products books and linksHow To and DIY guides and articles

Guide to Upgrading your Bicycle--Racing, Sport Touring, or Loaded Touring

Before beginning the upgrading process, you need to define your riding style so that you can determine what kind of bicycle suits you best. For example, it makes no sense to spend a lot of money on fancy racing components if you plan to use your bike mostly for loaded touring. You also should learn how to measure your body and your bicycle to determine if they’re compatible, If your bicycle doesn’t match your riding style, or if the frame is the wrong size, there’s no use spending a lot of money upgrading. Sell your bike and buy one that suits you better.

--Types of "10-Speeds" (aka Road Bikes) --

Some people divide the 10-speed market into just two categories: racing and touring. However, there’s such a great difference between sport touring and loaded touring that lumping them together just causes confusion. Therefore, I prefer to divide 10-speeds into three categories: racing, sport touring, and loaded touring. Since the majority of cyclists are neither serious racers nor loaded tourists, but something in between, the sport touring category provides an important middle ground.

I’m going to define my three categories exactly so that we can communicate. I’ll try to use neutral words so my prejudices don’t show through. I own a Trek 2000 racer, a Schwinn Paramount racer, a custom-built Redcay sport tourer, and a custom-built Columbine loaded tourer. The fact that I own at least one bike in each category should make me impartial.

-- Racing Bicycles --

A racing bicycle is designed to win races. Everything about the bike is slanted toward that goal. The frame dimensions stretch the rider out in a low, crouched position for minimum wind resistance. The frame angles provide quick handling for maneuverability in tight quarters and stiffness for maximum efficiency. The wheels and tires (invariably tubulars for serious racers) are designed for minimum weight and wind resistance. The gearing is designed for strong racers who can put out 1/4 horsepower for a long period and still have something left for the final sprint. If you can’t climb steep hills in a 50-inch gear, you won’t stand a chance in a serious race.

A long ride on a genuine criterium racing bicycle is uncomfortable for non-racers. Racing bicycles aren’t designed for comfort; they’re designed to win races. Racers don’t talk about comfort. They talk about quickness and stiffness, which are almost the reverse of comfort. Racing bicycles are uncomfortable for three main reasons:

• The stiff, quick-handling forks and the steep head angle have little shock absorption, which beats up your hands and arms.

• The good-climbing short chainstays put the rear wheel nearly under the saddle, which beats up your backside.

• The light, narrow, high-pressure tires transmit road bumps with full fidelity.

Criterium Racers----There are degrees of discomfort. Criterium racing bicycles are the least comfortable because they’re designed for short races with lots of turning and sprinting. They have the stiffest frames, the steepest angles, the most rigid forks, and the shortest wheelbases in order to provide quick handling in a criterium pack. The bottom bracket is higher to allow pedaling around corners. Top-of-the-line Japanese racing bicycles are usually criterium racers.

Road Racers----Road racing bicycles are made more comfortable than criterium racers because road races are much longer. They often cover more than 100 miles per day on consecutive days. In these longer events, the rider can’t survive on an ultra-stiff criterium frame. Road racing frames are designed to soften the ride so that the rider will have something left for the closing sprint and the next day’s stage. Top-quality Italian racing bicycles are usually road racers.

More than half of the racing bicycles sold are never raced in formal competition. They’re bought by riders who appreciate lightness, stiffness, and efficiency and accept the accompanying discomfort. Triathlon bicycles are special cases. Tri-athletes have to be proficient in three sports, so they can’t pile on training mileage like ordinary bicycle racers. Tri-athletes need a lightweight, high-performance racing bicycle, but they don’t need quick handling because they don’t race in a pack. They also want a fairly soft ride so they will have something left over at the end of the bicycle race to put into the running race.

Everything is done to reduce the weight of racing bicycles. The old truism is that one pound off the wheels is worth two pounds off the frame and ten pounds off the rider. Wheel weight is important because light wheels accelerate faster, which is critical in races where the pace is constantly changing.

--Loaded Touring Bicycles--

I’ve switched the order between loaded and sport touring to cover the extremes first and then the compromise. Loaded touring bicycles are designed to carry a heavy touring load reliably on a long cross-country tour with maximum rider comfort. The load is carried in panniers (a fancy French word for packsacks), which are fastened to racks mounted on the bike. The bicycle frame dimensions and angles are designed to provide stability on long descents with the touring load.

