Myth 8: Modern Components are Lighter

To celebrate Bicycle Quarterly‘s 15th anniversary, we are looking at myths in cycling – things we all used to believe, but which we’ve since found out not to be true. During these 15 years we’ve learned a lot, and perhaps the most intriguing discovery is that modern parts aren’t as light as some classics. In some cases, there are functional reasons why modern parts are heavier. At other times, modern parts really could be lighter.

When Bicycle Quarterly and Peter Weigle entered a the bike in the French Concours de Machines, many were surprised that a fully equipped bike (above) could be so light: 9.1 kg (20.0 lb) with fenders, rack, lights, wide tires, pedals, even a pump and a bell. And yet we didn’t compromise everyday usability or durability in the quest for light weight: The bike is equipped with a SON Wide-Body generator hub, not a minimalist (and noisy) sidewall generator. We used 28 spokes for the wheels, which have stayed true for thousands of miles. A Gilles Berthoud leather saddle ensures comfort for long-distance riding. It’s a no-compromise bike.

Perhaps the most surprising part was that the bike featured almost no carbon parts. How could a ‘classic’ bike be so light?

We saved weight by using downtube shift levers. Not only are the levers lighter, but most of all, they eliminate the heavy cable housing to the handlebars.

The Rene Herse cantilever brakes also are superlight, due to a combination of minimalist design and the fact that, like all cantilever brakes, they attach to the fork blades. Most racing brakes still attach to the fork crown, even though they no longer pivot around a ‘center bolt.’ Reaching around the tire and transmitting all the forces to the top requires extra material…

Most of our competitors used disc brakes, which add further weight, because they use a second rotor, when the wheel rim already is available for that job. (Disc brakes have some advantages, but light weight isn’t one of them.)

Modern cranks also tend to be heavier than necessary. Until recently, they used five spider arms, even though three are enough – provided you can make the chainrings to very close manufacturing tolerances, so they don’t wobble. Now most component makers have gone to four arms. Three arms, as used on our Rene Herse cranks, are the logical next step…

The weight savings aren’t just in the arms, but also the rings. And with only three chainring bolts, we can make them from strong steel, yet they weigh no more than five titanium bolts. Steel bolts allow higher tightening moments, which increases the friction between crank spider and chainrings that transmits the torque.

We could have used a lighter derailleur – the Campagnolo derailleur on the bike weighs 198 g, or 50% more than a 1970s Huret Jubilee (132 g; above and top photo).

The Jubilee isn’t a flimsy featherweight: I’ve covered more than 80,000 km (50,000 miles) on the used Jubilee that came with my Alex Singer, and I can report that it shifts great, even after all those miles. The light weight of the Jubilee derailleur is even more surprising when you realize that all the bolts are made from steel. There are even locknuts that allow adjusting the play in the derailleur pivots (something few other derailleurs have). And there are real, adjustable ball bearings in the pulleys.

Why are modern derailleurs so much heavier? One reason is that they have to swing farther to cover 11 cogs. Longer parallelogram arms weigh more, and a longer parallelogram has more leverage, so the derailleur needs to be stronger. Even so, it seems that modern derailleurs could be lighter – the latest Campy Super Record is made almost entirely from carbon fiber, yet it still weighs 166 g.

One could start with this 1950s Cyclo derailleur – it’s already lighter than the Campagnolo on the Concours bike, plus it eliminates the cable housing to save further weight. And since its desmodromic action uses the cable to move the derailleur in both directions, it doesn’t have a return spring. This means the shift lever can be lighter, too, since it doesn’t need friction to counter the spring tension. It makes for a delightfully lightweight shifting action, too – a perfect match for the light action of modern brakes.

The Cyclo’s design has some drawbacks (it doesn’t handle mud well), but it shows that derailleurs don’t all have to look like copies of the 1949 Campagnolo Gran Sport, with just a few carbon fiber parts replacing steel in the quest for light weight.

Classic rims often were lighter than modern ones, too. The Fiamme Ergal weighed just 290 g. I raced on these rims for years without problems. And the Ergal wasn’t even the lightest rim. The Scheeren Weltmeister was a true flyweight, at 220 grams. It used tiny wooden blocks under the spoke nipples to keep the thinwall aluminum extrusion from collapsing.

