Efficiency…

2 12 2010

My LHT hauling wetsuits...

One thing I have learned slowly over the years is that an efficient bicycle is really important if you want to use your bike for transportation and utility.  As a cyclist you have a limited amount of energy to expend riding and if you make poor or uninformed choices you are really limiting how far, how often and how much you can carry when you bike.  People often say they aren’t racing or ride for exercise to justify bikes that are slow and inefficient.  I would argue that even a Sunday recreational cyclist would benefit from a more efficient bike. They could cover more ground for the same energy expenditure and see more of the world from their saddle.  Not only would they get the same workout, but because their bike is easy to ride they might start to think that riding to work or to run some errands is a possibility.

As someone who owns a vehicle as well as rides bikes I can tell you on a busy day driving is tempting sometimes.  One of the factors that is very effective at getting me out on my bike is knowing I have a fast efficient ride in the garage that will make good use of my energy. A bike that can cover a lot of ground quickly and still carry enough stuff to be useful.

Is there that big a difference between bikes?  I haven’t done any experimental studies, but looking at my average speeds on different bikes a 30% differential is easy to achieve and none of my bikes are junkers.  That means the difference between riding 12 miles or 15.6 miles in an hour.

Why are a lot of cyclists buying inefficient bikes?

  • cycling culture is full of erroneous myths such as: stiffer frames are more efficient, narrow high pressure tires are more efficient, tires need to be inflated to max pressure to roll fast, wheels are weak so we need really strong wheels to avoid spoke breakage, etc…
  • many cyclists are insecure about their knowledge of their rides so they figure it’s best to err on the side of caution which equates to heavy, stiff and slow.
  • lack of comparison…the reason I became aware of this topic is not because I’m super smart and worked it all out from basic principles.  I was a belt and suspenders cyclist for sure. What got me thinking I may be wrong was riding different bikes back to back and noticing that some bikes were so much easier to pedal around town at higher speeds than others.  I have the luxury of owning 10 bikes at any given time and trying lots of different setups. Most people don’t and therefore have no point of comparison.
  • Other than racing bikes which aren’t much use for transportation/utility [in general anyways] bike shops and manufacturers don’t sell or market efficient stock bikes very effectively.

What makes a bike inefficient?

  • slow heavy stiff tires
  • poorly inflated tires
  • overly stiff and/or heavy frame/forks
  • poorly fitting or laid back riding positions
  • heavy wheels
  • poorly maintained wheels/drivetrain/brakes
  • excess unnecessary accessories/tools/spares

Don’t assume that I mean everyone should ride road racing bikes or that I’m a weight weenie that obsesses about each gram on a bike.  If you look at my bikes it’s clear that’s not the case – however – just because you aren’t counting grams doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t care about bike weight or what tires you are running.

Let’s look at my Surly Long Haul Trucker.  It’s my oldest bike and it has survived many waves of change in my bike fleet for 3 reasons: 1) it’s comfortable 2) it’s practical [fenders, racks and some decent cargo capacity] and 3) it’s relatively efficient.

The mighty Trucker...

What makes the LHT efficient?

  • comfortable riding position that allows me to generate good power
  • aero position on drops to allow me to deal with headwinds
  • medium duty wheels [32H LX hubs with Mavic CXP 33 rims] are strong enough for touring and cargo, but not excessively heavy.
  • strong, but light OMM racks – best of both worlds
  • medium duty frame for a touring bike
  • practical trekking crank with wide range cassette
  • reasonably fast touring tires inflated to an optimal pressure
  • bike is well tuned and maintained
  • I carry minimal tools, spare parts and locks appropriate to the needs of a specific ride

As you can see the LHT is not an anorexic carbon road bike.  She has dual racks, fenders, a sprung leather saddle, sensible wheels and tires, a mirror, practical pedals, etc..

How I could have wrecked my LHT’s efficiency?

  • installed flat MTB bars with no aero position
  • built up some bombproof touring wheels with heavy duty hubs, spokes and rims
  • installed heavy touring racks [ie. Surly Nice racks]
  • used slow heavy flatproof tires [ie. Marathon Plus]
  • inflated my tires to max rated pressure
  • add 15lbs of tools, locks and accessories to my LHT and carry them all the time
  • not maintained my bike well

The same bike can be fairly easily converted from efficient to slow and ponderous.

