“Strong, Light, Cheap, pick two”

The Ikea Allen Key, designed for a single use. Light & cheap, not strong.
The Ikea Allen Key, designed for a single use. Light & cheap, not strong.

Keith Bontrager’s well-known quote, “strong, light, cheap, pick two”, still rings true when it comes to bike components. It’s a very simple but incredibly effective description of any bike parts, or engineered components in general. If something is strong & light it’s not going to be cheap, i.e. a top end carbon frame. If it’s light & cheap it’s not going to be strong, we’ve all probably broken something that seemed a bargain at the time, whether it was a lightweight seatpin, superlight bottle cage, or minimalist chainring. If it’s strong & cheap, it’s not going to be light, such as that first ‘racer’ frame you had as a kid with the ‘gaspipe’ tubing. Lets see where can you save a bit of cash & still get the performance benefits?

The Upgrade Rule

Before we venture into actual parts, there is a golden rule that could save you a lot of heartbreak.

“Don’t race it if you can’t replace it”.

It’s all well & good taking your incredibly expensive bike out with trusted comrades who are very unlikely to cause a spill. That trust generally goes out the window when you have a number on your back, potentially with 79 other individuals, in a highly competitive environment, all intent on stopping you winning the race, by whatever means necessary. Another area where the rule could be applied is in a sportive, although not the same cutthroat attitudes as a genuine race, you may still encounter some aggressive behaviour, which isn’t partial to maintaining your pristine machine in its current immaculate condition.

Some Examples:

Frames

Frame material choice is a much disputed subject, in the end it comes down to personal choice as I emphasised in blog ‘You’ve Been Framed‘. Costs are vastly different & weights also vary considerably, so I’ll take some examples from popular manufacturers you’re likely to find (or order) in your local bike shop, with a similar-use frame.

Kinesis provide a very close comparison, their Granfondo frameset comes in Scandium & Titanium (Scandium is an Aluminium alloy with different weld characteristics provided by a 0.5% Scandium in the alloy, so not really Scandium as such, just a little bit in there). The Scandium frame comes in at £750 for a weight of 1.46kg for a 57cm frame (excluding forks). The Ti frame costs £1500 for a weight of 1.56kg. So we’re talking twice the price for the same product, in a different material. Generally standard Aluminium & Ti frames come in around the same weight, although you will find some very light ones, but you’ll pay for this, as the rules state. What you’re paying for in the Aluminium versus Ti battle is strength, the Ti frame isn’t going to corrode over your lifetime, it’s highly likely it’s going to outlast you. The wall thickness of the Aluminium required to provide an oversized tube at this weight is very thin, so it’s more likely to get dented in a crash, a Ti frame will mostly survive all but the worst possible crash fully intact with a couple of scratches (plus you won’t ruin your paint, most have none).

Steel is making a comeback, with bespoke framebuilders like Brian Rourke now using top end steel products like Reynolds 953. This material can result in a frameset weighing maybe 0.1 to 0.2kg over an Aluminium or Titanium frame, still lighter than the old school steel frames you may have raced on for decades. The advantage is that you can have it made to measure, not anything like as popular as it used to be, but has some advantages over off-the-peg frames. This can work in one of two ways, you can either know a good bit about frame design & characteristics, handling & fit, or you can know nothing. An experienced frame builder will gather your information, help you choose what you’re looking for & build a frame for you that rides as you like it. The sit down & chat with the frame builder is an eye opener in itself, I’d advise everybody to do this at least once, it’s an enlightening experience & will remove some of the demons you created by buying that fake Pinarello from China. You’ll like the bike it results in. A custom 953 will cost about the same as a Ti frame.

Carbon fibre, in its many guises, is now the standard for a road bike. But unlike a metal tubeset, not all frames are the same. If you buy cheap, the quoted weights are similar to the metal frames, which indicates that the material is not being used correctly, you’re buying it just to have a carbon looking frame & you’d probably be better off with a metal frame. This is down to the fact that in order to reduce weight in a carbon frame you need to know where you can safely reduce that weight & improve the ride characteristics. The development costs involved in this are quite high, with modelling & finite element analysis being employed to detect the areas of highest stress. The cheaper frames don’t do this, they take the hit on the weight & provide you with the product you want to buy at a cheap price, wrapping as much carbon as acceptable to make sure it’s not going to snap. The cheap frames should be safe enough due to this, but be very wary of any carbon frames that are cheap & light, it’s safe to assume that they will not be strong. The lightest carbon framesets are probably in the region of 1.0kg, but you’ll pay for this, the bottom end of the carbon market seem to add an additional 3kg into their frames, whether in carbon or resin I don’t know. Carbon frames probably show the strong, light, cheap rule in its full splendour, the perfect example of the philosophy.

