The Bicycle Bell Curve

Across the spectrum, from the most utilitarian to the most high-performing, the range of bicycle designs is a continuum of subtle differences. As much as we like to categorize bikes, when we line them up, it jumps out that it’s actually a small series of steps that takes us from one end to the other. I attempted to illustrate this with the above graphic (click the “zoom” button).

Starting on the left is a carbon lowracer recumbent, and on the far right is a carbon time trial bike. In the middle we have a beach cruiser and a city bike. The lowracer and the time trial bike give up everything in user-friendliness to gain the most in performance. The beach cruiser and city bike give up everything in performance to gain the most in user-friendliness. The bikes between the two extremes are bundles of conflicting priorities, each making compromises to reach a middle ground between utility and performance.

So pick your medicine: lots of performance, lots of utility, or a little of both. It appears that when it comes to bikes, like so many other things in life, you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

There’s more to performance than aerodynamics, but reducing wind resistance is by far the most dramatic way to increase efficiency (at 20 mph, wind resistance makes up approximately 90% of total resistance). The cyclist’s torso generates a tremendous amount of wind resistance, so for maximum efficiency the body needs to be laid down inline with the direction of travel. But doing so dramatically reduces a bike’s user-friendliness because an upright torso position (with the rider’s feet near the ground) is the most natural and confidence-inspiring. Recumbents with high bottom brackets, and upright racing bikes with extremely low handlebars, both put the rider in positions that, while being highly efficient, are unnatural and limited in their practicality. And, of course, bikes that place the rider in an upright position, while providing excellent user-friendliness, are limited in their efficiency. (Fairings bend the rules by allowing an upright seating position with good aerodynamics, but they increase complexity, weight, and cost, thus reducing practicality.)

No particular type of bicycle is necessarily better or worse than another (though an argument can be made that it may be prudent to focus on practicality over sport at this particular juncture, but I digress). Each attempts to fill a need; the trick is finding the type that best fits an intended use. Bikes that fall in the middle ground between pure performance and pure user-friendliness (like hybrids and low-end MTBs) are popular because they’re versatile (and consequently, relatively inexpensive). But like other “all-purpose” tools, they tend to do a lot of things reasonably well, but very few things exceptionally well. So pick your medicine: lots of performance, lots of utility, or a little of both. When it comes to bikes, like so many other things in life, you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

27 Responses to “The Bicycle Bell Curve”

  • jason says:

    Interesting take on bike types. I think your a little biased to the roadster.(not knocking roadsters. I love them and have several) I could not tell if you included a touring type bike in that mix. I have ridden over 125 miles in a day, over hills, carrying a heck of a load. there are configurations of stems that can give you a drop bar with a good hight for a rather more upright posish, and still let you get down into the wind. wide gearing and a sturdy frame allow for a very versatile bike that hauls a lot, but can do twenty mph without killing you, and are designed to spend hours in the saddle. (now thats biased to tourers)

    point is , if I had made that chart, something like a good steel tourer would have featured in the center. that may be because I live in the country, dirt roads and hills,then with lots of hyway miles to get anywhere. and for this terrain a roadster is not user friendly, just a cherished toy. the good thing is that I have lots of bikes, and can choose the most usefull for the need at hand. sometimes that means a fast roadbike for light errands in the city 22 miles away(which gets carried to the pavement), others a rugged bike for the grocerys.

  • Alan says:

    @Jason

    When I put this together, I assumed there would be some disagreement regarding the exact bikes chosen and their placement on the curve, but that’s somewhat missing the point. The intention was to illustrate that there’s a continuum of bike types from laid back to laid forward, and the bikes with more upright positions, regardless of label, tend to be more user-friendly, while those with more reclined positions tend to be higher performance.

    The specific arrangement was based more upon riding position than use, hence the upright types in the center. That said, you’re correct, the image is missing a touring bike which should have been placed just to the right of center – I’ll modify it to include one.

    Regarding my “roadster bias”, placing one in the middle is essentially saying it’s dog-slow, so I’m not sure that indicates a bias… :-). The more desirable spot would be at the junction of the yellow and the green curves where you theoretically have the perfect balance between performance and utility. I do love roadsters, but I can relate to the need for more gears and higher performance. As a matter of fact, I’m currently in the process of having a Surly LHT built up; I’ll be using it for hauling, commuting, plugging holes where the other bikes don’t have it covered.

