Lightening the Bike

Strong, light, cheap: pick any two. (Keith Bontrager)

You could lose more weight by cutting your fingernails. (LBS wrench,
responding to my plan for a weight-loss upgrade)
Yes, but after you cut your nails, what do you do? (Other wrench,
overhearing the conversation)

The Weight-Losing Attitude

Seek Lightness for the Right Reasons. Weight isn’t everything in cycling, or even the most important thing. It’s less important than bike fit, compliance, your fitness—lots of things. Physics labs keep telling us that, objectively, weight has much less of an impact on cycling performance that we think it does, even when you’re climbing. And it must be admitted that it’s easier, cheaper, and more beneficial overall to lose weight off your body than to lose it off your bike, unless you’re already at race weight. Most of us can lose 2-3 pounds pretty easily and it’s free, whereas dropping 3 pounds off a bike is about as much as anyone can expect from following this chapter’s practices without going crazy, and it requires a small fortune. All that being said, a truly light bike is a thing beautiful in its purity and minimalism, a holy grail for cyclists, and striving to drop weight out of the bike is a ton of fun.

So lightening the bike is a kind of game, to be played in that spirit, with passion but also with a sense of one’s own slight absurdity. I speak as an avowed weight weenie (as people like me are affectionately known in the cycling world) who is proud to say my bike weighs 13.5 lbs without pedals and stripped for uphill time trials.

Here’s how weight weenies feel about weight: I asked my LBS guy how much a stem I was considering buying weighed. They said, “We’ll ask Joe (the wise old wrench)—he knows the weight of everything.” The LBS guy called out, “Hey, Joe, how much does the Ritchey WCS 110mm stem weigh?” Joe yelled back, “115 g.” We weighed the stem, and the LBS guy yelled, “Joe, it says 121 g.” Joe yelled back, “Did you take the price tag off?”

Such is the world we are about to enter.

What’s Light? Here are some benchmarks: 19 lbs is heavy for a road bike; 17 lbs is a kind of serious enthusiast norm; 15 lbs is light; anything significantly under 15 lbs is very light; 13 lbs and under is getting crazy. Add a pound or two to all these numbers if you’re getting a gravel bike. Trek is selling a road bike, the Emonda, that weighs 12+ lbs, off the rack. It’s possible, by using components made by German companies dedicated to ultra-light componentry, to build a bike that weights 9-10 lbs, but to do that you have to make serious compromises with comfort (painful seats, no handlebar tape), handling (light means flexy), and eventually safety (very light things break).

The official weight of a bike almost always refers to its weight stripped—no water bottle cages, computers, seat packs, mini-pumps—and without pedals. So a “15-lb. bike” will weigh more like 18 lbs when you get it on the road.

There’s a Drawback to Lightness. Lighter isn’t simply better. Lighter means less material, and less material means flexier, unless the engineering is very good. Flexy is bad, because it means you’re spending energy to flex the bike that you’d rather put into moving forward. How much of a problem this is depends in part on how strong you are. A friend of mine who is much more powerful a rider than I am tells me that when he tries lightweight skewers (recommended below), his wheels flex so much the rims rub on the rim brake pads. This doesn’t happen to me. Your mileage may vary. Certainly the bike industry is currently moving away from light as a virtue and towards heavier/bulkier/stiffer—this modern wheels’ move to thru-axles.

How Much Does Light Cost? One of the most famous truisms in cycling (attributed to Tom Ritchey) is, “Strong, light, cheap: pick any two.” It’s easy to make light components that break; it’s expensive to make them both light and strong; it’s very expensive to make them very light and strong.

The expensive is exponential: the lighter the bike gets, the more expensive it becomes to make it lighter. It’s fairly cheap to go from 20 lbs to 17 lbs, expensive to go from 17 lbs to 15, and hair-raisingly costly to get below 15. The industry knows this and doesn’t hide it—one pedal maker once ran an add for their ultralight pedals sporting the slogan “Incredibly light; ridiculously expensive.”

