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.
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 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?
- install faster rolling tires
- inflate your tires to the optimal pressure
- strip your bike of all unnecessary accessories and parts
- replace unnecessarily heavy parts as you can afford it or they wear out
- maintain your bike properly
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
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.
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.