Perhaps you’ve just bought your first gravel bike, or maybe you’ve been a drop-bar knobby tyre convert for a while. Either way, we can surely all agree that if you’re not out on the trails, then thinking about how you can improve your ride is very much the next best thing.
Now, unless you’re one of those very lucky people with thousands to spend on the very best gravel bikes, you will – like the rest of us – be after the upgrades that deliver the biggest bang for your buck.
And although we did say ‘five upgrades’ in the title, it’s more five best upgrade areas – we’ve got lots more upgrade suggestions for you than just five! And some of them cost the same as a single Zwift payment – how’s that for value already?
So, without further ado, let’s jump in!
Tyres (sealant and valves)
We’d also recommend this as one of the best cheap upgrades for road bikes. But when heading off-road, making sure you’re using the best gravel bike tyres takes on a whole new level of importance. There’s more to consider than just the rolling resistance, puncture resistance and weight and it’s no exaggeration that choosing the right set will completely transform your ride.
First off, there’s the tread pattern to consider: are you going to be riding mainly hard-pack gravel roads or are your trails more loose and muddy? In the first case, you’d want to go with a semi-slick casing with more prominent shoulder knobs to provide grip in the corners. Alternatively, an even covering of short, tightly spaced knobs makes for a more predictable and easier to handle tyre – although at the expense of some rolling resistance..
In the second case for loose rocks and muddy trails, you’ll be needing something rather more aggressive. The height and spacing of the knobs should be taller and wider to provide the necessary traction in those more challenging conditions.
Then there’s the width. Depending on the roughness of the terrain (and the level of comfort you’re after), you might be best suited with anything from 35mm to 54mm – that’s 2.1 inches, and with the change in units indicating a switch into mountain bike territory.
Then there are the differences between price points. More expensive tyres can be made lighter and use more advanced compounds. This is particularly important if you ride where there are wet, slabby rocks, as it’s not the knobs that provide the grip there (there’s no way for them to dig in) but rather the compound of the rubber.
There are so many aspects to choosing the right tyre for the conditions, which does make this one of those cases where you would likely be better off saving up for a bit longer for that tyre which does fit all of your needs, rather than spending too early on one that misses the mark.
When it comes to punctures, though, the tyres are only one piece of the puzzle – the sealant you use also has a massive impact on whether they stay inflated. We’ve got a separate guide to the best tubeless sealants here – if you’re looking for an upgrade, this is a prime area.
Finally, it might not be super flashy, but as an inexpensive upgrade that actually makes a sizeable impact, it’s worth considering your tubeless valves. Schwalbe does a great set with a chunky seal which actually lasts – unlike the thinner ones that can disintegrate after a hard season. Schwalbe’s also fits a 4mm allen key, which really helps when taking them in and out. Others designs are made to play nicely with tubeless inserts and have valve caps with valve core tightener, such as STZY’s tubeless valves – very useful.
Handlebars (stem, saddle, bar tape)
Handlebars are the headline component, but really this is about making sure that your contact points are as comfortable as they can be.
Whether your riding is about laid-back exploring, ultra distance epics or hammering round as fast as you can, you’ll enjoy it more and perform better with a bike that fits you and your needs properly.
The cheaper and simpler upgrades – which are arguably the highest value – include your stem and the bar tape. What’s best for bar tape is quite obvious – tackier and more cushioned options deliver better grip for more control, as well as greater comfort. Win win.
The stem relates to your bike fit and it’s about finding that balance between not being too stretched out and also not too cramped. You can get models with different angles to help further adjust the height of your handlebars too. We’ve got other content on how to set up your bike, so it’s worth watching that first. But once you know what you're looking for, a stem that sorts your bike fit is one of the best cheap upgrades it’s possible to make.
Coming back to choosing the best handlebar for your gravel bike itself, there are so many different options – which is great because it means that you will pretty much definitely be able to find a model that works for you, but is also a pain because it can mean a fair bit of looking.
