Sunday, May 17, 2020

Letter to a Middle-Aged Cyclist - Buy New Wheels NOW!


This post is available as a vlog. And check this out: if you launch the video and then close your eyes, it magically becomes a podcast! Naturally, the traditional text-O-rama blog format follows below.


I’m not much of a consumer, but recently a friend bullied me into buying new wheels for my road bike. Based on the outcome, and with all the zeal of a convert, I exhorted another friend, who complained about broken spokes, to buy these wheels as well. Seeing an opportunity to expand my beneficence, I hereby entreat all middle-aged road cyclists to buy new wheels too. Here are my top five reasons, followed by a handy Q&A.

Reason #1 – You’re not getting any younger

Okay, right off the bat you can find some pretty badass looking wheels nowadays. Case in point, these Dura-Ace C40s I just picked up. Have a gander at these bad boys.

Now, if you were 70 years old, would I be recommending these to you? Of course not. You’d be a geezer, unlikely to get much use out of them. When my dad was like 70, and had suffered some shoulder injury he thought to be permanent, he decided he needed a recumbent, because it was closer to the ground. “If I crash on a regular bicycle and land on my shoulder, it is done,” he explained sternly. Alas, he was too old a dog to master the recumbent bicycle, so then he bought a recumbent tricycle. Now he no longer needed to balance, but the supine riding position, he complained, gave him terrible neck pain. Well hell, I could have predicted that!

The awkwardness of the recumbent is not just a physical problem. There’s also the aesthetic consideration. Nobody should ride recumbents, any more than any tortoise should be flipped over on its back and laughed at. Fortunately, after giving up on the trike, my dad decided his shoulder was okay after all and bought a sensible Fuji hybrid/commuter bike. Not bad, except he never rode it either; apparently after his hip replacement he couldn’t swing his leg over the bike. So he asked me what I thought about him trading it in for a women’s model, with no top tube.

My instant reaction was, “What, are you crazy? What’s next, you gonna start drinking rosé? Dude, it’s time to man up, do some damn physical therapy, and ride the bike you got!” But if course there was no point in saying this. By the time a guy is asking you if it’s okay to ride a women’s bike, it’s too late to help him. “Sounds like a great plan,” I told him, “and I’m sure Performance would gladly swap your bike for a women’s model at no charge. After all, you’ve never ridden it.” This was a gamble, of course; would he take my advice, and if so, whose demise was approaching faster—his or Performance’s? (In the end it was a dead heat.)

I hope I’ve made it clear we need to put off the geezer years for as long as possible and hang on to youthful stuff with all our might. In this battle, aesthetics are important. If you’re over 50, you’re heading toward the years when you wouldn’t necessarily carry off those badass new wheels very well. Similarly, there’s something sad about a 65-year-old in a distressed-looking leather jacket and that’s where we’re headed. At some point that jacket would need to be traded in on a cardigan sweater because who the hell are we kidding? As Anthony Bourdain once said, “There’s nothing cool about ‘used to be cool.’”

[Above: my brother Max and I when we were younger and cooler (even if we weren’t, strictly speaking, cool). Can I still wear that jacket? Yes, I think … but not forever.]

Don’t even get me started on all the super-cool sports cars you see in the Bay Area—the Porsches, the McLarens, the Audi R8s, even your occasional Lambo—that inevitably have some 60-plus douche behind the wheel (driving responsibly, of course). Seeing this grotesque pairing of speed-obsessed engineering and delusional, over-moneyed, existential Viagra, I fantasize about the guy’s irresponsible 18-year-old grandson stealing the car and taking it out for a joy ride, maybe even leading the cops in a stupidity-and-adrenaline-fueled high-speed pursuit.

At least bikes provide a healthy outlet for midlife-crisis ya-yas. So we should all be using high-end, kickass gear while we still can. If we can still put the hurt on younger riders, and we can still make our racing bikes go jolly fast, we’re not too old to deserve really awesome machines. Yet. So you need to snap up and enjoy these wheels while you still have the mettle, the minerals, the sound & the fury to put them to good use. Seize the day!

Reason #2 – The price is right

I hear anecdotally that everything is cheaper now because of the COVID-19 shelter-in-place and the low price of oil. New cars, as described here, are still being shipped over here and there’s no place to put them because the dealers aren’t making a dent in their current inventory. It’s kind of a consumer’s market in general, apparently.

So when I broke my third spoke in under 500 miles on my current rear wheel, and complained to my friend Pete, he immediately urged me to buy new ones. He even sent me a link to where the wheels he recommended were on sale for $350 off. Within a few minutes I found them on closeout at another place for $600 off. DAAAAAAMN!

There’s also the price of not buying those wheels. Look, your gear is going to wear out at some point. Why wait until then, when the economy may well be booming again, and you’ll have to pay what the market will bear? And why run the risk of finding out the hard way that your hubs and/or rims are approaching wear-related catastrophic structural failure, like my crankarm back in 2011?

