The Art of the Upgrade

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, May 1999

The Art of the Upgrade

Whether you need the whole or just a few of the parts, here's how to make sure your steed is up to speed

Bikes | Pedals | Forks | Wheels | Saddles

Thoreau made such a big to-do about fixing things old rather than buying things new that it's sometimes difficult to look at that garage full of sporting equipment without feeling a little conflicted. Sure, it makes sense to resole a snug pair of boots or replace a zipper in a bomber parka, but would Henry David really have you pass on all the jaw-dropping technological leaps made by bike manufacturers each year? Would he really expect you to still be riding a dinosaur that rolled off the assembly line way back in '95?

Yup. And in many cases, so would we. As long as your steed has a worthy frame, you can "fix" that old bike by doing nothing more taxing than making some artful choices at the local shop. Imagine the righteousness of riding a "clunker" with suspension that reads the terrain electronically, pedals guaranteed never to clog with mud, gossamer wheels made of the stuff that spacewalking astronauts use to tether themselves to their ships. Or, if you'd prefer to simply see these things, check out the pages that follow, which are chock-full of the latest ways to upgrade your bicycle.

Of course, that's not to say we've forgotten the rider who's still lugging a 34-pound, steel-rimmed, straight-gauge beast of the sort that only a Luddite could love. It may well be that the upgrade you need starts with the frame itself, so we've also chosen six fine bikes to take you from '99 to '09, and maybe beyond. Even if you're taking the brand-new route, don't feel too guilty: Your purchase may not follow the letter of Thoreau's law, but certainly it'll be in keeping with the spirit.

Starting from Scratch
There's a fine line between "need" and "want" in considering a new bike, but if the model you own dates back to the front end of this decade, the delineation becomes clearer. As wise as it is to upgrade the parts on a nice frame, if you're looking at replacing every nut and bolt, it'll cost less to pop for the whole package. Especially right now, when you can get a sub-$1,000 dual-suspension bike or, for twice as much, a sub-26-pound dual-suspension bike. And road riders will cheer the dawn of the 18-speed. In either case, we've found six bikes with good parts and good frames, eliminating any needs or wants for years to come.

Gary Fisher Hoo Koo E Koo

If you could spin down California's Mount Tamalpais Hoo Koo E Koo singletrack on its eponymous bike, you'd notice the resilient steel frame and Rock Shox Judy C suspension fork smoothing out the craggy sections. Of course, you can't ride the spectacular trail--legally, that is--since it was closed to bikes in 1979. But for $850 you can have your way with its 25-pound namesake on your home turf. The frame uses Genesis geometry, a trademark of Fisher (800-473-4743): long in front for sure cornering, short in back for gritty traction, stable all around. Indeed, in twisty redwood tunnels, the midlevel Shimano drivetrain and WTB VelociRaptor tires will have you feeling like Luke Skywalker at the controls of his X-Wing.

GT XCR 4000

GT unveiled the full-suspension breakthrough of the year with its new isolated-drive design. The bottom bracket is set off-center in a swiveling sleeve so that it'll stay put as the rear end absorbs bumps. So what, you say? Well, it eliminates the dreaded Bio-Pace effect--that familiar tug-of-war between your pedaling and the movement of the rear wheel--common with nearly all full-suspension bikes. Even in the granny gear, the i-drive allows you to pour on the juice without interference. Hats off to GT (888-482-4537) for offering the design in an affordable option, the XCR 4000, which sells for $980 and, accordingly, isn't light at 32 pounds. It has 4.6 inches of rear travel, controlled by a Rock Shox Deluxe coil-sprung shock, and 3.2 inches in the front, compliments of a Rock Shox Judy C fork. The frame is made of stout 6061 aluminum tubing.

Bianchi SuperBee

Like the classic Dodge muscle car of the same name, Bianchi's SuperBee (510-264-1001) brings power to the masses. Thirty years ago nearly anyone could own a solid chunk of Americana with a potent 383-cubic-inch engine and heavy-duty suspension; now, for $1,400, you can get a two-wheeled machine with similar machismo. Its might comes from a burly aluminum chassis whose rear triangle is built with superstiff rectangular "tubes" that meet at stiffer-still forged connections. As for suspension, the Shimano LX/XT­equipped SuperBee sports a Marzocchi Z.3 LT fork with four inches of travel that keeps the front end from diving, and a Rock Shox seatpost with two inches of travel to add comfort without complication. Though it's a bit heavy at 29 pounds, it lets you climb standing up--unlike standard dual-suspension rigs--knowing that your power will be put to work. In short, it's our favorite.

