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Wednesday
Aug202014

Weight Weenies and the WSJ

I got a mention in the Wall Street Journal in an article about the rising cost of high end bicycles.  We all know that when it comes to bicycles, “Less costs more.” Less weight that is. The lightest bikes today are carbon fiber or titanium both very expensive materials.

The article begins with a story about a 51 year old cyclist from California who dipped into his 401K in order to buy a $20,000 titanium frame bike, custom made in Australia. WTF, like there aren’t enough good custom builders in the US?

Explaining why he had to have this bike, the cyclist said, “I can't afford the nicest car or the nicest house.” But he is willing to splurge on the best cycling equipment. If there is one truism it is that “Rich people stay rich by acting like they are poor, and poor people stay poor by acting like they are rich.”

Most will say that it is up to any individual how he spends his money. I would not argue with that. But this individual clearly could not afford this bike, and the sad thing is this purchase was totally unnecessary.

Many will no doubt see me as the old retro-grouch, against modern equipment. Not at all, I like to see myself as a voice of reason against insane behavior. And dipping into a 401K or going into debt to pay this kind of money for a bicycle is insane, especially when a person is 51 years old.

When I started racing in 1952 my bike weighed 26 lbs. This was lightweight compared to the average roadster bike that weighed about 40lbs. It was a similar bike to the one that the Pros of the day used in the Tour de France. They went over the same mountains that the Tour goes over today, except the roads were often no better than dirt roads.

In spite of the weight of my bike I did my best rides, and fastest times in the 1950s and 1960s. By the time I was 51 I would never go as fast again no matter how light my bike. Which is why I say it is insane for a 51 year old to think he needs a $20,000 bicycle, even if he could afford it.

There have always been weight weenies. I have seen advertisements from the 1800s for Ordinary’s (Penny farthing.) bicycles weighing 19 lbs. But I never saw people obsess over it until I came to the US in 1979. With the advent of carbon fiber and titanium, Weight Weenieism has reached epidemic proportions.

Cycling is a passion, and nice equipment is part of that passion, to a point. When it gets to the point where you are buying stuff you can’t afford, it is no longer a passion, it is an obsession.

“Blingey equipment that weighs less than an anorexic butterfly, is no substitute for miles in your legs.”

My bike has a custom built frame by my ex-apprentice Russ Denny. It has a welded steel frame, it looks modern, and fits me perfectly because it was custom built for me. It has Campagnolo Athena components, because I don’t need Super Record. I have no idea what it weighs, because I have never weighed it. To buy a bike like mine would cost around $4,000.

Plonking down a credit card and buying the lightest possible bike just so you can own something that others will ogle and pick it up and go ooh and aah, is not an achievement. Staying with everyone else, in spite of your bike weighing a little more is.

 

The WSJ article was written by Rachel Bachman, who wrote a follow-up piece here:

 To Share click "Share Article" below 

Reader Comments (19)

Spot on Mr. Moulton. I couldn't have said it better myself.

August 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBarry

Yes Dave, the weight if the bike has nothing to do with how fast you will go! But the bike manufacturers have investors to please, at the sheep's expense.
Really it is the wheel set that will affect how well you climb, not frame weight, and on flat roads that doesn't even matter. The frame is static, so is the rider. A rider will be better off losing a couple pounds than buying a frame that weighs five pounds less. Carbon fiber is used by road bike builders in a deceptive way.
Adding to the deception is the fallacy that skinnier tires have less rolling resistance. Not so. A 26mm tyre will have less resistance than a 19mm section tyre. Call it counter-intuitive. Same with riding a lighter bike.
Everyone is a customer; marketers know this. They aren't looking for those that know better. And they always find those that don't.
Steve

August 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

I'm 54 and love my lightweight and stiff carbon fiber bike. It's fun to ride. I'm not a weight weenie though.
I had a Fuso in the mid-80s' by the way and also bought a Tesch frame at the same time,

August 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTerry

I used to ride with a water bottle filled with water, but when I realized the water weighed 750 grams, I decided I'd stop drinking water while riding, and piss whenever the urge hit me. Now that's being a Weight Weenie!

Seriously, I ride for pleasure and exercise not competition. My thoroughly-enjoyable Fuso is the only steel bike in my riding group, and it still only goes as fast or slow as my legs can propel it. I do carry a small tool kit, a spare tube, and a bit of a spare tire around my middle...to paraphrase...it ain't about the bike's weight.

August 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMTM

I couldn't resist posting on the WSJ article yesterday.
And I have gotten a string of people seconding my comments.
When you have been around you know the truth.

August 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterEdStainless

Dave,

How much experience do you have with lightweight carbon fibre bikes?

As a 64 year old, I was amazed how good a modern carbon fibre bike was when compared (same route, same day) with a steel framed bike, an aluminium framed bike and a titanium framed bike.
Nothing scientific about this test, of course, the wheels, components, tyres and setup were different on all the bikes.
Nonetheless, it was enough to make me splash out £3000 on a top of the line Giant with the full Dura-ace kit. Now, two years later, I don't regret a single £ of that money.
I'm only going to live once...