Tri-Bars

Another example, clip on triathlon handlebars for time trialling. As an example, the Oval Concepts S-Bend comes in two varieties, aluminium & carbon fibre. The profiles are exactly the same, both round, so there is no aero advantage from the carbon extensions, they are also both strong enough for the purpose, the only advantage is weight. The carbon variety (model 950, rrp £109.99) weigh 510g, the aluminium set (model 750, rrp £79.99) weigh 551g, so for an additional £30 you save 41g. To put that in perspective, a bag of crisps weights 35g.

What this tells us, is that saving that extra £30 if you’re riding flat time trials isn’t going to make any difference for the tiny amount of additional weight, we’ll get to a different scenario later on, under ‘Marginal Gains’.

Bottle Cages

The diminutive bottle cage tells us a lot about the strong, light, cheap rule. There are plenty of standard bottle cages, which work perfectly well, are robust & don’t weigh very much. Also on the market are various lightweight cages, titanium, flimsy aluminium & carbon. These super-lightweight cages only save a few grammes, but cost multiple times more than the trusty standard cages. In my experience, you need a malleable cage, so it holds your bottles in place over bumps, especially hiding in the wheels in races when you can’t see the bumps coming & avoid them. We can really put these into the marginal gains area.

Marginal Gains

This is a much documented phrase, brought to the cycling public’s attention initially by Team Sky, but now generally adopted as a means to improve performance. If you’re not familiar with it, the ‘aggregation of marginal gains’ involves combining multiple small improvements to create a combined large improvement. As an example, shaving 10g from 50 components to reduce weight by 500g, a significant combined improvement, created from a large number of seemingly insignificant improvements. The main component & materials area where these improvements have been considered is not necessarily in weight, due to the UCI’s 6.8kg minimum weight rule, but in aerodynamics. In a round-about way, the UCI’s unfair rule has forced teams to look for technical advances in other ways, one of which is aerodynamics.

This isn’t a new thing of course, the phrase is relatively modern, but Merckx was drilling holes in chainrings to reduce weight decades ago, a practice which would now be frowned upon by the wind tunnel testers as it would produce more turbulence than a smooth surface. In those days weight was measurable, but aerodynamic drag was not, so weight took preference.

Today, we see many drag saving components available to the club rider, but these need to be used correctly in order to gain an advantage. My personal gripe is with aero drop bars, with the ‘tops’ area shaped into an aerodynamic wing profile, great if used correctly, very bad if not. You’ll often see the aero section at an incorrect angle to allow the rider to be comfortable on the drops, creating much more drag than a round bar, such as an F1 cars ‘trim’ creating plenty of downforce on corners but reducing its top end speed on the straights. The other issue is that if you set the bars in the horizontal position, then your hand position & angle on the drops is determined by the manufacturer, which is probably not ideal for most, as we know the human body causes the most drag, so changing that is going to cost even more speed. I’m not a fan of these bars for those reasons, but they do look nice, so if you’re more interested in aesthetics than performance they might be correct for you.

The Gist Of It

If you’re buying an off the peg bike, it’s worth noting where manufacturers are saving money or weight, a quick look over the full specification can reveal some important clues. When constructing a bike yourself, be very aware of the ‘strong, light, cheap, pick two’ rule. You can mix & match, buy a frame which may not be the lightest, but rides like a dream & seek out light & strong components, it’s possible to bring most race frame builds down close to the UCI limit of 6.8kg for the full bike, you just need to be smart about it.

Consider what & where you’re riding, the lightest TT frame isn’t going to give you an advantage if you ride flat time trials, but if you’re into hilly ones, it may have an impact. If you’re carrying an extra 10kg round the waist & you’re seeking out very expensive frames that weigh less than 1kg, you’re opening yourself up to some ridicule. Best to sort out that belly first, ride your bike & then worry about weight when it’s going to make an impact on your overall (bike+rider) weight. Half a kilogramme in extra bike weight is insignificant if you’re already carrying an extra 8 frames-worth in body fat.

As a coach once told me when I used to fuss about such things as tiny weight savings, “go and have a proper visit to the toilet before a race, that’ll make just as much difference”.

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