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Friday, May 17, 2024

Unlock Your Cycling Fitness Goals by Upgrading Your Bike

Shops across the country have been doing their level best to stock up on bikes this holiday season. But the increased demand compounded by Covid-related supply-chain issues may mean Santa comes up empty-handed in the shiny new toy department this year. And while a bike under the tree is the best kind of thrill, there are other ways to keep the joy alive, like learning how to better maintain, upgrade, and fix the one you have in your garage. Your body could do with some fine-tuning as well; there’s no substitute for keeping fit enough to fire on all cylinders throughout the year.

We asked some of the most trusted brains in performance cycling how to make the most out of whatever two wheels you have underneath you. Here’s what they had to tell us.

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Become a Better Mechanic

“When you start working on your own bike, you start learning a sense of the mechanics and physics that are going to make you a better rider,” says Calvin Jones, a former US National and Olympic Teams mechanic who’s now the director of education at the St. Paul, Minnesota–based bike tool company Park Tool. “Once you get a sense of being a mechanic, it’s really going to make you appreciate the ride more and diagnose issues that you are having.”

Even if you have problems you can’t fix on your own, Jones adds, “if you can go in and have an intelligent conversation with the shop, they are going to see you know and care about your bike and they’ll do a better job.”

Before you start blindly meddling, invest in Park Tool’s Big Blue Book of Bicycle Repair, written by Jones himself. Currently in its fourth edition, the book starts out with the basics and, by chapter 19, has covered everything from internal gear systems to suspension. You’ll also need a good set of bike-specific tools. The company’s new Home Mechanic Starter Kit ($160) offers 15 basic tools and products that beginners need to clean, maintain, and repair their bikes. It includes the special tools for repairing a chain or removing a gear cassette, plus simpler tools like an 8-millimeter hex wrench and a basic #2 Phillips screwdriver for making adjustments. Added bonus: The tools come in their own box and, best of all, it includes a copy of the Big Blue Book of Bicycle Repair.

To keep your bike working as long as possible, it’s also imperative to clean it—not necessarily after every ride, but definitely after one in which mud or grime gunks up the drivetrain. Invest in Muc Off’s 5X Premium Brush Kit ($35) and a bottle of Dawn dish soap, which is great for bikes. If you want to really blast the dirt off, go big with the company’s Pressure Washer Bicycle Bundle ($260).

To properly fix or wash your bike, a repair stand is a great convenience. It holds your bike off the floor at shoulder height, so you don’t have to bend over to work on it, and so it doesn’t roll around while you’re going at it with a wrench. For shop-level tinkering, Park Tools’ electric Power Lift Shop Stand ($2,196) is the Ferrari of its line. But the company’s portable Team Issue Repair Stand ($324) is good enough for World Cup mechanics, so it’s probably good enough for you.

One bit of advice from Jones before you take your whole bike apart: “Know your limits in competency and tooling,” he says. “You can learn how to change your brake pads at home, but bleeding your brakes is one you might want to take to a shop.”

Refresh Your Contact Points

Contact points are interchangeable parts of the bike that your body directly or indirectly comes in contact with, like the handlebars, saddle, pedals, stem, and seatpost. All five of these components can be highly customized to give you increased comfort and control while you ride.

For women, a quick and essential upgrade is to swap out the saddle, the most gender-specific component on a bike. Terry is a pioneer in women’s saddles. Its best-selling Butterfly Cromoloy Gel Saddle ($89) has been in its lineup since 1999. Its seamless center reduces pressure points, and a thin layer of gel on top of the saddle makes long days fly by. Velo’s Angel TT ($198-$290) has an added layer of highly shock-absorbing foam; an open Y-shaped cut in the center that provides ventilation and pressure relief; and lightweight carbon or titanium rails. Plus it comes in a rainbow of fresh colors (with matching grip tape) that make any old bike pop.


There will come a day soon when riding with a seat-softening chamois will be a relic of the past, thanks to new technology like Specialized’s 3D-printed saddle that’s made from a complex latticework of thousands of polymer strands that can be infinitely fine-tuned to custom fit any body. At $450, the S-Works Power With Mirror is extravagantly expensive, but it may quite literally save your ass.

There are endless ways to tweak stems (length, angle, material); handlebars (width, style, material, grips); and pedals (clipless or flats). But in each case, the right choice for you really boils down to what fits your body best and makes your ride more enjoyable. Beware that carbon components like stems and handlebars can cost hundreds more dollars than their alloy counterparts. But one inexpensive and relatively brainless upgrade is handlebar grips. ODI grips promise more padding without the bulk and offer flash colors like cinnamon red or Swedish blue and yellow. Plus, they make fun stocking stuffers.

Get to Know Your Tires

Tires are the only part of your bike that make contact with the ground, which makes it imperative to invest in the right setup. This depends on how and where you ride.

