Cheap ways to improve a cheap bike?
March 29, 2009 8:02 PM   Subscribe

What are some cheap or easy things I can do to improve my crummy road bike?

I have a pretty standard used road bike (I paid I think a little more than $100 for it). I use it for commuting 5 miles round trip each day, and for longer rides on the weekend. All of the components are either original, or have been replaced with, again, totally average parts. I love bicycling, but are there simple things I can do to this bike to make me enjoy riding it more? Getting nicer pedals? New chain? Better fit? Where should I start? Any suggestions specific to the East Bay area would be much appreciated, e.g. which shop gives the best fit?
posted by one_bean to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (28 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Assuming you're not looking to put a lot of money into this, I think the changes that would have the most utility for you would be either fit or shoes. I'm assuming from your nicer pedals comment that you're already using clip-in pedals, so if you don't already have shoes with a seriously stiff sole, think about looking into them. Upgrading my shoes was one of the things that made the biggest difference for me. If you're willing to throw a little more money at it than that, upgrading your wheels a bit will also make an appreciable difference.

As for your chain, a new one shouldn't make too much difference unless your old one is worn out, but make sure you're lubing and cleaning it regularly enough to keep it in relatively good shape.
posted by lhputtgrass at 8:07 PM on March 29, 2009

A few suggestions off the top: fenders, pannier bags / basket, bell, nicer lock, good headlamp.
posted by The White Hat at 8:10 PM on March 29, 2009

Wow no answers at all? Sad.

Fit would be an easy starting point. It's worth figuring out if your seat height and stem length work right for you. A good shop will do this, and will not try to rip you off with "wow you need a brand new bike!" But it'll cost $50 at least.

Pedals: you might invest in toe clips so you can pedal more efficiently. That can also help you figure out whether you want to invest in fancy clipless shoes/pedals.

You can also consider using slick tires, which offer less resistance (unless you are offroading, tread on tires is there just to make you feel good, not because it offers more grip on smooth pavement). Also a pump that allows you to keep them inflated to the proper pressure.

Bar tape? If yours is all torn up, you can get some nice new tape that is a bit more comfortable on your paws.

Look for a good bike repair book, which you can use to figure out whether you need a new anything. You'll save money on repairs and you can figure out whether things need adjusting, replacement and so on.
posted by drmarcj at 8:11 PM on March 29, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for the replies so far. To answer a few questions: I don't have clips on my pedals. I also am trying to save money for a new touring bike, but will probably keep this one for the commute into the future.
posted by one_bean at 8:21 PM on March 29, 2009

1. Paint flames on the side. Or pirates. Or lazers.
2. two bicycle cards in the spokes makes awesome noise.
3. Get some spoke lights from monkeylectric or hokeyspokes.
4. Buy a removeable fender to prevent muddy messes.
5. Clean your chain. Inspect for rust. If rusty and worn out, replace the chain.
6. Get some nice Finish Line Chain Lube.
7. Get some Tri Flow and apply it to your derailleur adjustments.
8. Inspect breakpads. replace as necessary.
9. Bike Gloves improve the quality of the ride emensely.
10. Install a cup holder.
posted by Nanukthedog at 8:22 PM on March 29, 2009 [5 favorites]

saddle saddle saddle saddle saddle saddle saddle.

I don't know why you're not exactly enjoying cycling more, but one thing that can really take the wind out of your sails right quick is bad saddle interface.
get a real good saddle. one that doesn't press the wrong man/lady bits and the work is halfway done. This is not just the saddle, but also the angle, with respect to your bits and the handlebars. If there's a good bike shop around, they should be able to help you. otherwise, an allen wrench and trial and error are fine.
okay, profile checking, man bits. bike shop should be easy.
Then get a $100 tune up. get all the rotating parts greased, the deraileurs limited, the bottom bracket repacked et. voila, you should be feeling much better. If you don't already have skinny-ish tires and alloy rims, look into it, they can help the overall "ride" of a bike immensely.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 8:25 PM on March 29, 2009

Fit is the single most important aspect of bicycle riding. You can google around for tips on adjusting your seat height, handlebars and the like. If you have the spare change getting a proper fitting from a professional shop would be nice. Of course, all of this may cause your realize that your bike is either too big or small and send off shopping for another ride.

A cheap set of entry level tools will get you started tuning and adjusting your bike. Nashbar sells cheap, low-quality tool sets for $40 or so. At the very least you want to invest in metric allen wrenches and maybe an adjustable wrench or two. With that you should be able to make most fit related adjustments.

If you ride in the rain, fenders will make your commute much more tolerable. Not only do they keep you muck free, they also keep your bike clean and that means less work for you.

