The best mountain bike upgrades bar none

By James Costley-White in Bath, UK | Thursday, July 28, 2011 10.20am

One of the most common questions that crops up on the BikeRadar forum is ‘what’s the first thing I should upgrade on my new mountain bike?’. This prompts all kinds of responses. Wheels are often mentioned, due to the understanding that rotational weight has a bigger effect on a bike’s handling than static weight.

In reality, the difference between these two types of weight is negligible, at least in the context of cycling. What does have more of an impact is unsprung weight – wheels, tyres, inner tubes, axles and suspension fork lowers. Excess weight in this area can hamper your bike's suspension performance, and therefore handling.

However, wheels are an expensive upgrade, especially if you've just forked out for a new bike, and there are other areas where a smaller outlay will bring you big performance benefits. Suspension forks and/or rear shocks tend to crop up in upgrade discussions, as budget units tend to be heavy and poorly controlled, but replacing these can be very expensive and a bit of a minefield for the uninitiated.

When it comes to cheaper options, people will generally mention things like lighter quick-release skewers – okay, the latest carbon/titanium/alloy options may look bling but a semi-enclosed Shimano QR still offers just about the best performance – and talk about titanium bolts – fine if you’re a sponsored racer and get them for free, but a good way of blowing lots of cash for minimal weight savings for the rest of us.

Take control

So what’s the answer? Saving weight isn't the be-all and end-all. Rider weight is so much higher than bike weight that saving a few grams here and there makes very little difference, and even if you manage to save a few pounds, it's only on the climbs that you'll really notice the change. Comfort and performance upgrades will make a much more significant difference.

An uncomfortable saddle should always be the first thing to go – although make sure you do a few long rides first, because seats that feel hard for the first couple of miles often bed in a bit and/or provide excellent support on longer jaunts. Some companies such as WTB now offer demo programmes where you can try out different perches. After that, the first things we tend to swap on bikes that come in for testing are handlebars, stems and tyres.

Most mountain bikes come equipped for cross-country riding or, at the budget end of the market, a mix of on- and off-road riding. That means a narrow handlebar (saves weight and gives a beginner-friendly upright ride position), long stem (puts weight over the front of the bike for improved climbing, at the expense of some downhill confidence) and either semi-slick or low-tread tyres (roll fast on road or dry trails but don't grip well in corners or mud). If you plan on tackling more technical terrain, a shorter stem, wider bar and grippier tyres will make a big difference.

A stubby stem will speed up your steering and help you get your weight back on steep downhills. The length you choose should depend on what type of riding you're into – 80/90mm should be fine for trail/cross-country where there's a fair bit of climbing (any shorter and it can be difficult to get enough weight over the front wheel on climbs), while those intending to spend more time heading downhill than up can get away with something shorter.

A wider bar, meanwhile, will give you more control – compared to a narrower pipe, you need to move your hands further to turn the front wheel by the same amount. Many riders say it also aids breathing while climbing, as your arms are further apart and thus not restricting your chest. Don't go too wide for your height though – anything over 700mm will make a difference, and unless you're over 6ft and into pretty radical riding, 800mm will be overkill. Also bear in mind that if you tend to ride tight, tree-infested trails, a narrower bar may be easier.

Think about your grips, too – different shapes, sizes and rubber compounds suit different shaped hands and riding styles. Lock-on collars add security, but the grips often have a stiff plastic core, so many riders still swear by traditional all-rubber grips and use wire or hairspray to make sure they don't slide off.

Sticky dilemna

Next on the list should be tyres. Even if your bike came with 'name brand' (Maxxis/Schwalbe/Continental/WTB/etc.) rubber, the tyres may well be plasticky OEM ones (cheaper versions made to be sold with full bikes) rather than more grippy aftermarket ones. Beware of this when buying upgrade tyres online, too – if a price seems too good to be true, it may well be an OEM product.

What tyre you go for depends on what type of riding you'll be doing (downhill/all-mountain/cross-country), what the terrain's like where you'll be riding (rocky/dusty/muddy) and what your priorities are when it comes to durability and grip – in general, the more durable a tyre, the less grippy it is. Don't buy a tyre just because it's light or you're likely to be plagued by punctures and unpredictable losses of traction. Tyre volume and pressure can also make a big difference.

We've just swapped the bar, stem and tyres on one of our long-term test rigs, Ghost's AMR 7500, and this has transformed an already fun bike into a trail-taming beast. Before, it felt a little nervous on more full-on terrain due to its 670mm bar, 100mm stem and 2.25in Schwalbe Nobby Nic tyres, which had a tendency to lose grip without warning in corners.

We've stuck on a pair of 2.4in Continental Mountain King IIs for testing, and they've made a big difference – much more predictable, and the extra volume (although Conti tyres come up smaller than Schwalbe ones for the same size) adds traction and comfort, at the expense of some rolling speed. Up front, we've gone for a 70mm stem and a 760mm wide, low-rise bar, which we've cut down to about 730mm.

You don't need to spend a fortune to get a similar effect. The Point One Racing Split-Second stem and Blackspire 768 riser bar seen here would set you back over £150, but if you're on a budget, something like Outland's D31 Eight – just £40 for a 685mm bar, 50mm stem and lock-on grips! – will still make a huge difference to your riding. Why not give it a try? Check out our Bikes & Gear sections for loads of reviews of stems, bars and tyres.

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