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The Noob’s Guide to Cycling: What is needed to be Fast Part II… The Bike

I’m going to be very clear, right off the bat; the bike matters.  The question is how much.

  • We are going to be our fastest on a $10,000 super-bike, it just is what it is.
  • We are going to be slower on an entry-level bike, it just is what it is.
  • Heavier bikes are more work to get up a hill when you’re matched up with people who are about as fast as you are.  When you’re by yourself, who cares?
  • I can feel a pound’s difference fairly easily.  Three pounds is a big difference.  Seven is utterly obvious, and it doesn’t matter how fat or thin the cyclist is.  Either way, you’ve gotta get your butt and the bike up a hill – and if you’re on a lighter bike you’ll know it.
  • Much of the common sense of cycling holds true but anything can be made up for with want to until and if you start racing.

I don’t like the notion that the bike really doesn’t matter.  The bike matters, a lot, so do the wheels.  The fact that the bike matters isn’t the end of the discussion, though.  The context that we need is what bike do we need to match the conditions we ride under.  Recent legend has it that Peter Sagan once won a race on his sister’s bike.  The problem for me, of course, is that I’m not Peter Sagan.

What I’m about to share with you is highly subjective, it’s almost entirely opinion.  I’m going to start with the entry-level bikes and go up from there, with one caveat; you can use a super-bike in any of the groups but, as you’ll find out once you’ve laid the cash on the counter, if you go too big, you’ll feel you don’t live up to the steed you’ve got.  It happens a lot.  It happened to me.  I got over it.

One thing is assumed:  The bike fits the cyclist.  If you don’t know how to properly fit a bike to you, get help.  When you were a kid, you could ride any bike you were handed.  When you’re riding with the big kids, fit matters.  Why ride around in anything but the most comfort bike possible?

Entry-level road bike ($700-1,400 new):  Nowhere is the statement “you get what you pay for” more important than the entry-level lines.  There’s a very big difference in feel from a $700 bike to a $1,400 bike.  These are great for an average pace under 16 mph on flat ground and 14 on hilly terrain.  These are your aluminum framed bikes and they range from 21 to 24 pounds.

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Specialized Diverge A1-Sport – $1,150 23 pounds

Second Tier Entry-level ($1,500 to $2,500):  This is the level of bike that starts to help the rider significantly enough to notice.  You’re getting into the better component lines, Shimano 105 for example.  The components won’t make a cyclist faster, they just work a little better and in the case of 105, they last longer.  You’re also going to get a little better as the wheels that come on the bike go.  Wheels matter.  This tier is great for 18 mph averages on flat ground and 16 on hilly terrain.  These are aluminum frames with the possibility of getting into carbon fiber at the higher side of that price point.  Look for your bike to weigh 18-ish to 21 pounds in this category.

Mid-level/Entry-level Race ($2,500 to $4,500):  At this point the components are race quality (Shimano 105 or better) and the wheels are much improved over the entry-level bikes.  The frames are carbon fiber and you’re into the full carbon forks (the low-end forks are carbon from the fork down and alloy from the steering tube up).  You’re into the aero bikes, too.  Aero matters – not just the position you ride in but the frame as well.  Bikes in this category (depending on the purpose) are between generally 16 and 19 pounds and are good for average paces around 21 mph on flat ground and 18-19 on hilly terrain.

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Specialized Venge Comp (2013) $3,000 out of the box, 18.8 pounds, Shimano 105 components.  $5,000 as shown 15.9 pounds, upgraded wheels, stem, handlebar, crank and brake calipers.

High-end Race Bikes ($5,000 to $12,000):  This is a big category and I could technically break it down into two, but by the time you can afford a bike in this category you know enough to be above this post.  In this category, everything is carbon except the chain rings, chain, cassette…. etc. Bike weights in this category will range from 12 (Trek Emonda – climbing) to 19 pounds (Specialized Venge ViAS – aero).  Shimano Dura-Ace, Ultegra, SRAM Rival/Force/Red and Campagnolo are standard issue for these bikes.  These are the bikes that will help a cyclist north of a 23 mph average on the flats and 20-ish mph on hilly terrain.  On that high-end, it’s what the big dogs ride.

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There’s no doubt that the bike matters when the speeds go up, the question becomes what does the individual need to ride comfortably at their happy speed – I’d call that “where you’re pushing hard but your tongue isn’t dangling dangerously close to your spokes”.  My Specialized is perfect for my style of riding.  Between 20 and 23 mph average, not much climbing.  If I wanted to go much faster, a decent carbon wheelset (38 or 50 mm) would go a long way to helping.

Finally, there’s a cheat:  The used bike.  One way to get around the exceptionally high-priced bike is to buy one used – whether from your local shop or from a private owner.  Just know up front, you’d better know what you’re doing when it comes to sizing.  If you get the size wrong it’ll be an expensive mistake.  I bought my 1999 Trek 5200 used, at the local shop.  I paid a whole $750 for it and got good wheels, a carbon fiber frame and Shimano Ultegra components (one step up from the aforementioned 105 in the mid-range level).  I’ve since destroyed the old wheels and had to put new shifters on it, as well as a new headset (and had it painted).  Still, it’s a substantial bike for what I’ve got into it, call it $1,250 not including the paint job.  It weighs, with my good wheels on it, 19 pounds.  In other words, I’ve got a mid-grade bike for an entry-level price.  For the record, it is harder to make the Trek go as fast as the Specialized.  On one hand, the difference is fairly obvious.  On the other, I can (and regularly do) make up for the difference with a little “want to”.

UPDATE:  Andy Clark added a comment that really brought up a great point – this post is about fast, not fit.  If one has a desire to work off a few extra burgers (I’ve managed to work off about 5,080 in the last seven years) any bike will do.  In fact, the heavier one is when one starts out, the more necessary choosing a different bike will be.  For instance, most mountain bikes come with a 300 pound weight limit while most road bikes are at 250 (if memory serves).  As losing weight goes, whatever gets your butt out the door and riding is what you want.  A common progression is graduating from mountain to road bikes once really gets into the sport as road bikes are often more expensive than your average mountain bike… they’re also vastly faster.  As getting fast goes, see the above to choose your proverbial weapon.  Thanks Andy.

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