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I am a casual commuter (in average 2 days per week, 30 km per day), on a generic bike which I bought a few years ago.

Yesterday I took the opportunity of having the bike reviewed and the chain and back cassette was changed (the technician said I am lucky to have gone so far and I believe him).

Coming back home after the repair was a new experience: significantly faster and easier.

My first question is whether an old vs new chain can change the riding experience in a significant way. I am trying to weight this vs a placebo effect (though I felt the same way this morning).

If the answer is "yes", than I would be keen on changing/fixing other elements which would help me. I want to keep the bike and the breaks are good (this is something I take care of since my life directly depends on them). Are there other parts I should explore changing/improving?

Note: I do not want to turn my bike into another bike, I am happy with the basic parts as they are. It is rather some elements which need periodic change (chain in the example above) or simple fixing which I am trying to locate.

In other words the V-breaks are great, even though changing to disk ones could be much better. The frame is heavy but never mind - I will not switch it to a carbon one. On the other hand if making sure that [something] is tight is important, I would make sure it is tightened. The whole question arose when I saw that enormous difference after just changing a chain (and some other basic adjustments I do not know about, but they were just adjustments)

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    Maybe your tire pressure was too low and they added air? Or maybe they changed to a different cassette with easier gears? As long as your chain wasn’t completely dry (or even dry, rusty and dirty) it shouldn’t have that much impact. – Michael Sep 10 at 18:50
  • @Michael, I don't know. Switching from a very worn out chain and cassette to new ones is definitely noticeable – Holloway Sep 11 at 8:31
  • You say "significantly faster" but then suggest it might be a placebo effect. Does this mean you measured your speed, or was it just subjective? I think a new chain/cassette can be much smoother, but it doesn't change speed that much for me. – Sparhawk Sep 11 at 9:39
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    @Sparhawk: sorry, I was not clear. The commute was objectively faster and (someone less, but still objectively) easier (no muscle pain etc.). The placebo effect I was referring to was whether the whole thing improved because of the chain (and possibly minor adjustments, but the chain was the only major change), or was it just me thinking "now I have a fixed/cleaned/tuned bike so I am a so much a better cyclist" – WoJ Sep 11 at 10:05
  • Chain/cassette shouldn't really change speed significantly, though it should shift better (and a very worn chain may skip). I agree with others that it was placebo, or another change you're not aware of (different gear ratios in the new cassette, or added air to tires). With regards to your actual question - it's hard to answer without knowing how you define "better" and what conditions you're riding in. Someone who wants to go faster on smooth paved roads would have a different answer than someone who wants more reliability on gravel, or reliable braking and shifting in rain and snow. – dwizum Sep 11 at 15:03
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There are two aspects to the question. You asked about what parts would improve the riding experience with maintenance or replacement. You also could consider upgrading some items as they wear out.

Parts to maintain

Chances are that your chain and cassette were worn out. As your chain wears out, your shifting will get sloppier. If you change your chain before it wears out, you usually don't have to change the cassette as well. Chances are that your chain was worn out, and your cassette was worn with it. Anyway, when you replaced your chain and cassette, you have better shifting.

Keeping your chain clean makes it last longer and shift better. This article has some discussion on how do to so.

Your cables stretch over time, and dirt will get into the housing and make shifts sloppier as well. Very active cyclists who maintain their bikes well might still have the cables changed every 1-2 years. Chances are you will want to have them changed also.

The bearings in your hubs will also wear out over time. If you have cup and cone bearings, you should regrease them periodically, perhaps every year. If you have cartridge bearings, you can leave them until they start running roughly, then have a shop pull and replace the cartridges. You can do this yourself, but you'll need a bearing puller and press. Alternatively, you can gently remove the seal from a cartridge bearing, clean and re-grease the ball bearings inside, then replace the seal.

Your tires also wear out. With the amount of riding you say you have done, they may still be good. If your rear tire is squared off, you should probably change it. Otherwise, replacement is optional. You definitely don't want a worn out tire on the front, as that can affect your bike handling. I suspect that because the rubber wears away as you ride, worn tires can puncture more easily. I'm not sure there's empirical evidence of this.

Your question implies that you know you have to change your brake pads occasionally. For completeness, I'm adding that. You may also benefit from making sure your disc brake rotors are clean if the brakes start squealing. For rim brakes, I'm adding a link to suggested maintenance items here. As discussed, cleaning the pads and rims regularly is necessary and helps reduce wear. You want to check that your pads are contacting the rim correctly and that they're centered.

