Upgrades - Are They Worth It?

Upgrades - Are They Worth It?

Written by Joseph Bonacci, on August 30, 2023

When looking at possible upgrades for your bike, there often seems to be a high premium for “small” upgrades. There are definitely some upgrades that are more for aesthetics or status rather than performance, and there are many upgrades that are worthy of their high premium. We have been lucky to see many upgrades like this throughout the bike industry, and we’ve been able to have enough experience with them here at the shop to learn which upgrades are worth the premium and which ones aren’t. Some of these upgrades actually happen before you buy your bike, like upgrading to a high modulus carbon frame. Others, like an oversized pulley wheel system for instance, can be added on post-purchase. 

Are these pricier upgrades worth the price, why or why not? The upgrades we’ll highlight are high modulus carbon frames, oversized pulley wheels for the rear derailleur, and high-engagement rear hubs. Many brands will have their own designs for these high-tech upgrades, so I’ll be a little more general in the “why” aspect. If you have any questions about upgrade items from specific brands, give us a call here at the shop and we’ll be more than happy to give you a deep dive on it. Also, let us know if you would like to see more articles focusing on upgrades like this, or if there are any specific upgrades you would like more information about. High-Modulus Carbon Frames
High-modulus carbon frames, which are often referred to as HM frames, are all over the place and it seems that every brand has their own denotation for how they refer to it. Scott calls it “HMX”, BMC says “01”, Santa Cruz uses “CC”, Cannondale calls it “Hi-Mod”, and Cervelo just uses the number “5”. These are just a few of the designations throughout the industry. Let’s jump in and go over the basics, starting with “What is high-modulus carbon?” 

High-modulus carbon refers to carbon fiber material with a high tensile strength, which essentially means that it is really, really stiff. If you are an engineer, you are probably thinking, “If the frame is made from ultra-stiff carbon won’t that make the carbon more prone to snapping?” The answer is yes and no. The carbon fiber would be more prone to snapping if it was only made of HM carbon, but most bike brands use low and mid-level modulus carbon to provide flex in the frame to combat that issue. By using a mixture of high-tensile, low-flex carbon fiber along with low-tensile, high-flex carbon fiber, the frame layup can ensure performance, while not making the bike ultra-stiff and uncomfortable to ride. This all brings us to the questions of “Is HM carbon worth the price premium, and if so, why? 

High-modulus carbon pricing varies from brand to brand, but usually the HM frameset will cost about $1000 more than the regular carbon frame offered in the line. The first benefit offered with HM carbon is the weight drop of the frames. Typically the frame weights will drop about 100-200g when upgrading the carbon. This might not seem like a lot, but when you are counting grams and trying to build up a high-end road bike, it’s a worthy investment. Another high-modulus benefit is the stiffness, which will make a noticeable difference when riding. Alongside the stiffness aspect, carbon layup frame design also allows fine tuning of the overall feel of the frame, with compliance in some areas and stiffness in others. Brands like Pinarello are doing a great job on this front, perhaps best illustrated in their ultra-stiff Dogma F race bike: even given the stiffness and responsiveness of the bike, you can still ride it all day and not feel beat up.Is the high-modulus upgrade entirely worth it though? While worth the premium as an upgrade, I don’t feel it is incredibly necessary. If you’re trying to choose between a HM bike with a Shimano Ultegra level build kit, or a non-HM bike with a Shimano Dura-Ace level build with no plans to upgrade any parts in the future, I would recommend the non-HM bike, as the Dura-Ace groupset will provide a larger overall benefit. If you are looking for a bike to upgrade around the frameset, or want the stiffest, highest-performing bike I would recommend the HM bike, as it will provide the best platform and ride-quality. 

Oversized Pulley Wheels 

If you have been intently following the bike industry, you will have seen the rise of oversized pulley wheels (OSP for short) on rear derailleurs. Overly large, often colorful chain pulley wheels with their corresponding (usually carbon fiber) derailleur cage. Two years ago, there were very few bike owners that even considered having them, but now it seems that I can’t open instagram without seeing a brand new bike build that prominently features an OSP system. Part of the commonality is because they are super visible on the bike and really stand out, unlike a premium-level bottom bracket which gets hidden away. People are more likely to spring for this upgrade because everyone will notice it. That being said, OSP systems are not just a status symbol and they do improve performance. 

