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What Is the Ideal Cycling Weight? It’s not Simply “As Light as Possible”

A quick caveat:  The weights I’m about to discuss are for men.  The ratios I will be suggesting, for women, should be slightly less – figure two tenths lighter, and you should be good.

Chris Froome (sorry about your luck brother) is 6’1″ and 157 pounds

Marcel Kittel is 6’2″ and weighs 190 pounds. He is big, he is strong.

Andy Schleck reportedly is 6’1″ and weighs 150 pounds

Fabian Cancellara? 6’1″, 180.

Alberto Contador? 5’9″ and 137 pounds.

Vincenzo Nibali:  5’10” and 134 pounds.

Cav:  5’9″ and 152 pounds.

Andre Greipel:  6’0″ and 176 pounds.

(A simple Google search produced all of the weights)

So what is “technically” the ideal cycling weight?  If you look at the pros, arguably not the best place to look, ideal weights can seem impossibly light unless you look at some of the sprinters.  A comment from a female cyclist on my post yesterday about Trek’s new ten pound bike prompted this post.  The notion, that one should concentrate on losing weight before worrying about buying a light (expensive) bike is a pervasive one amongst us cyclists…  Even I bought into it for a time, but as I’ve adapted my weight over the last couple of years my thinking on the subject has evolved quite a bit.

In 2012 I was close to Andy Schleck’s weight/height ratio, within a tenth of a pound per inch of height.  Not on purpose, mind you, I just didn’t know how much I had to eat to maintain what I thought was a decent weight, so I went from 171 pounds all the way down to 149 before my wife started ringing the alarm bell.  I started eating more, still less than the average American, and brought my weight back to 160 pounds (still a bit light for my wife’s liking).  Today I’m closer to Andre Greipel or Cancellara – a tenth of a pound under their weight/height ratio to be exact, at 171 pounds again.  My weight is distributed completely differently though…  I don’t have the love handles anymore and my “gut” is all but gone and my legs resemble more the tree trunks they should as a cyclist.  I also added a bit in the upper body as well, to square out my shoulders.

Now, here’s the interesting part:  I’m faster and I climb better at 171 than I did at 150-160.  Part of this has to do with time in the saddle.  At 150 pounds I hadn’t even fully gotten into my full training load yet.  I hadn’t learned about cadence yet, had an aluminum bike that was too small, and didn’t know much about cycling at all.  On the other hand, and to borrow a metaphor, I can dance up hills at speeds that destroy stronger cyclists that I ride with.  Give me a hill and the lead in a train and I can split up a good group in a matter of minutes – and most of this reality has to do with how I train daily, accelerating up hills rather than simply climbing them.  In fact, when I’m not in the lead going up hills, I find myself often coasting up hill intermittently to keep my position in the group.

So, I’ve tap-danced around the initial question in the title long enough…  What is the ideal weight for a cyclist?  Let’s get technical:  If you’re a pro climber the general rule is two pounds per vertical inch of height…  A General Classification (GC) contender in the tour, is generally slightly heavier at 2.0 – 2.2 pounds per one inch of height.  Nibali is 1.91 and Schleck (a climber/GC contender mix) is 2.04.  Contador (another GC’er) is at 1.98 while Chris Froome is 2.15.  Sprinters are a little bit heavier.  Cav is 2.2, Greipel is 2.4 and Kittel is all the way up to 2.56 pounds per vertical inch.  We, however, are not pros, we’re cyclists – enthusiasts or otherwise…

Now, here’s the important “rest of the story”:  Once you get down to that mystical 2 pounds per inch, rider health becomes very tricky.  A person’s immune system has a tough time keeping up with one’s environment when you’re that light.  In other words, as I’ve seen reported and heard from those in the cycling industry with far more experience than I have, there is a zone that runs between 2.2 and 2.6 pounds per vertical inch where rider health is easier to maintain.  Dip below that and health becomes an issue – colds are more frequent and the flu can be brutal.  Go over that 2.6-2.7 mark and health (and speed) becomes an issue again.  Now, if you live in the mountains and love to climb, that 2.2 pounds per inch should be a good target.  You’ll be heavy enough to maintain health, while still being able to kill it on the hills.  I live in flatter lands but still love a good climb so my target weight is slightly higher…  I like 2.275 and my wife likes 2.4 so I shoot for the middle ground, 2.35 to 2.375 – hey fellas, happy wife, happy life.  Now, if you want to have a little bit of bulk, you’ll want Kittel’s 2.5-2.6, but you won’t have his perfect hair and you will, more than likely, have to work harder on the climbs to stay in contact with the group (there are absolutely exceptions to this rule of course).

The point to all of this is the “rather than spend money a lighter bike, concentrate on losing weight” meme.  This concept, while true as a sound bite, is not meant for everyone…  It’s meant for noobs and those who have weight to lose in the first place.  You technically could ride my bike at 225 pounds – but you’d be at the upper limit and have to change to a heavier duty wheel (bike plus cargo max is 240 pounds).  At 225 though, you’d crush my rims on rough pavement (I have light weight racing wheels that have a suggested ideal rider weight of less than 200 pounds).

I, Joe Blow cycling enthusiast and blogger extraordinaire, am exactly 2.375 pounds per vertical inch and I’m just big enough to look awesome at the beach, and light enough to maintain a decent speed…  I fall in between that 2.2-2.4 pounds per vertical inch range.  Any heavier than that and I’m starting to look a little portly.  Now, there are obvious additional factors to be accounted for – a person’s frame can add as much as 10% to the overall weight and get you closer to the 2.5/2.6 pounds per inch so care must be taken to keep from getting too thin…

Now, at 170 pounds, yes I could technically ride a 21 pound bike and be better off than with my 17 pound Venge if I simply lost five or six pounds – in fact, a lighter me on top of a heavier bike would improve my center of gravity as well, but the simple truth is, I don’t have any weight to lose…  However one chooses to go though, one way or another, you’re going to pay.  You’ll pay cash for a light bike and you’ll pay in sweat for a lighter you.

However, if there has to be an “ideal” weight for male cyclists, 2.2-2.4 pounds per vertical inch would probably be it.

Now, even though all of the weights/heights in this post were based on men, it’s easy enough to figure out where women would ideally want to be as well…  And because I’m probably a little bit stupid, I’ll delve into this, it should be loads of fun:  1.9 to 2.1 pounds per vertical inch.  So if you’re 5’5″, you’re looking at 120-135 pounds, max.

God help me…

UPDATE:  There have been several “worried” comments about the interworld, surprisingly from males in the 2.0-2.1 pounds per inch (ppi) range.  Folks, please read the part of the post in which I wrote “there are exceptions to the rules”.  Heck even I know a guy who busts the 2.2-2.4 rule.  The weights in this post are a generalization of what is said to be “healthy” across the cycling and real worlds.