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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.
I was just sitting here thinking about nothing much when my mind wandered into what I might want to do differently this year for cycling. I’ve gone wireless in the past, opted to go without a speedo for a while…
With that new saddle I’ve been testing out I’ll have the Venge down to the low 15 pound range – light enough that getting lighter really doesn’t matter anymore – especially for an aero bike. In fact, the only way I could get the Venge any lighter is to go very drastic; tubular tires/wheels (call it $3,000) and a Dura Ace groupset (another $1,600-ish)… and I’d only drop a half to three-quarters of a pound from where I’m at already. Even if I had that kind of money, and I don’t, why?
On the other hand, and I’m just spit-balling here, what if I put the carbon wheels and the good saddle on the Trek?! I’m in the mid 18 pound range with the normal setup on the bike. With the carbon fiber wheels and the 110 gram saddle… It’d be down to the high 17 pound range… Not bad considering the bike was 20 pounds not too long ago.
So what would it be like to hang the Venge up for a year and ride the Trek with all of the good equipment on it?
Now that’s something to contemplate!
The only down side is what would I do for a rain bike? Swapping out the wheels would definitely be a chore if there was a chance of rain. To put rain wheels on the Trek, or alloy wheels, I’d have to swap brake pads and adjust the pad height so the pads hit the brake track on the alloy wheels every time there was a chance of a shower. Folks, I think that’s a little too much work. Still, I wonder, what would my Trek look like decked out in the finest? The notion is pretty compelling…
I have to admit, as a recovering drunk/addict, it is awesome to have my problems today!
And that is definitely sexy.
Day two on my new saddle was a day for getting it squared away, leveled and to test its limits as comfort goes. If I’m good at anything, it’s geeking out over tiny details.
For this test, I chose to wear my lightest pair of bibs with a chamois that’s… well, there isn’t much there. They’re a nice pair of bibs, but I won’t wear them for a ride longer than 40 miles for the lack of adequate chamois padding.
I wanted to feel what was happening – that’s the only way to be certain I’ve got everything right. A thick chamois wouldn’t transfer enough… um… feedback. Yeah, that’s the ticket.
I started pedaling and noticed two things within the first minute. The nose of the saddle was just a shade too high, and the saddle itself needed to be lowered, maybe two millimeters. I made the adjustments and climbed back on. Perfect.
I spent the next 45 minutes in the same spot, pedaling away, watching Martian. I doubt I’ll have to change another thing after that… except that pair of bibs. Those won’t work on that saddle.
One final observation; that saddle probably won’t work on the Trek even though I’m running it through the paces on that bike. Not that I’d want the expensive saddle on the Trek, it’s just too lacking in padding to go on a bike that requires 23mm tires. The Venge, with its 25mm tires and carbon fiber wheels, is vastly more comfortable for such a stiff saddle. In the end, I’ll put the Selle on the Venge and take the Romin off the Venge and put that on the 5200.
I went to a bike swap meet with my wife, Sunday morning. A friend I ride with regularly had some high-end saddles, among other carbon fiber pleasantries, for sale and he offered one to me.
I was ready for something a little lighter than my Specialized Romin, but I laughed when I felt the full weight of it. Folks, the whole saddle is 110 grams. Less that a quarter of a pound. It’s less than half the weight of my Romin.
My friends, the Selle Italia SLR Tekno Flow.
The cutout is mighty big but… dude, 110 grams! My first impression was really… dude, seriously, does it matter?! 110 grams! The Specialized Romin that came on my Venge is 273 grams. So, when I put that svelt 110 SLR Tekno Flow on the Venge I’ll lose a third of a pound – on the saddle alone.
Last night was my first spin on it. Now, I can’t exactly say it was butter, because you don’t get that light putting padding on a saddle.
I chose a pair of old bibs with a thinner chamois so I could get an idea of how the saddle really felt. Folks, I don’t care if it is a $400 saddle, if it hurts to ride on it I’d rather opt for something that’s comfortable and a little heavier – I spend way too much time in the saddle to mess with something that’s even a little uncomfortable. The first few miles were a bit of an adjustment getting used to the huge cutout. Once I got the fore/aft position figured out, though, it was surprisingly comfortable. The best way to put it is it allows the hips to open up so you can stretch out. With the plusher saddle I usually ride on the Trek, the way the saddle cradles you limits how low you want to get in the drops (most “comfortable” saddles are like this). The Selle puts no limits on low – in fact, it encourages riding low on the hoods or in the drops.
