Normally I’m the one asking the questions, but I had a note from my friend Karl this week that got me thinking extra hard about bikes. Given that I spend most of my days thinking about bikes, such a question is rare, and, I think, very valuable.
Now, Karl owns a little shop perched on the Connecticut coast, very small and thus very concerned that everything he puts in the shop is the best representation of the sort of cycling experience he thinks his customers will like. He leads a lot of group rides, and his area of Connecticut is blessed with all the many cycling surfaces, pavement, bad pavement, packed dirt, loose dirt, etc. that any rider might want.
Karl’s question to me, aimed at distilling the best configuration for a new shop demo bike, was “What exactly is the modern road bike?” It’s a question both simple and breathtakingly broad. Every time I went to answer him, I found myself caught up in qualifiers and tortured prognostications, nested ‘if/then’ statements, arbitrary delineations between categories, and dumb-sounding industry speak. To be fair, this is how I normally sound.
In the end, I found what I believe is a cogent, if painfully simple definition, bound by a few basic assumptions and a willful dismissal of most of what is currently on the market. Before I give you my definition of the modern road bike, though, I want to say very clearly that what I’m about to say does not for one second mean that I don’t love much of what road bikes have seemingly become.
The modern road bike is a light, fast machine with rim brakes and mechanical shifting.
And just like that, heads exploded in outrage. How, HOW I SAY!?!, do you dismiss the silky smoothness of electronic shifting and the juddering perfection of disc brakes?
Here is my thesis, as simply as I can put it. For decades and decades, the industry worked to make road bikes lighter. Much of the weight-weenie-ness of each passing season was farcical, but the overarching message that your bike was too heavy remained consistent. And so, year-on-year bikes got lighter until, basically, we reached a point of diminishing returns. Please don’t fill the comments section with rants about how weight doesn’t matter. I know it doesn’t, and I’ll get to that in a minute, albeit not in such a cut and dried way.
Having reached fairly absurd weight targets, engineers turned their attention to different challenges, how to slow carbon rims better, how to shift more accurately, how to temper some of the harshness of carbon fiber’s native ride character. And the answers to most of those questions, questions worth addressing, was to add weight to the bike. Without announcing it, the bike industry changed the project. They fundamentally altered the modern road bike in ways that blurred backwards into other categories, namely gravel, adventure, and mixed-terrain.
So my definition of the modern road bike is one that I believe we’ll see a return to in future. While the advent of new technologies to broaden the range and usefulness of bikes are unquestionably good, the modern ROAD bike is a bike that suits a specific purpose, i.e. to go fast on the road, and given current measures, that means a mechanical, rim-brake bike with skinny tires (subjective) and an aggro attitude.
This week’s Group Ride is no great secret. What do YOU think the modern road bike looks like? How far wide of the mark am I? Will disc brakes and electronic shifting become lighter, just like everything else, making my definition the blather of a short-sighted Luddite?
What I would like to see happen is that, rather than focusing on weight, bike builders turned their attention to things of real value, like better handling and better road feel. These are nuanced things that can be difficult to deliver and harder to communicate, but they are integral to any great bike, and I think, a worthy progression to what the industry has offered thus far.
P.S. Karl is exploring this over on his site, too.