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With the start of the global health crisis 2 years ago we re-discovered the joy of biking. By now my wife is really hooked on it and likes to bike a lot (judging by Google Fit she's done over 3000km since March and we intend to keep going until the ground freezes over). We feel like it would be justified to throw some more serious money at the hobby at this point (and by that we mean about 600€, which I know is not a lot in the grand scheme of things, but still).

The overall goal is to improve general fitness, maybe go faster or longer.

But what would be the most useful thing to improve?

About the current bike:

Her bike

It's an older model, pretty much a generic no-name. We bought it in 2003 and until 2020 it mostly sat unused. It has a heavy steel frame and weighs about 18kg altogether. These last 2 years however have already seen several replacements, since the old parts simply wore out:

  • Brake pads, tires and wires are new, obviously
  • Cassette and chain were replaced this spring and are actually being replaced again as we speak, since it turns out they last only for about 1000km (or so the repair guy told us)
  • Rear derailleur was replaced
  • The rear wheel had a broken spoke and was replaced (not shown in picture)
  • The right crank arm broke yesterday (didn't expect that!) and it's being replaced now too
  • The saddle and seat post was upgraded (not shown in picture)
  • Multiple new lights have appeared

The bicycle was a pretty average no-name when we bought it, and the replacement parts, although from reputable brands, are also from the low end of the spectrum. (Like, the crank-gear combo and the cassette cost about 30€ each; the chain's below 20€, etc.) The saddle is the exception, I guess, where we went for a fancier one for about 70€.

Anyways... what would be the best use for our money here? Should we upgrade the existing bike (then which parts)? Or maybe a new bike entirely? How noticeable would the improvement be?

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    Well, there is probably no right answer here. If fitness is the goal, maybe lugging a 20yr old steel frame is maybe not that bad. Personally, I wouldn't get too carried with upgrades, just keep it running. If you're wanting to upgrade, you probably need to layout the actual intended use (as in what type of riding/trails). At that budget you can get a fair amount of bike but may find in practice it's really not much of an upgrade over what you've got
    – Hursey
    Nov 7, 2022 at 22:36
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    we intend to keep going until the ground freezes over You don't need to stop - instead of upgrading the bike, update your gear so you can ride in colder weather. Nov 7, 2022 at 23:08
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    @AndrewHenle It's more about not wanting to slip on ice while going at full speed on a bicycle. :)
    – Vilx-
    Nov 7, 2022 at 23:25
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    Bikes are like shoes. There are shoes for hiking, running, walking, wrestling, and any number of other activities. There many different bikes designed for different activities. The key is to match up what kind of riding you are doing to your bike. As Mattnz says, head to a bike shop and try out some different kinds of bikes. Find out what you like and what matches the kind of riding you want to do. If you find something look at your bike - can you make it more like what you want in any meaningful way? If not, save for the bike you need. Your current bike might do everything you need it to do.
    – David D
    Nov 7, 2022 at 23:46
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    @Vilx- I was impressed to see recently that you can get things like lightly studded tyres which seem like a reasonable compromise. You're probably well aware of them, but I thought I'd just make sure.
    – pateksan
    Nov 8, 2022 at 10:04

9 Answers 9

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Very rarely do upgrades make enough difference to a bike to justify the cost or doing them. For this reason, I am a strong believer that while you should maintain a bike, you are almost always better to buy a better bike than try to make an existing bike better. Upgrading worn components with better quality can be done, carefully looking closely at the cost and be realistic about the expected benefit. This applies even more to an entry level bike (such as yours) than to a more expensive bike. I would do the minimum needed to keep the bike safe and reliable while you use it and save for a replacement bike.

You now have enough recent miles you can probably feel the difference between your bike and a more expensive one. I suggest heading to a bike shop and taking a couple of bikes at various price points for a ride. Get the idea of what a better bike might feel like, and if the improvement would be worth the cost to you.

You have already replaced the saddle - a good investment as it can be moved to a new bike easily and the right saddle makes a big difference to any bike.

Specifics on your bike - the chain and cassette should last much longer than 1000km. Are you cleaning and lubing the chain regularly? The rest look like routine maintenance items for a bike of that quality and age (except the broken crank, which should never happen outside of major accident.)

