the Ultegra components are quite a bit smoother all around. Thanks for sharing your comment.

  4. g2-1f39ab1f3ebc034bbaa4a33a22e0e541 says:

    The small differences in each component in the Ultegra group compared to the same component in the 105 group add up to a noticeable performance improvement for the entire group; an example of how manufacturers save cost on different bicycle models is to use most or all of a particular component group on one model and then have just enough of that component group on the next model down to state that it is equipped with “blop”, they then proceed to put cheaper wheels, brakes, and cranks on the less expensive model, reducing the retail cost by $600 to $800 dollars. The performance difference is only noticeable to most riders by riding both models on the same 10 mile or longer course within a short period of time. The best way to tell the difference is to ride a route with some steep hills and ride the more expensive model last.

    • bgddyjim says:

      Oh, I’d take issue with the “performance difference is noticeable to most riders by riding both models” part… When I bought my Venge I knew within a week that the cheap wheels that came on it were crap (I knew they were heavy before I rolled the bike out of the shop)… Climbing a hill the brakes would rub the rim. Add to that a little slop in the hub and I bought an upgraded set, quick. Been happy ever since. I also could tell, quite easily, the difference between the 105 and Ultegra lines. Now, they did run a cheap crank that’s a bit on the heavy side and a cheaper cassette and chain (tiagra) and you’d be right about those – there’s no way I’d know without riding the full set.

      • g2-1f39ab1f3ebc034bbaa4a33a22e0e541 says:

        What you are going through is how we all learn. if yours is a 10 speed the old 10 speed Ultegra stuff is on clearance. 11 speed and you will be paying for the fact that it is new and “improved”.

  5. […] Is A High-End Road Bike Faster Than An Average One? […]

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