The Difference Between Entry-level, Mid-range, and the Expensive High-end Road Bikes; Why the Fast Kids All Ride Expensive Bikes
Show up to a club ride with multiple fitness levels represented and you’ll notice the fastest riders will be, but for the rare exception, riding fairly expensive, usually carbon fiber, road bikes. There will be one or two who manage on upgraded entry-level bikes, but you’ll rarely see a seasoned cyclist on an entry-level bike in the fast group. For those new to cycling, the question is often why? Actually, that “why” would come shortly after an “are you kidding me?” when that noob learns of the price some are willing to pay for a bicycle, but let’s not get lost in the woods. Yet.
I’ll be the first to admit, a high-end race bike won’t make a cyclist much faster. There’s a bit of nuance required in that statement, though, so let’s not get too indignant. Some loud voices who are looking for attention will tell you that you’re going to be just as fast on a Sora equipped aluminum bike as long as you eat your beans and greens. There’s some truth to that, but there’s a lot more hot air in the notion.
So what gives? Why all the carbon fiber and high-strength alloys on a bicycle that costs more per pound than a Ferrari?
The knee-jerk uninitiated will often slough off the outrageous expense to some kind of egotistical satiation. Those who would think that would be wrong. Almost entirely (I’m sure there are a few out there who buy expensive bikes to satiate their ego). However, if what I wrote earlier is true, that a high-end bike won’t make a cyclist much faster, then why would a person spend that much on a road bike?!
The easiest way to explain this is that the expensive bike makes being fast easier. In other words, if I am already fit enough to be exceptionally fast on a road bike a high-end road bike makes riding at ridiculous speeds just a little easier.
As an illustration, I can ride my Trek 5200 just as fast as I can the Specialized. In fact, until recently some of my fastest miles ever ridden were on the Trek. Without question, though, on the Specialized, the same “fast” takes less effort.
If I’m buying a super-cycle thinking it’ll finally get me over that hump to the next faster group, it’ll likely be disheartening when I find I still can’t quite keep up. I’ll be closer, maybe I get an extra five or ten miles further with the group, but it won’t quite make up the difference.
In the simplest terms, there won’t be a magical jump that takes me from riding with the B Group to a century with the A Group at 25-mph. If I can ride 85 miles with the A Group at that pace on an upgraded entry-level bike, though, that super-steed will get me over the finish line. And that’s why.
So, is the cost worth it?
To me it is, but I don’t have a pile of expenses, either. I don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t overeat, don’t go on exotic vacations and I live in a humble home. Spending some cheese on a bike isn’t such a big deal. On the other hand, if I did any of those, maybe cycling wouldn’t be so important. In that case, I’d simply have to train with a little more “want to” if I wanted to keep up.
Of course, that Specialized sure looks awesome…
UPDATE: Please check out Brent’s comment below. He makes some great points that I didn’t cover.
Nothing beats that first spring ride without leg warmers. Well, maybe the second spring ride without leg warmers…
When we rolled out Thursday afternoon I still needed a long-sleeve jersey, but it was a thin one and it was just warm enough I could leave the leg warmers in the dresser. Even with a decently gnarly wind, Chuck and I managed better than a 19-mph average.
It would have been nice to get out yesterday but I had to bowl and I’m a bit of a stickler with commitments. Unfortunately, that nice weather we had is all done for a minute. Today we’re back to rain and snow. Tomorrow, we’ll be lucky if the mercury tops freezing.
This isn’t entirely bad news, of course. I’ve got some maintenance to perform on both of my bikes and my wife’s. I’ll manage to keep busy between naps – it’s going to be one of those days.
Work was hectic! I left just a few minutes after 3:00 for my two-hour commute home and was on the phone for the entire time, trying to make things happen for the job I’m on. I pulled into the driveway at 4:55 and hung up after my last call of the day. Twenty minutes later I was pedaling towards Chuck’s house on what should have been an average day for this time of year, but what was the nicest, by a lot, day of the year.
Our ride was nothing of consequence. We didn’t ride very fast. We didn’t tear it up. We didn’t execute any perfect maneuvers or nail a perfect corner. We just rode on down the road, half the time side-by-side talking about bikes, fitness, diets and the day’s events.
It was a perfect recovery ride after a tough hammer on Tuesday. It was so nice to be able to avoid the layers, too. Leg warmers, arm warmers, jersey, bibs, vest and some full-finger gloves. No earmuffs, no tights, no multiple layers, balaclavas, or foot covers necessary…. and it was good.
Yesterday was a legit “Venge Day”, even though I celebrated that days ago. It was perfect.