LeMond Buenos Aires

The Buenos Aires (800-785-8687) is an homage to cycling classicism: The yellow-with-cream panel paint job, the Cinelli stem, the pump peg all recall a style in vogue during Greg LeMond's conquests in the Tour de France and at the World Championships. But the carbon-fiber fork, superlight Reynolds 853 steel main tubes, and 18-speed Shimano 105 STI drivetrain prove that the 21.5-pound Buenos Aires is also a tribute to technological advances. The seat and head tubes are cocked back for a comfortable ride, and that carbon-fiber fork helps dissipate vibrations. A set of lighter wheels would make for snappier acceleration, but at a tick less than $1,500 the Buenos Aires is a mass-produced bike with all the nuance and workings of a custom gazelle that would cost considerably more.

Salsa La Cruz

Don't have the storage space for a fleet of two-wheelers? The La Cruz could be your one-bike solution. Designed for cyclocross, its impressive versatility stems from a funky amalgam of features: It has a road-bike-like frame with snappy handling, enough clearance for modest knobbies, cantilever brakes for formidable stopping power, and rack mounts for commuting or touring. Salsa (800-762-4688) will outfit the handcrafted frame with any combination of components you wish; we chose predominantly Shimano's budget road parts (105 STI), which work flawlessly, and supplemented them with off-road XT derailleurs for a dash of durability. Adding the triple-chainring cranks--the better to both spin up steeps and rocket along the flats--brought the total to $1,900. Though the 22.5-pound La Cruz can be a bit skittish in the dirt, stick with it until you become proficient and you may find yourself thinking: Who needs mountain bikes?

Specialized Stumpjumper FSR-XC Pro

If GT's new design is about revolutionizing full suspension, Specialized's FSR series is about refining an old idea--the four-bar linkage--to near perfection. In addition to gobbling up obstacles, the Stumpjumper FSR-XC Pro ($2,200; 800-245-3462) is improbably light, at 25.5 pounds. Pedal it and you won't feel like you're lugging big iron simply for the sake of whooping it up on the downhills, as has long been the case with dual suspension. The FSR-XC Pro owes its grace to a butted aluminum chassis and lightweight shocks (a Rock Shox SID XC fork with 2.5 inches of travel and, in back, a Fox Air Vanilla R with three inches of travel). The drivetrain is Shimano XTR/XT 27-speed; many of the other parts are made by Specialized. The house-brand clipless pedals perform well, but the knobbies come up short on loose trails. Thankfully, tires are cheap, and as often as you'll want to be out on this fine machine, you'll be upgrading them frequently anyway.--MARK RIEDY

A Quick Step Up
There are too many off-road clipless pedals to use a design that doesn't suit you. That goes for the set on your new bike, too--if you don't like them, swap them. Maybe you're into surefootedness, or mudproofness, or just saving your knees. Whatever your needs, the options herein offer the most innovative ways to meet them.

Shimano's PD-M545 ($100; 800-353-3817) has the versatility to please both clipless initiates and wild-eyed downhillers. The unit is housed in an aluminum cage, creating two pedals in one. If you're not clipped in, the platform is a welcome footrest, whether you're just getting the hang of it or fearful of being attached to a soon-to-be-airborne bike. There is a penalty at the scales, though: These go 570 grams a pair.

The Speedplay Frog ($180; 800-468-6694) is a different animal. Instead of putting the retention device in the pedal, Speedplay builds it into a svelte cleat, saving a hunk of weight. At a skosh over 200 grams for the titanium-spindle version, the Frog is just about the lightest option available. And because the cleat isn't held in one position by spring tension--your foot swivels freely on each stroke--people with knee problems swear by this pedal. The Frog can, however, be finicky to set up.

Mud maniacs will appreciate Time's ATAC design, which now comes in a budget-priced model, the Alium ($90; 800-724-9466). Instead of carbon fiber, the pedal body is made of aluminum, and rather than bearings the Alium uses faster-wearing bushings--but you save $190 over Time's priciest model. The beauty of all Time pedals is their simplicity: Two wide bales protrude from the body, making it a cinch to clip in no matter how gunked-up your cleats get. Quite simply, you'll never have to fuss with them. --M.R.

