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The Noob’s Guide to Bike Upgrades – To Gear Up or Not to Gear Up

December 2013
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Ah, what to do, what to do… When I first got into cycling, I was big into buying cheaper bikes and upgrading them – new handlebar (custom cut to length of course), new stem, clip-on aero-bars, tires…and that was just for my Trek mountain bike! Then came the road bike(s) – saddles, shoes, pedals, tires, stem. Then I finally bought a bike that didn’t need any upgrades – or so I thought. Within a few weeks I realized that the wheels that came on the bike were, umm, very hard to like (relatively speaking, they were heavy and felt cheap) so I pulled the trigger on new wheels.  Future upgrades could include a carbon stem and handlebar and a carbon crank and a set of carbon clincher wheels… Those last few are “if I ever have some extra cash lying around” upgrades unlike the new wheels which were somewhat a necessity.

In other words, right or wrong, I’ve spent a lot of cash on upgrading bikes.

For the noob the question that needs an answer is this: Does it make sense to buy an inferior bike and upgrade it?

First let’s look at the extremes, then we’ll have a go at the gray areas. If you have $10,000-$15,000 to spend on a bicycle, don’t bother reading any further – you’ve got enough to buy a bike that will have the best of everything on it anyway or darn close to it.

That covers the expensive side of the ledger. For the inexpensive side it’s relatively simple: You can’t upgrade an aluminum road bike to carbon road bike awesomeness (and comfort) for less than the cost of the carbon road bike – unless you buy the parts on a discount and install them yourself (something that most noobs would have a tough time with anyway).  Having ridden extensively on both (carbon and aluminum), there’s no way I’d settle for aluminum again.  The benefits of carbon far outweigh the cost effectiveness of aluminum. There’s a reason they put carbon forks on the higher grade aluminum bikes.  Is it worth that effort though? Absolutely, under the right circumstances.

I bought my wife a nice, brilliantly maintained two year-old Specialized Secteur (the upgraded model with the carbon fork) for half of the original sticker. It’s already decked out with Shimano’s 105 10 speed line so the important components are solid. Throw on a decent set of aluminum rims and it’s a great bike for an enthusiast. However, if I hoped to make the Secteur mimic the comfort of my Venge, I’d have to go much further to get around the stiffness of the aluminum frame… I’d go with carbon clincher wheels (Chinese knock-offs $400), carbon stem ($90-$150), maybe a carbon handlebar ($200), carbon seat post ($100). Install the components myself and I’m looking at a nice, light, relatively comfortable bike for about $1,500-$1,700. I’ve got about $3,600 into my Venge.  Do the math, it can make sense.

On the other hand, if you were to buy an old school bike (something with, say, downtube shifter levers) and upgrade that to something a little more modern, well you’re talking about an entirely different scenario then.  I’ve got a nice Cannondale that I thought about upgrading until I found out what I would have to do to get it done right …  I was looking at another $400 to upgrade the shifters, then another several hundred for a new fork and to have it painted to match the bike, then I’d have to spread the frame, buy new wheels, a cassette, chain – and I’d have ruined (again, in my opinion) a great old-school bike.  I’d have been into that bike for a couple of grand by the time I was done – and I’d still have been on a relatively heavy bike.  It is important to keep in mind, for those in the know, I made the distinction “get it done right” – I am fully aware of the many workarounds when it comes to using odd shifters for old bikes.  These workarounds, while often quite good, are not infallible and often very finicky.  I don’t do finicky.  When I say “right”, I mean right.

Now, there is real benefit to upgrading an old bike, however you want to go about it, because it can be done one part at a time in most cases.  If the budget is tight, then it can absolutely make sense to get a less expensive bike and upgrade the undesirable parts as you can afford them over time.  This can be tricky, depending on the age of the bike and the new parts you’re upgrading to so a plan of attack should be made and well thought out in advance.  For instance, say you’re swapping out an older aluminum stem for a new carbon one.  You have to make sure the new stem matches the old one so it goes together with your existing handlebar.  Then when you can upgrade the bar, you have to make sure you get the right diameter to match your stem.  If you want to go from an old 7 speed cassette to a newer 10 speed setup, the back-end of the bike will have to be spread and you’ll need new wheels.  There are too many combinations to list here but it’s handy to know that getting the right equipment isn’t always easy.  For this reason most shops will simply steer you towards a new bike that has everything you want.

As I see it, one of the many enjoyable aspects of cycling is that road bikes are simply a more affordable version sports car.  I own a drool-worthy race bike that cost about ten percent of what it would cost for a Ferrari tune-up…and my bike runs on fat, not gas.  Whether you can afford a nicer bike or not, the important part is to ride a bike you can enjoy and that fits you.  If you happen to be new to cycling, pay attention:  A nice bike will garner you a minimal amount of respect in a group, but this doesn’t work how you might think…  A well maintained old-school bike can often be as praise-worthy as a newer high-dollar carbon steed.  Far more important to anyone who knows anything about bikes, as has been my experience across the board, is how you ride the bike that you’re on.  I get plenty of “cool bike” comments on my $400 aluminum Cannondale.  Don’t get sucked into the notion that having the best bike that you can afford somehow means that you’re “less than” someone else on a high-priced stallion.  A nice bike, in the end, only looks cool if it’s maintained properly and being ridden competently.  You get the same from an older bike when well maintained and ridden the same way.  The important thing is that you’re riding.

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3 Comments

  1. Whenever it’s time for a new bike, we all get faced with the dilemma of choosing between aluminum and carbon fiber road bikes. One thing to note is that for almost the same price, you could get a high-end aluminum bike or a low-end carbon fiber bike but knowing the pros and cons that comes with each is the most important thing in picking the right choice.

  2. The great Eddy Merckx once said “don’t buy upgrades, ride UP grades!”

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