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Cheap bike upgrades: How to transform your ride without breaking the bank

How To Adjust Bike Gears
(Image credit: Mick Kirkmann)

We all want our bikes to work to the best of their abilities, whether that’s as a reliable commuter or a competitive racing machine. In the quest for performance, it can be tempting to look at newer, more expensive models in the hopes they will provide better quality and give us an edge. However, upgrading components on your existing bike can often give you much better value for money, and often with better results too, which is why it’s better to invest in some upgrades first. 

Big-ticket items like wheels and groupsets can completely change the riding experience, in fact, we’ve got a whole article explaining why upgrading your wheelset will make you faster. However, at the time of writing, there is a cost of living crisis; a squeeze on the day-to-day spending of everyone as the cost of basic necessities goes up. Consequently, more and more people are finding they simply don't have the spare cash to spend on expensive upgrades. 

Luckily, upgrading basic components such as gear cables, brake cables and brake pads can not only improve your bike’s feel and performance, but also reduce long-term repair costs; a win-win, if ever there was one. If it’s a comfort boost that you’re after, upgrading to the best bar tape and one of the best road bike saddles can make all the difference. The main goal is to be savvy about where and how you invest your money to get your bike riding like new. 

Tyres

South Industries RX wheels

(Image credit: Aaron Borrill)

Upgrading to a set of the best road bike wheels or the best gravel wheels will likely be a significant investment. Despite this, it is possible to transform the feel of your bike, or significantly alter its capabilities in one area or another with a much cheaper alternative to new wheels; swap the tyres.

While you as the rider make contact with the bike at five different points, your bike contacts the ground at only two. The characteristics of your chosen tyre can genuinely elevate a lacklustre ride to something magical. Whatever rubber you chose to adorn your rims with there are a few factors to consider:

Rubber compound

A grippier tyre will allow you to corner with more confidence. The real-world grip is a function of the rubber compound, tyre width, tread and pressure but, in essence, a more tacky compound will improve your levels of grip. It will also wear faster, so maybe save the race-day rubber for the weekends and not for the daily commute.

Width

The trend in both road and gravel is towards ever wider tyres. Modern road bikes can now take tyres that are approaching the limit of legality for cyclocross. Maybe your frame can't take 33mm, but if you can squeeze a few millimetres more you'll be able to run them at lower pressures. This will give you a greater contact patch as well as greater levels of comfort without really sacrificing any speed either. 

Tread

Road specific tyres, especially for summer use, are more or less totally slick in the centre, usually with some tread on the shoulders. For winter you could swap to a file tread to help keep things rubber side down. For gravel there is such a dizzying array of options it's hard to keep track, but the trick is to really be honest with the type of surface you're riding on and pick a tread pattern accordingly. Torn between two options? Don't be afraid to mix treads; pick a more aggressive pattern for the front and something faster rolling at the rear. 

Rolling resistance

Rolling resistance is primarily a function of the tackiness of the rubber and the ability of the tyre carcass to deform. More supple casing, measured in threads per inch (TPI) will generally roll faster, but will be more expensive and usually be more prone to punctures.

Puncture resistance

Nothing ruins a ride quite like the increasingly bouncy feeling of a deflating tyre. It can leave you stranded or make you late for work. Particularly for commuting, where riding though urban streets covered in glass and other sharp objects, upgrading to a set of tyres with additional protection will likely be a good idea. Continental Gatorskin, or the Gatorskin Hardshell for even more protection, have become perennial favourites for commuters.

Tubeless

While not always possible without swapping to a set of tubeless compatible rims, making the leap to tubeless could help you avoid punctures thanks to the self sealing capabilities of the tubeless sealant sloshing around inside your tyre. For the curious, we have a thorough run through of the benefits of tubeless tyres to help you stay informed, and a roundup of the best tubeless road tyres available. 

Weight

Weight has recently had to play second fiddle to aerodynamic efficiency in recent years. That being said, a heavier set of tyres will increaser the overall weight of the bike, particularly pertinent as it's rotational weight. While important, the factors mentioned above will likely play a greater impact in improving your ride than weight on its own.

Considering some new rubber? Head to our guides to the best road bike tyres and the best gravel tyres to find out what's what.