Post-Purchase Wisdom

  • Your new bike's not shifting like it did in the showroom? Don't run back to the shop just yet. Tighten the cables by turning the barrel adjusters on the shifters clockwise, a half turn at a time.
  • Many bikes come with cheap--and heavy--wire-bead tires. When they wear out, be sure to get skins with lighter Kevlar beads, which can painlessly shave a third of a pound of rotating weight.
  • Replacing a worn chain is the cheapest way to keep your bike running like new. Swap in a fresh one about every 30 off-road rides, lest you have to replace the chainrings and the cassette too--a much more costly proposition.

Smoothing Your Ride
Suspension forks may be less than a decade old, but the technology seems to have matured in dog years. Early shocks were complicated, heavy, maintenance-hungry monstrosities; now we have simpler, lighter models that don't need to be rebuilt after every ride. What this means, naturally, is that if yours is older than two years, it wouldn't be gluttonous to upgrade. Given that manufacturers offer as many as 15 different models, choosing can be tough. Indeed, most forks look similar from the outside, which is why we've focused on the insides--how they work, to be precise. The following selections all have something on the order of three inches of travel, making them ideal for pedaling up as well as zooming back down.


Entry-level forks use a stack of springs in each leg to sop up bumps. Most rely on some combination of a steel coil spring and a rubber bumper for good responsiveness. They're great for covering dirt roads and buffed trails, but you wouldn't want to ram an enormous ditch with them: There's no mechanism to slow the springs from bottoming out (read "endo").

The perfect option for anyone who's still using a rigid fork is the 3.5-pound Rock Shox Jett T2 ($160; 800-677-7177). It's best for riders under 150 pounds, because anyone heavier might cause the shock to flex. Recognizing that daily brushing is better than a root canal, Manitou's 3.6-pound Spyder ($190; 805-257-4411) is built with grease ports that let you purge grit with an injection of fresh lube.


More-sophisticated models are sprung the same way, but they also control how abruptly the fork compresses and snaps back--a feature known as damping. Oil is forced through a series of holes as the fork moves up and down, and you adjust the speed with knobs that shrink or enlarge those valves. Restraining your fork's movement this way keeps it from behaving like a pogo stick when you're flying over trail detritus at high speeds.

Marzocchi's Z.4 Alloy ($225; 805-257-6630) uses a so-called open-bath, which allows excess oil to splash about the inside of the fork legs and lubricate the important moving parts. Though the design adds some weight--the Z.4 Alloy checks in at 4.1 pounds--it saves on maintenance. The Manitou SX R ($400), on the other hand, uses its oil reserves for damping duties only, keeping them sealed inside a piston. The SX R also has grease ports, and magnesium legs keep it light, at 3.3 pounds.


The lightest option, these shocks substitute tightly sealed chambers of compressed air for coil-elastomer springs and pair them with damping mechanisms. Aside from saving weight, they allow you to adjust the rigidity of the springs without taking apart the fork, as you'd need to do with the steel-and-rubber variety. Just pump in air if you want it stiffer--for smooth roads--or bleed a little for more cushioning.

Early air shocks offered little absorption on corrugated bumps because of their built-in stiffness, but the 2.9-pound Rock Shox SID XC ($550) solved that problem with something called a negative air spring. It works. For a tidy $150 extra, the 2.8-pound White Brothers SC72UL ($700; 714-692-3404) also offers supremely stiff fork legs.


The ugly ducklings of suspension, linkage forks actually offer subtle advantages over the typical telescoping design. One-piece legs are attached to a set of hinges that compress a shock of some variety, all of which results in precise handling.

But if you try the Noleen Elite S ($565; 800-848-1993), you won't care about any of that, because of something much more awe-inspiring: It uses an electronic chip to adjust the rate of oil damping as you ride. Seriously. The 3.9-pound Elite S stays supple over small bumps and stiffens when you hit big obstacles to prevent it from bottoming out. The brain's nine-volt battery is good for 40 hours of use, and the fork is perfectly ridable if the juice runs out.

Suspension Wisdom

  • If your shock doesn't occasionally bottom out, it's set too stiff. Turn the preload knob in the direction of the plus sign.
  • Suspension TLC: After 20 hours of use, lube the coil springs and/or elastomers hidden inside the fork legs. Then pop the lower legs off, clean with a dry cloth, coat with a light grease, and replace.
  • Assuming your fork, like most, has rubber "boots," check before each ride that they are covering the seal they're intended to protect.
  • Finally, remember that tires are the most basic form of suspension: Less air pressure makes the ride cushier, and vice versa.

