You’ve had a bike for awhile and you’ve decided the bike has some limitations. You want to upgrade it because you like it otherwise. “Is it worth upgrading?” you ask.
Well, it depends.
It depends on what it is and what you plan to do with it. How old is it? Do you plan to keep the upgraded parts longer than the frame?
Let’s start with the bike you’ve got. You can’t put any hard and fast rules, “these bikes are worth upgrading and these bikes are not worth upgrading” because you can find exceptions to any rule. Let’s say you’re starting from a sub-$100 ‘mart bike. This is about as close to “it’s not worth upgrading” as you can get, but there are still some situations where an upgrade might make sense. Namely, a bike like this might be worth some low end used take-off parts from a low end LBS bike. You might know the stuff…usually either house branded or lacking any brand identification at all. It’s usually heavy, but it’ll be worlds better than what that ‘mart bike came with. Cost is the name of the game here. If you’re planning on putting a $300 suspension fork on a ‘mart bike you spent $60 on, you’re wasting your money.
A low end LBS bike might be worth a bit more upgrade attention. Again, no hard and fast rules. If you score a deal on a nice component, go ahead and toss it on there. You’ll maximize your investment in the new component if you keep it long after the low end bike is gone. But at some point, money spent upgrading a low end bike will be better spent saving for a whole new better bike. One reason for this is because low end bikes have so many low end components that could certainly benefit from an upgrade. My philosophy on this is to ride and enjoy the bike while you can. Eventually, stuff will wear out or break. When you NEED to replace something, go ahead and consider a slight upgrade to get a little more performance out of the bike. When your riding skills progress beyond the capabilities of the bike (say, for example that as you become more skilled you decide that you really like all-mountain or downhill riding more and you cannot do so safely on a Trek 4500) or when your preferred style changes (say you had a low end all-mountain hardtail and you decide that you really would rather have a super light race singlespeed), you need to change bikes. Plus, new bikes are just fun and maybe you don’t want to change styles – maybe you just want to add another bike to the stable/quiver/whatever you want to call your collection of bikes.
Also keep in mind how old the bike is. Lots of factors at play here. Let’s talk about the fatigue life of materials for a moment. Pretty much every material has a usable life. Aluminum probably has the shortest life span. Titanium, steel, and carbon fiber enjoy longer life in bike components. Even if it was once a very expensive, high-end frame, tossing a brand new $600 race caliber suspension fork on a 12 year old aluminum frame is probably not the wisest choice. That frame is nearing the end of its life. It will break sooner rather than later if ridden hard. Best to retire the frame entirely, or at least repurpose it to commuter duty or something where it will get beat on less.
Accompanying the age of the frame is the change in technology, changes in standards, and changes in preferences. Changes in technology might be something like attempting to upgrade a very early mountain bike to accept a suspension fork. The earliest mountain bikes came with rigid forks and had geometries more akin to road bikes or beach cruisers (depending on the bike). When suspension forks came onto the market, they had a longer axle-to-crown length than the rigid forks and so frame geometries needed changing to accommodate this different dimension. The longer a2c length also meant more force was placed on the head tube junction area of the frame, so that area of the frame needed reinforcing. Then, early frames designed for suspension were only designed around 60-80mm of suspension. Putting 100+mm of suspension on one of those frames threw out the geometry and puts more stress on the frame than it was designed to handle. Upgrading suspension on old frames has a lot of problems and pitfalls. Even modern frames are designed with a certain suspension fork travel length in mind. Putting a new fork with more or less than the intended suspension on it will change the frame geometry.
Disc brakes are another technology change. The frame mounts are different than those for rim brakes, they require stronger frame and fork, and they require hubs with rotor mounts. Various adapters have appeared on the market that allow you to put a disc brake on the rear end of a frame without a mount. Most of them can’t be found anymore since just about every frame has a disc mount. Some new forks even come without vee brake posts at all. Even if you want a new fork for an old bike and plan to keep the rim brakes, your selection in forks will be limited by the fact that few forks even have canti posts anymore.
