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Can a $500 Bike Keep Up with a $10,000 Bike Part Two:  The Rest of the Story…


In a post the other day, I linked to a couple of videos that provide irrefutable proof that, indeed, a $500 bike can keep up with a $10,000 bike.  In fact, unless you’re a noob (as we all once were), you already knew that this was the case.

Now, if you were to ask, could a pro lay down the same performance on the two bikes, well we all know the answer to that as well.  No chance.  The reality is, if the bike fits, and has comparable gearing and shifters (10 or 11 sp 11-28 teeth cassette, integrated brake/shifters – even if they’re a lower level, etc.), the same person will go faster on the $10,000 bike than they do the $500 bike.  That’s just the way things are.  The difference won’t be enough to shake a stick at though, somewhere between two and five seconds a mile, at best.  Unfortunately, as a noob, I had high hopes that when I was finally able to afford a race bike that I’d finally be able to keep pace with the Cat 3 and 4 racers in our group ride.  I was sorely mistaken.  I’ve got the bike and while there’s no doubt fast is easier and more comfortable on it, I’m still off the mark.

One of the biggest mistakes I’ve ever made in bike purchases had to do with the hope that I wouldn’t be at much of a disadvantage with the older down tube shifter drivetrain.  While I still enjoy riding the bike from time to time, in a group ride with those $10,000 bikes, the Cannondale is just short of useless.  It’s not that I couldn’t keep up with that bike, if I worked hard enough, because I could…  The trick is, I’d have to be in vastly better shape than the Cat 3 and Cat 4 racers I ride with to do it.  Read that sentence very carefully if you must.  I’d have to be in vastly better shape than Cat 3 and 4 racers…  That’s really what this boils down to in the end – and it’s confirmed in those videos I linked to if you know what you’re looking for.  The reality is, with a $500 bike, you just have to work a little harder than everyone else to keep up.  That said, writing this in the US, you really can’t get a decent club ride-ready bike for $500.  They start around $750 and you get an aluminum frame, a carbon fork and some fairly cheap wheels.

More important than what the frame is made of, is the component set on the bike.  For an entry-level bike, you get Shimano Sora or maybe Claris shifters with an 8 or 9 speed drivetrain and more than likely a compact crank set (50/34 tooth combination).  The compact crankset will be just fine for all but the fastest groups that you’d want to keep up with.  Where this gets tricky is that 8 speed drivetrain.  Most newer, high-end bikes run with either 10 or 11 speeds and I’m here to tell you, those two or three gears matter.  Now that I’ve been into the more hectic speeds for a while, cruising down flat roads between 25 and 29 mph, I can tell you that the key to not burning out is finding the right gear.  Spin too fast and you won’t be able to stomp on the gas during a surge.  Spin too slow and you overwork your muscles, become tired and you won’t keep up…  The fewer gears you have, the larger the gap in between them, the harder it is to find a good gear to match your speed.  It’s as simple as that.

To use a perfect example, let’s look at a head-to-head comparison of my Venge and an entry-level Specialized Allez.
allezVs.  IMG_7055

You should be able to see the setup advantage with the Venge easy enough:  Low bars, high saddle, less wind resistance.  That notwithstanding, my Venge has a ten speed cassette, 11 to 28 tooth.  The Allez comes with an eight speed cassette, 11 to 32 tooth.  Now, let’s stack the gears up:

Allez:  11-13-15-18-21-24-28-32
Venge:  11-12-13-14-15-17-19-21-24-28

With the ten speed cassette, you’ve got a one-tooth difference jump up to 15, then two thereafter until the last two easier gears.  With the eight speed cassette, you’ve got a two tooth difference for the first three but they you start jumping by three’s, and finally four’s.  In a faster group ride, call it 21-29 mph, you’re using the 13 thru 24 tooth gears.  I’ve got seven gears that I use regularly on the Venge (that last 24 t gear is for climbing only).  On the Allez, you’ve got just five, with three tooth jumps from the 15 tooth gear, up.  What ends up happening is that you have a tough time matching a good gear to the pace of the group.

All is not lost, of course.  If one were to plan on riding faster club rides, all one would have to do is go with the Allez Sport for another $200 or maybe even the Allez Comp (with 105 racing components) for another $830 and you get one more gear than I have – an 11 speed drive train.  For those who wonder, my Venge is a ’13…  The year before they came out with a 105 11 speed.  The new Venge has the 11 speed 105 setup, though starting price is $3,000.

For those who think that they can just start with the base bike and upgrade their way to happiness, should they decide to go all out, it’s not all that simple – especially for someone who doesn’t have an intimate knowledge of bikes.  Let’s just delve into it for a second though…  You’ll need:  a 10 sp. cassette, new rear derailleur, new crankset, new shifters, new chain and a new set of chain rings.  See, the 8 speed chain is a little wider than the ten speed so nothing works together.  To upgrade, you need a full setup:  $480-$530 (unless you can find something used on eBay).  Figure in another $200 for labor to install everything and you might as well get the Allez Comp and save yourself the hassle – and you get a better set of wheels out of the deal.

