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Bespoken Word: Does cycling have an obesity problem?

Norco Optic C2
(Image credit: Guy Kesteven)

Don’t worry I’m not going to start going on a fat-shaming rant just at the point where most of us are planning to eat a bit more and possibly ride a bit less. Neither is it the time to suggest that Santa could probably make a big difference to his W/Kg ratio and potentially place less of a strain on the ‘elf service by not eating EVERY mince pie he gets left next to a fireplace.

Nope, what I’m talking about is the seemingly inevitable trend for increasingly heavier bikes as people want more and more capability. But do they actually want it or are they being peer pressured into piling on the pounds? Does a more capable bike actually give a more entertaining ride? And what happens when designers stop telling people things are feathery when they really aren’t and actually let fly with something properly anti-gravity?

So where is all this coming from? To be honest it's from various places. It’s about staring down at a 2.5 inch wide tire while crawling up a sodden Yorkshire Dales climb in the middle of the night. Cursing that rubbery chunk of ballast as it noticeably increased the time I had to ponder about when it became acceptable for a ‘trail’ tire to be well over a kilo of reluctantly rolling rubber. 

It’s about the industry getting comfortable that over 32lbs/14 kilos is now a standard weight for a trail bike and anything close to 13 kilos is now dubbed ‘light’. The fact that short-travel bikes are barely any lighter than long-travel bikes once you’ve loaded them up with fashionably enduro ready gear. In fact, whatever the travel, many full-carbon framed bikes are almost as heavy as alloy or even steel ones. That feeds into over two decades of cynicism for a lot of those claimed weights too - not least because every time I’ve weighed a carbon frame recently it’s been significantly (up to 25%) heavier than claimed.

Merida eONE-SIXTY 9000 and Shimano EP8

Rugged and grippy tires enhance downhill performance but offer few favours on the climbs (Image credit: Graham Cottingham)

I’m not just outraged about overweight tires or frames here either, although they do have a disproportionately disabling effect on the liveliness of a ride. I could have picked several other components to grumble about instead. The 200mm stroke dropper seatpost and the super wide range cassette I now 'need' to make moving this mass easier. The ‘must-have’ more powerful brakes to stop the speed that’s now so easy to gain when fatter-legged suspension, longer-reach top tubes and gravitational pull combine. I could go wild about the wider rims to support those fatter tires, the wide bars to give the leverage to control that super slack head angle and so on. All very useful elements in gaining a few seconds back on the fastest, loosest descents but when stirred in together, become a recipe for making climbs last minutes longer.

For the record, that same observation about claimed versus actual weight applies to pretty much every component I’ve tested in the past 25 years too (with the noble exception of Shimano and Scott who I've always found remarkably honest). In fact, one of the few sure-fire ways of knowing that someone really hasn’t properly weighed something is when the listed gram count in the spec deck is the same as the manufacturer's figures. That, in turn, can lead to a whole ‘emperor's new clothes’ situation where no one wants to look uncool on the uplift bus by pointing out that some trail bikes are now almost the same weight as downhill bikes and that’s not a good thing. Not least because the reason downhill bikes have got a lot lighter is that it makes them faster and less tiring to ride.

I’m not just pointing the finger at MTB’s here either. Frame weights are still a prominent part of any road bike presentation, but ever since the UCI put a minimum weight on race bikes back at the turn of the Millenium, 'saved watts' have increasingly buried 'saved grams' when it comes to priority. In recent years disc brakes, power meters and fatter tires have all added weight and even that seemingly essential GPS on your bars or smartphone in your pocket extracts a toll every time you try to accelerate or gain altitude. Just to really confuse calorie counters, some technologies that you’d swear blind would save weight sometimes don’t, the prime example here being single chainring transmissions. Turns out that when you put them on the scales those big dinner plate cogs on the fat end of the block and the clutch in the rear mech almost exactly balance the absence of a second chainring, gear cable, front derailleur and the extra bits in the left-hand shifter. No, I didn’t believe it the first time I put everything on the scales either so I re-weighed everything twice and it was something like 7g difference between SRAM Force 1x and SRAM Force 22.

But hang on a minute. All these things I’m grumbling about bring very real, tangible benefits. Bigger tubeless tires on wider rims don’t burst if I go full gas across a rock garden on the far side of that Dales climb, rather than tiptoeing through it. Longer reach geometry adds stability and confidence at the speeds those tires allow and I can swing my pants and shift my weight in a groovier way with my saddle fully slammed. Bolt-on all the other bits of the equation and mountain bikes are faster, more controlled and more capable than ever. Plus if that’s not enough to save you from smashing them, then a lot of those carbon frames and wheels have added a little weight so the manufacturers can give you a no questions asked lifetime warranty. 

It’s not just about the downs either, the fact that 2.4in tires, 30mm rims and dropper posts are increasingly popular in the Pro XC ranks proves that over a technical lap, increased control can beat decreased grams in the race to the line. 

