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Thoughts on ‘Fast’

February 17, 2010

When in comes to cycling, ‘fast’ is a slippery notion. Fast has been massaged by a cycle industry hell bent on making us all ride 16lb carbon bikes and dress like slightly porcine versions of Tour de France riders. ‘Fast’ bikes look fast standing still – they look fast in the shop and on the pages of magazines. Fast bikes are light, bright, hi-tech and brittle…

Fast? Yes, but is it relevant for real world riding?

But for mere mortals like me, riding to work, riding for relaxation, riding for fitness, I’m not convinced that riding a ‘fast’ bike makes me any faster. I’m not convinced that sport-infused bikes are relevant for real world riding, whether we’re talking about the daily commute or an all dayer in the hills.

This growing realisation has recently led me to give away my 20lb aluminium/carbon road bike. The bike had all the usual proto-race bike features -23mm tyres, tight clearances and a carbon fork. It’s also bright red. It looked fast and it felt fast; it felt light when you picked it up (something which always seems to impress non-cyclists and some hard-of-thinking cyclists who fail to factor in the effect of parking around 13st of rider on top).

With the fast bike gone this means that I’ll do 95 percent of my riding on a 30lb steel touring bike with 35mm tyres and high mounted drop bars. It’s green, it doesn’t look fast, it’s got full mudguards and a front rack – it looks like a classic road bike from around 1955. The italics are there to emphasise that back then, ‘road’ didn’t mean ‘race’. Clubmen and women would ride big distances on efficient, yet comfortable, bikes. The same bikes would be used for commuting, youth hostelling, camping and club runs.

A real world 'fast' bike - a vintage Rene Herse randonneur bike.

A real world 'fast' bike - a vintage Rene Herse randonneur bike.

Here’s some (admittedly anecdotal) evidence. I’ve ridden an extended commute from Liverpool to Manchester (around 37 miles) on the ‘Fast’ bike and it took around 2 1/2 hours, depending on the wind direction. I arrived rattled and stiff necked, with dirty fingers from at least one punture repair. I’ve done the same journey on the ‘non-fast-looking’ bike a number of times and it took, well, about 2 1/2 hours. It didn’t feel as fast (probably due to the 35mm tyres cushioning vibration – which we all associate with speed). I probably wasn’t going as fast up the hills – a 10lb difference ‘is what it is’, especially uphill, but the trade-off was marginal. But everywhere else I was just as fast – if not faster on the rougher sections of the route. The ‘slow’ bike was definitely faster when you take into account time spent at the roadside fixing punctures – an inevitable fact of life on practically every long skinny-tyred ride I’ve ever done.

As referenced earlier – none of this is groundbreaking stuff – it’s just that this unfashionable knowledge has been lost by the current generation of riders and manufacturers (save for an enlightened few). ‘Cyclotouristes’ have long known the zen-like joy of the efficient fat tyred road bike – with French manufacturers like Rene Herse and Alex Singer perfecting the ultra distance bike. These designs have been resurrected by modern day manufacturers like Rivendell, Surly and Kogswell to name but three, while the much ignored ‘touring bike’ has never really gone away.  Such bikes, to the untrained eye, look sedate – but are efficient, tough, comfortable and practical for a whole range of uses, from daily commuting to Paris-Brest-Paris.

Resurrectio - The Everyday Cyclist's weapon of choice.

To prove this, I’m going to pilot Ressurectio around a brace of Sportive rides this year. I’m not going to blend in among the peloton wannabes – I may even get scoffed at. I’m also fairly sure I’m not going to be the quickest but I never was on the ‘racy’ bike. But I’ve got a hunch that the time margins will be small and the comfort margins will be huge. And the bike that’ll carry me around the sportive course will also work faultlessly on the daily commute, the overnight camp and the fireroad trails.

Further Reading

Bicycle Quarterly has an excellent summary of the key features of the randonneur bike, and a excellent article on high performance fat tyres here. If more proof were needed, here’s another testimonial on what can be achieved on ‘cyclotouriste’ bikes.

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