Does a $5,000 bike improve an amateur cyclist’s performance?

15min later, ready to ride If you’ve ever spent much time around cyclists, you’ve certainly noticed they love to talk gear and if you’ve ever picked up a bike magazine, you’ve been inundated with ads extolling the virtues of bike performance. It’s nearly impossible to separate the marketing fluff from facts whenever doing research on a new bike purchase, given that most publications (both online and off) publishing reviews also take advertising from the companies behind the products. While researching a possible new high-end road bike purchase (I’m riding a 500 mile, week-long event at the end of the summer and thought shaving 3-4lbs off my bike would be nice), I came across the Competitive Cyclist website and I spotted something novel: they offer pro-level bike rentals/demos shipped directly to you for a week.

I immediately recognized the brilliance of a demo program like this — while magazines and website reviews can all sound the same (“vertically compliant while laterally stiff“), the proof is in the pavement. A week of riding roads I’m familiar with would be a lot more informative than the common 10 minute test ride around a bike shop. I wanted to know what a $5,000 road bike with “crisp, tight handling” and also with “forgiving ride characteristics” felt like on the same roads I ride several hundred miles every year (which I typically do on a $1700 “recreational” aluminum frame/carbon fork Lemond). And more to the point: for an average recreational cyclist like me (60-80 miles ridden on a good week, in the 16-17mph avg speed range), does a $5,000 bike really improve your speed all that much?

I decided to experiment with myself and pony up the $300 to rent a bike for one week (the $300 can be applied to a new purchase if I buy it in the next month). I specified the size I needed, put in my details and a week later, it showed up at my door. Assembly was very easy, just throwing the wheels on, airing up the tires, and putting the bars on the stem. A few adjustments and the addition of my own pedals and it was ready to ride. A quick jump on the bathroom scale holding my old bike showed it was 21.0 pounds with pedals (no water bottle or bag), while the Cervelo with my pedals attached was just 17.4 pounds for the 61cm bike (their largest frame). 3.6 pounds is a pretty significant weight savings for road bikes.

The hyperbole around this specific Cervelo model is that it’s really stiff, really light, but also forgiving on the roads, with a more comfortable ride than similar carbon race bikes. From the moment I got on it, I could feel that it was much more responsive. On the same road loops I’ve been riding for the past few years, I was surprised by how the bike seemed to lurch forward whenever I put a little extra effort on hill climbs. I never thought of my regular bike as inefficient, but you push down on the R3 and it really goes. The handling was great as well — my typical ride features a couple high-speed tight turns that make me nervous on my regular bike but the Cervelo tracked them tighter and easier than I’ve ever done them before.


I spent a week on the bike, riding a little over 100 miles on five rides total. Since I wanted to compare rides on this bike versus my previous bike, I did the exact same distances I rode regularly: a 5 mile short fast loop (~13min), a 15 mile loop (~50min), a 27 mile loop (~90-100min), and a 35 mile loop (~2hrs). I have some data on each ride (1, 2, 3), all done in the last couple weeks and some with data going back two years. I’ve been on a steady schedule the last month or so, and I took the fastest ride time I ever did on my old bike, vs. one ride on the same distance on the Cervelo. Here are the results:

The results appear to be pretty consistent with one outlying sample, but since this isn’t a real experiment and I couldn’t eliminate all possible variables I should say that the variability in improvement is largely due to how much rest I got between rides. On the shortest 5 mile ride, I did it a day after a long ride, and I usually take a day of rest (with rest, it’d be another 30 seconds faster). Wind and weather affected the 15 and 27 mile rides each time I went out on the demo bike, further slowing me down. The longest ride on the demo bike was my strongest ride to date — I slept an amazing 10 hours the night before and the winds were surprisingly calm. The previous 35 mile slower ride I’m comparing it to was the first time I did it alone and I rode it very conservatively.