An industry rule of thumb is, expect to pay about $1 per gram, or $450/lb. But that’s true only in the beginning of the diet. When you’re trying to lose weight off a 15-lb bike, you can find yourself spending many times that. For example, a basic saddle weighs about 300 g. and costs about $50. A Specialized Toupe saddle (pretty light) weighs 180 g. and costs about $120. The Selle San Marco Carbon FX saddle weighs 121 g. and costs $280. The Selle San Marco Aspide Superleggera weighs 104 g. and costs $475. Going from the basic saddle to the Toupe costs about 60 cents a gram. Going from the Toupe to the Carbon FX costs about $2.60 a gram. Going from the Carbon FX to the Superleggera costs almost $12 a gram. It is ever thus.

Start by Buying a Light Bike. By far the cheapest way to get a light bike is to buy a bike that’s light. That seems obvious, but almost all cyclists go the other route: they buy a middling-weight bike, then start replacing components piece by piece to bring the weight down as they get more serious about their riding. Buying a light bike right out of the box is cheaper for two reasons: 1) you don’t have to pay for each component three times—once to buy the heavy one, once to buy the light one, and once to buy the ultralight one; and 2) the company selling you the bike is paying half what you pay for the components, because they buy them by the thousands and get a whopping price break, and they really do pass the savings on to you. The corporate price break is so enormous that you can buy entire bikes with electronic shifting for only slightly more than electronic shifting will cost you all by itself. Some people buy new bikes, sell the components, keep the frame, and end up making money.

Of course it’s hard to tell yourself to buy the $7000 bike you’re eventually going to end up with when you’re just getting into the sport. I understand. But use this wisdom to buy the best, lightest bike you can talk yourself into up front.

Beware of Claimed Weight. Assuming that you already have a bike and want to take some weight off, let’s talk about how to go about it, piece by piece, with a rough cost/benefit analysis for each component. But first, let’s expose the greatest shame in the bike industry: the concept of “claimed weight.”

“Claimed weight” is the weight a bike or component maker tells you the thing weighs. For some reason, it’s acceptable to lie. Bikes and bike parts almost always weigh more than the maker says they weigh, often by a startling amount. It’s an open secret, so any salesman should acknowledge it and any online or magazine review should discuss it. Why the industry tolerates this I don’t know, but you have to live with it, which you do by a) never believing anything you read about weight unless it’s written by an unbiased authority you trust, they say they’re talking about real, not claimed, weight, and they say they weighed it themselves; and by b) weighing everything you plan to buy. Yes, I mean walking into the bike store with a scale or borrowing the store’s. You can’t play the weight weenie game without one. You’re going to need to tell the difference between the 200-g tire and the 190-g tire, you can’t trust anything the product says about itself, and hefting it and guesstimating won’t cut it. I have fond memories of standing at a tire manufacturer’s booth at a bike festival weighing every tire in a crate of identical tires, looking for the lightest pair, chatting merrily with the tire rep the entire time.

One scale you need, the other you just want. The one you need is the standard flat, round, battery-driven electronic weigher sold in all stationary and most home supply stores, which weighs things up to about 5 lbs and costs about $20. Make sure it weighs in grams and ounces, but they all do. The scale you want is a hanging scale that can weigh an entire bike, up to 25 lbs or so (most of them go well beyond that). It’s more expensive, usually can only be found in bike stores, and is necessary if you want to weigh bikes in their entirety. If you have a good relationship with your LBS, they should be willing to do the occasional full-bike weighing for you.

Weight Loss Piece by Piece

Now let’s go through the bike part by part, seeing how much weight we can save in each case and what it’s going to cost us. We’ll also talk about what sacrifices you have to make to lose that weight besides spending money. In each case we’ll assume that we’re starting with mid-range parts (the kind on a $3000 bike) and want to get as light as possible.

Frames. The frame is the most expensive place to shave weight, unless you’re starting with a heavy one. A light frame weighs about 1100 g. An ultralight frame weighs about 700 g. The 1100-g. frame will cost you about $1000 and the 700-g frame will cost you $6000, so you’re paying over $12 per gram. It’s the worst deal in the bike industry. Ultra-light frames also tend to lack lateral stiffness (be wobbly). So it’s more cost-effective get yourself the 1100-g. frame and put your money where you’ll get more weight savings for your buck, unless you have unlimited resources.

