The best bang for your buck bike upgrades

If your bike has started to feel a little tired or outdated, you may be able to revitalise your trusty steed with just a little investment.

My own first road bike has been taken apart and re-created repeatedly, and my husband’s old Kona MTB (14 years old, steel frame) is still going strong, albeit sold to a friend who thinks it’s the best bike since the Penny Farthing.

Upgrades don’t need to cost the earth – little £10 tweaks here and there could turn a weary churn into a rolling joy.

Here’s a look at some of the most inexpensive replacements that will make the biggest difference, for the smallest amount of cash:


If your gears aren’t feeling as crisp as they used to, then replacing the cables might be the answer. Over time, cables can stretch. You can fix this by simply tightening them using the barrel adjusters, but there will come a day that this doesn’t do the job – and at this point you’ll want to invest. This will set you back less than £5, for the inner and outer cable you’ll need – personally I usually opt for Clarks Universal Gear Cable. 

For a guide on how to replace your gear cable, check out this one we wrote earlier..


The same way, if you’ve got cable brakes that are feeling a bit unresponsive you can start of by twisting the barrel adjuster to tighten it – but eventually you’ll need to replace these. This will set you back about £10, and again I’d usually opt for Clarks. New cables can make a world of difference, making the brakes feel sharp like they did on your first ride together.


If you currently ride on flat pedals, thinking about upgrading to a clipless system could give you more power with every pedal stroke.



Flat pedals allow you to push down on the pedal, but riding clipped in you can benefit from a full circle motion, which uses quads, hamstrings, calfs and hip flexors – giving your legs and lower body a more effective workout, and getting you to your destination more quickly. Admittedly, with your pedals you will also need to buy shoes to clip into them.

There’s a different style of pedal out there for everybody, from mountain bike style SPDs which are quick to release and allow you to walk without resembling Bambi on ice, to hybrid pedals that have a flat platform as well as a clip in mechanism so you enjoy the best of both worlds – check out our post on pedal choices for more info.


Tyres are your contact with the ground. Reducing rolling resistance can turn a long, slow slog of a ride into a speedy whoosh.



Unless you’re buying a pretty high end machine, bikes often come with slightly more lack lustre tyres than might do the frame and components justice. Tyres are a consumable item, and manufacturers know you’ll upgrade in time.

Over autumn and winter, you’ll want tyres that combine speedyness with grip and durability. Important as it is to feel the ground moving fast beneath you, no one enjoys spending time by the side of the road fixing punctures (or no one I’ve ever met).

My own personal recommendation for regular road commuters would be the Continental Grand Prix 4 Seasons. Designed with the tough conditions of Paris-Roubaix in mind, you know you’re in safe hands.


Having the right cassette for the terrain you plan to tackle make a huge difference. A wide ration cassette (eg 11-32 – where the biggest ring has 32 teeth) will give you a huge range of gears. If you live at the bottom of a big hill, and you want a low resistance gear to get you to the top without leg-pressing your way to the top, then think about opting for a wider ratio.

However, if you live in a flat area, and have no intention of getting out to tackle the hills, then you can go for a narrow ratio cassette (eg 11-23) – this means that the difference between your gears will be very small, so you can coax the chain into that perfect gear without any clunky judders between them.

For a guide on replacing your cassette, see our post on fixing the most common mechanical problem with bikes in London.


Every bike needs a saddle – and they all come with an acceptable and functioning perch. However – bums are like snowflakes: no two are the same.

brooks b17 titanium


Your standard issue saddle might be just perfect for you, but if you find you get uncomfortable – experience chafing, numbness, saddle sores or areas of pressure, don’t put up with it – swap that saddle. An uncomfortable perch can turn an enjoyable ride into a test of pain management, and that doesn’t need to be the case.

We gave some advice on choosing a saddle here.

Bar tape/Grips

Appearances aren’t everything, but they do matter – especially when you spend a lot of time looking down at one item. Bar tape, or the grips on your handlebars can get a bit ratty over time – sweaty hands, oily gloves and repetitive friction all play their part. If you want to make your bike look a little smarter, upgrade this one key item for less than £20 and you’ll be smiling as you glance down to your handlebars. With endless colour choices out there, it’s tempting to do this monthly just for a little change…

Those are our key bang for your buck upgrades. Would you add any?

