Why Light Weight?

Why Light Weight?

Recently, a reader asked: “Why are you so focused on saving a gram here or there? For the 99.999% of us who are not professionally racing, but just wanting to get out there and ride, shouldn’t the focus be on function and longevity?”

Of course, the reader is right – some of the bike industry’s ‘weight weenie mania’ is misplaced. I shake my head when we get a Bicycle Quarterly test bike with aluminum screws for the bottle cages that are already stripped from the initial installation, or when adjusting the saddle height is a major operation with tiny screws that you don’t want to attempt by the roadside. But statements like “Weight doesn’t matter!” are just as misleading.

We strongly feel that a bike shouldn’t be heavier than necessary. Why? What are the advantages of a light bike for ‘normal’ riders? If you read our book ‘The All-Road Bike Revolution,’ you’ll see that it’s not about arriving at the top of a long mountain climb a few seconds earlier – as important as that may be for racers – but about function, feel and elegance.

When you optimize a component, you fine-tune it through many iterations until you have just the right amount, of only the best materials, in just the right places. That means your component will inevitably be light.

Take our centerpull brakes, for example. We used Finite Element Analysis to optimize the arms, to put material only where it’s needed. That actually makes the arms stronger, since they are loaded uniformly across their entire length, without stress concentrations. We mount the brakes directly to the fork blades and seatstays. Direct mount brakes save weight, but they are also more powerful, since they flex less. Less flex means that their modulation is better, too, since the angle of the brake pads doesn’t change as they squeeze the rim harder. Less weight, more power, better modulation – all these positives go hand-in-hand.

And since our brakes are already among the lightest in the world, why not make titanium versions of some bolts where this doesn’t affect function? (For riders who aren’t concerned about weight, we offer the brakes with steel bolts, too.)

The titanium bolts exist for a reason: A light bike feels different from a heavy one. And a light bike isn’t the result of one or two superlight parts, but of shaving 20, 50 or even 100 grams from every component. It all adds up – my blue Rene Herse weighs just 10.2 kg (22.5 lb) fully equipped; my Firefly (above) breaks the 10 kg barrier despite its huge 54 mm tires. Many similar bikes with heavier-than-necessary components weigh almost 50% more. That is a difference you can feel when you ride. When you climb out of the saddle, when you accelerate past a bus that is about to pull out of its stop, or when you lean the bike into a corner during a mountain descent, a light bike reacts differently from a heavy bike. And that is independent of how much the rider weighs.

It’s that lightweight feel that makes a 17-pound carbon all-road bike so much fun. For many riders, it’s worth putting up with parts that aren’t designed for more than a few years of hard riding. I can understand, but it’s not how we do things at Rene Herse Cycles. Our goal is to capture that lightweight feel without compromising function or longevity.

In fact, all our components could be lighter, if that was our only goal. Take our tires: We put a millimeter of extra rubber in the middle of the tread, so they last twice as long. (Since you can’t wear down the last millimeter, a 3 mm-thick tread has twice as much rubber to wear off than a 2 mm tread). It adds a few grams, but our tires aren’t ‘event’ tires that you put on for a special ride and then take off again. Our tests have shown that with a supple, wide tire, adding a little rubber in the middle of the tread doesn’t make it roll slower, so there’s really no reason to make ‘pre-worn’ tires – unless you are chasing every last gram.

Our brakes fall in the same category. They are among the lightest in the world, but we don’t use ultra-thin pads like almost everybody else today. Our pads are much thicker, so they last more than just one winter of riding in rainy Seattle.

Our cranks are so strong that they pass the EN ‘Racing Bike’ standard for fatigue resistance. That’s the toughest standard for road cranks – much more demanding than the more common ‘City/Trekking Bike’ test. The only way to pass the ‘Racing Bike’ test is to ‘net-shape forge’ your cranks. This means that you forge them with tooling that is exactly the same shape as the final crank. (Many less expensive cranks use ‘multi-crank’ tooling that makes a ‘crank-shaped object,’ which then is machined down to the final shape of the crank.)

