Ever since there were two cyclists, our sport has been one of competition. Every rider, on every ride, experiences at least one moment of rivalry with their compatriots. Whether you sense them fading on a climb while you feel strong, or hear them gradually dropping away on a descent, that undeniable spirit of competitiveness is there, pushing you. Once you’ve been riding long enough, it’s only natural to look for an edge over your riding buddies, and to lust after a shiny new piece of kit that will help give it to you.
When the time has come for you to make that first big upgrade, do you know where you’ll get the most bang for your buck? Since you’ll likely be dropping a nice chuck of change, this is not a decision to take lightly, so let’s make sure your money is maximized. First, let’s make sure your ready for the Big Decision: before you drop the big bucks on improving your bike, your fit should be dialed-in, since if your body is not comfortable and in the right spot, the best gear on the market won’t do you a whiff of good. That said, a carbon cockpit for your road bike—carbon handlebars, stem and seatpost—is a worthy and impactful upgrade, boosting stiffness and comfort while possibly dropping weight as well.
Once you’ve got your body position and contact points set up to your liking, it’s time to think big picture. Will you be keeping your frame for several more years or do you see a new one in the near future; possibly an upgrade to carbon? Road cyclists must keep in mind the impending change to road disc brakes and the axle spacing compatibility issues that creates. If you are considering an upgrade to your mountain bike, it’s very important to decide if your next bike will have the same wheel size as your current bike. After all, an expensive set of 26″ wheels will be useless if you step up to a 650b or 29’er bike. If you think it’s likely that a different wheel size or a different style of road bike is next for you, an expensive upgrade that can’t be swapped over is not the wisest decision. So, let’s say you’ll be keeping the frame you currently have or will be upgrading to one you can swap parts to. Our next step is to determine what you wish to gain out of your upgrade—the short answer, of course, is speed.
As a general rule, reducing rotational weight increases speed, thus wheels are often the best place to spend your upgrade dollars. Knowing what your goals are will help you make the correct wheel choice. First, there’s the positive correlation between weight and durability. If you are looking for a race-light climbing wheelset for dropping your buddies, but plan to ride it everyday and everywhere, those wheels probably won’t last too long. Conversely, if you want to invest in a wheelset that will last forever, you won’t be bolting on any horsepower at the same time. Wheels present another conundrum in that the fastest wheels aren’t always the lightest wheels. Deeper rims with aerodynamic cross sections create more of an advantage than a lighter wheel at speeds over about fifteen miles per hour. If you are a climber looking to bag some KOM’s, go for the shallow, lightweight wheels. For most other applications, get something with an aerodynamic profile, depending on your needs. Rims up to 30 or 40 millimeters deep behave well in most conditions, and can still be found in climbing-weights for the right price. Zipp’s 202 Firecrest Carbon Clinchers are an excellent example. Rims over 60 millimeters deep, like the HED Jet 6+, are well-suited for soloists, riders who like to hold a fast pace, and those looking for a dual purpose road/time trial wheel set. If considering an aero wheelset, be prepared to shell out for carbon fiber, which will either be in the shape of a fairing glued-on to an alloy rim (semi-affordable), or a full carbon lay-up (expensive), which also has the added benefit of keeping weight comparable to lightweight aluminum wheels. At this time, tubeless road technology offers increased flat protection and traction through the option to run lower tire pressure, but weight savings are not an advantage of road tubeless systems.
Carbon wheels are not just for roadies these days, as materials and manufacturing advances have created hoops that are able to stand up to the severe abuse of mountain biking. Along with suspension components, carbon wheels are the best upgrade you can make to your mountain bike. They are vastly stronger, stiffer, and usually lighter than their alloy counterparts. Mountain bike wheels are evolving rapidly, with almost every manufacturer offering wider rims (up to 35 millimeter internal width), while bead hooks seem to be going the way of the front derailleur. Enve Composites makes some of our favorite carbon mountain bike wheels. They are unbelievably stiff, incredibly strong, and look great. If you just can’t shell out the cash for carbon, we suggest the Industry Nine Torch series wheels featuring wide, strong hubs, and I9’s fantastic Torch Hubs. Nearly every rim on the market can be converted to tubeless with a tubeless rim strip and valve stem, so don’t limit yourself to UST certified rims.
Next to carbon wheels, nothing will unlock your riding potential like a top-level suspension component upgrade. If you find yourself hankering for a fork, we highly recommend a Rock Shox Pike or BOS Deville for all-mountain/enduro/trail riding, and the BOS Dizzy for XC use. Nearly all of our employee’s bikes has a Pike on the front, and the ones that don’t have a BOS. Both the Pike and the Deville are Tempur-Pedic Memory Foam-plush, and offer steering accuracy and braking stiffness beyond their rivals. Winning the weight battle is the Pike by nearly a half -pound, but the Deville makes up for it by offering unbelievable smoothness that lasts seemingly forever, thanks to a six-month service interval under heavy use.