Wheels. Wheels are the biggest weight savings per dollar, and any weight-loss program should start there. Most stock bikes come with heavy wheels, even fairly nice bikes (since makers assume you’re going to chuck the stock wheels anyway). It’s easy to drop a pound off a bike by going from stock wheels to light wheels (1900 g to 1500 g per pair), and those lighter wheels can be had from reputable internet wheel builders for $600 or so, giving you a cost per gram of around $1.50 (assuming the original wheels are worth something on eBay). You’ll feel the lost weight more, too, because it’s rotating weight—weight you have to make spin.

The lightest wheelsets are made for tubular tires (see the Wheels discussion in the Components chapter) because tubular wheels don’t need the heavy clincher rim, and tubular tires are lighter than clinchers because they don’t need the clincher bead. Very light clincher wheels weight c. 1300 g a pair, whereas very light tubulars weight c. 1100 g. , and tubular tires are about 20-40 g. lighter than clinchers. But the weight savings of tubular aren’t as great as they appear, because tubular tires can’t be patched on the road, so you need to carry an entire spare tire and tube instead of just a tube. And the inconvenience of tubulars still makes them a no-no to all but the most extreme weight weenie.

Two drawbacks to the 1300-g wheelset: 1) it can’t be aero, since aero shapes use a lot of material, and 2) light wheels, unless they’re expensive, are flexy, so they don’t hold a line well. The only way to get extreme lightness and rigidity is to spend serious money (up to $1000/pair).

Tires. The lost weight here isn’t dramatic, but the cost per gram is unbeatable. An off-the-shelf 23mm bike tire can weigh 240 g. A light tire will weigh 190 g. A weight loss of 50 grams, and it’s free! Light tires don’t cost any more than heavy ones, and you need to replace your tires anyway when they wear out, so you’re paying nothing extra and saving 100 g (you have two tires).

One thing you can’t have with the 190-g. tire is flat protection. A heavier tire may have a belt of puncture-resistant Kevlar or the like, and such belts really work, but the tires can weigh 300 g. each.

Tubes. There are such things as lightweight tubes and ultra-lightweight tubes. Many LBS’s haven’t even heard of them, but the online megastores stock them and you can google them and watch for the sales. They’re expensive—2 or 3 times what a standard tube costs—but because that still isn’t a lot of money the dollar-per-gram value is high. An ultralight tube may cost you $6 more than a stock tube and weigh 30 g less (95 g vs. 65 g.), for a stunningly low cost per gram of 20 cents!

But why stop there? Tubolito, a company specializing in uberlight tubes, makes a “standard” tube weighing 39 g. and costing $35, and they’ve got a model intended for racing that’s 23 g. (thus dropping 5/6 of the weight of the stock tube) and costs $38. If you replace a stock tube (c. 140 g.) with a 39-g. Tubolito, the weight savings costs you about 30 cents/g. But wait, there’s more, as the TV ads say: Tubolito promises that their tubes are stronger, more puncture-resistant, longer-lasting, and faster-rolling than standard butyl tubes, thanks to their wonder material, thermoplastic polyurethane elastomer. They also take up about a quarter of the space in your seat pack. It’s a win-win-win-win-win-win situation. You’ll need a proprietary glue and patch for flats.

Everybody worries that ultralight tubes will puncture and fail more easily than stock tubes. Not in my experience, even if you don’t use Tubolito and go with regular lightweight rubber. I’ve used light tubes exclusively for years and have the average number of flats, no more. A piece of glass is going through your tube whatever weight it is.

If you’re not convinced, there is still one tube that you should definitely make ultralight: the one in your seat pack. You’re going to carry that spare tube around for months before using it, and on every one of those rides you’re packing 30 useless grams. If you don’t trust lightweight tubes, after a flat, ride that ultralight tube home and swap it out for a standard-weight one, then put it back in your seat pack.

