So you’re thinking of upgrades—that means you’re serious about ’cross! It can get pricey—think a whole new drivetrain or carbon wheels—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.

In general, we find it all too common for cyclocross racers to reach for the credit card and purchase fancy race wheels or a whole new bike before really analyzing what they’re riding, what their goals are, and what will provide the biggest return on investment.

There are plenty of affordable items that can make a big difference in your racing experience. We believe there are three “buckets” of affordable upgrades you can make before you get into the territory of new wheels:

  1. Speed: You might think this means new wheels, but if you’re still rolling on stiff, narrow clinchers with inner tubes, you’re at a major disadvantage compared to racers able to ride a lower pressure without flatting.
  2. Operation: We’re tempted to buy new bikes simply because the old one doesn’t work like it did when it was new. But there’s a number of small, affordable upgrades to get it back to like-new operation.
  3. Psychosomatic: If you feel comfortable, you’ll race confidently. If you feel pro, you might race like a pro.

Today, we’ll take a look at some great options to consider in each “bucket” and hear from three outside experts on their favorite upgrades.  The good news is that there are options well under $50 in all three buckets that even most budget-constrained racers can justify.

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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. Chances are they’re too hard.

If you’re on a tight budget and currently racing with clinchers and want to use your current wheels, you’ve got five options to get rollin’ faster and make it to the finish line.

  1. Upgrading your inner tubes
  2. Get rid of inner tubes
  3. Move to higher volume tires
  4. Move to more supple tires
  5. Choose a more course-appropriate tread

Inner tubes are the first cheap and easy way to upgrade: drop weight, ride lower pressures and avoid pinch flats with one simple change. Don’t be tempted to swap a cyclocross width tube for an ultralight road with tube just to save weight. You’ll flat that narrow tube in no time, as our CXM Labs tests have verified. Instead, consider latex tubes as a relatively affordable upgrade that lets you ride lower pressure without pinch flatting. Sure, it’s hard to justify paying $16 for an inner tube, but when tires cost more than $40 a pop, you’d rather make sure they don’t pop while racing, right?

Better yet, get ride of inner tubes completely, and make the switch to tubeless. No matter what anyone else says, there are now enough tire options out there that with a conversion kit or liberal use of Gorilla tape, that it’s possible to convert your current wheels if you can’t afford a ready-to-go tubeless wheelset.

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. Heck, if you have the room and will be facing dry conditions, bigger volume gravel tires like the (undersized) Maxxis 40c Rambler are light, supple and tubeless ready [reviewed here] and typically will be faster than your average narrow cyclocross tire on a bumpy course.

In the era that the Merckx Titane was built, narrow cyclocross tires were commonplace, so these 35mm Ritchey Shield clinchers are a tight squeeze. © Cyclocross Magazine

The Ritchey Shield, with its generous 35c size in both tubeless and non-tubeless versions, adds 3-4mm of width and associated volume over a stock cyclocross tire, and will have you rolling lower pressure and faster over bumpy terrain. © Cyclocross Magazine

You can also look for a more supple tire for better bump compliance and a faster-rolling tread if conditions allow. “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.

The Challenge Almanzo, the heftier choice. © Clifford Lee

The handmade Challenge Almanzo, formerly the Grifo XS, is more supple than most nylon vulcanized clinchers, and the tread certainly rolls easily over hardpack and dry grass. © Clifford Lee

Coach Chris Mayhew agrees, saying:

“For cheap upgrades, I would say start with tires. That’s really the biggest bang-for-your-buck performance upgrade you can make on a cyclocross bike and arguably the most important one as well. You can win on Shimano 105 but having the wrong tires makes it really hard to win.”

We hear it already. “Make the switch to tubulars,” traditionalists are shouting. It’s fine advice.We think even though tubeless has come so far that it’s often all many of us ride, tubulars are hard to beat for the serious racer. Buying a used set of tubular wheels doesn’t have to break the bank, but our context listed above was more affordable upgrades that use an existing clincher wheelset.

Mechanic Jeremy Chinn reminds all of us that you don’t have to always upgrade your bike but can upgrade your attention to detail:

“Getting the right pressure does not have to cost a lot. 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.”

Keep reading for some small, affordable changes that can make all the difference in your bike’s operation.

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