Friday Group Ride #418

Friday Group Ride #418

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.


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  1. Aar

    I agree with you completely and wholeheartedly both in regards to what a modern road bike is today and should be in the future.

    Unfortunately, I’m afraid disc brakes will supplant rim brakes on road bikes sooner rather than later but suspect mechanical and electronic shifting will co-exist for quite some time. The typical aero road bike is quickly becoming hydraulic and electronic in order to hide cables/wires/hoses from airflow. So, the top of the manufactured bike market, racing and fast rides will soon be nothing but a shocking mixture of water and electricity. However, mechanical shifting will be necessary on price point bikes for a long time to come. The performance advantages of discs will push rim brakes to the margins on road bikes despite their greater maintenance requirement and ride quality compromise.

  2. Jay

    I think that a modern road bike is closer to a gravel or multi surface bike. If it’s going to be ridden on a greater percentage of asphalt, then size the tires appropriately. These bike are more of an all purpose bike, and are probably closer to what bike manufacturers should have been building for years. Asphalt road bikes matching your definition are really the niche. BTW: I still consider myself a roadie, but I now recognize that there a lot of unsaved roads out there and a true modern road should accommodate that fact.

  3. Mark

    I would agree, too. Too much technology is only setting you for failure for that one mechanical that occurs when you are 50+ miles from the car. I like the KISS principal, Keep It Simple Stupid, which to me means you don’t have to think much on what needs to be done. Maintenance is easy and it’s a tried and true system that has worked great for years. The one exception to my KISS principal is that I do like disc brakes on my gravel bikes.

  4. scottg

    Yes, you are Luddite, might as well join Grant, Jan and Mark in technological irrelevance.
    Monocoque carbon, disk brake, electro shifting, punched out in Taiwan is the modern industry bike.
    Carbon rims and time consuming aero frame cable routing drive the switch to discs and electrons.

  5. Les.B.

    Weight matters.
    Were the rider’s weight 100% coupled to the bike, and the rider’s body as stiff as the frame, then the minimal weight of the bike compared to the rider would make an argument that weight doesn’t (hardly) matter(s). The rider and bike are connected by flexible tissue save for a couple of sit bones. My circa 2007 carbon feels worlds different than my circa 1990 aluminum. The carbon by comparison feels quite sprightly and free and encourages speed. It’s funner.

    Having said that, I’m not a proponent of saving mere grams of weight. The convenience of motorized shifting and the safety and control afforded by discs make them worthwhile for me. Neither of these are rocket science and I believe the pricing will come down in time.

    For each cyclist, personally, it comes to the weight weenie on one shoulder talking in an ear competing with the aero weenie on the other shoulder addressing the opposite ear.

    Another factor for me is that I’m a techno-nerd-weenie and I love state of the art hi-tech stuff just because.

  6. John Borstelmann

    I completely agree! Where I ride in eastern Idaho and western Wyoming, the roads are rough, potholed, gnarly. Even good chip-seal surfaces are rough. So I have long used 32 spoke wheels for strength and durability. Weight is a secondary concern. And my 24 year old Merlon Titanium absorbs the roughness better than anything else I have ever ridden, from standard rough roads to cattleguards. But I am glad that Shimano now makes an 11-34 cassette to help me get my old, fat butt up the steep hills!

  7. Stephen Barner

    The part about “…to go fast on the road” complicates the concept a bit. If we’re defining the modern race bike, or the bike you would want to have when you’re riding with a group that is clearly stronger than you, then marginal improvements in equipment may very well make a difference. Take the competitive part out and instead define the “modern road bike” in the context of history and I would look for those attributes that make a fundamental difference in the machine’s comfort and performance. Lightweight frame materials are not at all new, but must be there. Ditto for drop handlebars. More recent requirements are any form of indexed shifting that actually works, clipless pedals, and brakes that work at least as well as dual-pivot sidepulls. Supple, lightweight tires must be mounted, cogs need shaped teeth and large chainrings ramps and pins, at least for those who haven’t gone “one-by”. Oh, and reasonable gearing for hilly terrain. How well I recall the shame I felt when I showed up for a ride and was ridiculed for the 26-tooth “pie plate” on the Regina freewheel I had just installed. I might as well have been able to slip more than three fingers between my brake cables and the tops of the bars, or had my quick release levers facing forward. Attitudes about gearing have changed greatly for the better, though I still think that 9-speed cassettes that start with a 13 are the rare sweet spot.

    There’s really nothing else that I think is a fundamental, though I might add in the impressive selections that we now have in saddles and handlebar coverings. The farther we get from Concor saddles and Benotto tape, the better. Just yesterday I had to make an emergency stop on a tandem descending at 50 mph, using nothing but two dual-pivot calipers, equipped with their original, 30 year-old pads. No problem. We stopped as quickly as we would have with any other brake. If we focus on what truly makes a difference–those things that we would sorely miss if they were not there, the list is pretty short. Carbon fiber anything, electronics, fat bottom bracket spindles, and hydraulics are nice, but they’re just gilding the lily.

  8. cash

    What’s a “road”?

    As racing devolves into less and less relevance and the impact of the race bike takes a back seat to actual riding, road bikes are evolving into practical tools. I like this trend. Wider tires. Better brakes. More utility, less flash.

  9. Peter Kelley

    2018 Cannondale Synapse Carbon Ultegra SE (with the wheels switched out to HED Ardennes LT+ Disc and Continental GP 4000 s2 – 700x25c).

    Okay – this is my new rig – and I can’t think of a better way to describe it than ‘the perfect modern road bike.’ Especially given the state of roads these days..

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