Much more research will be required, but that saddle is absolutely staying in the stable. Normally, after 45 minutes in the saddle on the trainer, my butt gets a little agitated – not quite painful, but I’m ready to be done. While there was an adjustment period to the vastly more rigid SLR, there was zero agitation at the end of my 45 minute ride last night. Interesting, indeed. And did I mention? 110 grams!
Giant came out with the first mass produced compact road bike frame in 1995. Ten years later, that bike went from alloy to carbon fiber and road bikes haven’t been the same since.
It is widely touted by those in the know that every compact frame design today owes its roots to the Giant TCR (Total Compact Road).
Then there’s the traditional, or standard, frame. The traditional frame has a top tube that runs parallel to the ground (or close to it) and requires small increases in frame size to fit everyone on the proper rig 10+ sizes for each model and gender:
Interestingly, look at where the lines on the overhead door behind the bikes match up with the hoods and saddle. Look close enough and you’ll see that the two bikes hoods and saddle are almost identical in height off the ground, though the Specialized’s compact frame looks like the saddle is pegged a little higher than the traditional Trek frame. Nope. I set the Trek up to get it as close to the Specialized as is possible. The only difference is in reach.
To keep both bikes the same as geometry goes, I’d need a shorter stem than what is currently on the Trek – I chose a bit more reach that what should be necessary on the traditional frame. I did this by feel – and this goes to the differences in geometry. Even though there’s more reach to the Trek, the Specialized feels like it’s more stretched out. It’s a paradox I can’t explain.
There are several benefits to the compact frame. One is weight – less tubing means a lighter frame (the rear and main triangles are both smaller on a compact frame). Also, and this is a plus for manufacturers, ten frame sizes, all with differences in geometry, are no longer needed – manufacturers can get away with just four to six sizes for each gender. It’s much easier to fit a rider to a compact frame with a little tweak here and a stem change there.
For example, my Trek 5200 is a 58 cm frame – exactly as it should be for my 6’0″ height and my long legs. The Venge, on the other hand, is a 56 – a size smaller, with a longer stem (110 mm opposed to a 90 mm on the Trek) was all I needed to get the bike to fit right… and the owner of the shop who sold me both bikes (and who built a custom frame for a world record holder) checked my work. With the bona fides out of the way, I love the Trek. It’s a fantastic, comfortable, fast bike. It doesn’t hold a candle to the comfort of the compact Specialized Venge.
In conclusion, however, I would never claim that one is more comfortable or better than the other – comfort is entirely a personal choice. For every person I know who loves the compact geometry, I know another who swears by the traditional frame. In the end, you’ll have to make the decision for yourself. Or accept this simple equation: f x t = c Frame x Time equals Comfort. Spend enough time on either frame and only the most notoriously picky will be able to tell the difference.
Guess what that makes me.
I’ve got about 39,000 miles on the Trek 5200 and a little more than 18,000 on the Specialized, so I know what I’m “feeling”. The only trick, when trying to figure out whether you’re a traditional or compact frame person is getting time on each so you can make that significant decision.
The one enormous difference between the two styles that I can offer a decent contribution as to said “feel” is that if you’re a compact frame person, when you ride your first compact frame it’ll feel like your hips have been opened up, even though the setup is almost identical to your standard frame. Everyone I know who is a convert from a standard to a compact frame describes something similar.
Ride hard, my friends.
For those of us who have contracted the cycling virus, almost across the board, we entered into the sport thinking $1,000 to $3,000 our first road bike was a helluva lot of money to throw at a bicycle. Then reality punched us in the face.
Sadly, we usually find out, pretty quickly, that $3,000 is a good start, but that was about it. Worse, we learned that $1,000 for a road bike was a drop in a bucket.
There are some things you can go without and some things you can’t if you really want a lightweight steed out of the deal. Now, I went the long way around getting my bikes to a point where I can be satisfied and done with the upgrades and I’m writing this post to help those who have a family to think about before cycling.
