By Kevin Kolodziejski
There’s no shame in admitting it. If one day you ascend that local legendary climb in personal-record time, you’ll be as euphoric as when you were four and found that most wished-for gift under the tree on Christmas morn.
When I was four, I wished for and got Blaze, a huge, hard-plastic rocking horse (nearly the size of the one in front of Food Lane!). He whinnied and said, “I’m Blaze, the Wonder Horse” when you pulled his cord. Years later, I learned my parents had skimped and saved for months to afford him.
I also learned my dad nearly took his belt to my behind because of what I did before Christmas dinner. While rocking my body to match Blaze’s motion, I got out of sync when I reached for his cord. I whacked my forehead against his neck so hard that it swelled immediately and turned black and blue eventually. To show Blaze who’s boss, I found a pair of scissors and made him, in politically correct terms, severely speech-impaired. I also refused to ride him again. My parents wound up giving him away.
My parents didn’t get their money’s worth, and I’m still a bit guilt-ridden because of that today. I’ll atone for my preschool miscue with this buyer-beware alert. If you skimp and save to buy a lighter bike or lighter components to ascend that local legendary climb in personal-record time, what happened to my parents will happen to you. Even if your son never bangs his head on your bicycle.
That’s because a savings of a few grams makes you no faster. Even a savings of 1,362 of them makes you only negligibly so. Consider this hypothetical story inspired by information found in FASTER: Demystifying the Science of Triathlon Speed (Velo Press, 2013) by Jim Gourely and featuring your imaginary wife from Hell.
You give into temptation, buy that 15-pound, five-figure bike you’ve been longing for. When you tell your less-than-better half, she tells you to start working overtime — and sleeping on the living room sofa. You wake the next morning with an ache in your back, a crick in your neck, and a plan in your head. You ride your old 18-pound bike up a one-mile climb that’s pitched at seven percent while holding a constant 200 watts. You then do the same with your new purchase. The idea here is to tell your PO’d partner how much faster the new bike is as a way to justify the expense.
Except you can’t. Justify the expense, that is.
The 15-pounder is merely 7.5 seconds faster. You keep that to yourself because sleeping on the sofa is far better than beside Bruiser in the doghouse.
Save Hundreds of Grams, Spend Thousands of Dollars
Gourely cites the approximate weight difference between an entry-level aluminum bike and a “top-of-the-line” carbon fiber one as “just shy of 3.25 pounds.” The disparity using Trek bikes, though, is even greater. According to Trek’s website, the carbon fiber Émonda SLR 9 Disc eTap weighs 6.74 kilograms (14.85 pounds). The aluminum Émonda ALR 5 Disc is 9.04 kg (19.92 lb). Purchasing the former instead of the latter saves 2.3 kg ( 5.07 lb), but costs $10,400 more.
The cost of this weight-saving upgrade is $4.52 per gram ($128.21 per oz).
But what if you decide not to buy a new bike, but strip off the original Shimano 105-R7000 parts on the entry-level ride you bought three years ago and replace them with a Dura-Ace-9100 full group set? The new shift/brake levers, rear derailleur, front derailleur, 11-speed cassette, 11-speed chain, brake calipers, and bottom bracket from Colorado Cyclist.com cost $1955.88 and weigh a combined 2023 grams. According to a Cycling Weekly article, your old components cost $765.771 and weigh 2180 grams, so you save 157 g (5.54 oz).
But this swap costs you $7.58 per g ($214.43 per oz).
Tell your Princess of Darkness about that purchase, and she gets out the rolling pin — but not to flatten pastry dough. Focus on making single-piece upgrades, and she brings out her best China plates —but not for fine dining.
A pair of run-of-the-mill bottle cages at Competitive Cyclist, the Lezyne Flow SL (in white and on sale), weighs 96 g and costs $18.98. The super-light option there, two Zipp VUKA BTA Carbon Bottle Cages, only weighs 56 g, but costs $150. The weight savings here comes with a $3.28 per g ($92.92 per oz) price tag. Though most cyclists are more concerned with comfort in a bike saddle, most companies manufacture a few they claim to be both comfortable and super-light. You can get the Selle Italia SLR Kit Carbonio Boost Saddle that weighs 122 g, for instance, at Competitive Cyclist for $449.99. An entry-level and relatively light-weight saddle also offered there, the WTB SL8 Cromoly Saddle, goes for $79.95 and weighs 266 g. The price of saving weight by swapping these saddles is $2.57 per g ($72.84 per oz).
