Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The frugal cyclist’s guide to upgrading your road bike

I’m a self-proclaimed dirtbag. I hate paying full price for anything, and when I do, I want to make sure that I’m spending my money intelligently. But like every other leg-shaving roadie, when I fondle someone else’s lightweight bits and pieces, I get jealous. Since I have a limited budget for upgrades, pretty good spreadsheet skills, and a warped sense of what constitutes “entertainment” on a Sunday morning, I decided to figure out exactly how to best spend upgrade dollars on my bike.

First, though, a few assumptions:

  1. The objective of the upgrade is to reduce weight. I don’t have a wind tunnel, and I live on top of a mountain, so my concern is reducing weight in the most cost-effective way possible. I can’t help you with aero.
  2. You’re starting with a frame you’re happy with—these are upgrades to an existing bike rather than a new bike entirely, even though in many cases a new bike may actually be the better value.
  3. You have an enthusiast-level part spec (Shimano 105, Ultegra, Ultegra SL), with a wheelset typical of a bike at that price point, approximately 1800 grams (think Bontrager Race, Mavic Ksyrim Equipe or Aksium Race, or Shimano RS20). I used Ultegra drivetrain and Bontrager Race wheels as the baseline since that’s what I have. If you have Dura Ace 7800 or Force and roll on Ksyrium SL’s, I’m really not sure why you’d be “upgrading.”
  4. You’re already eating right and have about 10% or less body fat. If not, stop reading right here and start limiting yourself to portions that would leave a supermodel hungry. Spend the upgrade money on a nutritionist and/or coach if you need to. You’re only going to shave two, maybe three pounds by spending more money, so shed the weight for free if there’s more than that around your midsection.
  5. You aren’t concerned about brand names or things that match, you just want quality parts that work.
  6. Priority is determined by cost per gram of weight reduced, regardless of how much weight it will save (sort of like Net Present Value for you finance geeks). Cost per gram is calculated as:

price of new part / (weight of old part - weight of new part )

With that in mind, here’s how to spend your money:

Get new wheels

If you’re going to do just one thing, you should get new wheels. Not because rotational weight matters more than non-rotational weight, either. Wheels are a smart upgrade based on nothing more than dollars versus grams. And the weight savings are enough to be truly noticeable, too. Just make sure you get the right wheels—you can spend a ton of money on wheels and get no benefit whatsoever.

Revolution Wheelworks Rev22 wheels are the best thing going here. The Rev22’s will save you about a pound (450 grams) for a mere $480 or $1.07 per gram. I could probably get away with the Rev22L for even more weight reduction at the same price (510 grams at $0.94 per gram), but since I’m hard on wheels, I’ll stick with the slightly heavier Rev22.

Other good choices in this category are the Neuvation R28 SL5 ($1.15/gram); Williams System 19 ($1.38/gram); and Easton EA90 SLX ($1.55/gram).

Change your tubes

Lightweight tubes only save 60 grams, but it’s the cheapest 60 grams you can find at about $0.30/gram versus standard tubes. Superlight tubes, like Continental Supersonics, save even more weight at 100 grams for two tubes or $0.48/gram. Technically both tube options are cheaper than the wheels, but since you’ll throw them away every time you get a puncture, the wheels have the advantage after your third or fourth flat tire.

Pedals, really?

You probably can’t wait to get to the drivetrain, but pedals come first. Specifically Speedplay. If you know anyone who rides with Zero pedals, they probably love them. Turns out they’re a great weight-reduction value, too. The Cro-Mo version is $125 and weighs 107 grams less than Ultegra (50 grams less than Dura Ace), and offers a lot more adjustability. Why didn’t I learn about these sooner?

Shifting gears

After changing out wheels, tubes, and pedals, it’s finally time to change gears. Or at least gear changers. Shift/brake levers are the next most cost-effective place to reduce weight, but it has to be done in combination of shifters + rear derailleur, since you’ll need to switch brands, too.

SRAM has a clear edge over Shimano in weight, but the interesting thing is that the best weight reduction value is found in the Rival group rather than the higher-end Force or Red gruppos. New Rival shifters and rear derailleur (Shimano front derailleur is compatible, but the rear is not) will set you back $355 and save you 191 grams over Ultegra for a cost of $1.85 per gram saved. Force will save a bit more weight at 218 grams for $490, but a greater benefit at a lower cost can be had by spending money on...


Rival is again the value winner, as Rival brakes will shave 43 grams off of Ultegra for $100. Considering Force shifters and rear derailleur are only 27 grams lighter than Rival but cost $135 more, spending another Ben Franklin on brake calipers is the way to go.

Force brakes are only seven grams lighter but $65 more than Rival (which are lighter than Dura Ace), while Red are 22 grams lighter than Rival but cost nearly three times as much.


Rival’s value streak ends with the chain. Here the smart money is on Dura Ace. The weight savings aren’t that great at only 28 grams, but my own experience with Dura Ace chains has been that they’re worthwhile for the durability alone. The one currently on my bike has over 4,000 miles on it and isn’t even 0.75% worn according to my Park Tool chain gauge. Those 28 saved grams will cost you $2.42 each. But since you have to replace chains periodically it’s only $1.08 per gram over buying Ultegra if you’re due for a new one anyway. In case you’re concerned, Shimano chains and SRAM drivetrain parts play together just fine. Same is true the other way around.

