Who cares about performance in bicycles?

The answer is “everyone should!” I was talking to a gentleman recently about why a bicycle was worth $1000. My natural response was that it is all about technology and engineering that when applied correctly, translates to performance. What does that mean? Most of us are just recreational riders and aren’t trying to win any races. You don’t have to race to appreciate high performance. A low performance bicycle puts the limits on the equipment rather than allowing the rider’s skill and fitness to be the limit.

No offense, but isn’t a BMW much more fun to drive than a Buick?

Anyone can make (or put their brand’s stickers on) a generic frame, throw on some parts, and sell it. There are literally dozens of these kinds of bikes online. They are cheaper, and always on sale (who ever pays the “regular” advertised price on those bikes anyway?). Is it worth it? I’ll let you decide. It is all about performance.

Now a lot of the discussion below is about the frame. Every single piece of every kind of bike has models with basic to extravagant levels of performance. You can pay anywhere from $10 to $1200 for just a handlebar! Many of the same principles apply to components, but because the frame is the core of the bike, so I’ll mostly talk about that.

So let’s look at road bikes first. What is desirable in a road bike? Here’s a list, not in any particular order. These are all connected in some way.

  • Lightweight – light bikes are easier to get up to speed and maneuver, and it takes less energy to keep it at speed. Number one bragging rights too, “my bike is lighter than yours!” It is true that losing 5 pounds off your body is easier than losing 5 pounds of the bike, but a light bike flies much faster no matter your weight. Also, I have never seen evidence that a heavier bike will give you a better workout.
  • Efficiency – does the power you push into the pedals propel you forward or does the frame and/or components flex in a number of places robbing your power and wasting your energy? Efficiency = speed.
  • Comfortable ride – absorbing the vibration and bumps from road/trail conditi0ns to keep your body from getting fatigued. 100 miles is hard enough to ride, and if your body is sore from the bike (and not from the exercise), that ride will be more difficult than it needs to be. The fit and geometry come in to play here too. With low-end technology, comfort comes at the expense of efficiency. High technology brings comfort AND efficiency, no compromises.
  • Durability – long life without worrying about your bike breaking. Crash durability, in-and-out-of-the-car durability, pothole resistance, etc. A warranty is only as good as the product, and doesn’t cover rider defect, no matter who the warranty is from. Does your frame have a rider weight restriction on it? I hope not!
  • Excellent handling – steering precision is important at high and low speed, under acceleration, cruising, or braking. Bad handling will keep you from pushing your handling skills and athletic ability because of the fear of losing control at speed.
  • Affordable – the price determines if it is a good or bad value. It seems natural that a $15,000 bike would have rank high in every category, but that is way out of budget for most of us. The most expensive isn’t necessarily always the best either.

Any one of those qualities is easy to accomplish on its own. A lightweight bike isn’t that difficult to create, but often durability and handling is sacrificed. Comfort is easy to design, but efficiency and weight usually suffer with it. Durability on its own generally ends up as a boat anchor with a dead feel. The real trick is to get ALL of those positive qualities into one bike. With so many types of bikes, a bicycle engineer looks at the end user and intended use determines the correct mix of these qualities.

Here are a few examples:

  • Cannondale’s new CAAD8-S series has a focus on price. A Cannondale road bike at just $820 is impressive, but why does that stand out from any other $800 bike? The engineering in the frame and choice of components make it a great value, but the performance you get from it at this price is unmatched.
  • The ever-popular Cannondale Synapse series of road bikes has a focus on long and short distance comfort, but efficiency and speed are not lost. It is said that Cannondale makes the most efficient comfortable bikes, and the most comfortable efficient bikes.
  • 2009 Tour de France King of the Mountain winner was riding the new 2010 Cannondale Super Six. The focus on the Super Six is speed, efficiency, and stable handling. This is accomplished through advanced carbon fiber technology but does not neglect ride comfort and aerodynamics.

Why does engineering matter?

