So you’re thinking of upgrades—that means you’re serious about ’cross! It can get pricey—think a whole new drivetrain—or it can be as simple as a new handlebar tape.
The first question to ask yourself is why you want to upgrade your components. Chances are you’re looking for speed or performance gains, or freshening up a stale ride to get you psyched for another season of racing.
Get Faster by Lowering Rolling Resistance, Reducing Flats
For speed gains, your number one goal should be getting to the finish line without flatting, and reducing rolling resistance. How do you do that? Take a hard look at your tires and tubes.
If you’re on a tight budget and currently racing with clinchers and want to use your current wheels, you’ve got four options to get rollin’ faster and make it to the finish line.
Inner tubes are the first cheap and easy way to upgrade: drop weight, ride lower pressures and avoid pinch flats with one simple change. LINK
Tire upgrades are a great place to start. Chances are your bike came with a tire that’s too narrow, not very supple, or with a tread not ideal for your riding conditions. Compared to bike or wheels, tires are relatively inexpensive but can vastly improve your ride, and if you have a clincher or tubeless setup, you can be ready to tackle any conditions that are thrown at you. Check out our tire reviews here, and make sure you’re subscribed to Cyclocross Magazine, where we review new treads in almost every issue!
If you’re racing clinchers, you’ll probably want to search for a higher volume tire than what came on your bike (think 35c instead of 32c unless you are racing UCI events). You’ll be able to run them at lower pressure, have less risk of pinch flatting, and have lower rolling resistance. You can also look for a more supple tire for better bump compliance. “Open tubulars” or higher TPI (threads per inch) often will mean a faster, more comfortable ride and better traction. Most bikes come with “universal” treads, and so if you find yourself often racing in mud, or in dry, fast hardpack conditions, you can look for a tread that better suits your course or conditions.
If you’re on a budget, think contact points. That means where the bike contacts the trail (tires), and where you contact the bike: shifting, braking, handlebar tape, saddle and shoes.
Brake pads, cables and housing are small, affordable upgrades that can make huge, noticeable improvements in your ride. How many times do you brake or shift during a lap or ride? Each time you’ll appreciate the better braking or lighter, more accurate shifts.
Your contact points can help with comfort, and make riding more enjoyable, comfortable, and make you more confident. Grippy or cushioned bar tape is a cheap way to make your bike feel new again. Getting a saddle that fits you perfectly makes everything better, and shoes that fit and grip will help with your efficiency and comfort and should provide lasting benefits.
If you’ve got more a budget, getting a set of race wheels will add to the convenience and performance of just replacing tires. You can look for tubular or tubeless options, or just lighter rims for better acceleration and a smaller bruise on your shoulder from run-ups.
Shifting and braking, beyond cables and housing, can always be a noticeable upgrade, as new technology is always being released (Di2), more gears are being added (11-speeds) or taken away (CX1), and components typically get lighter. If you’re running disc brakes, hydraulic brakes, if not recalled, can add control and reduce your hand effort.
For more info, check out Issue 22’s Upgrades list, and Issue 24’s in-depth look at drivetrains.
We also asked a few top mechanics to weigh in on their first picks for cheap upgrades, and we got a lot of great and varied responses. Click through to see some of our favorite upgrade suggestions.
Jason Gardner of Jinji Cycles
Saddle: stock saddles are usually of the “value version.” Having a saddle that fits you is indispensable in building an efficient ride. All the fancy parts and bits are worthless if you hate sitting on your bike. Spend some time and money to find the right one.
Cables: $100 can go a long way to upgrading your shifting with a new cable system. You can move up to semi sealed and fully sealed systems that shift more smoothly for a longer period of time and are less affected by the elements. Some good options include Gore Ride-On, Jagwire, Yokozuna, and Shimano’s XTR level semi sealed system.
Headset: for cyclocross racing, a quality headset is extremely important in my opinion. Again, most stock bikes come with a value oriented model; it’s a good place for a manufacturer to save cost. ’Cross racing is dirty business and lower quality headsets do not keep the dirt and grime out as effectively as their more expensive versions. Dirty headsets make noise, rust, and can affect the bicycle’s handling. Unfortunately for some integrated versions, there are no upgrades so keep an eye on it and replace the bearings as necessary.
Adjustability is a wonderful thing for any bike. It makes race day adjustments easier and quicker, and ensures that everything is fine-tuned as good as can be. That’s why I like Jagwire Inline Cable Adjusters — they are inexpensive components, but can be a great help on cyclocross bikes, especially for front derailleur cables where many bikes don’t have any facility for adjustment. They can also be great additions to brake cables to fine-tune the pull.
For the singlespeeders, buy yourself several extra cogs. Different courses require different ratios. A selection of extra cogs makes getting the right ratio on race day much easier. Don’t forget the right wrench and chainwhip to change them!
Racers that run a 1 by 9 or 1 by 10 need something better to keep the chain on the ring in front. The N-Gear Jumpstop is a great little device that will keep the chain on the inside. A BBG bashguard will keep the chain from jumping off the outside. For those that want a single item solution, the Pauls Chainkeeper does the job well and looks good too!
Traction is the best upgrade to any cyclocross bike, but new tubulars, or even new clincher tires can run more than $100 a set. Getting the right pressure does not have to cost a lot though. Buy a top quality pump with a good gauge, or a pump and a separate high quality gauge that fits Presta valves. Add a notebook to that to keep track of correct pressures and you’re set to find the right pressure for the course you’ll be racing and the right tools to achieve it.
[Ed. Note: another way to ensure dialed-in pressure is with the Craftsman Inflator, which was reviewed last week.]
Chris Mayhew of JBV Coaching
Mayhew agrees with us that tires should be the first upgrade (read his rationale here).
Pedals might be an equal upgrade. I realize there’s a lot of debate about what’s best. And the other “non-best” pedals have really improved. My personal recommendation is Time pedals for their mud clearance and ease of use. It’s a contact point you’re constantly in touch with and they need to work every time, multiple times per lap.
Brake pads are an easy upgrade as well. It is almost impossible to beat Kool Stop Salmon pads. They last forever, stop very well and don’t retain grit like most other pads. That’s a $10 upgrade that’s almost a game changer. I’ve found the green Swiss Stops to work about as well but they wear much faster. The Kool Stops are compatible with a lot of carbon rims too if you’re cool like that.
Bar tape is an easy and cheap upgrade. It’s hard to find something that is a bit padded and holds up well in the mud but there are tapes that will do that. And the handlebars are a contact point you’re constantly in touch with either when steering or when shouldering.
In general, I’m not a big fan of having one fancy bike with Red and carbon wheels Dugasts. As my boss John Verheul says, two crappy bikes are faster than one nice bike. Get a bike that’s good enough (nice tires and pedals) and put that extra money towards entry fees or a second identical bike.
Get schooled in cyclocross with our Cyclocross Academy class list here, and make sure you’re subscribed to Cyclocross Magazine, your guide for getting into the sport, and upping your ’cross knowledge. Not subscribed yet? For the newbies, our Issue 21 has a great feature on buying your first cyclocross bike, and Issue 22 has a story on how to get into racing and what to expect at your first race.