You can’t use rims this light on modern rear wheels, because with 8 or more cassette cogs, you get a lot of dish in the wheel, which in turn requires ultra-high spoke tension. Superlight rims aren’t strong enough for that.

But how about a superlight rim for the front wheel only? Wide tires greatly reduce the stresses on the wheel. A 200 g front rim should be all you need, especially since disc brakes have eliminated the need for extra material that wears off as you brake.

Of course, these were tubular rims, and few of us ride tubulars any longer. In the end, most cyclists are willing to trade a little extra weight for the convenience of clincher tires, of more gears, and of indexed shifting.

And yet, when you look at the history of the Concours de Machines, you realize how light a bike could be. René Herse’s 1938 bike (above) weighed just 17.5 lb (7.94 kg), fully equipped. Take off the lights, fenders, rack and pump, and that bike would be skirting the UCI weight limit of 6.8 kg, even with its wide clincher tires, steel frame and leather saddle. That is truly impressive, especially since that bike then was ridden at speed for hundreds of miles across rough, unpaved mountain roads, loaded with heavy bags. And it didn’t break.

When I learned about the superlight bikes made by René Herse and other mid-century constructeurs, it got me thinking about how modern bikes could be improved. I am not saying that we should all equip our bikes with ancient Cyclo derailleurs and cut off the ends of our handlebars (as Herse did in his quest for light weight). But given a choice, I prefer a lightweight bike, especially if it doesn’t affect function or durability. Instead of replacing hardware with questionable aluminum bolts (as is done on many modern superlight bikes), at Compass Cycles, we try to think outside the box to make parts that are smart, durable and light.

Further reading:

  • Bicycle Quarterly‘s ‘Icon’ column featured the Huret Jubilee derailleur (BQ 49) and the Fiamme Ergal rim (BQ 58)
  • The story of René Herse and Concours de Machines was told in our book René Herse: The Builder • The Bikes • The Riders.
  • Learn how the old derailleurs shift on the road in Bicycle Quarterly 14 (cyclotouring derailleurs, including the Cyclo) and BQ 16 (racing derailleurs, including the Huret Jubilee).
  • Other posts in this series:
    Myth 1: Wider tires are slower
    Myth 2: Titanium is lighter than steel
    Myth 3: Fenders slow you down
    Myth 4: Stiffer frames are faster
    Myth 5: An upright position is always more comfortable
    Myth 6: Tread patterns don’t matter on the road
    – Myth 7: Tubeless tires roll faster
    – Myth 9: Fork blades don’t flex
    Myth 10: Stiffer forks steer better
    Myth 11: Rear tires should run at (significantly) higher pressures
    Myth 12: Disc brakes work better than rim brakes
    Myth 13: Leaning without Countersteering
    Myth 14: More lumens make a better light
    Myth 15: Marginal gains

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

Spirited rides that zig-zag across mountain ranges. Bicycle Quarterly magazine and its sister company, Compass Cycles, that turns our research into the high-performance components we need for our adventures.
This entry was posted in A Journey of Discovery, Testing and Tech. Bookmark the permalink.

41 Responses to Myth 8: Modern Components are Lighter

  1. Jacob Musha says:

    Why did you use 28 spokes on both ends of the Weigle? As you mention, rear wheels are heavily dished and carry more weight. So if both wheels use the same number of spokes (and the same rims) either the front is over-built or the rear is under-built. Why not 28R/24F or 32R/28F? Sometimes component availability is a problem, but given the choice I like to build rear wheels with more spokes than front.

    • We thought about this – it’s like the old British way of using a 40-spoke rear and a 32-spoke front wheel. However, on rough roads and especially gravel, front wheels can be highly stressed: The front wheel can slip while the fork is turned, and then catch again. That often leads to wheel collapse, which is why we chose the Wide-Body hub (with wider flange spacing) and 28 spokes. The double-butted spokes and aluminum nipples weigh very little, and they provided useful insurance on the mountain bike trails that made up the course of last year’s Concours de Machines.