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    Lubing - yes. Cleaning - uhh.... I tried that once and the result was less than inspiring. I intend to post a second question about that, since I must have been doing something wrong.
    – Vilx-
    Nov 7, 2022 at 23:29
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    @Vilx- For cleaning the chain I highly recommend using a chain cleaner device. It is a real game changer.
    – hlovdal
    Nov 9, 2022 at 9:58
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    @hlovdal - Yeah, I got the ChainPig 2, but it was still a huge mess; I had to use a fair bit of strength to get the chain through the thing (unlike all the videos where it seems like the chain just passes through effortlessly); and instead of gathering the dirt inside the tool, it just spread the liquid on the chain and that was that. After a few turns the chainpig was mostly empty and the chain was wet, but not much cleaner...
    – Vilx-
    Nov 9, 2022 at 10:18
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Judging by the current bike and the mileage, a new bike will be put to good use. Look for a lighter bike with better quality components, that fits similarly. Don't expect it to cost you less to maintain, though! If that's a big concern, then stick to 8-speed drivetrains, as those components are much cheaper than 9 speed and up.

My biggest concern would actually be just making sure the bike fits and the rider likes the new bike and wants to ride. Go and see if you can take some test rides and get a feeling for what bikes with different frame materials, tires, and so on and feel like to ride.

Alternatively, love the one you're with. Unless the current bike frame is irreparably damaged, fixing it up will always be most cost effective thing to do. Bikes just wear certain parts, that's part of life. I have a heavy bike I love to death. I upgraded with new handlebars, a large basket, new grips, new brake levers, new tires. Each was more or less as needed and served a purpose beyond the repair.

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    I agree with this opinion. The current bike has already reached the peak of meaningful upgrades, i.e. a good comfortable saddle. A new bike would complement this one, i.e. this iron horse would always be available for errands and co., while the new one would be the choice for touring (and errands, too, why not). The difference between a no name from 2003 and a no name from 2022 would be small but noticeable, to a decent (good fitting) bicycle would be tremendous. Unfortunately I think a decent good new bike will cost around 8/900€, but maybe now there are offers...
    – EarlGrey
    Nov 8, 2022 at 10:12
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    @EarlGrey The difference between a no name bike from 2003 in 2003 to a no name from 2022 in 2022 is quite small. But replacing a 20 year old bike by new one is probably a major upgrade even if the new one is of a similar low quality level.
    – quarague
    Nov 8, 2022 at 14:42
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The overall goal is to improve general fitness, maybe go faster or longer.

For these goals it's very unlikely a new bike is required. Fitness is derived from a blend of time spent riding, intensity, nutrition and recovery. A fit rider can make a slow bike go surprisingly quickly. The only thing required here is a bike that fits the rider well - and it appears the current bike fits that description.

That said, it's very likely a newer, better bike will make the ride more enjoyable. With current (2020's) pricing, i would not consider the €600 price point to be a significant upgrade. I would continue to repair/maintain the current bike as required meanwhile saving to reach a price point of around €1000. At the €1000 price point every component on the bike will be better and you should notice a meaningful upgrade.

During the time spent saving (and riding the current bike) consider the styles of riding (road/gravel/trail) the bike is used for and what features would be required for a new bike. As mentioned in other answers, it would be worth trying to visit a bike shop and test ride a couple of bikes to get a feel for what the options might be.

But what would be the most useful thing to improve?

Whilst i don't recommend spending money on upgrades, if you were to do so, the one thing I would recommend is high quality tyres. Tyres play a huge role in the speed, grip and comfort of the bike and the difference between an entry level tyre and a top of the range tyre can be massive.

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    To add on for the OP's benefit, in the "low end" of bikes (yes, $1000 sounds crazy!), you get quite a nice return on investment. Going from $600 to $1000 as suggested would likely bump you up an entire component tier or two.
    – MaplePanda
    Nov 8, 2022 at 6:52
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Two changes that would improve the enjoyment of cycling a lot, and which you can do on the current bike without having to even consider a new bike:

  • Better tires. Those tires don't look like good tires for any riding. They aren't real offroad tires, but not real road tires either. I'm assuming here the bike is ridden on roads as opposed to riding off roads (in which case the bike would have a suspension fork), so put some decent road tires on that bike. 32mm would be my recommended width, and "as slick as possible" would be the recommended tread pattern (or lack of pattern to be more precise).
  • Clipless pedals. At least for me, it greatly increases the enjoyment of cycling if I don't have to think how to optimally position my foot on the pedal. With clipless pedals, the foot clips in to the best possible position (which you can adjust), and stays there. No more feet slipping on pedals. There are clipless pedal models that have a second non-clipless side which might be useful if the bike is used in winter and you don't want to purchase clipless winter shoes yet, or if the bike is used occasionally for short-distance riding and wearing cycling specific shoes for <5km ride would be just ridiculous (example: Shimano PD-T8000). Also, there are clipless systems where you can walk on the shoes equally well, like SPD. You should select such a system as opposed to the "road" clipless systems where it's impossible to walk on the cycling shoes.

