The Placebo Effect

I was chatting to a fellow bike nut on Saturday about a few things – something came up which has been on my mind for a while…

Ever marvelled at how good that shiny new {insert shiny new component of choice} of yours is? Wondered how you ever lived without it? Claimed how you’ll “never go back” to the old one? Yes? How about positional changes on the bike? You made a switch to your position on the bike that unequivocally made you faster, right? I’ve done both too. But there’s a good chance that the benefit you’re feeling is a mental ‘new product / position elation’ rather than an actual benefit.

No, wait – just hear me out on this one!

When I first built my Baum it was categorically, without doubt, the best thing ever. In fact it still is (placebo effect or not, the damn things rocks!). But one particular component that made it that way was the Lightweight wheels – I was blown away at how good they felt, how quick they span up, how good the braking was on them. In short, they were faultless. Then they broke (the jury is still out on exactly how they broke, but I’m not going into that).

Whilst the rear one was away being repaired I had the opportunity to run two different sets of wheels on the bike. Two cheaper, heavier sets of wheels. Guess what? The bike still worked, my climbing was no slower, braking was improved significantly on one of the wheelsets, both felt like they rolled faster and both made the bike seem more comfortable.


Given that one of those wheelsets was nigh-on two thousand pounds cheaper, and that you’d struggle to tell the difference in their appearance until you’re pretty close to the bike, I felt a bit stupid. My feeling is that the weight of these cheaper wheels (at around 200g and 400g heavier in each case) resulted in a little more momentum once rolling, and that they probably had a bit more flex in their construction (there is more brake rub, which would confirm as much) which is what was making the bike feel more comfortable with them on.

The Lightweights come back this week – it’ll be interesting to see what I think of the bike with them back on it.

Positionally I’ve had a bike fitting where I was advised that I “definitely need more layback”. More layback applied I was categorically (to my mind) more powerful, faster, better on the bike – what a difference! Then I tried another fitting to help resolve a problem that had developed. This time I was told I “definitely had too much layback”. Layback removed and once again I was categorically (to my mind) more powerful, faster… you get the idea.

Switching the focus to a pro rider, when Cadel Evans was riding the TT at the tour a couple of weekends back a number of people were tweeting how they could put Cadel in a more powerful TT position. He’s known for having a position on his TT bike which looks awkward and uncomfortable, but if you moved him on it would he actually go faster? I’m not so sure. He’s worked on that position for long enough now to know that it works for him – and it clearly does work as he nearly won the stage that day. Why would he want to change anything?

How about frame materials? I know of two people recently who have ridden the very same bike yet come to totally different conclusions about it – one saying it was not as stiff as a carbon or aluminium machine, the other saying it was one of the stiffest bikes he’s ever ridden. The material? Titanium. I can’t help but wonder if the reviewer suggesting it was not as stiff was taking the view that “it’s Titanium therefore it’s soft” as is often the case. Sure, Ti can and often does make for a softer ride, but I’m damned if that’s always the case.

And then of course there’s the ‘aero Vs light’ argument for wheels. Light wheels will make you quicker uphill, won’t they? But will they – there’s evidence to suggest (and I’ll find it when I get a chance) an aero wheel will be more beneficial, even with a weight penalty. Regardless, most of the pros ride shallow ‘mountain’ wheels when the going gets categorised, and all irrespective of the fact that their bikes will always have to weigh 6.8kg or more.

Finally, crank stiffness. Total noodles aside, can you really tell when one crank is more or less stiff than another? I struggle to believe there’s a genuine tangible difference – for most of us at least. Even the machine test results are pretty damn close between what’s considered ‘stiff’ and ‘flexy’. Besides, when you’ve spent so much of your hard-earned readies on a shiny new chainset that’s so light it carries a rider weight limit you’re hardly likely to confess that it wobbles when you stomp the power down, are you?…

Sucked into the marketing hype, talking ourselves into it or just plain ignorance? Difficult to tell. I’ve been guilty though, that much I know for sure.

Rich [@RichTheRoadie]