It's the holidays and I am sure that everyone reading this has a big wad of cash burning a hole in their pocket, right? Yeah, I didn't think so. Unfortunately, cycling is an expensive sport and there's no real way around that. It's no accident that in the US, cycling is mainly a sport for the rich and upper middle class. Even once you have a bike you have to buy shoes, clothing and a helmet. You buy special foods to eat. You buy a racing license. You pay for entry fees, which usually range between $30 and $75 per event. You pay for gas, tolls and lodging to get to those races. You want to get better so you buy race wheels. You hire a coach. You buy a power meter. You buy special clothing and an indoor trainer so you can train year round. You fly to Arizona, California, Mallorca or Tuscany to train. You want to try different disciplines of cycling so you get a mountain bike, a cross bike and a track bike. Just when you thought you had it all, everything starts to wear out... you need new shorts, new tires and new chains. If you crash in a race, you need new clothing, a new helmet and a new frame. Then, technology changes and it feels like you have to upgrade to remain competitive. In short, the list of things to spend money on never ends. So here is my list of where your money is best spent.
Where to Spend Your Money
1. Replace tires and chains regularly: Sure, it's not as exciting as a new bike, but taking care to replace your tires and chain when necessary can save you money in the long run as well as prevent a lot of anguish and frustration. Most "racing tires" are lighter and have softer rubber compounds. This means that they have lower rotating weight, lower rolling resistance and better grip. but it also means they will wear out faster. While it's impossible to prevent flat tires altogether, there is no doubt that the more worn out your tires are, the more flats you will have. Few things are as frustrating as spending a lot of time, money and energy to get to a big event (and have peak fitness for it), only to DNF because of a flat tire or mechanical. Same principal goes for worn out chains. Many 10-11 speed chains nowadays only last 1000-1500 miles before they start to wear out the cassette. That means that if you don't replace the chain until, let's say 2000 miles, you will have to replace the cassette as well as the chain. With top-tier cassettes costing upwards of $300, that ain't cheap! I've seen many racers pop on their carbon race wheels with brand new cassettes before the race, only to take one pedal stroke and slip the chain. New cassette + worn out chain = mismatch = chain slippage = DNF (usually). The bottom line is that if you are going to put all of the time, money and energy into getting to the race, it's worth it to spend a few extra bucks to replace your chain and tires when you need to. If I had a nickel for every athlete that's ever told me "I would have done well in that race but I flatted" OR "...my bike wasn't shifting right", well, I'd have enough nickels for a lot of new chains and tires.
2. Buy from Brick & Mortar bike shops: We all know that there are deals to be found online. Online retailers buy in large quantities so they are able to sell their products at rock bottom prices, often just a fraction over wholesale. Meanwhile, Brick and Mortar bike shops have higher overhead costs, inventory and labor costs and they order in smaller quantities so they usually can't match these deals unless the manufacturer enforces standardized pricing. For years, there has been a grass roots movement to "support your local shop", which is great, but supporting your local shop isn't just a matter of doing the right thing for your friends and community, it can also save you a lot of money in the long run. First of all, most shops often include perks when you buy from them: bike fits, tune-ups and free products are just a few examples. I have done countless bike fits on riders that bought a bike online and thought "they got a great deal", only to realize that they needed a new saddle, new cranks and a new saddle. Worse yet, the bike was the wrong size for them, it turned out to not be exactly what they wanted or it was damaged and the warranty was no longer valid. And then there's the value of the mechanic. Bike mechanics just like auto mechanics, are highly trained professionals. If you buy a bike from a bike shop, you know that it was built up and tested by a professional. Moreover, if you have problems with something you can take it back to the shop to have them diagnose and fix the problem. If you buy a bike online, at least some assembly will probably be required. Now maybe putting a stem on a fork and adjusting a rear derailleur doesn't sound like that big of a deal to you, but all it takes is one limit screw not adjusted properly and you can shift into the spokes, potentially destroying your rear derailleur, chain, rear wheel, frame, shorts and skin.
