Asked of a rider with a 12-speed cassette: Why do you have 12 speeds?
Answer: Because I can.
“Laterally stiff, vertically compliant” (The mantra of all bicycle engineers)
When you buy your first bike, you think of it as a bike. But soon you come to think of it as a frame on which someone decided to hang certain parts. And you can change every one of those parts, to something better, lighter, or just more to your taste. In this chapter we’ll talk about the parts that make the bike go (the components—chains, handlebars, tires); in the next chapter we’ll talk about the parts that aren’t part of the bike but that support the riding (the accessories—computers, rain fenders, water bottle cages). In these two chapters we’ll just talk about the issues you face when you’re shopping for the parts; we’ll talk about each one again focusing on how to take care of them in the In the Garage chapter.
Not every item in this chapter is something you want to think about at the beginning of your cycling career, but every one is something you will want to think about eventually, because the components on your bike will wear out and you have to replace them, at which point you’ll have to decide, Do I want something different? Do I want something better? And some component issues you want to think about before you buy the bike, so you can discuss a gear swap with your bike shop before the purchase, specifically the cassette, the chain ring, the handlebar, the stem, and the pedals.
I’m going to repeat three things I said in the Buying a Bike chapter:
1. There are no scams and no steals in the bike industry. All bike components from reputable manufacturers are made with integrity and sold for what they’re worth. Anything that doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do doesn’t stay on the market long. So don’t worry about being cheated, and don’t expect to get top quality at a bargain price, unless it’s openly on sale.
2. Learn to use internet reviews. Pretty much every component of interest to road riders has been reviewed online within hours of it hitting the market by scrupulous, tech-savvy rider/critics at sites like bikeradar.com. Benefit from their expertise, take their advice. Just search for the component you’re interested in and add the word “review.”
3. Be cautious about buying exotic components. High-end components and components from small companies often use proprietary elements—parts used here and almost nowhere else. And the more you pay for a component, the more likely it is to have proprietary elements. The benefit is, the proprietary part was created for this application, so it should work really, really well. The drawbacks are extreme: you can’t find replacement parts in any bike store that doesn’t sell that brand, you can’t expect a mechanic to be able to work on the component if it needs repair unless they’ve been trained by that company, and as soon as the component becomes out of date the company will stop making it and when it breaks you won’t be able to replace it and you may have to throw away much or all of the bike.
Three real-world examples: 1) There are German bicycle wheels whose parts are so exotic the wheels have to be mailed back to Germany to the factory for any repair, so you’re wheel-less for 6 months; 2) I bought brakes from a well-respected but small company, and they never worked right. I happened to run into the company’s tent at a bike fair and had the company wrench work on the brakes. They worked perfectly. I asked him what he did that was so special, and he said, “Most shops just don’t know how to work on our brakes”; 3) I once had a mountain bike that broke a seal in the front fork. The seal probably cost 50 cents, but the fork was old so the company had stopped making the proprietary seal. I ended up having to replace the fork, the brakes, and the wheels.
So you’re safer buying components from huge, successful companies, components that are used in lots of different bikes, because the companies will be around for a while and repair shops everywhere will be familiar with their products.
Gravel Components and Accessories
Because gravel riding is the hot new thing, and because marketing is what it is, gravel bikes have their own components and accessories—gravel-specific derailleurs, cassettes, shifters, wheels, handlebars, shoes, and so on. I’m going to talk about road components only in this chapter, but the differences between road and gravel components are usually minor (and some say gratuitous). In general, gravel-specific equipment will be stouter (to withstand the rigors of off-road), bigger, heavier, wider, and softer (more compliant, to smooth out the bumps). The two major differences are 1) gravel bikes have single chain rings instead of doubles; and 2) gravel bikes have lower gearing, to handle the steep pitches of dirt roads and trails.
Components One at a Time
Cyclists dream about upgrading their wheels. There are more companies focused on selling wheels than any other component. A wheel upgrade is always the first improvement a rider makes to their bike, for two reasons: 1) the bang-for-buck improvement in performance is greater than with any other component, and 2) if you buy a good bike, the wheels are often the cheapest component in the mix, because bike makers often assume that riders will have wheel preferences and will replace the stock wheels anyway.
Wheelsets (wheels in pairs, which is how they’re always sold) are easy to buy. There are no secrets to wheel building. The more you spend, the better the wheel. So you can settle on a price range and buy any wheel in it from a reputable maker. But if you want to be a more knowledgeable shopper, look at wheels in terms of seven criteria: weight, stiffness, comfort, aerodynamic shape, quality of hubs, rim width, and construction material.
Weight: The easiest criterion to understand is weight. Light wheels are not necessarily better than heavy ones—they’re faster on steep pitches, and they accelerate faster, but there’s no real advantage on the flats once the bike is up to speed, and lightness is actually a drawback on descents. Lab tests now tell us that a wheel’s aero-ness is more important than its lightness, even on moderate climbs and at slower speeds, and pro racers are starting to use their deep-section wheels on climbing stages, but lightweight wheels are still most cyclists’ fantasy.
Stock inexpensive wheelsets weigh about 1800 grams, without skewers, tires, or tubes. Mid-range wheelsets weigh about 1600 g. Wheelsets start being considered light around 1450 g, and anything much under 1400 g is very light. The grams you save buying light wheels are also among the cheapest weight savings on the bike—you can save almost a pound of weight over stock entry-level wheels by spending $700. Since the lost weight is rotating weight (weight you have to turn in circles), the effect of the lost weight is greater than if you lost it out of the frame, and the bike accelerates faster. To find out what a wheelset weighs, you have to weigh it—riding won’t tell you, and manufacturers’ claims can’t be trusted.
Carbon is lighter than aluminum, so carbon wheels should be lighter than aluminum ones, but wheel makers take advantage of carbon’s light weight to make the rim deeper (see Aero discussion below). Aluminum rims are about 15 mm deep, but carbon rims can be as deep as 80 mm. That’s a lot more mass, so the weight of a carbon wheelset is often about that of an aluminum one. If you value light over aero, get carbon wheels that are shallow (25-40 mm).
Stiffness: Wheels need to be stiff laterally (side to side), so they’ll hold a line and track through a corner securely. And there’s the first double bind that wheel makers find themselves in. It’s easy to make cheap, light, flimsy wheels, but to get something that’s both light and stiff you need to be a good engineer and to spend a lot of money. To tell how stiff a wheel is, ride it down the road and shake the handlebars back and forth. Any wheel will wobble, but a stiff wheel will wobble much less than a flexy one. Or, more subjectively, descend through a series of tight turns and see which wheelset makes you faster, more solid, and more confident. The deeper the rim, the stiffer the wheel.
Comfort: A wheel that is stiff all over will beat you to death. So here’s the wheelmakers’ second double bind: how to built a wheel that is stiff side to side, for control, but has some cush up and down (compliance in the trade), so every wrinkle in the road isn’t transmitted directly to your teeth. To judge vertical compliance, just ride over rough terrain (railroad tracks are ideal) and see how much jarring you feel. The deeper the rim, the more jarring the ride. Aluminum is more jarring than carbon.
Aero: Next you want the wheels to be aero (aerodynamically efficient), so they slice through the air with minimum disturbance and reduce drag. Aero-ness is largely determined by the depth of the rim—the thickness of the rim when viewed from the side. The deeper the rim, the more aero the wheel (there are other factors, but they’re subtle). Rims range from 15 mm (not aero at all) to 80 mm (very aero), and there are event wheels for time trials that are solid discs (maximally aero). 50 mm is considered the beginning depth for meaningful aero, and anything 50 mm or deeper is called deep-section or just deep.
