Bike Upgrade Guide (WIP Updated 6-24-16)

First, let’s put weight reduction into context.

A complete Shimano 105 groupset weighs about 500g more than a Dura-Ace groupset, and about 200g more than an Ultegra groupset. But when you buy an Ultegra bike or groupset over a 105, you usually end up paying hundreds of dollars for less than a pound(454g), usually around one dollar per gram of weight savings($1/g) or less. A Dura-Ace equipped bike has even worse returns on $/g. Cost of replacement for parts and consumables also increases for that marginal weight loss.

Instead of trading in your 105 bike for an Ultegra bike that’s only a bit lighter, it might be better to consider some upgrades. If you upgrade your bike later, you can still carry over the parts to your new bike. Of course, a pound is a pound, if you can lose it off your body, then do so. A bike that weighs a pound less isn’t really going to make you any faster than a pound off your body though.

These are small, affordable light weight upgrades that add up. Starting from the most important.

Tires

The first thing to upgrade is tires.

A lot of people new to the sport might look at anything but a lowly consumable tire to upgrade, and scoff at racing tires that cost as much as a set of car tires that will see over 10 times the mileage. Marketing trends seem to agree, people don’t look at tires when they buy a bike. You can often find low-end or mediocre tires on otherwise nicely equipped bikes. Plus, the sidewalls are more durable and you get fewer customers complaining about delicate tires.

Many bikes come with low-end 30 TPI or less, wire bead tires. Wire beads add almost 200g of rotational mass alone. Once you try a supple high-TPI tire, you will find it hard to go back, they’re more comfortable, the ride quality is better and they are faster. Life’s too short to spend riding bad tires. The better OEM tires will be folding bead, 60 TPI, around 250g. But OEMs often play dirty tricks. They will often release an OEM-only version with the same tread and similar labels, but a wire bead and a lower TPI count. It’s similar to how a Rubino is not a better tire than a Zaffiro Pro, despite being a tier higher.

Why bother? Customers will see the name, and think it’s a good tire. They’ll never pick up the tire by itself and feel how much heavier it is, or check how supple the sidewalls are. All they have to go on is a deceptive label. And the cost savings are bigger when you’re shipping a wire bead tire already mounted to a wheel. Folding bead tires, as implied by the name, fold, making them compact to ship. Wire bead tires on the other hand, can’t be folded, and take up much more room to ship, warehouse, put on the sales floor, etc which raises the retail price of a wire bead tire. But this doesn’t matter when it’s already on a wheel on a bike.

The relative tier of a tire is usually more important than the brand. While within a given tier, one brand might be better than another, a first-tier tire of a second-rate brand is usually better than a second-tier tire of the first-rate brand. The tier of a tire can be approximated through the TPI and weight. Note that Continental multiplies their TPI count by 3 by counting 3 layers of casing when counts threads per inch, when no one else does this. They sort of get away with this because their Black Chili compound and construction are otherwise good, and don’t want you comparing 110 TPI to 120 TPI. Vittoria has lots of marketing driving TPI, but also has a need for product differentiation, tires like the Rubino tend to underperform for a given TPI.

I generally try to get whatever suitable 100+ TPI tire comes in around $20. There’s a lot of price fluctuation in tires, because tires get old and have to be turned over. Product cycles dictate than an old line needs to be phased out. You will often be able to find something on clearance. A $20 clearance racing slick will almost certainly ride better than a $20 retail name-brand tire. Rubino Pros and Performance Bike tires can be purchased at this price point pretty consistently.

If you’re coming from cheap OEM wire beads,  you’re looking at over 200g of weight savings for $40-50. Closer to 100g of savings if you start off with midrange tires and buy 200g racing slicks.

Since we’re talking tires, and weight and rolling resistance, don’t forget lightweight tubes which will save you another 90g or so for $11.

forte tube
Forte Light/Nashbar Lite Tube (48mm)

Veloplugs are another tire related option saving about 30g for $12. All of this rotating weight, making it just slightly more noticeable.

And remember not to overinflate your tires.

