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Not wanting to put a lot of money into an old bike that wasn't my primary singletrack slayer, I chose to put on an entry level fork when the original finally became irreparable.

Not wanting to put a lot of money into an old bike that wasn’t my primary singletrack slayer, I chose to put on an entry level fork when the original finally became irreparable.

For many riders, it’s not long after we get a new bike that we start looking for upgrades like a lighter wheelset, a dropper post, or some assorted carbon fiber goodies. Some of us don’t even wait until we buy the bike; we’re thinking about upgrades even before we plink down the paper or plastic for the original ride! As common as upgradeitis is, sometimes downgrading is a more appropriate approach. Here are a half-dozen reasons you may end up taking your bike down a notch:

Cost

We ride our bikes hard, and parts break. When it comes time to replace components, we may not have the funds, or wish to expend too much of the funds we do have, to replace the component with one of comparable quality. Or maybe funds and parts are available, but you just don’t want to drop all that cash on an old relic or bike which is not your primary.  This is especially true with certain components where, for marketing purposes, a bike company will upspec one or two components in key areas to lure a potential buyer into purchasing a bike, thinking it’s overall build kit is better than it is. I’ve seen new bikes with an XTR rear derailleur and straight Deore components throughout the rest of the bike.

Marketing trickery aside, buying a mass produced bike avails the buyer of price breaks based on the bike company’s ability to get volume discounts from OEMs on the components throughout the bike. But when the individual buyer goes to purchase the replacement part, he is not able to get the same price break, thus individual components become more expensive. At the individual consumer level, stepping down a level on a component may cut the price in half while still delivering 80% of the performance.

Durability

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This XTR rear derailleur is certainly light, but it didn’t take long for that carbon to shatter. An XT at half the price proved a far superior replacement on an all mountain bike intended for serious trail abuse.

It is not uncommon for less expensive parts to be more durable then their blingier counterparts. For many components, shaving grams is their selling point. Not only does that come with additional cost in terms of $$, but it, it also comes with additional cost in terms of fragility and potential for breakage. When I purchased my Yeti Seven in 2010, it came with an XTR rear derailleur which lasted all of two rides before a rock shattered its fragile cage. Here was a 7” travel, aggressive all-mountain bike with carbon fiber in one of the most sensitive spots on the rig, which made little sense. Even setting the cost differential aside, there was no way I was going to replace it with another XTR. I happily “settled” for an XT, which remained on the bike, serving reliably, until I sold it six years later. Light weight is certainly better, all other things being equal, but all other things are rarely equal. There is little value in being able to scoot up the hill a little faster if the bike is broke.

Get a Different Capability

What a difference four extra teeth makes, even if they are cheaper teeth.

What a difference four extra teeth makes, even if they are cheaper teeth.

My enduro bike is heavy, at least compared to my other bikes, and was really putting my 52 year old body to the test. After a few months of killing myself on long climbs, I decided the 1×11 drivetrain with a 42-tooth large cog could be improved. To get a larger cog on the rear without replacing the entire drivetrain required a slight downgrade in the big cog, but it was well-worth it. Despite the new component being a downgrade in quality/weight, I’m happily scooting up the hills more quickly and, once at the top, remain fresh enough to enjoy shredding the downhill.  The downgrade tradeoff was just the ticket to make my riding more pleasurable.

Comfort

This isn't the most expensive or lightest saddle in the WTB line, but it is very comfortable.

This isn’t the most expensive or lightest saddle in the WTB line, but it is very comfortable.

In some cases, less expensive components may be more comfortable. This is also related to the idea of durability above as it is often driven by the desire to save weight.  Top-shelf saddles tend to score very low on the comfort scale as they employ less padding. This is well worth it if you’re looking to be more competitive in a serious cross country race, but it does little more than reduce the fun factor for the casual rider or even the aggressive rider looking to put in all-day epics on the trail. The same logic may be extended to other contact points on the bike itself, as well as to the attire used in riding.  Shoes, in particular, are a good example. The priciest high-performance race shoes maximize stiffness to improve power transfer, but that also comes at the cost of comfort. Most riders will be happiest with a somewhat softer, more flexible shoe.

Parts Obsolescence

For those who may hang on to a bike a long time, finding replacement parts may be difficult. Standards change and while there may have been a variety of choices for a new bottom bracket, rear wheel hub, or seatpost diameter when the bike was purchased, once these standards fall out of favor, some, if not all, manufacturers will discontinue producing suitable replacements. Since people willing to pay for high end stuff are more likely to have newer bikes, the high end components are the first to fall off the list. Love your old 26er, but want to upgrade the wheel set? Good luck finding a top shelf replacement. When it comes time to throw some new hoops on the old rig, chances are you’ll be downgrading, even if you don’t want to.

When a Downgrade Is Not Really a Downgrade

Not as blingy, or expensive as a King, but certainly up to the task.

Not as blingy or expensive as a King, but certainly up to the task.

Sometimes, what we think of a downgrade turns out not to be a downgrade so far as I can tell. As a general rule, I’m a fan of Chris King parts and fully understand their reputation for quality and making a variety of top-shelf parts. But sometimes, it’s hard to see why, and it’s easy to come to the conclusion there are exceptions.