Aero wheels have to use expensive materials to keep the weight manageable. Almost all non-aero wheels are made out of aluminum (“alloy” in the trade), whereas any aero wheel that doesn’t want to weigh a ton will have to be made out of carbon fiber. And carbon fiber costs a lot more than aluminum. A decent aluminum wheelset can be had for $500. A good carbon wheelset will cost you $2000 and up. To test how aero a wheel is, all you can do is ride down a straight, flat road and see how fast you can go. Aero wheels should gain you 3-5 mph.
Aero involves the wheel-maker in a third double bind: the more aero a wheel gets, the more susceptible it is to lateral wind forces. You wouldn’t think it would matter that much, but it does—a deep-section wheel will blow you all over the road in a crosswind. On a gusty day, pros often have to forego their deep-section wheels in order to stay upright. So engineers have to do amazing and expensive things to the shape of a deep rim to minimize wind effects.
Hubs: You want a good hub, which really means good bearings. Bearings are something cyclists don’t shop for by name; instead they buy hubs with high price tags and good reputations—Chris King, Tune, DT Swiss, Cane Creek, or any of the familiar components makers—Shimano, SRAM, and Campagnolo—and assume the bearings are good. Good hubs are one of the easiest elements on a bike to demo—just ride the bike down the road. Just coasting along should make you say “Ahhh.” It’s wise to ask the seller of any bike you’re thinking of buying, “Who made the hubs?”
The quality of a hub is almost entirely the quality of the ball bearings inside it. Stock bearings, even in high-end hubs, are stainless steel. For $100-200, you can upgrade to ceramic bearings (either by ordering your wheels with them or replacing the stock bearings after purchase). They roll easier, though the difference is slight (and in the opinion of some, all in the head). Spring for ceramic bearings only if a) you’re interested in pursuing every performance advantage, however minor, or b) it’s fun to know you’re riding on the best. You also have bearings in your bottom bracket and your jockey wheels, and you can replace them with ceramics as well, but the performance gain is even smaller in those places.
Rim width: You want a wide rim, because wider rims make it easier to run bigger tires, which have a lot of advantages (see Tires below), and they give tires a higher-performing profile (square instead of light-bulb-shaped). The old rim standard was 15 mm; then the norm became 17; now (in 2020) it’s more like 19, moving toward 22, with some road wheels experimenting with rims up to 25 mm. Some wheel makers are going to an incredible 40 mm for gravel bikes. This isn’t a deal-breaker—the performance gain from a wider rim is slight, and I wouldn’t pass on wheels I liked just because they had narrow rims. Don’t bother to test-ride wide rims—you won’t feel the difference.
Rim width is made more complicated by the fact that the industry uses “rim width” to mean two different measurements—inside width and outside. Inside is all that matters, and the numbers above are all inside widths. Make sure any conversation about rim width is talking about inside numbers.
Material: All cheap-to-moderate wheels are made out of alloy. But at the high end—$2000 to $3500—wheels are made out of carbon. Few recreational riders use them, but they are worth your serious consideration.
Let’s list the arguments against carbon wheels, with my rebuttal following in parenthesis:
- They’re very expensive (true).
- They’re chattery (true).
- You have to take care of them (yes, you’ll need a wheel bag for the front wheel when it’s off the bike, but the wheel company should include bags in the purchase, or if not bags cost about $10).
- They’re unstable in crosswinds and they’re heavy (only if they’re deep rims. So buy 25-40mm carbon rims).
- They brake poorly and overheat (with rims brakes, yes; with disc brakes, no).
The advantages of carbon are:
- They accelerate faster.
- They climb more easily (because they’re lighter, if they aren’t too deep).
- Best of all, they will revolutionize your descending and cornering, because they’re stiffer, so they hold a line like you won’t believe. Simply put, until you ride carbon wheels you’re wobbling down the road and don’t know it. If you feel out of control when descending at speed, carbon wheels are the answer.
Some people buy carbon wheels and save them for special occasions, like races, centuries, hill climbs—what riders call event wheels. To which I say, on what day do you really want to be having a less-than-special day on the bike? I’d like every day to be special. Besides, if you buy high-tech anything and use it only infrequently, soon the technology will advance, it will then be obsolete, and you will have some “nearly new” relics gathering dust in your garage. I bought carbon wheels a few years ago and have never taken them off the bike.
Clincher vs. tubular: there are two entirely separate wheel/tire systems, clincher and tubular (aka sew-up). Clincher wheels are on all bikes except cyclo-cross bikes and very high-tech bikes. They take clincher tires, which have a cross-section shaped like a horseshoe. Tubular wheels take tubular tires, which have a cross-section shaped like an O. Tubular tires are lighter, supposedly ride better, and are actually glued to the wheel, but when they flat they’re so hard to repair that no recreational rider uses them. They’re strictly for people with a support car following them down the road, and no LBS salesman would ever try to sell them to you. I only mention them because you’ll read about them in bike magazines and wonder if they’re for you (they aren’t).
Tubeless wheels: There’s a tire system that uses no inner tube. We’ll talk about it when we get to tires, but for now know that there are tubeless wheels, which use only tubeless tires, tubeless-ready wheels, which can go either way, and conventional wheels, which can take only conventional tires. Tubeless is the norm for mountain bikes, but it’s still (as of 2021) an oddity on the road. We’ll talk about advantages and disadvantages under Tires.
All road wheels are the same size (diameter in profile), meaninglessly called “700,” except for the wheels on XS frames, some women’s frames, and some gravel bikes, which are a little smaller and are meaninglessly called “650.” Gravel bikes often prefer smaller wheels because they allow you to fit larger tires into the frame.
How to buy wheels: when you buy new wheels, you have the same choices as when you buy a bike: LBS (local bike shop), eBay, Internet warehouse stores, online independent companies, friends. I encouraged you to buy your bike from your LBS, but in the case of alloy wheels I’m going to push for the online wheel company. They can sell you their wheels for about half what the LBS will charge, so $300 suddenly buys you a good wheelset instead of a mediocre one. Wheels require little service, so you don’t need the LBS support system to keep them running like you do with a bike, and you don’t need to demo wheels to see if they “fit” you. I see no downside, except the hostility you’ll face from the LBS staff and the fact that the LBS will charge you to true them.
Used wheels are a pretty safe bet. Bearings wear out, but bearings are cheap and easy to replace. To check bearings for wear, hold the hub by your fingertips and spin the wheel, feeling for any roughness or grinding in the bearing—anything but smooth perfection means the bearings need replacing. With rim brakes, brake tracks wear thin, in which case the wheel is worthless. You can see it if you look.
Carbon wheels tend to be bought by racers, who upgrade their gear constantly, so you can find them lightly used for half the new price or less. I bought a like-new $2200 Roval carbon wheelset from a riding buddy for $1000. Yes, $1000 is still a ton of money, and I don’t expect you to buy carbon wheels today, but file it in your mind for later when the rich uncle dies or that big tax rebate comes in.
Good wheels typically used to be custom, meaning they came from a wheel-builder, an actual person who specialized in assembling wheels from parts. That is pretty much a dead art, simply because factory wheels got so good.
Skewers and Thru-Axles
There used to be one way to attach a wheel to a bike frame: the quick-release (usually called a skewer—the quick-release is the opening/closing mechanism on the end of the skewer). Now there’s another: the thru-axle. Bikes that use one system can’t use the other. Thru-axles are old news in mountain bikes, but they’re new to road bikes (in 2020). Bike makers are embracing them quickly, so you probably won’t have much choice about which system you use: any bike up until about 2020 will have skewers, and any bike with disc brakes or made from 2020 on will probably have thru-axles.
Skewers: Skewers are light-weight rods with a cam lever on one end, and they hold the wheel to the bike by pinching the drop-outs hard. All skewers work fine, so the only issue in choosing a pair is weight and lever shape:
- Ultralight skewers cost not much more than regular ones and weigh less than half as much. See the “Losing Weight” chapter for details.