You can check out the reviews on tires here

Stem

Fit is arguably one of the most important things in getting the most out of your bike. Road bikes especially are particularly demanding in terms of handlebar reach because of the increased wight on the bars from trying to get aero and get strong power delivery, and because the multiple hand positions demand that bar reach be just right so every position is usable.

If you already have a stem that works for you, great, skip unless you feel an itch to upgrade.

If you haven’t, won’t, can’t get a pro bike fit, many people try different stems based on where their hands settle on the handlebar. Sometimes this is actually just the cyclist’s preference for a certain wrist position. Sometimes it’s a result of bar angle. But people finding themselves frequently on the tops, the rear of the ramps, and the bands between the tops and the ramps may want to try a shorter stem. People who are almost always as forward on the hoods as possible with high pressure between the thumb and index finger may want to try a longer stem.

Or maybe you already know your fit, you just need to set up your new bike the same as your old bike. There’s an app for that.

uno steel
UNO ASA-105 Stem (31.8)

Kalloy makes lots of parts for OEM. They make lots of stuff that is rebranded. The quality of their product is solid, it’s everywhere. You can also buy a lightweight Kalloy UNO branded stem for about $20. At that price you can buy multiple stems to try out for the same price as a competitor’s stem of similar weight. The UNO stem known as “7”, “ASA-105” or made from 7050 aluminum is the one you want. They’re all the same, just different graphics. Lightweight, good stems. A complete bargain compared to buying anything else. They also come in 17 degree versions as well. You’d probably be paying more for something heavier buying anything else.

Otherwise, if you’re just upgrading for no reason buy weight reduction, that’s about $20 for 50g of weight loss over a midrange OEM stem, still pretty good. You can save another 10g with titanium hardware.

Bottle cages

You need them. Hydration is important, it’s extremely important. If you don’t have them, you have no excuse with these cages that are 2 for $3.

plastic cage1
Generic Plastic Cage

Or if you want something a little more carbon and more bling.

carbon cage
Chinese Carbon Bottle Cage

 

If you do have them, and if they’re heavy aluminum ones, not only are they 70-80g heavier, they also scratch up and mark up your bottles. Something plastic and carbon ones don’t do as much. In that case you’re looking at $3-18 for a 70-80g weight reduction, and cleaner looking bottles.

fairing bolt2
Fairing Bolts

Also save another 12g and add some color (that will be hidden when your bottle is in your cage) for $2 by mounting them with motorcycle fairing bolts.

Seatpost

It’s not so much that the seatpost is that important, but rather all the lightweight seatposts are zero-setback, because that’s more efficient. It may not work for those who need the setback. On the other hand, the two bolt system makes adjustment much easier and more precise than a toothed clamp design. A big benefit for dialing in your fit.

If you have a hacksaw, you can get some weight reduction for free, just make sure that you figure out your new minimum insertion height after cutting. If in doubt, 100mm or 4″ should do. Or less if you’re feeling lucky. Or you could measure the minimum insertion length marking before you cut.

gub sp
GUB Seatpost GS

My recommendation is the GUB Seatpost cut down to 240mm which comes in at 165g, just 7g heavier than a Thomson Masterpiece of the same length. Compared to a 350mm generic OEM seatpost you’ll be saving 130g or so for $15. Sometimes even more, there’s a certain fairly recognizable Kalloy seatpost I see as OEM equipment on a lot of bikes that weighs even more than the one I used in my comparison.

Skewers

Skewers aren’t really all that important, unless you have horizontal dropouts. Contrary to popular belief, skewers are not through axles. Their primary purpose is to provide compression squeezing the dropouts on the hub. It’s the friction between the axle nuts and the dropouts, created by the clamping force of the skewer, that should be holding the wheel in place. Horizontal dropouts require extra strength because of wheel slip on the drive side, on bikes with track-end style or vertical dropouts, it’s not really an issue because the frame keeps the wheel form slipping forward.

While internal cam skewers may be king clampers, they’re not really necessary except for horizontal forward facing dropouts. The cheap external cam skewers that come as stock equipment on many bikes can degrade over time, sometimes the plastic cam washer will even break, ruining the quick release. That and weight reduction is a good reason to buy $10 on a set of titanium skewers with a metal cam washer. Remember, avoid the plastic ones. 50-70g of weight loss, more durable, and more bling, for only $10.

