Cadair Idris is one of the Welsh ‘three peaks,’ a distinctive and iconic mountain at the base of Snowdonia National Park. The summit is a hard, steep two-hour walk up a loose gravel track, but the views are of the raw, green, sweeping variety, topography in motion, sheep everywhere. The struggle is to both keep your footing and take in the stunning beauty all around you at the same time. The day we went up, we were the second car in the lot, and the first people on the top, so we had the place to ourselves for a bit.
On the way down we nodded greetings and said “Hiya!” (emphasis and uplift on the second syllable in the Welsh accent) to a steady train of folks huffing and puffing their way up. That’s when we met the guy in the photo above carrying his bike to the summit for the pleasure of riding down again. He said he had done it a few times before, so he knew the size of the task. He was sweating hard despite the cool wind blowing across the mountainside. He had a grin on his face, perhaps slightly maniacal.
The bike is an alloy Orange FIVE EVO, and it weighs probably close to 30lbs.
I haven’t thought about weight much over the last few years, only when other people bring it up. “How heavy is your bike?” they ask, and I answer, “No clue.” And that feels good. In my heart I know it’s not the weight of my wheelset or frame holding me back; it’s most often a lack of miles in my legs, miles that are cheaper, in a way, than a newer, lighter bike.
But I thought a lot about the weight of a bike after meeting Mr. Orange.
Because honestly, I have no real interest in trying to trim a pound out of any of my bikes. They’re plenty light, and they ride well regardless of what they weigh. But as I picked my way down the mountain I thought, “Where does it all end? What, for example, would it be like to ride a 5lb road bike? And how would you go about building a bike like that?”
I’ve studied the material science of bicycles a bit. I understand why we are where we are with carbon fiber, titanium, aluminum and steel. I really have no idea where the breakthroughs are coming, but in my reverie, there on Cadair Idris I began thinking about ultrafine meshes of long-chain polymers and the replacement of things like metal chains and thick rubbers. At the moment, it’s all science fiction, but who am I to say we won’t get there?
Can we make a 5lb road bike, a 6lb gravel bike, a 10lb dual suspension rig? There are people working on these problems, searching for these holy grails of lightness, even as I type these words. Technology is trickling down from aerospace, to automotive, to bicycle, perhaps even sideways from textiles. Will any of it happen in my lifetime? Well, I’m still waiting for that jetpack we all joke about.
I wonder if bikes that light would be hard to ride, if there would be enough mass to maintain a sense of kinetic balance with the bike. If you’re asking yourself, “What the hell is kinetic balance?” yeah, I know. I’m not sure either. I’m just very curious about how our minds have calibrated themselves to the feeling of the weight of the bike beneath us, and whether removing so much of that weight would require a major adjustment in how we handle the machine. Would it be great? Or would it be too much?
The thing about a holy grail is that it’s an idealized treasure. Once you have one, you might find out it’s not the best for drinking coffee, beer, wine or whatever else you’ve dreamed of putting in it. You may find you’ve spent a lot of time and energy on the quest, only to loathe the actual treasure, like a kid who’s spent the day collecting skee-ball tickets to trade for a pair of comedically large sunglasses or a stuffed dolphin. Like climbing a mountain, it’s usually the quest, not the treasure, you’re after.
Our bike-toting friend strode away from us, up, up, and up the scraggly trail, and I began to do that thing you do when you’re not on a bike, which is to imagine myself riding the terrain. I could imagine burning forearms and the strain of concentration, picking a line through the sharp rockfall. I began to envy that lunatic, and I wondered just how light a bike would have to be for me to put one on my back myself, maybe not much lighter than 30lbs really.
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I went bike touring last weekend, so ride my gravel bike with an extra 30lbs or so. Then got on my 20lb road bike for the Monday commute. The muscle memory in my legs seemed to be gone and I couldn’t get out of the saddle without the bike whipping around beneath me. Funny feeling. It wasn’t until Tuesday evening that the muscle memory came back and I could stand and pedal again on the road bike. A 5lb bike,if one existed would feel very strange to ride if you are not used to it
I am sure I could get used to anything, but I have no complaints riding a 30ish pound dual suspension mountain bike. Actually, when comparing it back to back with a lighter bike, the heavier bike feels more stable and more able to plow through things that would deflect lighter bikes. Now, it is not a perfectly fair comparison as they are not the same frameset, and I know that there is a point of diminishing returns, but heavier is not alway worse and lighter is not always better. I, and my wallet, are happy not pursuing the holy grail of lightness.