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Cycling: Power, Performance and Speed – And Why the Expensive Gear Helps

Before I start, the title says helps.

I started cycling on the cheap.  Cheap bike, cheap shorts, cheap shoes and pedals, cheap clothing… I saved money wherever I could.  And I got fast.  Part due to natural ability and part because of my enjoyment of the sheer childish pleasure of going fast.  One of my favorite cycling memories is of cruising around town.  I passed up a couple of kids at somewhere north of 20 mph and they gave chase. After about 400 feet I could hear one say to the other, “Man, that guy is fast” as they broke off.  I was hardly breathing heavy.  There’s nothing like being an older, more awesome me and still being able to confound kids.  Honesty being the best policy, we’re not talking about 20 year-old cyclists here.  Still, being fast my estimation of fast is fun.

Over the last three seasons, I’ve come a long way from those early days.  When I ride on a chilly day I’m wearing close to $1,000 worth of gear – and we’re not even talking about the bike and pedals.  North of $650 on a warm day.  I did the math (and hope to God my wife doesn’t read this).

If you wonder, “is all of that crap worth it, or necessary”?  Read on.

Now, most people don’t care (and by most, I mean most, the vast majority) if you’re wearing a ratty old pair of cycling shoes if you can ride competently and keep up.  If you’re telling yourself that people look down on you because you don’t have the latest shoes, bike or pair of shorts, you’re simply mistaken.   The only thing that really matters is whether or not you can keep up – and if you whine about it when you can’t.

I ride with a guy who sports the gnarliest cycling shoes I’ve ever laid eyes on (I swear they’re held together with duct tape) but he can kick my butt.  The point is, the gear doesn’t make you fast – you do.  If you’re average speed is 16 mph on a properly fitted aluminum road bike, equipped with mountain bike pedals and shoes, cheap shorts and a cheap jersey, dropping ten grand on all of the best stuff won’t get you to 20.  Cycling doesn’t work that way.  The ten g’s might get you to 17 or 17.5 but that would be a hard sell for “worth it” and impossible for “necessary”.

That said, and having ridden on everything from cheap to very expensive, there is another dimension to this:  All of that expensive stuff does make speed and distance more comfortable.

Take those shoes as an example. My first pair of mountain bike shoes and pedals cost $80 and $54 respectively. I put almost 5,000 miles on them on rides ranging from 15 to 100 miles and at average speeds around 20 mph.  My latest shoes and pedals retail for more than three times the old setup – and I’m only slightly faster for the cost. The cool thing about spending that cash is that my feet don’t ache or go numb after thirty miles anymore.  My first road saddle cost $35, my latest cost $110 – my butt isn’t numb after 20 miles now.  My first pair of shorts:  $35.99 – my two best current pair cost almost four times more…  The difference is absolutely amazing – no more hot spots, no more pain, no more chafing – and technically none of that will make me faster.  Or will it?

My first few centuries really hurt by the time I was done.  My feet hurt like hell and I had some nasty hot spots in some very bad places due to my cheap shorts (I upgraded my saddle before I started real distance riding).  I had none of the problems associated with the cheap gear last year and on my best ride I knocked a full half-hour off of my overall time on my last century of the year.  Now, some of this was conditioning, of course – I was in better shape than the year before.  On the other hand, endurance cycling is a mental activity.  The less pain I’m in, the less I have to work through in my head to keep my speed up and the more I’m able to enjoy the overall experience.  This doesn’t mean one can’t enjoy the longer distances with the inexpensive options, it just takes a lot more mental toughness and some Aquaphor to do it.

From there, the only necessary question is what is the distance and duration?  From a weight loss perspective, do I want to burn off 3,500 calories a week or well north of 10,000?  To give an idea, 11,000+ calories burned on a bike, in one week, requires riding about 200 miles, or a bit more than 11 hours if you can average 18 mph.  An hour a day during the week and 3 hours each on Saturday and Sunday.  From a weight loss perspective, 11 hours is a long time but you’re burning off three pounds a week – that adds up in a hurry, obviously.  Even if you have the time, spending eleven uncomfortable hours a week on a bike wouldn’t be all that much fun.  On the other hand, eleven comfortable hours is a lot more doable.  Let’s say you would rather stick to a more reasonable 5,500 calories a week though – more than a pound’s worth.  At 18 mph on a road bike you’re looking at a little more than 100 miles or 20 miles a day, five days a week…  A little more than an hour and ten minutes a day.  I’m here to tell you, with a decent saddle you can ride that in relative comfort on a mid-grade pair of shorts and cheaper shoes and pedals quite comfortably.  Not so when you’re talking about 200 miles in a week – and that’s the mileage I put in consistently over the summer (I also average just under 20 mph – so I’m closer to ten hours a week).

To wrap this post up with a nice little bow, the expensive gear definitely helps with performance over the longer distance because it makes those long days less uncomfortable.  When I’m comfortable, I can put more time in the saddle without wasting energy on fighting through pain.  For the shorter distances and times though, if one were simply to look at cycling from the perspective that it’s a nice way to burn some calories an hour at a pop, putting the big money into cycling isn’t necessary.

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