Jean-Marc Drouet (on the bike) and Mathieu Dorion (at computer) carrying out impact testing on a treadmill in the VÉLUS lab.
  • Great piece! I’ve been penning something very similar over the last few months, and have some observations to add.

    The first is with regards to stiffness. I’ve found that people tend to talk about bikes having a ‘dead’ feeling when they’re too stiff, and a ‘lively’ feeling when they’re just stiff enough (noticeable but very minor amounts of frame flex). This phenomenon is most common when comparing steel bikes, as they’re often constructed similarly with steel tubes of varying diameters and wall thicknesses that determine overall frame stiffness. As a result – rider style, power and body weight will dictate whether a frame has that good ‘ride quality’ or not. What feels like the perfect ‘ride quality’ to one, may not to another.

    The other observation I’ve made is the significant placebo effect of riding a bike that is marketed to have a good ‘ride quality’. Riders who’ve just dropped $8k on a custom titanium Baum frame (or any other boutique offering) are pretty rarely going to say that it has a poor ride quality. This could of course be a quantifiable characteristic due to Baum’s custom tube butting and choice of tube diameters for rider weight and style. But if sold your custom frame to somebody who weighed 30kg more and put down 30% more power, they would probably have pretty similar things to say as a result of the notion that boutique frames all have great ride qualities.

    Alee

    • Yes, marketing has built up certain expectations for a lot of products, to the point where it’s impossible know how much of a rider’s impressions has been “informed” by said marketing. That’s why, when I have a bike to review, I avoid reading the manufacturer’s copy until after I’ve been on it. Same applies to reading other reviews on the bike.

      • Eat More Lard

        Except that’s almost impossible in a general sense. If a manufacturer sends you an “endurance” bike to test, you will automatically expect it to feel more plush than an out and out crit machine. A blind test would be the only way but then riding on a trainer indoors is unlikely to provide much insight! Even if it was devoid of any identifying labels and was essentially a raw frame, you would have expectations based on frame shape, material etc.

        Utlimately, you have to choose a bike based on how it rides to you and what it looks like, not what the marketing tells you it will ride like!

        • James Huang

          Sure, expectations can sometimes be set in that way but that doesn’t mean you can’t be surprised by what you feel. Case in point: I find BMC’s SLR01 (their all-out light-and-stiff race bike) to ride more comfortably than their GF01 model (which was supposedly purpose-built to cushion the cobbles). Was that how it was marketed to me? Nope. But that’s what I felt, and that’s what I reported when I attended the GF01 launch a few years ago. The trick is being able to separate whatever expectation you may have with what you actually experience.

          • Eat More Lard

            Ha! You know what, I have the exact same experience – I commented as such on RedKitPrayer a few years ago. Which is why a GF01 came and went and so did the newer SLR01. They were both meant to replace my original SLR01 but, amazing bikes as they were, the original SLR01 is still the one in my collection!

            I guess it’s an example where ride quality really does win through over any psycho-babble from the marketing department. On the flip side, we all expect steel and Ti, for example, to ride in a certain way and it probably does set initial expectations which we may or may not believe and feel when we ride the bike. Either way, I’m firmly in Ben Serotta’s camp that numbers and acronyms are all well and good but some bikes just feel right to some people and some bikes you just don’t get on with, no matter how well it has been reviewed and rated. It’s part of the beauty and mystery of the bicycle!

    • Superpilot

      A frame can also feel ‘dead’ when it is also too soft and non-reactive, whereas an overly stiff frame feels stuttery, since every bump fights back at your effort rather than gliding over it. I think there is also a mental justification for the purchaser that since they made a significant investment, then surely the quality ‘must’ be higher than that of a more affordable offering. Yes, you are more likely to receive a better fit from a frame customised to you, and in more expensive materials. But you can still build an expensive frame from expensive materials that fits perfectly by dimensions, but is built incorrectly. In this instance, in the purchasers mind, it is still possible that they could perceive the ride quality to be higher, such is the power of the minds perception.

      I once had a coach tell me ‘feel isn’t real’. What you felt turns out different to what you see on a playback. Thus, a randonneur may be happy on a spongier steel frame, and perceive the ride quality to be high. While a crit racer who has no time to perceive comfort considers sharpness, road feedback and effort transfer to be that which defines the ride quality. Add into this whether they allow marketing to influence that perception or not, how proud they feel with their purchase, how they perceive the brand to be perceived by others, if they are so inclined, and you get the muddy mess of what each perceives as ride quality being totally individual.

