I will admit that I am predisposed to want more of a good thing. If one piece of homemade chocolate pie is good, three pieces should be better. If a four-hour road ride in the mountains is good, then five hours should be great. If 400hp in a 3,000 lb. car is good, 500hp should be fantastic. However, there is a key word in each of those examples, and that word is “should”. But benefit does not increase infinitely – at some point too much of a good thing is just… too… much. Economists refer to this as diminishing return. The bicycle industry is certainly not immune to this concept. Actually, I think we in the bicycle industry have perfected diminishing return!
From 1995 to 2015, road frames continued to get lighter and stiffer. Less weight generally results in a bike that feels livelier and that climbs faster. More stiffness usually means that more of a rider’s limited power is transmitted to forward motion. Aluminum’s properties meant frames could weigh 20-30% less than traditional steel frames, but the tubes had to be larger in diameter to compensate for aluminum’s lower stiffness and limited fatigue life. Thus aluminum frames traded some Ride Quality for efficiency. Carbon frames could be another 20-30% lighter than aluminum and stiffer as well. But carbon’s properties also meant frames could be “tuned” to mute vibrations. Initially, carbon got a sometimes bad rap for feeling “dead” because the muted vibrations resulted in a disconnected feeling with the road.
On top of the evolutionary material improvement was the competition among brands, wherein weight and stiffness could be quantified and used to market a clearly (claimed) better frame. At the same time, a similar dynamic was occurring with rims. Here carbon enabled wind-cheating benefits with no weight penalty and greater stiffness. But throughout this frame and rim evolution Ride Quality was forgotten, dismissed, or purposely misrepresented as its inherent subjectiveness allowed.
When it became ever harder to squeeze out 50g more and increase frame stiffness by 15%, some brands began searching for another way to differentiate. This led to tube shape and carbon layup manipulation in the name of improved Ride Quality. But these gains were much bigger in advertisements than on the road. Ironically, the big improvement in Ride Quality was a byproduct of the push for faster rolling tires. Larger air volume was shown in certain road conditions to lower rolling a tire’s rolling resistance, thus making it faster. Lower air pressure was needed to realize the lower rolling resistance, and that meant a much smoother ride. This is a big deal. For example, a tire measuring 28mm on a very stiff frame and wheel combo likely rides significantly smoother than a 23mm on a more flexible/compliant combo.
Diminishing returns is alive and well on the MTB side as well. While only a very small portion of riders compete in enduro racing, the industry has moved at full speed to frame geometries deemed optimal for that discipline. There’s no doubt that the road bike based geometry was in need of change. Modern MTBs enable a much wider and arguably better riding experience than their 90s counterparts. However, there is a point where long/low/slack can be too long/low/slack. While long/low/slack, touted as “progressive geo”, enables a rider to descend steep and rough sections faster and in more control than previously thought possible, there is a price to be paid. More and more of these are point-and-shoot bikes – they utterly consume anything in their path. The geo enables a rider to point it straight down the trail and let the suspension to do its thing at the expense of handling agility.
While the progressive geo bikes can be amazing in the right environment, not all riders have the terrain or desire to ride these bikes in the manner in which they excel. Nonetheless, the bicycle industry is charging forward and applying progressive geo to more and more bikes beyond the enduro category. And this is where too much of a good thing is too much. While these bikes are amazing descending Big Rock and Greens Lick in the Pisgah National Forest, they are lethargic on twisty single track found at Glacier Ridge on Long Island or Blankets Creek outside of Atlanta. If you are in the market for a new bike, be mindful of how and where you ride and choose a bike accordingly regardless of the marketing hype. As the old saying goes: the right horse for the course.