While they are a relatively new trend, we first saw an OSP system made by Ceramic Speed way back in 2010. That year, OSP-equipped bikes took home both of time trial stage wins in the Tour de France along with the Yellow Jersey itself (after Alberto Contador was disqualified). What are OSP systems all about?

OSP systems are said to increase power transfer by about 4 watts. While that may seem like a very small amount, drivetrains are prone to energy loss, with even the highest-end drivetrains only having about a 92% overall power transfer from the rider to rear wheel. The OSP system’s large pulleys allow the chain to remain as straight as possible, which increases the amount of power that goes into the cassette. At 250 watts, an OSP system can increase the power output to be about 95% of what your legs are putting out. 

While the gains provided by an OSP system are marginal, they are worthy of consideration for many riders. If you’re racing, especially road racing or marathon mountain biking events, I would consider the upgrade as the benefits of an OSP system are more measurable and noticeable over longer races. OSP systems also increase the durability of the drivetrain; there is less friction and wear on the chain which causes the chain, cassette, and chainrings all to wear more slowly. Another perk provided by the OSP’s reduced friction is that shifting gears is improved, with the chain shifting between the cogs more smoothly. 

The only issue I find with the OSP system is the price, ranging from around $250 to as much as $2000 if you want the highest performing, lightest weight examples. I would recommend this as one of the last upgrades you do, as it is expensive and there are some other more cost-effective upgrades out there. If you are trying to get every last watt out of your bike, or just want the extra durability and better shifting, they are a great upgrade. 

High Engagement Hubs 

High engagement rear hubs are known for their loud buzzing sounds when freewheeling at high speeds, which can either be annoying or awesome depending on how you look at it. Besides the noise, these hubs can help in racing and every-day riding because of the instant power the super-fast freehub engagement delivers to your rear wheel. These hubs require a bit more service and care than a standard hub, but can be beneficial in all types of riding. 

High engagement hubs get rid of the ‘dead’ spot in your crank rotation when starting a pedal stroke. This is a useful attribute on a Mountain bike, where you are doing technical climbing and may need to back pedal to avoid a crank strike. After this quick pause, as soon as you start putting the power down the hub instantly engages and your wheel will start rolling. The benefit of this is not only on the mountain bike, but also on the road bike too. On the road bike, the instant engagement can aid in high-speed situations and for acceleration. The instant power can be the difference between winning and losing a sprint, whether in an actual race or sprinting for county limit signs against your friends. 
Many different brands have their own iteration of a high engagement hub, but one of the most common and most popular is the i9 (Industry 9), packing 690 points of engagement in a single wheel rotation. 

Along with the benefit of quick response, there are downsides to high engagement hubs too. A high engagement hub can tug on your derailleur if you compress the suspension, causing a large amount of wear, and possibly even a break if enough force gets transferred through. This is because there is no play in the freehub, so as you compress the suspension your hub will not rotate, and as the suspension rebounds and makes the chain stretch all the pressure goes into the spring on the derailleur. As serious as this sounds, it’s only a worry if you are using your suspension while in your ‘granny’ gear, so it can be avoided if you’re careful. 

High engagement hubs are a worthy upgrade for several reasons. They are lighter than a standard hub, have nicer sealed bearings, and will provide instant power transfer. The most important thing to do if you have them is to service them early and often. The more you keep it clean and lubed the longer the pawls or ratchet (depending on the system) will last. I would recommend this upgrade when you’re ready for a wheelset upgrade, as pricing will be better when purchasing a complete wheelset. 

Finishing Up

The three upgrades discussed are just a few on a long list of things you can do to improve your bike. While it’s true that bikes are getting more and more expensive, the technology going into them warrants these price increases. Whether you’re thinking about some type of small upgrade for marginal gains or a complete new bike that you can build into a high-performance machine, we are happy to help guide you through creating your dream bike. Quality parts make a huge difference in the ride quality, so don’t hesitate to call the shop and pick our brains about where the best upgrades will be for your bike.


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