Like any product, the design determines the performance. On a frame, many variables determine the feel and performance qualities. The shaping of the individual tubes on a frame makes a dramatic difference in how each piece performs. An ovalized tube will be stiffer on one axis than on another. A round tube will handle loads and torque different than a shaped tube. Cannondale generally uses large diameter, thin walled tubing on their frames. Other frames may use smaller diameter, thicker tubes. You’ll see complex tube shapes on different frames with specific goals. For example, the Synapse frame has chain stays that flatten horizontally in the middle allowing for vertical flex which provides ride comfort, but is stiff horizontally for efficiency. Aluminum is limited in how much it can be manipulated.

Carbon fiber is much easier to manipulate and make complex shapes and allows the designer to increase or decrease the thickness of the walls on a tube. This is why carbon fiber is currently the most desirable material to work with in most bicycle applications. One of the most exciting possibilities with carbon fiber is the ability for an engineer to determine how to connect one tube to another. Generally, aluminum only lets you weld a tube to another tube. An engineer can make two or three tubes and their connections out of one piece of carbon fiber, or choose how to connect multiple pieces together. For example, the 2010 Super Six front triangle is made of one piece, and the back end is attached to it. On the 2009 Super Six, the bottom bracket area and chainstays were all one piece. They were able to make that area stiffer on the 2010 model out of two pieces than one! That defies traditional thought!

What is performance?

You’ve got to watch that video above! It’s all about performance! Climbing efficiency? Control and stability when coming downhill? Aerodynamic advantage? Instant acceleration? Confident handling in bad conditions? Road buzz absorption? Consistent braking? Yes and more.

Where does performance come from?

The frame is the core and foundation and most important part of any bike. Anyone that says otherwise either doesn’t know what they are talking about or they are trying to sell you something inferior. Sure, components like brakes and wheels have a tremendous impact on how a bike will perform, but the frame is the primary difference between all of the brands available on the market. Anyone that knows me knows that I LOVE my Zipp carbon wheels. The wheels are stiffer and more responsive than most wheels on the market, and allow the frame to perform how it was designed.

All bikes use some level of components, some brand of wheels, and some handlebar and some other parts to come up with a complete bike. Although different in intended use, the 2010 Cannondale Six Carbon 5 and Synapse Carbon 5 have identical parts kits and prices, the frame is the only difference. That is the difference! Why would they bother making two separate models if they were “about the same?”

The right bike for you depends on intended use

When someone comes in to Infinite Cycles, we ask them what kind of bike they are looking for or what are they looking for in a bike. This helps us determine which bike is right for them. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, we ask what you want to do with it, and what your goals are. Then we match your priorities (from the list above) to a type of bike, then match your budget to a couple of particular models in a series.

Does it matter?

Someone recently asked me if Lance Armstrong hopped on his bike then a different bike with all the same parts, would there be a difference? I’d submit that while his time in a race might be very close because ultimately the rider is what makes the speed, but I am certain that he would have some different feedback after finishing. Performance is more than just speed, although from a bystander’s perspective in racing it seems like speed is all that matters.

Cannondale’s race-winning Slice time-trial/triathlon bike is extremely efficient, and very comfortable. Imagine in an Ironman race after swimming forever, then riding a bike 100 miles, then having to jump off and run a marathon. The SAVE vibration damping technology in the frame leaves the rider feeling fresher, so he/she can run without having lost so much energy from getting beat up on the bike.

As most bikes in the same category and spec from different manufacturers, shouldn’t you want the best bike for the same money? When looking at different bikes and comparing them side by side, make sure you buy the best bike for the money.

A simple analogy to why you want high performance in a bike is like laundry washing machines (or any appliance, or vehicle). Basic ones will usually get the job done, but a high performance washing machine will wash your clothes faster and cleaner, require less maintenance, and be more power efficient and quieter. Same with any type of product out there, but the end result with bikes is fun. It’s all about performance.

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