I showered up after getting home, my wife showed up with pizza, I ate and fell asleep on the couch just after 8 pm. I woke up in bed after seven glorious hours of sleep… I slept like a baby last night, and all is well.
As it should be.
It was a gloriously sunny, calm evening – a rarity this time of year. It was also 12 degrees below normal (normal is 56° or 13C) and falling. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to learn this has been our coldest spring in forty years. Only the die-hard cyclists were out last night, for the latest edition of our Tuesday Night Club Ride (it’ll be “TNCR” this year, methinks, just to shake it up a bit).
Even if it was on the chilly side, it wasn’t all that bad, either – I think that just had to do with being cooped up all winter – and cold, at least down to freezing, tends to be relative.
We rolled at 6 on the nose and the pace was mercifully enjoyable for the first couple of miles. Even into the wind it was pretty relaxed for the group we had. I easily stuck with the A/B mixed group for 20 miles and could have gone the full long route, but five of us opted for the short route because it was really starting to cool down with the sun beginning to set on the horizon.
The five of us, four B’s and an A, were fairly strong for the time of year and we made a great pace line, each taking his turn at the front to keep the group’s speed up. We worked with precision and surprising mid-season form as the miles ticked off. 23 miles in, I could feel my legs starting to cramp up, mainly in the calf muscles. It got bad enough I had to will myself to keep the pace up. There were seconds of “I don’t wanna” lapses that had to be pushed through, but push through them I did. We lost Doug and John with seven miles to go, so our five man group dropped to three. The pace didn’t fade, though. The two Dave’s and I fought the cold, only slowing after crossing the City Limits sign with a cool 21.2-mph average (34 km/h). An excellent average for this early in the season, with the temperature having fallen to freezing (32 F or 0 C).
The three of us sat up and pedaled easy the last mile to the parking lot.
There’s nothing easy about being fast on a bike. Everyone I ride with has to come to grips with that little voice that says “I don’t wanna”, even the fastest among us talk about fighting it. We all, to our own extent, manage to beat that voice into submission and replace it with, “Oh, but you will”.
It’s not easy being fast (even my approximation of fast), but it’s definitely a lot of fun once you get past the effort. And it beats being green.
I leave work a little after 3 pm and it’s a two-hour commute home from my current job. This is not a complaint, I’m on what is probably the best job I’ve ever had the pleasure of building – I’m in the middle of my most enjoyable work experience in my career, and that’s no exaggeration. The job is seriously getting in the way of my cycling habit, though. It’s not rare for me to rather the trainer than riding outside, simply because the set-up is quicker.
I pulled into the driveway at 4:55 last evening, got the bike ready, and rolled it out the door just before 5:30. My normal weekday riding bud, Chuck, has been inundated with work lately so he couldn’t make it – I had to roll solo. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, but it was just barely out of the 30’s (5 C)… and the north wind was cold… and I was headed directly into it. One north, then a break for two heading west, followed by another north and one west and another north, by the time I hit my first tailwind, I was good and ready. I was a little chilly and had thought about turning the train around more than once – too much work related noise distracting the melon committee – until I hit that tailwind. All of a sudden everything cleared out and was okay as I was cruised along at 20+ (32-36 km/h). I’d opted for the Venge because it was perfectly sunny out and I marveled at how perfectly quiet and responsive the bike is. It’s truly a wonder of engineering, that bike.
As I hit a little decline with the tailwind I pressed on the pedals a little harder and the bike responded. 24, 25, 26-mph… then a sharp left and I was back on the gas. I passed a few people standing on the side of the road at 23, not even the whirring of the chain. Just a whoosh as I went by.
A mile north, in through a subdivision, then out onto the main road and a bike lane. On the way down a small hill a girl leaned out the window of an older maroon Pontiac Grand Prix and catcalled me. I think, considering today’s politics, I should have been offended but I’m old enough to still think of that as a compliment. A couple of more miles east and it was pay-off time for the ride. The home stretch with a tailwind for three of four miles.
Heading up a shallow incline with the wind at my back I didn’t bother pushing the pace. Monday is always a fun day in preparation for Tuesday’s hammer. I just let the wind do its thing and push me home. I rolled into the driveway just under 58 minutes for the 17-1/2 mile route. A little faster than I should have wanted but I was just happy to have gotten out, and stuck with it until the ride got fun. By 6:40 I was showered. I’d eaten by 7:00 and I was out like a light before 8 pm. The sun had just gone down as I drifted off.
What a life. It’s as good as it gets.
And so it finally was, a spring day on which to ride, and on a Sunday no less….
