How important is efficiency?

Vik writes:

One thing I have learned slowly over the years is that an efficient bicycle is really important if you want to use your bike for transportation and utility: Efficiency… « The Lazy Randonneur.

It is a good article and well worth reading as Vik has a lot of experience of a wide variety of bikes and also varies the setup of his bikes a lot.

However, I am not completely convinced. In my experience most people do not maintain their bikes as well as Vik does (and when the bike is a simply a tool for a transportation why should you).

So in my opinion Efficiency comes about 4th in the list of important features for a bike. For me (thinking about bikes for transport) the higher priorities would be:

  1. Reliability. Can I set out on this trip and be sure of getting there and back with no problems.
  2. Practicality. Can the bike carry what I need, cope with the hills, cope with being left out in the rain while I am in a meeting, allow me to ride in the clothes I need for the meeting/event?
  3. Low Maintenance. Can I just use the bike without needing to spend lots of time cleaning it, replacing bits, repairing things? If I ride my bike several times a day and everyday through the winter I won’t have time to clean it each time. If I ride a bike 80 miles a week I don’t want to have to adjust brakes every week or two.

How much time will an efficient bike save me on 80 miles a week. If an efficient bike allows me to increase my a 10mph average speed by a 1/3 to 13 1/3mph then I would save 2 hours per week, but at what cost?

My experience is that the cost of getting an average speed that much higher will include:

  • time spent on maintenance as the bike will need to be in excellent condition with lightweight components that wear out
  • it will mean time spent changing before and after journeys as I will sweat more and be unable to wear normal clothes (eg jeans on a drop handlebar bike tend to be uncomfortable).
  • it will mean extra trips as I will find myself unable to be as flexible when the day changes and I don’t have a bike suitable for the extra stuff I unexpectedly need to carry.
  • I will need multiple bikes in order to have more efficient ones for different purposes (ok I have multiple bikes but don’t believe all transport cyclists should need to have more than one bike)
  • the components that are lighter to be more efficient are more expensive and last less time, particularly in bad weather. So I will need to earn more and spend more time cleaning them.

My belief is that these extras add up to more than the 2 hours saving.

However, I do accept that within the constraints of your bike it is worth spending a little thought on efficiency. I would focus on choosing an bike that is easy to keep efficient in the first place (hub or disc brakes, good hub gears, protected chain). Then the two things that are most worth spending time on are

  • tyre choice (find a good compromise between puncture resistance and rolling resistance for example not riding a mountain bike around town with knobbly tyres is a good starting point, beyond that go for big air volume for comfort and speed)
  • tyre pressure. Riding with tyres that are either flat or too hard  is slow, uncomfortable and puncture prone

Then look at the wider efficiency factors:

  • Speed of getting your bike out from home
  • Avoid needing to change clothes to ride
  • Avoid stuff that needs cleaning or maintaining or that breaks
  • Make it quick to secure your bike and leave it when you get to places
  • Make it quick to load and unload your bike
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