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:
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 a Shimano 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.
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 mountain bike 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
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.
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.
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
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.