The Best 'Bang For Your Buck' Bike Upgrades


, by Nikalas Cook

Photography by: Wesley/

Cycling is one of the few sports where you can, quite literally, 'buy' speed. If you have a few dollars in your pocket and are looking to make some bike upgrades going into the Spring, where should you spend your money? Nik Cook has some suggestions.

I’m a huge believer in what the GOAT had to say on this subject: “Don’t buy upgrades, ride up grades.” - Eddy Merckx

I have even got a regular summer evening ride route that packs over 1,000m of climbing into under 30km that I call my Upgrade session.

But, if you’ve got some cash burning a hole in your pocket and want to buy some speed, what are the best “bang for your buck” purchases you can make? Here are my top five cost-efficient bike upgrades - and one major red herring (spoiler alert: I’m afraid there's not a lot of carbon bling or titanium bottle cage bolts on this list).

First equal: A physio-led bike fit

If your position on the bike isn’t correct, you’ll be losing out in terms of comfort and performance. The number of riders I see out and about with “slammed stems”, overly aggressive positions or simply poorly fitted - but often very expensive - bikes is staggering.

RELATED: How to Use Strava to Optimize Your Training

Get a bike fit. But, in my experience, there are bike fits and there are bike fits. I’ve been fortunate enough to have bike fits with arguably the best in the business, former GBCT physio Phil Burt. For me, the gold standard has to be a physio-led bike fit using a 3D video motion capture system such as Rëtul. Before even going anywhere near a fitting jig, there should be a full consultation covering past and current injuries and the rider’s personal cycling goals.

Photography by: Nejron Photo

You should then have a cycling-specific physio-led physical examination to determine any anatomical factors that might impact on your fit. Only after all that is done should you get on the fitting jig.

You should come out of a fit with a position that feels good and a plan of action for ironing out any physical imbalances or issues.

First equal: A power meter

I’ve already written a series of articles about why you should buy a power meter and how to use it, and I said (and believe) that it should be your first cycling upgrade! I stand by that, and that’s why it’s equal top.

RELATED: Why a Power Meter Should Be Your First Cycling Upgrade

For novice riders, power meters are a shortcut to perfect pacing, that, without one, can take years and a vast number of kilometers to develop. Don’t buy into the “they’re only for pros, serious or experienced riders” nonsense - the complete opposite is the truth.

Check out my series of articles on the subject if you need more convincing.

Third: Get a coach

The periods in my cycling career when I have made the most progress have been when I’ve been working with a coach. Despite having the “know-how” myself, having the accountability and objectivity of someone else overseeing my training has been invaluable.

Power meters are a shortcut to perfect pacing, that, without one, can take years and a vast number of kilometers to develop

Similar to bike fitters, there are coaches and coaches so, invest some time finding a good one, ideally get a personal recommendation, and be prepared to be doing some sessions you don’t enjoy as no one enjoys working on their weaknesses.

Fourth: A decent smart indoor trainer

If available pedaling time is precious/scarce but you want to significantly improve your performance, a decent indoor set-up is a must-have.

RELATED: Your Guide to Indoor Cycling

Yes - for feel-good and fun factors, getting out and riding for real is always going to be the ideal but, even in the summer, for fitting in quality mid-week sessions where every pedal stroke counts, a modern indoor trainer is impossible to beat.

I’ve worked with a huge number of riders who have made massive improvements on a simple diet of two quality midweek indoor sessions and a longer outdoor weekend ride and, although many were “indoor trainer skeptics” to begin with, almost all became converts due to the convenience, time efficiency and results.

I’d always recommend a direct-drive smart trainer, factor a powerful fan into your budget, and sign up for a platform such as Zwift - be prepared to get addicted to the racing though!

Fifth: A new wheelset

Okay, finally a bit of carbon bling. Even on relatively expensive high-end off-the-peg bikes, one of the most common ways for manufacturers to keep the price down is to spec proportionally cheap wheels. If you’re looking for a satisfying, tangible, and aesthetically pleasing performance lift from your money, upgrading your wheels is probably one of the best places to start.

RELATED: How to Use Strava Flyby to Hone Race Craft

By lowering rotating mass and improving aerodynamics you can expect to see all-around improvements. Consider the type of riding you’ll be doing and your performance priorities - don’t just go for the cool-looking super deep rims! Don’t discard your old wheels though, ride them for training and through the winter, and save your best wheels for when you want that big event boost.

The Red Herring: Groupset upgrade

Probably one of the poorest returns in terms of performance gains for pounds spent is upgrading your groupset. You might save a couple of hundred grams and add a bling factor to your bike but any boost to your performance will be negligible.

If you’re speccing a bike from scratch, dropping down a groupset tier and investing the difference in any of the above is always going to be a wiser way to spend your money.

In my next blog, as we head into spring, I’ll give you five must-do quality sessions to blow away any winter cobwebs and get you ready for the season.

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