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Back when I was a younger man I bought a road bike, a 1998 Giant Kronos. It has a frame made from aluminum tubes, a triple chainring in front, and a 7-sprocket cassette in back. By US standards, it was an entry-level quality road bike from a bike shop. I rode the bike solo for about five years, and then moved to a different area and hung the bike up on hooks for nearly a decade. I started riding it again, got hooked again, and this time I discovered group rides. I've been having lots of fun, and I met some great friends. I upgraded the bike's saddle, brakes, and pedals. IIRC the bike weighs about 26 lbs / 12 kg with the frame pump, saddle bag and tools, and a full water bottle.

My friends have been gently urging me to consider buying a new road bike with an aluminum frame, or a more recent used one. Maybe I could afford a used bike with a carbon-fiber frame. My bike did stand out in group rides back in the pre-pandemic days, typically being the only one with a horizontal top tube, a triple front chainring, and a quill stem. Now that I'm middle-aged I don't mind if my bike looks old-fashioned. But I am slow, always in the group at the back of the group rides, and my main riding buddy has to wait a few seconds at the top of hills for me, so anything that makes me faster would be welcome.

So what's changed in road bikes in the last 23 years, broadly? My friends say that bikes have improved tremendously since 1998. I know they're lighter, but I could weigh any bike I was thinking of buying and see exactly how much lighter it is compared to my existing bike, so please don't focus only on weight. What improvements would I notice in the saddle of a newer bike, besides just being lighter and faster?

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    Are any of your friends about your size? If one of them will swap bikes with you for a bit and see the differences. Other rider might be surprised how nice your older bike is. Even a short, 5 minute stretch would be educational. Could even be a "thing" on a group ride - everyone rides someone else's bike for a short time on a quiet side road or side-loop.
    – Criggie
    Feb 16 at 21:37
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    Gently urge one of you mates (whos bike is the size you ride) to upgrade "Yeh, I am thinking an upgrade would be good; Mik, what about you - when are you upgrading?, I could have your bike?"
    – mattnz
    Feb 17 at 0:13
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    @MaplePanda yes, I have Shimano STI brifters.
    – rclocher3
    Feb 17 at 1:56
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    The answer to the question depends on what you mean by "improvement". If improvement means a measurable increase in efficiency it will be difficult to argue that there has been any improvement. There is a lot of "bike fashion snobbery" that drives sales of bikes and components. Ride what feels good to you no matter how old it is.
    – David D
    Feb 17 at 14:22
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    You might be interested in an Ars Technica article entitled How bicycles have changed in the last 25 years from November 2018.
    – Michael
    Feb 17 at 21:39
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I coincidentally bought an aluminum road bike (Cannondale) about the same time as you got your Giant and with very similar specs. Mine was 3x8 rather than 3x7, but same size chainrings and similar gear range. I rode it until the frame was cracked in an unfortunate incident and replaced it with a relatively modern Felt aluminum bike with 2x10 gearing with a compact double chainring. I actually still use the 3x8 drivetrain components on a commuter bike.

On the plus side, by 1998, many of the really substantive changes in road bike technology had already happened. Combined brake lever/shifters were standard, as well as dual pivot brake calipers, which have a lot better stopping power than some of the earlier single-pivot side pull calipers.

So what's changed?

Brakes

Although disc brakes are not yet standard technology for road bikes, the trend is certainly in that direction. Disc brakes are not something that can be retrofit on an old frame, so if you want those, you do need to get a newer bike.

The primary advantage of discs in better stopping power in rain and overall slightly more consistent performance. That said, the dual pivot caliper rim brakes that you have now have great stopping power as long as the pads are kept in good condition. The only reason I can imagine switching to discs is if you ride a lot in a group with other riders who have discs and you ride in the rain. In wet conditions, those other riders might stop more quickly than you can with your rim brakes and cause a crash. Or if you ride a lot on dirt roads, disc brakes have the advantage of not being affected if your rim gets muddy going through a puddle.

Wheels/tires

Another major trend in the last 20 years is a shift towards wider tires with lower air pressures, even among pro racers. Whereas most road bikes were equipped with 23mm wide tires or even narrower in 1999, now 25 and 28 mm are very common and many bikes have even wider tires. The high quality wide tires have no greater rolling resistance than the narrow ones, and the lower pressure makes the ride much smoother.

Because narrow tires were standard in the 90's, many frames did not have clearance for anything larger than 25, so if you wanted to try wider tires, you might be limited. You'd have to measure your frame to check. And if you're happy with the narrow tires you're on now, it doesn't matter.

