There’s no question about it, bicycles are highly efficient vehicles. Walking, for example, requires approximately 330 kJ (70 kcal) of food energy per kailometer, whereas cycling only requires around 120 kJ (25.5 kcal). This roughly translates to 653 mpg (these numbers vary depending upon how they’re calculated, but you catch my drift).
As efficient as most bikes are today, designers of racing bikes are continually pushing the envelope with ever lighter, stronger, and more aerodynamic designs. Racing acts as the testing ground for new technologies, and cutting-edge racing bikes fuel the still-huge sport cycling market in the U.S.
On the other side of the coin are technologically unremarkable, heavy, and relatively inefficient bikes like the roadster. Old style roadsters have hardly changed in 75 years, but even with what can only be described as lackluster performance, they’re making a resurgence among people who ride them for everyday transportation.
So what is it about these bikes that people find so appealing (myself included)? I believe it mostly has to do with their inherent practicality. The design elements that make these bikes inefficient also make them convenient and easy to use. Components such as internal gear hubs, drum brakes, integrated lighting systems with hub generators, fenders, skirt/coat guards, chain cases, bells, racks, and the like, all contribute to a riding experience that is more vehicle-like and less bike-like than what we’re usually accustomed to here in the U.S. Combine these features with an upright seating position that feels a lot like sitting at a desk, and it’s no wonder they’re gaining in popularity.
I believe it’s possible to think of efficiency in terms of something other than performance; for the transportational cyclist there’s an efficiency within the practical as well. That might mean a bike that can be ridden comfortably in street clothes without taking the time to change into specialized clothing, riding slow enough that a shower isn’t necessary when you arrive at your destination, or a bike design that nearly eliminates the need for maintenance. And, of course, any bike that is used to replace a car trip is infinitely more efficient than a bike that gets left at home.
Even a relatively inefficient bicycle, when ridden at its natural pace, is highly efficient when compared to almost any other mode of transport. When I’m on my roadster I tend to think of my pace as “fast walking” as opposed to “slow cycling”; doing so gets me to where I want to go without getting into a wrestling match with my “heavy and inefficient” bike, while also reminding me that efficiency in cycling comes in more than one form and at more than one pace.