More importantly than the % improvement in my ride times, I did consistently ride faster, in the 17-18mph range on most rides, while the past few years of riding have always had me stuck in the 16-17mph average. My training goals have been to eventually work my way up to consistent rides in the 18-20mph average range. Moving up 0.5-1.5 mile an hour of average speed over an hour of riding on the demo bike was no small feat, taking me months of regular training in the past, and I’ve never been able to do a ride over an hour long in the 18mph range until that demo bike ride.

Bottom Line

The obvious question is whether or not going from a $1,500 average aluminum bike to a $5,000 handcrafted carbon bike is worth the added expense. For some people, shaving seconds off your time is a worthy goal while I would suspect most recreational athletes might want to see 10%-25% time/speed improvements on common workouts. I only found mild performance improvements on my own rides, on the order of single-digit percentage increases in speed and decreases in ride times. It’s definitely tough to justify spending 2-3x the amount of money without getting huge changes.

My hope with this test was to prove to myself that magazines and websites and all the bike geek talk was for naught. As much as I love reading about all the latest gadgets in the cycling world, I’ve long been skeptical about their actual utility and I wanted some data to back it up. In this test I expected to see negligible gains, I expected a rough ride on a stiff frame, and I expected to conclude that $5,000 bikes are generally a waste of money for all but the top athletes. I wanted to free myself from the feeling that I had to constantly upgrade every year to the latest, lightest parts available.

The one thing I can’t deny was the incredible feel of the Cervelo R3 when compared to any other bike I’ve ever ridden. After spending 25 years of my life on BMX and mountain bikes, the first time I took a spin on a road bike I fell in love with the feeling of raw power, blinding speed, and perfect efficiency. I bought my first road bike because it felt like there was nothing standing in between my legs pushing down in some effort and wheels spinning me forward at speeds I’d never attained on flat ground before. When I got up out of the saddle on my first climb with the R3, that same miraculous feeling again washed over me. Here was a new level of efficiency, a perfect melding of body and machine, with not an ounce of wasted effort going towards coasting down the road as fast as possible. The Cervelo R3 simply doesn’t hold you back, transmitting every ounce of your effort into progress on the road.

In the end, I’ll admit the $5,000 bike won me over on feel more than performance, though the gains weren’t too shabby. I attained speeds I’ve never ridden at before and I suspect if I owned a similar bike that I’d continue to improve and attain levels I couldn’t do with my old bike. But more importantly everything about riding felt better on the high end machine. Shifting was instant and precise, climbing hills was faster and easier, and I had more control and could take tight turns at faster speeds. After my 18+mph two hour long ride was over, I felt like I could turn around and ride another 35 miles at that pace and I decided then and there that I’d bite the bullet and purchase a high-end road bike. I eventually settled on a Cervelo RS, a slightly cheaper version of the R3 with a better fit for taller riders like me. At this moment, it’s on a UPS truck headed this way, showing up sometime next week.

The five minute Leopard review

After installing Leopard on three machines and using it for the past four days I figure I might as well write down my first impressions. Here are the high and low points for me:

  • The installer is a bit buggy in that it doesn’t seem to recognize hard drives with any sorts of special partitions made for previous versions of Boot Camp (made by Apple themselves!). One Mac required wiping out the Boot Camp partition completely before I could proceed, the other asked me to open disk utility and do some sort of GFI Journaling thing or something that I can’t remember and could barely decipher. It took quite a bit of noodling with the installer to figure out where Disk Utility was and in a buried advanced menu was the option I needed. Why didn’t the installer just do it for me with a quick one-button click? I’ve had Microsoft Windows installs go smoother than my macbook install of Leopard.
  • Spotlight is super speedy now, to the point where it works as fast as Quicksilver used to for application launching. I say “used to” because Quicksilver lost its index of my system after upgrading and couldn’t seem to launch very basic apps I use dozens of times each day. I ended up breaking down and uninstalling it today, converting over to Spotlight instead.
  • Things seem a little faster and a little more stable (less beachballs, for sure).
  • Time Machine is a godsend. I’ve been waiting for a transparent backup system with easy retrieval for the past ten years, ever since I worked in a place with nightly full backups saved for months on end (but even then, retrieval was a pain). I rarely have hard drives crash, but I accidentally trash or tweak Photoshop, Textmate, Excel, and Word files all the time. Getting a copy from a day, a week, or a month previous has already saved me once since I installed Leopard and I suspect it’ll be the kind of thing I use for fetching previous versions of mockups and writing drafts often. I really hope they return the network storage feature, since I could easily hook a usb drive to my airport extreme and just have my computers backup to that.
  • The downside of Time Machine is that I have noticed a couple beachballs and my second hard drive spin up around the top of the hour. I figure it’s probably Time Machine since my second hard drive is entirely dedicated to that, and it’s only about 20 seconds of unexplained lock-up, but it’s still annoying when you’re in the middle of something and you have to wait for it to finish whatever it is doing.
  • Firefox is my browser of choice and seems to take forever to launch. I usually leave it open all day, but it seems to take about a minute to launch on my 4-processor machine. Safari pops up in just a couple seconds, so I’ll either prune my extensions and hope for a quicker firefox, or move over to Safari when I’m in a hurry and just want to look something up real quick.
  • Screen sharing in iChat is freaking awesome. I’d finally have no qualms about buying my dad a mac now, since I could give him tech support whenever he needed by just popping in and fixing things over iChat. I also like the new Keynote iChat sharing as that might be a great way to practice my talks for upcoming conferences.

Overall, Leopard looks like a welcome upgrade and I can’t wait to see what application authors do with the new animation capabilities.

Testing out .Mac, iMovie ’08, and the Panasonic AVCHD

I used PCs on a daily basis for about ten years, but over the last three or four years I’ve become a full-fledged Apple fanboy convert. I buy a new mac about once a year or so and have tried out pretty much every product they’ve released over the last few years. So when Steve Jobs debuted iLife ’08 and mentioned iMovie worked with the new AVCHD format available in $700 Panasonic cameras, I bought one to give it a go.

Today I put all this new software and hardware to the test. I carried the video camera around and shot a few things during a visit to the Oregon Garden. I came home, imported all the clips into iMovie, arranged a few and threw a song on top of it. Finally, I uploaded it to my “Web Gallery”.

Here is the resulting 3 minute movie

Quick review of each aspect

Panasonic HDC-SD1 Camera

This is a great camcorder. I’ve had and used a couple mini-DV camcorders over the last few years and this was easier to use and packed with more features than I was used to. My favorite thing is that it writes all video to a special 4Gb SD card (most card readers can’t understand it, so I just use the included USB cables with the camera). What is great about ditching tapes and simply using a memory card is the unit is much lighter than a camcorder that uses tapes, and if you’re reviewing ten previous recorded clips, say clip 1, and you hit the record button, it’ll start recording clip 11 in the right place (no more fast forwarding or taping over previous video).

It charges fairly fast and video looks fantastic on my 46″ 1080p LCD. I can’t believe a little $750 camcorder can do such nice high def stuff. About the only downside I’ve found in use is the microphone which is about what you’d expect (only works well if someone’s standing directly in front of it speaking) and if I really wanted to film a nice movie I’d need some external microphones.

So far in two weeks of using this, I’m finding that since I don’t have to fumble for tapes or worry if I’m taping over something, and since it’s small and light, I use this much more than my previous camcorders.

iMovie ’08

iMovie is completely different in the new iLife suite. David Pogue has written a scathing review because they changed everything compared to the old version and actually removed some functionality, but I followed the use-case presented by Jobs in the last Apple demo: I recorded some clips about a trip and assembled them really quickly in the editor. Compared with iMovie ’06, I’d say the new version is much easier and faster to make short videos. I used the previous version on a handful of occasions and found myself using the help files more than the iMovie tools themselves. With iMovie ’08, the things Steve Jobs did in his demo pretty much covers the entire application. I edited my movie in about 20 minutes total, which is at least twice as fast as me doing the same thing in the old version. The “skimming” feature where you mouse over clips is incredible and really handy for testing out sections of clips you want to cut.