Frame design

As you noted, a big change since 1999 is the ubiquity of sloping top tubes. Frame construction has also changed a bit, so a comparable aluminum frame today would likely be a bit lighter than your current one and feel a bit less stiff, though road feel is generally much more dependent on tire construction and pressure than on frame materials. But unless there's something you don't like about your current frame, I doubt it's worth the investment to replace it just because the newer ones look different.

Drive Train

Better chainring design (ramps and pins) has enabled double chainrings with large differences in size, and the number of cogs in the rear continues to increase (now 11 is standard on expensive bikes). As a result triple chainrings have largely disappeared from even the lower tiers of expensive road bikes. The main benefit of the doubles over triples is weight, though. There isn't a big difference in performance. And counterintuitively, you may find yourself shifting between chainrings more frequently on the double than you did on the triple because the switch point is in the middle range where you ride most. On the triple, I find that I ride a lot on the middle ring and mainly only use the big when descending and the small when climbing.

If you find your current gearing is a bit high for you, you can easily switch to smaller chainrings on the current setup. I've run 26/39/50 on those same Shimano triple cranks that you have that came with 30/42/52 originally. You should still be able to buy 39 and 50t chainrings with ramps and pins to work together properly, since Shimano sold Tiagra and Sora groupsets with 28/39/50 triples using the same BCD as the 30/42/52.

A downside to the new drivetrains is that the narrow cogs and chains wear much more quickly than the thicker ones in a 7-speed set up (and are more expensive to replace).

New cranks are also lighter due to the switch from square taper spindles to hollow spindles and external bearings. If weight isn't a concern for you, there's really no advantage.

And of course, if you want to switch to a 2x11 drive train, all of the components can be put on your existing frame, so you can upgrade without changing the frame.

Conclusion

If weight is not a concern, the primary benefit to a new bike would be the ability to have disc brakes, which aren't even standard on road bikes now.

You might find that wider lower pressure tires and lower gears make your riding more enjoyable, especially now that you're 20 years older than when you bought the Giant. But if you're comfortable on long rides the way it is, there's no need to change just to follow the trends.

If you want to cut a bit of weight, you can do it by upgrading parts. Perhaps look at nicer wheels or switch to a hollow spindle crank and external bearing BB such as the Tiagra triple from the 3x9 speed era, which would be compatible with all your existing equipment. Just swap on your current chainrings and you're good to go.

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    Regarding new stuff wearing out faster: cyclingtips.com/2019/12/… In short, new stuff actually lasts significantly longer.
    – MaplePanda
    Feb 17 at 1:55
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    A switch to 2x11 would require, as well, a different, 11 speed freehub, or, likely, a new, 11 speed rear wheel since there can be difficulty finding compatible replacement 11s freehubs, and some new, after-market freehubs cost as much or more than an entire new, 11s wheel. As there is significant cost involved in replacing the components of a drivetrain--even acquired from the used market--its common to point out that perhaps a newer bike already loaded with the desired drivetrain and built of the "improved," modern geometry and materials would be the most economical route.
    – Jeff
    Feb 17 at 2:57
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    The best way to determine if the modern designs and frills are all that, in comparison, is to somehow be able to get some ride time in the cockpit. If that can't be a friend or willing member of your group rides, a bicycle shop that's worthy of your money will graciously provide you with ample time on any unit of their sale stock.
    – Jeff
    Feb 17 at 3:07
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Generally a good modern road bike will have:

  • more gears (resulting in both smaller gear steps and a wider overall range)
  • less weight
  • disc brakes which brake much better, especially in wet conditions and are easier to control
  • better aerodynamics
  • less rolling resistance due to better tires with the option to go tubeless
  • wider tires for more comfort
  • more compliant carbon frame and carbon seat post for more comfort while at the same time being stiffer where it matters, e.g. due to wider bottom bracket
  • electronic shifting

Of course there are is a wide variance. Some road bikes are made to be extremely light (for “climbing”), others are optimized for aerodynamics, some for comfort (“endurance” bikes), some have only 1x11 gearing, some still have rim brakes (which are nonetheless better than those from 1998) etc.

I think none of those improvements are revolutionary, it’s just a slow evolution. The difference is certainly noticeable but not mind blowing. For example a modern, high end, lightweight road bike is only around 6.5kg in weight. If you are 80kg and your current bike is 11kg it would reduce your overall weight by 5% which would result in an almost equal improvement in speed on steep climbs. The improvements in aerodynamics are probably even greater. But of course this assumes you go for a modern high end bike, not some 1000€ entry level model.

If you have the money and want to buy a new bike: Go ahead, you won’t be disappointed. But don’t expect a miracle.