We rolled out at 9 am, under partly cloudy skies and in just two light layers and a vest for me. It was 37° (that’s 3 C) but it felt like a balmy spring morning next to the conditions we’ve grown used to riding in. It was nice enough I had my Venge out, and Mrs. Bgddy, her Alias. It was our first go at “Sunday Funday”… See, my buddy, Mike has had a tough time recovering from heart surgery. Basically, his ticker sucks, so we’re trying to give him a ride once a week where he doesn’t have to worry about the pace. Rather than our usual pace near 20-mph, we’re keeping the goal around 18 – something he can keep up with and still enjoy himself – and we’ve got quite a few in our group who are looking forward to the change as well.
So off we went, dead into the wind, on our way out to Shiatown and Vernon. The day just kept getting better as we went. What was supposed to be an overcast morning turned into full sunshine as the clouds lost the battle to the spring sun. In the process, it warmed up to a glorious 50° (close to normal, actually). We ended up with one of those mornings that makes you grateful to have cycling as a hobby. We added a few miles and a few there until we had our fill.
And that’s when we came to an intersection and saw an aging fella in a pickup truck. Morbidly obese, pasty skin… he didn’t look good at all. I often say I want to be mobile when I’m 80, but that’s not quite true. I want to be mobile when I hit 95, and that’s why I ride a bike. The guy in the pickup wasn’t but ten years older than me and he didn’t have much time left.
My friends, I ride a bicycle because at 48, I’m just getting started in the good life and I want it to last for a long time. That’s why I ride a bike. Well, that and bikes are cool.
I think we’re down to grasping at anything positive we can find, at this point. Spring should have sprung weeks ago, but we’re stuck in a groundhog day of cold.
On the plus side, at least the sun was out yesterday.
I am also a victim of my desire to perfect my two favorite road bikes. They’re so good, I have a tough time deciding which one I want to ride anymore. The choice used to be simple; if there was a chance of rain, I took the Trek. Now it’s a toss-up.
The weather report on Friday showed Saturday would be a cold start that would eventually warm up to a glorious day. At 9am it was supposed to be sunny, but too cold to want to ride. I have the perfect route for a day like that – it’s an out and back with decent roads and depending on the prevailing wind, all of the headwind in the first half of the ride. It’s short enough at 28-1/2 miles that we can get it done before the cold becomes a nag as well. I started to get the Venge ready, but opted for the Trek instead.
Being fully honest, I expected to be riding alone. 11am starts usually don’t work because too often, my friends just want to get their day started so either they ride on the trainer or they brave the cold and go out early. David, a Tuesday night friend who rarely rides with us on the weekend, pulled into the driveway about 20 minutes to Eleven… and that was it. Diane obviously opted out and Mike had ridden early, so it was just David and I. We rolled at 11:01. A mile down the road a message flashed across my Garmin that Doc Mike had just missed us and wanted to know our route so he could catch up. We pulled over and texted him, then soft pedaled for a mile to give him a chance – then we pulled over to the side of the road at the next intersection to wait.
He caught up a couple of minutes later and the three of us rolled out, into the cold wind. The headwind, honestly, sucked. Bad. And we were into it for something like eight miles before we turned south. Still a little headwind, but not near as bad as heading west. Then the sun started doing its job. The bitter chill to the wind eased and we picked up the pace. A quick pit stop and we were off again, this time with a tailwind to push us home. We didn’t get all that crazy with it either, though. That’s the type of ride I like – you bust your ass into the wind but actually let it push you home. The next 12 miles were simply fun.
Even with all of the soft pedaling at the beginning of the ride, we pulled into the driveway with an 18.4-mph average. This early in the season and with temps just above freezing, I was very happy with that average. My winter on the trainer was well spent.
After I cleaned up, I ate some lunch and got Mrs. Bgddy’s wheels situated and installed. Her bike looks fantastic with the 38’s on it. More on that later. After getting everything set, I sat on the couch and put the foot-rest up and drifted off.
It was the best nap I’d had in quite some time. A perfect ride will do that to a person.
When I first picked up my Ican 38mm clincher wheels, I wasn’t going to let my expectations about the wheels get in the way of my generally sunny demeanor. I wasn’t expecting much. After all, if the big hitters are getting $2,000 for their wheels, how good could a $400 set bought on the internet be?!
Capping my expectations was a brilliant move on my part because the wheels I unpacked that day are spectacular. They vastly exceeded my expectations, and continue to.
They’re not Zipp or Enve wheels, but I like the Ican’s because I can actually afford them without my budget being destroyed. In fact, I almost bought two sets last September, one set for me and one for my wife, but I figured a $400 mistake is easier to live with than an $800 mistake. I knew after a couple of weeks that the wheels were a great deal – good enough that I feel comfortable putting my wife on them.