.Mac and the Web Gallery

I’ve never been much of a fan or user of the .Mac service. I only had to pay for it once when coworkers used to share some tools and I let my membership lapse until today. So far it seems like a nice backup space to keep 10Gb of files but mostly I wanted it for the tight integration with iMovie. I have to say it’s really, really easy to upload something to your .Mac webspace by simply clicking a menu item and telling iMovie to do its magic. Time will tell if it’s worth keeping for more than a year but so far I really like the photo galleries and movie player pages.

The Nike iPod System

nikeipodThis week I’m running again after a nearly two year hiatus. What finally motivated me to get off the couch and start running was the Nike+ system. I’ve written my own exercise tracking apps in the past and it required that I manually enter details about each run, then I would write my own visualization apps. After I saw how the Nike iPod thing records and uploads your data with no intervention needed and then spits out nice graphs with goals and group activities, I knew I had to try it. When Nike finally came out with some stability shoes for fat guys like me (the Air Equalon, which I can’t link to in their Flash interface), I pulled the trigger and got the whole setup.

I took my first jog today and it worked great. I like that you can run for a set time, a set distance, or to burn a set number of calories. I also like that your iPod tells you when you’re half done and counts down the minutes as you get close to your goal. I noticed the system reminded me at the same intervals I would have checked my watch myself, so it works really well.

The kicker on the whole Nike+ thing was something I’ve never seen online before: Hatphones. It’s a flexible beanie with embedded headphones and a pocket for a iPod nano complete with a nano wheel cut-out. It’s perfect for winter here in Oregon and I don’t have to have wires running down my shirts. I must admit it’s a bit weird to push on your head when you want to change songs, but otherwise it’s a clever little package.

I’ll post an update in a few months after I’ve used this a while to track my running progress. My hope is to get back up to running 15-20 miles a week and doing 5k and 10k runs for fun. If anyone knows of a nike+ widget I could run on my site to show miles/runs, leave a link in the comments — one of the best motivations to exercise or lose weight is good old public shaming.

Pile O’ Tips

I’ve been meaning to write up each and every one of these tips for weeks now, but I’ll never get around to fully fleshing them out so instead here’s a bunch of things I’ve learned over the past few months that might help you as well:

  • When picking people up curbside at the airport, tell your friends/family to meet you in departures, not arrivals. Especially on weekends and holidays, the arrivals area at most major airports will back up ridiculously as people hog the lanes and wait for people. A couple days before Christmas, we landed and I went out to fetch the car and pick up the rest of the family, but had to wait in a 15min long line to pick them up. The departures area was dead. I used this tip on Saturday and it worked great, as there were no lines and no waiting.
  • Last year I finally started joining frequent flier programs and when I noticed I was renting cars often, I decided to go with Hertz, and I went beyond the normal program and paid $50/year for the Gold membership. It’s the best money I ever spent. Now when I arrive at a destination, I just walk over to hertz, note my name and parking location on a big lighted board and walk up to my awaiting car and drive off. It literally saves 30-40 minutes of lines, waiting, and more lines every time I use it. For someone that rents cars often, it’s totally worth the $4 and change per month.
  • When you travel with a baby, it helps to have an extra room in your hotel so you can have some separation of space and your child won’t see you and want to be picked up at 3am. It’s not always feasible to get a hotel suite, but I’ve found a real bargain in Embassy Suites. It’s pretty much an average Holiday Inn style room, but it’s about 15ft longer, giving you a living room area in front of the bedroom complete with desks and sofas. We put the baby’s crib in there, and could put her to bed early and still read, talk, or watch TV in the other room while she slept. Plus, we could let her wake up slowly in her own room. Bonus points for this hotel giving a free breakfast buffet for two with every room. The price isn’t much higher than a typical business travel hotel and works wonders for a traveling family.
  • If you give presentations, please drop everything and read Beyond Bullet Points. It is written by someone that worked at Microsoft but hates the standard Powerpoint defaults. He teaches you basic story structure from theater and has a great system for creating dramatic presentations. I read this book and used the lessons to give a talk last year and it was my best talk ever. I got loads of compliments from the audience and I felt really confident and prepared going in (reading them online without any context leaves a lot to be desired but you can probably get the gist of it).