- Some levers are easier to close than others. Longer is easier.
Skewers last almost forever because the bike frame doesn’t rest on them, which is why you can remove a skewer without removing the wheel from the frame. So the only wear on them is the cam rubbing when you open or close them. You know your skewer is worn out when you feel it go slightly looser instead of tighter at the end of the closing motion.
Cyclists like to bicker about which direction the skewer lever should point when it’s in position on the bike. It really doesn’t matter, with two caveats: 1) pointing straight down is dangerous, and 2) aligning the lever with the bike frame (fork or rear stay) looks tidy but is unwise because it’s easier to close a skewer lever than open it, so it’s possible to close the lever and not be able to open it again if it’s pinned against the frame. I’ve seen levers closed this way that required large hand tools to be opened.
Thru-axles: Thru-axles are heavier, bulkier, stiffer, and more secure than skewers. Essentially large bolts (actually hollow tubes), they hold the wheel to the bike by screwing into threads in one of the drop-outs. They’re almost necessary for disc brakes, because of the stresses disc brakes put on the end of the fork, and they’re desirable in gravel riding because you’re getting knocked around a lot, so stiffness and security are more important than the weight penalty. Even if you don’t ride gravel, thru-axles are an advantage because they (along with their stiffer forks) keep your front wheel on your line through a corner—a bigger deal than you’d think.
There are some other advantages and disadvantages to thru-axles. There is a slight gain in safety, because it’s almost impossible to forget to tighten them after re-installing a wheel, something that can and does happen with skewers. They change the shape of the drop-outs, so they change the kind of car rack you need for traveling. The biggest disadvantage at first seems trivial: since the thru-axle comes completely out of the wheel (unlike a skewer, which remains attached to the wheel when the wheel is off the bike), it’s easy to set it down somewhere and lose it. And they come in different sizes for different bikes, so if you lose one you may have a hard time finding a replacement—all skewers fit all skewer bikes (though the front skewer is shorter than the rear, since the rear has to pass through the cassette). So it might be wise to carry a spare thru-axle. Or spares, since the front and rear thru-axles are different sizes.
These handy zippered sacks keep your wheels from getting battered and keep the inside of your car clean. They’re cheap and last forever. They’re fairly rare among rec riders, but I don’t know why everyone doesn’t have them. You really only need one, for the front wheel, since the back wheel is almost always attached to the bike, unless you carry spare wheels on trips. There are double bags, that hold two wheels, which are nice when you’re carrying a spare wheelset. Make sure the bag you’re buying has enough room for a wheel with a larger tire—many bag manufacturers are still living in the old world where riders only rode on 23 mm tires, and when you want to use 25 or 28 mm (and you will) their bags can be impossible to close.
How to Shop for a Tire: There are dozens of bike tire makers, all clamoring for your dollar. They all make a bewildering number of models, and it’s hard to tell the difference between them. Here are some ways to negotiate the swamp:
- Trust the maker. You can buy anything from the reputable companies—among them Kenda, Michelin, Specialized, Continental, Hutchinson, Maxxis, Schwalbe, and Mavic—with confidence.
- Trust your LBS. It’s their job to stock good stuff, know how you ride, and advise you.
- Stick with what works. If you like a tire, buy it again.
- Be guided by weight. The light tire (190 grams at 23 mm) is built for speed; the heavy tire (300 grams at 23 mm) is built for durability. Light tires cost no more than heavy ones. Some people worry that lighter tires are more susceptible to cutting and puncturing. I have not had that experience. Certain tires do cut and puncture more easily than others, but weight doesn’t seem the determining factor. I’ve ridden nothing but light-weight, “racing” tires for decades without problems…but I don’t ride on debris-strewn city streets.
- Be guided by price. The expensive tire is better than the cheap tire. As with almost everything in the bike industry, there are no secrets and no bargains. Expect to pay $60 or more for a good tire.
- Be guided by rolling resistance. This is, as it sounds, how much a tire resists rolling down the road—in other words, a measure of how hard you have to work to push it along. Google “rolling resistance” and you’ll find articles comparing the RR of various tire models. Ideally you’d want RR to be zero. But it turns out that the lowest RR tire is also the most fragile and the most lacking in traction, so once again you have a trade-off.
- Buy online. Tires are one item that is hugely discounted by the Internet super-stores constantly (50% discounts are common), and there’s no risk if you’re buying a tire you’ve already ridden. Tires will last forever in your garage, so you can stock up and store the tires for years.
- Be guided by how and where you ride. If you do a lot of urban riding or riding through puncture vine or debris, you might want to get tires with puncture protection. This comes in three forms: a puncture-resistant band of Kevlar or other tough material, a glue-like slime inside the tire that plugs puncture holes when you get them, or foam tire inserts. All systems work well and add weight. Tire makers are good about telling you when a tire model is built to resist punctures.
- Read reviews. Google almost any tire and you’ll find links to user reviews. In my experience, these can be trusted.
Rain tires: Don’t bother to buy “winter tires” or “rain tires” that promise greater traction via exaggerated tread or siping (tread cuts). It doesn’t work. Your smooth “summer” tires give you as much tread as you’re going to get. For more traction, get bigger tires and reduce your tire pressure.
Tire size: Tire “size” refers to two different measurements, one fixed by the bike design and thus not alterable by you and the other a crucial choice. The first “size” is the diameter of the circle made by the tire in profile. Almost all road bikes have the same size tire, called “700” (google if you want the history behind this meaningless number). A few bikes, usually for off-road use, small men, or women, use slightly smaller tires numbered 650. We talked about this in the wheel discussion. Since it’s not something you can fiddle with, you can now forget forever that you have 700 tires.
The second, key, kind of size is the diameter of a tire’s cross-section (the sidewall to sidewall distance—i.e. “fatness”). The standard for road riding used to be 23 mm. But we now know that wider tires, up to a point, have many advantages:
- 1) they actually roll more easily than narrower ones.
- 2) they have a bigger pillow of air to ride on, so they’re more cushy.
- 3) they pinch-flat less easily, because the tube has more air volume to compress before it pinches.
- 4) they have better traction.
- 5) when paired with a wider rim, they have a more efficient cross-section profile—less like a horseshoe and more like a U.
- 6) you can run lower tire pressure, which improves your traction yet again.
For all these reasons, 25 mm is considered worth the weight penalty and is now the go-to tire size for racers, 28 mm is becoming the road standard, and 32 through 42 mm pays off in dirt, gravel, and adventure riding, where the added traction and ruggedness is worth the added weight and rolling resistance. Just be sure, before buying wider tires, that your bike’s frame has room for them—many performance bikes of earlier eras can barely accommodate a 25-mm tire.
By the way, the number on the tire—25mm, 31mm, or whatever—may not be a very accurate indicator of the actual tire width you get once the tire is mounted, because the shape a tire takes when in place is affected by a number of things, including tire design, tire inflation level, and rim width. So if you’re trying to max out your tire size, you may have to do some trial-and-error experimenting with different tire brands.
Tire size may or may not affect your computer’s speed and distance readings, depending on what kind of computer you have. A Garmin measures speed and distance via GPS satellites, so tire size has no effect on its numbers. But a basic computer does its calculations using the speed of the wheel rotation, so when you change tire size the distance traveled in one rotation changes, and you have to recalibrate the computer.
Beads: Clincher tires come with wire beads and folding beads. The bead is the lip of the tire, the part that goes into the wheel rim. A wire bead is just what it says it is: a bead with a stiff wire in it. You know you have when if you can’t fold the tire up. The alternative, the folding bead, is just what it says it is: you can fold the tire up and put it in your jersey pocket. I actually don’t know why they make wire bead tires, but you don’t want one.