    Regards,
    Alan

  • Ian says:

    Very cool image compilation. One suggestion though. With the ecovelo logo where it is, it appears to me as that is about where ecovelo is positioned in relation to the curves. If that was not intended, might contemplate adjusting the graphic. If it was intended, interesting, as that’s not where I would have thought you’d be on the list. Would’ve expected center or just to the left on the recumbent/CF side.

  • Alan says:

    @Ian

    Thanks Ian. This image is likely to end up getting posted here and there, so I thought I’d include the logo. I can see how it was confusing in its original placement, so I moved it to the top of the image. Thanks for the feedback.

    Alan

  • Loren Hackerott says:

    Particulars aside, I found this article to be very interesting. As one who is pro-”bent”, it was good to be reminded that while bents meet my needs, they are not the answer for everyone.

  • Roland Smith says:

    Alan,

    Nice lineup Alan! It is an extremely good picture to point beginning cyclists to.

    One minor nit though. I’d have places the Optima Lynx more towards the middle, because it has fenders & chainguards and a sturdy luggage rack, things that the other ‘bents and some upright bicycles in the picture lack.

    In my observation, most US made ‘bents (and cycles in general) are made for fun, while European brands are more geared toward practical use.

  • jason says:

    Alan

    no disagreement on bike placement, not really. I guess I should have worked in the word “objectivity”. Its dangerous for me to give opinions over the net, cause Im kind of akward in person, take away that and I have to work hard to not give offense without the ability to at least smile. Afraid I did take it more as a “you can’t have utility without performance” as opposed to a comparison of uprightness. It was the beach cruiser that threw me off. I personaly find them to have no practical use whatsoever, but do realize I am probably wrong about that.

    Do you ever get the feeling that those of us who are really passionate about bikes are a little like Trekys? A friend of mine thinks that.

    As I should have said, its a cool graph and presentation. it would be interesting to see it taken to a family tree/stairstep of the biking genres as related to personal needs level.
    everything from bike driven hot dog carts to folders, portuers, old english club bikes(, ect.

  • Kevin says:

    Brilliant photo compilation, Alan!

  • Alan says:

    @Jason

    “Do you ever get the feeling that those of us who are really passionate about bikes are a little like Trekys”

    Oh yeah… LOL. Especially us recumbent nerds.

    I really like your idea of a “family” tree” graphic. I’ll keep that in mind for the next Saturday afternoon I’m stuck indoors with nothing to do because it’s 106 degrees outside (like yesterday)… :-)

    Regards,
    Alan

  • Bret Moss says:

    Alan,
    I find that being upright on a road bicycle allows me to transition between different muscle groups while peddling. I’ll mash my peddles with my butt nearly falling off the back of my saddle. I’ll kick up the rmp’s and spin a high cadence from the nose of my saddle, also standing and peddling gives me a whole different set of muscles to recruit. Is there an equivalent scenario for bent riding?
    Thanks,
    Bret

    P.S. I’ve seen a prototype bike that has the rider laying on his stomach facing forward using a pillow of air for a seat. If it was commercially available it would be to the right of the TT bike.

  • Alan says:

    @Bret

    “Is there an equivalent scenario for bent riding?”

    To a much smaller degree something similar is possible on recumbents with relatively upright seats. But as seats become more reclined the rider’s torso becomes more planted in the seat, significantly reducing the ability to change positions and employ different muscle groups.

    “P.S. I’ve seen a prototype bike that has the rider laying on his stomach facing forward using a pillow of air for a seat. If it was commercially available it would be to the right of the TT bike.”

    I’ve seen those. They look scary – I’m not sure I’d want my head out in front of the bike like a battering ram… :-)

  • Croupier says:

    Bike Snob NYC came up with a similar idea for a graph not long ago… granted, he used MS Paint to make it. Great job, Alan.

  • Dave Kee says:

    Great graphic! I spotted my RANS Citi right away. It is interesting that because of comfort issues that is as far to the “right” as I can go toward “user-friendliness”.