And then there's the infamous "Chinese knock-offs". These days, almost every manufacturer of carbon frames, wheels and components makes their products in China and/or Taiwan. Unfortunately the patent laws in China are often weak and unenforced, which means that there are many cheap Chinese clones of all of these carbon products. But though they may look the same on the outside, you can be sure that they did not do the same R&D as the original manufacturer. As you can see from the picture above, things can end badly... very badly.
3. Buy good quality clothing: It can be frustrating to spend money on clothing because a) it is expensive, b) you never seem to have everything you need for every occasion and c) clothing wears out and/or gets damaged but good quality clothing will be more comfortable, longer lasting, more aerodynamic and will look better. Conversely, a poor quality or worn out pair of shorts will not only be uncomfortable, they will give you saddle sores that keep you off the bike. An ill-fitting jersey will not only make you look like a tool, it will significantly add to your aerodynamic drag. Having clothes that keep you warm in winter can mean the difference between an enjoyable training ride and a case of hypothermia. Having clothes that keep you cool in the summer could mean the difference between winning the race and overheating.
4. Get a bike fit: Fitting a bike is more complicated than it may seem on the surface. Most experienced riders can probably feel if their saddle is too high or low. The problem is that no adjustment is made in isolation. For example, if you raise your saddle you are also pushing yourself further back behind the bottom bracket, further away from the handlebars and increasing the drop to the handlebars. So even if your saddle height is now correct, these other things may not be. A good bike fitter will consider your history and symptoms and evaluate you in a similar manner as your doctor would (minus the "bend over and cough" part). They should be able to make each adjustment on the bike while considering how it applies to the overall system. A good bike fit should make you feel like your bike is an extension of your body. Changes to fitness, body composition, flexibility and riding style will impact your fit and a good fitter will follow up and change your bike fit as necessary. Although most professional bike fits run from $100-$500, as I mentioned in #2, bike shops will often include a free bike fit with the purchase of a new bike.
5. Buy a power meter: OK, power meters aren't cheap. At $4000 for an SRM, $2000 for a Quarq, $1700 for a Vector, $1000 for a Power Tap or even $900 for a Stages, it's easy to spend more on a power meter than the entire rest of your bike. On top of that, a power meter will not immediately make you any faster. In fact, it will actually add weight to your bike. That said, a power meter will help you do your workouts more effectively, understand your own strengths and weaknesses better, communicate with your coach better and identify excessive fatigue before it's too late to do anything about it. If you want more reasons to buy a power meter, check out my "Power Meters 101" webinar. Now, some may be worried that buying a power meter will lead to a data obsession and stop them from ever having fun riding, but in my experience it can have quite the opposite effect for most people. Training with power can help you do more with less time, have more predictable fitness and more effectively target your training towards what you really need to be working on.
6. Hire a coach: You knew that was coming, right? Obviously I am biased here, so ignore me if you want. But the simple truth is this: you will only get so far on your own. Now if you are smart, you have good genes, you read the right books, articles and blogs and you work very hard you might get pretty far, but you will never be your best. In my opinion, only a coach can push you past the "bias of self" that holds you back from reaching 100%. Don't get me wrong, a coach is not a miracle worker. No coach will singlehandedly turn a B level recreational rider into a Tour de France contender, but a coach can get you to "the next level". For example, if you feel like you've done everything right, you've climbed the ranks to a Cat. 2 racer but you feel like you've hit a plateau, the road to your Cat. 1 upgrade is probably through a coach.
In part 2 of this blog, I will talk about ways you can save money without having to sacrifice much. In the meantime, send in your questions and feedback.
Colin Sandberg is the owner and head coach of Backbone Performance, LLC. He is a Cat. 1 road racer, a USA Cycling Level II coach and a UCI Director Sportif. He is also head coach at Young Medalists High Performance and race director for Team Young Medalists. If you have questions or comments, feel free to use the comments section or email us. Thanks for reading!