Thursday, 12 December 2013

Le Petit Luddite - Do we need super bikes? Part 1

There is this question: do we need super bikes? Do we need all that super technology? Are super light bikes worth the money? It all seems to be a part of the bigger question: does the bike matter? Is it about a bike or about a man? There are usualy two arguments fighting each other: "you can have enough fun on a hardtail, it's about nature and friends", and the second one: "a light, modern super bike is more fun to ride - period". This will be a long one so I will have to split it in two posts but today I want to kick the second argument right in the face. Why? No, not because I think we should all ride rigid bikes with cantilevers, but because people saying the latter, express absolute certainty, and well, I am a smart bastard - I enjoy ruining someone's comfort of certainty, as to me such thing as obvious truth does not exist.

Before I start I must admit that I own three bikes including a semi-crappy commuter, very decent hardtail and a sub 12kg carbon super trail bike - so I am guilty of having gear acqusition syndrome. It may be that I am just trying to redeem myself by writing this piece or I am making up reasons to resist buying carbon rims which I want to obtain so very, very much. That is particularly sad as I own Mavic CMax ST wheelset... Maybe it is an echo of the past when I used to laugh at rich weight weenies as form of a therapy to cope with my limited budget. I want to focus on the law of diminishing returns which says that above certain threshold we are making disproportionally more effort to what we are gaining from performing a certain activity. Thus I am not comparing a rigid hardtail to S-Works Enduro, I am rather setting the lower threshold on aluminium full suspension bike from few years back with SLX grouppo, good suspension and quality brakes. Another thing I would like to point out in this startig paragraph is that I recognize the difference between technology and pure weight saving and I guess it is the weight saving I am trying to penalize most. A recipe for a decent bike is not only how much and what quality of which ingredient we get, it is also about what kind of ingredients we put into the mixture, for instance a carbon seat post can cost more than a good dropper post and those two are quite different in terms of what they do to the way you ride your bike...

So let's roll with it! Everything we do uses energy. Our life is one big energy management and distribution. We convert our energy and time on this earth to riding bikes, building our muscles, reading, meeting people, studying, building a career, pooing, partying, watching TV, and off course earning money for the bike. Time is limited that is for sure, energy is limited as well however that is a tough one, because even thinking uses energy, and the trick is to focus that energy, while we tend to be all over the place. For instance creative people spend a lot of their time away from their bodies, which they treat as means of recording the "trips" and sharing them to other people in various forms of expression. Great examples of focused energy are top athletes who have their passion as their job and their "family planning" can be quite messy. We can put that in opposition to Average Joe who's interest is a highly occupying bike passion, then he has a job, wife, kids and some kind of additional hobby like video games or betting or playing darts, or worse, a lover. In such arrangement he must spread his focus on many things therefore he isn't getting anywhere far in any discipline of life. 

Then we can talk efficiency, and that is about investing as little time and energy as possible in order to reach a goal, and still seeing satisfactory results. If you spend more energy than needed you are either a fool, a noob, or... an artist - fiddling with the bike became the game itself. We get into the issue of "Bike Maintenance 2.0" - first you try to keep it in a good shape by servicing it, then in 2.0 you try to keep it in fashion - fair enough! However if you say that getting a lighter bike is very important because it will get you from A to B faster than a heavier one, then you are naive. I think it is a generous estimation to say that bike cannot stand for more than 30% of performance, the remaining 70% is you. If you really want to move from A to B faster, then you'd better eat properly, train strength and skills because if you are overinvesting in the bike part, you are not making as much progress. It boils down to two things: how much technology can you give up and still have fun on the bike on your trails, and how much technology you can put on and still get challenged! 

