It's not about the bike - the illogical nature of performance upgrades

It’s not about the bike – the illogical nature of performance upgrades


It’s not about the bike. This isn’t an argument of any great significance. I fully realize its futility (and anyway, it’s not entirely serious). Nevertheless, it’s still fun to toss around, so I’m going to come at this topic from two angles:

  1. Unless you rely on being faster than the next guy for your income, upgrades to your bike are stupid. And,
  2. Your choice of equipment matters far less than you think it does or want to admit, and besides, it’s (mostly)  not the point.

1. Everything is stupid

So, up first, how’s this: your carbon wheels are stupid. Your lightweight frame is dumb. That aero helmet is obnoxious. The top-end groupset is totally unnecessary.


Well, if you are among the 95% of people who cycle, you do so because it’s either transportation, healthy, or fun, or some combination of these. You are not racing for anything. There is no prize. There is no compelling reason to win.

Important: There is, of course, a threshold of crappiness below which a bicycle is legitimately worth upgrading, being of such low quality that it sucks the enjoyment out of using it, or is unreasonably cumbersome. This is a slightly sliding scale depending on use (the more you use it, the more quality actually matters), but for pretty much everyone, it is far, faaaaar below what you (we) currently have or desire.

So not only are you not even close to needing all those performance upgrades (I will allow things that increase comfort, like saddles, or practicality, like more supple and puncture-resistant tyres), but, it could also be working against you.

You cycle because you want to do something healthy. You want to propel yourself around by your own power to make yourself fitter and stronger, and then you get things that make that as easy as possible. Mr Spock would tell you that that’s illogical.

But that’s also obviously just one side of it. Mr Spock feels no emotion, as opposed to you, who also cycle because you enjoy it. Having a top-end groupset feels good. Having a light bike feels good. Having a bike that just looks hot feels good. These are legitimate reasons for desiring such toys, and besides, we’ll just ride faster, or up more hills, or more often if we enjoy it more on our nicer toys. I’m totally on board with that, but if you think that you need it, you’re just wrong.

And this brings me to my second point:

2. Nothing really matters

Obsessing over having just the right gear is actually far less important than we realize. Have you ever come back from a ride thinking, “Well that was completely ruined by my tyres not being quite as supple or responsive as they might be with some other brand, and if only I was riding that other brand of tyre, I would have enjoyed my ride so much more”? No, you haven’t. Even if you have actually said those words, you were wrong. Your want of nicer gear isn’t actually tied to your riding experience like you might think it is.

It’s the same as shopping’s relationship to the rest of your life – you can’t buy happiness. “But you can buy a bike, and that’s pretty close”, is the popular response. Really though, it’s just a tool, and the experiences come from what you do with it, not from the bike itself.

Again, remember the threshold of crappiness.

Clearly the equipment can make a difference in how much you enjoy a ride, but past a certain point (it fits, it’s comfortable, and it performs sufficiently technically), it’s going to have less and less an effect on how much you actually get back from the experience. Diminishing returns and all that.

Yes, get something you like, but you don’t need to waste time and energy fretting about this tyre or that seatpost or these hubs and those cranks. I mean, you can, but recognize that this is a separate category of interest. It’s like focusing all of your energy on decorating the house when the relationship with the person you live there with is what matters. Decorating is fine, but it’s not going to give you a better marriage. You can pedal nearly anything, but it’s the time spent rolling through nature or doing something exciting or chatting to mates that makes the real, lasting impression.

Would I take a flash new bike or set of wheels if I had the opportunity? Obviously. I’m not an idiot. Do I have a nicer bike than I need? Yup. Nevertheless, I see so many people spending copious amounts of time pouring over data and reviews for their next purchase of tyres and other miscellaneous things that at the end of the ride are mere footnotes, if that.

Yeah, I know it’s all part of the experience and that most people get a certain amount of joy from making things their own, from choosing the bits that you want, or even from having something that you think makes you appear more legit to someone else. We’re complicated beings living in a complex and confusing society, and nearly everything we choose is influenced by far more than mere practicality. Still, when you get down to the core of it, once you are past that surprisingly low threshold of practical crappiness, it really doesn’t matter what you ride.

You might look at my road bike and say that I’m a giant hypocrite. I know I don’t need what I’ve got, but that’s sort of my point. But take my CX bike – it’s an alloy frame, basic groupset, no thru-axles, no hydraulics, nothing impressive or noteworthy. Yeah, I would gladly have something better, but I know without a doubt that I have had some of the best moments I’ve ever had on a bike on that bike, and it would have made absolutely no difference whatsoever if any part of it were upgraded. Even on those rides where I’ve wished for better brakes, for example, those rides still go down as some of the best I’ve had, because they were about more than the bike.

It’s not about the bike. What matters is merely that you ride. What matters is your connection with nature, with who you are riding with, with the restoration of mind, body and soul, and what all of that means to you.


Header image: The Sticky Bidon (here)