Everything on a loaded touring bicycle is designed for comfort and reliability because bicycle touring is supposed to be enjoyable. There aren’t any record times for loaded touring. The rider is assumed to be a normal mortal capable of putting out about 1/10 horsepower for long periods of time. The gearing is designed so that the loaded bicycle can be pedaled (albeit slowly) up any hill that’s encountered. The forks are designed to absorb front shocks and the long chainstays are designed to absorb rear shocks. Loaded touring wheels and tires are designed to avoid flats and to help absorb shocks from potholes and rough roads.

Loaded touring bicycles are very stable, especially if the weight is carried In low-mounted front panniers. They keep going in a straight line and they corner sedately and serenely. You don’t tour in a peleton (another fancy French word for a bunch of bicycles in a line). Bicycle weight isn’t so critical with 40 pounds or so in the panniers.

--Sport Touring Bicycles--

Most 10-speeds are sport tourers, neither racers nor loaded tourers, which as it should be since most cyclists neither race nor go on loaded cross-country tours. Sport touring bicycles fall somewhere between the other two Categories; they’re called “sport tourers” both for want of a better name and because it’s a useful marketing term. The bicycle makers design for a particular kind of rider at each price level. The makers know that standard-quality 10-speeds will never be raced and they design them for entry-level riders.

At the $400 to $500 price level, many makers supply two models: one for sporting and one for touring. Two recent trends have made the bicycles sportier: The growing number of tri-athletes has created a demand for high- performance almost-racing bicycles. At the same time, the market for comfortable touring bicycles is drying up because increasing numbers of riders are touring on mountain bikes. Some sport tourers are actually “platypi” with odd combinations of touring gears on racing frames.

Sport touring bicycles are designed to provide a more comfortable ride than road racing bicycles. Most sport tourers have modest clearance for fenders and they can be fitted with racks and used for loaded touring. Their gearing usually provides a compromise Low. The maker often signals the intended market for a particular bike by his tire selection. Touring bicycles have 27 x 1 1/4 or 27 X 1 1/8 tires. Sporting bicycles have 700 X 23C or 700 X 25C tires.

Most of you have only one bicycle, which is a compromise to fit all of your different kinds of riding. If most of your riding is slow and leisurely (the kind the bicycle clubs call “flower watching”), then you want a comfortable sport tourer that is closer to a loaded tourer. If you like to really cover the distance on your recreational rides, then you want a light sport tourer that’s closer to a road racer.

The big problem in selecting a sport touring bicycle isn’t defining what you want, it’s trying to determine if the bicycle that you’re reading about or looking at meets your requirements. The differences are subtle and bicycle advertising offers little assistance. The catalogs don’t tell you where the various models fit in the racing-touring spectrum. The more expensive sport tourers tend to have more racing character, but that’s a very general observation.

-- Picking a Bicycle to Suit You --

In an ideal world, 10-speed advertising would show a comfort rating (C) and a performance rating (P), like the sun protection factor (SPF) on sun tan lotions. The performance rating could just as readily be called an “efficiency” or a “stiffness” rating. A criterium racer would then be labeled C-0/P-10 and an unabashed loaded tourer would be marked C-10/P-0. To be sure, comfort and performance are not entirely reciprocals of each other. A properly designed aluminum frame, for example, increases the comfort rating at small cost to its performance rating. Also, on most any bike you can change both numbers by Installing different wheels or tires.

Table 2-1 shows typical dimensions and component selection for a C-1/P-9 criterium racer, a C-4/P-6 sport tourer, and a C-9/P-1 loaded tourer, all for a 5- foot, 10-inch rider with average body dimensions. I developed this table by averaging the catalog specifications for typical bicycles from Cannondale, Nishiki, Panasonic, Peugeot, Specialized, and Trek. These nice companies show frame dimensions in their catalogs. There aren’t many stock loaded touring j bicycles, so I applied my own experience and preferences to the loaded touring . category.

Table 1 ---- Typical Racing, Sport Touring, and Loaded Touring Bicycles: Specifications; Racing; Sport Touring; Loaded Touring.

