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Home » Cycling » The Five Road Bike Upgrades You’re not Supposed to Need (One of Which, You Do. Real Bad)

The Five Road Bike Upgrades You’re not Supposed to Need (One of Which, You Do. Real Bad)

November 2018
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I read a neat little article on Bike Radar that itemized five big road bike upgrades that the author suggests you don’t need.  Folks, I’ve never met an upgrade I didn’t like, but let’s dig into this with a little gusto, eh?

I’ll be frank, Frank.  I agreed with two. A couple were half “needs”.  One, the author is bat-shit crazy.  You need the upgrade, straight up.

First, let’s define “need”, because if you’re talking about needing a $4,000 high-end road bike, nobody “needs” one, but I’ve got $6,000 into mine, and I’d argue, if I didn’t need everything, I’d have put the money in the bank and let it sit there earning… oh… s#!+… what, $0.42 a year?

Look, it’s all “depth” of “need”.  Do I need a top-of-the-line road bike?  Of course I don’t!  To even suggest such a thing is ridiculous.  On the other hand, hey, I worked hard for the money to be able to afford a nice bike (or four err, five… six) – my only vice.  Also, as a recovering alcoholic who was once a scourge on society, having turned my life around and become a productive member of society, I’m perfectly at peace with allowing someone else the burden of guilt over a bicycle (or six).  Finally, if you’re going to ride with the crowd I do, at my age, every little bit of mechanical advantage you can buy will help.

With the cow pucky (guilt) out of the way, let’s look at what Bike Radar says are unnecessary upgrades in their article:

  • Electronic shifting – I know, everyone who has electronic shifting is jumping up and down, going, “But dude, it’s the bees knees, man!”  I know, I’ve got three friends who have it and they all say they’ll never go back to mechanical.  I’ve got another two who ride eTap and they can’t say enough good about it.  One guy has eTap on three of his bikes (one Pinarello F10, a Colnago C60, and… oh, does it matter?).  Point is, I know how great it is.  We’re talking about need, though.  E-shifting comes close, but not quite.
  • Tubular tires.  What you need, if you ride tubs is a crew to feed you new wheels when you flat one of those tubs.  I’m all on board with not needing tubular tires.  Still, I have a couple of friends who ride them…  They are light, I’ll give ’em that.
  • Next up is Disc Brakes, and this is my “half”.  Look, bro, or sis, as the case may be…  Disc brakes are the cat’s pajamas.  Having ridden them on my gravel bike (cable) and my mountain bike (hydraulic), they are almost marvelous enough to be a need.  Need or not, I won’t be buying a new bike without them (I think).  They’re that good.
  • The next ‘half-a-need” is an Aero Frame.  Yeah, you really don’t need one… but the real question is, “would you want to live without one?”  No I would not.  Once you’ve ridden a standard frame enough, you can feel the difference drafting in a pace line, between a standard frame and an aero frame.  It’s a small difference, but there is an unmistakable advantage.  Unmistakable.  Now, to be fair, most cyclists aren’t going to bother training to ride fast enough to get full use out of an aero bike frame.  For those who are willing to ride at a 20+ mph average (34 km/h), that aerodynamic frame moves precariously close to a need.

Now I’m going to break with my protocol, where I try to find common ground with the original author and I’m going to call BS on the last one.

Carbon fiber wheels.

Before and After

A buddy of mine, six or seven years ago, having just bought his first carbon fiber wheelset, called me up to let me know I needed a set of my own.  I didn’t heed his suggestion.  He was right.  Having gone from riding alloy wheels for years, to carbon fiber in the last couple of months, I can state fairly, they’re as close to a need as you get in cycling.  Carbon fiber wheels make a bike better.  If you’ve got a great bike on alloy wheels, carbon fiber wheels will make your bike spectacular.  If you’ve got a good bike, they’ll make it great… etcetera  on down the line.  Now, because my readership is generally exceptionally bike-savvy, you noticed I skipped “top-notch”.  If you’ve got a spectacular bike, you’ll already have carbon fiber wheels on it.