Partly related to rim brakes, you want to true the rims occaisonally. This is a bit harder to do yourself, as it requires a spoke wrench and preferably a truing stand. If your rims are out of true, they can rub the brake calipers, and if they are very badly out of true they will rub the frame. With disc brakes, if the rim is out of true, I think it's not as big a problem. I would still keep them adjusted on principle.

You didn't say what type of bike you have, but if it has a suspension fork, then many of them require maintenance to keep operating well.

Drop bar bikes have bar tape. It wears out over time. You should have the tape changed with the cables.

Parts to upgrade

I'd think about upgrading your tires as they wear out. Your stock tires may have wire beads, and you might get a better model kevlar-beaded tire. The kevlar beads will be lighter. Better tires usually have lower rolling resistance, so you expend less effort to get to your destination.

Stack Exchange normally frowns on product recommendations, but I'm going to link to the Continental Gatorskin as an example of a puncture-resistant and durable road bike tire. Something in this class of tire should be an upgrade over the stock tires that would come on a lower-end commuter bike.

If you are using rim brakes, then the stock pads on cheaper bikes may not be that high performing. You could replace the pads with a cartridge holder and a good pad that has better all-weather performance. I am thinking of something along the lines of the products made by Kool Stop. In my experience, good pads do stop quite a bit better. I have a pair of cheap Tektro mini-V brakes on my cyclocross bike. I put Kool Stop pads on the front one, and I have the cheap stock pads on the rear. There's a noticeable difference in braking power and consistency. The front is just fine. The rear feels a bit mushy when I brake.

I am new to disc brakes, so I'm not sure what upgrade options there are for pads. In case you're wondering: it's not possible to convert a rim brake frame to disc brakes. You could buy a disc fork and run a rear rim brake, but I question if this is worth the expense compared to just buying a new bike at that point.

In some cases, I think it might be worth upgrading the brakes themselves if the original brakes are poor and if upgrading the pads doesn't improve your braking enough. I'm just including this for completeness, since upgrading just the pads can be a significant difference. For rim brakes, if the calipers are flexy, then they won't provide as much braking force. For disc brakes, if you upgrade from cable actuated brakes to hydraulic brakes, you would need new shifters as well, which would make this a big expense. I'm not sure that sort of upgrade would be worth the effort. I'm thinking more of upgrading to a better cable actuated disc brake or to a better rim brake.

What lubricant you use on your chain can matter in terms of chain longevity. Thicker, oil-based lubricants can attract dust or dirt because they're sticky. Aesthetics aside, dirt that's sticking to your chain lubricant will then act as an abrasive paste, accelerating chain wear. A lot of dry lubricants contain relatively little actual lubricant; they're mostly a volatile (i.e. evaporates easily) carrier which is supposed to get the lubricant inside your chain before evaporating.

This article discusses chain lube selection from a performance standpoint (i.e. they consider friction as well as longevity; the former may not really be relevant to you as we're talking differences of 5 watts between the very worst lube and the very best). The article does recommend two particular chain lubricants or one particular wax. Waxing is much more involved than just lubricating your chain. I don't really want to get into which products to recommend, and you'll have to read for yourself.

Last, a minor point: some of the more premium bar tapes for drop bars are cushioned, which can take the edge off bumps in the road. This may be worth a thought when you get the tape changed.

  • "The front is just fine. The rear feels a bit mushy" - The pads probably do make a difference but bear in mind that the front will always feel sharper and more powerful than the rear. – Holloway Sep 11 at 8:34
  • @Holloway is correct. I should have said something more like this: the rear braking action (i.e. how the lever feels as the pad is contacting the rim, irrespective of stopping power) is mushy. The front feels like the rim brakes with good pads on my road bike, the rear definitely feels poorer. I attribute this to the pads. – Weiwen Ng Sep 11 at 15:04
  • About your recommendation of Gatorskin puncture-resistant tires: the recommendation is good, but puncture-resistant they ain't. The puncture resistance is just marketing crap. The only way to do it in a way that actually works is to add more rubber (more thickness), like for Marathon Plus. The downside is this adds rolling resistance. I have used Gatorskins and have had so many punctures I wouldn't consider them puncture resistant. Why do I think the recommendation is good, then? Answer: good tires should be low rolling resistance, not puncture resistant. Pick one or other, not both! – juhist Sep 11 at 15:25
  • @juhist Fair point. I was going on the fact that the Gatorskin is (or should be) more puncture resistant than the GP 4000 or 5000 tires, which are road racing tires. – Weiwen Ng Sep 11 at 19:12
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The one substitution that will probably give you the most bang for your buck is better tires. High-quality tires roll with much less rolling resistance, have better grip, weigh less, and roll over small imperfections more easily. And if you're riding on tires with knobby treads, but only riding on the road, tires with minimal/no tread will ride much faster and smoother.

