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.