Generally speaking, I’m skeptical when it comes to Chinese goods. Take the knock-off cycling helmets as an example. The knock-off version of the Specialized Evade helmet costs $50 next to the real deal at $225-$275… Well, that $50 knock-off looks great till you get in a wreck and hit your head on the concrete and the helmet disintegrates because the knuckleheads in China forgot the skeleton that holds the helmet together in a crash. Unfortunately, that’d be a really bad time to find out that you would have been better served to spend the cash. So, again, call me skeptical. The point is, Chinese cycling products are a buyer beware market. Some are shit, others, like the Ican wheels, are fantastic. A mechanic at our local shop put it this way; as a general rule, if they’re willing to put their name on it, they’re usually good products.
With my Ican wheels, I’ve put them through the paces enough to feel they’ll hold up for my wife, and that’s really all you need to know.
That, on top of the speed advantage with the deeper dish wheels above 22-mph – I can only imagine the benefit from 50’s (50 mm deep section wheels) – must be experienced. It’s surprising enough that I almost didn’t believe it. As was the case when I ordered my set last September, I placed the order on Amazon and they were on our porch four days later. A second perfect ordering experience.
Check them out at this link.
When I first got into cycling, I finally found a fitness activity that was portable, fun, repeatable, and something I could enjoy on a daily basis. My very first ride I was pushing for everything I had. It was a short ride, too – only four miles, but I gave it everything I had. After a day or two off, I went out and did it again. And again. And again. New bikes, better clothes, lighter gear… Every day I could I gave it everything I had, and before long I was fast. Not mediocre fast. I was fast. It took the better part of three years, but I didn’t give up. I kept going out there and pushing it every chance I got. Today, I’ve built cycling into a fitness hobby that truly makes me happy – I feel lucky to be me.
I did the same thing with recovery. I showed up every day, ready to learn and wanting more, and better. When I decided I didn’t want the pain anymore, I went to any length to get sober.
My career followed the same principle. I just showed up and gave it everything I had on a daily basis. I didn’t call in sick because I had a bad day (or worse, because I was expecting one). I showed up, every day, and did my job.
The idea, the pattern, is simple; If I want to succeed, I have to do today.
Pie in the sky dreams are useless if I don’t do today. Doing today makes the big dreams come true – that, and a little bit of luck, but it’s 99% showing up and 1% luck.
Just a thought.
And so Venge Day part Deux came to pass… erm… No, that’s not a good way to put it, because it was freaking awesome. Sure, the temp was barely out of the 30’s and I still needed “layers”, but the full foot covers stayed home, as did the earmuffs and the heavy gloves. The sun was out, the breeze was strong, and it was a full-on, legit Tuesday Night Club Ride.
All of the expensive carbon was out Tuesday night, too.
We rolled out at 6:00 on the nose, with barely a couple of miles for a warm-up (too much commute to make the 5:10 warm-up lap). Again I chuckled at how simple the whole Garmin start is. Push a button and go. The first mile was mercifully easy into a tough breeze. I chose the pothole side of the road for the first couple of miles, but that was the protected side when we turned north with a nasty cross tailwind. Another stint into the cross headwind and we turned southwest and it got gnarly in a hurry. We went from guys on the hoods to the drops with the turn – but the speed stayed pretty steady. The only spikes were when Todd and Justin got up front. Justin is a “400 watts for two minutes” guy and Todd is a “you’ll pay for the awesome draft I create” kind of guy – he’s big and it’s like drafting a battleship, but he’s fast. You pay for that draft when you’re second behind him.
I managed to stay with the group for something like fifteen or sixteen miles but one of the guys caused a gap going up a hill and I didn’t have enough want to in reserve to chase the group. A tandem and another buddy of mine got caught too, so we formed a nice little four-bike train and took a slick shortcut.
Into the tailwind section of the ride, our pace picked up a tick and we rolled for the home stretch. We picked up another but lost the tandem as they ran out of gas – easy for a tandem couple to do early in the season, I know from experience. The final stretch was mid-season form. We worked well together, as if we barely missed a beat from last season. There was even a 31+ mph sprint finish.
A fantastic evening it was, and a perfect Venge Day… part Two. I’ve got some work to do on saddle position as the new saddle wasn’t quite as comfy as it was on the Trek – something is slightly off, but I’ve got time to tinker (incidentally, I rode the Venge on the trainer last night and couldn’t figure anything out – the saddle felt like butter on the trainer).
I slept like a baby Tuesday night. Funny how that works. A little intense workout (26-ish miles in 1:14:26 for a 21.3-mph average) and I can feel my body change from winter hibernation mode to “it’s on, baby” just like that. Gotta love it.
My body just works and feels better, and I love it.