If we were to rock up to a traffic-free circuit with one very expensive road bike and one much cheaper one, would we be able to measure any significant speed differences in a timed test? Can you really 'buy' speed? Armed with a racing weapon that is (nearly) the pinnacle in road bike technology, a modest bargain from Facebook Marketplace, some power meter pedals and bags of enthusiasm, we tried to find out...
Eagle-eyed readers from South West England might recognise the location as Odd Down circuit in Bath, a purpose-built cycling track that is well used to very fast bikes. Today's it's home to my own S-Works Tarmac SL7 race bike, that has appeared on the road.cc site and YouTube channel multiple times, and more camera-shy, rim brake-equipped Cannondale CAAD10.
These bikes have been selected because both are pretty synonymous in the circles that they're representing. The SL7 (although now superseded by the very similar Tarmac SL8) was undoubtedly one of the fastest bikes of the pro peloton when it launched, and we reckon it probably still would be three years on. We wanted to give the value option the best possible chance, so went for Cannondale's highly-rated CAAD rather than something rubbish off Amazon.
The CAAD10 cost just £350 on Facebook Marketplace, and comes equipped with a mechanical Shimano 105 groupset. As well as being a bit of a bargain, the CAAD10 also happens to be a very common first road bike, an entry-level bike that has earned the highest praise over the years not just from us, but from cyclists all over. We think, then, that this bike is well equipped to represent as our budget contender.
Even though this bike is perfectly functional, a lot of riders who start with something entry-level might improve, and wonder if progressing to a more expensive bike might help them to improve, beat their mates and steal that Strava KOM. If you listen to the marketing hype from just about any bike manufacturer, then it’s very easy to believe that would be the case... well, we’re here to see if dropping a shedload of cash in the hope of speed is futile or not.
Unfortunately for us cyclists, expensive purchases don’t stop at just bikes. We’re bombarded with releases from clothing and equipment manufacturers too, all claiming that their top-of-the-range items will help you smash those personal bests. For our high-end bike, we've handpicked a selection of equipment, regardless of its price, that we think is well up there with the very fastest in the business.
Nearly all of the equipment above has been seen used in the World Tour peloton at some point. The Sanremo speed suit is what you'll find the likes of Fabio Jakobsen and Remco Evenepoel using for sprint stages, while the Rule 28 aero base layer has been spotted on Magnus Sheffield of Ineos Grenadiers, and more recently Bora Hansgrohe riders at the Tour of Britain.
Aero socks are a more cost-effective upgrade, and no stone has been left unturned with an aero helmet and tubeless TT tyres to help bring down the rolling resistance as well. This really is an enviable setup that wouldn't look out of place on the startline at the highest level of bike racing.
This bag of spanners (ok, maybe that's a bit harsh), has served Tom extremely well over years of winter riding. As mentioned earlier, the bike cost just £350, and as far as I can see, doesn’t have any idea what aero is. The bars are a standard round profile, the wheels are alloy and shallow, and the tyres are built for durability rather than speed.
Also, remember these contraptions from yesteryear? Rim brakes! The cable routing is external, too.
The rest of the gear doesn't break the bank, and most importantly it all fits and is pleasant enough to use and wear while riding. It also all costs around 30 times less than our hero setup!
The test consisted of two riders completing six efforts each - three with the cheap setup and three with the expensive equipment - on a flat, repeatable course with no traffic. Both bikes are fitted with power meter pedals, so that the effort is consistent between the two bikes and unaffected by fatigue. Both Tom and I aimed for an average power of 300 watts for all efforts.
The position on each bike has been replicated across cheap and expensive where possible, with the same saddle height, reach, stack height and bar width to avoid a difference in rider position contributing to any difference in times. Moreover, both Tom and I will maintain the same hand position for all tests and take the same lines through the corners.
Jamie: "Having done previous tests on shallow vs deep wheels, I expect there to be a small difference between the two setups as this is quite a fast circuit. However, I expect this to be marginal as the cheaper clothing is well-fitted, and the position between the two bikes is pretty similar."
Tom: "Although I think to an extent you can buy some speed, I don't think we're going to be able to see a meaningful difference in today's test. I think that manufacturer's claims are all too often exaggerated, and your speed is far more down to the watts you put through the pedals.
"I have no doubt that Wout Van Aert would still win basically everything on my mighty £350 Cannondale CAAD10!"
On average, the 3.4km circuit was ridden at around 42kph (26.1mph). This is faster than a typical riding speed even on many flat routes, so it's worth noting that you can expect to experience less aerodynamic benefit when travelling at lower speeds.
All efforts were completed aiming for an average power of 300 watts, with the power not deviating by more than 2 watts either side on all efforts.
From the times above, we can clearly see that the more expensive setup was indeed faster in both cases. Given that Tom's margin of error was four seconds and the difference between his average times of the two setups was just five seconds, it could be argued that it's not possible to conclude that the more expensive setup was faster.
However, given that my results provided a slightly larger difference (9 seconds, or 3%) as well as the fact that at no point did the cheaper setup post a faster time, then I believe that it is possible to conclude that the expensive equipment did provide a measurable advantage, albeit a small one.
As always, any real-world testing should be taken with a pinch of salt, but given the consistency of results, we're confident in saying that you can buy speed... but not a lot!
So, in conclusion, can you buy speed? Well, yes you can. Perhaps the question we should be asking instead is, is it worth it?
I'm sure you can all predict what the answer is here: it depends! If you're a World Tour pro or an elite racer where the margins of victory are often fractions of a second, then the difference in equipment could be the difference between winning or losing that race. Unfortunately though, fast bikes, clothing and equipment often cost the most due to the premium materials and countless hours of research and development that go into them.
For the likes of you and me, amateurs interested in going as fast as possible with as little effort as possible, then buy what you can justify. There's certainly plenty of low-hanging fruit that will give you the vast majority of the gains. For example, even though we didn't test components individually, we know from other tests that you can get most of the gains from a few much more cost-effective upgrades.
For example, if I was trying to go as fast as possible for as cheap as possible, then short of putting the hours in during training, aero socks, a well-fitting jersey that doesn't necessarily have to cost a fortune, tyres and better inner tubes would be well up my wish list.
If you'd like to delve a bit deeper into how much faster a set of deep wheels might make, then you then check out our article here.
The other difference between pros and amateurs is, of course, the fact that very few of us have maxed out our training potential. Perhaps that money could be better spent on a regimented training plan, or training camp in the sun.
Personally, I think it’s great that any of us can save up for the literal pinnacle of tech in our sport - but it's also worth remembering that all this equipment is designed to save just a few watts, so unless you’re at the very highest level, then it’s worth handpicking your upgrades to suit your budget without fear of getting dropped.
Edit: Last weekend I got absolutely thrashed in a road race by multiple juniors on set-ups a quarter the price of mine. It was a humbling reminder that training pays off!
Were you expecting a bigger or smaller gap between the high-end and budget equipment? Let us know in the comments section below...
Jamie has been riding bikes since a tender age but really caught the bug for racing and reviewing whilst studying towards a master's in Mechanical engineering at Swansea University. Having graduated, he decided he really quite liked working with bikes and is now a full-time addition to the road.cc team. When not writing about tech news or working on the Youtube channel, you can still find him racing local crits trying to cling on to his cat 2 licence...and missing every break going...