  2. larryatcycleitalia says:

    Great stuff! The big issue here is you can’t crank out bikes like these by the bazillions in Asia at a low price – so the big brands can’t get a high enough profit margin to cover all their marketing efforts and still make boatloads of money.

  3. Francisco says:

    About chainring bolts: I understand the transfer of torque from the spider to the chainring relies on the static friction between these parts. The purpose of the bolts is to ensure there is enough static friction between spider and chainring; they are not supposed to transfer the torque themselves. At least that is how they teach us in engineering school.

    • Interesting point, and I am sure friction contributes (and a stronger bolt will be able to generate more friction). However, I suspect the torque of a cyclist is probably too high to rely on friction alone. In our testing, we found that a single chainring nut and a single spider arm transfer most of the torque. When we tested to destruction, we could see that a chainring tab failed first, and you could see the ‘polishing’ from where that chainring nut had contacted the edge of the hole. The other holes didn’t have the same polishing. Based on that, we made the chainring tabs a little larger to strengthen them considerably.

      Similarly, when I used aluminum chainring bolts on a five-arm crank in the past, I had one bolt break quickly. Replacing that bolt with a steel one fixed the problem – also indicating the other four bolts were less highly-stressed. You probably could design a crank with one steel bolt to transmit the torque and the others made from aluminum just to hold the chainring on.

      Some parts, like chainrings, ‘break in,’ so that over time, you get a more equal distribution of the forces as the parts that contact first wear faster. With crankarms, that doesn’t appear to be the case.

  4. Jason Miles says:

    I don’t think weight is a very important factor when selecting bicycle components but this is not a myth, modern components are lighter. I might concede that modern randonneuring parts are not that much lighter but this is probably more due to popularity.

    A lot of times components are compared that are not an apples to apples comparison. Comparing a cantilever brake to a caliper brake is not a fair comparison because you don’t include the additional weight of the braze ons or fork blade reinforcement. Comparing a JIS crankset weight to a modern 2 piece crankset is not fair because you exclude the spindle weight in the JIS crankset.

    Right now anyone can buy a very capable off the shelf bike with a complete weight under 13 lbs (Trek Emonda is a good example). This is 35% lighter than the Weigle and I seriously doubt that the extra 7 lbs is only found in the frame, fenders, and lighting.

    • Some modern components are lighter – especially cassettes compared to freewheels, because now the cogs no longer are big steel discs. However, the Rene Herse canti brakes are lighter even if you factor in the pivots and stronger fork blades – and you should also subtract the shorter cable housing!

      As to bike weight, Trek claims 13.73 lbs for the top-of-the-line Emonda – without pedals. Add the pedals and a minipump, and you are at 14.5 lb. When we tested bikes like that, I noticed that all the bolts are alumimum, which work fine for a limited time – and they should only be tightened once or twice. Bikes like that are fun, but they are intended to be replaced after a season or two – they’ll be superseded by a newer model anyhow. With the Concours bike, we didn’t want to make a bike that could be ridden just a year or two – I ride too much to worry about aging superlight parts failing in the middle of nowhere.

      • Jason Miles says:

        Lighter and more durable is very different that just lighter. For sure we agree that durability is very important, but when it comes to lightest of the light modern has classic beat every time.

      • Nathan Grill says:

        Who says those bikes like the Emonda are intended to be replaced after a season or two? Because bike companies keep doing R&D? What super lightweight parts are failing on these bikes?

      • We overheard a Shimano’s rep at the Tokyo Cycle Mode say to an interested customer: “If you are into high-end racing bikes, you usually replace your bike every year; after two at the most.” All the aluminum bolts have a limited life, especially when you swap parts and torque them multiple times. Carbon handlebars should replaced after a few falls. When you shift fast under race-like conditions, Ergopower levers last a year or so. The list goes on.

        When I ride with serious racers, I am always surprised how often they change bikes. A 14-pound bike is a highly tuned machine – it’s like a racecar, which you don’t expect to go 100,000+ miles between engine overhauls.

