Love the Bike You Already Have
During the past decade, many riders have fallen into the habit of upgrading their bike every one or two years. Not everyone, but the desire is present in many of us and I've certainly fallen victim. The marketing departments at our favourite bike brands are just too good at spinning their web. But is there really much to gain?
It's no secret that for the majority of bike manufacturers, updated models see incremental change – nothing beyond a few millimetres here and a fraction of a degree there. These changes aren't enough to justify our desire to update every new model year. That is assuming you are upgrading to the newer version of the season-or-two-old bike in the garage.
Our own Andrew Major wrote a compelling piece on spending that new bike money on your current rig only a few weeks before the pandemic hit. Since then, the large growth of our sport has made the topic more relevant than ever, as people struggle to lock down their new dream whip. But there's no need to head to the buy and sell and fork out that COVID tax. Save your money and consider some of the following strategies, which I'm positive can bring some joy back to the relationship with your current steed.
The Simple Things Can Have a Large Impact
You can spend a lot on upgrades to make your current bike feel new but it doesn't have to break you. New suspension or an entirely new drivetrain feel great and they can renew your desire to spend time on your bike, but I've also found simple things can provide a similar boost, albeit without completely satisfying our inner consumerist.
I don't have enough fingers to count the times I've heard a friend claim 'Johnny's new bike pedals so smooth and easy,' affirming their own need for something new. The consensus is that the new wheels, the latest drivetrain, or upgraded geometry make all the difference and their currently 12–18-month old ride no longer cuts it. What's often forgotten in these conversations is that these riders have done the bare minimum in terms of maintenance, making for a drastically lop-sided comparison. Lubing the chain and checking tire pressure is vital, but the chain that came on the bike 12 months ago is quite certainly flogged* and the suspension definitely needs a service. At the very least, sticking a shock pump on and checking damper settings would be a good start.
*This will depend on the individual but for anyone riding solid amounts (1–2 times/week over 12 months), it's likely time to change more than just the chain.
I've found it beneficial to update my chain regularly, never allowing it to become too worn, which in turn prolongs the life of the entire drivetrain. But the best part is whenever a new chain goes on, I feel stronger and faster, and the bike becomes quieter and more efficient. I've never made huge strength gains overnight, and any improvement is likely due to placebo effect, mating a new chain to a cassette and chainring that aren't worn can improve efficiency and chain retention, which is noticeable on the trail.
Depending on the chain or drivetrain component needed, finding a replacement right now may be difficult. Maybe sourcing an aftermarket option will suffice and with Shimano and SRAM 12-speed chains hard to find, doing so may be necessary.
It's more important than ever to properly maintain your equipment and doing a proper clean and fresh lube, replacing that old shifter cable, even checking the alignment of your hanger, can reap great rewards. They don't have the sex appeal of a new bike, or a major upgrade but simple procedures can improve your time on the bike.
New Suspension vs Service (Or Custom Tune)
When was the last time you had your suspension serviced? Maybe you're able to drop the lowers yourself and give them a freshen up, but haven't for a while? I'm guilty of this, and writing this has made me realize it's time to get busy. If you aren't comfortable pulling apart your fork or shock, maybe it's time to book it in and make it feel like new. Your suspension works better when serviced regularly, and it has a dramatic impact on the trail. It's no secret that suspension service centres are busy but that means book it in now and don't wait till it's too late.
Generally that lust for a shiny new fork or high-end shock is driven by a perceived performance benefit. But new products don't always provide the desired result and in some cases getting your current products custom tuned will deliver better results. Vorsprung in Whistler has had their Fractive tune options available through global support centres for a while now and I've heard from a couple of riders that it made a great improvement. Avalanche is another option and while they are less prominent now, have for years garnered high praise. Push Industries has upgrade options available and many, many more. Your local suspension service centre may also be able to make changes and it's a good relationship to have.
Tires can have a lasting impact on ride feel, and are often overlooked as a 'suspension' part, and tire inserts sometimes have an even more profound impact. Our tires are the first thing to connect with the ground* and some inserts can improve ride quality by dulling trail noise and feedback. Some riders find they can run lower pressures, further improving ride quality and increasing grip. If you haven't had a chance to muck about with inserts, this might be a good time. Many prevent flats too, prolonging the life of our favourite tires, and finding new tires right now can be a challenge.
*Ideally the only thing
Fresh Rubber & Prolonging The Life of a Favourite
A new set of tires, preferably replaced once traction starts to diminish, is one of the best value changes you can make. Looking down at fresh rubber makes me feel giddy and excited to push the new, sharp-edged lugs into some of my favourite corners. Popular tires are getting harder to source but with the availability of inserts, you may be able to drop to a lighter casing.
While daunting, trying rubber from a less popular brand isn't the end of the world. Over the last few years, tires from WTB, Michelin, and e*thirteen have proven to be strong performers. Specialized has updated their tires recently too, and Pete has had good experiences with them. There are also options available from Vee, Kenda etc. though we can't speak personally to those yet.
Another option is to prolong the life of the tires you have. I've had some success keeping my favourite tires rolling for longer by patching holes. Kits are available for this but I've found a pot of rubber cement from the local hardware store and pieces of inner tube work well. For some holes, a regular tube patch with a healthy lathering of rubber cement has got me by as well. Don't toss that three-ride old tire you just punctured, it's possible there's plenty of joy left.
TouchPoints, Because We're All Hands-On
The touchpoints of our bikes may not get the attention they deserve. They're not going to make our bikes feel more efficient, nor improve grip through that corner you've been pushing harder into with every ride, but because they're our first point of contact, they can make or break our time on the bike.
I'm not a fan of most grips when brand new. Aside from a set a friend is developing, I've never put a new grip on and enjoyed the first ride. That includes grips that I consider favourites. The fresh rubber feels a bit coarse against my boney hands and it takes a few rides to get new grips beaten down and softened.* Once they've started to break in, they feel fantastic and I'll keep using them until well past their use-by date.
*It should be mentioned that AJ doesn't wear gloves - Ed.
Other riders froth for a new set of grips. That fresh feeling provides a greater connection and more rubber than that old, worn set. Trying something new can be a bit of a gamble if you're fussy, but a new grip can breathe life into your connection with the bike. Andrew's articles have me considering moving back to push-on grips and I always enjoy the feel of the set on my dirt jumper. Trying something different with a product that isn't in short supply is an easy experiment and there's no denying the comfort of a full rubber grip. As a bonus, they're cheap.
Saddles are possibly the most personal part of our bikes and I'm not going to suggest messing with that if you're happy now. They can however wear and begin to lose the support we fell for in the first place. I haven't heard of any saddle supply issues, so maybe it's time to give the tush something fresh to rest on? It's a relatively inexpensive part to update too unless you're hooked on the 600 USD Specialized S-Works Power with Mirror…
Heaps can be done to change things up and bring a sense of new to clapped-out bikes. Proper maintenance and preparation can add peace of mind on the trail, but replacing wear items is a relatively easy win as well. Certain items aren't as straightforward to source as they once were, but some clever thinking and flexibility can achieve similar or even better performance. If all else fails, there's always a fresh coat of 'new bike in a can' to reinvigorate your relationship.