The state of lightweight

By Justin Loretz, What Mountain Bike | Thursday, November 1, 2007 12.00am

The longer you wait, the lighter the weight. It's one of the benefits of evolution, that bike components get more technically advanced, smaller and consequentially lighter the longer you leave them.

The best part is that we (you and me) don't have to do anything to access this constantly evolving world of tech. Walk into any bike shop and randomly pick a mountain bike, regardless of brand and price tag. Unless you've picked a dirt jump bike, you'll be holding a bike that is, on average, around four pounds lighter than the same bike was 10 years ago. Four whole pounds. That's a lot of weight. Don't think so? Just try eating four pounds of your favourite food to see what it feels like. Pretty sick now, huh?

This weight loss is thanks to advances in every area of the bike. Frame walls are thinner, suspension is slimming - although not as fast as other areas - and after stagnating for a few years, wheels are just beginning a new revolution in weight loss. Similarly, tyres are getting lighter and grippier, and we're now able to use non-tubeless tyres in tubeless formats, thanks to ingenious systems like Joe's No Flats and Stan's No Tubes.

Components are getting lighter too, with ever-increasing amounts of carbon fibre, titanium and light alloy, where once steel and alloy reigned supreme. So where is this weight revolution taking us and the bikes we ride?

Further & faster

Lighter bikes should enable you to ride further and faster, and XC-specific bikes are the obvious winners here because they're simply being asked to roll forwards without having to hit too much, so they can benefit from the full gamut of technological advancements.

Trail bikes are next. Riders of trail bikes want around five inches of travel and an ability to climb quickly and efficiently, and to descend the blackest runs without mishap. Trail bike riders balance on a tightrope, as they must shed grams without compromising safety or ability over much rougher terrain than their XC brothers. The same can be said of freeriders and DH riders to an even greater extent. Gone are the days of a 'build it strong and bugger the weight' mentality in DH, as racers today know that their power-to-weight ratio is crucial in events where winning margins are measured in hundredths of seconds.

The problem is that this leads us down a path where the really light stuff might end up being used on the wrong type of bike, and that will inevitably lead to breakages, but more on that in a while...

When the light goes out

It's becoming clear that slashing weight from a bike is very easy and potentially expensive.

It's also potentially dangerous, especially if you're not careful what you buy. We know of brands (not featured here) we won't use on safety grounds, as there are companies who are prepared to dance well into the grey area between strength and weight. Some believe that because a component of a given weight hasn't broken yet, it can have even more weight removed, but this clearly isn't the case.

Sometimes companies make products which are, technically, strong enough for use in their designated areas - like road bikes - but which get fitted to mountain bikes by riders trying to sweat off every last gram. We've been as guilty of this as anyone, as testers it's our job to find the limits of components and occasionally we step over those limits...

Rolling, rolling, rolling

We can't say it often enough, but tyres are the heaviest single component in your wheel set, so try and make sure you're not dragging around more rubber than you have to. By the same token, don't use the same tyres in the summer that you do in the winter. The ground is dryer so you don't need those 4mm tall 'digging' knobs, which are just going to make the bike feel squirmy. Try a set of low profile tyres like Hutchinson Barracudas or Bontrager Revolt Super X for regular riding. For racing, try the 350g Continental Twister Supersonic, or for really dry weather, the Maxxis Maxxlite 310s at, yes, 310g.

Basically, don't fit a 500g tyre if there's a 400g model that works as well. That's 200g off your wheels, and a pair of superlight inner tubes could save the same again. Chuck on a Shimano XTR Ti cassette and alloy lockring and you've dropped half a kilo off your wheels. Quick release levers are another area to lose weight in, so lob the steel and get Ti rods - but you'll need to keep an eye on them to make sure they're running properly.

You'll feel the cost in your pocket, as the cassette (for example) isn't cheap, but you'll really feel the difference in the way the bike accelerates, climbs and corners when all the savings come together.

Light tyres cost a lot, so experimentation is expensive - especially if you decide you don't like your new treads - but there is simply no other place on your bike where you can make such an easy and obvious weight saving and performance upgrade.

Play it safe

There are plenty of ways to lose weight on bikes. Some are free, some cost pocket money and some require clearance from a bank manager - or even worse... the wife.

Assuming you're happy with the weight and ride characteristics of your frame, then it's wheels and suspension first. Modern XC wheels weigh around 1700-1800g, with anything weighing 1400g considered race worthy. The top XC racers are all clamouring to get their hands on 'special' wheels weighing 1300g. A pair of 1300g XC disc wheels take a bit of TLC and are probably race day-only territory for those with deep enough pockets for the £700 quid asking price.

It doesn't end there though, as there are top secret sets of wheels around which are in the 950g range - mind you, they will set you back around £6000, so they're a luxury few can afford.

Another area is stems. Most XC MTB stems weigh in around 160g, with lighter ones pitching in at 140g and the leaders nudging the 120g mark. The difference in price isn't too bad, with the 160g stems costing around £30-50 and the two top lightweight XC ones, the 138g FSA OS115 and the 120g Ritchey 4Axis, costing £95 and £70 respectively.

Can you go lighter? Poshbikes sell a handmade carbon stem that comes with a ten year guarantee and weighs a startling 85g. However its price tag of £600 is what you'd expect to pay for a reasonable bike in itself, so don't blame us if we don't queue up for that one.

Handlebars are the same. For the light stuff you're looking at between 100g and 130g for flat and 120-150g for risers. Many riders head straight for the Easton EC90CNT carbon flat bar when they want to 'hop up' their XC race hardtail. At 99g and £90, it's not cheap but it does have the best strength-to-weight ratio going, even if it's a bit narrow at 560mm.

If you want it lighter still (and wider) then why not hunt down a handmade carbon handlebar by Stefan Schmolke in Germany. Tipping the scales at 89g and 560mm long, it carries a German TUV test mark and a ten year guarantee. The cost of this black woven magic? £89. Which is proof that the boundaries of lightweight need not be bank busting.

Want even more for less? Think grips. The average lock on-style grip costs a tenner and weighs 130g, but the great Ritchey WCS foam grips cost £8 and weigh 36g - a saving of 94g for nearly a tenner less cash. Poshbikes have some that are even lighter for about £11. Who said big weight losses had to be costly?

So what of the future?

You should see 'race only' XC wheels offered at nearer the 1000 gram mark in the next three years, and once race-proven it's only a matter of time before these make it into everyday use - for the right consumer. Integration is on the up, and more XC race bikes will be available with an option to spec an integrated seat tube and seat post, like the Scott Spark and the new Look 959 (when it arrives). Scott already has their race tested Pilot bar and stem combo out at 230g.

Tyres are going to get lighter. As brands begin to apply new rubber and polymer technologies, we'll get the option of running bigger, wider and heavier treaded tyres for XC and trail bikes at the same weights only found on the narrower semi-slicks.

All you've got to do is keep riding (for a year or three) and most of this aftermarket tech bling will come fitted as standard on your next bike. Now how cool is that?

© BikeRadar 2007

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