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26 Responses to The best bang for your buck bike upgrades

  1. Human Cyclist 09/09/2014 at 7:26 am #

    Funny enough I just covered this very subject on my blog. The best value upgrade for me is degreaser. Nothing better than a smooth chainset. The job to clean it however…

  2. MJ Ray 09/09/2014 at 8:42 am #

    The “more power” old chestnut appears again. Maybe very slightly, but the best evidence is that you lose efficiency and gain a risk of a type of 0mph fall that never happens with flat pedals. Clipping/unclipping in London traffic looks no fun. Get good rubber- topped flats instead IMO.

    I’m surprised by the recommendation of Clarks cables. I’ve avoided that brand since suffering one of their chains. Maybe I should try again.

    • Jason 09/09/2014 at 11:40 am #

      Personally the biggest difference between flat and spd’s that I and many commuters use is that I never slip off the pedals in the rain anymore. Of course if you’re a slow rider this may be less of a problem but trying to set off from the lights at a reasonable speed in the rain only to have your foot slip off at 100mph, the pedal smack you in the shin and you wobble violently as you haven’t quite planned for this is no fun 🙂

      Of course it’s not a common thing but it happened to me more often in 4 months than any unclipping ‘moments’ I’ve had in the last couple of years. The trick is to always unclip one foot ahead of any place where you might need to stop i.e. junctions, ped crossings, anywhere where a pedestrian may walk out for example when you’re filtering through slow or stopped traffic – you’re not going fast anyway so resting your foot on top of the pedal is fine….then when you’re clear it takes one millisecond to clip back in.

      Seriously clipping in/out is zero hassle once you’re past the first few minutes/hours/days.

      • MJ Ray 09/09/2014 at 12:44 pm #

        Get decent, grippy, rubber-topped flat pedals and you won’t slip off them in the rain either. Slipping off mainly afflicts people using either the rubbish plastic or resin pedals that come with most bikes (even expensive ones because they assume you’ll change them anyway) or inappropriate pedals like BMX ones. The only time I remember slipping off rubber pedals in 30ish years was a freak drivetrain failure and I suspect I would have injured myself worse if my foot had been clipped to the pedal.

        A few days of falling over is far worse than buying decent pedals for £20 or so (a guess at London bike shop prices for a pair of Wellgo LU868s or Vavert Commuters). I do wonder if there’s some logical disconnect going on, where people have spent all that money on clippy pedals and shoes and are too proud to admit there were cheaper and less dangerous ways to solve the problem.

        • Matt 11/09/2014 at 12:01 pm #

          I think most people buy clips simply to increase their pedalling efficiency on longer rides. That was certainly my driver behind the purchase.

          I do see your point about rubber pedals though. Some studded MTB pedals do the same job. The pedals that come with most bikes deserve death by firing squad.

          Personally, my upgrade would be a decent set of wheels.

        • MJ Ray 11/09/2014 at 12:43 pm #

          Then most people are buying snake oil. The research so far seems to say that clips give you marginally more peak power, but at the cost of some efficiency. If you’re not pushing it hard, there’s no significant change.

          I agree about the “free with new bike” pedals but could there be a more appropriate death for them than firing squad? Some sort of bike-powered catapult, perhaps?

        • Bikehound 11/09/2014 at 5:29 pm #

          I think the biggest benefit of using SPD type pedals is it lets you bring your hamstrings into play in the pedaling circle. If you’ve got a lot of climbing on your commute or you ride a fixed then it’s going to be immediately beneficial.

          Once you’ve got your cleat position set up properly they’ll keep you ergonomically correct as well, even as you get tired.

          The downside is that you need a pair of SPD shoes for the commute which kind of makes daily cycling a ‘specialist equipment’ thing, which isn’t a good thing when promoting the mass participation aspect.

          The least fancy equipment needed the better!

          That said, you can get some amazing discounts on SPD pedals from different retailers at the moment…

          Btw – always recommend spending a couple of 30minute sessions in a grassy park to start with clipping and unclipping to get the hang of it – and mix it up a bit, try it one handed, no handed, looking behind you, trackstanding, all sorts. It doesn’t take long for your body’s automatic response to learn emergency unclips.

        • Chris 12/09/2014 at 12:24 pm #

          I don’t know about benefits or otherwise to efficiency and power transfer. I just know that having tried both flats and SPDs, I feel more comfortable with SPDs in pretty much every environment in which I pedal.