  • Henry says:

    It makes me proud to see our beloved WorkCycles Transport GT right on top of the “User-Friendliness” curve, though how those two silly beach cruisers ended up right behind will remain a mystery. Nope, I don’t mind you using my photo either. Here he is, larger:
    http://www.workcycles.com/workbike/bicycles/dutch-city-bikes/workcycles-dutch-transport-bike-gt.html

    Just to note the “GT” has nothing to do with “Gran Turismo”. It stands for “Geen Troep” which roughly translates to “No BS” in Dutch, and that pretty much sums it up.

    Groeten,
    Henry

  • Nanda says:

    Information meets classy presentation in this compilation…great work Alan!!!

  • Nanda says:

    ps: I could easily see a RANS Fusion between the Stratus XP and Citi, and Surly Big Dummy and a Bike Friday Tikit somewhere at the top of the center hump.

  • Alan says:

    @Nanda

    Thanks Nanda. One of the things I wanted to get across is the fact that with the advent of the RANS CF and Electra’s Townie, there is no longer a missing link between recumbent and upright.

    Regards,
    Alan

  • Alan says:

    @Henry

    “Just to note the “GT” has nothing to do with “Gran Turismo”. It stands for “Geen Troep” which roughly translates to “No BS” in Dutch, and that pretty much sums it up.”

    I like that… :-)

  • todd says:

    spot the dutch bike: http://www.flickr.com/photos/npgreenway/2603799795/sizes/o/ . yeah, in the middle to the right of the bent, in the middle of various mountain-y roadie things. your graphics are better, but i made a similar diagram at http://clevercycles.com/?p=193 . loving your blog, envying your editorial energy!

  • Wilm says:

    Great graphic! I made me think of the next question: where would velomobiles sit in this? A velomobile such as a mango or versatile are arguably more userfriendly than a roadster: there’s no need to balance, it has a comfy seat and weather protection. And they’d still be faster than the timetrial bike or the lowracer ‘bent (as long as there’s no hills to climb).

    Small nitpick: I’d pick workcycles’ omafiets GT (granny bike) over their transport bike as the most userfriendly. The step-through frame means everyone can get on one, and in Holland, they do :-)

  • Nanda says:

    Wrote up a little post on the CF-list about my first new commute to work, and mentioned this thread and the Clever Cycles post:
    http://pub23.bravenet.com/forum/1970022224/show/728486

    Alan, if you are ever in the Petaluma area, I’d love to help you “fill in the blanks” ;) …and try a couple of the custom and stock RANS crank forwards.

  • Alan says:

    @Nanda

    Nanda – I will most definitely take you up on that sometime..

    Regards,
    Alan

  • Alan says:

    @Wilm

    Yes, velomobiles. I couldn’t work out where they fit in, so I left them out.. LOL. They are undoubtedly comfortable, and very fast, but they lose major practicality points in the area of storage, transportability, etc. That doesn’t keep me from wanting one though (it’s only my pocketbook that stands in the way). :-)

    Regards,
    Alan

  • Dave Kee says:

    Trikes and their velomobile cousins, although very difficult to place on Alan’s bell curve, have an interesting mix of features that can make them very practical for certain uses. For example, the lack of the need to balance or unclip when slowing or stopping enables them to easily mingle with pedestrians at very low speeds. I am able to ride my Catrike Speed on the sidewalks of downtown Chicago with no problems, something I would never do with my two wheelers. With our aging population I think the growth in trike usage especially higher sitting deltas is just beginning, and they will probably end up with a bell curve of their own.

  • Top Heavy says:

    The sequence of photos is a good introduction to the world of bicycles.

    The usage of the word ‘performance’ is misleading because the terrain dictates ‘performance’. A user friendly bike is higher performing on rough road/trail. I would use ‘aerodynamic’ instead of performance and versatile/multi-terrain/all-condition instead of ‘user-friendliness’.

  • Top Heavy says:

    If there were graphs comparing comfort, climbing, cargo, handling, etc. it would help people choose which bike/bikes they need to focus their purchasing attention to. Most bike shoppers have a preconcieved notion of what they want, and pictures might open their eyes to the world of possibilities.

  • Com que bici eu vou? « bicicletada curitiba says:

    [...] bike e bicicletas de carga. No blog do Leonardo Esch há uma figura muito interessante retirada do The Bicycle Bell Curve. Não só belas fotos, mas bicicletas bem diferentes podem ser vistas no EcoVelo. Desde os modelos [...]

 
© 2011 EcoVelo™