I want to go to what the article says, though, to add a little clarity:

Carbon wheels are AWESOME. Everyone thinks so. They look cool, they sound cool and they’re more aero so you’ll go faster, right?

Well, maybe, but full carbon wheels are incredibly expensive and if your bike has rim brakes, the braking is almost invariably worse than with cheap alloy rims, especially if it’s raining.

If you’re a lighter rider, deep section wheels will make your bike harder to handle because they catch more wind. You could swap back to your regular wheels when the weather’s bad, but don’t forget you’ll have to change brake pads as well because carbon requires special pads.

Does it still seem worth the effort?

Okay, first, everyone “thinking so” about the awesomeness of carbon fiber wheels is useless.  Discard that.  “They look cool” and “sound cool” are equally useless.  Discard that.  “You’ll go faster, right?”  Bingo.  Yes you will.

The braking does suck, though it’s not all that bad.  I don’t ride the good bike with the carbon wheels in the rain, so that doesn’t matter – if I get caught out with them, I’ll have to be a little more mindful of the stopping distance.  Simple as that.  If you’re a lighter rider, you will get blown around a little more – so you don’t buy 80’s, you go with 38-40mm for the depth of your wheels (not exactly rocket science there).

Now that last point, about swapping brake pads for the alloy and carbon fiber wheels, that gets interesting and the point probably deserves its own post…  If you’re frugal, like me, you just say, “Hey, I’ll just ride the carbon wheels in the nice weather and put the alloy wheels on there if there’s a chance of rain.  I’ll bet I can get away with using the carbon fiber brake pads on my alloy wheels…  Yeah, I’m brilliant.”

You’re a smart cookie.  That’s what I thought, but I know some of my harebrained schemes can be a little… well… harebrained, so I looked it up on the interwebz:

Can you use carbon brake pads on alloy rims?
Yes, it works but alloy pads perform much better on alloy rims and the change from alloy to carbon rims can be dangerous for carbon rims. Any alloy bubble in the carbon pad can destroy a carbon rim in only a few braking intervals.

I didn’t think of that but it makes a hell of a lot of sense.  You may or may not know that it’s common maintenance to clean out your brake pads a time or two every season to make sure you don’t have any small bits of rim-metal stuck in the pads.  Well, if I switch my wheels to use the alloy rims in the rain and I get a bit stuck in the carbon-friendly pads… well, you get the idea.  That’s a fair amount of work to get around – and one missed piece of aluminum in a pad could spell curtains for one of your rims (assuming, of course, you could get another rim).

In that case, no, swapping the wheels is not worth the effort… so you get a rain bike to ride in the rain.  Bingo!  Bob’s your uncle.

Look, we’re going to upgrade our bikes.  It’s what we do.  So the first place I’m going to go will be the wheels.  Nothing will make an instant difference in riding speed and the weight of a bike like a decent set of wheels – and if you’re able to go from alloy to carbon fiber, you’ll get the added benefit of exponentially improved ride quality to boot.

Do I need carbon fiber wheels like I need food?  No, of course not.  But now that I’ve got them, I needed them.  Know what I mean?

Of course you do.

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1 Comment

  1. joliesattic says:

    My husband just started working with an old friend who has a bike parts business, helping him out on weekends. Tomorrow we are working a bike swap in San Diego with all these new parts. Every now and again Russ walks in (from his office) and says, “feel this” and I pick up a multi chain ring that weighs next to nothing. In fact, almost everything weighs nothing and is an amazement. It’s been so long since either of us has upgraded or looked at bikes, we are so out of touch. Like kids in a candy store. Like you said, some things are cool, but you may not “need” it all. I found years ago, some advancements can be more of a pain than a help.
    Fun is hitting the bike shows for new up to date equipment, it can be a gas.

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