First things first, unless you’re riding at the upper echelon of your cycling community, an entry-level bike, as is, right out of the bike shop, will do just fine unless you’re north of your 40’s starting out. Most should be able to, with a little effort, “want to” and some discipline, become fit enough to crack out a 16 to 17-mph average on a decent entry-level bike – even on a hilly course. The trick is when you’re north of 20-mph – that’s when the lightweight and aerodynamic gear make a big difference.
I can keep up with our 23-mph club group on an 18-1/2 pound Trek with a decent set of alloy wheels. It’s a lot of work, but I can do it – and I even stuck in with a group for just shy of 60 miles at a 23.8-mph average pace on the same bike. That speed is a lot more reasonable on my Specialized, though… So, if you want to get to the next level, let’s get into the proper way to go about upgrading that bike to get you some free speed without killing the bank account or causing a divorce.
Okay, so going from newest to oldest in the photos, I started with the $3,000 entry-level race bike, so I was starting with a very light, aerodynamic, stiff, carbon fiber race frame to begin with – most won’t be so fortunate. Still, this won’t matter for the post.
The very first thing to broom is the original wheelset. I don’t care what gearing you have on the bike you bought, I don’t care about the shifters or anything else – entry-level wheels tend to suck. They’re heavy and slow. I tried going with less expensive alloy wheels but now that I’ve got a set of $400 carbon fiber wheels from Ican, if you’re under the weight restrictions, as I am, I’d recommend starting there. I have more money into my lightweight alloy wheels that the Ican’s and the Ican set is noticeably superior in comfort and speed. I’m very impressed with that wheelset for its cost.
With a good wheelset on your steed, it’s time to look at a few important things, and a plan will help avoid blowing your cash on things you don’t need.
Having to do it all over again, I would save the handlebar upgrade for last. I chose the S-Works bar and it was almost as much as my wheelset. The handlebar was only good for a pile of “style watts” and a handful of actual watts and it didn’t save any weight over the alloy bar that came on the bike. It was unnecessary, if entirely awesome.
Moving on, we want to look at the drivetrain because a great crank will save a lot of weight and operate much better. I went with the S-Works crank because it was light, almost three-quarters of a pound lighter than the FSA Gossamer crank that came on the bike, and it fixed a nagging issue (dirt getting into the bottom bracket). The crank is going to be a big cash item, though, so this is why we come up with a plan. If you’ve got a 9 or 8 speed transmission you’ll have to upgrade the drivetrain first (and we were getting to that next anyway) because they don’t make decent cranks for 8 or 9 speeds anymore. You might get lucky on eBay or some other swap site, but don’t hold your breath. If, on the other hand, you have a 10 or 11 speed rig, you should be able to upgrade easily (though 10 speed probably won’t be available much longer). Also, if you don’t know all of the little nuances involved in picking a new crank, it might be a good idea to let a bike shop acquire it for you…. picking a crank with the proper chainrings, right arm length, for the correct bottom bracket can be a little daunting unless you know exactly what you’re doing.
So, if you’ve got Shimano 105 or better on your entry-level bike (I did), don’t worry about upgrading the drivetrain unless you want to. With an 8 or 9 speed rear cassette, getting into an 11 speed would be a good idea and it’ll actually save you some weight over both the 8 and 9 speed transmission. You’ll need new shifters, new derailleurs, a new cassette and enough know-how to put it all together… along with the aforementioned crank. This upgrade is expensive. I’d go with 105 for a budget and Ultegra if you’ve got some cash to spend.
That’s all of the big weight savings items. Depending on your original equipment, you’ll be down about three or four pounds at this point.
Next in importance is the stem. Most people just go with what comes on the bike, but you can save almost a quarter-pound with a decent stem upgrade. I went with a FSA carbon fiber wrapped alloy stem and saved about 100 grams. This upgrade own’t make a difference in performance so it’s not entirely necessary – especially considering a good stem will set you back almost $200.
Lastly, and this could be a big deal depending on how entry-level your bike was when you bought it, I bought a decent set of brakes for my Venge. The 105 brake calipers that came on the bike were fantastic but I dropped a little weight picked up a lot of style points for the upgrade. If you’ve got something like Axis brakes on your bike, the upgrade should save a little bit of weight and your brakes will likely work much better.