Nothing in this post should be construed to mean that one cannot keep up on an entry-level bike, but if you think it’s going to be easy, you’ve got another thing coming.  It won’t – and you’ll have to work harder than everyone else to do it.  Of course, that’s not a bad thing either because if you can keep up on an entry-level bike, when you shill for the better race bike, you’ll lay waste to all.  Cycling is all relative, baby.  Sometimes it’s Sweet Aunt Sally and others, it’s that @$$hole Uncle Richard.

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12 Comments

  1. PedalWORKS says:

    Nice post. I did a 100 km race on Sunday on my Roberts (35 year old steel frame with an Ultegra group) and maintained a 35+ kph pace most of the time not counting the hills. I would have liked the carbon bike, particularly for the climbs, but the Roberts did the job. It’s not a $500 bike (more like $2000) but a lot less than the Garneau. So, I would agree. What matters most is the gearing and the bar shifters.

    • bgddyjim says:

      Thanks Gary… It’s all in the gearing and the engine – though bikes that weigh about the same as a bowling ball never hurts. Especially in the hills. Chuckle.

  2. A part of me wants to say ‘nah, all that matters is the engine’ but the reality of it is that equipment does make a difference. After going from a $500 Specialized Hardrock 26 to a $3000 Specialized Camber 29 and seeing the immediate significant improvement in performance, I can testify to what you say here.

    • bgddyjim says:

      Way to come around to the Light Side, brother. LOL! The engine is the most significant factor, there’s no doubt. But there’s a reason people pay that kind of cash for a bike, and it’s not all because they’re cool. Even if they are. Super cool.

  3. Nice analysis. Interesting topic.

  4. MJ Ray says:

    The way I explain the difference made by number of gears is that at any time, there’s an optimal perfect hardest-you-can-sustain gear for the conditions, which you almost never have. All you can do is use the next gear that you have which is LOWER than that optimal one – if you try forcing a harder gear, you’ll wear yourself out and gradually drop off. More gears in the same range means that the next gear lower is closer to the optimal one, shop sustaining your speed is easier.

    Of course, I’m often using this from the other angle, to explain why the twenty inch jump between my top two gears on my town bike doesn’t bother me because I’m not trying to go the fastest I possibly can and why I can still ride up most hills better than many 😉

    • bgddyjim says:

      I use both. The harder gear and the easier gear. The easier gear is great, but only until a certain point. Often, even with spinning an easier gear, the breathing and heart rate can get out of whack. The harder gear provides a respite to get back “into the green”, if you will. Also, when you’re back in the draft, the harder gear allows you to surge with the group a lot easier, especially if you’re already at the upper level of comfort when it comes to the cadence – mine is about 110. I can go faster, but my breathing and heart rate spike.

      Either way, you are very right about trying to push too hard a gear – it’s exceptionally inefficient. Thanks for adding your experience, brother.

  5. MJ Ray says:

    Oh and I knew shifters had gone speed specific, but chainrings too now??? It’s almost enough to make you want to switch back to friction bar ends just to avoid Shimano!

    • bgddyjim says:

      No chance man. Bar end shifters, while better than down tube shifters, would still be horrible in a group ride – at least with a decently fast group. The problem with the bar-end shifters is that you have to remove your hands from the hoods or drops to shift – and more importantly, away from the brakes. I shift very often to make sure I’m in the right gear for the road and our speed so having the shifters on the brake levers is a vast improvement over any other solution. As far as Shimano goes, I’ve got 105’s on the Venge and Ultegra on the Trek and have never had even the slightest problem with either.

      • MJ Ray says:

        Yeah, wouldn’t be much good in a fast group, but like I said, “almost”.

        I’ve only ever had one Shimano indexed shifter go wrong and it was a PITA to reassemble with fiddly springs. The bigger problem is that they’re incompatible across numbers of gears. Maybe it’s just me, nostalgically remembering the days when I could use the same shifters for 5, 6, 7 or 8 on the back…

      • bgddyjim says:

        Indexed shifting, being what it is, you have a point. Back in the day, things were a lot simpler but also more complex at the same time. I can see your longing for the days when adding a gear or two to the cassette didn’t necessitate a $800 groupset change (that part sucks). What you end up with today, is a greater need than ever for a knowledgeable staff at the bike shop that can “anticipate” a noob cyclists’ future needs and fit them to the proper bike so they don’t have to bother with a bunch of upgrades. Either that, or a fairly knowledgeable noob. It’s a conundrum for sure. Thanks man.

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