Net-shape forging makes our cranks so strong that there’s no need for heavy bulk. Our cranks among among the lightest in the world, yet they will last through many more fatigue cycles than cranks that are heavier and less strong.

Spokes are probably the best example of how optimized components are lighter and stronger. Double-butted spokes are thinner in the middle than at the ends, so they are lighter and more aerodynamic. They are also stronger. Spokes fatigue when they get de-tensioned as the wheel compresses at the bottom. Each time the wheel turns, each spoke goes through one cycle of de-tensioning and re-tensioning. After many, many cycles, the spoke will break. Thinner spokes stretch more at the same spoke tension, so they lose less tension as the wheel compresses. This means that thinner spokes fatigue much less.

If spokes fail, they break at the ends, and that’s where double-butted spokes have the same amount of material as thick straight-gauge spokes. That makes double-butted spokes a ‘win-win’ idea: The ends are as thick and strong as straight spokes, while the middle is thin to reduce fatigue. And on the Sapim spokes we sell, the ends are as short as possible, which maximizes the advantage (and minimizes the weight). The only down side of butted spokes is that they wind up more as you tension the wheel, so they require more skill from the wheelbuilder.

There are places where choosing relatively heavy components makes sense. We equip most Bicycle Quarterly test bikes with leather saddles, because we ride them over long distances. It’s hard to feel positive about a bike when you’re uncomfortable… and we haven’t found a superlight saddle that’s as comfortable as a leather saddle that’s shaped to our very personal anatomy. However, we usually choose saddles with titanium rails, which save 80 grams and flex more to improve comfort further.

When taken to extremes, the search for light weight can compromise function and longevity, but that doesn’t need to be the case. Well-designed and well-made components are light, strong and durable. The bikes we ride – and the components we make – are designed for everyday use over a very long time. My first Rene Herse (above) is now 10 years old and has been ridden for more than 50,000 km (30,000 miles), including two Paris-Brest-Paris, a Cascade 1200, the Oregon Outback and many other challenging rides. It’s still equipped with its original parts, and it still performs as well as it did when it was built. And thanks to its lightweight feel, it’s still a joy to ride.

Further reading:

The All-Road Bike Revolution: Make Your Bike Fast, Comfortable and Reliable

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Comments (34)

  • Russell D. Price

    I had a friend remind me of another reality of weight: it’s probably a lot harder to shave 5 lbs. off the weight of your bike than it is for you to lose 5 lbs. off your body! Something to consider if you’re tempted to give up comfort, function, and longevity for a few ounces!

    February 16, 2021 at 9:47 am
  • jon norstog

    Don’t forget touring! Every pound saved means a pound more of food/maybe a sleeping pad/or a pair of walking shoes.

    February 16, 2021 at 9:48 am
    • Jan Heine

      Touring and bikepacking are great examples – all about packing light and saving weight (less on the bike, more on the load), so that you can enjoy the cycling more.

      February 16, 2021 at 9:55 am
  • Mike

    With most well-crafted tools, there is a difference in feel that matches or exceeds the difference in performance.

    February 16, 2021 at 9:51 am
    • Mark

      Jan hi. Do you have any advice for those who can’t afford bespoke made bikes – how do find something ‘off the peg’ with a view to improving as time and wallet allow?

      February 16, 2021 at 10:26 am
  • Jacob

    Light weight components are also important for smaller riders who are more impacted by additional weight on the bike. If you are 200 lbs, you might not feel the impact of an additional pound or two the way a 90lb rider would. A few weight saving measures can make a big difference in ride quality when building a bike for a smaller, petit rider!

    February 16, 2021 at 9:52 am
    • Bern

      Not just components either; a frame built for a 175lb rider will be heavier than necessary for a 150lb rider, and likely too stiff as well. So even medium height or tall riders, if they are thin, or lighter than average, are prime beneficiaries of extra light bikes.

