5 BELIEFS ABOUT CHOOSING CYCLING GEAR I’VE DROPPED
I’ve been evaluating and writing about bike gear for a few years now from my perspective as a road cycling enthusiast.
While I started with a ‘peloton’ of established beliefs shaped largely by the media and supplier ‘bosses’ of the cycling industry, I’ve begun to drop some of them in favor of several ‘breakaway’ views from fresh experience and critical analysis of today’s gear.
I may be wrong or premature about some of these views about choosing cycling gear, but for your consideration I wanted to share 5 of the conventional beliefs that I think have been or will soon be spit out the back and what is taking their place in the bunch.
I’d love to know what you think of these and what beliefs you’ve long held that are changing from your own enthusiast’s experience with new gear. Let me know in the comment section at the end of this post.
To get it started, here are 5 beliefs about choosing cycling gear I used to hold and how they have or are changing.
1. WEIGHT IS ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT THINGS WHEN CHOOSING CYCLING GEAR
This is a mainstream belief that you see perpetuated in nearly every product write-up, on every gear package, and in almost every discussion with a salesperson. Weight is one of the clearest, most tangible, most marketed differences between bikes, wheelsets, components, helmets, tires, even some kits. And as enthusiasts, we lap it up.
Yet, I’ve come to understand that unless you are a very fit and lean amateur or pro racer or plan to do mostly alpine ascents, gear weight is one of the least important buying criteria.
The truth is that light weight components almost never matter and certainly don’t matter relative to your body weight, the weight of extra stuff you carry on your bike, your level of mental and physical fitness, your strength to weight, your training program, what you eat, the amount of sleep you get, your cycling technique, your position on the bike, and many, many other factors. I’ve detailed what matters most if you want to ride faster in posts here and here.
Let’s stay with weight for a moment, though and point out the fallacy of putting too much focus on gear weight. Consider that a 150-160lb (68-73kg) enthusiast putting out 200-250 watts on a climb with an average 7% grade will save 2-3 seconds for each pound they shed. So if you buy a wheel that is 300 grams less than what you ride now or can choose between when you buy something new, which is a big weight difference, you’ll save about 2 seconds per mile on that climb. It will likely cost you $1000/£700/€1000/AU$1100 or more for that lighter wheelset, whether you are going from 1800-2000g stock wheels to a 1500-1600g all-around set or by choosing ultra-light 1200-1300g climbing wheels instead of the all-arounders.
A 4lb/1.8kg lighter bike, like some of the new ones that are on the lightweight bike bleeding edge, will save you 8-12 seconds/mile or 5-7.5 seconds/kg. It will cost you thousands of $, £, €, AU$, CA$ or (fill in the currency of your choice) for this lighter weight steed.
Drop 5lbs/2.3kg from your midsection? 10-15 seconds/mile. 10 or 15lbs? You do the math. How about bringing one less water bottle (700g)? Put less stuff in your back pockets or in your saddle bag? Easily as much as you save on a set of lighter wheels. With any of these, you save more time going up than you do with a lighter bike, wheelset or groupset, and it doesn’t cost you a thing.
But body weight isn’t the same as the rotating weight in your wheel rims, you say, so it doesn’t matter as much! Well, rotating weight matters only when you are accelerating. I don’t know about you but I don’t accelerate a whole lot going uphill. Believe me, drop those 5-10 extra pounds or 2-5 extra kilos you’ve been carrying and you’ll feel like you are flying uphill like the mythical winged horse Pegasus.
And most of us don’t ride 7% average grades that often. Sure we might hit a short 5% hill during regular rides, do one or two steeper passes on a century ride or do a bunch of them if we head into the mountains. But I’ll bet that 95% of the time (maybe more) we ride the flats and 2-4% rollers.
In addition to weight affecting your performance up steep pitches, weight also matters when accelerating on flats and rollers. But again, unless you are doing criteriums or road racing where you are frequently attacking or accelerating, you don’t really accelerate hard or fast that often as a road cycling enthusiast. Solo training or group riding with your friends doesn’t demand many if any competitive accelerations.
Aerodynamics actually matters as much or more than weight during acceleration. Indeed on the flats, rollers, downhills and any time you are averaging at least 18 mph or 29 kph, gear weight differences don’t matter at all and better aerodynamics matters all the time. So does the rolling resistance of your tires and your body position and a bunch of other things. But that’s another set of beliefs that I won’t get into here.
Is it worth obsessing over or paying hundreds, maybe a thousand more for a 50 to 100g weight difference between different wheelsets, groupsets or other pieces of gear? I don’t think so. There are so many other, more important considerations in making your gear decisions. I came up with and use a set of selection criteria for wheelsets here and groupsets here that will help you make good decisions instead of using weight as your primary criterion when you are looking to buy a new piece of gear.
