Friday Group Ride #197


The term he used was “expectation differential.” I was speaking with a custom bike builder about how people react to his bikes, TIG-welded, steel creations, beautifully painted, and he said that the biggest shock for most people was how well a steel bike could ride. He said there was a huge “expectation differential” between what they think steel is like, and what it is actually like here in the 21st century.

To be clear, expectation differential is the difference between how you expect something to be and how it actually is.

Most folks last rode steel in the ’80s. They’ve been riding aluminum and carbon (sometimes Ti), and now they expect today’s steel to be heavy and clunky. Then they get on a modern steel bike and they can’t believe how well it rides. It’s not that they can’t have their socks knocked off by a new carbon fiber bike. It’s that they expect to have their socks knocked off. The differential is smaller.

Another example from my own experience is the modern suspension fork. I am a very occasional, if enthusiastic, mountain biker, so I went something like a decade (it was more actually) without updating my trail bike. When finally I did it, it was really to get to a different wheel size, rather than feeling I was going to get great benefit from a new bike.

I was wrong. Suspension forks have come a long way. First time out on my new bike, my mind was veritably blown as I floated over rock and root. I was faster, more confident, and finished the ride feeling less beaten. Huge expectation differential.

This week’s Group Ride asks, what cycling product or experience has provided you the greatest expectation differential? Where were you coming from, and where did you get to? Was it a bike? A shoe? A tire lever?

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  1. Tom Milani

    Selle Anatomica Titanico saddle — it transformed a 70s-era Italian road bike from something twitchy and uncomfortable to something I can ride with no hands and no shimmy. Liked the saddle so much, I bought the matching bar tape.

  2. armybikerider

    SRAM Double Tap shifting. When I made the leap from circa 1987 down tube Campy C-Record shifters to Rival Double Tap, the expectation differential was, as you say, “huge!”

  3. Randall

    HED wheels. I told myself they were only going to be pretty, that aero was mostly hype for someone as casual and slow as me, but the bearing and spoke quality make for a beautiful ride!

  4. Peter Lin

    I rode Covac this year and expected to finish with a 19-19.5mph average. When I rolled in with my friends and saw we’d average 21mph, I was happily surprised. Prior to Covac, my best century was around 18.5mph. The differential was the fact I spent 90 miles chasing my friends and had way more fun than I thought possible. Usually 2 hours of chasing and I’ve had enough, or feel like dropping dead.

  5. Dr Jim in Indiana

    Zipp 404 firecrest tubulars. I had never experienced tubulars, but had read about the ride. That in and of itself exceeded all expectations. But getting caught in a nasty Indiana Summer thunderstorm, and having the bike actually steer slightly into the gusting sidewind (which was pushing cars around)…THAT expectation differential was one bordering on the order of a miracle!
    Needless to say, they stay on my bike always.

  6. Patrick O'Brien

    I experienced absolute delight when I switched from a 26″ wheel aluminum hard tail mountain bike to a new 29″ wheel quality steel hard tail. Every part of the ride, handling, smoothness, and stability, improved much more than I expected.

  7. Doug MacDonald

    Easton EC90 Bars. I went from whatever the stock aluminum bars were on my road bike, with my hands going numb every 5-10 minutes, to never experiencing any hand numbness at all. Worth every penny, and probably double that.

  8. JP

    For as long as I remember I have always had nice road bikes. All these had aggressive race geometry. I always slam the bars to be as low as possible. I have never liked bikes that wouldn’t allow me that aggressive race setup. A few months ago I rode a Trek Domane because my buddy who owns a bike shop said it was an amazing ride. I was doubtful of a bike that was categorized as a “Endurance Race”. Well the test ride was okay, nice but I was not blown away. After a few months thinking about it I decided to buy one. The first ride it took me some time to adjust the bike. But after I finally had it setup I was blown away. The last few rides I have been aiming the bike at the roughest stuff I can find and what a difference it makes. The felling of sitting more in the bike than on top of the bike is amazing. Will I win more races on the bike? Probably not but I will feel fresher at the end.

  9. slappy

    all day long at paragon in telluride i get people saying, ‘why would anyone ride those big fat bikes, they’re so heavy, they must be impossible to pedal’ then they ride one. . turns out trying to ride any bike with ‘normal’ looking wheels in slush snow and so forth is so hard people don’t bother but when they ride a fat bike over a snow bank with minimal effort their minds are blown and it turns out ‘they’re not that heavy or hard to ride in fact they’re more fun than any weight difference could ever reveal

  10. Aar

    There are three cycling products that have delivered a huge positive expectation differential – S-Works Roubaix SL3 frame, Bont Vaypor Premium shoes and DTSwiss 240 hubs w/ceramic bearings. The frame was the first crab-on bike I rode that was neither a marshmallow nor a nether region hammer. The shoes are the stiffest, most comfortable shoes I have ever ridden and they’re insanely lightweight to boot – I feel like my Speedplay cleats are heavier than the shoes (but have neither weighed them nor checked the specs). Finally, these are the first hubs I’ve found that I prefer over Campy hubs. They just roll better and are smoother.