      I mean, it can even come down to the types of roads or trails you have to ride, as a bike in one setting could be seen as having high ride quality, being rubbished in another. That 10psi of tyre pressure can outweigh the differences of swapping in carbon bars is highly influential to my eyes.

      As regards to wheels, I haven’t ridden carbon, but i have ridden different spoke counts on alloy. Going from a budget set on 16/20 to a training set on 32/32, the ride ‘quality’ as measured above by bump transference felt reduced as they were quite a bit stiffer, therefore more bump transferred, but they felt like they climbed better and sprinted better because of less flex. So they would need to test independent of spoke count for the differing materials, then altering spoke count within the same materials, to truly test what was influencing the road feel the most.

    • Sean parker

      Many years ago, mid-90s i think, a bike mag called ‘bicycle guide’ did a test where they made identical bikes of different steel tubing with all other variables the same.

      From memory, I believe that the testers could not tell much difference between the frames – the frames were columbus aelle (straight gauge) all the way to columbus’ top flight multi-butted wizardry tubing.

      it surprised me that ride quality does not seem to vary amongst different grades of steel.
      I still have a bog-standard steel bike made from aelle tubing and it is no more comfortable or ineffable than my 2006 cannondale aluminium road bike (which is a joy to ride)- but i wonder if other variables also subsume the subtle effects of frame material (such as tyre choice, geometry, carbon fork etc). as posited in the article.

      I think that steel frames can hold a fridge magnet better than any other material, that’s for sure.

      • That frame test was pretty interesting. Thanks for sharing!

      • velocite

        I enjoyed that steel frame test, thanks for the link.
        During the week I ride a steel framed, 1981 Apollo IV – that I bought new for $400!
        At the weekend I ride a carbon framed lightweight.
        Everything about these bikes is different. Geometry, wheels, tyres, gears – downtube, non-indexed shifters anyone?
        The ride is very different too, but I struggle to describe the difference, even though it’s big.
        Contrary to what I expected, the steel frame feels quite agricultural and dead in comparison to the carbon bike, which feels supple.
        Whatever that means to you. Words, words.
        Could be the wheels and tyres, of course: 27 x 1″ Panaracers vs 25mm Schwalbe One Tubeless.

        • Sean parker

          Yeah, I don’t think that I have ridden a steel frame that has made my eyes light up. Like i wrote, I have a Columbus Aelle frame from the 90s that was my first racing bike. It doesn’t fill me with joy when i ride it, just feels heavy and noodly.
          my next bike was a aluminium lugged carbon tubed Trek that felt like a lump of wood to ride – absolutely dead.
          My aluminium cannondale has the feel that i read when i see people froth at the mouth about steel- light, stiff and translates the feel of the road.
          My carbon MTB doesn’t really feel like anything – just stiff – but the MTB tyres might have something to do with the feel of the bike.
          I’m yet to ride a high end carbon bike or a good steel frame to compare but given that it costs 2-3x as much to get an ‘equivalent’ high end steel frame i will probably get carbon if my cannondale frame breaks. On second thoughts, given the lifetime warranty I guess i will always have a cannondale aluminium bike.

          • velocite

            But I’m guessing that back in the 90’s you didn’t think that bike was ‘heavy and noodly’ – and a good thing too!
            These days I notice that the old Apollo needs a good push into corners, but I didn’t when it was just ‘my bike’.

            As a btw, I don’t really get why. The head tube angle/fork offset/trail is 74.5/53/40, compared with 73/45/60 for my carbon bike, ie trail is less, but it’s less keen on cornering. Wheelbase is an extra 45mm, might have something to do with it.

  • rumsranger

    Really well thought out piece, I enjoyed it a lot. To be a pedant:

    “Aluminium alloy has a reputation for being harsh, steel and titanium less so, while carbon fibre is well recognised for its damping characteristics. However, as popular as these notions may be, there is no hard data to support such broad generalisations.”

    *there are no hard data.

    Sorry!

    • Nik Martin

      If you’re going to be a pedant at least be correct.

    • hornk

      data may be treated as singular or plural. Sorry.

