The Only Number That Matters When Buying A Bike

When we’re looking at new bikes, we cyclists love to immerse ourselves in numbers.


Matt Phillips |

When we’re looking at new bikes, we cyclists love to immerse ourselves in numbers. We fixate on weight, aerodynamic drag, millimetres of suspension travel, and millimetres of deflection. 

We ponder tyre width, rim depth, and rim width. We obsess over geometry tables, scrutinising the head-tube angles, seat-tube angles, chainstay lengths.

It makes us informed. It makes us confident we’re buying the right bike. But there’s one big problem: A bike is not a number. It is not a dimension, or a measurement.

Lightest, stiffest, slackest – these numerical superlatives, quantified in labs and wind tunnels to degrees accurate beyond human perception, are meaningless on their own. Since 1995, I’ve ridden almost every bike that’s claimed to be, at the moment, the -est of something. And not one of these bikes sticks in my mind as one of the best I’ve ever ridden.

Constant evolution is good for cycling, even when it turns out to have taken us down a dead-end path. The successful experiments lift the performance of all bikes. And when brands fail to achieve meaningful improvements, it means we all learned something about bikes and can move on to improving them another way.

The downside is that during the most intense periods of evolution, some numbers become over-​
elevated in importance. A bike gets defined by its drag, or its reach, or how much it weighs. 

A bike is, instead, a tangled web of numbers and sensations and the biggest X-factor of all: the rider. There’s not enough acknowledgement or understanding of the complex interconnectedness of a bike’s many parts, and how all the dimensions tie into and influence each other.

Mountain-bike geometry is a good example. For the past few years, it’s been evolving towards longer (front centres), lower (BB heights), and slacker (head-tube angles). This is supposed to improve stability. But head angle alone doesn’t define how a bike steers. Fork offset influences it, too. So does sag percentage, weight distribution, and even a tyre’s tread pattern and tyre pressure. 

And think about this: a ride on the stiffest frame in the world can be made maddeningly noodly with an ill-matched set of quick-release skewers.

It’s almost impossible to get on a new bike without having absorbed some information about it. That’s okay. Just don’t let the numbers define the bike for you. Don’t let numbers tell you how a bike is going to ride. Instead, do something very simple: go for a ride. And – this is an important distinction – when you’re riding a bike, pay more attention to how you feel, than how it feels to you.

The only number that really matters: when you and bike become one.

Cabal Ascent 1: From R37 000

Local brand Cabal is the perfect example of a bike brand disrupter. They don’t pretend to engineer ground-breaking products; but they’ve bought a solid mould, and then give their clients the best option on the build. It’s the ultimate customisation opportunity; and current rumours are that they’re planning on bringing in a high-end supplier to customise the paint job. The bike rides like any other top-end carbon bike, and it’s a solid long-term investment.

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