Probably the single two things that will freshen up any old road bike is new tires and new bar tape.

- Tires come in every shape and size and if you're unsure what you need you should consult your local bike shop. Yes, you can buy $5.99 tires at Wal-Mart (well, not really) but spend the extra money on a good set of commuter tires (~$40 - $50.) If you bike takes 700c wheels then the 700c x 28 size seems pretty good, though some commuters prefer wider tires like 700c x 32 or 35. A wider tire will soak up bumps better, but be slower. If your bike has older 27" wheels then your options are much more limited. You maybe able to find nice tires, but you should probably start thinking about new wheels or an all new bike.

- Bar tape comes in all shapes and sizes. Wrapping bars is a skill and an art, but anyone can do an okay job. Google around for YouTube videos explaining some of the ways you can do it.

If the bike is ridding really lousy and you're completely overwhelmed at the thought of tuning it, then take it in for a professional tuning. A good mechanic will take the time to explain everything he does to the bike so the next time you'll be better prepared to do it yourself.

Several good bike repair books out there. The Bicycling magazine books are fine entry level texts. Also, a subscription to Bicycling Magazine itself wouldn't be a bad idea. It's not a great magazine, but good for newbies.
posted by wfrgms at 8:27 PM on March 29, 2009

Response by poster: I don't know why you're not exactly enjoying cycling more

Sorry, let me be more clear. I could start upgrading random components of my bike, from one to two parts, to replacing everything except the frame, to getting a completely new bike. Mine feels creaky and old, sort of non-responsive. I'm wondering what are the best couple of things I can do to improve the performance of my bike without going totally nuts and replacing everything. Thanks again.
posted by one_bean at 8:46 PM on March 29, 2009

Oh... one thing I forgot: new brake pads. Especially on an older bike. Take some steel wool to the side of your rims to clear off any grime (unless the rims are anodized or painted, in which case you should use a degreaser and cloth.) New pads and clean braking surface will really improve stopping power.

Obvious, but new cables and cable housing can make all the difference for sloppy shifting and breaking too.

Brake pads, cleaning, new cables and housing... by far the cheapest way to make an old bike feel new.
posted by wfrgms at 8:56 PM on March 29, 2009

For me, switching from a geared road bike to a single speed road bike made all the difference in the world. (Actually, I ride a track bike, but you can convert a road bike to a single speed bike, too.) I never realized how much I hated gears until they were gone and I didn't have to deal with them anymore.

For more information, see Sheldon Brown's web site.

As for fit... I don't know what it's like where you live but where I live, bike stores don't charge you to go through a fit kit. I did it about 5 years ago and it was free and I did it last week and it was free. Of course, both times I went in expecting to buy a new bike (and the store, presumably, hoped to sell me one).

Fit, as others have said, is very important. I'd say 8 out of 10 people I see riding are on the wrong sized bike or at the very least have their seat at the wrong height. Do a search online for how to adjust your saddle to the proper height. Do that with your current bike (and the help of a friend), and you'll know if the bike is the wrong size. If it's technically impossible for you to put the seat where it belongs for an optimal fit, you're on the wrong sized bike. Occasionally, you can fix this with a different seat post or a different length stem but those can turn into band aid solutions.

If your current bike is the right size, I strongly suggest you look into converting it into a single speed bike.

Outside of comfort/size/efficiency, what you can do that will improve the bike is: change the hubs/wheels, change the bottom bracket, change the crank length, get better brakes. None of those things are really "cheap" to do, but with the exception of the brakes, all of these things are part of the drive train and effect how your body's efforts get results from pedaling the bike.

A different sized crank, for instance, is going to affect your ability to "get on top of" the bike. These things are measured in millimeters (for instance, my crank is 175mm. Cranks come in 172.5, 170, etc). Each alteration will effect the way I interact with the bike.

Same goes with things like cogs (the thing(s) with teeth that the chain grabs on the rear wheel). These are measured in teeth (t). A 16t cog has a different feel than an 18t or a 15t. Though it's "just one tooth", it can make a huge difference. (The smaller the cog, the "harder" it is for you to pedal but the faster you can make the bike go. Larger cog = easier but slower ride. Taken with the number of teeth on your chainring (the part that connects to the chain at the crank), you get a gear ratio. Changing one tooth here or there affects your ride. This is, of course, what's going on when you change gears. If you do switch to a single speed bike, you'll want to take the geography of your city into account to figure out what you want--for instance, a gear ratio that allows you to go crazy fast is not the optimum gear for going up a hill--so if you live in SF, you'll want a different gear ratio than someone who lives in NYC.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 9:02 PM on March 29, 2009

Note that my, "then you're on the wrong sized bike" is an extreme oversimplification as there can be many other factors (standover height, top tube length, etc.), but for most people's purposes, the ride can be drastically improved if the saddle can be positioned to properly get them over the crank, making the ride more efficient and comfortable.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 9:05 PM on March 29, 2009

I was going to say get clipless pedals/shoes, but you would be better served with getting a new bike.