My LHT on a light tour...

My current setup lets me ride at 30kph unloaded without strain and I can carry a week’s worth of groceries or tour across the continent.  However, there is room for improvement – I will be replacing my Marathon XR tires with Grand Bois Cypres 700c x 30mm tires which are the fastest most comfy 700c tires I’ve found.  That should give me a significant speed boost and I can always swap the XRs back in for a tour that features a lot of tire eating debris.

Efficiency isn’t everything though.  You’ll notice I’m not pulling the front rack, fenders or the sprung leather saddle to save weight.  I’m not trying to use lighter wheels.  Doing these things would compromise the functionality of my LHT and that’s not a good trade off.  In fact I’ll be adding a dynohub and headlight to my LHT which will mean a slight extra bit of drag and some extra weight.  However, having a bike that’s ready to roll day or night with zero thought is worth those trade offs.

How to make your bike more efficient?

How to buy an efficient bike?

  • be honest with yourself about your needs. Don’t buy a bike designed to carry an expedition load if you are rarely if ever going to do that.
  • test ride several different models and use a watch or GPS to work out how fast you are going on similar terrain
  • be critical about everything you buy for your bike…don’t buy the heaviest expedition racks if you really don’t need them, if you need touring racks be aware that there are strong light racks available not just strong heavy ones.
  • you don’t need a heavy duty wheel set to have reliable wheels…getting a pro bike mechanic to tension your wheels is far more important than having 40 spokes or expedition touring rims
  • stock bike tires are typically slow – swap them out immediately and sell them or save them for some other use
  • make sure you get fit properly on your new bike so that your body can generate power for you
  • don’t buy the stiffest frame you can because you think you’ll be faster…you won’t be

Anna rocking along on her speedy LHT...

Up to now I have been equating efficiency with practical things like speed and range.  These are good reasons to have an efficient bike, but there is one even better reason – joy!  A bike that responds easily to every pedal stroke…that leaps away from each red light…that is easy to flick around when you are negotiating obstacles puts a huge smile on my face.  I ride faster on my efficient bikes not just because they turn my body’s leg power into speed with little loss, but also because it’s such a great feeling to have a bike respond to my inputs so readily.  I want to feel more and more of that so I pedal faster and faster.  Not only do I arrive at my destination more quickly I don’t feel the exertion is as taxing simply because I’m so enthusiastic about how my bike rides.

What about the Dummy?

You might be reading this and thinking aren’t you the same guy that rides a Surly Big Dummy cargo bike?  Isn’t that a heavy duty beast that is breaking all the rules I outlined above?  Yes and no.  Firstly I would suggest that for a cargo bike my Big Dummy is efficient.  It doesn’t feature anything excessively heavy duty for the missions it undertakes and it has proven to be suitable for long rides and at reasonable speeds – again given the fact it can carry a passenger or 200lbs of cargo.  I would also note that by having multiple bikes it’s possible to have specialized rigs that address a particular need without compromising the rest of my riding.  I can ride my LHT when I don’t need a ton of hauling capacity and grab my Big Dummy when it’s time to move a bigger load.

Could I get by with just the Big Dummy as my only bike?  Sure.  I could commute with it, tour with it, carry cargo and do fun rides.  The difference would be that the Dummy can’t cover as much ground as my LHT in a given period of time and it’s not as much fun to ride unloaded as my LHT.  So some days I might drive to get stuff done because I don’t have time to ride the Dummy or I simply have to do less that day if I am riding since I can’t get around as easily. It might mean a long commute to work wasn’t feasible or that I would have to get up earlier and come home later from work to ride the Dummy.


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21 responses

2 12 2010
Patrick

Vik- If you had to downsize to just one bike, which would you choose?

2 12 2010
thelazyrando

I’m not riding my cross bike much, a fixed gear bike isn’t essential, the Pugsley isn’t essential and two cargo bikes aren’t essential. So I’d get rid of one of those….just depends what’s going on at the time.

2 12 2010
Ty Smith

Great post Vic! Very helpful!