TPI: The suppleness of a tire is equated with TPI: threads per inch. We think of a tire as made of rubber, but it’s actually cloth, multiple plies (layers) of parallel threads with a strip of rubber tread heat-welded on top. The more threads used per inch, the lighter, more expensive, and more supple (plush) the tire typically becomes. 70 TPI is stiff, 120 TPI is about average for a good performance road tire, and there are boutique tires with up to 320 TPI.
Clincher vs. tubular: I’ll just repeat what I said under Wheels here: there are two kinds of tires, clincher and tubular (aka sew-up). Clincher tires are on all performance bikes except cyclo-cross bikes and very high-tech bikes. They take clincher tires, which have a cross-section shaped like a U or horseshoe, and hold onto the wheel by clinching (gripping) the rim. Tubular tires are like big skinny donuts and have a cross-section shaped like an O. Tubular tires are lighter (because they have no tube and because they don’t have to be strong to hold onto the rim) and supposedly ride better. They are actually glued to the wheel, so when they flat they’re so hard to repair that no recreational rider uses them. They’re strictly for people with a support car following them down the road, and no LBS salesman would ever try to sell them to you. I only mention them because you’ll read about them in bike magazines and wonder if they’re for you.
Tubeless tires: There are tubeless tires, like the tires on your car. In a tubeless system, the clincher is seated so tightly to the rim that the unit is airtight. For this you need a purpose-built wheel and tire. The advantages of a tubeless system are that you save the weight of the tube, you almost never get pinch flats, and you can run lower tire pressures. And you can put a rubbery slime inside the tire so that punctures seal themselves (really). Despite these manifest advantages, few road riders go tubeless (though it’s the norm in mountain biking), because there are real disadvantages as well. The rims and tires have to be made stouter, thus heavier. The tires are harder to mount and remove than conventional tires, which spells trouble if you do get a flat (unlikely but possible) on the road, and they’re more expensive. Since tubeless is unpopular among cyclists, there are fewer companies making tubeless wheels and tires, so you end up with little choice about what gear you’re running. And the slime inside a tubeless tire has a life span of a few months, after which you have to remove the tire, clean out the old slime, and replace it with new. Also, the slime can clog the valve when you inject it into the tube. In other words, tubeless is a hassle. If you don’t get many flats, it’s probably not worth it. Even if you do get flats, you can get puncture-resistant tires that will prevent that without all of tubeless’s problems.
But the bike industry, in its infinite wisdom, seems bent on forcing tubeless on us. Tire options are multiplying as companies get on board the tubeless bandwagon, and the technology keeps improving, so many of the problems listed above are being solved. It’s likely that tubeless will become the industry standard in a few years.
There is one good thing that can be said for tubeless tires: in the old days, when we inflated our tires to 110-120 psi, tubeless tires liked to blow off their rims; now, for those of us who are running fat tires with 65 psi, rim blow-off is yesterday’s problem and tubeless looks a lot less risky.
A new and still radical alternative to tubes is the foam insert, a ring of foam that goes inside the tire. There are several advantages: flats become less troublesome (because you can still ride after flatting); handling and compliance (smoothness over bumps) improve; and you can run less tire pressure (like, 20 psi if you wish), thus giving you more traction. This obviously has more appeal to gravel riders than road riders, and it’s initially expensive ($70-$150 a set), but in theory over a lifetime you’ll save that in tubes. The weight gain is negligible—the inserts weigh 100-200 g., but you don’t have to carry a spare tube. The primary brands are Cushcore and Vittoria.
Tubes: Unless you have tubeless tires, inside your clincher tire is a tube. Tubes may be about the only things on a bike other than water bottles cyclists don’t obsess over. Most riders just go into a bike shop and ask for “a tube” when they need one. Watch for five things:
1. A given tube will fit a range of tire widths (19-25 is typical, meaning the tube fits any tire from 19 mm wide to 25 mm), so get the size that fits your tire.
2. There are two kinds of valve, presta and schrader, and you want presta. Schrader (the kind of valve that’s on car tires) is for people who inflate their tires at gas stations, which you don’t want to do (the pump works too quickly).
3. Stem lengths vary—be sure to get a stem long enough to extend well past your rim, so you can get a firm purchase on it with your pump head. It takes more stem than you think—just seeing a bit of stem protruding from the rim isn’t enough. This is only tricky if you have deep rims. Overly long looks a little odd but isn’t a problem.
4. Some valve stems have no threads on them. You wouldn’t think this would matter, but you’ll find your floor pump head won’t stay on under pressure. Don’t buy them.
5. As always you have a decision about weight: do you want to pay the extra bucks for a lightweight tube? Not many people do, since a lightweight tube costs twice as much as a regular tube, but the weight savings can be extraordinary. A regular tube weighs about 140 g. A stock lightweight tube weighs 70-90 g. The basic tube from Tubolito, a company specializing in uberlight tubes, costs $35 and weighs 39 g., and they’ve got a model intended for racing that’s 23 g. (and more money). Where else on your bike can you drop over 80% of your weight?
Lightweight tubes are thinner, so logic suggests they’re more short-lived or more susceptible to punctures, but I haven’t found this to be the case. Anything sharp will puncture a tube, whatever the tube’s weight.
Even if I can’t convince you to run lightweight tubes in your tires, consider getting one lightweight tube as the backup tube that sits in your seat pack month after month being nothing but dead weight. When you flat, use it to get home, then replace it with a stock tube and return it to your seat pack.
On the tube when it’s new are two bits of hardware that most riders throw away as useless weight. I find them both useful. One is the valve stem collar, the ring that screws onto the stem threads—also called the jam nut. I put it back on the stem once the stem is through the rim—if you don’t, when the tire pressure is low you’ll find it’s almost impossible to get a pump head on the stem, because the stem will just disappear into the rim hole when you push on it. The second is the valve cap. It’s useless on the bike, but it’s handy when you’re storing a backup tube in a seatpack or elsewhere, because it keeps the sharp valve end but punching holes in whatever it touches.
Almost all tubes are made out of two materials, butyl and latex. Latex is very rare—if you ask for a tube in a store you’ll be handed butyl. I’ve never even seen a latex tube. But some cognoscenti swear by latex, because it’s faster-rolling (a little) and flexier, thus more comfortable (a little). But there are major downsides: it’s more expensive, it’s fragile (so expect more flats and failures), and it leaks air quickly. I only mention latex tubes so you won’t be caught off guard if someone brags that they use them.
A bicycle saddle is a highly personal choice. There are hundreds of saddles by reputable makers on the market, they’re all equally “good” in the abstract, and they’re all shaped a little differently. The trick is finding the one that fits your butt. No one can do this for you. If you buy a bike off the rack, there’s a good chance the OEM saddle won’t fit you particularly well. And it’s common to try out 4 or 5 saddles before finding one that suits.
Two stories showing how individual one’s taste in saddles is or how much a change in saddles can affect your riding: 1) I was once riding with a group and noticed that one rider was using a saddle I had demoed and felt intense agony on. I asked him how he could stand it. He said he loved it, but had once demoed the saddle I was riding on and had felt the same agony. 2) I rode for years on a saddle that felt fine, even after riding centuries, but I suffered from saddle sores. I changed to another brand, which felt not one whit better, and the saddle sores disappeared.
Non-riders always think road saddles are painful. Lance Armstrong said that when he met the Queen of England, she first thing she said to him was, “Don’t those saddles hurt?” Of course they don’t. If they were painful, Tour de France pros, who spend 4-6 hours a day sitting on them, would ride on something else that wasn’t. Your saddle should be perfectly comfortable, hour after hour. If it isn’t, try other saddles until you find one that is. You do, however, need padded cycling shorts.
