It’s Really Not About The Bike

Cycles and their associated equipment have dramatically changed in recent years, gone are the steel frames, drop handlebars and shallow rimmed multi spoked wheels, replaced by acres of expensive, aerodynamic carbon.  These bikes look fast just standing still and have eye watering price tags attached to them.  The manufacturers literature and magazine reviews tell us just how stiff and aerodynamic they are, describing the massive improvements on last year’s model.  With all this innovation the bikes must almost ride themselves.

In reality it is not so simple, a quick look at the Hawaii Ironman World Championship bike split times show in 1986, 30 years ago, the winner Dave Scott covered the 112 mile course on his steel framed road bike in 4hr 48m, yet in 2015 the fastest bike splits on state of the art carbon bikes were around 4hr 30m.  Dave_Scott_86(1)Therefore thirty years of innovation and advanced engineering has taken less than 20 minutes (6%) off the race time, that is if we assume there have been no improvements in training methods and nutrition to increase the rider’s power.  There have of course been such improvements so the contribution of bike development is most likely even smaller than 6% in 30 years.  2015(1)

Don’t get me wrong, you need a bike to race triathlon or compete with your cycle club and if you need a bike it makes sense to get the fastest one you can.  However this data shows the difference in speed between a 30 year old good quality road bike and £9000 of high tech carbon TT bike is not as great as the manufacturers make out.  I know many athletes and potential athletes who think they cannot compete without the top equipment but this is certainly not the case.

I would not seek to deter someone buying the latest £9000 bike if that is how they wanted to spend their hard earned money and I would certainly admire its style and engineering, but only in the same way as I would admire a Lamborghini who’s owner only ever uses it to cruise around on the road.

The majority of this surprisingly small bike speed improvement has come from an improved understanding of the importance of body position on the bike, striking the balance between power, aerodynamics and particularly for triathletes the ability to run off the bike.  Bike fit is the key component, get a bike which fits you, is reliable, and allows you to achieve an aerodynamic position and you will be able to go fast.

So if the latest carbon fibre ‘wonder bike’ is not the only answer, what is the most cost effective way to go fast?  Assuming you do not already own a suitable bike, it’s amazing how a thorough service, a competent bike fitting, a set of aero bars and maybe a set of good wheels will transform your current ride, then see what is available at a reasonable cost.  Many top end manufacturers make a less expensive version of their top race bikes, they may be a little heavier, have a lesser component set and maybe just training spec wheels but they share the riding position and aerodynamic properties of their more expensive stable mates.  Buy the previous year colour scheme and they are even less expensive.  Suddenly you are looking at a price tag of around £1200 – £1500 for a bike which with some good wheels will have very little difference in performance to the top of the range machines.

Remember in your club and locally there will be riders who can chase the tiny improvements by changing their bikes each season, they will be seeking to sell off their old bikes and equipment.  As a rule of thumb a bike is worth about 50% its original price after a year of use, oddly it does not depreciate rapidly after that if it’s kept in good condition.  If you can find a quality used race bike which fits you, this can be a very cost effective way of getting a good bike for reasonable money and in the knowledge it will maintain the majority of its value if you look after it.  It is always best to know the history of a bike, Ebay is an attractive option but you should be wary of buying a bike unseen, there may be good reason why the owner is seeking to sell the bike online.  Good bikes are usually snapped up by friends and club mates, what’s left then finds its way to the Internet. Take a good look at the bike before parting with your money, if you don’t know what you are looking at take someone who does.  A worn chain and cassette is easily fixed, a damaged carbon frame is not.

Racing Triathlon or other cycle sport is not really about the bike, once you have a suitable reliable bike the biggest performance gains will come for good quality structured training, spend your money on a coach, a good bike fit and maybe a spring training camp, you will get a much greater return on your investment than chasing the latest high tech carbon fibre offering from the bike manufacturers.

If you are sitting thinking I cannot be competitive in club triathlon or cycle sport because of the cost of the equipment, think again, get out there and give it a try, you may be surprised.

Mark Harman