2. YOU’LL GET BLOWN AROUND ON DEEPER RIMS IN CROSSWINDS
For a long time, the belief and the reality was that the deeper your wheels, the more unstable you were in the crosswinds. That was one of the things that put a lot of enthusiasts off even considering wheels deeper than your basic shallow, alloy hoops.
With many of the better rim shapes now, mostly the blunt nosed toroid ones, the old belief about crosswinds is being… thrown to the wind. I’ve ridden some 50mm+ deep carbon wheels lately where I feel almost no effects in crosswinds, and I’m a light (150lb/68kg) rider.
Generally speaking, the rounded modern rim shapes in the latest generation of wheels are much better at managing crosswinds than the older V-sections or box section rim designs. Riding the better toroid shaped rim wheels has changed things to the point where if you frequently ride in crosswinds, you should no longer be scared away from getting the aero benefits of deeper wheels.
3. YOU CAN’T BRAKE SAFELY WITH CARBON CLINCHERS GOING DOWNHILL OR IN THE RAIN
We’ve probably been through 3 or 4 generations of carbon clincher designs since they first came to the market. Some of the problems with earlier generation clinchers were highly publicized and became so deeply seared into people’s brains that they may never be erased.
Today, looking afresh at this belief about the inferiority of carbon brake tracks, I’d say… not so much anymore.
I’ve been riding different clincher wheelsets with carbon brake tracks and the best ones and many in the second tier are every bit the equal of alloy braking performance in dry weather on flats and rollers.
Going down steeper hills, unless you are engaging or ‘dragging’ your brakes for very long periods of time, you don’t need to worry about your wheels overheating or warping and causing you a blow-out. I’ve done some serious alpine riding this past year on a newly introduced carbon wheelset from one company, on another from a second company that came out last year, and on a third that came out a couple of years ago. I have had no issues with any of them. I’ve also ridden them up and down my ‘hill repeat’ training course that averages 8% for a mile without incident. I’d regularly touch the brake tracks after arriving at the bottom of each repeat and didn’t feel any overheating and they remained true after these rides. I, on the other hand, was an exhausted, deformed lump on the couch after returning home from the repeats.
In the rain, carbon wheels still don’t brake as well as alloy ones do, but they are getting better here too. If I rode a lot in the rain, as unfortunately some commuters do, I’d stay with alloy wheels. But I try to schedule my rides around the rain, and if I get caught out in the rain, I ride differently than I would on dry roads regardless of whether I’m on wheels with carbon or alloy brake tracks.
A combination of higher temperature resins, improved brake track treatments and better pads has made many wheelsets with carbon brake tracks far superior to their predecessors to the point where I’m plenty confident riding on all-carbon wheels in most any situation.
At the same time, my experience, and I’d expect that of other enthusiasts riding all-carbon wheels, has caused me to change my technique so that I now ride these wheels more safely downhill and in the rain without worrying about damaging the wheels or myself. I don’t brake on carbon wheels the same way I do on alloy brake tracks anymore.
In addition to not dragging the brakes on carbon wheels when I’m riding downhill, I alternate braking the front and back wheels. In the rain, I know to give myself a little more time and to brake a little harder when I first get on them, to essentially squeegee the water off the brake tracks for a few rotations.
The experience and technique of braking on carbon and alloy tracks isn’t the same but the braking performance difference is much less than it used to be. For me, and for most enthusiasts, the benefits carbon wheels bring over alloys in other performance areas (including stiffness, comfort and aerodynamics) far outweigh the smaller, narrowing and manageable differences in braking performance.
4. YOU NEED A HIGH-END POWER METER TO TRAIN WITH POWER THE RIGHT WAY
Despite the urging of the more-data-is-better crowd, it appears that most cyclists buying power meters want simple and less expensive solutions that do most if not all of what you truly need. Enthusiasts don’t want to spend more than $1000 on a power meter and don’t feel we need left and right leg power measurements.
As someone who has used power meters for years, I don’t see the value in high-end, independently left and right leg measuring power meters and all the unusable metrics that come with that capability to get the training benefit I or most enthusiast-level riders need in our training.
Even the so-called experts don’t know whether you should be balanced and how you should train differently if you are imbalanced or have certain pedal smoothness or pedal efficiency levels derived from independent L/R measuring power meters. These and others measures are in vogue now and only available with current leading or bleeding edge of power meter technology that is expensive and often requires proprietary head units.
I’ve written previously (here) that Stages was the real break-away rider in the power meter race when they introduced a sub $1000/£1,000/€1000, easy to install and transfer, left only crank power meter three years ago. The Stages provides accuracy and consistency levels within a half percent of the most expensive PMs and translates that through Garmin head units to provide the range of measures that are more than good enough for nearly all but some top flight amateur and professional racers whose coaches want something more for a specific training purpose.
The established ‘pros’ like SRM, Quarq and power2max have been slow to follow Stages with anything more than profit-crushing price drops on their current power meters and new ones that are largely derivative designs.