          Low speed commuting – I don’t actually have to clip both feet in, so not an issue.

          Higher speed commuting – I cover 15 miles each way, with 80 sets of traffic lights. After a couple of weeks, clipping in and out of the SPDs is second nature, whereas I was always faffing around trying to get the exact right position each time on flats.

          Mountain biking – Yes, there’s a chance I’ll stuff the bike on Singletrack, but I much prefer the slight risk of not being able to unclip in time to the much greater risk of stuffing the bike because my foot has bounced off the pedal! I used to ride with DMR v12s, so even if it didn’t result in stacking the bike, it could take nasty chunks out of the shins!

          Uphill – I have a few short climbs on my commute. I find it much easier to keep my speed up and by focusing on a full pedal stroke, including pulling up with my trailing leg.

    • Tom 10/09/2014 at 11:10 pm #

      I’m a big fan of toeclips, they keep your foot in position, are easy to slip in and out of and most importantly you don’t need daft special shoes to ride your bike.

    • Richard 12/09/2014 at 1:14 pm #

      You are just plain wrong I’m afraid. You don’t like clipless pedals? Fine. You cannot argue that they provide no benefit to power because they demonstrably do. As soon as I switched I felt an immediate and substantial difference. There is a good reason you don’t see pro riders riding with a set of “good rubber-topped flats”. Calling clipless snake-oil is just plain silly. To everyone else who might be thinking of switching, don’t listen to MJ. Do it. You might fall off, I know I did, twice. But it has been the single most beneficial change in my 30 years of cycling – I commute 13 miles each way, five days a week through central London from SE to NW and I wouldn’t be without them.

      • MJ Ray 15/09/2014 at 11:49 am #

        You’re arguing against something I didn’t say. What I actually said is that clipping into pedals offers a slight power boost at the cost of efficiency. That’s why professional racers use them: their priority is usually peak power, not efficiency, comfort or anything else – they do tons of other stuff which is seriously uncomfortable and not worthwhile for pootling to work. I’ve linked it before, but here’s some research comparing clipping (CLIP) with flats (PED)

        But I also suggest that clipping in adds an extra source of falls and risk of injury that you simply don’t have with good grippy flat pedals, plus usually a need for more special clothing (such as SPD shoes). The benefits aren’t worth the costs for most commuters. If you like it, great, but be realistic when you promote it to others, instead of myths like “substantial difference”.

        Simply saying I’m wrong doesn’t make it so. What research supports clipped-in commuting? Or is it blind fanaticism and anecdotes, like it seems to be?

        • Vladimir 13/10/2014 at 12:31 pm #

          I’m a relatively slow rider and so I can imagine that riding clipless doesn’t help my efficiency all that much. There are, however two major advantages:

          1. pulling up the pedal when stopped at a traffic light easily (just pull up, no need to faff getting your toe under the pedal, pull up, then get the foot back over it)

          2. it keeps me ergonomically correct, the moment I start using flat pedals, especially with random trainers/shoes – things start to feel very wrong, very fast.

    • Chris Page 12/09/2014 at 8:16 pm #

      I don’t know about more power, I use SPDs on three of my four bikes and I just like the total lack of slippage and the ability to lift the pedal to the 11-o’clock starting position without having to get my toe under the pedal to raise it, then back on top before the lights to go green. And that’s just on my 2-mile commute.

      Ok, my hybrid does have SPD/flat hybrids for when I need to cycle in my ‘going out’ shoes, but it seems really weird, and clipping in and out is second nature.

      Now, the 30-year-old road bike for L’Eroica, with its toe-clips and straps. Hmmm, that is a very different kettle of fish, and yes, really really tiresome in central London.

      • MJ Ray 15/09/2014 at 11:56 am #

        I’m glad they work for you and any other SPD fans, but they’re still not really one of the “the best bang per buck upgrades”.

        Clipping isn’t the only way to avoid slipping off pedals (there are flat pedals with very good grips for a few decades now) or putting the toe under to get to starting position (kick it round backwards/freewheeling or put the bike in neutral if it has one and spin it round forwards).

  3. Brian 09/09/2014 at 8:47 am #

    The best value upgrade for me was replacing the awful brake blocks that came with my bike (a Giant Defy 2) with Clarkes multi compound pads. It’s a paradox, but good brakes let you go faster.