When doing a custom build, I was choosing a headset and King was the first option that came to mind. But while researching other options, I found an offering from Cane Creek which was not only less expensive, but also ran a few grams lighter. How could this be? Clearly, the Cane Creek had to be less reliable, but reports indicated otherwise.

Headsets really aren’t that complex–they serve a simple function, and they are not high failure items. I had only replaced one headset in my career, and it was a very cheap house brand component on a lower-level bike. Given the lack of need for significant differentiation in this basic component, it was a no brainer to go with the “downgrade” in this case, and time has proven the decision to be correct as the headset has outlasted the bike it was on and been subsequently transferred to a newer bike where it continues to provide lightweight, but reliable, service to this day.

Your turn: Have you ever happily “downgraded” your rig?  Tell us about it in the comments section below.

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# Comments

  • mongwolf

    Thanks John. Having only been in mountain biking for a few years, I found this article really helpful. You taught me a lot. I hope some more experienced riders with lots of experience dealing with components will add insights with their comments. I definitely think I need to go with a slightly more comfortable saddle. My current saddle is good for a certain distance, but after that, things seem to go south on my back end. I definitely want to shed some weight by dropping my “three by” drive train, but I’m always dealing with steep slopes in Mongolia and I often ride a lot road to get to the trails on the edge of the capital. So have a need for a big range, and I’m still kicking’ that issue around a bit. That probably doesn’t sound like a downgrade issue, by my current drive train is an XTR and I’m sure I won’t pay the price of a new XTR if I replace. So it is in that sense.

  • iliketexmex

    This is a welcome breath of fresh air. I sometimes wondered if I was alone in my thought processes when I read the articles and discussion boards. Sometimes “good enough” really is good enough.

  • cmabikeman

    Good article and very true. I still own my second mountain bike that is 24 years old. I only use it on vacation at the beach and downgraded the suspension fork since it didn’t work at all. Went to my LBS and bought a used rigid cromoly fork. Now I don’t have to do any maintenance on the bike before I go on vacation or head out for a ride around the block. I think you guys posted an article last year about which Shimano / SRAM components offered the best value compared to their top of the line. It’s worth rereading before you go out to buy replacement parts.

  • christopher94

    I kind of just did this. Not really 100% what the article described, but I wanted to experience a very simple no frills bike experience. I purchased a new Salsa Beargrease X5, and while it is new, it is also old in the same regard. It has mechanical disc brakes, a full Sram X5 (clutch-less) 2×10 drivetrain, and zero squish except for the tires.

    It’s a blast too. More fun than my stache I’ve spent years improving. I love seeing advancement in technology having grown up in the “dial-up” era. And while bike tech is downright awesome, it’s also fun to remember why we all started mountain biking in the first place.

  • sgniwder99

    I agree 100% about the headset thing. I’ve had a King headset before, and the difference between that and el cheapo does not, in my mind, turn out to be worth the difference in price.

    I’d disagree about shoes. Personally I’ve found that, the stiffer the soles are, the more comfortable the shoes are over long rides (4+ hours), because flex usually creates pressure points that become uncomfortable over time. However, I will absolutely agree that stiffer shoes are no fun to hike-a-bike in. So if you do live somewhere where that’s a common and unavoidable part of the riding, it’d probably be worth sacrificing a bit of stiffness for walking comfort.

    Just my .02.

  • Dclabonte

    Good article. Another good point is the trickle-down effect. The Deore components today are most likely equal to, if not better, than the XT of 5 +/- years ago. Especially on an older bike, us weekend warrior “mortal” are not going to be able to notice a 10-gram difference from one component to another. My Fezzari did come wih an XT rear derailleur, but the rest is a mixture of SLX and Deore. Works perfectly; no complaints.

  • azdb

    Early adapt most things and late adapt cycle things. This has saved me hundreds of dollars if not thousands. The slight backlash against 29 er in favor of 27.5 benefited me immensely. Example, the kids with $6k 29ers fire sale to catch up to the 27.5 or plus movement, found 2.25 29er tires retail 55 dollars for $5.95, 27.5 and wide 29er tires are raging, so 2.25 is small now and less $. Now non boost width with wheels with maxle can be had cause boost is raging. High dropper posts are popular 125mm and higher so find 100mm dropper and save, go with 2x or more drivetrain and save cause 1x is trend although becoming more affordable……Just “draft” behind the pack of trend and still have phenomenal machine without the used car price.

  • azdb

    Oops, forgot the biggest $ saver—-Aluminum vs. Carbon. Save a grand and have a headtube that does not explode, I have seen that……

  • mantispf2000

    I wouldn’t call it a downgrade, as I’ve been running 9speed for many years, and though I’d love to run XT/XO/etc, I perfectly happy with the X7 gear I have. Never felt the added pricing for the higher-end product was worth it. Now, when I do shop, I do take my time, and if it is a better level component, at an equal or lower pricing, then sure, I’ll buy it.

    Now, if I can just find the 10speed goods I need to be able to use the 42t cog I won……..

  • Urbanowicz

    What a great article. The average rider’s obsession with lightest and latest gear is ridiculous. The rider is 95% of what happens on the trail. Put an expert level rider on my entry level MTB and he’ll still blow away us normal folk. The bike only makes a difference when he is competing against similarly skilled riders. I get a hearty laugh every time I see a fat guy drop $7,000 on a bike thinking that will make him competitive. Dream on dude.

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