With my new wheels the cost analysis included the crap I’d have had to put up with from Pete if I’d stuck to my penny-pinching ways. He wrote, and I quote, “Do it do it do it do it. Don’t be scared.” I hemmed and hawed and he pointed out, “It’s not like you’re gonna go on some expensive vacation any time soon.” I acknowledged this point and he replied: “See, you’re practically making money on the deal!”

Not a bad argument, but the “don’t be scared” was even more powerful. Did you catch that? How he was, albeit subtly, impugning my confidence? Like I’m too scared to throw money around? I went silent for a bit and he texted me, “I assume your silence means you bought them!” He basically rim-shamed me into the purchase, and I hope I’m doing the same with you. If not, read on because I’m not done yet.

Reason #3 – Aero wheels actually will make you go faster

By “modern” I mean the truly aerodynamic ones. No, not like those super deep-dish time trial wheels, which is frankly overkill, but something a bit more aggressive than what you might have on your bike. In my case, I had been rocking the HED Ardennes, which claim to be aerodynamic but aren’t very deep (and frankly aren’t very durable—long, dull story). I’m talking something at least 35mm deep, from the edge of the rim where the tire sidewall begins to where the spokes go in. And the wheels need to have a relative paucity of spokes—not a mere 16 front and rear, like the early Shimano wheels I swore off of, but not your old-school 28- or 32-spoke build either. And bladed spokes, needless to say. Why on earth did my replacement HED wheel, which I just bought late last year to replace the defective one I bought in 2014, have non-bladed spokes? What, did they forget? What’s next, toothpaste without fluoride? Leaded gasoline? CRT televisions? Dial-up Internet?

Now, the bicycle industry has a long history of total BS when it comes to aerodynamics. I give you the aero water bottle, which led to famous victories by nobody ever.

They’re just hideous. I doubt anybody would use them even if they did confer a real advantage. Aesthetics, remember?

And you think the placement of these shifters, and the internal cabling, led to any actual benefit?

To some degree the bicycle industry pretended that making something needlessly ugly would automatically lead to aerodynamic improvement:

So I’ve been skeptical about aero wheels too (other than, obviously, disk wheels, tri-spokes, etc.). When I was pondering my last new wheel purchase in 2014, I incredulously emailed my teammate Sean (a legit bike maven), “It’s crazy ... the more expensive Dura-Ace wheels are heavier than the C24s … could that be right? Is the idea that the aerodynamics are so much better, it’s worth it? The order of the universe seems out of whack all of a sudden.” Sean replied, “Yes, that is correct. I too have trouble accepting the idea that heavier wheels can be faster, but apparently the aerodynamics more than make up for the weight gain, unless you are doing major climbing.”

So is he right? In a word, yes. There really is a big difference with these Dura-Ace C40s (35mm deep in the rim-brake version). It’s not subtle. Consider this: there’s a little downhill on Wildcat Canyon Road, where I try to get as much speed as I can to carry me up the next rise. I’m accustomed to hitting a little over 30 mph on that if I pedal fairly hard. With these wheels, putting out about the same perceived effort, I hit 37 mph! Digging extra deep yesterday, I reached almost 40. Going down South Park Drive, without pedaling, I can feel the bike picking up speed like it never has before, as though gravity had gotten stronger. (In a sense its effect is stronger, as it’s impeded less by wind drag.) Descending with these wheels is the difference between paddling your little canoe out on the lake vs. feeling a giant wave pick up your surf kayak and hurl it toward the beach.

Now, I know just what you’re thinking: your decisions these days are data-driven. You don’t want this mealy-mouthed, feel-good subjective nonsense clouding your AI-like judgment. So here are the cold, hard facts about my first two rides with these wheels.

My first ride was one of my favorite loops, 19.3 miles with about 2,500 feet of climbing. My previous best time of the year was 1:19:02, an average speed of 14.7 mph. On this route with the new wheels (their maiden voyage), I clocked a 1:16:26, averaging 15.5 mph. Pretty staggering improvement, eh?

Now, there’s a such thing as “new bike syndrome” where you automatically go faster because a) you’re excited about the new bike, and b) you’re frightened into riding harder by the looming specter of buyer’s remorse. Does new bike syndrome extend to wheels? Anecdotally I wouldn’t say so, and anyway we can account for that effect, to some extent, by looking at average heart rate across the two rides.

For the ride that produced my former best time, my average heart rate was 131 bpm, and I was in Zone 3 (>144 bpm) for 0:17:49. On the new wheels, my record-breaking ride was at an average HR of 132, with only 0:15:55 in zone 3 (and no time in or above zone 4 for either ride). In other words, the level of effort was comparable, one ride to the next. So, yeah—it was the fricking wheels! They actually made me faster!

