Make Me Ride Faster

One of my favorite cycling publications is Bicycle Quarterly. Now in its eighth year, it began life as Vintage Bicycle Quarterly, but has evolved to cover modern bicycles as well as vintage bikes. It was created by Jan Heine, a German emigrant, avid randonneur and former road racer. He brings his education in mathematics and geology to the party and mixes in a wonderful devotion to bicycles.

The most recent issue (Vol. 8, No. 4) focusses quite a bit on modern bikes. Jan’s never afraid to take on a question whose answer, on the surface, seems obvious. For instance, “are modern bikes faster?” Sure, given all the technological improvements in cycling, of course we’re all riding faster as a result. Isn’t that why we all aspire to the latest and greatest technology?

Jan wasn’t convinced one way or the other, so he looked at long-term speeds of Tour de France cyclists from 1910 to the present and compared these to the speeds of distance runners, whose speed is a reflection purely of human performance, not changes in technology. His hypothesis was that if the average speed over time of the runners kept up with the trend for cyclists, then improvements in human performance were responsible for increased speeds, not technological changes.

And sure enough, he found that 88% (a correlation of 0.94) of the faster speed of Tour de France cyclists over time was explained by improvements in human performance — training, nutrition, etc. The other 12%? Well, it included increases in speed as well as decreases.

Here’s an excerpt from his conclusions: “Increases in racing speeds show no systematic correlation with the introduction of new technology.” But wait, Jan, bikes are a lot lighter now than they were then. Surely that’s a big deal? Uh, no. Jan’s data reveal that weight “is too small to be discerned among other factors that caused speed to increase.” Even changes in components haven’t been enough to move the needle significantly.

This kind of analysis also finds its way into bike tests. Jan and other testers ride with open eyes (figuratively speaking, that is). As cyclists with experience in road racing, randonneuring and club riding, they tend to speak to a broader audience than most do most reviewers. Such was the case in this same issue with a review of the Trek Madone 5.2. This bike is designed for road racing, allowing the rider to “Climb faster, ride further and stay up front” according to Trek’s website. Jan’s take on the bike was that it performed best under a very strong rider capable of exerting a lot of power. Lance Armstrong, anyone? When testing the Trek’s aerodynamics, Jan felt the advantages were easily negated by changes in the rider’s position on the bike. Comparing the Madone to other road bikes, he concluded that it “does not offer improved performance uphill, nor superior aerodynamics.”

So, while the goal of riding faster is something that appeals to every cyclist, keep in mind your own abilities and how you intend to use your bike. All that glitters is not necessarily gold. But then again, that “wow” factor is really appealing!


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