      February 16, 2021 at 3:05 pm
  • Timothy N

    Great summary. Now I have a place to point to should it come up (again) with friends and family. That said, as one commenter above pointed out out, _all_ half decent bikes seem lightweight to me now that I’m somewhere north of 110kgs…

    February 16, 2021 at 10:10 am
  • Bryan

    I asked a hardcore Roadie why he removes the dust cap on his presta valves. The answer, weight! LOL!
    My Brian Chapman came with metal dust caps painted to match the frame. Not only are they elegant has Hell but they keep road grime off the treads and out of the valve!

    February 16, 2021 at 10:15 am
    • Jan Heine

      The weight of the valve itself could actually matter. Peter Weigle told me about a guy who balanced the wheels he built. Peter said that his wheels rolled super-smoothly. On metal rims, the valve is usually on opposite the seam to balance the extra weight of the weld or sleeve that joins the rim. But on a carbon rim, you don’t have a seam, and so the valve could unbalance the wheel… which means you want to make it as light as possible.

      In reality, the valve cap is such a small part that it probably doesn’t matter. It seems to serve mostly to protect the tube from getting punctured by the sharp valve during shipping. Once you install the tube, it doesn’t hurt to leave it off. If a racer thinks that makes them faster – no harm done.

      February 16, 2021 at 4:02 pm
      • Bryan

        Very interesting! And that’s why I’m a long time subscriber to BQ, you teach me someone new everyday. Thank you!
        My stable is full of touring bikes so my carbon experience is minimal. So far it’s limited to a handlebar and forks. I totally agree that weight matters and I pack with great care. When it comes to components, however, durability and dependability are my primary focus. And like you said, quality matters!

        February 17, 2021 at 5:28 am
    • marmotte27

      Leaving off valve caps saves loads of weiht, at least as much as shaving your legs and wearing white socks that go just above the ankle.

      More seriously, I leave them off because they don’t really serve any purpose once the tube’s installed and chances are I will lose them somewhere in nature while adjusting tire pressure on the road.

      February 17, 2021 at 9:27 pm
  • Michael Kinsley

    I am a big guy… 275 pounds when I’m fit, and oftentimes, slightly more. On the few occasions where I’ve let others convince me that my insistence upon 36 spoke wheels is just adding useless weight (worse yet, rotational mass!), I’ve quickly come to regret it. After nearly 45 years I’ve come to the mantra of “lightest appropriate for strength.”

    February 16, 2021 at 10:15 am
  • Ryan

    Totally agree! This is one of those strange cases where the expensive parts and bikes are actually better for the less skilled riders. A powerful and skilled rider will wear through components faster and be less impacted by weight!

    February 16, 2021 at 10:26 am
    • Jan Heine

      I think everybody benefits from a great bike. If you ride a lot, the less expensive parts wear out so fast that they get quite expensive. My first bike was the most expensive per mile – once I started riding seriously, everything broke or wore out in no time. When I sold it after 4,000 miles, I had spent its original purchase price again in parts. My next bike cost more than twice as much, but it took me through 10 years and 60,000 miles of racing. On a cost-per-mile ratio, the expensive bike was about 1/10 of the cheap one. (And to bring this back on topic, the expensive bike was lighter and more fun, too!)

      February 16, 2021 at 10:41 am
      • Michael Kinsley

        I’m still riding the Jack Taylor I bought in 1978… And everyone thought I was absolutely insane spending $1,200 for a bicycle then.

        February 18, 2021 at 1:37 pm
        • Conrad

          Its all about price per mile!

          February 18, 2021 at 4:57 pm
  • Keith Benefiel

    Having been cycling 3-5000 miles a year for the past 50, comfort is my number one concern. That being said, every ounce counts. Any weight saved is more beer that can be toted to camp!