Of course I can’t base this conclusion on a single ride. But the next ride corroborated this; it’s a bit shorter at 16.7 miles, with just over 2,000 feet of climbing, and I beat my 2020 PR of 1:07:43 handily, completing the ride in just 1:04:45 (15.5 mph vs. 14.8). This year I’ve done one or the other of these loops 17 times on the old wheels, and never averaged above 15 mph. With the new wheels, I’ve broken the coveted 15 mph average all three times on the longer loop plus the one time on the shorter loop. Four for four!

Moreover, factoring in longer rides (with more flat sections), my highest average speed of the year on the old wheels was 16.3 mph (on a 33-mile ride with 2,900 feet of climbing). On the new wheels yesterday, I averaged 17.6 mph (on a 39.4-mile ride with 3,300 feet of climbing). That’s an 8% improvement … stunning.

Reason #4 – New wheels will actually make you ride harder

Okay, I’ll confess that comparing my average heart rate across rides is somewhat specious, given the slippery nature of the term “average.” After all, the average person has one breast and one testicle. Coasting on downhills will lower the average heart rate figure inconsistently, etc. Meanwhile, by looking closely at some of my climbs, it’s clear I’ve been going harder lately. On the old wheels I recently clocked a non-stellar 8:13 up Pinehurst Road, whereas with the new wheels yesterday I managed a much better 7:39. My average heart rate over the slower ascent was a mere 140 bpm. Yesterday, my average for this climb was 148 bpm. Across the whole ride, I’d averaged 122 bpm for the first ride, and 133 yesterday.

So does this deconstruct my whole argument, suggesting that greater effort, not greater efficiency, explains the improvement in speed? First of all, no—the difference is too great, and too consistent, and I do have the pair of rides with very similar heart rate yet dissimilar speed & time. Second, it kind of doesn’t really matter if I could have gone as fast, or as hard, on the old wheels. The fact is, I didn’t. I’m going faster and harder now, clearly. When better equipment puts better performance within our reach, we’re much more likely to stretch ourselves.

There’s also the matter of momentum. The parts of my rides that aren’t big climbs or descents are still lumpy, and with the new wheels I find myself carrying more speed from a downhill into the next uphill, such that if I go a bit harder I can stay in the big chainring for longer stretches (in my case, from Summit Reservoir all the way to Inspiration Point), which inspires and enthuses me. It’s a virtuous cycle.

[Google Maps says it takes 23 minutes to ride the above route. With my old wheels I did as well as 12:58. My new PR with the aero wheels is 11:35.]

Reason #5 – COVID-19

Let’s face it, if we’re smart during this pandemic we’ll all be riding alone for the foreseeable future, with nobody to draft, so we need to be as aerodynamic as possible or we’ll a) get too frustrated to continue, meaning we’ll give up cycling, launching a downward slide into sloth and depression, or b) we’ll be unable to resist drafting others, meaning we’re one snot rocket away from bringing the coronavirus home and killing our entire family.

Meanwhile, returning to the fiscal discussion I started earlier, during shelter-in-place it’s harder to spend money. My credit card bill hasn’t been this low in years, and for the first time in forever all the transactions fit on one page. Why not splurge a little? Besides, there’s a good chance we’ll all be dead soon, along with our would-be heirs, so what’s the point in saving? It’s time to buy! Buy buy buy!

Questions and answers

Q. Why not just get a whole new bike, since there have been so many improvements in technology, such as disc brakes?

A. How can you even contemplate such a major purchase when the global economy is melting the fuck down?! I can’t believe you’re thinking so irresponsibly. Besides, better brakes will not make you go faster. Aren’t we slowing down enough as we head into middle age? Meanwhile, it might be pretty hard finding a new bike anyway ... the pandemic has caused a major bike shortage, as described here.

Q. Why wouldn’t I upgrade my mountain bike wheels instead? Maybe with some sweet carbon rims?

A. With the vast hordes of hikers I’m seeing in the regional parks, I don’t consider mountain biking safe whatsoever right now, or even fun. How are you supposed to socially distance on single track? I can’t imagine spending money on a bike I might not get to even ride in the foreseeable future.

Q. What about crosswinds?

A. Whaddya mean, crosswinds? What the hell are you even talking about? Listen to this guy … crosswinds.

Q. In your previous post about selecting bike wheels you touted the benefits of wider rims and claimed that “the HEDs really do ride better” and “the ride is really plush.” Now you’re pushing Dura-Ace wheels with a narrower rim profile. What gives?

A. You know what else is really plush? Your bed. Or we could ride around on beach cruisers. Look, we’re heading toward old age, infirmity, and death … this isn’t the time to make ourselves comfortable. To paraphrase Andrew Marvell, “The grave’s a fine and restful place/ But no one there is fit to race.”

Q. You seem to assume that all your readers are still gainfully employed right now, even though unemployment in the U.S. is now at historic levels, with more than 20 million people out of work. How can you callously pretend we’re all in a position to spend money on nonessentials?

A. Just buy the damn wheels.

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