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Splurge or save? How to spend smart on bike gear

By Spencer Powlison

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We see them on bike websites, YouTube, and Instagram: “Dream builds.” These bikes are dialed, beautiful, drool-worthy. But there’s just one problem. Who can afford them? These tricked-out bikes are so over-the-top expensive that they seem out of reach for mere mortals like us.

Balancing a bike budget isn’t easy, and it sure doesn’t attract likes and comments on social media. Fortunately, there are smart ways to stretch your budget and maximize performance and comfort. Because remember, in the end it’s all about the ride, not the “ride.”

Until you win the lottery, here are some suggestions to help you prioritize the bike parts and gear that will truly make a difference when you’re in the saddle.

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Bike gear to splurge on

Splurge on this bike gear

In no particular order, here are seven key areas where you should spend more money. From our years of experience, we’ve found these things can make the greatest difference.

Wheels

For road riding and mountain biking alike, wheels are the biggest performance upgrade. You can turn a mid-level road bike into a speed machine with some lightweight, aerodynamic carbon wheels. On the trails, a better wheelset will be more durable, better-handling, and probably lighter as well. You’ll also enjoy better hub technology with a wheel upgrade, which can mean less rolling resistance, more durability, and that cool buzzing noise of quality high-engagement freehubs. Read more about upgrading your wheels.

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Bib shorts

This splurge is critical for  cyclists who spend hours pedaling in the saddle. Here’s where comfort and performance are one in the same. A breathable, supportive chamois will head off any chafing concerns. Quality fabrics will keep you cool in the heat, and better bibs tend to have shoulder straps with fit and finish that is sleek and comfortable. It makes a lot of sense for road and gravel, but even mountain bikers will benefit from wearing bibs with a good chamois underneath baggy shorts. 

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Cycling shoes

Shoes are a critical contact point. They will be an endless source of annoyance if they’re wrong, but if you get the right shoe that fits well, you might forget they’re even there. Spending more gets you a stiffer sole for better pedaling efficiency and no hot spots on your feet. Better shoes also feature fasteners like Boa dials that are easy to adjust and offer micro-adjustments to get a perfectly snug (but not too snug) fit. Materials will also be higher quality and more refined. And finally, when you expand your shoe budget, you’ll likely have more brands to choose from, which can enable you to find the right shape for your feet. Read about our favorite mountain bike shoes.

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Suspension fork and shock

Experienced mountain bikers can attest to how frightening it is to ride bad suspension components on rough trails. If you want to push your limits or be poised for future progression, don’t skimp on your bike’s shock and suspension fork. Better suspension offers more controlled and adjustable damping, so you don’t feel like you’re an extra in “Urban Cowboy.” And when it comes to forks, higher-end models will be stiffer, affording better steering control. Read our comparison between Fox and RockShox.

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Tires

Literally any bike can benefit from good tires, and of all the products on this list, tires might offer the best performance-to-dollars ratio. The best bike in the world is nothing without reliable traction. Cornering, braking, acceleration … All of that rides on your tires. When you spend more, you’ll typically get better casing construction, which can provide more comfort and less rolling resistance, especially for roadies. And mountain bikers will appreciate higher-end tires for their advanced traction enhancing rubber compounds and puncture-protection features.

Before you buy tires, do you know how much PSI to run? Read this story to learn more.

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Sunglasses

Sure, one of your buddies might argue that a pair of cheap safety glasses is just as good as anything made by Oakley, Smith, or POC, but we beg to differ. Lens quality, clarity, tint, and overall fit make a nice pair of sunglasses a true performance upgrade.

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Kneepads

Finally, here’s an idea for mountain bikers. Scars are cool and all, but most everyone apart from pure cross-country racers has come around to the benefits of kneepads. In large part, that's because companies have figured out how to make pads that are comfortable enough for all-day riding. Spend a little extra and you’ll keep your knees safe without any of the uncomfortable sweating and chafing of the old-school skate pads we used to wear for downhilling. Read more about some of our favorite knee pads

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Save on this bike gear

Save on this bike gear
Now, we’re not suggesting you should cheap out and buy gear that will fail on you, fit badly, or be just wrong for your needs. Instead, think strategically about cost vs. benefit. We’ve usually found that with these products, if we compare the top-of-the-line option to an intermediate-level (i.e., NOT bargain-basement) alternative, the difference is negligible.

