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Don’t Buy Upgrades. Ride Up Grades?

Do bike upgrades make you faster? The answer is, yes, a little bit, but also no, not really. This year, I've been trying to do better at focusing on the rider rather than the bike. How's it going so far?

Written by: Bruce Lin

Published on:

Posted in:Features

Merckx at the 1975 Tour de France.

The great Eddy Merckx once said, “Don’t buy upgrades, ride up grades.”

Even if apocryphal (I doubt this clever rhyme works in Flemish or French? Someone fluent will have to tell me), it’s one of the best cycling quotes ever, and it’s a mantra worth living by. Before spending money on upgrades that provide piddly little marginal gains, you should actually train hard and get major gains for free.

If you’re a bike addict with a bad case of GAS (gear acquisition syndrome) like me, trying to live like this can be pretty tough. I mean, buying gear and upgrading my bikes is half the fun! I'm trying to be good by focusing more on actually riding and training this year. But when can I finally pull out my wallet and shop? 

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Eddy Merckx Molteni

Last week a gentleman, who I’ll call "Eddy," joined us on our fast weekly group ride. He rode a very old steel bike with rim brakes and box-section alloy wheels. Can you guess what happened? Eddy blew me the **** up. 

As I watched the gap between me and Eddy’s rear wheel grow wider, I remembered my New Year's Resolutions post from earlier this year. I wrote that I wanted to “curb my bike addiction.” 


With all the recent economic turmoil and uncertainty in the bike industry, I’ve felt a bit guilty about spending money on my hobby instead of saving more for important things like retirement, emergencies, and my child’s future. 

Change bike stem lengthBehold, my bin of very expensive and very unused stems. I have a few hundred dollars of aluminum and titanium sitting in there, and there's more where that came from too. 

I also cleaned out my garage this spring and the amount of bike junk that I have collected over the years is shocking. I had piles of handlebars, stems, saddles, pedals, wheels, tires, suspension components, and more. It’s all very good stuff. A lot of it is barely used. I’ve been chasing the high of getting hot new upgrades for years, and seeing the evidence of my own wastefulness made me feel ashamed. 

Writing this now, I have several tabs open with shopping carts full of exciting new components that I need to close.

Visiting Sea Otter a couple of weeks ago, I felt like a kid set loose in a candy factory. Fortunately, I told myself I would buy anything while I was there, and I’m happy to report that I succeeded. I did return with a lot of random new gear, but it was all free swag, I swear

My bike quiver

Many riders would KILL for a bike quiver like this. You're lucky, Bruce. Very lucky. Just be happy. Why can't you just be happy?

This year, I’ve also done something very uncharacteristic for me — I haven’t bought a new bike! Usually, by the time spring rolls around, I’ve flipped at least one of the bikes in my quiver. This year though, I’m still riding my “old” bikes. 

I won't stress about the fact that my mountain bikes don’t have the latest SRAM Transmission, even though everyone else at TPC seems to be riding it. They can have all the fun. I don't need that. I don't even care that my Forbidden Druid and Specialized Epic Evo have both been replaced by newer, updated, and improved models. It doesn't matter to me. Not one bit.

My trusty Lauf Seigla gravel bike is feeling pretty roached, but I can still ride and race the crap out of it. In fact, I'll just tell myself that this is a good thing. Now that the paint is trashed and the components are super worn, I might be more willing to beat up on it. Sure, there’s a new version of the Seigla that comes with SRAM Transmission, but... whatever. I don't care...

And my Aethos? I’m getting absolutely smoked in our fast lunch rides, so part of me wants to pick up an aero frame to get an extra edge. But c’mon, Bruce. Do you think that’s going to keep you from getting dropped? Be real. Take that Tarmac SL8 out of your shopping cart right now.  

That's right, I’m surprisingly content riding “outdated” bikes. You know what? It feels good. Yeah I feel good. I'm doing good. I'm winning. 

Gravel riding trail in Boulder Co

You don't need the latest and greatest to enjoy a ride like this.

What about RIDING UP GRADES, Bruce? Are you doing that? 

Yeah, I’m trying. I think I’ve actually been doing pretty well. 

Since my racing season ended last September, I’ve stayed pretty consistent. I've slowly increased my riding volume over the winter. As a result, I’ve dropped about 15 pounds.

My power-to-weight ratio is higher and my repeatability is better. I’m in the best shape I’ve been in since becoming a dad. I’m not quite back to the peak form I held from ~2014-2017, and I might never get back there, but I’m very happy with the current improvements I’ve made in my fitness. I did this all without buying any upgrades. 

Eddy Merckx pain face

I might be relapsing. Don't look at me like that, Eddy. I know you're disgusted with me. Please, try to understand. 

You know what… since I’ve lost weight and gotten a bit faster, maybe I deserve to buy some upgrades? Plus, I am racing Unbound and Leadville this year. Surely I need some new upgrades to supplement this improved fitness. A titanium derailleur hanger? A carbon saddle? A fancy gold chain? Tires? C’mon. You HAVE to buy tires if you’re going to race. 

I have been riding up grades. I did what you said, Eddy. So it's okay to buy myself a few upgrades now, right? Yeah, that’s what I’ll tell myself. Just a few upgrades. Nothing crazy. At least one. Maybe two. Or three.  


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