Workshop: Make your bike more downhill / freeride ready

14 easy ways to toughen up your mountain bike

How to toughen up a trail bike

Thinking of tackling something a little more extreme on your mountain bike this year? Unless you’ve already got a purpose-built downhill or freeride bike, it would be a wise move to toughen up your ride first. Here are 14 easy ways to do it…


Time: 30-60 minutes

Cost: £0-£100s


  • Assorted Allen keys
  • Shock pump
  • Gear cable outer
  • Tyre levers
  • Old inner tube
  • Threadlock
  • Cable ties
  • Track pump

Free tweaks

1 Suspension setup

Get fully kitted up before fiddling with your settings to be sure you get it right – if you wear your riding gear, you’ll weigh the same as you will when riding. The fork should be set with between 20 and 23 percent sag. If you have rear suspension, the shock sag should be set to 25 to 30 percent of the travel.  If the riding you’re doing is particularly steep or has lots of big compressions, run your fork a little firmer – it will keep the front end a little higher. For more information, see Workshop: Setting up mountain bike suspension.

2 Brake levers

If you’re tackling steep terrain, run your levers slightly higher on the bar. This will make them easier to reach when you’re hanging off the back of the bike descending. Wind in the reach too, to help keep arm pump at bay. When it comes to clamping the lever up, we tend to leave ours loose enough so that it’ll stay where you want it when riding but move around the bar if you crash, which prevents it snapping off.

Low-cost upgrades

3 Threadlock pedal pins

If you use flat pedals – often a good idea when learning new skills – rougher terrain can take its toll. It can rattle the pins loose, not to mention the damage caused if you smash your pedals into the floor. It’s well worth investing in some Loctite threadlock. Removing and gluing each pin takes a bit of time, but the benefits will soon become obvious when you don’t keep losing all the pins from your pedals.

4 Chainstay protection

No one likes the noise of the chain slapping the chainstay and it’ll do your paintwork no favours either. Chainstay protectors are cheap and do a good job of dulling down any rattle. You can make your own with some old inner tube and a couple of cable ties.

5 Down tube protection

Rock strikes can ruin a frame. Simple protection can be applied subtly if you look for the right materials. Many riders will use ultra thick clear and adhesive vinyl, which is available from most large motocross outlets. Apply a couple of layers of this to your down tube and it’ll take the sting out of any strike without adding too much extra weight.

6 Brake pads

If your pads are old, replace them. A new set of pads will freshen up your braking and are well worth the cost if you’re planning on tackling new, more adventurous riding. If your pads still have plenty of life in them, it’s worth whipping them out and giving them a buff with a piece of sand paper to roughen up the braking surfaces.

7 Rotors

Larger diameter disc rotors will help disperse heat more effectively when you’re dragging your brakes down a long descent. This means less chance of your brakes fading or pumping up, so you’ll still be able to control your speed effectively, but it’ll be easier on your arms. Bigger rotors will also help perk up the power, which means you can leave braking later and stay in more control.

8 Full-length outer cables

Keeping your gears in good working order is made far easier if you can keep the elements out and defend those delicate inner cables against rock strikes. Running full-length outer cable is an easy way to help put those cable services off and protect the vital bits. If you’re bike won’t accommodate them, simply cable tie them in place.

9 Shorter stem

Fitting a shorter stem will give the bike a snappier, more responsive feel. A shorter stem also makes it easier to lift the front wheel over obstacles and to shift your weight further back on the bike for some manoeuvring. We’d recommend anything from a 50 to 70mm stem but to bear in mind what sort of riding you’ll be doing. For example, more aggressive downhill riding will require something like a 50mm stem.

10 Wider bar

We’re all big fans of wide bars here at BikeRadar. They give you more leverage and make for a more controlled ride. We’d recommend anything from 700 to 750mm. These will still fit through the gaps in the trees but aren’t so wide that it looks as if you’re about to do a push-up. If you’re new to the wide bar game, buy them wide and experiment with grip placement before you chop them down.

11 Tyre choice

Tubeless-ready tyres with a good sealant inside can help prevent pesky flats. If your wheels aren’t tubeless-ready, kits to convert them are available. It’s also a good move to upgrade to something with a heavier casing and more aggressive tread. Although heavier, the difference will be massive when it comes to what you can get away with and the terrain and conditions you’ll be able to ride. Something more bulbous like a 2.3in tyre should be just right.

More expensive options

12 Bigger pedals

If you run clipless pedals, you’ll know how small the target is to get your foot back in if you unclip. It’s a good idea to go for a  pedal with a bigger cage like Shimano’s M647 or the CrankBrothers Mallet. These will offer a larger area to sit your foot on, more grip if you can’t clip back in and more support once you are clipped in. Alternatively, you could stick a pair of flat pedals on.

13 Chainset choice

Think about exactly what type of riding you’ll be doing and the type of gearing you’ll require. It’s definitely worth incorporating some kind of protection because rough alpine descents can be unforgiving. Either use a chainguide if you’re running a single chainring with nine or 10 sprockets, or an outer bashguard on a double chainring setup. There are pros and cons for each but a double setup will generally offer the most versatility.

14 Height-adjustable seatpost

These clever inventions mean you can make the most of every situation. Hit a descent, push the remote or pull the lever and compress the post so the saddle is right out of the way. Reach a climb and extend it fully to climb efficiently. Many posts now feature either multiple-drop positions or can be stopped at any height, meaning you can easily tailor it to suit the conditions.

Workshop wisdom

Riding on more extreme terrain can lead to more damage on your bike. The rougher trails can potentially shorten the lifespan of certain products, as well as increase the risk of crashing, which can write components off in the blink of an eye. By taking preventative measures you can to avoid things like this, so carry out regular checks over everything on your bike.

  • Check your bars for signs of fatigue and make sure your grips are tight on the bar.
  • Check your drivetrain, including all rings, sprockets and chain for signs of wear or damage.
  • Keep an eye on your fork and shock seals too as these need to be kept clean and grime-free to help prolong their shelf life.