    On the order of negative expectation differential are all Garmin products. Why can’t they make products that just work with narrow bezels and thin casings? Also, with their prices so high and quality so unpredictable, why don’t they have any direct competition (specifically to the Edge 705/800/810 products)?

  11. cash

    Full suspension 29er. Coming off a hardtail steel 26er, my mind was blown. It is simply better, in every way, on every ride, in every condition that I regularly ride.

  12. Bill

    Tubular tires on the cobblestones of the Paris-Rubaix course.

    After 25 years of riding clinchers.

    A few days later, riding tubulars on the Tour of Flanders course.

    After 25 years of riding clinchers.

  13. Patrick O'Brien

    Robot, your last question made me think of another product. Please let me add the Quick Stik tire lever to the discussion. I really like it, no nicked tubes, and it lasts.

  14. Souleur

    Two big exceptional differences I have had

    One was mounting up hutchinson atom galactiks to some neuvation R28s, absolute grac. My expectation was they would be a good clincher comparison, but they were as good as tubies, now a full on convert and will race them next year

    Second was my 29r experience, I just didn’t expect them to roll so nice, I’m a cursed single speeder and thought the wheel size would not perform, but I was really wrong, may sell my sass now since the karate monkey is just so good

  15. Eto

    On the road, riding a friends Cervelo S3 for a summer… You really can ride down another gear with the same effort.

    Off road, racing my new Cannondale carbon 29’er at the Iceman compared to my steel 26’er the year before.

  16. Michael

    Having my friend build me a steel coupler ‘big-tire’ road bike. It is surprisingly fast and fun to ride, but able to handle light touring, and I can put flat pedals on it and use it instead of a rent-a-car when I travel on business. The expectation differential is how it has changed how I look at trips for work – hmm, I bet that road I can see on GoogleEarth would be worth riding. Better bring the bike.

  17. Garuda

    Sram double tap. How can it be so much better than the others that i dont even look at bikes without them anymore. Oh, sram, how you have ruined groupsets for me forever.

  18. Alan

    Anatomic seats, with a devoted center dip or cut out.

    Also, I still have an old steel frame bike, and just moved up to a modern 29er. Both are awesome.

  19. Mark Poppendiek

    Yeah, I agree about the SRAM double tap levers. They are really are nice. The reach and the fit to my hands are perfect. And the breaking is confidence-inspiring. They came with my newest bike, as did compact cranks and lower gearing, which has been a game-changer for me. The lower gearing is saving my back, really letting me continue to enjoy riding hills. But I still love riding my 1977 Saturn steel bike on the less hilly rides.

  20. Brian

    I have been surprised to learn about the difference a good fork can make. I recently changed the fork on my titanium road bike from an old Easton carbon fork to a new ENVE 2.0 and the difference is amazing. The confidence in corners and descending is very significant. I was not expecting much of a change and switched forks partially for aesthetic purposes. Similarly I recently changed my carbon bike from an Cervelo R5 VWD to Pinarello dogma think 2 ( due to some warranty issues) and the first descent brought a huge grin to my face as I experienced the difference in stability in confidence between the two bikes, especially on the front end. I am attributing this to the heftier fork on the pinarello.

  21. Mark

    Tubeless tyres (on a MTB). Not had a flat in 7 years.

    For a road bike… have to be compact cranks. I now have a chance chasing the skinny guys (they still beat me though).

  22. Mark

    Oh, one more (clothing wise).

    It would have to be bib knicks… The first time I tried a pair (which were free and essentially had no chamois worth noting), I was amazed how great a they could be.

    Not gone back to “short” style knicks since.

  23. Michael

    There was an uphill trail that my friends and I had ridden a hundred times that was challenging loose rock/dirt that if we cleaned it was a big deal. The first time riding this heavier prototype full-suspension mountain bike it was much easier due to the better traction provided by the full-suspension. That was completely unexpected because we had thought of the full-suspension as being strictly a downhill enhancing design.

    The confidence front suspension gave me on knarly, rutted single-track was something I still remember vividly. Just hitting the ruts without much worrying about the angle like before allowed me to go so much faster and much more relaxed.

  24. XtrPickels

    Biggest: Easton EC90 bars. I thought I was buying lightness, but what I actually got was smoothness.

    Smallest: Cyclocross Tubulars. I expected a course-shattering improvement. I thought I would float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. I won’t be going back to clinchers for racing; The tubbies are better. I did not, however, go from zero to hero.

  25. William M. deRosset

    German-spec LED lights and hub-generator power.

    It transformed night-riding and commuting on the road for me. I expected to never have to hassle with batteries (I’ve used SON hubs since they became available in the USA), but to have indefinite-duration light, sufficiently bright and aimed to adequately light 50+mph descents, with no significant performance penalty was a substantial surprise.

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