Bike manufacturers have become pretty good at speccing complete bikes, however, there are always mountain bike upgrades to be made along the way - what works for some might not work for others. Whether that comes in the form of shaving off grams by adding some carbon trickery or customising the touchpoints and suspension assembly to better suit your body, upgrading components can change the way your bike reacts and performs out on the trail.
Our suggestions come highly recommended by our editors to help eek every last bit of performance out of your ride. Scroll down for the best upgrades you can make to your mountain bike regardless of your ability.
Best mountain bike upgrades
Everybody is different, so a saddle that keeps one person happy on an all-day epic might be a cruel form of medieval torture for another. The wrong shape or width saddle will leave your rear end sore, and it can inhibit blood flow and compress nerves around your nether regions.
The wrong saddle can also cause you to ride in an awkward position in search of comfort, and lead to alignment problems, muscle imbalances as well as impact your power delivery.
The SDG Radar has some great fundamental design features such a carefully shaped central relief channel and rear-buzz cut-out – the latter being a concave shape to the saddle’s rear, which prevents tyre scuffing during extreme suspension compressions.
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The right set of grips will also make a massive difference in your happiness on the bike. The wrong grips can lead to arm pump (fatigue) a sore neck and shoulders from death-gripping the bars and cause blisters on your hands.
Ergon's GE1 grips have an ergonomic design to take some of the stress off the muscles used for grip to reduce arm pump. With several compounds through a cut-out skeleton and a unique shape, create a wide contact area for your hand.
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The final touchpoint on the bike is your feet. The right pair of shoes will not only save you some grams, but they will also lead to a more efficient pedal stroke and more overall comfort both on and off the bike.
The Giro Riddance shoe is a great option for the trail rider. It features a Vibram Megagrip ISR rubber compound sole which is very grippy for flat-pedal stability.
An EVA vibration-damping footbed ensures high levels of comfort while the uppers are composed of a microfibre material for improved ventilation and moisture resistance. Rubberised toe and heel pads add an extra layer of protection to package.
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Before choosing the correct tyre it's worth checking if your current setup is already tubeless - you'll be surprised by how many brand-new mountain bikes come stock with inner tubes. A tubeless conversion will eliminate pinch flats (there is no tube to pinch), allow for lower tyres pressure which improves traction and rolling resistance. Even better, the sealant inside will plug up most punctures before you realise you have one and save a few grams vs running a tube.
A good set of tyres can change your bike from a skittering death trap to a sure-footed Alpine Ibex that maintains traction on steep climbs, wet roots and off-camber corners. Tread pattern will also make an enormous difference in how your bike rides: a tyre with small closely spaced knobbies will be less than useless in the deep mud, while a mud tyre will be slow-rolling and squirmy on hard, dusty trails. Another attribute to consider is sidewall and puncture protection.
If it's a competent all-round tyre that you're after, the Continental Mud King is a surprisingly fast-rolling tyre and comes in both an Apex and ProTection casing, both with the same tread pattern. The Apex version is the downhill casing, with a soft elastomer rubber sandwiched between the casing piles to help stave of impacts — it also weighs twice as much as the enduro/trail version.
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It could be argued that dropper posts are one of the most significant innovations to mountain biking of the last 10 years. By enabling you to drop your seatpost out of the way, you can shift your weight further back, meaning it's now possible to confidently descend steep technical terrain that would've been baulked at in previous years. Most higher-end trail and enduro bikes will come specced with a dropper, but every mountain biker — yes, even XC whippets — will benefit from being able to lower their seat with the push of a lever.
Things to keep in mind when looking at a dropper post are the diameter and insertion depth. If your bike has a 27.2mm post, we've got bad news; there aren't a whole lot of options on the market. However, for those with a bike that will take a 30.9mm or 31.6mm post, there are hundreds of possibilities.
Most modern full suspension mountain bikes have a kink or pivot bearing somewhere along the seat tube, which limits how far a seat post can be inserted into the bike. With a rigid post, it's no big deal to cut it down, however, with droppers you'd be hacking off crucial internal componentry. Dropper posts come in a variety of different travel lengths, and you want the one that when fully extended leaves the least amount of the lower sticking out of the frame.
Your frame will also determine whether you can run a stealth post or externally routed post, the former making a path inside the frame to run the cable or hydraulic hose. If your bike is a bit older, you'll likely have to run an external routed or seat operated post.
Our pick of the bunch has to be the Rockshox Reverb. While the Reverb has an undeserved reputation for unreliability, if properly maintained, they run very well.
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Stem length can have a big effect not only on a bikes handling but also rider position and bike durability. For mountain biking, a shorter stem is generally better, by reducing the stem length which speeds up and sharpens handling. Alternatively, if you are finding that the front wheel is lifting on climbs a longer stem can be fitted to help move with forwards over the front wheel.
Stem rise can be used in a similar way. Using a stem with rise allows handlebars to be lifted to help move weight back for better control on steep terrain while flipping the stem so that it has negative ride will make the position more aggressive and improve climbing.
Stems not only come in a wide selection of lengths and rises but also different clamp standards that correspond with your handlebars. The defaults are the old standard size (25.4mm), oversize (31.8mm) and the stiffest 35mm. Fork steerer size must also be considered and will either be 1 1/8in or 1.5in.