Some cyclists swear that the lightest tube system is to go tubeless (see the Component chapter’s tire discussion). But to do that you need to add a heavier rim tape, and the tire and the wheel need to be heavier, and you want to add a sealant goo inside the tire, so I think tubeless actually ends up weighing more.

Saddles. You can save about 70 g. by going from a normal saddle (c. 250 g.) to a light one (180 g.). As with tires, light saddles don’t seem to cost significantly more than heavier ones, so the weight savings is pretty much free when you need to replace your saddle. Don’t worry that a lightweight saddle will be unpadded, therefore hard, therefore uncomfortable—saddle comfort is about shape, not padding.

Gruppos. The derailleurs, shifters, brakes, and crankset can all be bought individually, but most cyclists think of these things as elements of a gruppo (see the Buying a Bike chapter for gruppos, makers, and model names). They’re cheaper to buy that way, and they work better because every element in a gruppo is designed by the engineers to work with each other.

The gruppos from the three giants, Shimano, SRAM, and Campagnolo, weigh about the same. SRAM is the best buy, dollars per gram, across its product range, and its top gruppo, Red, is slightly lighter than the top gruppos of the other two companies. Campy is by far the most expensive per gram, and takes much pride in that distinction. Shimano is slightly more expensive than SRAM. Each company makes three levels of gruppo, with each gruppo being lighter and more expensive than the previous one. The weight savings as you go from good gruppo to better to best are significant but expensive. A SRAM Red gruppo will save you over a pound compared to the Rival gruppo and cost you about $1300 more, or about $3 per gram.

If you price out the cost/benefit of individual components in the gruppo, there will be weight savings on every item but they’ll be puny when looked at individually—10 grams here, 15 grams there—with the two exceptions being the rear cassette and the crankset. So theoretically you could put your money into upgrading those two, but check with a good mechanic first to make sure you won’t have compatibility problems. Component makers often make an effort to prevent you from mixing and matching parts across gruppos.

To give you an idea of what kind of money we’re talking about here: the Red gruppo (which includes brakes) costs $2500. The Red 11-32 cassette alone costs $375, over 3 times what the standard cassette costs, and will save you 100 g., almost $4/gram.

Brakes. If you’re using rim brakes, there are lots of companies that specialize in ultralight bike brakes, and some of their products weigh little more than half what Dura-Ace brakes (Shimano’s best) weigh, but the cost/benefit relationship is constant—every lost gram costs you more money. With one exception: KCNC, an Asian company that somehow seems to have found a magical way of making ultralight bike parts cheap. Their C7 brakes cost about $300, which is in the Dura-Ace ballpark, and weigh close to half what Dura-Ace weighs (300 g vs. 170 g.). It’s the nearest thing to a steal deal in the component world.

Of course your immediate concern is, do those light brakes stop me as well as stock brakes? The answer seems to be, it depends on how much you spend. Brakes by EE work better than stock brakes, at a fraction of the weight and at least twice the price. KCNC’s brakes probably work a bit less well than Dura-Ace.

We’ve talked about disc brakes in the Buying a Bike chapter. Presently brake manufacturers and riders do not obsess about the weight of disc brakes—the logic seems to be, we’re willing to pay the weight penalty to be able to stop when we want to.

Pedals. Don’t buy a pedal because it’s light. You want to ride the pedals that work best for you. But once you find that pedal, it may be made in three different weights, using different materials, for different amounts of money. The cost per gram at the high end can be astronomical, as in, an additional $250 buying you a weight savings of 50 g. Most sane weight weenies end up with the mid-priced pedals.

Bars. A carbon handlebar will save you around 100 g. over an aluminum bar and cost up to 4 times as much ($80 vs. $300, or $2.20/gram). You want to do this one, because along with the weight savings comes a big boost in comfort—carbon absorbs road buzz, aluminum transmits it to your hands.

Stems. Expensive stems are made out of carbon, but, oddly enough, they’re usually heavier than their cheaper aluminum cousins—the only time in your bike shopping life that more money buys you more weight. So don’t buy one.