There’s the width to consider – some riders might want to go wider for stability, control and greater luggage carrying capabilities, others might want to go narrower for the aero benefits (body position is more important than any component).
Finally, there’s the flare, some find a more extreme flare more comfortable on their wrists and appreciate the extra control when hunkered down in the drops. For others, aggressive flare is an ergonomic no-no. Coming back to aerodynamics, if you’re travelling long distances, you’ll be more comfortable and significantly faster on a set of tri bars or aero extensions.
In terms of value, these aspects that relate to the fit are most important, you can consider the material and look at carbon versions, but this does reduce the cost effectiveness of this upgrade.
Finally, saddles. It is perhaps even harder to find the best bike saddle for you than it is to decide on a handlebar – but it’s definitely an important upgrade for your enjoyment on the bike. For more information on how to find the right saddle for you, we’ve got a handy explainer just over here
Brake cables and pads
This is more one for the best budget gravel bikes that use mechanical disc brakes rather than hydraulics.
Now, it’s true that hydraulic disc brakes do offer better modulation (control of the braking force) compared to mechanical disc brakes – they also make the braking action so much lighter (possible with a single finger).
But it’s also true that mechanical disc brakes can be unfairly maligned because, in being specced on cheaper models, other spec choices are made that hamper their performance. Essentially, mechanical disc brakes have the potential to be much better than the stock set up.
Most important is upgrading the outer cable housing. Cheaper housing compresses when you squeeze the brake lever, which leads to a spongy lever feel. More expensive housing gives a much more direct braking feel, which helps with modulation and also means much more of the power is being delivered to the brake, rather than wasted in the housing.
£40 / $50 might feel like a lot to spend on your brake cables, but considering what an effect it has, it’s one of the best cheap upgrades you can make.
Same goes for upgrading your brake pads. You don’t need to go for a ludicrously expensive model with cooling fins and all the rest – it’s the compound of the pad that’s most important and it doesn’t take too much to make a big step up from the budget pads that will likely have come stock in your calipers as the bike brand tries to save where it can - when looking for a replacement, check out our guide to the best brake pads for gravel bikes for our recommendations.
Not specifically an upgrade for your bike per se, but as one of the best multi-tools is something you’ll use out on the trails, we think it’s fair game.
There are two common mistakes to make, one is going for a multi-tool that packs in a whole raft of features, but in such a small and intricate way that it’s a massive pain to actually use them. Perhaps this is fine as a safety net on short rides, but for anything more and it gets frustrating very quickly.
The other mistake is going for a tool with too few features, which could leave you caught short out on the trails.
The bits we look for are a complete set of allen keys from 2mm to 8mm, at least a T25 Torx head, a flat head and philips head screwdriver, a chain tool, a valve core tool and a spoke tool.
In terms of other things we bring, a quick link for the chain and a tubeless plug are musts, but so are tyre levers, a good old fashioned inner tube and a pump.
For longer bikepacking trips: spare brake pads, gear cable, puncture repair kit, CO2 inflators (useful for reseating a tyre) are the staples. You might also want to bring a small cassette tool – you can’t do much with it without a spanner, but stop by any house and they’ll have one of those, a cassette tool not so much.
Cycling computer with mapping
Finally, in a similar vein to the multitool, this isn’t specifically an upgrade for gravel bikes – but it’s one that can transform your gravel riding, so we think it is a good inclusion.
Although there is much to be said for developing a mental map of your local trails, the best cycling computers come with mapping which can help you explore further afield in the confidence that you’re not going to get lost.
Getting to explore new areas is a huge part of the fun of gravel riding and easy mapping really helps with that.
Of course, this doesn’t actually have to be done with bespoke cycling computer – there are plenty of mapping applications on your phone that will do an excellent job. Plus, depending on what you already own, the setup might not have to cost much at all.
The things you will need are your phone (of course), a robust mount (also consider your waterproofing requirements), a battery pack for charging your phone, and some form of handlebar bag to put your phone in.
Whichever way you go about riding with mapping, you’ll soon wonder how you got by without it before.
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