While simple physics says that a lighter bicycle will be faster if all other variables are the same. You need to ask yourself a few questions to determine if a lighter bike is what you’re after or if you’re better suited to expend your time and energy elsewhere.
Modern bicycles are light and fast. If you already have a relatively lightweight bicycle and want to go faster, you are better off losing weight and improving your fitness level and technique than just getting a lighter bicycle.
When all things are the same, a lighter bicycle will be faster than a heavier one. However, it’s not so simple an equation to buy a lighter bicycle and be done with it. When you’re looking to maximize your speed, your money will be better spent elsewhere than used to chase the lightest bike possible.
Ahead I will break down all the things you should consider before plunking down stacks of cash to buy the newest and lightest carbon bike.
Let’s Talk Materials
If you’re familiar with modern bicycle materials, you know that most bicycle frames are aluminum or carbon fiber. Carbon bicycles tend to be lighter but also more expensive. Carbon bikes have several benefits over aluminum bikes, but the most obvious is their lighter weight.
The largest, and heaviest, part of a bicycle is the frame. If you bought an entry-to-mid-level bicycle, you probably have an aluminum frame and maybe a carbon fork. Aluminium has been the go-to standard frame material for the last several decades.
The other major frame material is carbon fiber. Characterized by having a lighter weight and a more responsive ride, carbon fiber has been the frame material used on most high-end bikes for the better of the 21st century. If you look at the top-end of bicycle athletes, you will find them all riding carbon fiber bicycles.
However, chances are you aren’t an athlete in the highest-performing ranges of the sport. Otherwise, you wouldn’t care about weight savings because you’d have a team of people and sponsors giving you everything you need.
So the question arises, as an everyday cyclist, is an aluminum frame enough?
Aluminum is lightweight and stiff compared to the bikes of yesteryear, which were made mostly from steel. These qualities make aluminum an excellent choice for frame material. However, if you listen to people at the bike shop, you’ll hear things such as aluminum bikes make for a harsh ride or are too stiff.
This may have been true in the early years of aluminum and on the cheapest examples of bikes available. Manufacturers use thick gauge aluminum on older or low-end aluminum bikes, but modern mid-range aluminum bicycles have raised the comfort level while maintaining a lightweight ride.
Some in the bike community may argue, but the modern Aluminum bikes are an excellent choice for the vast majority of riders.
Rotation Weight Vs. Static Weight
If you already have a lightweight bike frame, then you’re probably looking to shave weight off somewhere else. I suggest the best place to start saving weight is at the wheels, and there is a good reason for that.
What we need to talk about is the difference between rotational weight and static weight. You may have heard these terms before, and maybe you didn’t quite understand what they meant. In just a few paragraphs, you’ll feel like the smartest guy at the bike shop, being able to toss in some simple physics to go faster.
Rotational weight refers to the weight of an object in motion around an axis, such as a bicycle wheel. Static weight refers to the weight of an object that is not rotating. Static weight refers to the bicycle’s frame or any other non-rotational part.
The difference between rotational and static weight is that rotational weight has an additional force acting on it due to the rotation, known as rotational inertia. This force can make a rotating object more difficult to accelerate or feel heavier.
What that means to the average bicyclist is that lighter wheels equal less rotational inertia equals faster. Especially when it comes to acceleration, switching to lighter wheels is a no-brainer if you’re in the market to go fast.
Cutting Weight Off Of The Bike
Let’s switch gears now (no pun intended) and address weight savings that don’t have to do with the bicycle. Let’s talk about rider weight.
I’m not a professional athlete, nor do I have the body of one. There is definitely more excess weight on my body that I could trim down than on my bicycles.
Research has shown that it is more advantageous if a cyclist loses 6 lbs of weight from their body than if they lose 6 lbs from their bicycle. Why is this?
Typically, losing weight means you’re exercising more and building better fitness in addition to reducing the overall drag coefficient.
Increasing your fitness level will also benefit you more than just going for a lighter bicycle, making losing weight a double whammy for potential speed increases on your bicycle.
Time To Switch To A Different Bike?
Perhaps this is stating the obvious, but if speed is the goal you are chasing, it might be time to consider what kind of bicycle you’re using.
I’ve just assumed you were on a road bicycle, but that may not be the case. If on-the-road speed is what you’re after, it’s a good idea to use the right bicycle for the job.
Characterized by lightweight frames, narrow tires for less rolling resistance, and a component groupset that compliments the need for speed, a road bike is your best bet for speed.
If you find that road bikes might not be your best bet because you don’t ride your bike entirely on paved roads and there are some offroad segments on your ride, gravel bikes might be another good choice for you.
Gravel bikes, like road bikes, have drop handlebars, but wider tires and more relaxed frame geometry make them more nimble and apt for rougher rides.
While some cycling elitists may shun them, I also recommend looking into e-bikes if what you’re after is effortless speed. My wife rides a pedal assist bicycle and can keep up with me even though I’ve been bicycling for over a decade.
Electric or electric-assist bicycles are a great choice for commuters and people who have physical limitations but still want the rush of a fast bicycle ride.