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. Here is part two of effective ways to upgrade your machine.
Saddle selection is highly personal, and what works for one rider may not work for another. It is up to the rider to try to find a saddle that works with his or her body. A high-quality saddle will offer greater comfort and reduced weight.
Many saddles offer a central perineal channel or cutout to relieve pressure on a group of blood vessels and nerves that run beneath the rider’s pelvis. Cutting off blood flow here results in numbness and discomfort for both men and women, and saddle companies have invested millions of dollars designing new saddles in an attempt to keep blood flow constant while riders are seated.
To reduce saddle weight, most manufacturers offer saddles with the rails made from titanium or even carbon fiber. Carbon fiber, while light, has the added benefit of reducing vibration that will fatigue the rider.
Carbon Fiber Handlebar
Carbon fiber has revolutionized handlebar design. Engineers now have unprecedented freedom in bringing new handlebar shapes to market. The most notable change has been the flattening of the bar top to give riders a more comfortable location to rest their palms when climbing, reducing pressure on the hands. And because carbon fiber reduces the vibration that travels through the bicycle to the rider, it cuts muscle fatigue, allowing a rider to ride longer or with greater strength later in the ride.
One of the more popular trends in handlebar shapes is the compact design. With a compact bar both the handlebar’s reach and drop are reduced. While this results in less variation in body position between the three hand positions (bar tops, lever hoods, and bar drops), this design is an excellent alternative for riders who don’t have the flexibility of an octopus. Compared to other bars, the compact bar effectively brings the hoods closer and the drops up, making the reach easier for anyone with a fussy back.
So while a carbon fiber handlebar can result in increased comfort for the rider, it will almost certainly cut the bicycle’s weight, as well. There are several bars on the market that weigh fewer than 200 g, a weight no aluminum bar has achieved.
While a carbon fiber stem is not required to use a carbon fiber handlebar, many riders choose to purchase a matching set from the component maker responsible for the bar. While some aluminum stems rival carbon fiber in weight, the additional vibration damping can increase a rider’s comfort perceptibly.
It used to be that if you crashed with a carbon fiber component it would break rather visibly, something called catastrophic failure. Today, manufacturers will design parts with layers of carbon that prevent a crack from causing a part to completely fail. It may feel unusually flexible, or in some cases the part may even feel okay under light loads. It is important, however, to replace a handlebar following a crash. It’s just not worth the risk.
To purchase a handlebar, you will need to specify the handlebar clamp diameter (31.8 mm is the new standard, though 26.0 mm and 26.2 mm are still out there) and width (usually 40 cm, 42 cm, or 44 cm measured center-to-center). To order a stem you will also need to know the handlebar clamp diameter, the length (80–130 mm in 10 mm increments), the bore diameter (1 1/8 in. is most common) and the rise (or angle: 0, 6, 8, and 12 degrees are most common). Rise is the change in angle from the fork’s steerer tube; 90 degrees is the starting point, 0 degrees. A plus angle means the stem points up and a minus angle means the stem points down.
Aside from wheels, one of the easiest ways to purchase speed is by adding a set of “aero” (short for aerodynamic) handlebars to your bicycle. Time trial bikes will use a specialized “base” bar along with aerodynamic extension bars to allow you to ride in a downhill skier-like tuck. For greater versatility, you can opt to add a set of “clip-on” bars that mount on your existing drop handlebar. These clip-ons act as the extensions to give you the low aerodynamic tuck so helpful for time trials. They are an inexpensive alternative to purchasing a dedicated bike, and while they do add weight, the aerodynamic savings, as measured in time, more than offsets the additional weight. One word of caution: This is not a piece of equipment to be used on group rides; these are most appropriate for time trials and other individual rides.
Carbon Fiber Seatpost
Switching from an aluminum to a carbon fiber seatpost is a relatively inexpensive upgrade, and it can result in more comfort at the saddle, as well, while cutting weight slightly. The real advantage to adding a carbon fiber seatpost is for riders who have a bicycle with an aluminum frame; a carbon fiber seatpost can noticeably cut vibration transmitted to the saddle.
To purchase a seatpost you will need to specify the seatpost diameter (27.2 mm is most common) and length (300 mm and 350 mm are most common). Setback is the distance in millimeters behind the axis of the seat tube that the seatpost clamp lies; this distance varies from manufacturer to manufacturer, though 20 mm is fairly common. Some manufacturers offer seatposts with varying amounts of setback, ranging from as little as none to as much as 35 mm.
Aftermarket Crank Sets
Crank sets made from carbon fiber have become quite popular. Under the right circumstances, a carbon fiber crankset has the potential to be lighter than an aluminum crank set, as well as stiffer and stronger. Achieving this has been another matter. Shimano continues to make its top-of-the-line Dura-Ace crank set from aluminum because the company has not been entirely satisfied with the results from its testing of carbon fiber cranks. Most riders purchasing carbon fiber cranks are doing so for reasons of weight loss. The fact is, most carbon fiber crank sets are only marginally lighter than their top-of-the-line aluminum counterparts, while the aluminum crankset are usually stiffer, as well.
Carbon Fiber Fork
It used to be that upgrading a bicycle’s fork to carbon was a popular way to gain some comfort and reduce weight. Most road bikes today are designed with a specific fork in mind that’s meant to ensure a harmonious appearance and optimal handling. Replacing your bicycle’s fork with a new aftermarket fork can cut weight while increasing upper-body comfort, thanks to vibration damping. Any change should be undertaken with some caution.
Changing a fork for one with less fork rake will slow the bicycle’s handling, making it more resistant to turning. Conversely, changing to a fork with more fork rake will speed the bicycle’s handling, making it more responsive to steering input. Also, different forks will have a different axle-to-crown distance. If that distance is reduced, the bicycle’s head tube rotates down (relative to the rear axle), thereby increasing the head tube angle and making the bike handle more quickly. A longer axle-to-crown distance will decrease the head-tube angle and make the bike more resistant to turning.
To purchase a fork you will need to specify the steerer diameter (1 1/8-in. is most common) and the rake (usually 40, 43, or 45 mm).