After these two, the third improvement would be a drop bar. It's possible the geometry of that bike is not really suited for drop bars, finding shifting levers compatible with your current system might be tricky and doing the conversion would require lots of work. I have converted a cheap bike to drop bars, but in most cases I have to say it might be a better idea to consider a better bike originally equipped with drop bars.

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    I think the second and third upgrades will actually make less fun cycling. Drop bar may be a nice thing, but surely not to be done on such an old bike, by someone that just rediscovered cycling, it is more of a tinkerer thing. Clipless pedals are making cycling more efficient in the "sport" sense, which is not the goal of OP and they may (please note: may) create issues with knees since they lock the feet and so the body cannot adapt. Tires: you call it right, those tires are not made for off-road nor for on-road, which is why they are perfet if you have only one bike.
    – EarlGrey
    Nov 8, 2022 at 10:17
  • An addition to tyres&co: old steel bike can be very comfortable for light off-road (let's say gravel, fireroads, not mountain bike and downhill slopes) without the fork, just with some tyres with some volumes (for example the one pictured here). 32mm slick tires can (please note: can) be very uncomfortable on light off-road, due to road-aimed thread and generally higher required pressure.
    – EarlGrey
    Nov 8, 2022 at 10:20
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    @EarlGrey - We have only one bike. Well, ok, one bike for each of our family members. :) But we've been thinking about road tires too. I'll have to research a bit about those -I'm still unclear how they can be treadless on a bicycle, when it's outright suicidal to have such on a car.
    – Vilx-
    Nov 8, 2022 at 10:23
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    @Vilx There is a lot of literature on the thread being not effective at improving on-road grip on bicycle and motorbikes. With a bicycle, slippery things (metal plates, wet road, streetcar rails) are slippery whatever thread you have. When you are dealing with unconsolidated (gravel, rocky) or soft material (mud), then thread start to be relevant (but to a smaller extent than you'd expect). Car and bicycles turning are rather different... check the thread on motorbikes tyres to have an idea about. Wet racing tyres are often completely slick in their central part.
    – EarlGrey
    Nov 8, 2022 at 10:50
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    @EarlGrey but for a year-round bike in many places mud or squashed leaves on tarmac are a concern, and a little tread ("tread" not "thread") is useful there - I'll happily ride wet gravel on the touring slicks I use in summer, but in winter run Marathon Mondial, which are dirt road touring tyres with just about enough tread to find the real surface under the muck
    – Chris H
    Nov 8, 2022 at 11:15
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On bikes like this all the components are of mediocre quality and weight. There is no single truly bad component which would be a no-brainer for upgrades.

If you are only using the bike for training rides and don’t need the rear rack, kickstand, mudguards and chainguard you could remove them and reduce the weight by more than 1kg without spending any money.

I’d make sure the sitting position is good. Maybe you are able to lower the handlebars which would improve aerodynamics.

For 600€ you could try to find a decent, used road bike.

Good bicycling clothes are also well worth the money.

Since you mention Winter with freezing temperatures: You could get studded tyres, good lights and winter clothes and continue riding in the winter.

Oh and please fix the existing front light.

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  • What's wrong with the front light?
    – Vilx-
    Nov 8, 2022 at 10:10
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    It’s pointing all the way down (at least in your photo) probably because of a bad/loose mounting bracket. It should be angled close enough to horizontal to not dazzle oncoming traffic while still providing illumination and visibility.
    – Michael
    Nov 8, 2022 at 11:10
  • No, we angled it like that ourselves on purpose. The point is exactly that - not to dazzle other people while still providing sufficient illumination to ride in the dark. This was the compromise we arrived at (and it's still fairly dazzling - the thing's BRIGHT).
    – Vilx-
    Nov 8, 2022 at 11:20
  • At least from your photo it looks like you are in the bottom configuration where you are pretty much illuminating the area directly in front of your bike but not much else: fahrradbeleuchtung-info.de/images/113.jpg (sorry for the German text, but I guess it’s pretty self-explanatory). On lights without cut-off it can be hard to achieve a good compromise.
    – Michael
    Nov 8, 2022 at 11:30
  • I guess that's our case then. Actually, she has moved on to a different light since then and the one in the picture is now on my bike. But neither of them have a very hard cutoff, so yeah - most light falls just in front of the bike. Still - we're kind of used to that by now. These lights won't last forever though - they have Li-ion batteries and are USB-rechargeable, so I expect that in a few years we'll be looking for new ones. I'll remember this then!
    – Vilx-
    Nov 8, 2022 at 14:05
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If you like the bike as it is now, no need to upgrade it. The tricky part here is that with the bike pictured, upgrades are will either imply "big changes" (an upgrade in the drivetrain for instance would require to replace the whole drive train), and upgrades that are significant might not be available anymore. If the bike is based on a 8-speed transmission, the offer on the market is only on entry-level components, that might not be better than what is currently on the bike. Or you won't be able to fit the components on the bike (for example disc brakes, that require different attachments on the frame).