Steve

August 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSteve Almond

Tyres make a huge difference in how a bike will ride, as well as the wheelset. Even more than frame material.
Carbon has a history of catastrophic failure in the cycling world. Not many trust a used carbon frame, and many of my racing teammates get a new carbon frame each year for this exact reason. Even aluminum can fail rapidly, though not as quick as carbon.
Steel or titanium will hold up a lifetime, and take a lot of abuse.
Carbon has become to go-to material for investor-owned bicycle companies because it is cheap to produce and commands such a high price. Exactly what P/E weenies want!
It's not about the bike, it's about the profit! Just price it so high you catch the elitists that fall for this crap; plenty of those around.
Steve

August 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

On point as always Dave. Super Record saves about 150 grams compared to Chorus But costs $ 3100 compared to $1800: whats that then? $8. 50 per gram !!!! These are Campags figures. Silly really.

The really sad thing, and this is probably my age, but show me a carbon frame or wheelset that looks good when compared to the beautiful work at show at the Handmade bike show.
Oh and I nearly forgot: Custom made shoes? Now thats an upgrade to improve ride comfort Jim

August 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJim reilly

If you really think that they carbon frame feels that great do a test.
Swap wheel sets.
Wheels are the main source of feel on a bike (followed by your seat and bars).
While some modern wheels are just after a look, many are lighter and much better feeling than old wheels.
And a very good wheel set costs a lot less than a carbon frame.

August 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterEdStainless

I like your article on this given topic. well done.

August 24, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterelectrofietsen

Am in Australia, and have a rough idea what dipping into 401K implies. Bad, sad, move, I'd say. This (below) was delayed by a stupid injury, but hoping to have it on-road in the next few weeks. Under $K1, with some recouped from Campy parts sales/swap-ins. At 67, and still working, (often commuting), not about to access retirement 'acorns'. /-:
SWMBO has me capped at 3 bikes. Ultimately sensible, I guess.
http://frailer5.smugmug.com/Other/MiyataProg1

August 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul H

If I saw someone with a $20,000 bike, or for that matter, a $4000 bike, I wouldn't be impressed. In fact, I wouldn't even know. But whenever I see someone else with brake cables coming out the tops of their hoods, I try to stay with them long enough to ask about their bike -- how old is it, are they the original owner, etc.

At some point, a bike would cost so much that I'd be too worried about something happening to it, to be able to enjoy riding it. I'm not entirely sure where that price point lies, but I suspect it lies somewhere between $1000 and $2000.

August 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterEric

I went on a group ride with a friend's club some time back. There was a fellow, probably in his 60s who had an all carbon bike. Everything: frame, rims, spokes, bars, everything that could be carbon was. The real kicker was that he couldn't see his feet while standing straight his gut was so big. Go figure.
-Rob

August 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRob

A good post, thanks. There seems to be a lot of talk about "bikes getting more expensive" but I don't think that is the problem at all. There are loads of excellent bikes out there that ride well, are super reliable, reasonably light weight, nearly as good as anything from 20-30 years and certainly far less expensive when inflation adjusted. (A 1975 Paramount P13-9 at 23lbs would cost $2550 today). But there are also a lot more super high-end bikes available. When the only frame material was steel, that had a limiting effect on bike prices unless one opted for something exotic like a Hetchins frame or a gold plated Colnago. Today there is such an incredible variety of materials and technologies that make super expensive bikes possible.

All that said, dipping into one's retirement savings for a bike seems rather short-sighted, unless the guy plans on using the bike to make a lot of money or to kill himself.

August 30, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTimJ

For me it's also a question of aesthetics. A well built lugged steel frame still pleases my eye more than a fat aluminium beer can model or the molded carbon jobs. Tastes change but it's not always easy sometimes impossible to keep up.

August 31, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnthony C.

I think dipping into one's retirement account to purchase a new bicycle, ANY new bicycle, is a great idea. What better use for money than to improve one's life by biking more.

Both my bikes are steel and built in Eugene, Oregon (Bike Friday and Co-Motion). They're not the lightest bike on the block but they have replaced my automobile (which I gave away a year ago) and are saving me a (literal) ton of money - which is being placed in my retirement account. A connection? Sure!

I live in Los Altos / Mountain View which boasts multitudes of riders astride some of the most expensive bicycles ever made. They gather at local coffee shops, showing off their $10 grand plus machines, and chatter like a bunch of magpies before heading into the coastal range for a (short) ride. Mostly they're showing off how much money they're worth.

But a few of us quietly go about our business riding our steel framed bikes hither and yon, refusing to spend a lousy dime on gasoline and helping to make the world a little better place.

August 31, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJames Thurber

I'm coming back to cycling after 25 years away. Bought a 30-year old custom steel racing bike (Doug Fattic) that is an absolute joy to ride: I was lucky to find it and even luckier to pay what I did for it. I'm still at the stage where every time I ride it, I learn something new and delightful about the way it handles. People say, it's heavy (by 2-3 kilos.) I say, I need to lose 8 kilos. After that, we'll talk. I may change the wheels--but they're so damn strong. And I like strong, strength is good. Every time I think that there might possibly be a carbon frame in my future, that all these people can't be wrong, I read articles about carbon fiber failing. And I think, nope, when I am ready for a new bike, it will be custom steel.

September 1, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterErin Solaro

This is America Dave - we buy what we WANT, and want what we can't afford ;-)

No way I NEED my Record 11 parts and nice frame(s), but I enjoy having them and using them.

You have Athena, but if someone GAVE you a nice Super Record grouppo, tell me you wouldn't use it, and enjoy looking at it?

September 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAndy Katz

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