Alternatively, you can save even more weight and make your wheels harder to steal with a pair of 35g hex skewers if you ride with a multi-tool. An extra 15g of weight reduction. Lack of a quick release is no big deal if you aren’t racing and don’t have a team car with a spare wheel. You’re going to be pulling over for a few minutes and digging around your saddlebag for your spare anyways.

A touch of color

Parts like top caps and chainring bolts only shave a bit of weight, but they let you add some personal touches to your bike.

A lightweight top cap with an alloy bolt can save you 10g for $5. It’s not a huge savings, but the cost isn’t huge either.

For another $5, you can save 15g substituting alloy chainring bolts for steel ones, but it requires a chainring nut wrench. If you use SRAM cranks, or other brand’s top of the line, don’t bother though. They already have alloy chainring bolts. Shimano 4-arm cranks only use 4 bolts without the nuts, that’s 4/10 pieces, so you’re saving closer to 6g and you won’t be able to see them. Make sure to appropriately prep the threads.

Cheap generic bar tape can be purchased in almost any color, and is only $2. Although the vary in weight from batch to batch, on average they tend to be lighter than many other bar tapes by 10-20g. They also don’t have an adhesive back, so they’re more forgiving to rewrap if you don’t have much experience. It’s worth considering if your bar tape could use some refreshing, you’re not happy with the stock position of the hoods on your bars, or you just want to add some color. However, I wouldn’t really advise swapping your bar tape just for weight reduction.

If you don’t like the tacky chrome bar plugs, you can make your own lightweight black plastic ones from tubing plugs saving 3g for $2. Or if you have multiple bikes, or tend to lose bar ends, they’re even cheaper since that $2 buys you a pack of 10.

The aforementioned skewers, seatpost, bottle cages, cage bolts and even some tires have color options as well, if you want to customize the look of your bike. If not, they also all come in black. You can see parts availability by color in the parts listing.

Worth considering

Saddles can save a lot of weight, for not much money at all depending on the saddle you already have. Saddles are also a very personal choice, and should be picked for comfort over weight. However, if you don’t like your current saddle, it’s showing wear and tear, or you’re just feeling adventurous you might want to consider some of these low cost and low weight options. I personally use this RockBros branded saddle on my non-carbon bike.

rockbros saddle
RockBros Saddle

If you’re feeling lucky, the J&L expander can save over 30g over a stock expander for just $13. However, it doesn’t provide nearly as much support for the steerer as the heavy expander does. Some manufacturers specifically advise and require that you use a full length expander to reinforce the carbon steerer. Others say it doesn’t need any internal support. If you don’t use a carbon steerer, then this isn’t needed and you already have a star nut or a quill stem. Not compatible with 1 1/4″ steerers either.

jl plug
J&L Carbon Steer Expander

If you’re feeling adventurous, you can go even lighter and go without an expander plug or a top cap making an ultralight 2g dust cap for $2. Just use your current top cap and expander to preload the headset, clamp down the stem, and remove.

Building from a frame up

If you want to build up a frameset instead of upgrading a complete bike, you should keep track of every part to figure out upgrading which parts saves you the most weight for the least money. You should budget $10 for a cheap kitchen gram scale to verify weights as well. I’ve posted a spreadsheet you can use as a template with two example builds using new parts, a 16 lb bike for $1,500, and a sub-UCI for $2,000.

 

 


Has this information helped you save a few bucks and a few grams? Share this guide with your friends.

If you thought this information was worth $1, please consider donating, even if it’s only a dollar or two, all proceeds will be spent towards buying new parts to review.

Or sign up for Ebates, which saves you 3.5% off (even on sale/coupon prices) of Nashbar and Performance Bike mentioned in this guide, and an extra 1-5% off of eBay and purchases from the big UK sources of cycling components. It’s absolutely free and you get a $10 sign-up bonus.

Click for Ebates referral link. (Yes, I get a referral bonus, yes, it also saves you money)

 

 

 

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