On the road, fatter rubber rolls more smoothly over the average asphalt, grips better so you can hold speed better on descents and if they're set up tubeless they self-heal punctures without you even realizing. Fatter rims add tire stability and more friendly, drag-efficient handling at more wind angles. Whether you’re behind drop bars or risers, disc brakes mean better control of that speed in all weathers. And yes, while I’m naturally skeptical when every wheel claims to be the fastest in a wind tunnel and it’s often hard to tell a tangible difference without a stopwatch, aero gains are a thing as long as you go fast enough. Thanks to Zipp and others, lifetime warranties are starting to appear on road/gravel kit too. 

So at this point, it looks like I’ve managed to bring round my own argument to bite me on the butt, which has real consequences on you wondering what more useful things you could have done with the past five minutes of your life. 

But hang on, don’t go just yet. What about those questions I asked right at the start? The ones about properly light bikes versus peer pressure on what and how we should ride. Because this is where this whole subject gets really interesting as I think we’re just seeing the pendulum start to swing back towards significantly lighter rigs. The reason I’m saying this comes off the back of reactions to two specific bikes that have dominated testing excitement this year: The Transition Spur MTB and the Specialized Aethos road bike. 

The Spur is one of an increasing number of ‘downcountry bikes’. Basically XC bikes with progressive trail geometry, a little bit more suspension (in this case 120mm) and more tenacious equipment choices that let you properly rip on technical trails. The difference is that while a lot of bikes in this category still weigh over 12kg, the mid-range Spur with alloy wheels and a large frame is just over 11kg. The results are dramatic too, with rave reviews not just from bony types with a predatory racing past, but also proper burly pinners who normally favor 160mm travel enduro bikes with super grippy Maxxis Assegai tires that each weigh 70% of the weight of the Spur frame. 

The super-light Aethos has had the same effect on most road testers who’ve ridden it too. While it’s certainly not alone in its dedicated diet program, it’s been targeted particularly effectively to break the ‘meh’ mold of super-efficient, undeniably fast but very samey speed bikes with a deliciously agile and aerobically amplifying ride experience.

Specialized Epic Evo Expert

Specialized's Epic EVO might be light but it is still rapid on the downhills (Image credit: Guy Kesteven)

I could also include a couple of the bikes I’ve been testing recently. Specialized’s Epic EVO Expert is another 11kg downcountry weapon that can tackle a serious technical trail but properly gets into your head every time it explodes out of a corner or screams uphill like an e-bike. That’s been a proper seditious joy to slide under people who were sure they needed 150mm of travel and a 64-degree head angle and watch it roll a gram-conscious grenade into their conceptions.

My own perverted experimental downcountry build of Cotic’s FlareMax deserves credit for creating a similar shock and awe value among those who’ve tried it. Not because it’s crazy light, (it’s currently around 12.7 kilos) but because it’s a lot lighter than it should be for a steel mainframe machine with a 490mm reach. It’s also been a brilliant showcase for just how good lightweight kit like RockShox’s SID fork, Syntace’s cockpit, Hunt’s XC wide wheels and Wolfpack’s tires can be, well beyond where you’d normally peg their comfort zone. Or to put it simply I’ve shed two kilos and I’m still shredding hard.

And that’s the baseline point I’m making here. While you can incrementally add control, there’s nothing that has as dramatic an effect on your riding experience as low weight. That summit shrinking surge that gets you clicking gears far higher up the block than normal. That constant thirst for acceleration at every opportunity. The instant flick from one bar tip to the other through corners. The effortless lift and extra air time that comes from a bike that gravity can’t grip as strongly. 

And don’t go squeezing out that old cliche about saving yourself £500 worth of carbon componentry by taking a big dump before you ride. There’s a very real dynamic difference between a light bike and a heavy one, however hefty the rider. If you’ve ever ridden a properly light bike you’ll know exactly what we’re on about and if you haven’t you should really try one. Because when they’re done right you’ll be surprised how much control they still have. How conceding a few seconds through the occasional boulder field could gain you minutes back on climbs or meters of out of every corner on twisting singletrack or city center crit and how much more entertaining that can make the whole ride. Not only that, but as you’re likely to be a lot nearer the edge of control, a lot more of the time, a stripped-back bike will often give you a much more addictive adrenalin fix than a gluey tire control freak that you’ll rarely push within sight of its real limits.

That also brings up a whole other interesting discussion about how we perceive speed on a bike, how that can be misleading in the pursuit of the fastest ride, and also whether actually chasing that perception rather than more measurable gains might actually make riding more fun. 

I’ve gone on more than enough for now though, so maybe that’s something to get thinking about next week. Until then, have a great mid-winter holiday and I hope you all get the presents you’re after. Unless it’s a 1400g, 2.5in-wide tire when all you really need is a 750g 2.3.

Guy Kesteven
Guy has been riding mountain bikes since before they were mountain bikes and is right handy on an offroad tandem (of course he is).