Contact points maketh the bicycle

If you’re a veteran of  bike reviews in the cycling press, you will have noted that there’s an awful lot of hogwash spouted therein; “the inherent springiness of steel”; “one can feel the shock absorbing qualities of those titanium saddle rails”; “the space age nano-technology in that silica tyre compound makes for a plush ride, even at 120psi”.

I’d like to say that, given more than a minute to think, no-one would buy this crap. A whole psuedo-science has sprung up around frame materials, tyre compounds and the like, which detracts from the glaring if unglamorous fact that what affects the perceived ride quality of any bicycle are its contact points; and by this I mean the bits that are in contact with the ground and the rider.

Despite the received wisdom of the bike press, the plushness you feel when riding a quality steel frame probably isn’t coming from any inherent properties of the frame itself. More likely it’s the thick bar tape, the cush in those 32mm tyres or the shape of that well worn-in B17 that’s isolating your lower back and wrists from the ‘thousand natural shocks’ of an average ride.

As much as tyre manufacturers would like to convince you that the highly evolved rubber compounds and mithril-like tyre casings of their expensive, top-end tyre is giving you that magic-carpet, perpetual motion feeling, it’s more likely that it’s the cheap-as-chips air inside the tyre that’s providing that feeling of cush.

I’m an natural-born bike tinkerer and this has led me to try many different combinations of handlebar, tape, grips, stems, saddles, pedals and tyres on my bikes. This experience has taught me that you can completely change the comfort and dynamics of a bike by changing its contact points.

A recent case in point: I’ve just swapped out the original quill pedals on my junk-shop find ten speed Peugeot, replacing them with a pair of my favourite pedals – DX style concave platform pedals. This is the last in a series of changes I’ve made to the bike – a low-end ‘racer’ bike from the late eighties, made from plain old steel and with bottom of the pile but honest to goodness components. All of the changes I’ve made to the bike (bar a wheel swap due to a dodgy rear wheel) have been to the contact points:

  • Gel padded bar tape for shock absorbency
  • Leather saddle for tailored comfort and breathability
  • Wide as the frame will allow 35mm tyres – enabling me to run them at around 60psi, as opposed to 100psi for 25mm hoops
  • Wide, grippy and supportive pedals which approximate the size of human feet.

These upgrades are all ergonomic – they’re all to do with interface between the bicycle and I, and the bicycle and the earth. I feel sure that these modest upgrades to this modest bike have more effect on comfort (and therefore ‘performance’) than a host of high-tech, weight-weenie indulgences.

‘Good setup’ beats ‘high end’ every time

I’ve never been one for high end kit. I’ve never owned a really posh bike in my life. I’ve owned a few decent ones and a lot of entry level bikes. I’ve also ridden a lot of very expensive bikes over the years.

As regular readers of this blog will be aware, my current bicycle of choice is an old ten speed racer, upon which I’ve been having, these past few weeks, a cycling epiphany. Riding my entry level 1987 Peugeot racer has shown me that good bike setup, good maintenance and inherently ‘right’ design is at least as important as ‘high-end’ in terms of that slippery value of ‘performance’.

The great Grant Petersen is right to point out that performance comes essentially from the rider. The notion of a ‘performance bicycle’ is somewhat misleading. No matter what bike you ride, the motive power comes from you, the rider.

Now I’m not saying (and neither is GP) that the bike is not implicated in the whole performance issue. What I am saying is that a strong rider on a humble yet well set-up, well adjusted and lubed bike can be at least as quick or quicker than someone on a high-end bike that’s poorly maintained. ill-fitting or both.

There’s nothing like the feeling of getting on a bike and it just fitting perfectly. And that’s what happened when I climbed aboard the Peugeot for the first time. Top tube reach and handlebar height was perfect (the big 60cm frame would no doubt be regarded as HUGE for a 6ft rider in the eyes of modern bike fitting experts). The old fashioned Solida double cranks had a narrow Q factor, keeping my feet close together and allowing me to maximise the efficiency of my pedalling.  The 73 degree seat and head tube made the bike respond snappily to pedalling and steering input. Put simply, good design costs nothing and pays back massively.

I’ve had a lighter road bike before, made from aluminium and carbon but it didn’t have that elusive ‘rightness’ that this bike has, low end steel and all. The bars weren’t in the right place – I was constantly swapping stems, rotating bars and moving the seat up, down, fore and aft – to no avail. It just wasn’t right.

The other big factor here is the efficiency that comes from a well lubed and adjusted bike. Wheel bearings set just-so, pedals and bottom bracket slick. Chain lightly oiled and silent. Headset smooth, brakes sharp, tyres at the right pressure. Add all of these small percentage gains together and even an old cheap bike can be fast, efficient and fun.