    February 16, 2021 at 10:47 am
  • Lynda

    I have a question about your front racks. Is there a way to talk to someone and ask if one of the racks can be put on my bike?
    Elk Pass tires are great. They have made my custom bike a joy to ride

    February 16, 2021 at 11:06 am
    • Jan Heine

      Unfortunately, beyond the tech specs that are published on our web site, we can’t really help you figure out whether the rack will fit onto your bike without having the bike in front of us. I suggest taking it to a bike shop… The UD-1 rack is adjustable, so if your bike meets the basic requirements (hole in the fork crown, fork crown not too thick, eyelets somewhere on the fork), you can usually install the rack.

      February 16, 2021 at 3:53 pm
  • Russ Marx

    A great bike can evolve. A Ti seat post on my 1996 Waterford. Then a Carbon Fork. then carbon stem & handlebars. Up grade the shifters to Ultragra 10 spd. Keep the 105 crankset so the 28 tooth Salsa chain ring will fit, then a 12-32 cassett, old Dur-Ace brakes. You can zone out on the aerobars It will keep going straight.

    February 16, 2021 at 11:15 am
  • Martin

    Thanks for the nice article. Shaving a few grams on our bikes feels great, but weight matters certainly much more for children. What a difference it made when we treated our daughter with a light weight bike with carefully chosen components. The weight of most children bikes (often featuring non-functioning suspension) is just absurd.

    February 16, 2021 at 3:10 pm
    • Andrew H.

      I agree absolutely! A super light race BMX has been just great for my daughter. It’s under 15# and features a 98 pound rider weight limit, still heavier than necessary but not in the same league as most 20″ bikes. Even with only one gear she can dance up overpasses and beat me, her cyclist dad, if I’m on our cargo bike.

      February 16, 2021 at 8:08 pm
  • JDB

    Blame my meager resistance training, wispy physique, and competing priorities such as work and parenting… but I find that as my riding miles and fitness have tapered, I’m even more attuned to light weight because I have fewer watts to waste. Sometimes I observe my stronger-physique riding buddies surge ahead of me in just a few pedal strokes, and I feel like the watts they give up to heavy bikes and poor posture could be the sum of all the watts I put out. Just emotions, for sure. But over the years I’ve cut at least a couple pounds off my randonneur bike through judicious upgrades, and I enjoy its ride feel more even if it’s an off year for my riding. And whenever I replace a worn part, or feel any need to change something, it’s nearly always done in sympathy to light weight (as long as not compromising longevity – per Jan’s foundational premise).

    February 16, 2021 at 3:56 pm
  • Benjamin Van Orsdol

    My bike is a heavy and sturdy beast, and it gives me a great excuse to be slow. I’d love to have something light that planes and begs for more speed. Someday
    Curious about a few things though, how does thin walled tubing affect weight. Also frame size? Are the Rene Herse brakes drillium- compatible? And I’ve read your enthusiasm for titanium railed saddles before. Not sure if it’s a sales pitch or reality. How noticable is it? I guess that more than a few 😉

    February 17, 2021 at 4:25 am
    • Jan Heine

      Many questions. Of course, the superlight frame tubing also makes a bike lighter. It doesn’t necessarily make it weaker – by allowing the tube to flex more, there is less stress at the joints… Of course, overheating the joints during the building of the frame is easier with thinwall tubing, so the builder’s skill are more important.

      Drillium: Drilling holes is possible only if a part is too heavy to begin with. Optimizing a shape is far more efficient than drilling holes. If you look at nature, you won’t see holes in the bones of birds and other structures optimized for light weight. Formula 1 race cars also aren’t full of holes, but made of perfectly formed parts instead. The same applies to the superlight bikes from the 1940s Concours de Machines – material was carved away, which is more work, but far more effective, than drilling holes. So to your question: You can’t drill holes in Rene Herse brakes.