Getting a super bike takes money, and this is big one, because money takes time and energy to make. Many of us work more than we sleep. It is ironic that in this "Western civilisation" there are a few people who want to ride bikes and they do everythig to do just that, eventually becoming pro riders and being given bikes and paid for riding them. At the same time the majority of people interested in biking get into jobs and spend lots of earned money to get a tiny bit of time on their bikes comparing to what pros get. I hear this argument very often, that people barely have time to ride bikes, but because they work 150%, the money kind of happen to them. I call that a bullshit! I'll say that if a weight weenie was absolutely loaded, if a super bike was a matter of one paycheck, then he would not get so involved in bikes, he'd be into motorcycles, sport cars, boats or even airplanes. He wouldn't have super customized bike, one that is super light, perfectly tailored to the trails and it's user. At best he'd have a top version you can buy in the store, with colors customized by the shop employees. So sorry for this assumption and putting people to boxes, but it is highly probable that a super bike or two super bikes is on the edge of what weight weenie can afford in his life. He is indeed putting most of his remaining energy into the super bike. Then there will always be the moral issue about it: why spend the equivalent of health care budget of an African country on a bloody bike? We live in the world where 1/3 of the population struggles with sleeping inside anything that has four walls, while another 1/3 struggles with keeping those four walls from falling due too much crap stuffed inside. Off course I will agree with anyone shouting "irrelevant!" but I believe that the common sense causes certain distress in all of us and sometimes there is some mental price to pay.

Time: let's be honest customizing a top end bike takes plenty of time, a statistical weight weenie will speculate every single component for days, weeks if not months. There is such a vast ocean of choices, all components come in all sizes, colours, price ranges, it can be hellish to choose a wheelset, and more money you have the worse it gets. If you have budget limitation, you have at least a reason why not to consider certain options. Professor of psychology Barry Schwartz calls it the "Paradox of choice" - given too many choices we get paralyzed, then after the purchase we feel insecure if we made the right choice. The level of experienced distress is proportional to the number of options. So not only it takes a lot of time, it also takes a lot of space in our heads to build a super bike.

It is sad but very true to say that you can ride a slightly worse bike and save the money for the trips to ride it in cool places. Then it is also true to say that you should train more and eat better instead of spending money on the bikes. My favorite dumb argument is: there is more weight difference in going or not going to the loo before the ride than between carbon and aluminium frame. But let's throw some facts from my own life. Before I start I must underline that I have the overtime infested job in creative sector as an architect, then I have a pregnant wife and 2 year old daughter. Two years ago I bought a MTB specific training program which is great and I have experienced a substantial increase in my strength and stamina, my overall body health improved, and most importantly I have more fun riding than ever - strong engine helps a lot, also in gaining skills and look, whatever you heard - just riding your bike is not enough, if you want true results you got to do the job off the bike! The numbers look like that: It takes me 1 hour 2-4 times a week (3 by average) and I can train at home, so no time spent on going to the gym. I must add interval training or skills drills on the bike twice a week, 30 mins each. That gives max 18 hours a month, and trust me, the results are impressive as it is more about how well you can do it, not how much you can take - just doing sun salutations for 15 minutes every day will give you more than riding a road bike 2h a week. Program and home gym equipment like yoga matte, kettlebells, dumbbells, jumping rope costed me around 300$ total, which is equivalent to 20 working hours, divided by 12 months, it gives 1h 40mins so we end up at around 22 hours a month and a healthy, athletic body. Can't you really squeeze out an hour, twice a week on the side of googling or CRCing for products?

So what makes a fun ride? Ability to move freely through terrain, not getting too wasted and too battered, clearing some challenge, experiencing nature, maybe riding with friends? Bike may help in every single aspect of that puzzle but again, it is you who is the motor, it is you who must do most of the job. If we invest in ourselves we will not only have more time and more fun on our bikes but also more time and energy for other things, money can also buy some cool stuff that has nothing to do with bikes. I believe that biking takes a lot of energy from me, but it also gives some other kind of energy back that helps me deal with other challenges in life. Those best rides I remember have little experiences related to the bike itself, but at the same time, I remember exactly what bike I was on. I was fortunate enough to get a super bike and to realize the athletic potential of my own body. Both are important and in the second part I will present my view on the other side of the argument: what I think bikes do for our riding experience and results. So... do you still think a super light bike makes you faster when we put it into that perspective, that it takes so much from your focus and time you could spend improving yourself, which would bring more benefit, even if boosting performance alone was your goal? I know one thing I love watching super bikes, I am very sceptical though, whether owning one made me evidently happier or faster. All that tech talk is a bubble, I have absolutely no doubt about it. That is a bubble that bursts when a someone on a crappy bike blasts past you on an uphill, or you hear his poor brakes squelling right behind you on the downhill. At those times the level of feeling gutted is proportional to the development gap between your bikes... So are super bikes evil? No the bike itself is never the problem - it is how we get it, in a way - if we deserve it. Money is a short cut that does not solve much and can eventually limit our potential. Pros, or even semi-pros, get it for who they are and the biggest difference between them and us is that they never have to worry about that bloke on a crappy bike...