Part of the difficulty in choosing a saddle is that the suitability of a given saddle often doesn’t show up on the first ride or in the first 50 miles. So bike stores know you’ll have to live with a test saddle for a few days. Any good shop should have a generous return policy that lets you check out saddles like library books and give each a workout, then bring it back and try another. The assumption in this is that you’ll find one that works and buy it from them, so don’t begin the testing process unless you’re willing to sign that invisible contract. Even some online stores, like Competitive Cyclist, have generous saddle-demoing policies.
The good news is that, however unique everyone’s butt is, almost everybody ends up choosing from a short list of about 6 models: the most popular saddles made by Fizik (pronounced “fih ZEEK”), Selle Italia, or Specialized. Focus your shopping there.
Some of the significant features of a saddle are padding, width, channeling, length, flatness, gender, and weight.
Padding: Avoid it. Common sense says that to be comfy a saddle should be cushy like a sofa, but in fact softness and comfort are almost inversely related—a greatly padded saddle in almost always a pain after a few miles. All road saddles range from pretty hard to very hard. Comfort doesn’t come from softness; it comes from the right shape.
Width: Weird Al Yankovich was only half-right when he sang, “Your butt is wide, well mine is too.” Your butt has a definite width (not your hip-to-hip outside dimension—the distance between your sit bones), and saddle makers and sellers take that seriously. Many stores and saddle brands have a butt width measurer, which is simply a piece of memory foam you sit on. The salesperson can then measure the impression and recommend a saddle width. And most saddles have a width marked on their display card. Specialized takes butt width especially seriously.
Channeling: Some saddles have channels running down their midlines to remove pressure on what cyclists call “your junk”—so-called junk-saver saddles. If you feel junk pressure or experience numbness (whatever gender you are), give them a try.
Length: Most saddles have a nose that projects far in front of you. Some saddle makers believe that this is almost never used, so they lop it off.
Flatness: Traditionally road saddles were basically boards. Flat has the advantage that you can slide forward and backward, changing positions and using different muscles groups as you ride, which I like. Other saddles want to hold you in one place, and they design in duck tails and dropping noses for that purpose.
Gender: There are “women-specific” saddles. As with most things women-specific, some people swear by them and some people don’t.
Weight: As with everything else on a bike, there are light and ultra-light versions of saddles, they’re expensive, and how much it matters depends on you. The average saddle weighs about 250 g, and there are 70-g saddles out there. Light does not equate with uncomfortable, but it may mean short-lived.
Some riders believe there’s a “break-in period” for a saddle, meaning you have to ride it for a few days to let your butt accommodate to it. I have not found this to be the case, unless you haven’t been riding at all. The saddle should feel “right” on the first ride—“right” meaning you forget it’s there and you don’t feel soreness later.
It’s possible to put the padding on the saddle and take it out of the shorts. Tinker Juarez, a famous mountain biker, rides that way. But most people want the padding to move with them, so it will always in the same place whether they move forward or backward on the saddle.
Saddles last a long time, but they do wear out. Even if they look fine, they get soft, and soft is bad. You can often feel this when you ride—you feel like you’re in a hammock, and moving forward or back feels like going uphill. If so, it’s time to buy a new saddle.
Pedals and Cleats
Go clipless: Entry-level bikes often come with platform pedals because novices can ride on them easily. You must get rid of them and convert to clipless pedals, which nonsensically are called that even though you “clip in” to them (they’re called “clipless” because they replaced toe clips). Because you are literally stuck in them, they allow you to apply power throughout the pedaling circle and thus increase your power output by something like 30%. There is a short, steep learning curve getting used to them, which is discussed in Your First Ride.
All pedals come with proprietary cleats, so when you choose a pedal you’re choosing its matching cleat. Choosing pedals/cleats, you have five issues to consider: basic design, float, ease of entry and exit, weight, and ease of walking.
Design: Pedals come in two basic designs, single-sided and double-sided. With single-sided pedals, in order to get your foot in you have to find the one and only entry side, which usually involves rolling the pedal over with your foot to get the entry side up. Why anyone would ride on these is beyond me, but lots of people do. With double-sided pedals, the entry mechanism is the same on both sides, so whichever way the pedal is oriented you can go right in, which is exactly as convenient as it sounds.
Float is the amount of side-to-side movement your heel has when you’re clipped in. Some pedals keep your heel rigidly fixed; others let you move your heel side to side. Float is measured in degrees (the norm is around 7 degrees), and any salesperson should be able to tell you how much float any pedal design has.
How much float you want is determined by your anatomy—how your knees, ankles, and feet are put together—and it can take some time to figure out. For some people, having a lot of float allows their feet to find the position most comfortable for their body. Speedplay X’s are famous for having a lot of float—riding on them feels like you’re sliding on ice for a few days. Other riders need to lock their feet in a specific position, either with the heels forced outward or forced inward. Those people can either shop around until they find a pedal whose fixed float matches their anatomy, or they can use pedals with adjustable float, like Speedplay 0’s (called “Zeroes,” not “Oh’s”). I have a lot of “turn-out,” so I need to lock my heels outward. Speedplay 0’s saved my knees and my riding career.
Ease of entry and exit: as any novice will tell you, clipless pedals are tricky to get into and out of. Some offer little resistance, some a lot. There’s a simple test: can you clip in while standing over the bike with one foot on the ground? Or do you have to be riding, then stand up and use your descending weight to clip in?
Some pedals make getting in and out easier by letting you adjust how stiff or loose the entry and exit are, which is a nice feature when you’re learning the ropes and want the exit especially to be as loose as possible.
Weight: All else being equal, it’s nice to have light pedals. Give no credence to pedal makers’ claims about weight—they always tell you the weight of the pedal itself, whereas all that matters is the weight of the pedal plus the cleat. This matters a lot if you’re comparing Speedplay pedals to other makers’, because Speedplay puts the mechanism in the cleat, effectively putting the weight on the bottom of your shoe. So Speedplay pedals end up looking a lot lighter than they are. They are still among the lightest pedals on the market, however.
Ease of walking: You’re going to have to walk around on your cleats, so a factor in pedal shopping is how comfortable doing that is. The range is from easy to nearly impossible.
There are two problems: bulk and traction. The least bulky cleats are mountain bike cleats like Shimano’s SPD’s. They work just fine on road bikes, and they’re nearly as easy walking as street shoes, because mountain bikers expect to hike when they ride. If you’ll be doing a lot of walking—running town errands for instance—consider SPD pedals. Next is Speedplay pedals—figure you can easily walk across the street but you wouldn’t want to walk a 100 yards. Worst is a one-sided race pedal like Time, where every step is a punishing hobble.
Then there’s the traction problem. With almost all road cleats, you’re walking on metal, which on any slick surface (including smooth road pavement) means you have no traction. You can solve this problem by walking on your heels, which works but is exhausting. For some pedals you can buy hard rubber cleat covers, sometimes called café covers or coffee shop covers, which you slip on when you’re off the bike. If your cleats have them, buy them. I wore them for years, and they fell off regularly until I glued elastic bands on them to loop over my shoe toes and hold them on. Finally the geniuses at Speedplay got smart and designed the Zero Aero cleat, which is an 0 cleat with an incorporated walking pad, a rubber donut that encircles the cleat. It works beautifully, and for me it makes all other cleats obsolete.
Some pedal/cleat makers advertise that their pedal or cleat has a larger surface area, spreading the pedaling pressure across more of your foot and increasing power and comfort. It isn’t so. The pressure on your foot is determined by the stiffness of the sole of your shoe—the shape of the cleat is irrelevant. By the way, power transfer too is determined by the stiffness of your sole, which is why racers use shoes with rock-hard soles (see the shoe discussion in the Clothing chapter for details).