      • Nathan Grill says:

        So, you’re basing this off someone who is in business of selling bikes? Their job is to sell new bikes to customers every year; selling the latest and greatest. That is completely different than saying that these high end bikes only last or are intended to last/be replaced after a season or two.
        With my carbon storck, dura ace 9000, and aluminum deda cockpit, all the bolts are either steel or ti. Where are these aluminum bolts that are constantly wrenched on? Not on stems and seatposts. Maybe on waterbottle cages? And a year of shifting from modern shifters? i must be doing something wrong to have had had my dura ace 9000 and racing 40-50 days a year.
        Serious racers change bikes often because sponsorships changes sometimes yearly, pro-deals on framesets make it easy to sell for the cost of a new frameset goes for (same reason bike shop employees are always on new bikes), and new technology rolls out and they (or their sponsors) want to be on the latest and greatest offerings.
        You seem to be making big assumptions about want versus need.

      • I am glad your bike is working so well. How many miles do you have on it?

        someone who is in business of selling bikes

        Usually, when they sell you a new bike, they tell you it’ll last forever. It’s hardly a ringing endorsement to say that you’ll spend a lot of money, but you’ll have to buy another in a year or two.

        Where are these aluminum bolts that are constantly wrenched on? Not on stems and seatposts. Maybe on waterbottle cages? And a year of shifting from modern shifters?

        On the Specialized Diverge we tested, there were aluminum bolts all over – even for the fenders! As to the shifters, the Ergopower on my Firefly no longer cleanly engages, and even a complete overhaul (new cables, new derailleur pulleys, etc.) didn’t cure it. The levers themselves no longer are rebuildable. It’s not a big deal, you can buy a new lever body, but it’s annoying to have to work on the bike that much.

    • Jacob Musha says:

      Comparing a fair-weather racing bike to the Weigle is pointless. If modern components/bikes are lighter, show me a fully-equipped bike with wide tires that is lighter than the Weigle.

  5. Dr J says:

    “It’s a no-compromise bike” – uhm, no, it isn’t.

    You used these new, non-adjustable cantilever brakes even though you admitted in one of earlier posts that they are not as good as your beloved centerpulls (not to mention disc brakes). But they are much lighter.

    You used downtube shifters even though they are not as comfortable nor fast to use as modern brifters. But they are much lighter.

    Interestingly, you used modern pedals with Ti axles. Were classic pedals heavier?

    To me this bike is a compromise because it has to be. If you want to build a record-breaking lightweight bike you need to compromise somewhere.

    And as you noticed, modern components aren’t lighter simply because they often perform a different function. It’s not easy to compare them apples to apples.
    Not to mention that Herse made his bikes for 140lbs riders like himself (I’m guessing his weight, but it’s probably not much off) and modern companies have to design everything for everyone, including those >220lbs riders.

    • The Rene Herse cantis work so well that it surprised even me – it makes a big difference when everything is optimized and made to the highest standards. Using these brakes in the Concours on streaming wet roads and in the mud, I was surprised how good cantis can be. I still prefer centerpulls, because I ride in the mountains, and I brake late and hard, and deep into corners, where the added power and modulation is worth the extra 30 g per wheel. (Still far lighter than modern ‘racing’ brakes…)

      Modern pedals can be lighter, because the shoes transmit the pedaling forces. In the Concours, the shoes weren’t part of the weight, so heavier shoes didn’t matter. We used clipless pedals because I prefer riding with them, mostly. I get numb feet with toestraps after 10+ hours on the road.

      As you point out, it’s hard to compare apples and apples, but it’s also undeniable that most bike parts are just evolving slowly, rather than start with a fresh approach that might yield better results.

    • Matthew J says:

      DT shifters are not as comfortable as brifters? Oversize brifter hoods are a quite the pain to hold. DT shifters on a proper fit bike are very easy to reach.

    • Eli says:

      The relative comfort of downtube shifters and brake/shift levers is very subjective. I find downtube shifters much more comfortable. The sideways motions required to operate an STI shifter are very awkward and the distance you must move the lever to shift a gear is much greater than it is with downtube shifters. People like to complain about having to reach for downtube shifters but the amount of arm extension required for me is the same as the amount required to reach the keyboard to type this comment. As to “faster,” I’d like to see some data. I’m skeptical. (Certainly the Dura-Ace STI levers on my road bike, which fail to pull any cable for between 10% and 75% of shifts depending on the temperature even after I have spent hundreds of dollars at multiple reputable bike shops attempting to have them fixed, are much slower than downtube shifters when you factor in the missed shifts!)

