When I started cycling seriously, I had one of the oldest, heaviest bikes in our local club… At least one of the heaviest for the fast guys. I lost twenty pounds almost immediately and when you added the bike plus me, I was lighter than most. My bike had old components such as down tube shifters and it was hard to keep up with the quick-shifting integrated shifter guys. I had to work harder. Then I upgraded to a 19 pound, Ultegra kitted, super-bike… A Trek 5200, almost the exact same bike Lance Armstrong rode in the TdF in ’99. I was new enough that I could feel the difference in the ride of the bike, the difference between carbon fiber and aluminum, but not the two-pound weight difference. The integrated shifters/brake lever drivetrain was also a huge difference, even if I didn’t know how to shift it properly yet.
The important gist of that last paragraph, in case you missed it, was that I was too green in cycling to feel a two-pound weight improvement when I upgraded bikes.
Today, cycling is a completely different ballgame. That 5200, as fantastic as that bike is (more State Championships were won on that frame than any bike frame, ever), has been relegated to my backup, nasty weather bike. Today, I ride a state-of-the-art, 16-1/2 pound, 56 cm race bike that has been exhaustively fitted to my 6′ frame, complete with light racing wheels (1,456 grams). I had also finally put in enough time in the saddle to notice the initial pound and a half difference – and the next pound drop when I upgraded the wheels was huge… I’ve got several thousand miles on the race bike, with the current setup and have well over 17,000 miles under my belt at an average speed that most people wouldn’t hope to hit for more than a few miles. Climbing hills on my Specialized Venge, as a simple avid cyclist, I can shred all but the best mountain goats and racers. My point here is not to gloat – that would be silly and pointless because I know a literal ton of people who are much faster than I am, but to illustrate that I take cycling at a high level seriously. I like to be fit and fast, I love to pass people on time trial bikes and I put in some serious miles. Not to impress anyone but because it puts a smile on my face… And it matters in the context of bike weight for this post.
I recently had my rear wheel re-strung because after a year of hard riding and crossing railroad tracks – the spokes had loosened up to a point where it was hard to keep it trued. When I took my rear wheel to the shop, I swapped the cassette for the original rear wheel that came with the bike so I could continue to ride my race bike. That old wheel is almost 3/4’s of a pound heavier than the new wheel and I guarantee you, I could feel the extra weight with every pedal stroke and every little ascent up a tiny roller. Just going from 16-1/2 pounds to 17-1/4 changed how my bike felt and handled. This is the context where the weight of the bike does matter.
Now, would the extra weight have mattered at the club ride on Tuesday night? Not even a little bit – I’d fare no worse had I not gotten the wheel back before the next ride and given a few weeks, I’d have gotten used to the additional weight, without question. Where it would have mattered was on my two-day 150 mile rides last weekend. It would also have made a difference in the mountains… Again, though, given the proper time to acclimatize, I’d have been fine.
The point is, to a large extent, it’s been my experience that the two-pound weight difference between a $1,500 aluminum road bike and a $4,000 composite race bike is negligible unless you’ve put in a lot of miles riding a lighter bike (in other words, going from a light bike to a heavier bike is a bigger deal than going from a heavier bike to a lighter bike) – with one exception: Climbing. Climbing a decent hill on a light bike, even a pound lighter than what you’re used to, is a pretty big deal. So, while the fact does remain that whether you’re riding an entry-level aluminum road bike or a super-steed, you’re willingness to ride fast vastly trumps the super-steed every day of the week and twice on Sunday. Of course, once you get to that level, you’d better believe a lighter bike is vastly superior to a heavier one. Get it?
So, to tidy this up with a nice little bow, with added experience comes the ability to “feel” minimal changes in a bike’s setup as well as smaller changes in a bikes weight. By the time I finally bought my Venge, I could feel the difference between 17-1/2 pounds and 16-1/2 pounds… After riding that bike for almost a full year now with the same setup, I could feel a huge difference just by adding 3/4’s of a pound simply by switching a rear wheel. This after not being able to “feel” a two-pound difference in switching from my Cannondale to the 5200 after my first full year of cycling. In other words, the more time I’ve put in on a bike, the more in-tune I’ve gotten with how bike weight matters. When you’re only talking about a pound or three, especially when you’re first getting into cycling, the weight of the bike doesn’t matter much at all – your effort does. If you choose to progress in the sport, especially if you find that climbing is your thing, you’ll be able to feel a pound’s difference. Two pounds will be a big deal and three pounds less will be huge – assuming, of course, you’ve already achieved your ideal cycling weight. Taking weight off of you is obviously cheaper and more beneficial than taking it off of the bike.