  4. Pierre Phaneuf 09/09/2014 at 2:21 pm #

    No fenders? Full fenders have changed my commuting life! Putting on a pair of SKS Chromoplastics is the best single thing you can do to make commuting nicer, more of the time.

    • John H 12/09/2014 at 4:43 pm #

      Mudguards please,,,,

  5. seamus king 09/09/2014 at 3:24 pm #

    I have Iergon grip on my handlebar, they feelso good with my han din the rfight place.

    on my topuring bioke on my Brfompton I hav eon the Bio Kork.
    this do exactly the sam ebut look andfell posher,

  6. Phil 11/09/2014 at 11:11 am #

    Seconded on the mudguards- no more rain and road gunk on my footwear, or stripes on my back. I made my own large mudflaps, my chain also stays clean for months longer, and red Moglo reflective chevrons on the rear also help keep me visible. Flat pedals with pins- no slipping, no need for expensive one-use-only shoes.

  7. bob 12/09/2014 at 10:28 am #

    My commuting must haves.

    1) Pannier rack for laptop/office accoutrements and change of clothes – Will never go back to backpacks

    2) mudguards

    3) rear view mirror

    4) Schwalbe marathon

    these upgrades are not “cool”, wont make you go faster, but make my 11 mile commute through London much more comfortable and safe. All can be taken off in about 30 minutes if need be to do so

    P.S Brooks B17 is a must have of course 🙂

    • Adrian 13/09/2014 at 5:54 pm #

      Agree with three out of four (can’t really see the point of a rear view mirror though).

      Pannier rack made the biggest difference for me in terms of comfort of riding – much easier to turn and look behind you without a backpack, for example. My Topeak lasted 10 years until finally eroded to death, the Tubus I got to replace it will last longer than my bike.

      Haven’t had a puncture since switching to the Schwalbe’s either.

      Mudguards are a no-brainer, if you ever cycle in the rain.

  8. Chris 12/09/2014 at 12:31 pm #

    I’m surprised at all the debate about pedals, with NOBODY calling out the choice of tyres!!!!

    I’d used Gatorskins for 3 years or so of regular commuting into London (up and down CS7), and in all that time I’d experienced 2 punctures. They weren’t all that great in the rain though, so I took a recommendation to try the GP Four Seasons instead.

    They might well have been designed for Paris Roubaix, but they sure as hell weren’t designed for Tooting to the Oval!!!!

    I barely managed a single ride without picking up a puncture, and had several rides with two punctures, and on two separate occasions, three punctures!! In both the latter instances, the punctures affected both wheels, so weren’t a case of my not clearing the offending puncturing item.

    They might be great on winter roads where there’s not a great deal of mess around, but for London roads they were beyond hopeless! I stuck with them for a month or so, then put the Gatorskins back on, and 9 months later, I’ve not had another puncture.

    When I get round to it, I’ll bung them on eBay to get some of my cash back, I suppose. 🙁

    • John H 12/09/2014 at 4:49 pm #

      I won’t be buying any Conti’s on ebay in the future,you have just scuppered the price and will not be getting much of your cash back, I suppose

      • Chris 12/09/2014 at 5:58 pm #


        I know plenty of people who love them, so I won’t have a problem selling them. I just don’t think they’re suitable for commuting on urban roads.

  9. Rossco 15/11/2014 at 8:16 am #

    I bought some schwalbe marathon plus tyres a year ago for my hybrid and have gone from an average of 2 punctures a week to not a single one ever since. I have 11 mile each way commute past the building works at vauxhall and up into the city. Will definitely replace with more of the same when they wear out.

    • Spokely 12/06/2015 at 1:30 pm #

      Seconded Rossco on the Marathon Plus suggestion. Ive got them on my Brompton and on all of my commuter road bikes. I’m even thinking of putting them on my weekend faster road bike as Im sure the amount of time I might lose from having slightly heavier tyres will be more than offset by the amount of time I spend fixing punctured tubes with regular tyres by the roadside while my groupetto rides off into the distance!

      Yes they can be a bit harder to fit originally but nothing a set of zip ties can’t help with if you really need them.

      And combine them with a set of slime inner tubes on your commuter bike and you’ve got a virtually fail safe setup for riding to work on.

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