Cleat placement: Where the cleat goes on the bottom of your shoe is something you should leave to experts. Once a pro fitter has gotten your cleats in the right place, it’s easy to replicate the position when you replace the cleats or move to new shoes. Unless someone tells you otherwise or you’re small, assume you’ll want your cleats as far back as they can go and as far inboard as they can go.
Cleat wedges: Cleats are the meeting ground between the soles of your feet and the pedals, and you want that meeting to be solid and natural. If your feet don’t come down flat on the ground (if you walk on the inside or outside of your foot) you may need some help in the form of wedges (shims) you place between the cleat and its base, on the inside or outside depending on what your foot needs. Most riders ignore wedges until directed to them by a professional bike fitter who sees a problem, but you can buy them and try them on your own—reportedly, if they help you’ll know quickly. If you have foot problems, you probably know you do, but if you want to find out, 1) check the wear on the bottoms of your old shoes and see if it’s even, or 2) stand in wet sand and see if your feet make a full foot-shaped impression or just the outside or inside of a foot.
The drivetrain is all the parts that directly involve moving the chain: chain, crankset, rear cassette, front and rear derailleurs, and chain rings.
Typically a bike comes with a gruppo (Italian for “group”— in English, a groupset)—a package deal of drivetrain plus brakes and shifters, all by the same company, all of a similar quality and designed to work together well. We talked about shopping for gruppos in the How to Buy a Bike chapter. Now let’s talk about the logistics of changing or upgrading individual components within the gruppo.
Cassettes: The component you are most likely to swap out—perhaps before you take the bike out of the shop—is the cassette (the set of 10 to 12 cog rings around the rear hub) because it has the greatest impact on your climbing. If you go to a cassette with lower gears (aka a wider gear range, bigger granny gear), you can climb steep pitches more easily.
Cycling has been becoming more and more comfortable with the fact that most mortals need low gears to climb without misery. In the old hardman days, cassettes were 11-21—the biggest (highest) gear had 11 teeth and the smallest (lowest) had 21—a cassette nicknamed the corn cob, since it looked like one. Then a 23-tooth granny gear became popular, then it was OK to have a 25, then a 28, and now you can boast of having a 32 in the back and know you’re cool. Even Tour de France riders use 32’s on days with steep climbs. SRAM, which likes to be out ahead of trends, now offers a 30-36 granny gear. Unless you live in the flatlands or you know you want to push big gears, get an 11-32 cassette or lower and make life easy on yourself. Many shops will swap out whatever comes on the bike for a 32 without charge. A very large cassette may require a longer-cage derailleur, in which case the shop may have to bill you for the cost difference.
Because a 32-tooth cog is still considered comfort gearing by some component manufacturers, those companies don’t make one for their high-end gruppo, on the mistaken notion that anyone who wants high-end componentry is a racer with a “big engine.” SRAM does make one, the Red 11-32, which is why I ride SRAM, and the others are catching up as the cycling market ages.
Gravel bikes often have single chain rings, and therefore need a huge gear spread in the cassette. So gravel bikes may sport 9-46 or 10-50 cassettes (so-called dinner plates), and to accommodate that gear spread they have 12 or even 13 cogs, and typically need a proprietary derailleur, and/or a proprietary bike frame. So consult with your local wrench before deciding to install gravel-bike drive-train componentry on your road bike.
Chain rings: The next thing you’re most likely to want to change out is the chain ring (usually singular, though it usually consists of two cogs). For the same reason that you want a bigger cog in the back, you want a smaller chain ring in the front: it makes climbing easier. Standard gearing is 53/39 (53 teeth on the big ring, 39 teeth on the small ring). Unless you’re a stud, I bet you’ll want a compact crankset, which is 50/34. Almost all chain rings are one or the other, though there are intermediate sizes to be had. Because a derailleur can only shift across a certain span, if you make the smaller chain ring smaller you have to make the larger chain ring smaller as well, so going compact means you give up 2-3 miles per hour at the top end—in other words you’re spun out and start coasting at 37 mph instead of 40 mph.
Probably any bike you’re looking at has two chain rings (aka a double). Road bikes set up for less aggressive riders used to come with three (aka a triple), which gave you a wider gear range and thus made climbing easier, but the technology advanced to a point where now two chain rings give you the gear range it once took three to get. So if a salesman shows you a bike with a triple, don’t buy it—it’s a dinosaur.
At the other extreme, road bikes, especially gravel bikes, are beginning to appear with single chain rings. The advantages are substantial: you save the weight of the front derailleur, you eliminate the possibility of mechanical failure at the front of the drive train, and you can engineer out the likelihood of dropping the chain, since the chain now never has to leave the one chain ring. Such set-ups have enormous rear granny gears, narrow gear ranges overall, and very low gearing overall. At this moment (2020), it’s a daring and unproven set-up on the road and I’d avoid it.
Crankarms: Most riders never think about their crankarms, and that’s OK. It’s possible to upgrade your crankarms (and the parts attached to them—spider and bottom bracket), and for your money you’ll get lower weight, better bearings, and greater stiffness, which are all nice but not anything you’re going to notice unless you’re racing. Make sure before you buy anything anywhere near the bottom bracket that what you’re buying is actually going to fit on your bike—many bikes have highly specific needs when it comes to BB’s.
Crankarms come in different lengths, but one size (172.5 mm, oddly enough) is so standard (for men) that most riders don’t even know how long their crankarms are. Stick with what came on your bike unless you have compelling data to the contrary or you’re very tall or very short.
Chains: As with tubes, most riders never think about chains—they just walk into a bike store and buy a generic chain every year or so. You can pay a lot for a chain—up to $125—but all you get for your upgrade is a small weight savings, maybe a slight performance improvement, and maybe a longer life. Any chain will work on any bike, as long as it’s made for the number of cassette gears you have (10-speed chains are too wide to work on 11-speed cassettes), since chain link size and width are standard throughout the industry, except for some expensive Shimano chains that are “one-sided” and only work in Shimano gruppos. Most drivetrain manufacturers make chains at three prices—basic, better, and expensive, corresponding to their three levels of componentry—but the differences are slight.
Whatever chain you’re using, if it doesn’t come with a quick-release chain link (aka quick-link), install one. It’s a reusable link that opens like a latch and lets you take your chain apart and put it back together with comparative ease. Contrary to popular belief, you can’t open or close a quick-link with your fingers—to open one, you need a proprietary pair of pliers. So having one won’t make chain repairs on the road any easier. To close one, you need those same proprietary pliers or to know a trick: rotate the chain so the quick-link is in the top run of chain, get on the bike, put the pedals at 2 and 8 o’clock, squeeze the brakes to keep the bike from moving, and stomp down hard on the pedal. Do this carefully—it can throw you off balance.
Derailleurs: The most important thing to know about your derailleur is how to pronounce it. It’s “de RAY lurr,” not the abomination “de RAIL yurr.” If you want to be cool, call it a “mech” (pronounced “mekk”).
Derailleurs (and shifters) fall into two camps: mechanical and electronic. All midrange bikes have mechanical shifting—you move a lever, it pulls on a cable, and the wire moves the derailleur. But more and more, high-end bikes come with electronic shifting—you push a button, which sends a signal either down a wire or through the air to the derailleur’s servo motor, which moves the derailleur. Electronic shifting is now bulletproof, so you don’t have to worry about it failing on a back road. It’s expensive ($1500 at least as an upgrade), and many people feel it’s solving a problem that doesn’t exist, but it’s there, and it’s very sweet, and so I’m telling you about it. It has now trickled down to where you can buy an electronic-equipped bike for $3400, and industry experts are predicting that cable shifting will become a relic in a few years. The market is dominated by Specialized’s Di2 (pronounced “dee eye too”) and SRAM’s eTap, which is now wireless—the absolute pinnacle of coolness. And expense.