Specialized has been manufacturing tires since 1976, which gives the company a half century of R&D knowledge about rubber. But it still took its team of chemists in the Netherlands and teams of designers in Germany and the US years to create the ideal sticky rubber recipe for mountain bike tires. The result is the T9, a new rubber compound that maximizes grip even after being compressed. Specialized put the new rubber into a tire with a new tread pattern that offers better support while cornering. The tire also has a stiffer sidewall; this lets a rider lower the tire pressure, which allows the tire to form around obstacles like roots and rocks while still maintaining its structure. The structure ensures the tire doesn’t pinch flat, the annoying disruption when the tire presses against the tube hard enough to perforate it, usually leaving two puncture wounds that look like a snakebite.

I put two of Specialized’s new tires on my mountain bike: the new Butcher 2Bliss Ready T9 ($60) on my front wheel and the new Eliminator Grid 2Bliss Ready T7 ($60) in back. (The T7 uses a slightly less sticky compound that makes the tire roll faster.) I rode my regular backyard cross-country loop that contains stretches of technical singletrack and long, linked downhill flow trails. The new set helped me stick a few of the more challenging, rocky uphill sections that always give me trouble, and I more confidently cornered berms on the downhills without the immortal fear of sliding out even on the greasiest dirt. The less sticky T7 in back allowed me to roll with more speed through the cross-country sections.

Whether you're buying new tires or riding on rubber you already love, remember: Even a new tire is only as good as the pressure of the air in it. It’s imperative to play around with your tire pressure depending on how you ride, what terrain you’re riding, and how much pressure changes throughout the course of the day due to altitude or temperature fluctuations.

“I like to think about tire pressure in the way I think about cooking,” says Calvin Jones. “Julia Child told you to measure the ingredients of a recipe using measuring cups and spoons.” Translated to cycling, that means a good pressure gauge is another handy tool. I like Park Tool’s Shop Inflator ($135). For a less expensive two-in-one solution, go with Topeak’s Joeblow Sport 2Stage pump ($100), which not only pumps air into your tires quickly with less effort, but also has an easy-to-read analogue gauge on top that's accurate enough for cyclists who like to judge their tire pressure by feel.

“Feeling your tire pressure is really important,” says Jones. “A good cook is not putting in a teaspoon of salt, they are going to pour it in their hand and feel it out.” To get better at more accurately feeling out tire pressure, Jones recommends keeping a journal.

“People just throw air in there, dial it up, and go ride, but then it’s still this big mystery,” Jones says. “But if you start recording the pressure you put in and felt good on, say, a really rocky ride, that helps you remember what you need for future situations."

Cyclists who ride in changing altitudes, those who compete in long-distance "ultra" rides, or those who just obsess over tire pressure will also want to invest in SRAM’s Tyrewiz ($199) a device that fits on the tire’s valve that relays real-time pressure to a mobile app. Over the long haul, this saves wear and tear on both the bike and the rider—riding in the correct pressure range helps avoid flats and blowouts that inevitably come with under- or over-inflated tires.

Stay Fit

Too many holiday treats—cookies, beers, cocktails, whatever your vice—will always slow you down on the bike. We’re all for the occasional indulgence, but a way to ensure you don’t go overboard is to do a weekly weigh-in. Experts recommend that weighing in once per week (rather than once per day), allows you to focus on healthy behaviors rather than become hyper-focused on small weight fluctuations that may mean nothing. Garmin’s new Index S2 Smart Scale ($150) tracks weight, BMI, body fat percentage, skeletal muscle mass, and water weight. Weigh in for a month and it will show your fluctuations in a chart format so you can easily see how much you are progressing or regressing.


Those obsessed with measurements like body fat, however, need to understand that the scale estimates the metrics other than weight using impedance, which means that it runs a small electrical current up through your feet measuring the body’s resistance to the current. The scale then crunches age, height, weight, gender, and activity level into a proprietary algorithm that produces the body fat, bone density, and skeletal muscle mass measurements. These may be close to your real measurements, but are likely not perfect.

In winter months, it might be mandatory to ride inside or to cross train, which is where Wahoo’s new Elemnt Rival ($380) multisport GPS watch comes in handy. Unlike a handle-bar mounted GPS navigation system that most cyclists prefer, you can take this watch anywhere—to the gym, the yoga studio, on a run, or even into the pool.

Designed for triathletes, the watch’s “Touchless Transition” allows users to push just one button at the beginning of a race or workout, and it automatically knows when the transition to a new sport occurs. Its “multi-sport handover” feature allows a handlebar-mounted GPS like the Wahoo Elemnt Roam ($380) to display cumulative workout metrics from all disciplines gathered from the watch. Another handy feature is its built-in, wrist-based optical heart-rate monitor. For increased accuracy, it’s also compatible with Wahoo’s Ticker X ($80) heart rate sensor chest strap that tracks heart rate, calories burned, running analytics, and indoor cycling cadence.

The watch already tracks multitudes of sports including open-water swimming, running, triathlon, indoor training, strength training, and yoga. But, say you want to add a sport like Nordic skiing. It’s easy to add and customize the metrics for any sport via the accompanying app. And any day now, Wahoo says it will offer a firmware update that will track your sleep. So rest easy.

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