Eddie 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.
Gravel bike low gear kit — ~£88
Shimano SLX CS-M7000 11-40 cassette — £29.99
Shimano 105 RD-R7000-GS rear derailleur — ~£36
Shimano CN-HG701 HG-X chain with Quick Link — ~£21.60
If you have a typical gravel bike 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.
Why: Faster rolling; improved comfort (if switching from 23mm to 25mm or 28mm)
Consistently rated in the top handful of tyres, the GP 4000S II is deservedly massively popular. Its 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 4000S II 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 4000S II 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 £8), 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 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.
If road buzz is more important to you than weight, Syntace’s P6 Flex post is specifically designed to absorb road shock. It’s usually over £200 but we’ve just noticed Amazon has 27.2mm versions for around £100 (okay, £101.20, but what's £1.20 between friends?).
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 for another £24 you can have ceramic balls in them instead of steel.
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.
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Our official grumpy Northerner, John has been riding bikes for over 30 years since discovering as an uncoordinated teen that a sport could be fun if it didn't require you to catch a ball or get in the way of a hulking prop forward.
Road touring was followed by mountain biking and a career racing in the mud that was as brief as it was unsuccessful.
Somewhere along the line came the discovery that he could string a few words together, followed by the even more remarkable discovery that people were mug enough to pay for this rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work. He's pretty certain he's worked for even more bike publications than Mat Brett.
The inevitable 30-something MAMIL transition saw him shift to skinny tyres and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.