Bicycling is a pretty straightforward endeavor. If you train, you’ll gain fitness and be more efficient. Efficiency can be expressed as increased speed, but it can also be expressed as reduced effort. So, while some riders may always be looking for more speed, there are plenty of riders who may be satisfied with their pace, but increased efficiency can mean longer rides with little or no increase in fatigue.
Your hard work, expressed either as time in the saddle or dollars spent at a bike shop, can result in more efficiency and a better experience. With bicycles—as with most things—quality pays. As equipment improves in quality, myriad benefits can be realized. You can purchase equipment for your bicycle with more benefits than an auto club membership. Among the ways you can improve your bicycle are:
1. Lightweight equipment to help you accelerate more quickly and go up hills faster
2. Vibration-damping equipment to reduce fatigue
3. Aerodynamic equipment to reduce wind resistance
4. Stiffer components to make power transmission more efficient
5. Better quality tires to improve traction or puncture resistance
Here are some of the upgrades you can make, beginning with the most helpful:
Easily the biggest improvement you can make to your bicycle comes from purchasing a set of high-quality wheels. The benefits of a set of racing wheels can be reduced weight, greater aerodynamics, or, if you are willing to spend enough, both. It used to be that a high-quality wheel set was built by a veteran mechanic at your local shop. Today, that isn’t as common; most wheels come prebuilt from the factory. Find the shop in your area with an experienced wheel builder, because any time you need your wheels serviced, his experience will be helpful.
Climbing wheels: If you live in an area with hills or mountains, the local climbers will all have lightweight wheels. For less than $1,000 you can purchase a lightweight set of wheels that will be easier to accelerate due to their reduced rotating mass, which will help you on climbs. Aluminum rims are still king in the sub-$1,000 market; they are easier to service and don’t require new brake shoes. Low weight for a set of aftermarket wheels is 1,500 g for the wheel set (no skewers, cassette, tires, or tubes).
Aerodynamic wheels: While reduced weight is immediately apparent upon picking up a bike, most engineers are saying that aerodynamics trumps weight. A deep-section rim (generally defined as any rim with a profile of 30 mm or greater) does increase weight, but it will more than offset that increase in weight by increasing the wheels’ aerodynamic efficiency; though heavier, the wheel is faster. A pair of deep-section aluminum rim wheels is the most cost-effective method to make your bike faster (other than adding aero bars (discussed later in this chapter) and they can be used safely on group rides and centuries, unlike aero bars.
Tubulars vs. clinchers: Bar none, the finest riding wheels and tires out there are tubulars. Tubular tires, also known as sew-ups, actually sew the tire casing into a tubular shape around the innertube. These tires are then glued onto special tubular-specific rims.
The combination of special tire and special tube can cut noticeable weight from a set of wheels. Because the tires retain a circular profile with only minimal distortion at the contact patch where the tire meets the ground, they corner exceedingly well. They are, however, difficult to glue on and even more difficult to change in the event of a flat. Most riders who do use them only use them on wheels reserved for racing.
Carbon fiber rims: In the quest to reduce weight on the bicycle, carbon fiber has been used to make rims, hubs, and in some cases, even spokes. Carbon fiber rims are available in both tubular and clincher designs, and can shave 200 g from an already lightweight set of wheels while offering a deep-section rim profile. The combination gives riders a set of wheels with superior aerodynamics with a weight appealing to climbers: the best of both worlds, as it were. This powerful combination comes at a price, though. Carbon fiber rims require special brake pads, crack easily (a cracked rim can fail suddenly, resulting in a crash for the rider), and don’t dissipate heat as well as aluminum rims. This makes braking on long descents more hazardous, because it is possible to heat the air in the tube to the point that it expands and blows the tire off the rim. A carbon fiber rim can melt from the heat generated by braking on a long (more than 2 miles) descent. And finally, wheels built with carbon fiber rims are expensive; in most cases, expect to spend $2,000 or more.
To purchase a set of wheels, you will need to specify the type of freehub you need, which is based on the components on your bicycle. The two types are made by Campagnolo and Shimano; SRAM-made wheels use a Shimano-style freehub.
With both clincher and tubular tires, the market is dominated by relatively inexpensive training tires. Upgrading from these will offer you a choice based on your priorities. You can either go for a tire with a reinforced casing for more puncture resistance, or you can select a tire with a more supple casing and grippier tread for higher performance.
Puncture-resistant casings are reinforced with any of a variety of man-made fibers; Kevlar is a frequent ingredient. The upside is that you could ride your bike through a minefield without getting a flat. The downside is that the tires weigh as much as iron ore and are just as stiff. They also don’t corner as well, and rattle the rider like a washboard due to the stiff casing.
High-performance racing tires are popular because their supple casing and soft rubber tread offer the rider a high degree of sensitivity to the road surface and the tires’ grip; think surgical, not winter, glove. While most riders can’t tell you exactly what they feel, they will report feeling more confident when riding a better set of tires. High- performance tires feature a casing with a high thread count, just like your favorite sheets; the maximum you’ll find is 290 threads per inch (tpi), but occasionally you’ll even see 320 tpi. Cotton is king. The top-of-the-line clinchers combine a tubular casing with the flexible bead (the part of the tire that hooks on the sidewall of the clincher rim) of a folding clincher; they are called “open tubulars.” Many high-performance tires will feature two different rubber compounds in the tread; the center section that meets the asphalt when you ride in a straight line will be harder for reduced wear and rolling resistance, while the sides will feature a softer compound for better grip when cornering.
To purchase a new set of tires, you will need to specify the tire’s dimensions. All but the smallest riders use bicycles with 700C wheels; some women’s bikes use wheels with 650C wheels front and rear or occasionally with a 24-in. wheel on the front paired with a 700C wheel in the rear. The most common tire widths are 23 and 25 mm, but beware that one company’s 23 mm tire may be another company’s 25 mm; how tire width is measured varies some.