There is a small weight range in aluminum stems, a range which seems to bottom out at about 115 g. (for 110 mm.). Pleasantly, stems around that weight are often not much more expensive than heavier ones—the Ritchey stems seem particularly easy on the wallet.

There is one supremely expensive, supremely impractical way to save weight on your bar and stem: the carbon bar/stem combo. This is a molded unit, bar and stem in one solid piece of carbon, and the weight savings are impressive. But the drawback is a deal-breaker: you can never change your stem length, stem angle, or bar shape without trashing the entire unit. In other words, buy a bar/stem combo if you’re sure your position on the bike will never change. And you can never be sure of that. So don’t.

Seat posts. Seat posts are a lot like stems: they have to withstand a lot of forces, so they can’t get too light. Switching from a good aluminum post to a carbon one will save you 60-100 g. and cost you an additional $80, or about a dollar a gram, with the same benefit of increased comfort that carbon always brings. Go for it.

Chains. All Bike chain brands come in levels of quality. The weight savings are slight and the cost increase is high at the upper end. So saving weight by buying an expensive chain is a real indulgence. There is no perceivable performance advantage to an expensive chain. And saving weight by buying chains is more expensive that it at first appears, because chains don’t last long, so you keep having to spend the extra money to save the weight over and over again, unlike wheels or a seat post, where you pay the money once and the product lasts many years.

If you want to go for a light chain, KMC is a company that specializes in chains, and they make a piece of jewelry that saves perhaps 30 g. over a top chain from Shimano or SRAM and costs about $35 more (a reasonable $1/gram), it shifts well, it lasts forever, and it comes in gold. I think Wipperman makes a $400 chain, and I hear it’s light.

Skewers. And now we come to my favorite weight-saver, the skewer. If you have skewers, it’s the easiest way to lose weight on the bike—just take your stock skewer out and put a new lightweight skewer in. You don’t even have to remove the wheels from the bike. A standard pair of skewers weighs about 120 g. A pair of lightweight skewers from KCNC, the weight weenie’s best friend, checks in at 45 g. Wow! You just cut the weight of your skewers by 65%! The standard skewers cost about $25, the KCNC skewers $65, so you’re paying 50 cents/gram. Why would you not do this?

Many riders fear lightweight skewers, as they fear a lot of ultralight gear, because they’re afraid they aren’t safe. Fear not. Skewers are under no load. The wheel doesn’t rest on them (which is why you can remove them without disturbing the bike or the wheels), so they have essentially no wear. Ask around: you’ll never find any rider with a story about how their skewer broke while riding. Possibly the lever cam will wear out from repeated opening and closing, but if that happens you’ll see it coming a mile away (you won’t be able to close the skewer securely) and you can replace the piece long before you endanger yourself.

Bolts and Head Tube Spacers. In the interest of thoroughness I must mention that fanatical weight weenies replace their stock bolt hardware with titanium equivalents (often on race day only), or replace the spacers in their head tubes with carbon equivalents (permanently). Both are hard to find in stores but can be googled, and both together might save you 5 grams. Knock yourself out.

Paint. You probably haven’t thought about it, but that paint layer on your frame is useless dead weight. You can have it removed and drop about 70 g. There is in fact a useless cosmetic layer of shiny carbon over the structural weaving, and you could sand that off as well, but that’s a bit extreme. (Some ultralight frame builders leave that layer off, which is why some ultralight carbon bikes aren’t shiny.)

Seat pack. Seat packs come in different weights, like everything else, but most of them don’t advertise their weight so you’ll have to put them on a scale. But beyond that, the average saddlebag is massively overbuilt, and you can do some surgery to bring its weight down. If there’s a lining, cut it out. To drop a lot of weight, cut off the outside and keep the lining (which is often plenty strong by itself).

Inflators vs. Mini-Pumps. Which weighs more, a mini-pump or a CO2 cartridge? A cartridge seem obviously lighter. But is it? A Lezyne mini-pump weighs 115 g. A cartridge weighs 62 g., about half the weight. But hold on. The cartridge needs an inflator to attach it to the tube valve, and that weighs 22 g. or more. And a mini-pump will inflate any number of tubes, but a cartridge only one, so, unless you want to worry a lot after you get one flat, you’ll carry two cartridges. So now the cartridge system weighs 146 g. The mini-pump wins, and saves you another 1/15th of a pound.