      February 17, 2021 at 8:19 am
      • Bryan Clymer

        Love the response, I’m 56yrs old, 190lbs, I’ve been riding a Canondale synapse 5 for 9 yrs and looking at a Trek Domane for comfort. Starting from scratch without all your knowledge and experience puts guys like me at a disadvantage. I’m looking to put together my final bike to buy. If you were to build your final bike, mostly for road with a little smooth gravel, what would you build.
        BTW, i listened to your podcast on tires, width and pressure, love your Bon Jon Pass 35 tires, i would like them to be on my finished productl

        February 19, 2021 at 12:45 am
        • Jan Heine

          The ‘last bike I’ll want to buy’ question is an interesting one. How about these two data points from the BQ Team: Mark’s 6-Hands is now 15 years old, and it’s still the bike he loves riding all the time. Almost all the original parts still work well, and it does everything he wants to do on a bike. My chromed Rene Herse is approaching its 10th anniversary, and all I changed for my blue one was slightly lighter tubing and Rinko-compatibility. Both aren’t inexpensive, but they’ve given us amazing service and joy over 10,000s of miles. The cost-per-mile has been very reasonable, and is getting better all the time.

          On the other hand, I can also see buying an OPEN U.P.P.E.R. or my Firefly as my last bike. I don’t think I’d ever tire of the lightweight feel and the modern, understated aesthetics. Disc brakes and brifters would mean that I’d need a bit more budget for maintenance, but when I ride those bikes on a sunny day, I won’t regret the money spent. They’ll put a smile on my face every time I ride them.

          Those are just my personal preferences. There are many great bikes out there…

          February 19, 2021 at 9:22 am
  • Benjamin Van Orsdol

    Oh and I forgot! I’m surprised you didn’t mention your award winning JP Weigle. Is there limits to it’s durability? Do you notice it’s lightweight when you ride it? I know you have many dream bikes and test bikes to choose from but kinda surprised that it doesn’t see the road (at least from what you share) as much as the others. It seems like a perfect bike. Absolutely gorgeous too

    February 17, 2021 at 4:34 am
  • Thom

    Since not all of us can afford a custom frame, are there any off the shelf frames you recommend as a good starting point for a weight conscious all road or rando build?

    February 17, 2021 at 9:41 am
    • Korina

      Find yourself a good ’80s or ’90s steel road bike frame and build from there. Bridgestone, Trek, Specialized, a bunch more.

      February 17, 2021 at 2:04 pm
    • Conrad

      Or an old mountain bike. With drop bars and the rat traps, they are super fun all road bikes. I just picked up an old Serotta ATX for 150 bucks.

      February 18, 2021 at 4:56 pm
    • Jacob Musha

      In the past you could get lightweight and performance (road racing bike) or wide tires (MTB), but not both. Converting an old road bike to use 650b wheels is an option if it has the tire clearance. At minimum this means brazing brake posts and the associated paint work, or a new fork. And fender mounting will be less than ideal. In theory a MTB could be converted but nearly all MTB frames use thicker and/or oversize tubing which is much stiffer than you want for a high performance all-road bike. But this means they can be made into great fully-loaded camping bikes.

      Today you can get lightweight, performance, and wide tires (OPEN, for example). But if you want those things in a fully equipped bike with fenders, front rack, and generator lights, you still have to go full custom. Unfortunately, this is because today’s light bikes for wide tires have no provisions for attaching any of these things. They are esentially just road racing bikes that fit wider tires. A rare exception is the Crust canti-brake Lightning Bolt. It was available briefly but is now gone from their site. Good luck.

      February 19, 2021 at 7:52 am
  • Kai S

    feel with weight that there is a limit over which it becomes a problem.

    which means under that weight, say 9-10 kg for a race bike, feel is not improving at the same rate as it was getting down to that limit.

    so not really a linear relationship, more of a treshold.

    February 17, 2021 at 9:37 pm

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