Changes in standards are a big problem. Headtube sizes have changed quite a bit over the years. Everything used to be 1″. There was even 1 1/4″ for awhile. Now 1 1/8″ is the most common with 1.5″ being more common for big hit bikes. Tapered headtubes have recently come onto the market. They have a 1 1/8″ cup on top and a 1.5″ cup on the bottom. This all, of course, corresponds to associated changes in steerer tubes on the fork. This needs to be taken into account for an upgrade. An old bike with a 1″ steerer is going to be hard to find a new fork for.
Axles are another standard change. Everything used to be 9mm axle QR. Now there’s several flavors of thru-axle to choose from (15mm, 20mm, 24mm Maverick, etc on the front – 10mm and 12mm thru axles for the rear). There’s also differing hub spacing. 100mm is pretty much the standard for the front with 110mm used for downhill bikes with 20mm thru-axles, but rear hub spacing is a mess. For mountain bikes, old ones came with 130mm spacing. 135mm spacing became common as gears got added to the rear cluster. It’s the most common spacing used today on mountain bikes. Some downhill and freeride bikes use 150mm rear spacing for a stronger rear wheel. These are just the common rear spacings used on mountain bikes. Sheldon Brown’s site has a nice overview on all manner of hub spacings ranging from 91mm to 160mm. Road bikes and tandems have different standards that muddy the waters quite a bit. What does this all mean for upgrading a bike? You need to know your hub spacing and axle type before you go and buy a new wheelset.
Gearing has changed over the years, too. Mountain bikes have gone from 7 speed rear clusters to 10 speed rear clusters. Cranksets can be found in single, double, or triple configurations. You can always reduce the number of chainrings (go from a double to a single or from a triple to a double or a single) but you cannot add more. Not only that, but singlespeed (freewheel or freehub), fixie, “dingle” (two gear combos that can be manually changed), flip-flop (fixie OR singlespeed freewheel) and internally-geared hubs from 3-14 gear ratios are available. It can be a complicated selection process.
A common “upgrade” that doesn’t cost much money is to take an older geared bike and remove all of the outdated multi-gear drivetrain equipment and make it either a singlespeed or a fixie. With road bikes, it’s super common to switch them to a fixie. With mountain bikes, the singlespeed is more common. But there are plenty of singlespeed road bikes and fixie mountain bikes out there, too. This is actually a good way to repurpose an old frame with odd dimensions limiting component selection. You just have to be careful with the differing standards before changing parts like forks, headsets, wheels, and even bottom brackets. Handlebars are another to keep an eye on. It’s always safer to measure first before buying something new for your old bike.
What’s the lesson here?
It’s a complicated process. Some bikes aren’t worth doing much “upgrading” (like the Next pictured earlier) while some might be worth putting some money or some effort into the upgrade process. In some cases, “upgrade” might actually mean simplification. The fixie conversion picture I posted is a particularly nice one. This frame looks like it was repainted, even.
If you’re thinking about upgrading your inexpensive bike, think about what it is you really want and how much money you’re planning on putting into the project. If you really want a whole new bike (probably the case most of the time), it’s probably best to save up for a whole new bike and make your money go a bit further. If you’ve got a broken Alivio derailleur, getting a NOS LX or a new SLX won’t be the end of the world. If you have a worn-out Rock Shox Dart fork and you replace it with a Tora, that’s probably not a big deal. If you’re rocking a 5 year old SR Suntour fork and you want to put a Fox Talas RLC on there, you’re wasting your money.
A final word here – I don’t consider “fit” parts to be in the upgrade line. Stems, handlebars, grips, saddles, seatposts. If you actually ride the bike you want it to be comfortable. I still wouldn’t go tossing a Brooks saddle onto a mart bike – that saddle is worth more than the whole bike. But by all means put a new saddle on that bike if the current saddle sucks.
By all means enjoy your bike, I just would prefer to see use their money intelligently. Consider the upgrade you want to do. Would it make financial sense to buy the parts new, or would it be a better use to buy the parts used and save a few bucks for later? If you really want a whole new bike then find a way to make that happen.