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How Much Road Bike is Needed to Ride Fast?

September 2018
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How much road bike is needed to ride fast?

It’s a trick question.

I’ll use myself and two friends with whom I ride on Tuesday night as examples in this post to illustrate a point.

I ride either my 2013 Specialized Venge or my 1999 Trek 5200. The Venge is 15.75 pounds of pure, aero carbon fiber awesome. The Trek is 18.5 pounds and I had it built from the ground up as my rain bike, but turned it into a fantastic any day steed in its own right. I’m just as fast on the Trek as I am the Venge – it’s just that the Venge is a little easier to go fast on. Over 30-40 miles, the difference is easily overcome. Over 100 miles, not so much.

My friend and cycling buddy, Jonathan rides a Specialized Allez – and not the $2,200 smartweld, aero, Sprint Edition rig, it’s the 9sp. Sora equipped entry-level model that has since been upgraded to 11sp. 105 and a decent set of alloy wheels. Figure less than $1,000 for the bike, $400 for the upgraded components and another $600 for the wheels. I’m guessing he’s got $2,000 into the bike. I’ve got $5,700 into my Venge and about $1,800 into the Trek (overall I’ve got $2,800 into the Trek when you take into account the paint, seat post, headset and other necessities – I bought the bike used). Jonathan is skinny, maybe a buck-forty, a buck-fifty max, and he can ride. Without a doubt he can keep up with me on either of my bikes, though given enough miles I think I could put him in a hurt grinder, and I’m up at 173 pounds. As far as the club ride goes, though, he’s always there for the sprint finish. On a Specialized Allez.

Then there’s Vince. Vince has got more money than God, and he puts a lot of it into bikes. He’s got a Pinarello Dogma F10 (I think it’s Dura Ace Di2 and it’s got Zipp 404 wheels, so call it $14,000). He’s also got a Colnago with Campagnolo Super-Record components that was hand-painted by an Italian dude on a mountain in who won’t give you a timeline on when you’ll get your custom rig, you get it after he gets around to painting it. He’s got the Zipp 454 Whale Wheels on that one. The wheels alone go for 70% of what I have into my Venge. I can’t even fathom what he’s got into the Colnago with that custom pain job (I’m pretty sure it’s a C64). Vince is a strong, competent cyclist… who had eaten too much at some point not long ago. Knock 20-30 pounds off of him, and he’ll be with us at the sprint finish. He drops off the back when we get to the hills, though, but he’s on a diet and he’s committed to getting into shape by next year.

The point is, between the three of us we have the whole gamut covered. We’ve got everything from the entry-level steed, to the mid-range aero-bike with bargain 38mm wheels, to the ultra-high-end super-bike. We’ve also got the full body-style range covered as well…

The super-bike won’t make a rider fast enough overcome the way they choose to eat. That’s a simple reality and there isn’t an amount of money that will fix that without getting into mechanical doping.

HOWEVER…

However, that’s not where this little post ends. The three of us, even at a 22-1/2 mph average, reside in the B Group. Our A Group can ride three miles farther and usually pass us before the finish on our slower days (21-1/2 average). They average 24-25 and they all have high-end bikes. In fact, only one guy in that group, that I can recall sitting here on my couch, rolls with alloy wheels. He’s rolling those alloy wheels on a top-of-the-line Scott aero bike, though. As the other’s wheels go, there’s a set of Madfiber’s, 808 Zipps, 606’s (that’s an 808 rear and 404 front), Yeoleo 50’s (no kidding), Dura Ace, Enve… There are a lot of great wheelsets out there in the A Group. The bikes are upper-crust as well. A few Venge’s, a Cervelo, a Tarmac or two – Giant, Scott, Trek Seven Series, a few Madone’s, a Blue… many brands are represented and they’re all high-end frames. Only two guys ride aluminum frames – a Specialized Allez smartweld, and a Cannondale (both have high end components and high-end deep-section wheels). Point is, there’s something to the high-end equipment. The deep-section wheels are easier to keep up to speed once you’re faster than 20 mph. The high-end frames and components will help a good, strong cyclist ride just a little faster. They won’t, however, make a C Grouper an A – or even a B Grouper. Weight, fitness and “want to” are more important to fast than equipment. When you get up to that 20+ mph average and have the weight under control, at that point the high-end equipment can give you the needed edge to keep up with the big dogs.

So where does this leave a cycling enthusiast?

While speed mostly comes down to “want to”, we’ve got to take reality into account. A good set of wheels and decent gearing matters because the average cyclist is only going to be able to muster so much of that “want to”. Jonathan struggled mightily before he picked up that upgrade set of wheels. He also had a problem with the 9sp. components that came on his bike because he had a hole between the gears needed for our normal cruising speed. This meant he was either spinning too fast or pushing too hard a gear (cassette choice can go a long way to fixing this problem). Now that he’s got decent wheels and a good component set on his bike, he’s one of the stronger riders in our group… In other words, the wheels and better components were the difference between struggling and being in the upper crust of our group.

That’s how the high-end equipment helps a cyclist. That high-end equipment won’t make it so you can all of a sudden jump to the next group. It’ll make it easier to hang with the group you normally ride with.

No amount of road bike will make you ride fast. “Want to” will. The high-end bikes will make your “want to” a little better. There’s no doubt about that, it’s just not as sexy as “a super-bike is all that stands between you and the pro peloton”.

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8 Comments

  1. theandyclark says:

    I’m about to write the most obscene, insane comment that may have ever been written. it would be interesting to see what would happen if the three of you switched bikes for a week or two (assuming you are similar enough in size that fit wouldn’t be a killer).

    As long as I’m being a bit of a jerk, I’ll observe that if I dropped $10K + into my bike, I’d find myself having a whole lot of “want to”. For 98% of us, that’s a really big commitment and it would push me.

  2. The Omil says:

    I think it’s like skiing – you should always aim to ski better than your kit might suggest.

  3. Oooh the infamous Zipp whale wheels! 🙂

    I’ve had my ass handed to me by a guy riding a classic steel framed single speed when I was on my TT bike (he passed me during a 10-mile time trial). Legs speak louder than expensive kit – but expensive kit is nice to have.

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