GCN Cheap Bike vs Super Bike

aerodynamics tech Trends & Technology

‘Tis the season to ride the trainer (which is made profoundly more bearable and effective when you train with power, which is wherefore our special Saturnalia Powertap pricing), which for me coincides with watching a ton of cycling videos while on the rollers (I have e-motions, they’re awesome). Generally I watch race videos, but this GCN video on “Cheap Bike vs Super Bike” looked compelling and so I watched. And it was compelling, and left me with a few thoughts.

Spoiler alert, the super bike crushed the cheap bike. Top line, the super bike is about 10 lbs lighter than the cheap bike. We’re not weight weenies, but that’s a lot. The super bike has Dura Ace carbon tubular wheels, while the cheap bike has narrow and shallow clinchers with 36 spoke lacing. The cheap bike has some really cheap and flexy brake calipers, while the super bike has Dura Ace hydro discs. I’m fairly certain that no one reading this has a bike equivalent to the cheap bike they tested as a primary bike, but they bought it for about $120. The super bike is a Canyon Aeroad model that doesn’t seem to be available in the US, but you could interpolate that it’s somewhere in the $8500 area code. I don’t know anyone who’s calling that a value part of the curve, but there are certainly more expensive bikes. In any case, this is obviously designed as a comparison between two absolute ranges of the spectrum.

Between the lines and more granular than they discuss, here’s my take on things that would be easy and relatively inexpensive to change on the cheap bike and which would markedly close the performance gap.

Tires: The super bike uses Continental tubulars in 25mm. The cheap bike has bargain Continental Contact tires. BicycleRollingResistance.com doesn’t have these tires listed among their Continental road tires, but I’m going to step out on a limb and guess that they are worse than 25mm Gatorskins for rolling resistance. I also guess that they are 23mm, and harsh riding and not at all supple, which speaks a ton to the feel differences that they marvel at between the two bikes. But let’s just use the figures for 25mm Gatorskins for the cheap bike tires, and the tires alone account for a 15w difference in efficiency between the two bikes. $100 worth of tires, which are consumables and therefore something you’re going to need to replace anyhow, would go a HUGE way in narrowing the difference.

Tubes: Entirely ignored by the test, but you can be sure that the cheap bike has the cheapest tubes you can buy. Simply upgrading the tubes to Conti Race or (even better) a good latex tube would put another 6w (3 per tube) in the pile which brings our running tally for gap narrowing to 21w, at a cost of $38.

Brakes: The brakes on the cheap bike are crap, with terrible pads. Splurge on a set of 105 calipers for $65, and splurge further on a $20 set of SwissStop Dura2 pads, and you’ve profoundly improved the braking. The better tires will also help with this. No “wind tunnel aero savings” with this, but as they posit in the downhill section, better brakes make for faster descending, and that’s efficient. 

Bars: The Canyon comes with an integrated aero bar in a more up to the minute width. The cheap bike has a very wide round bar. If you were of a mind to, you could switch to an aero bar setup and chop the better part of 10w off the difference, but for $120 you can unquestionably get a way better bar and stem that will improve responsiveness and might be more aero. If it’s narrower, it’s going to be 3 or 4w, but we’re going to leave that out of the running tally.  

Wheels: (you knew we’d get here) The wheels on the cheap bike look terrible. They’re definitely 36h, and I’m going to guess that they’re at best 19mm wide with a 14mm inner width. The spokes are almost definitely straight gauge 2.0mm, which are heavy and aren’t good for a lot of other reasons. The spokes alone (without nipples) weigh 500g, and those rims are likely about 650g each, plus probably 500g (lowball estimate) of hubs, plus 70g of brass nipples (not the wrong spec, just too many of them) and you’re over 2300g for the wheelset. Then we talk aerodynamics, and we know that these very shallow very narrow rims are a way bigger aero deficit to a set like RFSW3s than RFSW3s are to the wheels on the super bike (which in fact may be an advantage to the RFSW3 versus the super bike’s wheels). We measured a 1w difference between a wheel built with 20 CX Rays and an otherwise identical wheel built with 20 Lasers. Now you’re doubling the number of spokes, and using much thicker spokes. I think it was FLO who showed something on the order of a 5w difference just in the spokes of that equation. I’m going to (very lowball) guesstimate that you could save 12w and almost 1.5 lbs going to a set of RFSW3s versus those wheels, at a cost of $730, or the same aerodynamic and weight difference for FSW3s for $575. A $480 set of LTD1 wheels would be a wild improvement in weight, feel, and aerodynamics. 

Since no one, seriously no one, uses tubulars, you have to add 300g to the weight of the Canyon when you switch it to clinchers. So just the wheel piece cuts 2 lbs off the difference here. 

And you’d have to replace that janky nasty bar tape. Good lawd. $20.

We’re not saying that you can turn a donkey into a race horse here, and there are interstitial (I love that word) ways in which the Canyon is always going to be way better than the cheap bike. But for $840, some of which is consumables and therefore not accountable for its full cost, you could narrow the difference by a stunning amount. This would make the cheap bike a $960 bike instead of a $120 bike, but that’s not much more than 10% of the price of the super bike. Not one person would say “price being equal I’d choose the cheap bike,” but if the ~$8000 gap between these two “steeds” is the difference between someone becoming a cyclist with a perfectly absolutely usable, raceable, fun and enjoyable and safe bike, then that’s irrelevant. 

This isn’t a whack on GCN or this video, at all. If anything, I love that they do these and this one in particular is a nice jumping off point for this discussion. I’ve subscribed to their feed and hope that there are some more of these where we can add some context and contrast to what they present. 

 


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  • Scorr on

    You’re enjoy what GCN has to offer! They’re also launching a GCN Tech channel that I’m thinking you’ll dig as well…

  • Chris S on

    Out of curiosity, what stem and bars did you have in mind for the cheap bike upgrade?

  • Marshall on

    Some very practical advice.
    You should definitely check out this video from GCN https://youtu.be/h3RG5dztrXM
    They compare two Trek road bikes, identical except for frame material, I think you’ll enjoy.

  • North on

    I agree that you can improve performance quite a lot with a good wheelset and a few smaller upgrades…which is why I just bought a wheelset from November Bicycles! And, I’ve read a number of articles and watched videos claiming that bike weight does not make much difference in how fast you can climb. Here’s my experience: I owned a Trek Domane carbon with a good aluminum HED wheelset and 28mm Conti GP4000 SII tires, 19.6 pounds RWW (Real World Weight, ready-to-ride). This year I traded in that bike for a less expensive Trek Emonda ALR (aluminum) bike with stock wheels and 25mm Conti GP4000 SII tires, 18.3 pounds RWW. On my favorite ten minute hard climb, I am consistently 30 seconds faster on the Emonda ALR than my PR on the Domane. I tested several times over several weeks and I got consistent results. 30 seconds for a 1.3 pound difference in bike weight…that’s pretty significant on a ten minute climb. It’s possible the difference was rolling resistance or some other factor. But I believe weight makes more of a difference than some of the articles and videos would suggest, at least if you are very lightweight rider like I am.

  • Cecilia on

    Spot on. I started with a entry level Trek Lexa that was not quite the donkey they had but it was far from top of the line. I upgraded the tires and bought a used 105 groupset and made that baby a racehorse…best thing I did & it’s what fit into my budget when I started riding. GCN has some great videos that will help waste time on the rollers, maybe they should upgrade the cheap bike and do another side by side comparison. Also, thank you for opening my eyes to a new word (interstitial) & the world that is BicycleRollingResistance.com, all before 10 AM…it’s going to be a good day!



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