|Standard Item||Lighter Item||Savings of Weight and its Cost|
|Emonda ALR 5 Disc 9.04 kg / 19.92 lb $2,099.99||Émonda SLR 9 Disc eTap 6.74 kg / 14.85 lb $12,499.99||2.3 kg / 5.07 lb $4.52 per g / $128.21 per oz|
|Shimano 105-R7000 groupset 2180 g / 4.81 lb $765.77||Dura-Ace-9100 groupset 2033 g / 4.46 lb $1955.88||157 g / 5.54 oz $7.58 per g / $214.43 per oz|
|2 Lezyne Flow SL bottle cages 96 g / 3.39 oz $18.98||2 Zipp Vuka BTA bottle cages 56 g / 1.98 oz $150.00||40 g / 1.41 oz $3.28 per g / $92.92 per oz|
|WTB SL8 Cromoly saddle 266 g / 9.38 oz $79.95||Selle Italia SLR Kit Carbonio Boost saddle 122 g / 4.30 oz $449.99||144 g / 5.08 oz $2.57 per g / $72.84 per oz|
|Fulcrum Racing 6 Wheelset 1690 g / 3.72 lb $261.44||Easton EA 90 SL Wheelset 1490 grams / 3.28 lb $854.99||200 g / 7.06 oz $2.97 per g / $86.28 per oz|
|Fulcrum Racing 6 Wheelset 1690 g / 3.72 lb $261.44||Zipp 303 Firecrest Tubeless Wheelset 1530 g / 3.37 lb $2,200||160 g / 5.65 oz $12.11 per g / 356.35 per oz|
Weights and prices are current as of April 8, 2021 at the websites referenced in the article.
Weight-Saving Wheels Are Worth It
While purchasing lighter wheels would certainly incite your Satanic spouse, it’s Bruce Lin’s belief that this upgrade justifies the expense. In fact, in “Does Bike Weight Really Matter?”, the Tech writer for The Pro’s Closet calls buying lighter wheels “the number one improvement you can make.” Wheels and tires are rotating weight, he explains. “Additional weight increases inertia and wheel inertia matters a lot in cycling because the rider has to overcome it to accelerate. . . Many riders, even novices, can actually feel the difference when riding lighter wheels.”
If you decide to shed weight this way, you may as well go whole hog and pick up wheels that are aerodynamic also, a combination that Lin calls “the ultimate win-win.” The weight savings here, however, produces worse cost-per-weight numbers than any other aforementioned change. Replace the Fulcrum Racing 6 Wheelset often found on entry-level bikes and sold separately at Tweeks Cycles for $261.44 with a Zipp 303 Firecrest Tubeless Wheelset from Bike Tires Direct.com for $2,200, and the savings is 160 g (5.64 oz) at a cost of $12.11 per g ($343.11 per oz). If you go light but not aero and buy an Easton EA 90 SL Wheelset from Colorado Cyclist at $854.99, the cost-per-weight rate compared to the Fulcrum wheelset drops to $2.97 per g ($83.95 per oz).
How to Subtract Bike Weight for Free
Speaking of “going light,” you can save a surprising amount of weight if you limit the liquids your carry on your ride. Take along one 25-ounce bottle instead of two, and you can reduce your bike’s weight by more than 1.5 pounds. That’s what the staff at AeroGeeks.com reported in a 2013 article where they weighed four bottles they had on hand. The heaviest, a 25-ounce insulated Camelback bottle weighed 848 grams (1.87 lb) filled. While it doesn’t makes sense to ride dehydrated, it doesn’t make sense to carry two bottles when one would do, either. And if the early part of your ride has you attacking a series of climbs all-out, you may want to leave both bottles at home and buy a sports drink at a convenience store midway through the ride.
When was the last time you looked through your bike bag? Are you carrying around items that you’ve never once used? Do you really need two CO2 cartridges, two tubes and a heavy mini tool that does everything? If you tend to carry too much stuff, you could easily drop half a pound or more by leaving the excess stuff you don’t really use at home, which costs nothing.
Judicious Dieting: A More Effective (and Cheaper) Way
In the days that follow, there’s no real reason to remember your hypothetical honey (though she may appear in a few nightmares). But there is real benefit in recalling your unsuccessful plan to get back into the bedroom and her good graces. While saving 7.5 seconds per mile on a one-mile climb at 7 percent at a constant 200 watts is a bad deal if it costs five figures, saving double the time without coughing up any cash is a bona fide bargain.