Steel cassettes?

Steel is dense, so it doesn’t take very much of it to make a strong part. Which is why SRAM machines much of its Red cassette out of a single piece of steel. At $230 it’s not the cheapest piece on the market, but at 75 grams lighter than Ultegra, it’s the next best place to spend upgrade dollars. Cassettes and chains as well as front derailleurs are instances where the absolute lightest part is also the best value.

Compatible cranks

The last two places to think about spending upgrade money are the crankset and front derailleur. There’s 123 grams between the lightest (Dura Ace) and heaviest (Ultegra) crank, but Force is the best value at 71 grams lighter than Ultegra for $275. Front derailleurs are separated by 30 grams from lightest (Red) to heaviest (Rival/Force). Red is the best value at 27 grams lighter than Ultegra for $105.

I’m just glad that SRAM and Shimano shifters are both cross-compatible with SRAM or Shimano cranks and front derailleurs. Don’t spend money here unless it’s the last thing left.

But is it worth it?

Upgrading your drivetrain as suggested will result in parts that weigh about the same as Dura Ace 7900 for about half the cost of buying Dura Ace at retail. You’ll be right around the magic 2 kilograms (which is only magic because it’s an even number). And your weight savings over Ultegra will be right about one pound or 450 grams.

Better deals can sometimes be had by purchasing complete gruppos. If you’re not buying piece-by-piece, the best bang for the buck is Rival, but Force is 156g lighter and not far behind in dollars per gram saved. However, if you already have Rival and want to upgrade, Red saves more grams per dollar than Force just because Rival and Force are already so close in weight.

For less than half the cost of upgrading your drivetrain, you can take the same amount of weight or more out of your wheels. My next upgrade will without a doubt be a set of Revolution Rev22’s. The drivetrain can wait for wheels and pedals. Especially since drivetrain upgrades would cost $1000 to net half a water bottle worth of weight savings.


  1. I just put the new 7900 Dura Ace chain on my bike. It is nice and smooth. Also there is a good article in last months Velonews about road brakes and stopping power you might like

  2. If I were interested in upgrading my road bike anytime soon, this would be one of the most useful blog posts ever. Seriously good work. Please start on a similar mtb post soon.

    Question: When you calculate pedal weight, do you consider the weight of the cleat? I've often wondered weather cleat weight (and shoe weight, for that matter) were undeservingly ignored, and I've noticed that some of the low-profile pedals come with ginormous cleats.

  3. ... and I think the reason road cleats and shoes are often ignored is because pecker-measuring contests (hanging your bike on the scale) don't take them into account.

  4. "like every other...roadie, when I fondle someone else's...bits...I get jealous."


  5. Aaron, I considered the weight of pedals and cleats, though the claimed weights for the various cleats were all the same, so it didn't matter much.

    As for shoes, I started down that road and discovered there just wasn't enough difference in weight from mid-level shoes to the high end to make it worth fussing over. Shoes to me are also one of those things where fit and comfort trump weight. Same holds true for saddles.

  6. VERY interesting post. I ride the cro-mo Speedplay Zeros, and am a huge fan. I always thought lightweight tubes were wasteful, but now I'm rethinking...

  7. Sad thing is that very few Utah road races actually have Mountain Top finishes. The Solution is to get a lighter MTB.

    My Ultegra group serves me well. I'll spend the money on a SRAM XX group in 2010.

    Heck my A CX bike has Tiagra and 105.

  8. I like the direction of your analysis. But still, that's some serious weight-weenie geeking out. I like it.

  9. I have used mountain bike shoes and pedals for over 10 years on my road bike as I got tired of walking like a duck off the bike. I don't race so no peer pressure here. But there is a pretty significant weight difference between road and mtn shoe combinations. I'm now using 2009 Sidi Dragon 6 carbon mtb shoes (just replaced worn & ragged but still servicable old Genius 5 mtb shoes) and speed play frogs. The shoe weight with cleats for a pair is around 1000 grams. My old Sidi Genius 5 road shoes with speedplay road cleats are 800 grams for the pair. Pedals are about the same weight between frogs and X-2s. It's "only" 200 grams but it is rotating weight. But I can walk like a normal human.......

  10. As I have agonized over this for many weeks and countless hours on the internet, I will share the following upgrade information on wheel set decisions (my weight is 175 and local roads are not the best): my choice for the best combination of weight, strength durablility, and cost ($550 at my LBS) are the Easton SL 90s for the following reasons:
    1. 24 front/ 28 rear
    2. 1530 grams/pair
    3. brass drive side nipples
    4. Sapim butted spokes threaded into the hub without "J" bends at the hub flanges.
    5. Ease of bearing maintainence

  11. Anon: the Eastons sound like a solid wheel. For what it's worth, I rode my Rev 22s on Saturday over 6 miles of dirt road at 27+ mph. Hit multiple potholes that I simply couldn't avoid. They were still perfectly true when I got done. The Eastons might be a bit stronger, but the Revs are strong enough and 200 grams lighter.

  12. The frame of the bike is generally going to be the heaviest part of the bike. If you are riding a steel frame you might want to consider changing to either a lighter aluminium frame or even an ultra light and ultra stiff state of the art carbon fibre frame. Either of these should save you quite a bit of weight but neither come in very cheap.
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