Helmet

What’s this? Helmet? Shouldn’t you splurge to protect your noggin? It's not a bad idea, but helmet manufacturers are actually producing amazing mid-level helmets with great safety features. Like POC’s Omne, which looks sleek, vents well, and features Spin technology to protect against angular impacts. Most helmets end up dinged, dented, and kind of gross from all that sweat, so consider frequent replacements at a lower cost, versus a fancy lid that you keep past its prime.

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Drivetrain

Here’s another idea that might have you raising an eyebrow. Again, we’re not proposing you get bargain-basement derailleurs, for instance, merely that you save a little on the next tier down when it comes to cassettes, chains, derailleurs, and shifters. Typically, these components won’t be significantly heavier and their performance will be similar. If you’re able to pick and choose, the shifters might be the most notable splurge, especially on road and gravel bikes, due to ergonomics. Certainly a cheaper chain won’t be noticed when your bike’s covered in grime at the end of an all-day epic. To learn more, read how Shimano's 105, Ultegra, and Dura-Ace road groups compare in terms of performance and price.

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Pedals

Competitive road riders might make an argument for running fancy lightweight or aero pedals, but most riders won't be able to feel the difference. For mountain bikers especially, it’s hard to justify spending hundreds of dollars on a part that’s destined to be smashed against rocks every ride. Save a little money and don’t stress. It is wise, though, to compare bearing options across different models. The cheapest models of some pedals will sacrifice bearing quality, which will hamper durability. Otherwise, the retention mechanisms shouldn’t vary from top to bottom in a given pedal lineup.

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Jersey

Provided your top fits well, you won’t gain a lot from upgrading to a multi-hundred-dollar bike jersey. For roadies, that extra money mostly goes toward higher-end fabric and a sleek aero fit. Some riders (especially racers) think that’s worth the money. But most of the time, a jersey that’s right around $100 will be comfortable, durable, and certainly not the reason why you can’t quite snatch your local KOM.

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Gloves

Few softgoods get abused like bike gloves. You could save a bit by riding gloveless, but we don't always recommend that. Whether they die slowly through constant sweat and friction or fast in a crash, gloves are bound for the grave as soon as they’re out of their wrappers. That’s why we opt to spend less. So long as they fit well and are free from uncomfortable pinching or chafing, a $20 pair of gloves will do just fine … or a half-dozen pair, for that matter. Don’t worry, you’ll use them all eventually.

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Cockpit

Seatpost, stem, handlebars — when have you ever ridden a bike and remarked at how one of those parts really made it sing? Generally, modest aluminum versions of these components will be virtually indistinguishable from fancier carbon options. Two caveats: If a road bike feels harsh, a carbon seatpost or handlebar can sometimes take the edge off of the buzz. And handlebars must always be the correct size and shape. If high-end bars offer you the best fit, the extra money may be worth it for better control and ergonomics.

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More ways to splurge!

Okay, since it’s more fun to think of ways to splurge on cycling, here are a few more ideas that can really make a positive improvement in your life on the bike:

  • Professional bike fit
  • Expert coaching
  • Lift tickets to a bike park
  • Race entry fees
  • GPS head unit for navigation, training, and tracking
  • A good hitch rack for your car
  • Bike repair stand and tools
  • An indoor smart trainer
  • And finally … a used bike. Yes, we’re in the business of selling Certified Pre-Owned bikes, but there’s a strong argument to be made for late-model bikes in great condition. You’ll get more bike for your money and beat depreciation.

 

What about you? What do you like to splurge on when you gear up to ride, and how do you save? Let us know in the comments!

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