Companies like Powertap, Rotor, Pioneer, Garmin looking for a ‘new contract’ with enthusiasts because their recent performance hasn’t won them many races have begun to try some new designs for them (Powertap) or at least follow the lower cost, left-leg-is-plenty-good-enough strategy of Stages.
New players in the power meter game including 4iiii and Favero and others have proven or announced products that are trying to outdo Stages with new approaches that disrupt the power meter cost, technology or business model, the way Stages did to the old guard just a few years ago. They are successfully driving down prices further while maintaining good-enough performance.
It’s unclear whether these new players will become the new GC leaders or classics specialists or domestiques but it sure looks to me that the belief that you need an SRM or SRM-aspiring power meter to train well has joined the gruppetto.
O.K. I’m done with that metaphor. You probably are too.
5. HAND-BUILT WHEELS ARE GOOD AND FACTORY WHEELS ARE BAD
This is one belief that never really took hold in me but so many experienced riders and wheel builders passionately write about in forums that I thought it was something worth looking into.
As I researched it further, I realized ‘hand-built’ versus ‘factory-built’ is a false dichotomy. Many (most?) of the wheels made today that come out of a factory and have carbon rims or sell for more than about $1000 (and quite few that sell for less than that) are indeed built by hand.
Further, the so-called independent or small shop ‘wheel-builders’ aren’t really building much at all. They are assembling standard rims, hubs and spokes designed and made by others. No doubt it’s a skill, perhaps a craft but these shops are no more skilled than those assembling wheels by hand in factories. This is the way all wheels used to be built before Mavic got the idea to design, make and assemble all the components of a wheelset as an integrated system. Individual wheel builders and small shops that build to order are continuing the wheel building practice that was long in place before Mavic changed the game and nearly everyone else followed.
Today’s larger wheel ‘factories’ are usually companies that not only assemble but also design wheels, manufacture rims, and build hub shells or entire hubs all in the same company, something that so-called ‘hand-built’ shops don’t do. Medium and smaller wheelset companies do all their own design work and do for themselves or contract to factories some combination of rim building and wheelset assemble often using hubs and spokes sourced from companies that specialize in those components.
I’ve come to believe that a better distinction than hand-built and factory-built is ‘custom-built’ and ‘standard-built’.
Custom-built wheels are made to your custom order and specification from rims, hubs and spokes designed and made by others. This is the only way to get something built to support your extra weight or the specific kinds of riding you want to do or the unique combination of components you want or if you just want something no one else has. But, the rims, hubs and spokes that go into these wheels are no better than those that come out of factories because, in almost all cases, they also come out of factories.
Standard-built wheels are made by hand or machine to a repeatable standard. The standard specifies the design and components, how those components are to be assembled, what tolerances are acceptable, what performance levels they should be tested to and consistently meet, etc. And they are made in volume lots, usually ahead of customer orders.
Some of the bigger custom-built shops have established wheelset component combinations that they assemble and market repeatedly. They may have input into or specify rim or hub designs they want to order in quantity and keep in their inventory. They may then recommend to you and build to your order a combination they’ve built before for others with similar preferences or requirements from components they specified and hold in that inventory.
This is sounding more like a wheel they are assembling to a standard but that they are waiting for an order to build. Some custom-built shops even assemble a good amount of the same wheels ahead of time and promote them on their web sites.
Does all of this make a difference? Is one better than the other?
I don’t think so or at least could make arguments for and against each. We can disagree till the cows come home about whether custom-built or standard-built wheels are more or less expensive, perform better or worse, are more durable or not, etc. but I think it would be more like evaluating and reviewing any two wheels, regardless of where they were assembled.
You can compare the performance of one standard-built wheel model to another along cost, performance, design and quality criteria because of the volume of wheels produced for a given model and the consistency in their production. Unfortunately, since custom-built wheels are made by so many different shops, to different standards, with different component combinations and in such low volumes, you can’t practically compare custom-built wheels to each other or to standard-built models. Or, at least, I don’t know how to do that and I don’t in my comparative wheelset reviews (here).
What has become clear to me though is that hand-built vs. factory-built is not a useful way to look at wheels and the arguments between them are a waste of time. I can’t even argue that hand-built wheels, assembled to a customer order or to a standard would likely be better than wheels made from the same components but assembled by a machine.
Wheels assembled by a machine are usually made from lower cost, generations old designs (e.g. box section alloy rims) for the stock wheel or low-priced alloy wheel market. But many custom-built wheels are also assembled from low-cost components and generations old designs. Component and design choices will drive performance more than assembly method from experienced assemblers whether the wheelset is a custom- or standard-built one.
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So those are how my beliefs have changed since I’ve broken free from the biases of the cycling opinion setters and learned through my own enthusiast’s experience. How about you? I’d love to hear your take on the beliefs I’ve shared above and how your personal experience with some of the new gear has shaped or reshaped your own beliefs.
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