How you feel about electronic shifting comes down to personal taste. How bothered are you by having to adjust your cable tension twice a year? How much do you want the latest thing? Do you find shifting to be physical work? (Electronic is effortless). Perhaps most important: how much do you like the idea that your bike is a simple mechanism you can fully understand, take apart, and repair? Electronic systems are black boxes, like your TV set—you can’t know what’s going on inside it—and just as impossible to work on. For me, much of the appeal of cycling is that bikes aren’t like that.
Cable derailleurs, like gruppos generally, come in three grades, basic, better, and very expensive. Unless you’re upgrading the entire gruppo, there is little reason to upgrade your derailleurs—the weight gain is miniscule and the performance advantage is almost imperceptible. An expensive derailleur won’t last longer than a mid-price one, and it may last less time. Electronic systems come in two grades, expensive and very expensive. Again, there is no perceivable performance gain.
Your rear derailleur has to work with your cassette, so ask your LBS for advice—a big granny gear often needs a long-cage derailleur, for instance.
There are now derailleurs specifically for gravel riding, and they have features like clutches that make them more resistant to abuse.
Front derailleurs, so goes the conventional wisdom, don’t need fine adjustments, so they usually don’t have barrel adjusters (see the On-the-Road Repairs chapter) in their cables. My experience does not bear this out, so I have my LBS install a barrel adjuster for me.
Jockey wheels: In your rear derailleur there are two wheels or cogs the chain wraps around before they contact the cassette. They come with the derailleur, they pretty much last forever, and most cyclists have never thought about them in their lives. But this is a full-service book, so I will mention that one of the more exotic, expensive upgrades you can do to a bike is to change out your jockey wheels for larger ones. You’ll see these mini-wagon wheels on pro bikes now and then. This costs about $400 and, because these wheels also have improved bearings, will gain you 1-3 watts of power.
Shifters: The only question about shifters is, Do you want electronic shifting or not? If you don’t, just use the shifters that are the same brand and grade level as your derailleurs. Don’t upgrade your shifters unless you’re upgrading the derailleurs—there’s almost no performance benefit, and it’s asking for compatibility problems.
Shifter and brake cables: Cables are like tubes: most riders never think about brands or degrees of quality—they just go into a bike shop, say, “I need a shifter cable” and take whatever is handed to them. There’s nothing wrong with that, but there is actually considerable benefit in upgrading to high-end cables. They may claim a small weight savings, but their main appeal is they run more smoothly and thus cut your shifting effort in half. You may not think of shifting as effort, but it is. The big makers of high-end cables are Jagwire, Gore Ride-On, Yokozuna, and Nokon. The first three are just conventional cables with super-slick coatings and can be bought without risk. Nokon is a totally different approach, and people love it or hate it.
Shifter cables and brake cables are the same exact wire—you just buy a “cable” and cut it to length. High-end cables are much more expensive (about $60 a pair), which matters since you should change your cables often, so riders often skip the brake cables and buy only the shifter cables, which are used 10 times more often, or go one step further and change only the rear shifter cable, since it’s used 10 times more often than the front shifter cable.
Bicycle brakes come in two forms, rim brakes and discs. Rim brakes sit on your bike’s frame and grip the wheel’s rim, and they suck, but they’re simple (thus easy to work on) and light. Disc brakes sit near your hubs and grip a rotor. They’re exactly like the disc brakes on your car, only smaller. They’re a bit heavier and mechanically much more complex, but their performance is superior to that of rims in every way. They’re now standard on road bikes and necessary on gravel and adventure bikes. Any road bike with rim brakes is now officially a dinosaur. Still, I’m going to talk about rim brakes in this book, because all road bikes made before 2017 has them, including my bike.
There is a small but vocal subculture in cycling that argues that rim brakes are better than discs. Their reasoning is in this wise:
- Discs are heavier, and they force the designers to make the entire bike heavier to stand the stresses they put on forks and frames.
- Discs are mechanically more finicky and complicated—anyone can maintain and repair rim brakes, and you never go for a ride and find your brakes don’t work, which happens with discs.
- Discs are more expensive.
- Some Tour de France teams still use rim brakes.
- Rim brakes, while less powerful, are powerful enough, especially since you don’t use brakes that often in road riding.
All of these arguments are true (except the last one), but the cycling world isn’t persuaded, and neither will you be the first time you descend a long, steep pitch on rim brakes.
You can’t retrofit a rim-brake bike to run discs—the stresses on the frame are different.
If you’re running rim brakes: This is one area where you can substantially improve your bike, if you’re willing to spend the money. Boutique brake companies (like KCNC and EE) make rim brakes that are as little as half the weight of standard Shimano or SRAM brakes, and the better ones offer improved braking while doing it. But the price tag can be steep—EE brakes cost as much as $700.
But there is an upgrade that’s both effective and cheap: boutique brake pads. Those little rubbery rectangles that press against your brake tracks really matter, and upgrading the factory pads that came with your bike is a good idea. Better than your stock pads are Cool Stop pads. Better than Cool Stop pads are Swiss Stop pads, which are the best in the world.
If you’re running disc brakes: About the only choice facing you is rotor size. The bigger the rotor, the greater the stopping power. So in theory you can go up a size and stop faster, but disc brakes are so good few people need to do this. Mountain bikes and gravel bikes often run a larger rotor in the front than in the back, because that’s where most of the work of stopping is done, but again it’s probably overkill for a road bike.
Things to consider include material, offset, diameter, compliance, design, and length.
Material: Your seat post is aluminum or carbon. Carbon is better all-round, because it’s lighter and more compliant (less jarring). It’s worth the money.
Offset: Most seat posts are straight. If you’re having trouble getting your seat back far enough to get your knees over the pedals, there are offset seat posts that bend backwards.
Diameter: Though there is a standard and your bike most likely uses it, there are different diameters for seat posts. Make sure before buying a post that it’s the right diameter for your bike frame.
Compliance: A number of factors contribute to how plush or forgiving a seat post is. Carbon is more plush than alloy; narrow is more plush than wide. As the industry moves toward gravel riding, it designs in more compliance, so seat posts are now being designed with suspension (around 50 mm of travel).
Design: Conventional bikes have a seat post arrangement where the saddle sits on a length of pipe and the pipe slides into the hollow seat tube on the bike frame. Some bikes have other proprietary set-ups, and I would be very reluctant to buy such a bike, because they are difficult and expensive to repair, they have no discernible advantage, and they get out-dated, at which point the bike is unrepairable. The most egregious example of this is the rage for seat masts (often called “integrated seat masts”) a couple of decades ago, whose disadvantages would fill a book. Yes, sometimes bicycle designers get it wrong.
Length: Unless you are very tall, seat posts are longer than you need, and that excess is dead weight. So cut it off. Just be sure you aren’t ever going to want to raise your seat and that you save enough post to be safe. If in doubt, consult a pro wrench.
Seat Post Clamp
If you’ve got a conventional seat post, it’s secured with a simple ring clamp and a bolt. It works fine, but it needs a hex wrench to get it loose and a torque wrench to get it tight. This gets cumbersome if you’re removing or adjusting your seat post a lot, which you do 1) when you wash your bike, 2) after you ride in the rain, 3) when you leave your bike in a high-crime neighborhood, 4) when you ship your bike on a plane or store it in a car trunk, and 5) perhaps when you’re doing a steep descent. The simple solution is to replace it with a quick-release clamp, which works just like the quick-releases on wheel skewers. It’s cheap and installation is a matter of a minute or two.
Suspension Seat Posts and Dropper Seat Posts
Gravel riders like to lower their seats for steep descents, and they also like as much vertical compliance as they can get, to cushion the ride. So they have begun experimenting with two kinds of seat post borrowed from mountain bike tech. A suspension seat post has mechanical suspension (think: sophisticated pogo stick) built into it. A dropper seat post allows you to lower and raise your seat mechanically by the activation of a switch (usually on your handlebar). Both are at this time (2020) still considered experimental and definitely overkill for any but the most aggressive dirt riding.