Note that the same rider uses a smaller frame for racing than for touring. The seatpost is set higher for racing, and the stem is usually about ½ inch longer to put the racer in a lower, more streamlined position. It’s amazing that small changes in wheelbase, head angle, and fork rake make such a dramatic difference in the way the bike feels and handles out on the road. Figures 1 and 2 exaggerate the differences so notice them.

Ask yourself two questions. First, where does your riding style fit within the comfort—performance spectrum? Second, where does your present bicycle fit within the same spectrum? Use the description of the different kinds of bicycles to answer the first question. As for the second, if you are a C-8 rider on a C-2 bicycle, you don’t need to upgrade, you need a different bicycle.

Above: Fig. 1 Basic geometry of a racing bike.

___ Picking the Right Bicycle Size _____

The previous section told you how to get the right kind of bicycle. This section will tell you how to get the right size bicycle. In order to do that, you need to understand the basic geometry of a bicycle frame and the way a frame is measured. This information is shown in figure 3. Look at the figure and note in particular these two dimensions: the seat tube length and the top tube length. These are the key dimensions to take into account when determining whether or not a bike is the right size for you. Note that the seat tube length determines the nominal size of the bicycle frame.

-- Bicycle Height or Size --

The basic method used to determine what size bicycle frame is correct for you is to stand astride it and measure the distance between the top tube and your crotch. You should be able to stand flat-footed on the ground and still have some clearance.

How much is “some?” It depends on how you ride and who you ask for advice. I ride in a comfortable upright position, usually on the tops of the handlebars. My handlebars are about level with my saddle. I pick a frame that I can just straddle and I raise the handlebars to the mark on the stem. Thus, for me “some” means about 1/4 inch. Racers ride in a lower, more efficient position with the handlebars of their bicycles set well below the saddle height. They use smaller frames because they are stiffer and lighter. A typical racing bicycle has 1½ inches of crotch clearance.

Above: Fig. 3: Key dimensions of a bicycle frame. top tube length

Above: Fig. 2 Basic geometry of a loaded touring bike.

Above: Fig. 4 Different measurements of bicycle size.

Most bicycle guides tell you to multiply your inseam dimension by 0.70 or to subtract 9 or 10 inches from your inseam to get the right frame size. Both of these formulas have the following problems:

-The bottom bracket height can vary between 10’% inches and 11 inches, moving the top tube up with it and changing your crotch clearance.

-There’s no industry standard for bicycle size (or seat tube length).

A 23-inch bicycle may be measured from the spindle to the centerline of the top tube, or to the top of the top tube, or to the top of the seat tube. It’s quite possible for two “23-inch” bicycles to have floor-to-top tube dimensions that differ by as much as 1½ inches. ( Fig. 4 shows three different ways that bicycle sizes are measured.)

When you buy a bicycle at a bicycle store, you can straddle the top tube to check the fit. When you order a custom-built bicycle, the builder takes your dimensions, and sizes the frame accordingly. Problems arise when you buy a bicycle without trying it for size. If you can’t try it out, at least make sure that you and the seller are talking the same dimensions.

-- Top Tube Length --

So far, I’ve told you how to check that your bicycle is high or low enough for you. Now, I’ll tell you how to check that the top tube of your bicycle is long or short enough for you. If every 5-foot, 10-inch rider had the same body dimensions, it would be easy to design bicycle frames. But not all men have average dimensions. Neither do all women. Moreover, women’s average dimensions are different from those of men.

The bicycle makers assume a set of average dimensions and they expect non-average riders to adjust for any mi by moving the seat forward or back a bit and by using a longer or shorter stem. These methods provide no more than about an inch of adjustment. Interestingly, different makers make different assumptions about what is average because top tube lengths vary from maker to maker by about an inch.

top and above: 1980 Univega Gran Tourismo (Frame- 62cm Cro-Moly Steel tubing. More info ...)

____ A Sizing Method _______

The sizing procedure given below is a simplification and condensation of the method we use to measure our customers for custom-made frames.

Above: Fig. 5: Body measurements for a perfect fit on a bike.

The method requires you to take three body dimensions: inseam length, torso length, and arm length. Figure 5 shows these three dimensions. Stand up against a wall with your bare feet close together. Insert a record album between your legs. Raise it until it touches your crotch and mark the wall at that point. The distance from the floor to this mark we will call “I” for inseam length.

