Cyclesense: How to Spend Your Upgrade Dollars

Oct 22, 2018
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Deciding how to improve your bicycle, or your cycling experience, is highly personal, and determining where to spend your hard-earned money isn’t always easy. It can be especially tricky for touring cyclists because a lot of the advice that is readily available is intended for racing. In an attempt to help, here are several ways to approach your upgrade decision making. 

The Pragmatist

First off, let’s look at this through the lens of practicality. Upgrading your bike usually means bolting on new parts, but instead of focusing on specific parts or components, focus on function. Eliminating mid-ride frustration will improve your ride experience more than a flashy new derailer. I know that I’m a broken record on this matter, but maintenance is always money well spent. 

If your shifting isn’t as crisp as it used to be, invest in new cables. In my experience, Shimano’s PTFE-coated cables offer a real advantage over cheaper cables, decreasing shift effort and prolonging performance. Replacing your chain and cassette frequently (a couple of times per year if you ride a lot) will delay the need for new chainrings significantly. 

When it comes to ride quality, few things have a greater effect than tires. I usually change my tires with the seasons. I use lighter, more comfortable tires during warm months when I ride more often, and I put on heavier, more robust tires during the winter months to avoid replacing a tube with numb fingers.

If the tires that came on your bike use a wire bead, replace them when the time comes with lighter Kevlar-bead folding tires. If your riding takes you on gravel and dirt roads, or even mountain bike trails, consider installing tubeless tires and sealant. 

Simply bolting on a lighter version of something you currently have won’t significantly impact your riding, though. The experience of owning a lighter bike is best appreciated when talking about your bike with your buddies or when hanging it on a scale, as opposed to while riding it. This can be fun, but it’s a long, expensive road to lightening your bike one piece at a time. A better way to lose weight is to avoid carrying unnecessary items in your touring setup. Foregoing something heavy will save more weight and far more money than the death-by-a-thousand-cuts strategy of shaving weight one component at a time.

The Comfort King or Queen

Feeling comfy on your bike never gets old. No one actively seeks out a more jarring ride, a poorly contoured saddle, or a nagging seam on a garment. But for many cyclists, minor discomfort is part of the game. It doesn’t need to be. Spend some time tinkering if you’ve had recent comfort issues. 

I find that it’s best to do this as soon as I get home from a ride and while the sensation is fresh in my mind. Make a change and roll around the neighborhood to see whether it’s an improvement or not. Sometimes small changes can deliver big results. In some cases subtly moving your brake levers can relieve wrist pain. Adjusting the tilt of a saddle can transform it from miserable to mesmerizing. 

If your comfort problems are minor ones, be sure to focus on contact points. Nice gloves and gel inserts under your handlebar tape can help with hand numbness. If a new saddle is in order, seek out a shop that has a saddle demo program. I recently paid a $40 fee to access a huge number of saddles at a local shop, and I can ride a saddle almost indefinitely to be sure that it works for me. Then, if I decide to buy a new perch from the shop, they’ll apply the $40 to the purchase price. I feel this approach should be universal, and it is certainly gaining ground in quality bike shops. 

Sometimes the best upgrade a rider can make has nothing to do with her bicycle. New cycling shorts or shoes, heck even some new socks (I highly recommend the made-in-America Swiftwick Pursuit socks, which also use American wool, see below right), will bring new comfort to your riding. Take your time when shopping as these are the sort of purchases that aren’t easily returned (for hopefully obvious reasons). 

If you’ve experienced prolonged discomfort despite your best efforts, consider seeking the help of a professional bike fitter. A couple of hours spent with an expert can yield amazing results, and you’ll wish you’d spent the money sooner. 

The Rollicking Rider

Let’s assume that your bike is functioning well and you and your contact points are happy friends. If you also find yourself with a bit of money burning a hole in your pocket, have some fun! Spruce up your bike with new handlebar tape and matching bottle cages. Get that new gadget you’ve been eyeing. 

Cycling is, after all, a hobby — it’s about having a good time. Don’t be afraid to be a bit frivolous. I recently got myself a new helmet not because I needed one, but because the color matched my favorite cycling shoes. If you feel good about how you and your bike look, you’ll likely to have a better time out on the road. A piece of new cycling kit or a new doohickey on your bike adds a bit of excitement to riding. 

Now I don’t want to advocate conspicuous consumption, but treating yourself every now and then is a nice thing to do.

Preserve the Experience

Everything I’ve advised above has to do with prioritizing the experience of riding a bicycle instead of scrutinizing the machine itself. Both are important, but in a perfect world the bicycle becomes invisible. There is no squeaking, ticking, creaking, or discomfort to distract you from the joy of being outside and cruising along under your own power. If buying a new accessory or updating your brakes or drivetrain will add to that sensation, then go for it. Happy trails.  

This story originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine. 

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