The best mountain bike upgrades | Jack and Joe’s favourites

The kit and components that really make the difference

In this latest video, Jack and Joe talk about their all-time best mountain-bike upgrades from their time here at BikeRadarThese are the kit and component choices they feel have made a real difference to their riding.

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As riders who spend most of their time riding cross-country and at endurance events, their choices are representative of this sort of discipline. We’ll have a similar video coming soon for those who prefer riding longer travel bikes and enduro riding.

Joe Norledge’s best mountain bike upgrades

Tubeless Tyres 

Sealant leaking from tyre
Moving to a tubless setup is a must for any mountain biker.
BikeRadar

Joe’s first upgrade is tubeless tyres. When he got his first 29er race bike back in 2012, he immediately pumped the tyres up to 25psi as recommended by a friend, then lo and behold, he got a pinch puncture almost straight away. For those who don’t know, a pinch puncture or pinch flat is a puncture caused by a rim impacting an inner tube directly.

Joe soon learned there was a technology called tubeless, which eliminates the need for an inner tube, instead using sealant to effectively plug holes.

Joe admits he still gets the odd catastrophic puncture with tubeless, but that he probably averages just one a year – far less than what you’d get with a regular tubed setup. 

The other benefit Joe finds from his tubeless setup is that it allows him to run a much lower tyre pressure, especially on the relatively wide 2.2in to 2.35in tyres Jack and him use when cross-country racing.

Weighing around 64kg, Joe has gone as low as 20psi, which helps with grip and lowers the rolling resistance of the tyre somewhat. 

Thin gloves

The second upgrade to make Joe’s list is full-finger gloves with a super-thin palm.

Joe likes a really connected feel to the bars when he is mountain biking and will usually ride without gloves if it’s a fairly chilled ride. 

But when it comes to racing cross-country or marathons, Joe finds it’s best to use gloves to protect you from those inevitable crashes when you’re pushing hard. 

Gloves with thick palms or gels inserts are okay, but he doesn’t think they provide the best feel on the bars, and you can get the fabric bunching up on your palms. This again leads to the feeling of having less control.

When it comes to gloves, Joe looks for something with the tightest fit and thinnest palm possible, as it still provides a degree of protection,  and crucially that all-important locked-in feel on the bars. 

Some favourites over the last few years have been Troy Lee Designs gloves, with a super-thin palm, plus there was a pair of POC gloves we managed to lose in a bin-bag back on a Cannondale launch in 2018. Sad times. 

ESI grips

ESI Grips
We love ESI grips.
Dave Rome / BikeRadar

From super-thin gloves, we’re now moving to chunky grips, in particular ESI’s silicone offerings.

Grips are very much a personal preference, but silicone variants seem to be very popular on the cross-country and endurance scene at the moment. Joe likes the comfort chunkier grips offer. On chattery fire roads and single track, he finds they help take the sting out of the trail, and feel nice on the hands when climbing out of the saddle. 

He admits they can be an absolute pain to get onto his handlebars though. He’s found the best method is to spray the insides thoroughly with hairspray or something similar, then get the grips on as fast as you can. 

Joe has used these grips for eight years now and has settled on the chunky variety, however, ESI also does a thin, extra-chunky and an ergonomic version, so there should be something to suit most hands. 

1x drivetrain

Shimano XT M8100 press photo on grey background
It’s hard to imagine going back to a double or triple drivetrain.
Shimano

Something both the lads agree on is just how good 1x drivetrains are.

Some were pretty sceptical when one-by drivetrains first hit the mainstream back around 2012. However, since then they’ve come to almost totally rule the mountain-bike groupset spectrum. 

As we all know by now, having one chainring at the front saves some weight, and makes your bike far simpler to run. We’d also wager it performs better in the mud that is often to be found when mountain biking around these parts. 

Gear range used to be an issue, but with rear cassettes now sailing past the 50-tooth mark, this is more than enough range for even the pickiest of riders. 

Some of those top-spec cassettes can put a serious dent in your wallet, but more affordable options are available at a weight penalty. 

There are extreme cases where a one-by transmission just won’t cut it, and for that, you’ll have to look to Shimano as SRAM completely gave up on double groupsets a while ago. 

Jack’s favourite mountain bike upgrades

Dropper seatpost

RockShox Reverb AXS dropper post
There’s little reason not to use a dropper these days.
Andy Lloyd

Jack thinks there’s very little argument for not having a dropper seatpost now, citing the improvements in descending control that far outweigh the negligible weight difference of not having one.

Joe even put together a test a little while back showing that a dropper post will give a genuine performance increase when compared to a regular static component.

In the early days, dropper posts were struck with reliability problems, which have now been largely ironed out. 

Oval rings

Jack calls out oval rings from Rotor, Absolute Black and others as a worthwhile upgrade.

Many brands claim that oval rings flatten out the dead spot in each pedal stroke. While we can’t vouch for these specific claims, one thing Jack, Joe and others on the BikeRadar test team agree on is these oval rings really seem to improve traction on climbing efforts.

The feel of these can take a little getting used to, but these boys would no longer want to be without them.

Knee pads

Knee pads have gotten so much better in recent years.
Knee pads have gotten so much better in recent years.
Steve Behr / Immediate Media

It wasn’t long ago that knee pads were heavy, clunky and intrusive, but today’s lightweight versions can be barely noticeable while in the saddle, despite offering significant protection in a crash.

Jack swears by modern knee-pads and credits their confidence-boosting feel to genuine improvements in his own riding skills.

Softshell jacket 

When things aren’t completely soaking outside Jack turns to a softshell jacket when mountain biking. He finds a good softshell offers a great compromise between rain protection and day-to-day comfort.

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Jack also praises the durability of softshells in a crash scenario and enjoys how they don’t tend to be damaged by wearing a backpack while riding.