Top 5 most confusing topics in cycling

The world of bikes is sometimes a confusing one, with more new standards and theories than even the most tech focussed rider can keep up with

We try to clear up a few misconceptions from the world of cycling

The world of bikes is sometimes a confusing one, with more new standards and theories than even the most tech-focussed rider can keep up with.

And they’re not alone, our tech editors regularly refer back to their holy book — Google — to scrub up on their knowledge of some of the most complicated and easily misunderstood terms, concepts, components and opinions thrust upon them on a daily basis.

So, we took the liberty of checking out their browser search histories to see what they have — and haven’t — been searching for, in times of desperation and confusion, to help you attain a Jedi-like knowledge of all things bike.

1. Skinnier MTB tyres are faster

Which MTB tyres are faster?
Which MTB tyres are faster?

There’s a common misconception that thinner tyres are likely to be faster. They’ve got a smaller contact patch and should, therefore, create less rolling resistance and ride faster.

While that sounds logical, our man Seb Stott found otherwise in a recent test. The results showed that fatter tyres can be up to 4.2 percent faster than their skinnier counterparts on certain ‘roll down’ tests. On technical terrain, the fatter tyres trumped skinnier ones again, finishing 3.3 percent faster on a timed rooty section.

Obviously, some riders may not enjoy the feel of a higher volume tyre, and they’re heavier and more prone to punctures, but based on Seb’s test they are faster.

To find out more, check out Seb's article What’s the fastest tyre size for mountain biking?

2. Any brake that can lock my wheel is good enough

A locked wheel doesn't mean good braking
A locked wheel doesn't mean good braking

We’ve all heard it before: because rim brakes can comfortably lock up your wheels, disc brakes cannot possibly offer any performance gains. Well… just like everything else on this list, that’s not quite the case.

The fact is, any time you lock up a wheel is a sign that you’re not braking optimally. The best braking happens by getting as close as possible to locking up without actually skidding.

Disc brakes are consistent in all conditions and their increased power makes them far easier to modulate with puny human hands. That means it’s easier to push the envelope of tyre grip without locking up.

Say it with us: disc brakes are better and they make bikes heavier.

3. High- and low-speed compression

Understanding high- and low-speed compression
Understanding high- and low-speed compression

High-speed and low-speed compression and rebound damping refer to the speed you’re riding at, right?

Well, no. In a suspension context this terminology refers to shaft speed, not bike speed.

Think of low-speed as regulating the ride height of the bike to account for the forces applied by the rider’s bodyweight. If you’re hitting a berm at high-speed it’s the low-speed compression damping that stops your bike diving, and the low-speed rebound damping that stops it pinging you out of the saddle on the exit.

High speed, on the other hand, is all about smoothing out the roughness of the trail. If you’re hitting a series of small steps or braking bumps then it’ll be high-speed damping that keeps the bike stable and quiet throughout.

For help setting these up, check out our article on how to set up your mountain bike suspension.

4. Stiffer is better and faster

Is stiffer better?
Is stiffer better?

Top-level pro bikes are stiff, meaning they’re faster, right? Well again, not quite.

Deciphering all the information we get given by marketing departments can be tricky, and we don't go a single week without hearing that bike number X is Y percent stiffer and therefore empirically better than the outgoing model.

And while some of that is true (stiffer can be better), the stiffness needs to be in the right places, and planes, on the bike.

Vertical stiffness can cause a horrifically uncomfortable ride, which can cause you to become fatigued more quickly compared to a compliant ride. But you want a bike to be laterally stiff to help reduce steering vagueness and increase pedalling efficiency.

If you’ve got a bike that isn’t stiff around the head tube area, then it’s going to feel like you’re steering a marshmallow. Equally, if you’ve got a flexy bottom bracket area then you’re not going to get as much power to the back wheel because you’ll be spending precious watts repeatedly bending your frame instead.

5. Fork offset

Fork offset and trail are hugely important factors to the character of a bike
Fork offset and trail are hugely important factors to the character of a bike

Here’s another tricky subject that can be totally misunderstood, even by well-seasoned industry folk. Fork offset and trail are hugely important factors to the character of any bike.

Trail determines how stable the steering will be and is dictated by lots of factors, such as wheel size, head angle and wheel radius, in addition to fork offset. Generally speaking, the more trail a bike has, the more stable it will be.

This is thanks to a restorative force that helps to bring the steering back to straight ahead from a turned position, known as the caster effect — think about a wheel on an office chair or shopping trolley that always wants to run straight.

The counter-intuitive part is that the shorter the fork offset the longer the trail, NOT the other way around.

Alex has been riding bikes since he was knee-high to a grasshopper. He first raced back in 2003, winning the Juvenile category on a sketchy hard tail Planet X bike. Alex lived in the Alps for seven years so isn't shy of a climb or two and loves getting out in his bike in all weather. His favorite thing to ride is steep loamy tracks with loads of opportunities to slam the bike into turns and really give it some frame bending welly! He's broken his fair share of frames, so any bike between his knees is going to get a right seeing to.
  • Discipline: DH, Enduro, XC, BMX, Road
  • Preferred Terrain: Epic descents covered in the world's finest loam and hero dirt
  • Current Bikes: Nukeproof Mega 275 / Giant Anthem Advanced 275 1 / LeMond Reno / Deluxe Pro 2 BMX
  • Dream Bike: Giant ATX 1 DH (1999 model)
  • Beer of Choice: Teetotal
  • Location: Bristol, UK

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