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Two Wheels
Cars or bikes: Which is best for you?

Published August 15, 2013

I was recently engaged in a discussion about ride characteristics — how a bike “feels” on the road. How good is good? How does someone know if it feels right?

My interlocutor had just spent thousands on a high-end bike, on the premise that if the product is good enough to be ridden by a Tour de France winner, it’s good enough for him.

But in hindsight, he was wondering what another bike might feel like. Would it feel better? Would it feel worse? Would it be faster? Would it be more comfortable?

His shiny new bike had not been delivered yet and, unfortunately, he had not test-ridden any demo, so he had a hard time imagining what his future bike might feel like, and was wondering if he had made the right choice.

Better, worse: those are funny words; especially in a context where it is difficult to fully quantify things and to tell the whole story with hard numbers.

Is a Porsche 911 Turbo better than a 911 GT3 RS? Some would answer positively; some would forcefully disagree.

On paper, those two sports cars are kind of the same — made by the same company, bearing the same name, with a price tag and performance numbers that are not that dissimilar.

But those who have had the privilege to drive both cars on the track, and on the street, would all agree: their “ride feel” could not be more different.

At this level of performance, numbers on paper tell only a very small part of the story. The real difference between those two cars is hard to quantify with numbers; it is much less tangible, much more subjective. They “feel” different.

Sure, one is turbocharged and the other is not, one has four wheels putting power to the ground and the other only two, but the personality of each car needs to be experienced to truly understand how big the difference is.

Is the Turbo better? It all depends.

It depends on what you are looking for and what the use of the car is. If you’re looking for a car you can take to the track and experience sublime over-steering and razor-sharp handling, and get instant feedback from the asphalt, the GT3 RS will make you very happy.

But don’t count on it to drive to work every day. It will be harsh, loud, stiff — not the type of adjectives that will get you in zen-shape for your next board meeting.

If, on the other hand, you’re looking for a high-performance car that behaves extremely well on the track, but also has a certain level of cushioning between you and the road, and therefore will get you to work in more comfort, get the Turbo.

Both 911s are tremendous fun, but they are very different in how they deliver it.

This is no different for bicycles.

On paper, two bikes could look exactly the same. The same components equip both bikes. The weight is almost identical. Their price points are the same. The geometry charts make you wonder who copied whom. It looks like only the paint job is different.

But when you saddle up, you realize they feel very different. At speed, one bike feels faster. One feels more responsive under hard acceleration. One feels more comfortable on a long ride. One feels more stable descending at high speed.

Although most high-end bicycles are born from the same material, carbon fibre, engineers have many ways they can build the “ride quality” recipe and create a bike’s personality.

It is all about crafting the chassis, or frame, in a way that fulfills a purpose. It is about how you want to deliver the fun.

Different carbon-fibre grades might be selected. Different ways of laying-up the fibre, with different angles or bonding agents.

Different tube sections might be formed — some more aerodynamic, some less. Different techniques might be used to construct the frame — some in one piece, some in multiple pieces.

What’s interesting, though, is that many choices the engineer makes are virtually invisible to the eye — carbon fibre looks like carbon fibre. But it can be very different indeed — in ways we quantify in a lab, but, more importantly, in ways you experience on the road.

Better, worse: don’t even try to answer this question based on technical specs or the opinions of others. It is futile.

Instead, just saddle up and take a test drive.

Julien Papon is the president and founder of Vitess Bicycle Corporation. His column appears every two weeks during the summer. Email: wheels@thestar.ca

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