Now find the top of your sternum (a.k.a. breastbone). That’s the vertical bone under your Adam’s apple that ties your ribs together at the front. Make another mark on the wall. The distance from the inseam mark to the sternum mark we will call “T” for torso length. Finally, have a friend measure your arm from the acromion process (that’s the bone at the tip of your shoulder) to your wrist to get “A” or arm length.

TABLE 2: Inseam Length versus Bicycle Size, Bottom Bracket Height, and Crank Length

1. The bicycle size shown is measured from the center of the spindle to the top of the top tube.

Subtract ½ inch from the bicycle size to obtain the seat tube length, which is measured from the spindle to the centerline of the top tube. With Shimano Dyna-Drive cranks and pedals or Aero-Lite pedals, subtract ½ inch from the bicycle size. With Look pedals, add ½ inch to the bicycle size.

2. If you select a crank length other than the one recommended for your inseam, make the appropriate adjustment in the bicycle size.

3. It’s not practical to make a conventional bicycle with a horizontal top tube for inseams below 29 inches. Use smaller front wheels or a sloping top tube.

TABLE 3. Top Tube Length versus Combined Torso plus Arm Length: Torso plus Arm Length; Top Tube Length; Stem Length (mm)

1. The top tube length is measured horizontally from the centerline of the head tube to the centerline of the seat tube.

2. The stem length is measured from the center of the binder bolt to the center of the handlebars.

Table 2 shows the bicycle size, bottom bracket height, and crank length that matches your inseam (leg length). Table 3 shows the top tube length and stem length that matches your combined torso plus arm length.

The two tables give the key dimensions of a road racing bicycle. A loaded touring bicycle should be about an inch larger and have an inch shorter top tube. At least it should in my opinion. I admit that loaded touring bicycle dimensions are controversial. In any case, the dimensions of a sport touring bicycle should be somewhere in between, depending on your style of riding.

Here’s an example of how the tables work. My measurements are I = 34 Inches, T =26 inches, and A =24 inches. Paul’s tables suggest that I should ride a racing bicycle with a 23.3-inch frame, a 22.8-inch top tube, and a 10.6-inch bottom bracket height. Table 4 shows how these optimum dimensions com pare with the actual dimensions of four of my five bicycles.

___ Dealing with Non-average Dimensions ____

There’s quite a variation in top tube lengths between bicycles of the same size from different makers. If you have dimensions that are different from average, this let’s you pick a bicycle that fits you. If, like me, you have long legs and a short upper body, pick a frame with a shorter than average top tube. If you’re like my touring friend, Paul Schafer, who has short legs and a long torso, pick a frame with a longer than average top tube. You can compensate for about an inch or so of top tube-upper body mismatch by installing a longer or a shorter stem.

Short people have special problems finding bicycles to fit them properly. The worst bicycles for short people come from the makers who use the same top tube length for all frame sizes. By shortening the seat tube and the head tube, they can use the same jigs and tugs for all frame sizes. The smallest frame size has an excessively long top tube and no possibility of a comfortable riding position. Even when the maker tries to proportion the top tube to the other tubes, the 19-inch frame will usually have an overlong top tube to prevent the toe clips from overlapping the front wheel.

Short people should also watch out for bicycles with extra-high bottom brackets (more than 10½ inches). This is another sneaky way that the makers use stock lugs. The right frame for short riders usually has a combination of sloping top tube, slightly higher bottom bracket, and smaller front wheel. Fuji, Shogun, and Univega now make properly proportioned stock bicycles for petite people. Among the custom builders, Bill Boston, Georgena Terry, and Paul Brown have made numerous small-framed bicycles.

Now that you’ve read the first two sections and measured yourself and your bicycle, you should know if your bicycle is worth a major upgrade, a minor upgrade, or only a clean and polish job so that you can sell it.

TABLE 4. Ideal versus Actual Dimensions

Bicycle | Type | Bicycle Size (in.) | Top tube Length (in.) | B.B. Height (In.) | Crank Length (mm)

  • Recommended
  • Columbine
  • Redcay
  • Trek 2000
  • Windsor Carrera

Top of Page Prev   Next

Related articles