Personally I’d make sure that the seating positing on your current bike is optimal for power, comfort and aerodynamics. Make sure your shifting works and you are using appropriate gears. Get good tires if you don’t have them already (and make sure they are inflated properly, but don’t overdo it). It’s also a good idea to invest in good clothes, a light&comfortable helmet etc.

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    With hydroforming, a modern aluminum frame is also far more compliant and than older aluminum.
    – mattnz
    Feb 16 at 21:05
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    He’s got 3x7=21 gears, which is about the same as most high end road bikes sold today which are typically 2x11=22
    – Andrew
    Feb 16 at 21:08
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    You left out higher prices. Feb 16 at 21:14
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    @Andrew on a 3x7 you can't use all 21 possible gear combos (and some are repetitive) I think in terms of usable gears there is more like 14-16.
    – GageMartin
    Feb 16 at 23:58
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    You could also mention e-bikes, which have evolved a lot over the past decade. If you want a truly futuristic biking experience, that's your best bet :) Feb 17 at 6:34
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A difference I would note is about the drive train. I'm not so much into road bikes, so I can be wrong.

Old bikes tend to have bigger chain rings and smaller sprockets on the cassette. As a result, they are less suited for steeper slopes than modern bikes. Clipless pedals are also a noticeable improvement, by allowing to transfer more power to the pedals than toe clips (or nothing).

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    Clipless pedals were already well established technology by 1998, and in any case can be put an any bike young or old.
    – Andrew
    Feb 16 at 21:48
  • I did compare my gear ratios to a friend's newer bike; his ratios are wider-spaced, and his lowest gear is lower than mine. I do suffer going up very steep hills, so I'd like a lower low, but on the other hand I do like the closely-spaced ratios on more level ground. I'm not sure which is better, not having experience with the wider spread.
    – rclocher3
    Feb 16 at 22:29
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    @rclocher3 Neither is obviously better, if you can get up hills at least somehow. Having the exactly right gear also helps increasing your speed.
    – Nobody
    Feb 17 at 11:13
  • @rclocher3 unless you're riding the same route over an over and you specifically tune for it, you'll rarely have exactly the right gear. The goal is to get the best grouping you can to be as close as reasonable for the general terrain you ride. To my untrained ear, it sounds like you're in just about the right spot with your ratios.
    – FreeMan
    Feb 18 at 12:34
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One area of improvement has been in tires.
Tire construction and materials as well as tubeless tires.

bicycling.com credits Mavic with the first tubeless tire system for bikes in 1999.
Tire technology has resulted in a drop in rolling resistance.

A good place to check data on tires is bicyclerollingresistance.com

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    Just looking at the plot, it looks like the rolling resistance advantage of tubeless advantage over latex tube varies from barely measurable to none at all. Pressure range from 1 to 3.8 bar looks like it's not really about road bikes.
    – ojs
    Feb 16 at 20:46
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    These numbers are for high volume MTB tired. Not relevant to road tires
    – Andrew
    Feb 16 at 21:01
  • @Andrew The original post was road bike oriented. The linked test and the graphic is for mountain bikes so it's not relevant - I'll edit the answer. Thanks
    – David D
    Feb 16 at 21:11
  • @ojs Tubeless is arguably less hassle than latex tubes though (no need for daily inflation). The fancy Tubolito tubes actually look like promising latex alternatives though!
    – MaplePanda
    Feb 17 at 1:58
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    The biggest improvement I noticed is the general quality of valves and tires as well as the existence of armoured mantles. 25 years ago, I spent many hours replacing punctured tubes whereas these days I cannot even remember when I last had to adjust the pressure.
    – Hermann
    Feb 17 at 11:09
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I feel I have some useful data to add to this conversation.

I got into riding using a road bike built in 1988, so a decade older than yours. The frame was Tange steel, with a horizontal top tube, and all up weighed about 12kg. It was 2x7 with Shimano Biopace chain rings, and had pretty narrow drop bars on a quill stem. So not super different to yours, but it did have down tube friction shifters.

I then bought a relatively new aluminium framed bike with sloped carbon top tube, 2x11 with the most recent 105 groupset (at the time). The handle bars are much wider, around the standard these days. All up it weighs around 9kg. I had a pretty good seat on the old one, so I took it with me to the new one.

Before I put my old bike to rest, I went up my favourite hill to do as fair a comparison as I could. Time to summit on my old bike 32:10, and on the new bike 1 week later 29:26

The biggest factor that made a difference? Without a doubt it was the shifting. Reaching down to change gears and fine tune the friction shifter slowed me down more than anything else. Having the shifters literally at your finger tips was a total game changer, it made selecting the best gear trivial.