Arguably yours



  1. Hey bro, it's Ricardo from PinkBike (rmarques79). I say: buy the bike that makes you happy man! I'm riding a 2008 Slayer. I had to sell the Canyon (2010) to get one of my dream bikes. it weights 16kg, and I still pedal out and about with her. I too have 3 bikes, but none of them is, in my opinion, a super bike, because they're all 2nd hand and oldies, but, for me, they are my favorite rigs at the moment and I say, the bike helps a lot, doesn't need to bee new, just needs to feel right for you!

    1. Heh sure, Iall bikes I have feel right :) until I see a thing that will feel "righter". I ma trying to give relief of distress I feel whenever I am considering to get the next thing :) Some things I buy, I don't even think twice, like wider bars, dropper post or narrow-wide chain ring. But upgrading brakes? lighter rims? carbon cranks instead of aluminium ones? You know I got to a point where I have Mavic Crossmax ST super wheels and I am going like... mnah I hate them, so narrow! Or I have XTR crankset and I feel they seem kind of poor because they are 4 years old and those carbon SRAM X0s can be run spiderless. You know, when I feel that my XTR is crap, a warning sign lights up...

    2. Ricardo, be careful not to oversimplify the topic. Writing and reading these things is a pleasure. You might as well say: why bike when you can pick up a stationary bike at the thrift store for cheap? This is my problem with the people on PB who just say "shut up and ride". If they don't want to deal with the discussion they can take their own advice. Most of us enjoy the conversation. If I can't ride I at least want to talk about it.

  2. Waki, you always make good points and are able to cover a surprising number of the bases.
    I used to to read Scott Adam's blog (he writes dilbert) and he once proposed a theory that I think you could tie into this topic. He called it pleasure unit theory. You need a certain amount of pleasure every day. You can get it different ways. For an athlete the pleasure derived from cheesecake might be less than the reduction in pleasure from gaining weight. For a fat person the rigors of losing weight are far more costly and thus the cheesecake more appetizing for meeting pleasure needs.
    In my case, I want bike upgrades most when I don't get to ride as much. I have three kids and a fourth on the way. I have basically given up the next 3 years of riding more than once a week. Yet for some reason I want a new bike now more than ever. A seldom as I will ride I should just ride my wife's cheap xc or the 29er commuter and then do a couple of bike park trips where I'll rent until I can get out 3-5 times a week.
    But there is pleasure in the purchase! I need pleasure so badly! I can't get buy without it. So I eat more garbage, I post more on PB, I get grouchy, and I listen to the news a lot more and try to be happy where I am until my kids are all 5 years old and I can start having personal time outside the house again.
    So how about you? Have you just hit the maximum pleasure you are going to get from your bike so you are building a super bike? If so you will stop being satisfied soon after you get those carbon rims and then what? You are better off expanding in other ways. Buy a cheap DH rig, even if it is not justified in your area. Better to get a larger return for the investment.
    That or cut down on your work hours so you have less money and more time to ride. Money stops contributing significantly to happiness after $40,000/year in rich countries. Basically they mean after your needs plus a little are met.

    1. Bloody hell, that is a freaking interesting one! I've spent so much time diggin up all sorts of theories, God knows how many TED talks I've listened to and never heard this one. Wow, Huge thanks! I'll look it up as soon as I can!

  3. Here is what I think of light components (it does not contradict your point, nor does it agree with it. It's just a separate problem, actually): I weight 60 kilograms and ever since I've started riding a bike I've been facing this problem that most medium-level components are just too bulky for me. I mean, the weight of an average rider is probably somewhere around 80 kilograms, so all components are made for heavier guys. The good thing about it is that I break stuff very very really. The bad thing is that I have to push around a bike which weights a quarter of my weight, while an average rider only has to move like 1/6th of his weight.
    A 15kg bike for me is like a 20 kg bike for an average guy.
    I'm just tired of seeing all those people just leaning towards their rear wheel to lift their front, while I have to make insane effort each time I want to do a bunnyhop or a manual.
    All of this makes me buy high-end components which I don't really need just because their weight is adequate to my weight.

    1. I think that is an awesome angle to look at the whole thing! This is yet another example why there are no definite answers