In the past few years, the mountain biking industry as a whole has realised that a wider bar offers more leverage to steer the front wheel and slows down the handling to be more manageable on tech high-speed descents. Wide bars also shift your weight towards the front of the bike and should be paired with a shorter stem to keep you centred. The rule of thumb when it comes to the ratio between bar width and stem length is 2:1 — so for every 20mm your bars get wider, your stem should get shorter by 10mm.
While bars and stem also fit into the fit equation, your local trails will also inform your decision. There is nothing worse than riding up to a narrow tree gap only to find your bars don't actually fit. The benefit of broad bars diminishes as the technicality and speed of the trails goes down, and too large a bar can cause pain in your shoulders and neck.
If you do opt to go wide, we recommend buying a bar slightly wider than you need to and cut it to size — make sure you measure at least twice. Before you do cut a new set of bars down, slide your grips and controls into the width they were on your old set, and progressively move them out until you find the width right for you — this is considerably easier if you have a lock on grips.
You may also be looking to upgrade to a set of carbon handlebars. While alloy bars are cheap, stiff and durable, carbon is a bit lighter and will absorb more vibration before it can reach your hands.
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We are going to assume that if you're reading this, your mountain bike has disc brakes as this has been the industry standard for quite some time. Being able to scrub speed ahead of a corner without losing traction, or creep down a super steep rollover can be the difference between keeping the rubber side down and laying starfished on the side of the trail in a cloud of dust.
Comb through any mountain bike review, and you will find the word modulation used with gusto; this refers to the range between when the brake bites and the wheel locks up, with higher performance brakes offering more reach between these two points. Depending on where they fall on the price spectrum, both cable-actuated and hydraulic brakes can offer lots or minimal modulation.
If your bike was on the budget end of the spectrum, the discs might have 'Resin Pads Only' printed somewhere on the rotor. Upgrading these will not only leave you with a better rotor but also make metallic brake pads, which offer superior braking power, especially in the wet and durability an option. We typically match brake pads to calipers (Shimano pads to Shimano brakes); however, third party pads like those from Swiss Stop are a great option too — just avoid cheap generic brands.
Have you upgraded your rotors and pads and still feel like you want more braking power? Look at upgrading your calipers from a twin-piston to a four-pot system.
The SRAM Guide RE was introduced as a stopgap for e-bikes while the second generation SRAM Code was being developed. It’s proved a total smash hit with anyone looking for a rowdy brake at an affordable price, so it’s stayed in the lineup.
Rolling stock is one of the most expensive upgrades you can make to your bike, but it will also be one of the most noticeable. Depending on how deep your pockets are a new set of wheels can drop a significant amount of weight from your bike, adding cornering grip, improving hub engagement and rolling resistance.
A wider rim will allow you to use wider tyres, lower tyre pressure, more grip and comfort, and less rolling resistance. Rim material is also a significant consideration, with alloy rims offering considerably more performance benefit for the money.
If you're an XC rider, after price, weight is probably going to be your top priority as this will make your attacks and changes in pace lighting fast and leave you lugging few grams up steep climbs. On the other end of the spectrum, for riders sending drops and bashing through rock gardens, a more robust trail or enduro wheelset with a burly rim and a few extra spokes is the way to go.
At 1290 grams, the Kovee XXX is a ridiculously light wheelset but this has done little to affect its stiffness and strength
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Upgrading your suspension can come in two forms, the tune and the physical components. To decide which is the best route for you to take, ask yourself what exactly you're looking to improve about your bike's suspension.
Beyond just a service to make sure that everything is moving smoothly and stiction free, a suspension wizard can tune the suspension based on your weight and riding style to help your wheels track the ground like they are stuck with velcro. It's not a cheap endeavour, but is less expensive than a new fork, and may offer more of a performance advantage.
If it’s a high-performance, lightweight cross-country suspension fork that you’re after, there aren’t many options that can beat the Fox Float 32 Factory Step Cast.
Compared to many of its Boost-equipped rivals, the Fox 32 is appreciably narrower when measured from leg to leg thanks to a stepped cut-out at the drop-outs. This nifty feature has not only improved lateral stiffness but considerably reduced its weight over its rivals, too.
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In terms of drivetrain options and cranksets, it’s been a big year for new developments with SRAM going AXS wireless on its top-end XX1 and X01 Eagle groups. Then Shimano dropped 12-speed versions of both XT and SLX literally weeks after the long-overdue XTR version finally becoming available.
If you are looking to ditch the front ring, the most important component is a clutched rear derailleur, which will hold the chain taught bumpy terrain and prevent the chain from bouncing off the front chainring. The other half of the equation when it comes to chain retention is a narrow-wide chainring which as the name suggests features alternating tooth profiles which grab onto the chain as it goes around.
There are many options but in our experience, Sram GX offers a good balance between performance, weight and price. It uses slightly simpler construction techniques and cheaper materials than X01 and loses trigger angle adjustment, but shifting performance is indistinguishable. The biggest difference between GX and X01 is the XG1275 cassette which uses individually stamped steel cogs held together with stainless steel pins rather than a single piece X-Dome centrepiece.
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