Question: I have a spare older road bike that’s steel with 36 spoke wheels, and it’s pretty heavy. Would it help me become a better climber by training on this bike on climbs instead of my significantly lighter carbon bike?
Coach Fred Matheny Replies: I get asked this frequently. Unfortunately, using a heavy bike to climb probably won’t make you a better climber, even though it makes your light bike feel faster.
Here’s why: You must generate a certain number of watts at a given heart rate to climb a hill (and to get a certain training effect from that effort). It doesn’t matter if you go up the hill slowly on a heavy bike or faster on a light bike. The training effect is the same.
For example, let’s say you can climb a one-mile hill on your heavy bike at an average of 300 watts, a cadence of 80 rpm and a heart rate of 160 bpm. On your light bike, if you average the same watts, cadence and heart rate, you’ll ascend the hill faster but the physiological effects are identical.
There’s one exception: The hill won’t take as long to climb on the light bike, so the work interval is shorter. This can be offset by sprinting over the top for as long as it takes to even out the time.
Some riders argue that although all that may be true from a cardiovascular standpoint, climbing on a heavier bike builds muscular strength just like lifting heavier weights.
Maybe. But I’ve never seen a study that proves it. Here’s my theory:
Let’s assume that a hill takes 3 minutes to climb on a heavy bike and 2:30 on a light one. Because you’re interested in strength development, you pedal at a slow 60 rpm in both cases.
So, on the heavy bike you do 180 reps on the ascent. On the light one, you do 150 reps because it allows you to climb faster.
That’s a lot different from doing sets of, say, 15 arm curls with a 30-pound dumbbell, then switching to a 40-pound dumbbell and doing sets of 5 reps to build strength.
Regardless of whether you’re turning the crank 150 or 180 times, you’re primarily building endurance with high reps, at least in comparison to low-rep weight lifting. So the analogy doesn’t work.
I suppose that if you rode a bike that weighs 100 pounds uphill at 30 rpm, you might experience strength development.
You might also experience your kneecaps shooting out the front of your tights like watermelon seeds squeezed between your fingers.
Bottom line: If you want to improve leg strength, do squats or leg presses. Then convert that weight-room strength to cycling-specific power with intervals, climbing and training time trials.
After saying all that, I admit that I train in winter on a heavy bike. The main reason is practical. My beater with fenders and wide tires is better for slushy and gritty roads. But I do like how my good bike feels light and sprightly after riding the heavy one for several months.
The benefit seems psychological rather than physiological, but that’s not bad.
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Your analogy is incorrect – riding a heaver bike on the same hill is like doing 15 arm curls with a 30 lbs weight OR a 40 lbs weight. This means doing the 15 arm curls with a 30 lbs weight vs 15 arm curls with a 40 lbs weight. The bike on the other hand is the weight. The hill equals the amount of arm curls. Riding a heaver bike on the same hill with the same distance is harder – it’s like riding up a longer hill with the lighter bike.
I notice how riding my daily commuter as hard as I can improved not only my top speed on my light bike, but my endurance as well. I had ride my light bike much longer before I fatigue.
Kerry Irons says
Whether the analogy is correct is not the point. Your workout is how much power you put out for how long. You can do that on a heavy bike or a light bike. You can do it by dragging a cinder block on a rope behind you. Greg Lemond said “it doesn’t get any easier, you just go faster.” In other words, you work just as hard and go faster or slower depending on the equipment you choose.
larry english says
you can ride any bike at equal effort.
the lighter one will be faster so the ride will be a bit shorter.
so the same route will not be as much of a total workout.
one thing to watch is to be sure your ‘heavy bike’ has gears that are low enough.
(guessing it may be cheap, and may not have low gears.
on the other hand, expensive light road bikes frequently do not either, unless you change them.
just don’t kill your knees, either way. )
I don’t know why but coach Matheny is correct, I’ve read many articles over the years about this effect from all sorts of pro coaches and trainers, and they all say the same thing; even though I read all this stuff it still seems odd to me! LOL!
In my experience it seems when I ride my 30 pound bike to work during the week I do “feel” stronger when I ride my 17 pound bike for the weekend vs riding the lighter bike all week. Maybe it’s just a perceived feeling? I don’t know, but that’s how it feels to me, but I guess I have to go with the science and not the feeling.
Here’s a few sites discussing this strange phenomenon: https://www.velonews.com/2014/08/news/bike-weight-myth-fast-bikes_339880
John Schubert says
“Heavy” and “light” weren’t quantified. A modern racing bike is about 17 pounds. An old-school steel racing bike, about 21-22 pounds. An old-school touring bike, 25-28 pounds. That’s a pretty small percentage change in the total bike-and-rider weight (which will be 180 pounds or more).
So I think the weight question is counting angels on the head of a pin. Training technique is everything. The placebo effect of a bike change may be a real enhancement to training technique.
In my Bicycling Magazine days, I used to time my morning commute to work, which had 680 feet of climbing and 1030 feet of descending. I rode that commute on many fine racing bikes, but my fastest time ever was on a Cannondale touring bike with racks and fenders. I attribute that to the fact that I was having a good day, combined with the fact that the bike wasn’t heavy enough to slow me down much.
I used to ride a LeMond racing bike with a steel frame (21,5 pounds) and have always kept a journal on each ride with data that included date, which route was ridden along with on-saddle time and average speed for each route. I still have that bike. When purchasing a 17-pound Cervelo seven years ago I assumed my times and average speeds would improve a bit most of my usual routes, especially those in mountains with plenty of climbing. Didn’t happen. Today I mostly ride the lighter bike because it just “feels” better but occasionally ride the heavier bike for old-time sake. I average 5000-6000 miles per year and no difference in ride time and average speed between the two