2 12 2010
alang

Excellent article, Vik! this is the kind of knowledge you can only get from trying a lot of stuff out and even then it is really hard to explain, but you have done a great job here.
I started out ‘seriously’ cycling a few years back with a Salsa Las Cruces (traded a bmx cruiser for it). i obviously didn’t do a lot of research and ended up with a badly tuned, ill-fitting ride. i got it overhauled and running great, it was super fast and i had a trailer to get my daughter to preschool and groceries, etc. – though it was still a size smaller than i needed. i decided i really wanted to try touring and picked up a stock lht (sold the salsa). i would say that your lht build is much more efficient, however, than the stock lht. after some time on that and acquiring a pugsley and dummy, i realized i missed going a bit faster and rebuilt the lht as a cross check (ditched the rear nice rack and the jandd extreme front rack that weighs as much, and added a simple rear alu rack). as you can imagine it wasn’t much different with all the same wheels, tires and drivetrain! i do like the subtle differences and that it’s black, but it took doing all that to conclude it’s really about the tires and what you don’t put on it and the components you choose. i am very happy with the cc now after putting on some new crappier but lighter wheels, pasela tires and gary bars, and i look forward to racing it as well next year and upgrading the stock LHT drivetrain components. you live you learn.

up next for the cc is a dyno wheel, some homebrew dyno lights, a good 32 spoke rear wheel, eventually an slx crankset….that might be it.

ps, ever decide what to do with that rohloff? ever think about using it on the NWT?

2 12 2010
thelazyrando

@Alan – it doesn’t make sense to put a Rohloff on a 20″ wheel. You get a lot of very expensive low gears that aren’t that useful.

2 12 2010
alang

interesting, i suppose you couldn’t compensate with a large chainring and small cog, ay? guess that is why fridays often have very large rings already.
(at home with sick kiddo this morning, reason for the excessive verbiage!)

2 12 2010
thelazyrando

@Alan – the IGH multiplies the wheel size. So at the low end the result is many low gears that aren’t useful and fewer gears in the useful range. You can use a bigger ring or smaller cog to move that range up or down, but you can’t do anything about the wheel size.

Keeping in mind you want the direct drive gear somewhere you cruise in a lot.

2 12 2010
Sean

It is great to have options in your quiver. My wife has started taking inventory though so I may be challenged about keeping all of mine :-)

Lately I am tending to go with bikes that can serve different purposes, seasonally for example. Like your LHT, my Cross Check is also very versatile depending on the setup. In the past 12 months it has seen service as a cross bike, a singlespeed, a fixed gear and fully geared commuter simply by changing a few components now and then, such as the tires. (another vote for the Grand Bois tires – nice fat 30mm tires on dirt roads are sweet)

My latest addition is a Salsa Mukluk, which will be a winter snow bike now and changed to a hardtail 29’r come spring by changing the wheels and front fork. Perfect for the occasional 24 hour race next summer.

2 12 2010
thelazyrando

@Sean – having multiple configs for a bike is a smart way to optimize your ride and a cost effective way to tinker/wrench without owning an armada of bikes.

4 12 2010
Nick

Thanks! I really enjoyed this on bike efficiency.
Can anyone suggest some tyres for moderate winter use – that’s winter in the UK so nothing too extreme (although it might have felt that way over the past few days!) I find the Marathon Pluses slow and lumbering and was pleased when I followed Vik’s advice and bought some Scorchers in the Spring. The difference in speed and efficiency was immediately noticeable and I sped through the summer and autumn. I’ve just had my first puncture and began to wonder if something with a bit more tread would be better for winter grip on muddy roads. Any thoughts on something with a good rolling resistance and not too much unnecessary weight? I’d need them in 406 size for a BF Crusoe.

4 12 2010
thelazyrando

@Nick – I don’t have a good treaded winter tire suggestion for you in 406. I have used standard Marathons and they are okay – much better than Pluses, but not as good as Scorchers.

If you are getting okay traction with the Scorchers I’d keep using them as one flat doesn’t mean anything. I was surprised how well they worked in wet dirt and mud on my recent tour.

5 12 2010
Doug D

@nik Big apples are available in 406 and aren’t bad for rolling resistance or snow. They are resonably flat resistant.

5 12 2010
thelazyrando

Big Apples have extremely minimal tread and aren’t much wider than Scorchers…not sure there would be much difference.

6 12 2010
doug d

I haven’t tried the scorchers but I thought they were a 40 or so width. The Big Apples come in a 60. You are absolutely correct that they don’t have much tread.
I personally tend to just use the same tires in winter as in summer until I absolutely need studs to keep me from sliding around on the ice.

