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How to Turn an Entry-level Road Bike into Lean, Mean Racing Machine on a Budget

For those of us who have contracted the cycling virus, almost across the board, we entered into the sport thinking $1,000 to $3,000 our first road bike was a helluva lot of money to throw at a bicycle.  Then reality punched us in the face.

Sadly, we usually find out, pretty quickly, that $3,000 is a good start, but that was about it.  Worse, we learned that $1,000 for a road bike was a drop in a bucket.

There are some things you can go without and some things you can’t if you really want a lightweight steed out of the deal.  Now, I went the long way around getting my bikes to a point where I can be satisfied and done with the upgrades and I’m writing this post to help those who have a family to think about before cycling.

First things first, unless you’re riding at the upper echelon of your cycling community, an entry-level bike, as is, right out of the bike shop, will do just fine unless you’re north of your 40’s starting out.  Most should be able to, with a little effort, “want to” and some discipline, become fit enough to crack out a 16 to 17-mph average on a decent entry-level bike – even on a hilly course.  The trick is when you’re north of 20-mph – that’s when the lightweight and aerodynamic gear make a big difference.

I can keep up with our 23-mph club group on an 18-1/2 pound Trek with a decent set of alloy wheels.  It’s a lot of work, but I can do it – and I even stuck in with a group for just shy of 60 miles at a 23.8-mph average pace on the same bike.  That speed is a lot more reasonable on my Specialized, though…  So, if you want to get to the next level, let’s get into the proper way to go about upgrading that bike to get you some free speed without killing the bank account or causing a divorce.

 

Okay, so going from newest to oldest in the photos, I started with the $3,000 entry-level race bike, so I was starting with a very light, aerodynamic, stiff, carbon fiber race frame to begin with – most won’t be so fortunate.  Still, this won’t matter for the post.

The very first thing to broom is the original wheelset.  I don’t care what gearing you have on the bike you bought, I don’t care about the shifters or anything else – entry-level wheels tend to suck.  They’re heavy and slow.  I tried going with less expensive alloy wheels but now that I’ve got a set of $400 carbon fiber wheels from Ican, if you’re under the weight restrictions, as I am, I’d recommend starting there.  I have more money into my lightweight alloy wheels that the Ican’s and the Ican set is noticeably superior in comfort and speed.  I’m very impressed with that wheelset for its cost.

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With a good wheelset on your steed, it’s time to look at a few important things, and a plan will help avoid blowing your cash on things you don’t need.

Having to do it all over again, I would save the handlebar upgrade for last.  I chose the S-Works bar and it was almost as much as my wheelset.  The handlebar was only good for a pile of “style watts” and a handful of actual watts and it didn’t save any weight over the alloy bar that came on the bike.  It was unnecessary, if entirely awesome.

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Moving on, we want to look at the drivetrain because a great crank will save a lot of weight and operate much better.  I went with the S-Works crank because it was light, almost three-quarters of a pound lighter than the FSA Gossamer crank that came on the bike, and it fixed a nagging issue (dirt getting into the bottom bracket).  The crank is going to be a big cash item, though, so this is why we come up with a plan.  If you’ve got a 9 or 8 speed transmission you’ll have to upgrade the drivetrain first (and we were getting to that next anyway) because they don’t make decent cranks for 8 or 9 speeds anymore.  You might get lucky on eBay or some other swap site, but don’t hold your breath.  If, on the other hand, you have a 10 or 11 speed rig, you should be able to upgrade easily (though 10 speed probably won’t be available much longer).  Also, if you don’t know all of the little nuances involved in picking a new crank, it might be a good idea to let a bike shop acquire it for you…. picking a crank with the proper chainrings, right arm length, for the correct bottom bracket can be a little daunting unless you know exactly what you’re doing.

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So, if you’ve got Shimano 105 or better on your entry-level bike (I did), don’t worry about upgrading the drivetrain unless you want to.  With an 8 or 9 speed rear cassette, getting into an 11 speed would be a good idea and it’ll actually save you some weight over both the 8 and 9 speed transmission.  You’ll need new shifters, new derailleurs, a new cassette and enough know-how to put it all together… along with the aforementioned crank.  This upgrade is expensive.  I’d go with 105 for a budget and Ultegra if you’ve got some cash to spend.

That’s all of the big weight savings items.  Depending on your original equipment, you’ll be down about three or four pounds at this point.

Next in importance is the stem.  Most people just go with what comes on the bike, but you can save almost a quarter-pound with a decent stem upgrade.  I went with a FSA carbon fiber wrapped alloy stem and saved about 100 grams.  This upgrade own’t make a difference in performance so it’s not entirely necessary – especially considering a good stem will set you back almost $200.

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Lastly, and this could be a big deal depending on how entry-level your bike was when you bought it, I bought a decent set of brakes for my Venge.  The 105 brake calipers that came on the bike were fantastic but I dropped a little weight picked up a lot of style points for the upgrade.  If you’ve got something like Axis brakes on your bike, the upgrade should save a little bit of weight and your brakes will likely work much better.

 

Last up, you’ve got the bottle cages.  Alloy cages are heavy.  Plastic cages are a little better, but decent carbon fiber cages can really add to an already nice bike’s looks.  They add nothing in terms of aerodynamics and only drop a handful of grams, so they’re unnecessary unless you’ve got the want to and about $60 to $80 for the pair.  Mine are from Blackburn:

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In the end, you’re going to want to figure out what you need and what you want… and what you can live without.  The wheels are a must.  Decent brakes are wise.  The crank and drivetrain are nice if you’ve got some money to spend, and the brakes and stem are more in the luxury category.

Whatever you do, push those pedals hard and ride that ride with a smile.

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