Last up, you’ve got the bottle cages. Alloy cages are heavy. Plastic cages are a little better, but decent carbon fiber cages can really add to an already nice bike’s looks. They add nothing in terms of aerodynamics and only drop a handful of grams, so they’re unnecessary unless you’ve got the want to and about $60 to $80 for the pair. Mine are from Blackburn:
In the end, you’re going to want to figure out what you need and what you want… and what you can live without. The wheels are a must. Decent brakes are wise. The crank and drivetrain are nice if you’ve got some money to spend, and the brakes and stem are more in the luxury category.
Whatever you do, push those pedals hard and ride that ride with a smile.
Forgive the pun. I couldn’t resist.
For approximately 2,556 days as an exceptional cyclist, give or take, I was under the impression that the frame was the most important part of the bike to be carbon fiber… well, fork too, but you get my point.
Having ridden a smashingly cool, old-school 1991 Cannondale SR-400, I can honestly tell you, friends, compared to a carbon fiber rig… wait, there is no comparison. Seriously. Riding an alloy bike on anything but perfect roads is a bit on the sucky side. Still, it beats walking. And mountain bikes (just in speed, ladies and gentlemen, just in speed). Chuckle.
Having gone from that Cannondale to a full carbon Trek 5200, it’s the difference between riding…. um… something really uncomfortable, and hopping onto a limo:
Not a super-stretch, of course, a really fast limo, like a Dodge Challenger limo (yes, they actually do exist). The point is, the Trek was outrageously more comfortable than the Cannondale, especially on our chip seal roads. To put the difference in perspective, I went from 17-mph up a particular hill, to 18-19-mph. Simply put, for those not in the know, the additional comfort of the carbon fiber bike translates directly into speed. Even though the aluminum bike is vastly stiffer and transfers power from the pedals to the rear wheel better, the vast comfort improvement of carbon fiber makes the ride faster (modern alloy frames are a notable improvement over old-school.
However, my experience over those 2,556 days (give or take) was limited because I had two sets of alloy wheels (a heavy set for rain and train on the Trek and a light set for big rides on my Venge).
Then I bought a set of carbon fiber wheels for the Venge. Before the new wheels, the Trek was more comfortable than the Specialized by a slight but noticeable margin. After, it was a whole new ballgame. The Venge is on par with the Trek, and maybe even a little superior. The geometry of the Venge is vastly superior to that of the Trek (modern compact frame compared to old-school standard) so the comfort of the Venge was, and still is, superior in the geometry of the bike. The Trek always excelled in smoothness of ride… sadly, only us super-geeks know the difference. There is a difference, though.
Then there’s the aerodynamic benefits of a carbon fiber wheel. I chose 38mm wheels because we deal with some crosswind here in Michigan. I wanted a wheel I wouldn’t be nervous about in the wind. I could have gone with 50’s but chose the 38’s instead. The difference between that and a 25mm aero alloy wheel is surprising. Without gushing too much, the aero wheels are easier to keep up to speed. It’s like a few extra free watts. Free watts are good.
Finally, there’s the weight advantage. My carbon fiber wheels are a little more than 100 grams lighter than the shallower alloy wheels. That’s a quarter-pound lighter than a spectacular set of alloy wheels, with the aero gains. Enough said.
Having ridden approximately 52,914 miles on alloy wheels and a little more than a thousand on carbon fiber, I can tell you without doubt, the carbon fiber wheels bring a surprising level of comfort and speed* to a ride. Up until this past September, my fastest rides were all on the Trek. With the carbon wheels I’ve managed to put in two rides that were much faster than the old “bests” and I finished feeling much better than I had during the slower rides on the alloy wheels. The faster rides on the carbon wheels took less out of me, in other words.
In a sentence, they’re worth it if you’re going to be riding fast enough to get the benefit.
* The speed part of this is a little tricky. There isn’t much of a benefit below 20-mph – at least I can’t feel it – between the alloy wheels and carbon fiber. It’s when you start topping 20 and 25-mph that you begin to notice the improvement.