Really toe clips are the only thing here. Anything else worthwhile, the cost makes it better to get a good bike.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:07 PM on March 29, 2009

1) Fit. Fit is key. If the bike doesn't fit you, and if you're not comfortable on the bike, then nothing else matters.
2) A good saddle (with good bike shorts). You can move this to your new bike when you purchase it.
3) Good shoes and clilpless pedals. You'll be more comfortable, more efficient, and faster. Again, you can move this to your new bike.
4) Comfortable gloves. More padding isn't necessarily better. Try several to see what works for you.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 9:16 PM on March 29, 2009

Go single-speed (if your local geography allows), and go clipless.
posted by nicwolff at 9:24 PM on March 29, 2009

I always tell people to shop for bikes based on the frame. If your bike feels creaky and old, chances are the frame is junk. Why spend money on junk? Enjoy it for what it is, a cheap junk bike. Spend your money on tools so you can repair it properly and learn how to tweak it for an optimal ride, meaning everything works the way it's supposed to. Maybe spend some money on foam grips or a good seat. Otherwise, let it rust and don't spend anything on it besides making sure it's safe and in good road condition.

Spend your money on things you can move to your next ride, like a pump, a tool kit for the bike, and lighting. Respect your junker for what it is and don't try to make it something it is not. Wheels can make a huge difference in your ride. If they are junk, you could improve your ride by swapping them out.

Overhauling a bike is pretty easy to do. Why not get a book, the tools and do it yourself. When you get another ride, you'll know how to do it.

Trips for Kids is having their summer swap coming up. Check that out or any bike swap. Best place to find the cool deals on bike stuff. Shops are great but you'll pay the retail price.
posted by diode at 9:25 PM on March 29, 2009

I've had a local bike mechanic add a larger low gear in back and a smaller inner ring in front for better hill climbing ability. This didn't cost a lot, he had used parts. I did have to change the rear derailleur to a longer one for the larger gear and correspondingly get a longer chain. Shop around, get prices unless you're a good bike hacker already.

I also replaced the not very good original caliper brakes with better ones, about $80 total for front and back, worth it for extra safety.

I also put on an extra large gel seat, but I may experiment further with this.

Also added a handlebar stem extender - now I don't have to lean so far over to reach the bars.
posted by cdc at 9:40 PM on March 29, 2009

If you're wanting to tour in the future, you may want to think about getting things you can use on that bike as well. I have a very average road bike that I've done a lot of touring on, but any time I had to replace a part on it, I tried to buy things I could put on a touring bike.

This is also a great time to learn maintenance skills you may need on tour, so I'd get some cheap tools and start learning how to do some basic repairs like replacing the chain, adjusting brakes and cables, etc. You may find that new cables help your shifting feel more responsive anyway. Some cables are easier to switch out than others, though, so you may just want to have a shop do this for you.

I think clipless pedals are great and would never suggest that anyone get toe clips as a way of finding out whether they would like clipless pedals because the feeling for the two is really different (and getting out of clipless pedals requires an instinctive sideways motion of the foot rather than the non-instinctive motion of pulling your foot backward that is required by the toe clips). If you want something in between clips and clipless, look into Power Grips instead.
posted by BlooPen at 9:48 PM on March 29, 2009

0. All the safety trimmings: Good lights, comfy helmet AND A MIRROR. Biking is 10 x more enjoyable when you can better gauge the passing distance that schmuck driver you can hear behind you is going to give you.
1. Fit
2. Ergonomic seat (I've had luck with the Serfas Rx brand)
3. All the weather trimmings: fenders, rain gear, gloves, ear warmers. I really want to try out these rain chaps
3. My hybrid commuter bike eventually became my utility bike with a strong rack and panniers. The best surprise I ever bought were the REI housebrand Novara ($50! For a pair!) panniers. They look weak, but I've loaded those suckers with laundry baskets full of four loads of laundry on many occasions and they barely flinch. (Another two loads towed behind.)
posted by Skwirl at 10:07 PM on March 29, 2009

What kind of bike is it? How old? A "pretty standard road bike" could be lots of things. How long are your weekend rides? What is your maintenance routine like?