So if money "needs to spent", I'd rather spend it on components that "can be transferred to the next bike" (handle bar grips, pedals, saddle - already done). For the lights, expanding from other comments: if you orientate the lamp like this is to avoid dazzling other users, make sure to buy lamps that are complying to German regulations (StVZO): German regulations require to shape the beam so that it doesn't dazzle other user (by limiting the vertical spread). It looks like none of the lights your linked are compliant. I also consider that a good phone holder or a bike navigation device to be nice upgrades.

Your profile indicates "Latvia" as location, so I imagine that the nights are long in winter, and the weather is cold, appropriate clothing (high visibility+warm and breathable) would be high on my list: after all no matter how good is the bike, if you don't ride it because of a lack of appropriate clothing, it won't help to "improve general fitness".

In another register, given the bike has a rack: quality paniers that can be easily attached and removed (and are really waterproof is the weather requires it). That improves the usability of the bike a lot if you use it for utility purposes.

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    Yes, we're from Latvia, and yes, it already gets dark by 5PM. I'm happy to report however that clothing and visibility have already been sorted. :) And when we do stop biking, it will be because the road conditions aren't favorable anymore - snow and ice make it difficult to stay upright. :P
    – Vilx-
    Nov 8, 2022 at 17:18
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Cheap but possibly interesting upgrade - get variety of sensors to measure things to just have fun measuring and possibly of setting variety of goals.

The cheapest would be tracking apps on your phone to compare speed with other riders or yourself yesterday.

Some parameters can be measured by just a phone (like distance/speed), but cadence, power or heartrate require something special. I would get a cadence sensor - cheap option would be ~$20 (and work most of the time) and works with phone, but you can go as high as you want. Getting heart rate sensor or one of the fitness/smart watches is another upgrade that may make rides more interesting. Sensors generally transferable to any future bikes or, like in case of heart rate one, to other sports. Maybe getting some entry/mid-range "bike computer" if you don't like to carry phone attached to the bike to see all those number in real time.

If you really fancy numbers going with something like Garmin's power meter pedals would be the choice (but it will chew up your whole budget).

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    The Strava app on a cellphone was the most motivational thing I ever did.
    – Criggie
    Nov 11, 2022 at 3:04
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I agree with @juhist that clipless pedals are an optimal upgrade, but I'd put them first for several reasons:

  • Fitness - pulling up on each stroke strengthens stomach muscles
  • Speed - you get at least 10% more pedaling power from the up-stroke
  • Stamina - pedaling in a circle instead of just pushing down is easier on your knees
  • Control - after you get used to clipless, you'll appreciate the feeling of your pedals being attached to your shoes. Your feet won't slip off the front or sides unintentionally.
  • Initial Cost - a decent pair of SPD pedals, cleats and shoes will still leave you with plenty in the budget for other upgrades
  • Long term costs - if this bike requires a repair that's more expensive than a replacement bike, you can easily transfer the pedals to the new one. Many new road bikes come with the bare-minimum pedals (or none) because people have diverse preferences for clipless pedals

It takes some getting used to clipless. You are likely to fall a few times when stopping before the twist-out motion becomes habit. Practice on soft ground until you're proficient. For a while you'll still be pedaling only on the downstroke and won't realize much benefit. Practice with one foot at a time, "pedaling around the clock" and your technique will improve, as will your stamina and average speed.

I've put clipless pedals on all my long-ride bikes for 3 decades. My preference is the Mountain-bike style SPD pedals with a platform around them, so you can pedal a few down-strokes away from a stoplight before clipping in. (I don't have a product recommendation, because they stopped selling my current model years ago.)

You can use a platform SPD pedal with street shoes in a pinch - the SPD clip folds flat. Also, there are mountain bike shoes that are relatively normal looking and comfortable for short walks because the cleats are recessed in the sole. The cleats scratch on asphalt, but I haven't noticed any damage affecting performance.

One last note: you might consider getting a used road bike instead of upgrading this one. An enjoyable bike with decent components can be acquired for around that range in the U.S., but I'm not sure about your region.

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Barends

Cheap and easy addition which gives you way more options for a comfortable hand grip, or variations for leverage when standing on the pedals (uphill), or getting down a little more in a headwind.

Looks like it even had some at some point.

I like to set it up such that I can still apply the brakes from the barends but that's pretty advanced, and requires well adjusted/maintained brakes.

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  • Yeah, it did have them, but we removed them because they were annoying. 😅 Not sure if she would like to have them back... Should be somewhere around here still...
    – Vilx-
    Nov 10, 2022 at 7:41

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