      • Dr J says:

        Yes, it’s all subjective. Downtube shifters have their advantages. Weight is one of them. Mechanical simplicity is another. They likely work just fine when you ride on a paved road. But on any rough trail and technical sections I would not want to use them. When you need that gear you are then forced to take your hand off the bars and that may not be safe. With heavier STIs gears are always available right at fingertips. Hence faster, safer and more comfortable shifting.
        Anyway, as it becomes pretty clear, modern components are often not lighter because of their function. Our bikes changed a lot and components are now not designed to do exactly the same things they used to.

  6. Conrad says:

    I can only hope Compass is going to expand into derailleurs next. The current drivetrain fads make no sense and could be hugely improved if someone had the courage to move back to a 6 or 7 speed cassette. Really, a 1 X 11 with enough cross chaining to make the 10 and 42 (!?) cogs useless is the best we can do?

  7. Tom G. says:

    Where I see the great discrepancy in total bicycle weight is not with road bikes but with the mountain bikes, where many of the hard-tails are 28-32lbs. Compare that to my 1998 Specialized Stumpjumper that is barely over 20 lbs and it seems no progress has been made in getting the weight down.. I get why the industry wants to sell beefy full-suspension bikes, as they are marketed to [big] guys flying off huge jumps (yes, like a track bike it looks great on a poster). . But there is a whole segment out there that just wants a light and quick bike and doesn’t wish to launch the thing into the stratosphere.

    On a related point, what about a very light suspension fork for cross and gravel type bikes? (hint hint) Cannondale seems to be the only purveyor (with its odd 50 mm lefty). Seems like a bigger market for such a thing given that nobody likes blasting across washboard on a solid fork.

    • I think the 1990s mountain bikes really were the predecessors to gravel bikes. So you should compare them to an Open or a 3T Exploro…

    • Dr J says:

      Progress has been made. Your Stumpjumper had 26″ wheels with 1.9″ tires, lightweight v-brakes and little travel. Modern bikes come with heavier but much wider tires on larger wheels, more suspension travel and full hydraulic disc brakes. They are simply more capable at a cost of weight.

      If you want a lightweight MTB you can easily get one today too. There’s plenty of options to choose from.

      Lightweight suspension for gravel exists. Look at Lauf, Fox or Cannondale forks.

    • Conrad says:

      If you have legit downhilling skills, mountain bikes now are way better than they were in the 90s. But yeah, suspension and a frame that can withstand launches into the stratosphere are not going to be light. I think the problem is that 95% of us lack those downhilling skills so a lightweight rigid bike with nice fat tires (think rat traps) will serve for trail riding just fine, and as a bonus you can ride instead of drive to the trailhead or really do anything with that bike. The problem is that such a bike is still not really mainstream so one has to go with a custom bike or the next best thing is a drop bar and tire conversion on one of those good old mountain bikes.

  8. Julio says:

    Dear Jan. You talk about your cranks being light as they have only three arms and that the savings are also in the chainrings etc.
    Also, you say that modern cranks are heavier than they need to be.
    Compass cranks in 177mm wight 550gr. 291 for your recommended SKF BB. Add a couple chainring bolts and the set is 850 gr.
    Dura Ace 9000 weights 615gr. BB is 65gr. Total: 680gr.
    There is a lot of weight to be saved with a modern crankset.

    • Julio, you cherrypick your data! Our 177 mm cranks are beefed up, since they usually are ridden by tall and powerful guys. And it’s hardly fair to compare an ‘outside-bearing’ BB that will last at most 2 years with an SKF that is guaranteed for 10 years and should last much longer.

      Comparing apples to apples, take the 171 mm Rene Herse cranks (502 g) and the titanium bottom bracket (168 g) we used on the Concours bike: You end up with a combined weight of 670 g, or 10 g lighter than the Dura-Ace, with similar durability. And that is for stock parts, before Peter drilled holes in the chainrings and lightened the cranks a bit more, since this bike is ridden by a known rider who is light on the equipment.

