25 Best Road Bike Upgrades That Won’t Break the Bank

It’s spring and you’ve rolled up the garage door, exposing your road bike to the crisp air for the first time this year. As the early morning light hits the yellowed handlebar tape and reflects off the cracks in your fraying tire sidewalls, it occurs to you that you’re not really in the mood for a ride on the worn beast today.

But maybe, if you’d gotten that new wheelset or cranks for Christmas, you’d be more interested in riding.

A component buy is never a substitute for fitness, and that new set of aero wheels won’t get you up a hill faster, but it will make you psyched about riding again. That’s the funny thing about upgrades. They have a weird placebo effect to them; you know in your heart that you’re not going any faster, but that sparkling new white cork handlebar tape just makes the miles go quicker.

For that reason, we’ve rounded up 25 upgrades that won’t cost a bundle but will surely make you want to get on and ride.

     1. Bar Tape

New bar tape is probably the most visible upgrade (after all, it’s right in front of your face), and as one of three contact points for your body, one of the most important too. We prefer thick, padded varieties such as Torelli’s Moda Chunky (shown), Cinelli Cork Ribbon and Sampson Fat Wrap. For those who like less between their hands and the bar, Off the Front makes excellent thin tapes, as well as fat ones. ($10 to $20)

     2. Saddle

Another contact point to the bike, your saddle has more effect on your fun quotient than any other part. Selle San Marco’s Strada or Selle Italia’s Flite Century (shown) provide plenty of support and look cool to boot. ($50 to $100)

     3. Bottle Cage

Water bottles might seem like a frivolous item, but at $7 each, the least you can ask of your cages is to keep them looking swank. For that, we recommend Elite’s Ciussi Lite cages¬as stylish as they can get. Another good bet is Innovations in Cycling’s composite X-cage. ($12 to $20)

     4. Wind Vest

Though typically thought of as winter wear, a wind vest is good all year round, but especially in spring and fall. Giordana, Bellwether, Bouré (shown) and Pearl Izumi have nice models, but the world’s best vest is offered in Louis Garneau’s custom sublimation program. If your team or group of friends can split 20 pieces of clothing up among the gang, it’s the way to go. ($60 to $80)

     5. Cleats

Take a look at your cleats the next time you ride; are they literally ground to a pulp? If so, it may be time to check into a new pair. If you run Shimano SPDs, a sure bet are the floating Dura-Ace cleats. They’re compatible with all SPD pedals and offer 7 degrees of lateral float. ($15)

     6. Brake Pads

It really sucks when you can’t stop, but before you curse those calipers, check the pads. If they’re worn, a new pair from Dia-Compe (shown), Mathauser or stock replacement pads from Shimano and Campagnolo might be the perfect solution. ($12 to $30 per caliper)

     7. Bike Computers

If you want to judge how fast and how far you’re really going, get a bike computer. Wireless models such as Specialized’s Speed Zone (shown) get rid of sensor wires and zip-ties sullying the clean lines of your machine. Wired models such as Avocet’s 35 and Cat Eye’s ageless Micro do the job for less bucks. ($25 to $60)

     8. Frame Pump

If you don’t own one, you’d better buy one before karma catches up with you. Our favorite is Blackburn’s FP-1 (shown). Other good models are available from Topeak and Zéfal. As an alternative, Innovations in Cycling’s Aeroflate or Superflate products are great flat insurance too. ($10 to $30)

     9. Padded Bike Shorts

Hang up the boxers and chinos, mate. For real riding, you need a good pair of padded shorts. Our all-time faves from Assos barely make the $100 price cut, but other excellent models are from Voler and Pearl Izumi. ($40 to $100)

     10. Orthotics

If you suffer foot pain when riding, over-the-counter footbeds from Superfeet or Downunders (shown) will help correct most problems stemming from bad ergonomics and will also save your knees from unnecessary wear and tear. ($25 to $30)

     11. Cables

Cables take molto abuse and usually don’t receive the best care, so at least install ones that require less maintenance. The newer, coated cables from Gore-Tex, Slick Whips and Delta are excellent for harsh conditions or just for smoother shifting and braking. (About $30)

     12. Seat Bag

Carrying tools, tubes, a wind vest, and food in the jersey pockets is nice for accessibility, but what if you need to carry more than just a few hours’ food? You can put the extra items you don’t need immediate access to in a seat pack. Cannondale’s clip-on wedges (shown) are nice and easily removed for traveling or putting on other rigs, while Jandd is probably the only company making a tubular tire bag. ($20 to $35)

     13. Gloves

Gloves are the other half of the bar-tape equation, but they get much less praise than they deserve. For around $30 you can get our favorite gloves on the planet: Pearl Izumi (shown) or other models from Qranc and Rocket Parts. ($20 to $40)