      • Sean parker

        rumsranger is technically correct (e.g. if writing a technical, scientific or academic publication) but, I agree, the general usage of data is in the singular or plural.

        • lowlander

          It is interesting that the general usage of a plural is to treat it as a singular, but that’s how language evolves. So now even garbage words such as ‘irregardless’ are treated by most as correct.

          • Sean parker

            Yep. I find irregardless redundant given irrespective exists but I’m not petulant about neologisms anymore. Nothing at all wrong with changuage or lexomorphs.

    • Dell Todd

      It seems that to those in the kingdom data are plural whereas here in the colonies data is singular

  • Janusz Gajos

    Tyre setup contact points and fit will be almost entirely responsible for the “feel” of the bike.
    Frames and wheels are like wine, many people claim to be able to tell tiny differrences between one and another but very few actually can (in a “blind” test).

    • velocite

      Thanks Janusz. Sean Parker had already posted the 7 frames test, but I thought the slowtwitch article was excellent – probably because it confirmed my existing position. But going to the trouble of concealing the identity of the bikes and even the wheels from the testers was effective in revealing how much of our perceptions are actually preconceptions.

  • winkybiker

    To my way of thinking, the whole vibration absorption focus is way overblown by the marketers. Reducing the peak force transmitted through the pedals, seat and and bars caused by the road imperfection seems like a better goal. Not surprised to see little evidence that damping materials have any effect on perceived ride quality.

  • Legstrong

    IMO, ride quality is exaggerated too much. A bike with a perfect ride quality is like riding a unicorn. We will never know how it rides. People have different preferences. Unless I rode regularly on Paris-Roubaix, give me the stiffest bike out there. Any day. Monday to Sunday, 24/7.

    • Hunter Hao

      And the guy who won Paris-Roubaix rode it on a stiff aero bike, despite how many gelastomerized gimmicks manufacturers continue to push !

      • Carton

        The guy who he just pipped on the line was on the bike with the Zertz inserts. The other guy on the podium had a rear shock. All of them were on 28c tyres.

        Sure, having all the marketing comforts won’t help you perform better. But they won’t hurt, either. Ride whatever makes you feel better (faster/more comfortable/whatever), if it makes you push a little bit harder then it’s doing it’s job.

  • Pete23

    Loving it that this article got the bike snob treatment!!

  • Peter

    My experience is that on some days the main road bike I ride, which I love the feel of (an entry level aluminium bike), feels like it has a flat tyre and I am riding in mud. When I check the tyre pressure it is the same as every other day I ride. The difference is in me – my legs, the way I feel. It could be that I’m tired or fatigued, or the day is damp or whatever, I don’t know. But the perception of my ride depends at least sometimes on me, rather than my bike.

    Riding in cold, plus 5 degree celsius weather with high humidity on the same bike makes the whole experience feel horrible, whereas a crisp minus 5 degree celsius morning with low humidity and a lot of frost usually feels really awesome.

    As mentioned above, my road bike is an entry level aluminium bike with Mavic Aksium wheels and 28mm tyres. I test rode three other bikes at the same time and the cheapest, least “cool” bike with the least street creds was the most comfortable one in my experience, so I bought it based on ride quality rather than brand name. I am still very happy with my decision.

    I have also ridden higher specced “cool” brand bikes and some have better ride quality, while others have worse ride quality. Some of the carbon bikes I have ridden are harsher and less compliant than my aluminium bike.

    So I do think a lot of what goes toward ride quality is down to individual perception, including ride conditions, weather, illness, etc.

    • Dude pedalling

      so -5’C is preferable to 5’C? You are one tough eskimo. what do you wear in -5’C?

      • Peter

        Winter long bibs, Ground Effect merino base layer, Ground Effect windproof jersey, neck warmer, wool cap, thick socks, winter gloves. Seriously after 10 mins in frosty conditions you warm up if you have good gear.

      • Sean parker

        find cycling (and any aerobic endurance activity) in a humid 5c far colder than a dry -5c. sweat management is the key.

        Windstopper makes you sweat which increases conductive cooling. Not wearing a windstopper increases convective cooling. lose – lose situation.

  • binotto

    Great article Matt. Thanks!

  • dypeterc

    Ride quality is the umami of the cycling taste bud

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