Avid cyclists know the joy that comes with a smooth and swift ride. And while the rider’s skills are what matter most, the performance of your road bike can significantly influence your speed and – most importantly – ride quality. Upgrading key components of your bicycle can unlock new levels of efficiency, comfort, and speed.
In this article, we traverse the world of bike upgrades, exploring those that can truly make a noticeable impact on your riding experience. Read on as we delve into the best investments to boost your performance on two wheels.
1. High-Performance Tires
High-performance tires like the popular Continental GP5000 can greatly improve your speed and comfort. These tires often have lower rolling resistance and better grip, which translates to more speed on the road.
They are expensive, sure, but dollar-per-dollar these are the best upgrades you can get for your bike. High-performance tires are typically made from quality materials and higher threads per inch (TPI) which increases the suppleness and overall quality of the tire. Moreover, high-performance tires often have puncture protection technology to prevent flats – a cyclist’s worst enemy.
2. Latex Inner Tubes
Switching from butyl to latex inner tubes can lead to a noticeable increase in performance, and especially comfort. Latex tubes are more elastic and thus have less rolling resistance, which can boost your speed and absorb road vibration better.
They do come with disadvantages such as being more prone to punctures and losing air pressure faster, so these are probably not the best for your everyday ride. You might also want to consider going tubeless if you want to improve speed and comfort, check out this article to weigh the pros and cons.
3. Deep-Profile Carbon Wheels
Deep-profile carbon wheels are expensive but often worth it for any serious cyclist. Their aerodynamic shape cuts through the wind more efficiently, helping you maintain higher speeds for longer periods. They are also lighter, which means you will expend less energy on your rides. Plus, they make your bike look awesome, which is always a bonus.
However, because of the price, deep-profile carbon wheels are not necessary for casual or recreational riders. If you’re on a tighter budget and looking to improve your overall speed and ride quality, high-performance tires should be a higher priority. Or consider a budget carbon wheelset from the Far East.
4. Flat Top Aero Handlebars
Aero handlebars which have flatter-shaped tops can shave around 5 watts over 40 km/h. If you already have rounded carbon handlebars, then replacing them with flat tops is not worth it. But if you’re looking to replace your alloy handlebars with carbon ones soon – which I do think is worth doing because of carbon fiber’s vibration-dampening property – might as well choose the most aero-shaped.
Also, some people agree that flatter-shaped handlebar tops are more comfortable when resting your hand.
5. Aero Helmet, Tight-fitting Jersey, and Aero Socks
Okay, these are not upgrades for your bike per se, but definitely a big upgrade to your overall riding experience. Aero helmets, tight-fitting jerseys, and aero socks are designed to streamline airflow around your body, which can significantly increase your speed.
The watt-saving you can get from these outfits outweigh the savings you get from more expensive items such as aero wheels. Plus, these items can be used on any bike, making it a more versatile and cost-effective upgrade.
6. Carbon Outsole Shoes
Another one that’s not a bike upgrade, but this is the last one, I promise. If you don’t have carbon shoes yet, this should be one of your highest priorities for speed and comfort. Carbon shoes are stiffer than their nylon counterparts, and they allow for more efficient power transfer from your feet to the pedals. Stiffer shoes also spread force more evenly on the soles of your feet and can reduce hot spots during longer rides.
Some people might have “debunked” these claims, but if you ask anyone who has tried carbon and non-carbon shoes, I’m 100% sure they will say the carbon ones feel better.
7. A Saddle That Fits You
A saddle that fits you well can dramatically improve your comfort and efficiency on the bike. It reduces the risk of discomfort and injury, allowing you to ride longer and faster.
You don’t need expensive saddles to be comfortable. That said, those 3D-printed saddles do feel much more comfortable. If you have excess money to spend and looking for ultimate comfort, give them a try.
Carbon rails on a saddle can also provide more comfort because carbon can absorb more vibration. And, they can save you up to 100 grams, which is a lot if you’re a weight weenie.
8. Higher-End Cassette
The cassette is probably one of the most overlooked upgrades in cycling. Higher-end cassettes are significantly lighter than entry-level ones. For example, the Shimano 105 cassette is 130 grams heavier than Dura-Ace. Some people might disagree, but some people can notice the weight reduction on the road.
Choosing a bigger or smaller cassette can also help improve your speed and ride quality. If you ride on a hilly road a lot, a small cassette and/or bigger chainrings can slow you down because the high cadence needed to turn the wheels will sore your muscles faster. On the flip side, using a big cassette on a flat road is inefficient because you might not get the right gear combination with your preferred cadence.
9. Power Meter
If you want to increase your speed by improving your training quality, purchasing a power meter should be your top priority.
A power meter allows you to accurately measure your effort in real-time, unlike a heart rate monitor which is usually delayed by around 10 seconds. This can help you train more effectively and make significant improvements in your speed and endurance. Plus, with a power meter, you can also easily track your progress and set measurable goals without relying on external factors.
10. Waxed Chains
Waxed chains are the gold standard for reducing drivetrain friction, leading to a smoother and faster ride. They require more effort at first application, but less effort for ongoing maintenance, and your chain will last longer than traditionally-lubed chains.
Waxed chains can save you more than 10 watts, which is a lot by itself, and unlike aero drags, you can’t hide behind another rider to save you from those friction drags.
It’s best to fully-immerse chain in melted wax, but it can be a lot of work for a non-racing situation because wax doesn’t last as long as wet lubes. The best alternative is to fully immerse your chain during the first application, then use drip wax solution to top it up every couple hundred kilometers.
11. Ceramic Bearings
Ceramic bearings in your wheel hubs, bottom bracket, and pulleys can be super expensive and might not be worth it for most people because they won’t give you any significant advantages.
However, it’s still true that ceramic bearings have less friction than standard steel ones, which translates to smoother pedaling. As someone who uses ceramic bearings everywhere on my bike, this smoothness is very addictive. It’s like going from a regular car to a luxury sports car. You’ll just enjoy riding your bike more.
Plus, in my experience, they are more durable than steel bearings. Some reviewers have said the opposite, but I haven’t seen that. My ceramic bearings have lasted multiple seasons without any noticeable decrease in performance.
12. Professional Bike Fit
Finally, a professional bike fit can ensure that your bike is perfectly tailored to your body. This can enhance comfort, improve efficiency, and ultimately, make you faster on the road. This service is a must for any serious cyclist, especially if you have been experiencing any discomfort or pain while riding.
A professional bike fit will take into account your body measurements, flexibility, riding style, and goals to determine the optimal position for you on the bike. This can involve adjusting your saddle height, handlebar reach, cleat position, and other adjustments to maximize power transfer and minimize discomfort. These small tweaks can make a world of difference in terms of performance and overall enjoyment of your ride.