Most riders just ride the handlebar that comes on the bike they buy, but that is unwise, because handlebars are as individual as saddles or shoes and you can benefit from shopping for one with the same care you exercise when shopping for the other two. The handlebar that’s perfect for you costs no more than the one that’s all wrong, so it’s worth searching for it. You’ll have to do the searching yourself, because for some reason handlebar makers and sellers don’t like to talk about their measurements. Bring a tape measure.
All road bikes have drop handlebars—that’s not negotiable—but beyond that there are lots of nuances. You’re concerned with five parameters—material, width, reach, drop, shape of the drops, and tube shape.
Material: Once again, you can go cheap with alloy or expensive with carbon. Carbon pays off big-time in handlebars, because its damping ability saves your arms from a pounding. Pros used to refuse to use carbon bars because they believed they were brittle, but history has proved them wrong.
Width: Bars are measured in millimeters from the top of one drop to the other. Bars for regular-sized riders are 40, 42, or 44 mm wide. The truism is, you want a bar as wide as your shoulders, but mountain bikers ride enormously wide handlebars and their shoulders don’t mind. I encourage you to go wide, because it gives you more leverage, which you need when you’re turning. I have two bikes with slightly different handlebar widths, and when I ride the narrow one I’m struck by how much more work it is to get the handlebar to respond to my input.
Gravel bikes have bars that may differ from road bike bars in two ways: they can be wider (as wide as 52 cm), and they can have flare (or outsweep, which is slightly different but amounts to the same thing), which makes them in effect even wider (60+ cm). Flared handlebars have drops that point outward. The idea is to give you a broader base and more leverage, to improve handling, and to give you more space on the bar for all the hardware gravel riders tend to store there. Road bars don’t go super-wide because you don’t need a lot of steering maneuverability on the road and wider means less aero, hence slower.
If there is one truism in cycling, it’s this: mountain bikes are always becoming more like motorcycles; road bikes are always becoming more like mountain bikes. By this rule, expect road handlebars to get wider, in imitation of mountain bike bars, in the next few years.
Reach and drop: Reach is the distance from the top of the bar to the most forward part of the drop curve. Drop is the distance from the top of the bar to the lowest point on the bar, which is the end of the curve. In the old days, when all bike geometry mimicked pro race bike set-up, reach and drop were as big as possible. In cycling’s recent conversion from race mentality to comfort mentality, reach and drop have gotten smaller. Normal reach is about 80-95 mm, average drop 125-130 mm, but compact bars have smaller dimensions and as far as I can tell it’s all to the good.
Shape of the drops: Drops (always plural, as in “I was riding along in the drops…”) come in an infinite variety of shapes, but they’re all versions of three basics:
- Classic: Round, often hard on the hands but offering lots of possible hand positions
- Ergonomic: With a distinct flat section in the lower middle, very comfy in that one position and offering few others
- Compact: smaller all over, often with a shape something between the other two
Recently (in 2020) handlebars designed for gravel riding have begun adding flare (the drops point outward). It may move over to road riding soon.
Unless you know different—unless you know you like to be stretched out and in an aggressive position, or you have large hands—get a compact carbon handlebar. If you’re buying a new bike and it doesn’t come with a compact bar, I’d negotiate a swap before writing the check.
Tube shape: some bars are flattened on the tops, either for hand comfort or for aero-ness. It’s a matter of taste, and you can tell right away if you like it or not.
Tape wraps around the handlebar to improve grip and cushion the jarring. Tape is tape—few people really care much what brand they use. There are some expensive tapes out there, and in my experience they offer nothing for the money. To check for comfort, just give the tape a squeeze in the store. Tape does come in thicknesses, measured in millimeters, but bike shops won’t bring this up unless you ask them and typically only stock medium. You can achieve the effect of thicker tape by cutting strips from your old bar tape and laying them on the bar where your hands usually rest, then wrapping the new tape over them. If you have serious problems with hand pain, you can double-wrap your bar, but it makes the bar so fat it gets hard to grip it.
Tape is the only place on the bike where you have a lot of choice about the color. Go as nuts as you want—tape is cheap and you should replace it often anyway—but remember than any light color shows dirt. White tape won’t be white after a ride or two.
In choosing a stem, you’re choosing three things: material, length, and rise.
Material: As always, your choices are alloy and carbon. But here’s a surprise: carbon stems are not lighter or more compliant than alloy ones, and they’re very expensive, so there is no reason to buy one.
Length: Correct stem length is actually hard to figure out, because the stem is doing two different things at once: 1) it’s determining your cockpit size (distance from saddle to handlebar), and 2) it’s determining the bike’s handling characteristics.
1. Obviously, the longer the stem, the further your reach to the handlebar. The “right” amount of reach is a subjective thing. It’s the reach you feel comfortable with, the reach that gives you the amount of lean-over that your spine likes, the reach that leaves you somewhere between stretched out and scrunched. The free way to measure cockpit size is to assume your natural riding position and look down at your front wheel hub. If the cockpit size is good, the handlebar should blanket the hub and keep you from seeing it. But this is the roughest of approximations. The expensive way to measure cockpit size is to get a professional bike fit. The practical way to measure cockpit size is to ride the bike with the stem it came with, then try shorter and longer stems to see if they fit you better. The standard medium-sized person’s stem is 100 to 110 mm. Start there. People rarely want a longer stem—assume that if you want a different stem, it will be shorter than what you have. If you end up preferring an extremely odd stem length, assume the bike frame doesn’t fit you.
2. The shorter the stem, the quicker and more twitchy the handling. So if you want a bike that handles like a Cadillac, go long; if you like sports-car-like handling, go short. 90 mm is short, 70 mm is very short.
Now the problem is clear: what if the stem length that gives you the most comfortable position isn’t the stem length that gives you the best handling? All you can do is a) decide which matters to you more, position or handling, or b) compromise, or c) buy a bike that fits you better, so one stem length gives you both.
As our sport has moved from race mentality to comfort and from road to gravel, stems have gotten shorter. If you’ve been riding a bike for a few years and haven’t tried a shorter stem, you should.
Rise: Stems come straight or with varying degrees of rise (how much they tip up/down). Straight is 0 degrees. Moderate is 6-7%. You can find stems with as much rise as 10%. The one and only job of rise is to raise or lower your handlebar. There is no formula for where you like your bar—you just have to ride and see what works for you. A rule of thumb is, a bar that is one inch lower than your saddle (measure from the floor) is a moderately upright position. Racers often ride with their bars “slammed” (9-10 inches below the saddle), but of course they have very flexible spines. Typically, the more experienced you get as a rider, the lower you like your handlebar, until you start to get aged, and then the higher you like it.
All stems can be installed right side up or upside down. Since the head tube always tilts backwards, a 0-degree stem (perpendicular to the head tube) actually points up, so riders who want a stem that’s level with the ground or one that lowers their bar below the handlebar get a stem with rise and flip it over.
There are adjustable stems, where you can loosen a bolt and change the amount of rise. They’re nice for novices, since you can expect your position to get lower during the first year as you get comfortable with road bike geometry. If you have one, ditch it as soon as your position settles in—it’s heavy and very Fred.
It’s easy to swap out stems, so it’s easy to do some comparison shopping, and the results can be extraordinary. The right stem can make as much difference in your riding pleasure as a $3000 wheelset. I rode with a 110 stem for years and liked it fine, then on the advice of a bike fitter tried a 90 and the bike was transformed.
A light stem will save you 20-30 grams over a heavy one and cost a bit more.