Water Bottle Cages. I’m baffled by the bottle cage market. The standard water bottle cage is made out of wire, weighs about 35 g., and costs about $15. On eBay you can buy Chinese carbon cages for $20 that weigh 18 g., thus cutting the weight in half. Think of it: if you could do that with every part of your bike, the bike would weigh 8 lbs. So why does almost everyone ride around lugging those heavy wire cages?

There are two minor disadvantages to carbon cages: they’re slightly less springy than wire ones, so they grip your bottle a little less securely. I’ve had my bottles fly out of my carbon cages on rough, fast descents. And carbon cages are more fragile than wire—you won’t break one while riding, but you can break it by bashing it against something when you’re moving or transporting the bike.

The Fabric company offers an unconventional water bottle/attachment system that claims to reduce the weight of the bottle retention device to 3 g. (instead of a cage, it’s just two bolts). It’s too early to tell if we’re looking at a weight-loss revolution or a marketing scheme.

Water Bottles. The water bottle seems to be the only piece of hardware in cycling where no one seems to think about weight.

Multi-Tools. Multi-tools range from huge to tiny. Don’t get carried away with saving weight here—light means nothing if the thing doesn’t work. One choice you must make is, do you get a multi-tool with a chain breaker or without? A chain breaker is the heaviest part of a multi-tool, but if you don’t have one and you break a chain you’re stranded. It’s your call. I always like to get my riding buddy to carry the chain break, but that opens up a whole new way of thinking about weight.

It’s possible to save some weight by substituting for the multi-tool 2 or 3 Allen wrenches in the sizes bike components use. It will get you through most repairs except a broken chain.

Food. You have three basic choices about what you eat on a ride: real food, energy bars, and powdered additives you put in your water. All other things being equal, real food is by far the heaviest. Energy bars are the next heaviest. And additives are by far the lightest, since they’re literally powder and you’re carrying the water anyway.

There is no such thing as lightweight water. But the guy who figures out how to make it is going to get rich. Until then, don’t try to save weight by skimping on water—your health is more important than a few grams.

Clothing. No cyclist chooses clothing by weight. It’s much more important to be comfortable—warm enough, cool enough—than to be light. There is light-weight clothing, but it’s light to promote ventilation and evaporation, not to shed grams. There are light-weight vests and windbreakers, but they’re designed for ease of storage, not weight. There are lightweight helmets and shoes, discussed in the Clothing chapter, and they’re both cost-effective purchases—I’d go for both.

Weight Weenie Companies

There are a few companies—mostly in Germany—who cater to the gram-conscious spendthrift by making only very light, very expensive components. They all have great reputations and won’t sell you anything that will fail, and their products can take you into a world inhabited by bike collectors who build 10-lb bikes. For example, my light saddle weighs 180 g. AX Lightness sells a saddle that weighs 55 g. Prices go up exponentially as the weight comes down. Lew Racing sold a wheel set called the Pro VT-1 that was very light and cost $15,000. (Odd—they seem to have gone out of business…)

First among equals in this business is the aforementioned AX Lightness. Perusing their online catalog is something every cyclist should spend an afternoon doing. Tune is another such company. Several companies specialize in ultralight wheels: Zipp, HED, Lightweight, Envy. Some makers of ordinary gear also have a line of very light high-end hardware, like Bontrager’s XXX line (recently renamed RSL, so you don’t get porn when you google it).

Back on our planet, there are companies known for giving good value, making light gear, and never losing their heads. Ritchey and 3T come to mind. You can buy the top of the line from them and assume you’re getting light for a reasonable price. There are also internet companies (usually Chinese) that attempt to deliver light components at below-market prices. KCNC is my favorite of these. You have to shop carefully here, because the quality ranges from excellent to downright sham, but if you read the internet reviews carefully you can buy safely.