Weight is weight, my friend. While shedding six pounds from your bike to produce that 15-second time savings is borderline impossible and ultra-expensive, losing that amount from your body in many cases is neither — and usually good for your health.
To learn how to effectively do so, check out the next column.
1 Price created by applying the current exchange rate for the British pound and the US dollar to the price listed in the Cycling Weekly article.
Kevin Kolodziejski began his writing career in earnest in 1989. Since then he’s written a weekly health and fitness column and his articles have appeared in magazines such as “MuscleMag,” “Ironman,” “Vegetarian Times,” and “Bicycle Guide.” He has Bachelor and Masters degrees in English from DeSales and Kutztown Universities.
A competitive cyclist for more than 30 years, Kevin won two Pennsylvania State Time Trial championships in his 30’s, the aptly named Pain Mountain Time Trial 4 out of 5 times in his 40s, two more state TT’s in his 50’s, and the season-long Pennsylvania 40+ BAR championship at 43.
Nice read, plus entertaining!
Will share 🙂
Greg Weaver says
I have been told the performance improvement gained from a more expensive bike comes from the stiffness, not the weight. Transferring more energy to the pedals can improve performance. Do thru-axles and integrated seat posts make a difference? I did buy a high end bike and believe it not only climbs fast, but descends and corners better.
Road Bike Rider says
Jan Heine at Rene Herse and Bicycling Quarterly has written about stiff frames, and doesn’t think that frame stiffness is necessarily an advantage.
There is a”wheel” controversy regarding wheel weight. Reducing weight with better wheels isn’t as clear cut as once thought. The wheels also provide rotational momentum, like a flywheel. So don’t think that’s the magic bullet either. Check out some GCN videos on the topic to see the whole story.
George A Ridgley says
I was about to mention the same GCN study. More expensive/lighter wheels probably equate to better axels and bearings, but otherwise I am uncertain that lighter wheels are better once at cruising speed due to the flywheel affect.
I tend to agree with the well written/factual article. I often get asked how best to reduce bike weight or what bike is the best value to buy to reduce weight. I respond by saying that the best way to reduce weight is to reduce body weight (much more efficient $/oz) and that the next best way ($/oz) is to reduce the amount/weight of bike add-ons (water/repair tools) and the third best is to consider different wheels. I have several bikes of different weights and let riders use them/time them over flat and hill rides. After seeing actual time differences, few decide to purchase new bikes vs other options.
Kerry Irons says
Shaving off 450 gm (one pound) will increase your climbing speed by 0.1 mph on a 6% grade for a 150 lb rider putting out 250 watts. On the flats that weight saving will increase your speed by 0.01 mph. Only you can decide whether the cost is worth it. When climbing, rotating weight in the wheels is no different that bike or body weight. Rotating weight is only meaningful when changing speed. Heavier wheels spin up more slowly for a given power output, but that energy is returned when the rider coasts . You don’t slow down as fast.
William Wightman says
The easiest thing to change on the bike for results is the rider. I dropped (and gained back) five pounds by intermittent fasting and was amazed by the ease of acceleration after lights. This has a big effect in group riding. Good luck getting five pounds off a bike. Rider aerodynamics is still king though, especially if you are riding long without many starts and stops and it is mostly flat.
I love this wildly entertaining article and largely agree that from a pure weight perspective focusing on your own health is going to give the biggest benefit. As a counter point though, I’ll say that all bets are off if you ride competitively. A modest four mile climb will yield a 30 second difference which is huge in that scenario since unlike aerodynamics, there’s no way to draft or have a team mate help you. If you get dropped you’re done.
Also, as with anything there’s a sweet spot in most bike manufacturer’s line up – typically around $2-4K where you get a reasonably light carbon frame with Ultegra parts. Still a lot more money, but less than a used car and usually the ride quality, aerodynamics and other attributes are also quite nice and lend themselves to a better experience if you’re spending hours in the saddle.
Keep up the good work – nothing like a good article on weight, aerodynamics or calipers vs discs to get the blood going!
Fred R says
Personally I think the sweet spot is $1,500, to $2,000 with that price range you can get Shimano 105 group, or Shimano Deore and be perfectly fine for 15 years before a component might malfunction. Geez I know of non-professional people who raced with Shimano 105, Ultegra nor Dura Ace saves you that much in weight anyways, plus if you crash replacing any damage 105 is a lot cheaper.