Keeping your drivetrain clean and properly lubed will also make a noticeable difference.

Making sure your bike fits you will make a big difference, and you may want to get new handlebar/stem/saddle to achieve a good fit.

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One part that was not mentioned in another answer: Pedals! even the bearings there may add resistance,and are easily overlooked. If you want to upgrade, find the type that fits your riding style and shoes.

General ideas, what else to match to your riding style and prefered routes: geometry - saddle inclination, seatpost height, handlebar & barends; casette range - always the right gear for your speed; tyre pressure - as high as comfortable for least resistance;

My personal idea when riding on roads: a wider rear tyre for my load, if there is little danger of bumps for the front, it just feels faster.

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Chain wear in itself does not increase resistance. Chain/cassette wear may impact shifting performance, but should not have any noticeable effect when you are in gear. The main danger of worn chain/cassette is skipping of the chain.

What can increase resistance slightly is lacking oil and/or rust on the chain. Usually this is not noticeable unless the chain is totally stiff because the chain handles such high forces that it's hard to notice the small bending resistance a rusted chain may put up.

What can significantly impact your driving experience is the bearings on the wheels and the bottom bracket. If any of these gives a significant resistance, your bike will feel slow. This may be caused by something as simple as a too tight nut.

So, I think it's possible that your bike shop relubed/readjusted the bearings of your rear wheel(s), leading to your improved experience, while also changing your chain and cassette because they were worn and in danger of producing chain slips.

  • Lack of chain lube increases friction significantly. Unfortunately I can’t find any numbers for completely unlubed chains. It’s a much more common problem than bad bearings. – Michael Sep 10 at 18:49
  • @Kaz: Of course if something is rubbing (e.g. tire against chainstays) it will be much worse. But chain lube is important and if you never lube your chain it can easily be worn down in less than 1000km, despite factory lube lasting for the first ~300km. Abrading all the material from the chain requires energy. Which means less energy reaches the rear wheel. – Michael Sep 11 at 7:51
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    @Kaz, of course they do. There is a lot of internal friction as the plates move over each other and at the rollers where the roller moves over the pin and the inner link. There is friction against the chainrings/cassette as well or the chainrings would never wear out. As the teeth get more worn, the chain rubs more causing the teeth to wear faster. A worn out chain/casstte/chainring contributes more friction than a new one even when it's kept lubed. – Holloway Sep 11 at 8:39
  • @Holloway Nevertheless, even when I ride my IGH sprocket (long teeth, absolutely not skipable!) down so far that it starts loosing teeth, I never feel a difference in drive-train efficiency after changing sprocket and chain. The amount of wear that I can tolerate on an IGH sprocket far exceeds the amount of wear tolerable on a cassette, so it's obvious that you can never feel the wear of a cassette. A source of friction that slows you down by a feelable amount must be something else. – cmaster Sep 11 at 8:55
  • @Holloway the friction of chain against cassette and chainring should be minimal with a pristine chain: the links fit exactly over the cogs with no way to slip, and only “roll off” and on. There's a bit of friction at each geat shift, but just momentarily. All of this changes dramatically with a worn-out chain though, which is why it's so important to replace it. – leftaroundabout Sep 11 at 12:28
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In regards to the previously mentioned reference to upgrading disc brakes

To go hydraulic you do NOT NEED TO REPLACE YOUR SHIFTERS you can one of the handful of semi hydraulic calipers on the market(cable actuated onto caliper and hydraulic within the caliper..) brake pads make a different ..going to oem genuine parts is important improvement..

Just basic care and attention on a regular basis is enough and clean and lubricate..and monitor stuff ..learn how to adjust bearings and bottom brackets...

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If you had a technician maintaining your bike, it should be in good shape. Just have anything that is worn, replaced, and everything that needs adjustment, adjusted.

That your technician said that you were lucky to have gone so far with wearing out the chain is the result of over a century of continuous development of bicycle technology. Indeed you can abuse your bike to a large degree and still ride on it. Also dirt, snow, water, whatever, will not quickly stop your bike. That is the reason that you needed a new chain and also new cassette. Both were worn out a lot, but still worked together. The new chain might not have worked at all at the old, worn, cassette.

That said, of course, a well-maintained bike rides much nicer.

You didn't mention climate. Your technician might not advise on your outfit. Here in the Netherlands, the riding experience is much more comfortable if you carry good waterproof stuff in your bike bags :-)

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