The Right Tool for the Job: Are We Riding the Most Appropriate Road Bicycles?

I spent this weekend doing tech support for the Seattle-To-Portland double century at the halfway point in Centralia. For those of you not familiar with STP, it is one of the largest organized bike rides in the United States with around 10,000 participants each year. As you can imagine, I saw a lot of bikes over the weekend. One of most striking impressions that I came away with is that there are a lot of people in the Northwest riding very expensive bicycles, and that the vast majority of these very expensive bicycles really aren’t very appropriate for how they are being used. I’m not talking about the absurd guy riding the full-on tri bike with the aero helmet. I’m talking about how virtually everyone would be better served with a different kind of bike. What do I mean by better served? Simply that the rider would be in Portland sooner and feel better when they got there on a better suited bicycle. A thoughtful reader might ask themselves how that could be possible, assuming that the expensive bicycles I watched roll by represent a cross section of the best in modern race bikes (a correct assumption). The problem is that a modern race bike is not the best tool for the average rider to use to ride 200 miles on pocked Northwest roads.

Think about what a race bike is designed to do, namely take a twenty-five year old (plus or minus) athlete at an average speed of twenty-five miles an hour (or faster) for a period of four to five hours on generally good roads. See a few problems? Factor in age and ability, speed, duration, road surface quality, and a few other truths, such as the fact that the racer is supported by a following team car, so he has no need to carry anything, and the problem becomes clear. Add the extremes in stiffness, lack of clearance for larger section tires, and fragility of modern race bikes and the problem is compounded.

It wasn’t always so. In the seventies a race bike often had clearance for larger tires and often it had fender eyes because the racer was expected to train on his race bike in the European winter, so he needed fenders. The frame was build out of ultra-durable and forgiving steel tubing. Some of us were closer to being twenty-five year old athletes capable of riding STP at race pace then, but even that is fading into the past.

How would we change the bicycle to make it more appropriate for a sportive event like STP? The changes would be many and varied. Some would be major and some subtle. At this point it would be easy to spin off into a tirade asking the question, “Why, since the enthusiast/sportive rider is the market segment that is redoubtably the largest in terms of cycling participation and purchasing of high-end bicycles, isn’t there a bicycle designed specifically for the cycle sportive type of rider?” The answer is that there is and always has been, but that this product has come from small manufacturers, often demanding a premium price and a discerning customer. While the bicycling public at large is forced to make due with the recycled or re-purposed racing bike that the large manufacturers target at them.

Jan Heine has done a good job of proving that a high quality large section tire can offer as good or better minimization of rolling resistance as all but the very fastest 700×23 tires. This information has been difficult for the average rider to benefit from or even evaluate because their bicycle’s short reach brakes and tight clearances won’t accommodate larger section tires. This ability and the ability of the bicycle to accept high quality full fenders are what most differentiates a sportive bike from a race bike. The added benefit of the wider tires ability to absorb more road shock, making the bicycle more comfortable to ride for long durations, and on poor road surfaces is just icing on the cake.

As a rider from the Pacific Northwest, defending the ability of a bicycle to accept fenders seems ridiculous. The roads here are wet nine months out of the year. Even if you don’t care about getting wet and dirty, grit and water destroy bicycles and bicycle parts. My own fenders sport mud flaps, which almost touch the ground, coupled with quality alloy (rolled edge) fenders. As a result, myself and the people I ride with can ride much more cleanly and comfortably in wet conditions.

Alan Woods's club bike displays good fender lines and clearance with a larger tire and a mudflap.

Alan Woods’s club bike displays good fender lines and clearance with a larger tire and a mudflap.

It doesn’t seem like much- room for larger tires and fenders, but just those two simple things require a redesign and rethinking of virtually every part of the bike. The fork needs to be taller and wider with more offset, the chain stays need to be longer and more widely spaced near the bracket shell as well. Bridge placement, once almost an afterthought, now needs to be precise to provide proper fender lines. If center pull brakes with brazed on posts are to be used the spacing of the pivots must be considered along with vertical placement of the bridge. Detail follows niggling detail. Perhaps there are other reasons our major manufacturers have chosen to sell us re-purposed race bikes, but the added complication must figure largely.

An example of correct bridge placement with a center pull brake and fenders on the same bicycle.

An example of correct bridge placement with a center pull brake and fenders on the same bicycle.

As an afterthought I should add that I do like to go fast on a bicycle, I always have, and hope I always will, and that I take off my fenders at the earliest possible opportunity. In addition, I often ride 700×23 tires, but I don’t think having a bike that will accept larger tires and fenders detracts from it in any way.

Entry provided by W.D. Stevenson

All photos courtesy of Alan Woods

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About cyclesportive

Shawn Stevenson is a bicycle frame builder from Olympia, WA. He and his father blog about cycle sportive riding, bicycles, and lifestyle.
This entry was posted in General, Road Bicycles and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Right Tool for the Job: Are We Riding the Most Appropriate Road Bicycles?

  1. Jon Spangler says:

    I have always felt more comfortable on the kinds of bikes you recommend. My favorite “feel” of all time on any bike was a mid-1970s Peugeot PX-10 with 700 x 28 tires, Mafac centerpull brakes, and fender clearance. It could out-turn my “racing” bike, a Raleigh Pro Mark IV, too. (Both were all-Reynolds 531 steel butted tubing, the best available at the time.)

    I am now looking for another French or Swiss bike like my beloved and long-gone PX-10: perhaps a Motobecane, Mondia, Gitane, Follis, Urago, or similar bike with the same “long and limber” but quick-handling feel. (Still “looking for love…” 🙂

  2. Pingback: Cycle Lab Little Falls into customer care | MySport24

  3. Thanks for being the first person to comment on the new blog Jon.

    The PX-10 is a good example of the kind of bike we are talking about for sure. I hope you have good luck hunting for a replacement.

  4. Scott Suddarth says:

    Nice article but i am even more confused….lol. As a 51 yr young newby to cycling who bought just about as wrong a first bike as he could have and am now looking for my next bike the sportive does seem right but where, when, how etc etc. Not wanting to make another mistake but still a bike i can circuit race or road race or STP…. so many choices, especially for the ignorant …..

    • Obviously, you could buy a bike from a custom builder. Past that I plan on writing an article on production bikes that fit the bill soon. If you can give me an idea what your target budget is and what other preferences you might have (such as must have a ti bike or whatever), I would be happy to make some recommendations.

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