Reinventing Your Wheels
The first thing to go on any bike is the wheels--a rock here, a pothole there, the occasional endo, and after a summer or two they take on the shape of a couple of Pringles. And whereas procuring high-performance wheels used to mean the hassle of having them custom-built, manufacturers now offer finished wheels, many of which are engineered to be both lighter and more durable. We tested five pairs of 26-inch mountain-bike wheels, though each manufacturer also makes similar 700C versions for road bikes, which should prove equally sturdy.

The WCS Zero-System from Ritchey Design ($450; 650-368-4018) addresses the Achilles heel of all rear wheels: namely, that they have to be asymmetrical to allow space for the cogset on one side, creating uneven spoke tension and thus an inherently weak structure. But Ritchey drills the rim's spoke holes left of center to balance spoke tension. Of course, this doesn't apply to front wheels, so you get a conventional 28-spoke, 787-gram model with your innovative, 987-gram rear.

Crono Aeroheat wheels from Cane Creek (800-234-2725) are spry because a crucial bit of their weight is concentrated at the hub instead of the rim. Essentially, the spokes are flopped so the nipples are at the center of the wheel, making it easier to accelerate. Though this arrangement can make for cumbersome wheel trueing, the design wins the dollars-per-innovation contest: It's $500 for the 790-gram front and the 989-gram rear.

The design of Mavic's CrossMax ($700; 978-352-4466) is ideal for vertical terrain--regardless of your direction of travel. It features a low spoke count and thin-walled rims, making it one of the lightest wheels available (650 grams front, 850 rear) and thus a very adept climber. And it's no cupcake on descents, because that rim has a notably wide profile for added strength as well as ceramic-coated sidewalls that won't get ground down by grit-encrusted brake pads.

The clever patented lacing pattern of the Rolf Propel ($750; 888-431-7653) pairs spokes close together at the rim instead of spacing them equally, so each one offsets the tension of its partner. The result? The wheels can be built with four times the typical spoke tension, making for a lighter and stronger design. The 24-spoke rear weighs 894 grams; the 20-spoke front, 642.

Spinergy's engineers decided the key to the perfect strength-to-weight ratio was to avoid using metal wherever possible. With the Spox ($700; 203-762-0198), they replaced aluminum and steel with carbon fiber at the hub and employed a liquid-crystal polymerused for astronaut tethers as spokes. The thick black cables have a higher tensile strength than steel spokes and weigh half as much. The front wheel is 634 grams; the rear, 899. --A.C.

For Your Better Half

The traditional bike saddle has come under fire recently for being something of a nerve-pinching time bomb--sit on one too often and, well, let's just say you'll save a lot on day care. So in the interests of protection and comfort, look for gel inserts and a shape that supports your sit-bones. Remember, a saddle's a personal thing, so try before you buy. For starters, consider the following choices.

The Koski Engineering Fastback ($100; 415-389-6090) is luxurious. For 235 grams you get titanium rails, a leather cover, and Kevlar scuff guards. Anatomy-friendly features include an unusually generous gel pocket where it counts, a slightly dropped nose so you can scoot forward without penalty, and scalloped rear edges to make sliding off the back easy. I rode on it across Costa Rica--300 miles in three days--in pure comfort.

The original Selle San Marco Rolls was, yes, the Rolls-Royce of saddles: massive (at 365 grams), plush, and trimmed in gold. Now there's a slimmer version, the 193-gram Rolls Due ($100; 970-282-1880), that thankfully retains the keys to kindness--a broad, densely padded back and a tapered nose. For even more comfort, try the Race Day R (shown; $110), which has a modest gel pocket.

While the Fastback is made with dirt in mind and the Due is more of a road perch, the Avocet O2 Air 40 ($95; 800-229-1379) feels at home on just about any bike or terrain. Indeed, in the interest of tailoring the saddle to various, ahem, end uses, the O2 Air 40 silhouette comes in three widths: a narrow racing model (shown), a slightly wider men's version, and a slightly-wider-still women's edition. There's no obvious comfort feature, but flip the 230-gram saddle over and you'll see that the shell is cut away to relieve pressure on your soft tissue.--M.R.

PHOTOS: Clay Ellis

© 1999, Outside magazine

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