A Different Kind of Efficiency

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.

12 Responses to “A Different Kind of Efficiency”

  • amsterdamize says:

    Your exploration / dissection of the ‘heavy’ and ‘inefficient’ bike is completely alien to me. And I mean that in the most sincere way.

    It’s not a matter of ‘it’s a Dutch design so all Dutch ride one because of that, or the Danish and English equivalent’. Ever since its birth over a century ago, it has proven to be the most practical thus very efficient and comfortable choice for millions and millions of Europeans. Never change a winning concept, right? Sure, things have evolved differently in, say, the last 4 decades, but even the US started out the same way, including giving way to beautiful bicycle infrastructure and sorts. Then the cycle sport industry planted its jaws and flexed its muscles in your society and completely pulled you guys off track. That, and a very car-centric society.

    However misleading your description of ‘sit-up-and-beg bikes’ can be, you’re right in your last paragraph: fast bikes are for speed, ‘relatively inefficient’ ones are for practicality/usability and comfort, and…wait for it: health

    Let me say one last thing: an average person doesn’t really feel anything from the extra weight. It’s not important, they’re not burning rubber at the traffic light, they’re not training for the Tour de France or going up an Alps trail. They’re going from A to B without a sweat.
    Plus, most lycra-clad asses of people I look at could loose a few pounds. ;)

  • Alan says:


    I ride one of those “heavy and inefficient” bikes everyday (mine happens to be made in England). No criticism was intended – I just described them how I suspect many people here in the U.S. would describe them. Being where you’re at, it’s probably hard to fathom that many riders here in the U.S. are concerned with weight, bottom bracket stiffness, aerodynamics, etc. We’re starting to see a growing number of transportational cyclists, but many are accustomed to 19 lb. racing bikes, and it’s very unlikely they’ll be sold on a 50 lb. roadster (as much as I like them myself). I think manufacturers like Civia and others are on the right track by producing bikes that are practical but will also appeal to the American audience.

  • amsterdamize says:

    I didn’t take it so much as criticism, but I did scratch my head at your choice of words. Indeed, I should have tried to switch to the US perspective a bit more.

    A few will lead and show the way, many more will follow, once they see how accessible it in essence is. So yeah, I concur :).

    Happy riding!


  • Molnar says:

    I think Alan is exactly right, except for the bell business. I have racing bikes that I ride for pleasure, a butt that once looked good in lycra (but no more), and a lovely A.N.T. (someone please buy his current demo so I can stop drooling) that I use for commuting and errands. Each has its place. But a bell is strictly ornamental: if you need the bell, your (very loud) voice is a better option.

  • Alan says:


    Just the other day a clueless person in a minivan pulled directly in front of me from a side street and I put the “very loud voice” technique to good use. I do like the bell though, for alerting little old ladies on the MUP; the last time I spooked one of them, I nearly got hit over the head with a cane! :-)

  • Adrienne says:

    I have no idea what my Battavus weighs, somewhere close to a baby elephant I am sure. I use it to replace my car. The bike was a birthday present from my husband, and riding it makes me as happy as my old Schwinn 3-speed did when I was a kid. My bike gets loaded down with every thing I can strap onto it along with my trailer chugging up the rear. There are days, usually when I am lugging it through the BART system, when I am acutely aware of just how heavy a beast it is and think longingly of my much altered MTB sitting in my garage. I can pick up that bike with one hand and run down the stairs into the station instead of waiting for the slowest elevator in history. I can manhandle it into any space I need, whereas my Bat. requires that I adjust to it a great deal more, and much like ‘Baby’ in ‘Dirty Dancing’, will not be put in the corner.
    Which bike is ‘more efficient’? Not sure, but I keep riding my heavy, European beast, so maybe that answers the question.

  • Torrilin says:

    Mmm… not everyone has the option to totally ignore weight. My bike must be stored in my building’s basement, so if I want to get out and ride, the bike needs to be light enough for me to carry it up and down stairs. I looked at Batavus bikes, and they’re lovely. They’re also so heavy that I would have risked a fall every time I went up or down stairs. The most cargo capable ones are often well above the maximum weight I can carry.

    So instead I got a Breezer. I can carry it easily, and it has enough cargo capacity to suit me. With a front rack, I could probably get up over 65lbs of cargo. At that point, the limiting factor isn’t the bike, it’s the rider. I can’t safely manhandle a bike when it is that heavily loaded, even on flat ground. Other bikes can handle more weight, but *I* can’t, so the extra capacity would do me no good.

    For me, it’s about balance. A light racy bike won’t do what I need because it will hurt my arthritic hip and cause falls. A cargo monster won’t do what I need either, for surprisingly similar reasons. Somewhere in the middle is just right.

  • Darryl says:

    Torrilin –

    I agree that living in an apartment seriously affects the bikes that I use. I have relatively heavier bikes (Rans Vivo and a Trek 720) and an awkward staircase to the basement. Most of my bike shopping trips are limited to what I can put in my two grocery bag panniers. However I do have a Burley flatbed trailer for bigger items. I don’t use my trailer often, but I’m glad I have it. What’s good about it it takes the top heavy load off the bike and put it behind the bike. Therefore, you don’t need heavy cargo racks and baskets on the bike frame all the time. I do feel a tug when pulling it from a start but once rolling it doesn’t affect my riding much. Then when you don’t need to haul stuff, your bike can be used as a sports car, um maybe.


  • charles says:

    I like the concept of a heavy practical roadster but I live 10+ miles from the nearest city or town and there are quite a few hills to climb (foothills of Mt. Rainier) I need a lighter bike with lower gearing. For city dwellers any bike can work since there are usually not many hills in developed neighborhoods even the old ones in the city. Suburbia is definitely set up for the bicycle when it comes to hills but the lanes aren’t made for us…..drat! I just pick my route as carefully as I can. I like the idea of the practical bike and don’t usually notice a difference in cruising speed over flat ground unless I am pushing it.

  • steve says:

    A sample calculation based on some moderate speed measurements (before wind drag gets high) A person can get nearly 1000 mpg if they eat food of similar content to gasoline (say olive oil) and quite a bit less if they eat – say ice cream. Still, the efficiency of a person on a bike is amazing


  • Roland Smith says:

    Every appartment block that I’ve lived in had separate storage space on the ground floor.

    It turns out that in the Netherlands it is required by law (building codes) that appartments have a ground-floor storage space and some outside space (a balcony). This has been the case for several decades. (my current appartment block was built in the 1960s).

    Some years ago the government wanted to remove those requirements for the sake of deregulation, but fortunately sanity prevailed. Having ground-floor storage for bikes to enable cycling was seen as too important to leave it to the market.

  • David Hembrow says:

    The efficiency differences between hub and derailleur gears are often over-rated. In fact, in this study, you’ll find that the highest rated gearing for efficiency was a Sturmey Archer 3 speed:


    The main inefficiency of sit up and beg bikes is the position, especially when heading into a headwind. I find that on mine I can easily maintain greater than 30 km/h over distances if I’m in a hurry, provided I don’t have a howling headwind.

    Also, take a look here for a photo of a very “Dutch” looking bike that was made in the USA over a hundred years ago:


    You can find very similar things made in the UK too. The practical shape for an everyday bike was decided upon very quickly, but it was maintained only in those places where cycling remained more than just a sport.

© 2011 EcoVelo™