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What are things to improve on a cheap bicycle that make a real difference? I'm looking at the bang for buck tradeoff.

The bike is an inexpensive Fixie/Track Bike (less than 150GBP).

  • 11 kg steel frame
  • Flat bar
  • Front and rear V-Brakes
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For what kind of bike? Normally I would say suspension, but if you are on a road bike, that's not a great answer... –  cmannett85 Feb 7 '12 at 13:13
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I'm talking the classic kind of road bike that you would pick to take you from A to B. Could be fixed or geared –  will Feb 7 '12 at 13:34
    
We really need more information to give you a good answer. Could you be more specific? Perhaps consider including some pictures, both of the overall bike and the specific areas? Vague questions without enough detail to be answerable are likely to be removed. –  Neil Fein Feb 7 '12 at 14:20
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@Will: you really need to edit that information into the question –  freiheit Feb 7 '12 at 17:32
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Link not active –  Blam Jul 29 at 2:53

6 Answers 6

up vote 11 down vote accepted

In a bike that costs, new, only 150GBP, you have to ask where the savings will have been made and the easy first answer is: everywhere.

  • The frame will likely not be massively stiff and will be fairly fragile in comparison with its more expensive peers. Steel is fairly forgiving giving a comfortable ride, but you don't want too much give.

  • The wheels will probably need attention too, expect the tyres to be thin and offer little puncture protection, the rims will be weak and probably lose their trueness relatively quickly and the hubs and bearings will need TLC quite soon too.

  • Expect the chain to be thinner and stretchier than you'd like and the rear cog to lose its bite quickly. The brake compound will be soft and disappear fast and the cables won't hold their tension for long.

Obviously these are all worse case scenarios - but given that you could spend the purchase price on just a pair of tyres, a pair of inner tubes and two pairs of brake pads - a bike at this price isn't necessarily the saving you might hope for.

In order to get from A to B, this bike would work, but if A and B are too far apart and you're making that journey fairly frequently, then it might not work for that long.

But to make a real difference, well, send it back and spend a little more up front. In general all new bikes make some concessions to price, but they'll be more than the sum of their parts. The manufacturers pay less than you'd be able to buy the components in the shop, so you'd be better off finding a better bike to start with.

As the old Irish saying goes, "if you want to get there, I wouldn't start from here."

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+1 Agreed, I'd say a new pair of wheels, but you would need to spend the same again as the whole bike cost to make it worth while. I doubt the OP would even consider it after spending £150 on a bike. –  cmannett85 Feb 7 '12 at 20:33
    
I agree, the point is that if the OP is planning on spending money after buying a bike anyway, just spend that money on a better starting bike and get a feel for what could be better replaced. –  Unsliced Feb 8 '12 at 8:23
    
@Unsliced "lose their trueness relatively quickly and the hubs and bearings will need TLC quite soon too" What maintenance is associated with such a bike? I'd rather make my mistakes on this bike as opposed to my next bike. –  will Feb 8 '12 at 14:52
    
What makes a wheel a wheel? Quality rims, well tensioned spokes and a well sealed hub with functioning bearings. Factory made wheels these days are brilliant, but cheap rims won't take the slings and arrows of hard urban riding as well as better ones. Cheaper spokes increase the chance that some will break or loosen and allow the wheel to lose shape. The wheel is probably the easiest thing to make a big difference at a relatively cheap price - but you can easily spend the whole 150GBP on a wheel! –  Unsliced Feb 8 '12 at 15:14

In that order (my opinion, of course):

  1. Tires. Bad tires suck your energy and are prone to flats. Good tires can make your bike fly, sometimes even act as a suspension. As an extra, tires aren't actually part if the bike, so if you have good tires, you can use it in other bike(s);
  2. Brakes and brake levers. This is safety and comfort. Bad brakes can make your hands sore, if you have to squeeze them too much to stop. Good brakes give you much more control of the bike than anything else. Good brakes are THE things that allow you to go really fast if you want/need.
  3. Saddle and grips. These are contact points on the bike. In the end, all the bike-rider interaction flows through them (and the shoes you use to pedal, but they are not part of the bike). These parts alone can turn a very nice ride into a very painful one, and vice-versa.