6 12 2010
thelazyrando

BF travel bikes can’t fit uber wide tires. Most won’t fit tires bigger than 40mm. A couple models will go as big as 50mm.

7 12 2010
Nick

Thanks for the tyre tips. I’ve decided to stick with the Scorchers and see how they work out over the winter months.

18 12 2010
How important is efficiency? « 42 Bikes

[…] One thing I have learned slowly over the years is that an efficient bicycle is really important if you want to use your bike for transportation and utility: Efficiency… « The Lazy Randonneur. […]

18 03 2011
Camille

Hi, this is a very interesting post, thank you!
I am looking for an efficient commuting/touring bike for a light woman (me!!): 45 kg + 10-15 kg of luggages when touring = less than the weight of most cyclists!!
What would you recommend for a bike? I would like a relatively “light” bike (about 12 kg with racks and fenders). Everyone keep saying that weight is not important, but in my situation I think a few kilos can make a difference (compared to a 14-16 kg bike) . It has to be robust but does it really need to be able to carry a lot of load since I am so “light”?
I am thinking about building a LHT from a frame (size 46). Do you think it’s a good idea since the LHT is made to carry heavy loads? What components would you recommend?
Thanks in advance!
Camille (from Switzerland)
PS. I ride everyday to work and on holidays in Europe, South America… (with camping gear and all). So far I’ve always done it on second-hand MTB but I would like to buy a nice new bike now that I can afford it :=)

18 03 2011
thelazyrando

@Camille – hola! I’m Swiss as well…or at least I have a Swiss passport….I’ve never lived in Switzerland full time!

Weight is not the most important thing, but for someone your size it does matter.

I would say you need to:

– put on some fast rolling tires [if you are riding a 26″ bike Schwalbe Kojaks are a good choice]
– get a frame that isn’t uber stiff [LHT will be a tank for you]
– build up the bike with lightweight parts so it’s not too heavy

Tires are easy. Getting a frame that’s suitable for touring without being too stiff for you will be a challenge because most companies just make the tubes shorter without changing their diameter or thickness for the smaller frames. Since a smaller frame carries a lighter rider and is better triangulated it needs different tubes to be the same ride as the bigger frames. If you have the $$$ for something custom/semi-custom your situation would be a case where I’d look into that as I don’t think you’ll be well served by scaled down men’s bikes. If that’s not an option – no worries. The LHT will work albeit it will ride like a tank.

For parts you can pretty much go with light weight parts and have no issues. So 32H light 26″ XC MTB wheels would be fine. Something mid-grade like XT derailleurs/shifters. Tubus racks are light and strong.

Getting back to tires they will make the most difference for you. So don’t use expedition touring tires to ride to work. Kojaks will work for most riding including paved road touring. For your weight you’ll want to inflate them to low pressures. Use the rule that you want ~15% of the measured tire width in vertical drop when sitting static on the bike with your gear.

I’ll give frames some thought and see what comes to mind that would be suitable for you. Let me know what you end up with and send me a photo I’ll post to my blog with your new bike.

19 03 2011
Camille

Hi again, and thanks for the quick and useful answer!!
Unfortunately I don’t have the money for a custom frame, so it will be a Surly LHT (50 cm) or maybe a Surly Crosscheck (46 cm)? What do you think? I feel both bikes are similar except for the wheel size, and the Crosscheck look less than a tank! At the same time smaller wheels are more robust for touring (and light), but would that make a big difference for me (and my weight)?
I want to build my own bike from the frame (with the great help of a friend) so I can choose the components for my needs. I already use two sizes of tires on my actual bike (old MTB), 26X1.35 for road and 26X1.75 for touring. I didn’t know about the air pressure before (I thought I has to be maximum), I’ll give it a try!
I will of course tell you about the final choice and send you a picture!

Sorry about “polluting” your site with these long comments :=) If you prefer you can contact me personally at camille.truong(at)hotmail.com
Your advices are very helpful! Would you be willing to help if I have more question about the build of the bike? I like your way of being very practical… maybe it’s swiss!!

20 04 2011
Sean

Good morning! I’d really like your opinion on the FreeRadical LiteLoader. I have a great Mt. bike collecting dust right now, and would love to become more carless… I have a German Focus- Killer Bee- from 2001. All XT comp.
Thank you for your time and help!
Sean

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