Cables

Merida Silex 700

(Image credit: Josh Croxton)

In a world that is slowly moving away from mechanical brakes and gears, cables can often be an overlooked area for improvement. Better, or even simply newer, cables provide better performance from your components.

With the highest-end shifters typically supplying polymer gear cables, they have become synonymous with ‘quality’ amongst some riders. Controversially, from a mechanical perspective, they can often pose problems, with the coating bunching up over time and causing blockages in either the cable outer or, more annoyingly, inside frames. 

Shimano’s Optislick cables are a great option to circumnavigate this issue, as they are also coated to protect from the elements but do not shed the outer layer. 

For mechanical braking, upgrading to compressionless housing can provide a much punchier feel. The cable outer is constructed with straight rods as opposed to the traditional coil, reducing the spongy feeling that can often occur. This is particularly useful with cable-operated disc brakes, or to give a sharper feel to rim brakes. Brands such as Jagwire provide specific compressionless brake kits. 

Brake pads

Shimano's direct-mount Dura-Ace caliper holds a non-Mavic pad for the carbon brake track.

(Image credit: Courtesy Castelli)

As well as cables, choice of brake pad can transform your braking power, due to better compounds and design. For rim brakes, replaceable insert holders allow for precise adjustment of brake pad angle, enabling better contact with the wheel. Different pad compounds provide improved feel and performance, though the more aggressive the brake pad compound is, the more quickly the pads will wear the wheel’s braking surface down. 

For disc brakes, entry-level pads often wear down more quickly and stopping distance tends to be more noticeably affected. As with rim brake pads, there are a variety of different materials commonly used, with some brands offering specific pads for wet riding conditions. 

Manufacturers such as SwissStop and Kool-Stop (not to be confused) have put extensive research into developing new compounds, and are the choice of pads for many. The SwissStop Flash Pro BXPs and Kool-Stop D635s are among some of the popular choices.

It is important to note that carbon braking surfaces require carbon-specific brake pads, and some wheel manufacturers such as Mavic and Reynolds require their own-brand brake pads to be used in conjunction with their rims. 

If you’re keen to learn more about this, our disc brakes vs rim brakes feature might be right up your alley. 

Saddle 

Selle Italia Flite Boost MVDP Edition saddle

(Image credit: Aaron Borrill)

As the majority of our time on the bike is spent seated, upgrading your saddle can greatly improve your comfort whilst riding, and can even help keep you out on the bike for longer. Over the years, saddles have been developed to suit all sorts of body types, including male and female anatomy, different width sit bones, hip angle, and weight distribution. Carbon saddle rails can shave off weight for those looking for marginal gains, though it is key to remember that these require different seatpost clamps to protect the carbon.

Finding the right saddle for you can be done with a good balance of research combined with a healthy dose of trial and error. Some shops offer ‘Saddle Libraries’ to allow riders to test out different options before purchase. To see how different saddles have fared under review, have a look at our list of the best road bike saddles as well as the best gravel bike saddles, as both have handy tips on how to find the best saddle for you.

Bar tape

Ere Research bar tape

(Image credit: Guy Kesteven)

Similar to saddles, handlebars are an important touchpoint to consider when wanting to upgrade your bike. Don’t underestimate bar tape as mere decoration — with a myriad of available thicknesses, grips, and textures, it can significantly alter the feeling of your bike. 

In racing scenarios, thinner bar tape allows more road feel and can ultimately provide better responsiveness, whereas thicker tape can help absorb road rumble and shock on longer or more practical rides, where comfort is the priority. Grippy tape can also help reduce hand cramp, as less strength is required to hold firmly onto the bars. 

Supacaz Sticky Kush, Lizard Skins DSP V2, and Fizik Vento Solocush are among some of the popular choices of handlebar tape. For more, see our guide to the best bar tape.

Where to start?

It can feel slightly overwhelming when first considering upgrades to your bike, and understandably so. The simplest way to get started is to decide what your desired outcome is, whether that be better braking, improved shifting, more comfort or more grip, and go from there. Making small regular upgrades over time can be the best way to reduce the number of variables, allowing you to see the results of any changes you have made. If in doubt, asking for advice and doing more research will always help.

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Charlotte Head