The top five upgrades for your mountain bike
Modern mountain bikes have become immensely capable. These days, most mountain bikes will come with very decent specs out of the box, and for the majority of riders, all they need to do is put air in their tires, adjust suspension settings to their liking and head to the trails. This is true for bikes at various price points, but especially relevant to entry-level to mid-range mountain bikes, where their relative affordability sometimes mean that manufacturers spec cheaper parts, or omit components that have become a staple of modern mountain biking (like dropper posts or tubeless tires) in the interest of keeping costs low.
For the devoted mountain biking enthusiast, sometimes the lure of shiny new parts is just too strong regardless of the actual benefit to their riding. For instance, some people like to color-match their components, going to great lengths to find just the ride shade of matching anodized hubs, stem and pedals, often by different manufacturers, so that their ride gets just the right look. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this kind of upgrade, and I we have all seen some stunning mountain bikes with impressive attention to detail, but it adds little beyond pleasing aesthetics. For the performance-oriented rider, there are many upgrades that would actually improve the capabilities of their mountain bike and boost the fun factor on the trails. This article looks at what we believe are the best performance-oriented upgrades that should be on every mountain bikers wish-list.
Many mountain bikers, including us, consider the dropper post one of the best inventions in the world of modern mountain bikers. Executing technical riding maneuvers such as descending steep trails or clearing big drops often depend on well-timed weight shifts which often cannot be performed as quickly as needed with the seatpost at full height. Dropper posts make it easy to get your weight low and back and allow you to make the most out of the progressive geometry of modern mountain bikes.
Most mid-tier and above bikes now come factory equipped with droppers, but many still don’t, including XC-oriented bikes which often prioritize low weight over descending prowess. If your bike doesn’t have a dropper post and you like the challenge of riding steep and rowdy trails, consider making this your first upgrade.
2. Tubeless tires:
Yes, we hear you: tubeless tires take a bit more patience with set-up and maintenance than regular old butyl inner tubes. They’re totally worth it though. Personally, I haven’t run a tube in any of my mountain bikes in over 12 years (unless in the event of a flat, of course, and those are rare with tubeless tires). The performance benefits are many! 1) you can run lower pressures which make your tires stick better to the terrain and thus enhance your traction, 2) pinch flats (where the inner tube gets pinched between the rim and a hard object) become a thing of the past, and you can run tire inserts for additional protection in really gnarly terrain, 3) ride quality and comfort are greatly improved (see the point about lower pressures). Modern wide rims and tubeless-ready tires make running tubeless full-time easy. Just make sure you top up your air pressure as needed and check your sealant levels every now and then.
3. Wide handlebars:
Have you ever watched a DH race from the 1990s? If not, here is one. See how narrow those handlebars were?! Nowadays, it is rare to see a sub-700mm handlebar on even the lightest of XC bikes. The standard for trail bikes seem to hover between 740-780mm depending on frame size. We are aware that handlebar width should be chosen according to shoulder width, but we are talking in relative terms here of course. Wider bars enable the rider to have better leverage and charge technical trails with more confidence, and they slow down the steering which makes the bike less twitchy on tight and twisty trails (assuming it is paired with a shorter stem, of course). If your current handlebar feels too narrow, perhaps it’s time to consider a cockpit upgrade. Our recommendation is to buy a handlebar wider than you think you’ll need and to trim it down in increments of 5mm until you find the sweet spot.
Say you’re lucky enough to own the Best Mountain Bike in the World and it came with an uncomfortable saddle. The inescapable truth is that you will have trouble having any actual fun riding the Best Mountain Bike in the World because your butt will hurt every time you want to ride it for any meaningful distance or length of time. Time to find a saddle that will not make your nether regions scream with agony. Step one: measure your sit bones (there are several YouTube guides on how to do that). Step two: find a saddle that is 1-2cm wider than your sit bone measurement, and this should be easy enough as most saddle manufacturers now offer various widths of their saddles. Keep in mind that saddles made for off-road riding are often designed to accommodate the more upright and rearward riding position of mountain bikes, so don’t put a road saddle on your trail steed. It is also worth noting that even with the right width, the shape of the saddle is just as important. You may have to experiment with a few saddles until you find the holy grail saddle for your own butt (hot tip: many companies and bike shops now offer saddle demo programs!)
I’ve been accused of being a weight weenie, chasing gram savings, and lusting after carbon this and carbon that. Guilty as charged. However, if you’re going to spend your hard earned cash on making your bike lighter you should know where exactly on the bike do weight savings translate to the most significant real-world performance benefits: your wheels. Rotational weight is one area on the bike where weight savings can be really felt on the trail. Lighter wheels accelerate faster and result in less fatigue on long rides. You probably heard the saying “Light, strong, cheap: pick any two”, which means that lightweight AND strong wheels will not come cheap. The good news is that with advances in composites technology, carbon fiber wheels that combine both characteristics are becoming more and more affordable.
It is easy to lust after all the latest and greatest mountain bike parts, and to be fair the industry is comping up with some incredible things (electronically adjusted suspension, wireless drivetrains, etc). However, you don’t always need big ticket items to make significant improvements to your bike’s performance. Think about the type of riding you do the most and the nature of your local trails, and see which of the upgrades we listed can give you the best bang for your buck.