Man vs. Machine

Why doesn't anyone believe that's my arm on the left?

In many sports, technology can be easier to improve than the athlete. Slight changes in designs and the replacement of old materials with new, high-tech fabrics and alloys can lead to massive increases in performance. Some examples:

  • Speed Skating: the clap skate was first used in competition by the Dutch women’s team in the ’96/97 season to excellent effect, it soon became the standard. In 1998, a slew of world records were broken due to this new design at the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan.
  • Swimming: high-tech fabrics have been designed such that they reduce a swimmers drag coefficient through water as well as water absorption. This allows them to slip through the water faster than ever.
  • Javelin: improvements in materials and design by ’84 were yielding throws so long that they almost moved the competitions outside of the stadium. The javelin was instead redesigned to limit the capable flight distance by shifting the center of gravity forward.
  • Pole-Vault: starting as wood, then ultra-light metal alloys, and now to fiberglass composites that can bend anywhere from 120-160°!

There’s lots more examples of technological improvements in sports, and cycling is definitely among the sports where tech has vastly changed. Frame, tires, hubs, spokes, rims, bearings, shifters, derailleurs, brakes, handle bars, wiring, chains… virtually every single component on bikes have been redesigned at some point, often performing better, shedding weight, or both. So given all of these improvements you have to ask yourself: how much of the sport is the man, and how much is the machine?

Bike technology has improved to such a degree that the international governing body for bike racing – the UCI – had to set strict minimum standards to try to prevent injury. Otherwise bikes and components could easily be below the 10 lb. mark (right now the minimum weight is 14.99 lbs.). And Olympic level track bikes are so well designed they have power conversion efficiencies upwards of 99.5%! Humans as a contrast, convert about 24% of consumed Calories to power output. A cycling riding between 10-15 mph uses about the same about of energy as a person walking. Bikes – in short – are awesome.

However, the first thing to realize is that unless the bike has a motor on it, it’s not going to improve your power output. You are you, for better or worse. That means that weather you’re riding a beat up old Huffy or a Tarmac SL3, your power output is the same. What changes is how that power translates to forward motion.

I'm easy to carry!

Think of it this way: it takes a certain amount of work to move a box from one side of your house to the other in say, 2 minutes. If you cut the weight of the box in half, you can move it twice as far in that same amount of time.  Or you can move it the original distance in half the time, but the change in the box hasn’t increased or decreased your ability to move things, only to move that particular box.

Now we apply this to a bike: if you get a bike that’s 10 pounds lighter, you’ll be able to cover the same distance using the same amount of power faster, or you can go further in the same amount of time with the same amount of power, or your can go the same distance in the same amount of time, but with less power. The reason this is possible is because the force required to move the bike has been reduced, which translates to a lower required power output for the same performance.

At this point people think “EXACTLY! Time to buy super-light tires, carbon frames, and shed that bike weight!” Slow down. Yes, there is a pretty good gain in dropping bike weight and getting components that reduce friction, aerodynamic drag, etc. I’m not disputing that. But before you plop down 10g’s, remember that the bike is a relatively small component in the overall object that’s moving: the bike + the rider.

For example, my OCR weighs about 27 pounds. My Defy Advanced weighs about 16 pounds. That’s almost a 41% weight reduction. “Wow,” you might say, “that’ll lead to a huger performance jump!” Nope, doesn’t work that way, and here’s why. I weigh about 175 pounds with my cycling clothes/gear/helmet. I also carry CO2 cartridges, spare inner tubes, etc. (about 1 lb. worth maybe). Then I carry two water bottles (usually), which works out to be about 3.25 lbs. Let’s round all the stuff up to say, 180 lbs. Now we add the bike:

  • OCR + Me = 207
  • Defy + Me = 196

The difference is still 11 lbs., but the relative change in weight of the entire moving object is only 5.3%. And the more gear your carry – or the heavier you are – the more this decreases.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s definitely noticeable. A lighter bike is easier to accelerate and decelerate. It’s easier to climb up hills. And there’s also other increases in ability to consider: more aerodynamic wheels, better hubs, more efficient shifting, aerodynamic design, better road dynamics – each of these changes may be small but the all add up. And don’t forget the placebo effect of having a bad-ass bike.

One foot, then the other... you'll get there.

But does it make you faster? I guess that depends on what you mean by faster. If you generate 150W on an old bike, you’re going to generate 150W on a new bike, it’ll just be put to better use. At novice levels, this can result in pretty significant performance changes for a few reasons. First, the difference in performance between an entry level bike and mid-range bike is much larger than the difference between a mid-range and a high-end bike. Second, going to a mid-range bike makes you feel less like a novice, so there is a perceived improvement, regardless of actual performance. Third, the better bikes tend to require better riders, meaning you’ll need better handling ability and can work up to the bike’s performance level.

At high echelons though, the definition of “large improvement” tends to change. Instead of talking about weight changes of 5-7%, they’re looking at weight changes of 0.01-0.05%, and not in pounds or kilograms but in grams. Differences in speed by 0.1 mph, time savings on 25 mile courses of less than 1 second.  At these levels training has taken the human body to their limits and beyond, and now the machine is used to optimize every bit of their potential.

As a novice though, we have to be careful to not allow the bike to be the determining factor. The lighter frame won’t give me a faster cadence. The aerodynamic wheels won’t increase my blood lactate threshold. The better components won’t keep me from falling over gasping for air after a massive hill climb. In the end, I believe that the bike is only as good as the rider. And right now, I’ve got a LOT of work to do.