The Efficiency Ruse

And the sometimes benefits of inefficiency.  Just another way to look at the Big E.

The search for efficiency has caused: The worst-looking, least flattering clothing of all time; spoony aerodynamic sunglasses; laceless shoes; internal cables; squashed seat posts that limit adjustment and make it impossible to attach a red blinky; Shimano’s AX group (1981, you had to be there); 16-spoke wheels and 19mm tires; and new sleek things are born weekly.

The ever-so-slight advantage of a maximally efficient bicycle & riding position is always good for a racer, but not for the Unracer. For the Unracer, the bicycle’s efficiency can be detrimental. Oh yeah?

Racers need to go as far and fast as possible while burning as few calories as possible. That’s what efficiency is. Gallon of gas, gallon of Gatorade, it’s all the same. For the Unracer, burning calories is one of the points. If somebody asked, “Would you rather burn 400 calories on your next ride, or 410?” — and “Would you rather your next fun ride last an hour or an hour and a minute?” an Unracer would answer, “Four ten and sixty-one.”

These are carefully, even sneakily phrased questions that just as easily could have been, “Would you rather commute home at night in the rain through the bad part of town for forty minutes, or forty-one minutes?” and when the topic is bike efficiency, the answers would be different.

The thing with bikes is: They’re already super efficient, even the cheap lousy ones. Comparing bikes to animals, a particularly skilled albatross is more efficient, but the bicycle, even a Sears Free Spirit tuned at the Factory is more efficient than any mammal. Any halfway decent well-tuned bike is plenty efficient. Years ago I remember reading the results of scientific testing of bottom brackets and hubs to determine how much more efficient the super smoothies were than the raunchy roughies. It turned out that differences you could feel in your fingers as you turned the axles on a wheel in your hands don’t amount to much at riding speeds.

(I also remember years ago, that engineer Roger Durham of Bullseye (hubs, etc) used to advertise that on a one-hundred mile bike ride, using his derailer pulleys instead of Campagnolo’s originals, would save you enough energy to lift an eighteen pound sack of potatoes either eighteen floors or to the top of the Empire State Bldg (I forget which). In those days I used them, but I also shaved my arms for time trials and made a point to assume an overbite and exhale backwards in time trials, also. I was leading edge and crackers.)

In any case, bicycles are the most energy efficient vehicles (including feet). The next time you’re cruising on a flat road, imagine how it would feel to run that fast; how much harder & less efficient it would be. I think we’ve all coasted past joggers and thought about that.

The bike’s smooth efficiency is one reason it’s so easy to get or stay fat, or just not slim down the way you might like to, while riding your bike. It’s too friggin’ efficient,  and that combined with the ease with which we can eat on the bike…make tubbiness easy.

Outside of competition, the minute efficiency difference between a decent well-tuned bike and a $12,000 pro rider’s time trial bike doesn’t matter. 

But the thing is, for anybody who doesn’t race (and pat yourself on the back for that, don’t apologize for it), the difference in efficiency between a well-funded pro team’s time trial bikes and reasonably well-tuned 1983 Univega Gran Rally sport-touring bike is not worth blinking at.

It is especially insignificant during a bad weather commute. Then, all that matters is not getting hit and not getting a flat, because the first one hurts and both wipe out any efficiency you may have experienced before and after the incident.

On a club ride, you’re riding in a group, so you ride at group speeds. If you’re literally in the group, you’re drafting and gaining way more efficiency that way than any components can make up. If you’re not drafting, if you’re just riding with friends side-by-side and talking and so, then you ride the same speed as your pals, and efficiency (burning the fewest number of calories per mile) shouldn’t be your concern.

On a personal fitness/beat-yourself-up ride—whether it’s a fast fifty miles or eight 30-second intervals up and down the same neighborhood hills—efficiency really doesn’t matter. When I ride my intervals—twice a week up and down the same neighborhood hills, as I mentioned---I have no bike preference. I ride a bagged and basketed Atlantis with Albatross bars as often as my drop-bar A. Homer; or my Too Big Sam Hillborne, or my Quickbeam. I’m out and back in 25 minutes, including warm-up, and only five minutes is really hard, and it’s all about heart rate, which is truly bike-neutral.

For the Unracer efficiency shouldn’t be a major concern, and after a certain amount of efficiency is bought or trained in, it shouldn’t be a concern at all. If any extra efficiency extracts a toll of any kind—in safety, wallet, appearance, comfort, or pleasure, for instance—then it’s not worth it.

As you ride more, you become more efficient without trying, whether you like it or not. On the other hand…

Inefficiency can be a plus

Let’s say you have a stretch of road or bike path ahead of you that’s dead flat or slightly downhill. You have a mile or two of it, and you want to get some exercise, but you don’t feel like all-out sprints, or it’s not a suitable place for sprints (it’s a bike path, for instance).

The best way to get your heart rate up into the fat-burning zone is to gear way down and pedal faster. The low gear keeps you from being a bike path racing scourge, and you get some extra exercise.

The opposite way works, too. Put your bike in too high of a gear for the hill, and muscle your way up it inefficiently. For short stretches, it builds leg muscles just like going to the gym and doing leg presses does; and unlike leg presses at the gym, it also works your arms.

If you ride flat roads all the time because there are no hills, do yourself a favor and jam your bike into its highest gear and push hard and inefficiently for fifteen, thirty, or forty-five seconds at a time. It’s how you build leg muscles when there are no hills around. Inefficiency is good! Can be good. We make every effort to make our bikes efficient, by the way, but the points here still stand (or: I still stand by them).

In the mid-’70s, there was a hilariously sexist (that is not an oxymoron) aftermarket bike thingy: Felt brake blocks you substituted for your real ones, and a mega-long substitute barrel adjuster for your brakes. You rode the felt pads and used the adjuster to press them against the rim, while you rode with your wife or girlfriend.

The same technology was used on Schwinn Exercycles, and it worked. I remember in my racer days I’d train with the first generation Racer-Mate wind trainer attached to my seat post, so I could simulate riding into a 25 mph headwind. Sometimes you have to get creative to be inefficient, but when the need exists, the results are always worth it. Sometimes inefficiency can do for you what efficiency can’t.


You’ve been sold efficiency because it’s an easy sell, like “general health and well-being.” Efficiency has survival value for living systems, and is good in structures and machines. But when the context is bicycles and the subtopic is the efficiency difference between best and good, and outside of racing, it’s not a big deal.