      That shows you that the modern Dura-Ace isn’t as light as it could be, because in theory, the integrated spindle should be lighter than a square taper interface.

      • Julio says:

        Sorry about the 177! Choose them because I thought the Dura Ace were 175mm but in fact they were 170mm.
        So Compass cranks are 819gr with SKF BB and Dura Ace are 680gr. Modern crankset is much lighter. That is comparing similar production cranks of steel/alu.
        Introducing titanium and aftermarket machining is indeed cherrypicking.
        If you want to intoduce Ti/Carbon aftermarket parts, then compare Compass 819gr with THM Clavicula with SRAM chinrings (495gr) and THM BB (104gr). That is 599gr and 100gr lighter than Compass cranks.
        Any way you look at this modern cranks are lighter.
        As for BB durability, my experience is good. Anyway, if the do not last that much you simply put a new one, they are terribly cheap compared to a Ti square taper BB.

      • You are right, the THM Clavicula cranks, with their carbon fiber spindle, are impressively light. I’ll be interested to see how well they last in the long run. One good thing is that all this stuff is much better engineered than those cottage industry parts from the 1990s, when even casual rider broke superlight cranks and BBs on a regular basis.

        On my own bike, I have bearings pressed directly into the BB shell, with proper seals, Rene Herse-style. They’ll last for decades of riding in the rain, they are superlight, and they still use a square-taper steel spindle.

  9. The Huret Jubilee rear derailleur was very light; much lighter than anything else available in those days (early 70s). However, it was nowhere near as durable as the Campy, Suntour, Shimano or Simplex (non-plastic) models. I saw a few that had exploded from ‘just riding along’.

    • I heard those stories, too. I was surprised when Ernest Csuka of Cycles Alex Singer told me that he considered it the best derailleur ever made. When I got one on my used Singer, I was skeptical. But it’s lasted well. Of course, so did others from that era – I raced 50,000 miles on a Super Record, and I put about 35,000 miles on a Simplex SLJ. On the Simplex, I did replace the pulleys with SunTour ball-bearing ones, since the Simplex began to screech after a few years.

  10. Andy cohen says:

    It seems that many aren’t taking the point – Ok, we can niggle about details, but the point is still shining through clearly that the emperor may not be fully clothed with modern racing components and their lighter/stiffer/faster claims.

  11. Owen says:

    Funny how “Myth 8” seems to generate incredible skepticism and negative commentary.

    Here’s what I find interesting: it’s taken the industry 50+ years to mass-produce bikes as light the best of the mid-century constructeurs, but the constructeurs’ machines remain much more versatile and durable. There are some other interesting outliers–like Charlie Cunningham’s first mountain bike at 19lbs–but the message is pretty clear: Heavy modification + customization will result in lighter parts without compromising durability. Customization by definition means the bike will be designed and fabricated according to it’s rider’s needs and experience.

    Some folks seem put off by the friction shifting, downtube shifters and cantilever brakes and I wish they’d get over it. I’m no Grant Peterson apostle and have no financial stake in Compass Cycles, but what Jan illustrates convincingly is simple parts made to the highest tolerances are lightweight, durable, and 90% as “high-performance” as their modern components. And for many experienced cyclists this is more than enough.

    Jan, I have a hunch both you and Peter Weigle would appreciate Richard Sennett’s book “The Craftsman.” It’s a good philosophical touchstone for what you are doing and how craft can lead to meaning and innovation….but I digress!

  12. Peter Moore says:

    Chainring bolts should not transmit torque. Redesign the system so that the clamping force and the friction between chainring and spider arm is, and remains, adequate to transmit the torque delivered via the pedal crank.

  13. Conrad says:

    Well said. Sometimes I feel like a geek for the endless retrogrouch ranting. But the reason I feel compelled to is that the common sense and economical components that I like to use are getting harder and harder to find. The mainstream industry is still determined to sell you poorly designed products that are exorbitantly expensive. That isnt good for me, the dying sport of bike racing, or really anybody.

  14. thebvo says:

    Is that a spring under the chainstay hooked to the cyclo derailer? Is that included in the weight?

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