     14. Handlebar

Sometimes the problem with your fit isn’t in your frame but your bar. If you’re hunched over, you might want to try a deeper drop, and if your hands hurt on the drops, try an anatomic bend. We like models from Profile, Control Tech and of course old standbys such as 3T and Cinelli. ($30 to $70)

     15. Derailleur Pulleys

This component rides the thin line between performance addition and unabashed style. Quality pulleys with cool factor such as those from Bullseye, Control Tech, Bebop and Vuelta help reduce drivetrain friction and typically last longer than stock models. (About $250)

     16. Skewers

Skewers are another “looks cool” component, but if you have the right ones, they’re nice when you’re changing tires and you don’t have to yard on a painful clamp. Salsa’s Flip-Offs (shown), skewers from Ritchey, Cook Bros. and the Soleus from Cunnane Bicycle will let you secure your wheels in style. ($50 to $80)

     17. Chainrings

They all wear out eventually, but why not try to get some that at least last longer. Our top two choices are those from Syncros (shown) and Real. Both are coated for hardness and feature pickup ramps on the big ring. Unfortunately, if you run Campy, you’re out of luck, since these are drilled for Shimano spacing only. ($45 to $60 per ring)

     18. Tubes

Physics lesson¬inner tubes are rotating mass, which, as far as weight goes, is worth roughly two times that of stationary mass. So by buying some lightweight latex tubes like Panaracer’s Green Light (shown) or AIR-Bs you’ll lighten up the bike where it matters. Easy lesson, now wasn’t it? ($10 to $15)

     19. Syncros CrankoMatics

There are other companies (most notably Shimano and Campagnolo) making self-extracting crank bolts, but if your bike didn’t come with them, they’re a great addition. With the CrankoMatics, all you need to put the cranks on or take ’em off is an 8-millimeter hex wrench. It’s a nice way to get both a bike upgrade and cut down on the number of tools you need to wrench on your bike. ($25)

     20. Tires

Tires give you more performance for your buck than any single component, and there are a bunch out there. Our faves are Vredestein’s Fortezza TriComps pictured here, Michelin’s Hi-Lite Bi-Synergic, the Grand Prix 3000 from Continental and Hutchinson’s Krono S. ($30 to $50 per pair)

And Five of the Best

These products get you the most improvement on your machine, regardless of price. Some are relatively expensive in comparison to the others, but we feel these are absolutely the best things you can buy to increase your enjoyment of cycling.

     1. Wheelsets

The aftermarket wheel category has exploded in recent years, with no less than 15 companies peddling their wares. Guaranteeing everything from lighter weight to better aerodynamics, most deliver on their promises because the market’s too competitive for pretenders. Our favorites are models that combine lightweight with aerodynamic benefits, such as Mavic’s Carbon Cosmic, Zipp’s ZT-1, Sun’s Buzz and Spinergy’s Extralight wheels. All are available in clincher or tubular versions and cost from $800 to $1000 per set.

     2. Heart-Rate Monitor

No invention has revolutionized training the way HRMs have. Advances in technology have made this training aid cheaper, and quality models such as Cardiosport’s Limit and Sensor Dynamics’ ProSport 2 ($99 and $120, respectively) are two that pack lots of performance into inexpensive packages. For those with a physiology degree, old money and a good computer, the Polar Vantage NV ($399) and the optional Advantage Interface Kit ($499) let you download and analyze your workouts on any Windows-equipped PC.

     3. Clipless Pedals/Shoes

Making the jump from clip-and-strap pedals and sneakers is a bit of a reach, but the improved efficiency, comfort, and power are well worth the investment. We like setups from Time, Look, Speedplay and Shimano, and while you could spend well over $400 for the kit shown here, all three companies make less expensive setups, down to about $200 for pedals and shoes.

     4. STI/Ergopower:

If you’re still running down tube shifters, try a friend’s bike with integrated shifters and brake levers. You’ll be astounded at the control and efficiency they offer. Upgrade kits will vary in cost and complexity depending on your current setup, but for $300 and up, you can convert the old rig to the latest in high-zoot componentry.

These packages include shifters, rear derailleur, hubset, cassette and chain. You’ll need to furnish your own rims and labor for wheelbuilding and setup, for a total of about $450 to 500 to start. Buyer beware: If you have an old aluminum or carbon frame spaced to 7-speed (126mm) spacing, this upgrade is not possible. The rear triangle needs to be spaced at 130 millimeters, and carbon and aluminum don’t spread, they break.

     5. Cycling Helmet

The saying goes, if you’ve got a $5 head, buy a $5 helmet. With the cool looks and excellent venting on today’s helmets, the excuses not to wear one are getting thin. For $40 to $150 you can get a lightweight, well-ventilated, nice-looking lid from a variety of companies such as Cratoni, Bell and Giro that’ll keep you from waking up in the hospital, relearning how to read this article

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