I had an interesting conversation with a new kid to the group who rides an early-90’s steel Specialized Allez 14sp with down tube shifters the other night… We both rode the same route with the same group and finished with almost the exact same time – 28.2 miles in 1:13:42 or 23-mph (my buddy, Chuck, got 23.1 on his Garmin). Those who read this blog regularly, know what I rode. For those who don’t, I ride this:
The new guy to the group is 25 years younger than I am and about 15 pounds lighter. He spent most of the ride at the back because as soon as he got up to third bike, he would struggle to hang on so he’d tap out and head to the back for shelter, creating a hole that needed to be filled by the cyclist behind him. After the third time I asked him, politely, to stay at the back (I was about to explain myself after the ride, but he jumped in and said he fully understood). I spent my usual amount of time up front, pushing the pace, though I did shorten my turns which worked a lot better for me this week.
So, what’s the difference between a modern high-end carbon fiber super-machine and an old-school, down tube shiftin’ steel steed with the least aerodynamic wheels known to man?
In all seriousness, you can’t really measure the bikes without power meters and loads of data that I don’t have (nor do I care to bother with it). I can tell you this; one look at me and that kid and you know who’s the fitter of the two (it isn’t me). I’m taking my lumps up front, he can’t hold the pace three bikes back.
That’s the difference between a modern 15.75 pound aero super-steed and a 23 pound lugged steel steed. With the old-school road bike, you can go very fast with the right amount of youth and want to. Same with the modern super-steed… It’s just faster and less effort with the modern rig.
To be fair, you put a decent racer on that Allez and me on my Venge, I’ll likely get creamed. You put a rider of similar talent and fitness on that Allez and me on my bike, it’ll be an ass kicking in my favor. In short, there’s a wide gap between an old-school 23 pounder and a modern, light aerobike.
How about something a little more modern? My gravel bike is a 2016 Specialized Diverge A1 Sport. Retail was a little more than $1,100 if I remember correctly. It weighs 23 pounds, just like that Allez I mentioned to earlier, but it has all of the modern goodies. Integrated shift/brake levers, disc brakes, carbon fiber fork… You put me on that bike and I’ll struggle to keep up with my normal group. I would likely have to hide a lot, but I could do it with a lot of extra want to. Still, I wouldn’t be having fun like I do on my Venge. That seven pounds and change is noticeable, but being able to shift at will, without having to move the hands is a huge plus next to the down tube shifters.
How about modern components on an old frame?
Now we’re talking. Modern 10sp. drivetrain on a 1999 carbon fiber race frame. 18-1/2 pounds, decent wheels, nimble, but still lacking when you really step on the gas.
On the Trek I can not only hang with the group, I can take my lumps up front, and have a relatively good time. There is a small difference between the Venge and the Trek, mainly in wheels and aerodynamics. Both of those matter, but not enough that it can’t be made up for with a little extra want to.
The only problem with the Trek is sprinting on it. According to Strava, I can lay down some watts when I’m sprinting. Some of that is wasted on the Trek because the frame is a little squishy in the bottom bracket area. When I step on the gas with the Venge, it jets. As for the minor weight difference, it’s noticeable, but it’s not big enough to keep from choosing the bike for major tours – I actually prefer it.
What it all means
I’ve got a full range of bikes, from old school to entry-level to expert. The differences between the newer bikes are pretty minor excepting the weight of the Diverge – it’s prohibitively heavy. The shortcomings of the two bikes (the Trek and Diverge) can be made up for. The old school bike, not so much. When each little thing is a little more work, the shifters, the weight, the wheels, the frame… Too many of those little items and it just becomes too much to overcome with “want to” – it’s too much to hang with my normal group.
On one hand, the human engine is a funny thing. It can make up for a lot of technological shortcomings. On the other, looking at the bikes above, if you think there are only marginal gains between the Cannondale and the Specialized Venge, you’re wrong and you’ve bought something that’s unsaleable. Either that or you’ve never ridden a super-bike (which is quite okay, by the way – those things are freaking expensive), so you don’t know any better anyway.