One simple upgrade that worked to motivate me was a cyclocomputer. I started keeping track of my rides on weendure for the Metafilter monthly challenges. It's great to see the miles add up, and having numerical feedback means a never-ending supply of new goals--get to work in under half an hour, keep my pace up above 20mph for a long stretch, etc.
posted by hydrophonic at 10:18 PM on March 29, 2009

Response by poster: What kind of bike is it? How old? A "pretty standard road bike" could be lots of things. How long are your weekend rides? What is your maintenance routine like?

Fuji 10 speed, I'm guessing late 70s (not sure of the model). Right now nothing more than 20-30 miles on the weekend. I have never performed maintenance on this bike other than checking the tires and adjusting the gears.

I do have some front and rear lights that I bought for it, a comfy helmet, and I'm totally satisfied with the seat. Sounds like a tune-up, clips, and a fitting are at the top of the list.
posted by one_bean at 10:51 PM on March 29, 2009

Best answer: With the kind of maintenance you are doing, your biggest immediate change would be to thoroughly clean or replace your chain. I would recommend cleaning and re-lubricating your chain once every 30 days of riding, or every 7 days in wet weather.

It will be a huge improvement in ride quality for the price of a couple of used tooth brushes (free), a bottle of simple green ($3), some rags (free), and some bike chain oil ($10).
posted by idiopath at 11:48 PM on March 29, 2009

dude, everything that moves, wears. so the "looseness" feel could be contributed by a lot of things. to make a bike feel stable, focus on the wheels and brakes. once the wheels roll well (well lubricated, and light if possible) and the brakes are sharp, it will go and stop = responsive. if you are happy with both of those things, it comes down to contact points = grips, seat and pedals. but if the bike is that old, do the least, and spend the most on the new bike.
posted by edtut at 1:22 AM on March 30, 2009

Best answer: Sounds like a tune-up, clips, and a fitting are at the top of the list.

Yep, exactly. Clips are cheap (plastic are dirt-cheap, nice metal MKS clips are slightly more than cheap). A tune-up will help with the responsiveness, especially in shifting and braking (make sure you get new cables!), and the fitting will make it more comfortable.

If I were you, though, I wouldn't go beyond that. There's only so much one can do to make a beat old bike of questionable initial quality and questionable upkeep between its origin and your purchase of it ride better. Do those things, and then save for something new.
posted by The Michael The at 5:41 AM on March 30, 2009

The most noticeable and best bang-for-your-buck upgrades probably relate mostly to either comfort, contact points or wear: saddle, handlebar tape, bar/stem, tires, stuff like that. And if you don't have a helmet and some basic tools (at absolute minimum, stuff to replace a tube with) already, buy them.
posted by box at 5:48 AM on March 30, 2009

Fuji 10 speed, I'm guessing late 70s

You most definitely have 27" wheels. If you've got steel rims, then consider a new set of wheels. Aluminum rims are lighter and stop much faster than steel, especially when it's wet. You'll be able to find new 27" rims, but your bike shop should be able to tell you if the modern 700 size rims will work on your bike. (It's an issue of your brake calipers reaching the slightly smaller size.) If you get 700s then your front wheel will be interchangeable with your new bike. Your rear won't be, because of the gearing. But you'll have a spare tire.

What kind of lock do you carry? You can replace the quick-release skewers on your wheels and seatpost with ones that lock using a special keyed wrench. Then all you need to do lock down is your frame, and this U-lock that fits in your back pocket will take care of that. Again, these can be moved to your new bike, or you can order another set of locks that take the same keys.

Once you get your new bike, your might want to keep your old one running as your clunker, set up with fenders and a rack. Use it for wet weather, hauling, or for locking up in sketchy areas where you wouldn't want to risk your new bike.
posted by hydrophonic at 9:17 AM on March 30, 2009

I got a used road bike not too long ago. The first thing I did was replace all of the cables and cable housings. That stuff is super cheap, and the cable housings were one of the few things on the bike that really looked worn out.

New brake pads are cheap. Bar tape is cheap.

Taking the bike apart and cleaning everything doesn't cost much at all, either.
posted by bengarland at 10:37 AM on March 30, 2009

The other thing you might consider doing is overhauling the hubs, replacing the (ball) bearings, repacking them with lithium grease and checking the cones for wear (this is assuming you don't have sealed bearings, which is very unlikely). You can get away with fewer tools than that link suggests. You only really need an adjustable wrench, which is an essential tool for pretty much any bike job, and cone spanners which are cheap. On my older road bike, I would replace the bearings and repack the grease on a yearly basis as a matter of course.
posted by tallus at 5:00 PM on March 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh, and just resetting them can make a difference.
posted by tallus at 5:01 PM on March 30, 2009

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