Of course I went beyond that sweat spot back in 2013 because I wanted a smooth riding bike, plus I live in an area where I ride quite a bit in the rain and steel can rust, aluminum can corrode, and I don’t like CF frames, so I spent more and got the lowest costing on closeout sale Lynskey Peloton with all 105 except the rear derailleur is Ultegra, the only reason I did that was due to swapping a new 105 for a new Ultegra was only $36 more so what the heck I went and did it. But that bike ran $2,800, so only $800 above the sweet spot and I got titanium.
Last year, just about 2 weeks before the bike shortage crisis, I got a Masi Giramondo 700c touring/gravel bike, and I stayed just a hair below the sweet spot at $1,400 with Deore, plus all racks for touring were included.
Fred R says
Very nice reading.
If you look at the history of the Tour de France you will discover something amazing, since 1960 to 2013 there has only been a 1 1/2 mph increase over the entire race period average per year. If you thought that was a shocker there is a better shocker I’m about to disclose, the TDF since 1960 has been shortened bit by bit to where it is now 500 miles shorter with the same number of racing days, that means the 1 1/2 mph increase is due to less rider fatigue not fancy modern bikes.
Fritz Mueller says
One of the items addressed humorously here is wheels, getting lightweight aerodynamic wheels. Remember, that double digit reduction in drag is only for the aerodynamic drag of the wheels, and that figure is only for the optimum yaw angle and wind velocity at the optimum speed-which is about 40kph, or 25 mph. The benefit at 28 kph, or a little over 17 mph is about .1mph. Unless you’re an elite racer, ultra light and aero equipment doesn’t give much benefit in real speed, and certainly not in KPH/$$$!
Great article. I recently purchased a lightweight carbon bike with Zipp 303 wheelset after riding a high end steel frame bike with aluminum alloy wheels. about a 4 lb difference. The uphill effect is negligible, I suck on hills anyway, however the downhill effect is exhilaratingly faster. i attribute this to the wheels being lighter and stiffer.. I think if you want to get faster going up hill its mostly up to you not the bike
Richard Zimmer says
It helps to define the question. The question is not whether weight is important. It is. The less weight you are moving around the less work you have to do which means you can go farther and faster. Rather the question is how important is the difference in the weight of the bicycle?
I have said for years that bicycle weight is overrated. My analysis is pretty simple. Lets compare a 15 pound bike, absurdly light, with a 20 pound bike, absurdly heavy. That is a 33% increase in weight. But lets compare these two bikes when we wheel them out for a ride.
Now we have put on 2 water bottles. Two full 24 ounce water bottles are 48 fluid ounces and, since a fluid ounce of water weighs just over an ounce, you have just over 3 pounds right there. Add a seat bag, or any other type of bag, along with a reasonable assortment of emergency road equipment including at least tire levers, an inner tube, and a multi purpose tool and you add about another pound. Now lets add the rider fully equipped for a ride. Lets make that a relatively light person at 155 pounds. All together we have added 159 pounds and I am not even taking in smaller accessories like a computer and mobile phone.
So we are now comparing a 174 pound package with a 179 pound package. The “riding package” with the heavier bike is actually just under 3% heavier. And if you really think that makes a difference, I agree with the author—lose 5 pounds. Most of us are recreational riders, not racers, and even if we see ourselves as serious recreational riders, most of us can and should lose 5 pounds. Now for my 2 cents on wheels, where I again claim reduction in weight is overrated.
Yes, wheels are rotating weight and it does take more effort to overcome inertia if you are spinning a greater mass. You can’t argue with physics. So, from a dead start, or any acceleration when in motion, more massive wheels, it is argued, mean more effort. And it is argued that this is always the case when climbing since you are continually slowing up and accelerating on a climb. What this argument overlooks is that the extra inertia smooths out these small variations in speed just as a flywheel does in a car engine. The result is that you will get a significant benefit from light wheels only when staring from a dead stop or when undergoing hard acceleration like at the start of a spring. If this is worth it to you, and I can understand why it may be, spend the money.
I’m 6ft 5in and 170 lbs. my bikes are obviously taller and slightly heavier. Most are around 16 lbs. but I do carry a frame pump and a seat bag with co2 tubes levers small tool . So they are 18-19 lbs plus water to ride. A friend carries no seat bag and puts things tubes etc. in his Jersey. Does it really make any difference in how the bike feels where the extra weight is carried? I suspect not for group riding even when it gets spirited.