The next biggest factor I think was the right gear ratios. The old bike just didn't have the same range, so I struggled on the really steep bits. And while maybe not a direct factor, the more comfortable position on the new bike helped psychologically. The 3kg difference probably helped, but that only made about 3-4% difference to the total weight of me and the bike.

I won't say going to a newer, lighter bike has no impact (of course it does! why would pro teams spend so much money?), but from my personal experience, smooth easy shifting, and a wide range of gears is where you'll get the best gains.

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To keep it short, specifically to your bike, the biggest improvements would be a bigger cassette (larger gear and/or more gears) on the back, and maybe new wheels.

The cassette would greatly help, you are probably pushing too much (pedalling at low frequency), or spinning too fast, missing the optimal cadence that would propel you uphill as fast as your riding buddies. A cassette with more gears (9/10) would help you, but it would likely require a change of the crank, of the front derailleur and maybe even the wheel itself (so you upgrade them) ... you may find good deals on second-hand or New old stock (NOS) components, so costs involved may be reasonable.

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  • Thanks! I'm wary of changing just the cassette, because that would also change the spacing of ratios in the middle of the range where I spend most of my time. I have thought about changing chainrings as suggested by @Andrew. I should play with the gear calculator to see how these proposed changes work out. I will keep my eyes open for components and wheels...
    – rclocher3
    Feb 18 at 19:18
  • @rclocher3 if it is a good quality cassette, you may be able to change the individual cogs, not all the pack altogether. You may then change only the bigger 2 gears, with even bigger gears,(check that the derailleur still work with bigger cogs) or you may change the smaller cog on the crankset only (again, if it is possible with your components). You may have some luck by searching in ebay, too. Maybe look for a "Megarange" Shimano cassette?
    – EarlGrey
    Feb 18 at 22:54
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@Andrew already mentioned this, but I think it's worth emphasizing: a modern bike will likely have a "compact double" chainring setup rather than a triple chainring.

When I started riding in the 90's, most double chainring bikes had a "racing double" setup, with 39 teeth on the small ring and 52 or 53 teeth on the big ring. This is great if you are a pro rider in fit shape riding in a race; it's not so great if you live in a hilly area, especially if you are a little bit heavy (like me). A "compact double" will have 34 teeth on the small ring, dropping the lowest gears available by a lot, and usually 50 teeth on the big ring.

A modern bike will have two chainrings in front and 10 or even 11 gears in back. This gives 20 or 22 gear combinations. There are cassettes available with 27, 28, or even 30 teeth on the biggest gear. I live in a hilly area and with these kinds of gears available I can climb all the hills I need to climb.

I used to ride a triple, and our tandem bike is still a triple. When riding a triple, I sometimes encounter roads where the incline is just hard enough that I feel the need to downshift to the smallest chainring; and then the road gets easy enough that the smallest is now too small, so I shift back to the middle chainring... then the road gets harder again... repeat, possibly many times. Much less trouble when riding with a double, where you usually can just use your smaller chainring and shift the rear gears to fine-tune your riding gear. That right there is my main reason for wanting a compact double.

A compact double also is lighter than a triple, although to me that's a very minor benefit.

Also, one of my bikes has an Italian racing frame. I initially had it built with a triple, but the chain rubbed on the frame if I used the lowest gear (because the frame was just not designed for use with a triple). When I switched to the compact double, my lowest gear was about the same as the lowest gear that I could actually use on the triple.

For the reasons I described above, I think a compact double is better than a triple most of the time. But no matter what I think, modern bikes have gone almost exclusively to doubles.

You can still get a triple chainring on a tandem bike. But a few years ago we had to replace our STI chainring shift lever on our tandem, and our bike shop told us that Shimano no longer sells any kind of triple-shift STI lever in Ultegra. The bike was built with Ultegra but we had to put a 105 shifter on as the replacement part.

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  • Welcome to bicycles.SE, and thanks for sharing your experience! I too live in a hilly area and am a little bit heavy, so we're probably similar riders. I looked at the gear ratios for a typical modern 2x11, and it looks like for that bike at a 90 rpm cadence one would shift up to the big chainring at about 37 km/h (23 mph), or shift down to the small chainring at about 20 km/h (12 mph). Do you find yourself switching chainrings often?
    – rclocher3
    Feb 19 at 20:52
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    @rclocher3 I do almost all my riding in the smaller chainring. I rarely reach speeds of 37 kph or 23 mph. After I climb a hill I'm usually happy to just coast down it, so I don't shift up to the big ring and pedal; and for level to uphill the little ring works for me. I have a 10-speed cassette and the gears on it are working for me with a 34-tooth chainring.
    – steveha
    Feb 20 at 0:39

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