Eddy Merckx once famously said that you shouldn’t buy upgrades, but should ride up grades. Riding more is almost always the best way to improve your cycling, but there are some component changes that will improve your comfort, safety and speed. Here’s a selection that each cost under £100.
If you have a typical gravel bike of a year or two ago with an 11-32 11-speed cassette, this combination of components gives you a substantially wider gear range with a 25% lower bottom gear. That's enough to make the difference between riding and walking when things get steep, or between spinning comfortably up a shallower climb and grinding up with your knees whinging that they didn't sign up for this.
But hang on, you're saying, surely even the long-arm GS version of the new 105 rear derailleur can only handle a 34-tooth largest sprocket? That's the gospel according to Shimano, but Shimano's official specs are always very conservative. As we demonstrated in this article, it works just fine, although there are a couple of gotchas to watch for during installation. And since the idea is to ride up grades, we think Eddy would approve.
If you don't mind blowing the budget, you could use a GRX 810 rear derailleur (£72.51) instead of the 105. It's a bit more rugged and has a clutch to reduce chain slap over rough ground.
Why: Faster rolling; improved comfort (if switching from 23mm to 25mm or 28mm)
Our long-standing tyre recommendation, the Continental Grand Prix 4000S II is no more, but its successor is superb and rolls slightly better, especially if you take the opportunity to switch to tubeless.
The Grand Prix 5000's main claim to fame is its low rolling resistance. As a tyre rolls along, it flexes, and this flex absorbs energy; the tyre literally resists rolling. Tyres with thin tread made from flexible rubber, and light, supple casings have low rolling resistance. Problem is, they also tend to be easily punctured. The success of the GP 5000 is down in part to a layer under the tread of fabric made from Vectran, a high-strength synthetic fibre. This helps ward off punctures, though they still happen. It’s not as effective as the thick anti-puncture layer in a tyre like the Schwalbe Marathon Plus but it’s considerably better than nothing.
While you’re buying new tyres, consider going up a size or two. The 28mm version of the GP 5000 rolls superbly and can be run at lower pressures to improve comfort and road holding.
A pair of these comes well under our budget, so consider adding Michelin or Vittoria latex inner tubes too (both about £10), to further reduce the rolling resistance. Can’t be bothered pumping your tyres up daily? Fit a pair of Continental’s 50g Supersonic tubes.
Why: easier walking for Speedplay Zero users
If you’re a long-time Speedplay pedal user, then you know the system’s biggest weakness is that the cleats are very awkward to walk in. To make things worse, any significant amount of walking, or even frequent touching down at lights, erodes the aluminium outer plate.
Speedplay’s Walkable cleats fix both these problems by putting a rubber cover over the cleat mechanism, so the metal is protected. They come with plugs that stop crud from getting into the mechanism too, fixing another common gripe with Zeros.
Why: Less weight, less road buzz
USE is better known to road cyclists for its Exposure lights, but it has a long history as component maker, particularly of seatposts. At 174g in 400mm x 27.2 post, this is a light post, and will be lighter still in a more road-appropriate 300mm length.
Weight aside, carbon fibre seatposts have the advantage that they’re usually more flexible than those made from aluminium, reducing the road buzz that gets through to your bum.
Why: Improved comfort; less weight
At 215g, this classic saddle lops almost 100g off a typical stock seat and is famously comfortable. The usual caveats apply, of course: everyone’s bottom is different, so what suits other riders may still give you a bum rap.
More broadly, changing your saddle, and carefully adjusting its height, angle and fore-aft position, can be the biggest comfort improvement you can make. If you’re not sitting comfortably — if cycling is literally a pain in the arse — then go shopping for a better seat.
Why: Better shifting; less weight; chance to change ratios
For the most part, Shimano shifting systems work best if all their components are made by Shimano. If the company that made your bike shaved a few cents off the bill of materials by using a non-Shimano chain and sprockets, then you’ll get slicker shifting if you fit Shimano parts when they wear out.
With its alloy carrier, the Ultegra-level CS-8000 sprocket set is in Shimano’s value-for-money sweet spot. It can be found for around £50, weighs 212g in an 11-23 (the Dura-Ace cassette is feathery at 166g, but costs three times more) and Just Works™. In a bundle with an Ultegra chain, it’s a no-brainer.
Why: More stopping confidence
The brakes on many less-expensive bikes are, frankly, not great. In particular, the cheap unbadged brakes you often find on sub-£1,000 bikes lack feel and oomph. Replacing them with these solidly-built stoppers substantially improves braking feel and power, and if you can brake with more control, you can go faster.
Shimano says these brakes should only be used with Super SLR levers, but that’s all current Shimano brake/shift levers.
Why: Improved reliability and durability; pretty colours
Hope’s bottom brackets have an enviable reputation for durability, with plenty going strong after five years or more of mountain bike use. Your cranks spin on Swiss INA bearings, and the whole unit is very tidily machined.
Because the sleeve between the two threaded bearing holders is aluminium not plastic, the Hope bottom bracket is slightly heavier than a Shimano unit, but to make up for it you can have it in a choice of colours.
Why: Light weight, excellent durability and reliability
Shimano’s SPD-SL pedal system is popular for its reliability and function. The Ultegra version is light thanks to a carbon fibre body and durable because of its stainless steel top plate and excellent, easily-maintained bearings. As with many Shimano pedals, you can remove the axle unit, fill the body with grease, and screw the axle back in, forcing fresh grease into the bearings.
Bit spendy still? The carbon-bodied 105 R700 pedals weigh just 17g/pr more and cost £69.49.
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Acknowledged by the Telegraph as a leading cycling journalist, John Stevenson has been writing about bikes and cycling for over 30 years since discovering that people were mug enough to pay him for it rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work.
He was heavily involved in the mountain bike boom of the late 1980s as a racer, team manager and race promoter, and that led to writing for Mountain Biking UK magazine shortly after its inception. He got the gig by phoning up the editor and telling him the magazine was rubbish and he could do better. Rather than telling him to get lost, MBUK editor Tym Manley called John’s bluff and the rest is history.
Since then he has worked on MTB Pro magazine and was editor of Maximum Mountain Bike and Australian Mountain Bike magazines, before switching to the web in 2000 to work for CyclingNews.com. Along with road.cc editor Tony Farelly, John was on the launch team for BikeRadar.com and subsequently became editor in chief of Future Publishing’s group of cycling magazines and websites, including Cycling Plus, MBUK, What Mountain Bike and Procycling.
John has also written for Cyclist magazine, edited the BikeMagic website and was founding editor of TotalWomensCycling.com before handing over to someone far more representative of the site's main audience.
He joined road.cc in 2013 and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.