Crap I love: Wesabe

After working on my own for a year, this past summer I finally got around to examining my finances. I did what most people do: I got a copy of the latest Quicken, spent a week entering data into it, and then I stared at graphs wondering how on earth my spending always seemed to go up when my income went up, even though it didn’t feel like I was going on new shopping sprees.

I quickly found Quicken to be a bear. The category system is a pain, and every charge can only have one category attached. Making new categories and arranging subcategories would frequently crash Quicken 2007 for the Mac, making me lose work in the process. Like every other time I’ve tried to use some piece of financial software, I eventually gave up.

About a month ago, I started using the Wesabe beta (co-founder Marc Hedlund is a friend of a friend). The app has lofty aim of helping you track spending, realize your goals, and share tips with everyone. There are also social effects, where people using the same merchant can post reviews, allowing you to surf around for a new mechanic or grocery store based on other members’ satisfaction and spending.

For me, the main draw was simply having a powerful web version of something like Quicken, but flexible like flickr or delicious. Instead of categories, there are tags. And you can put any number of tags on something, and sort spending per tag. This is a really big breakthrough. A few things I discovered from doing this:

  • I tagged every gas station purchase with gas and auto. With a single click, I could see how much I spent just on gasoline each month and I could also see how much I spent overall on owning cars (by tagging all payments and repairs with auto).
  • Among the dozens of gas fill-ups I had this year I noticed some were for roadtrips, so I could tack on a tag for that single trip (and add the tag: travel), then tag every other purchase from that trip with the city name. One click on the roadtrip city name and I could see how much that trip cost me, and I could also see how much travel in general cost me each month.
  • I’ve taken to tagging any purchase that is a gift to myself, or an extravagance, or any non-necessary thing with: extra. In a click, I can see how much money I waste each month on silly gadgets, bike upgrades, and wacky t-shirts. There was never an easy way to get that kind of data from Quicken.

The other smart thing Wesabe does is make data entry easy. My bank gives me some ugly metadata that usually just features the address of the business where a charge was made. In Quicken, I’d have to memorize 1590 Booth Bend road equalled Lowe’s Hardware and I’d have to categorize every purchase by hand. Wesabe is pretty slick in that you put a description in once for a merchant, then the app finds each and every purchase ever made at that same chunk of metadata, and automatically copies the tags and description for the first one you marked. Thanks to this feature, I tagged and described an entire year’s worth of purchases in about 90 minutes. Now, I do weekly updates from my bank data and it takes just a few minutes to keep everything up to date.

The app is still new, and about the only drawbacks I’ve found is that the history reporting and graphing doesn’t feel completely built out yet (and I’ve heard lots more is to come in that realm). I’m used to Quicken’s graph magic and Measuremap and Google Analytics where you can click on any bar graph and figure out what exactly caused a spike. At the moment, the bar graphs simply report your patterns in spending but lack any sort of “zoom” feature to get more detail.

It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with Wesabe. At every point where Quicken stood in the way of my progress with ease-of-use roadblocks, Wesabe makes it painless. Now that it’s open to the public, the Tips and Goals sections might get built out more and the social aspects will kick in, but at the very least, the accounting section of the app is truly killer and helping me finally get a handle on my spending.

Wesabe (free, probably paid pro options in the future)