I think if these are OK, it's possible to live with a relatively cheap bike, provided it fits and don't require too much mainteinance, which are also required for a nice biking experience.

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As far as living with the bike you've got, I think these are the things you can do to make the ride noticeably better. Most of these sort of upgrades can be used on other bikes in the future as well (Except tires). However, if you're riding a fixed gear or single speed there is a lot less to worry about as far as points of failure vs a geared bike. Ride it, and keep the wheels trued and the chain lubed and you'll be good for years. –  Benzo Apr 13 '12 at 20:07

First thing to do is to get the bike completely tuned up -- wheels trued, bearings adjusted, shifters adjusted, brakes adjusted. Changing out the brake pads (the ones supplied are often too hard or too soft) can often improve braking effectiveness. Depending on the bike design, adjusting brake lever position may or may not be possible and may or may not improve riding comfort and brake effectiveness.

And, of course, adjust the seat and handlebar. If the handlebar can't be adjusted upward enough or has the wrong "reach" (probably even more common with expensive bikes) then replacement parts are available to fix this.

Good quality tires, appropriate to your riding style, are a fairly cheap investment.

The right seat (which is something of a personal choice) can make a big difference in comfort.

Your critical factors are comfort, stability, braking effectiveness, and ease of use (eg, shifters that work reliably, etc). Plus basic bike "fit" to your body. Many of the features of fancier bikes -- light weight, exotic materials, bladed spokes, et al -- are vastly overrated and will make little difference in your riding experience.

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You know you've got a beat bike when the local shop doesn't even want to touch it. :-) My old off-road beater needs the wheels trued (about the only thing I don't do myself), but the local shop said "sorry, can't help you, it's not going to get any better than it is right now". :-) –  Brian Knoblauch Feb 7 '12 at 15:53
    
It's amazing what can be done with a wobbly wheel if one has the patience and a good spoke wrench. –  Daniel R Hicks Feb 7 '12 at 16:21

The cheapest thing to upgrade on a bicycle is the motor. It costs as much as a bit of extra food and time.

Ride a lot. Ride up big hills a lot. Go as fast as you can.


Edited because some dumbass downvoted this most brilliant answer:

None other than Eddy Mercx, (who won the Tour de France 5 times and once cycled 49.431 km in an hour), once said:

Don't buy upgrades, ride up grades.

QED

Eddy Mercx riding up a hill

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Too true. Voted back up. Merckx is a badass. –  headeronly Jul 28 at 19:49
    
Just to be clear, I wasn't the downvoter :) –  headeronly 2 days ago

Nice thing about cheap bikes is that they cost less than the sum of their components, and when you ride them, they get you from a-b just like the expensive bike. The cheapest upgrade is to adjust and grease the bearings properly. While doing this, the bearings with cages can be replaced with loose ball bearings giving more bearing contact points. Adjust the wheels properly for true and spoke tension. I you learn to do this yourself it costs almost nothing, just need a spoke wrench, and a cheap bike is a good one to learn skills on. I put chain adjusters on my fixie's rear axles to help align the wheel while setting the chain tension, there are some very inexpensive ones on the web. Tools needed to work on your own bike are always a good investment.

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I have to add another option to the answer. The most cost effective way to improve a bicycle is sell it and buy a better bike.

This is almost always a better option for all bikes, from cheap to expensive, except custom builds. As a rule a bicycle is worth a lot less than the cost of its parts. Unless you can get parts for significantly less than normal prices, upgrading the entire bike is more cost effective.

If you have a particular desire to keep the bike and upgrade it, often the most cost effective upgrade is a donor bike, unfortunately this requires a large outlay up front.

The most expensive way to upgrade a bike is piece by piece as you can afford it.

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I'm going to have to disagree with this - you can often get older better parts at a reasonable price, check the used parts bin, etc. to get a lot of reasonable upgrades at fairly low prices (some high ticket items, e.g. brifters may warrant a donor bike, though). –  Batman Jul 29 at 2:25
    
@Batman - Good point. I had not considered the cost of second hand parts. Given many are replaced when they have a lot of useful life left, its an option if you have a source. "New Old stock" fits into my comment about "significantly less than normal..." –  mattnz Jul 29 at 3:36

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