The best advice we’ve ever heard given about dream machines is disarmingly simple: the best bike in the world is the bike you already have. That’s because regardless of how it compares to the latest carbon wonder bike that is being worshipped on the web, it’s the bike you can actually go out and ride whenever you want.
However, that’s never going to stop most of us wondering how we can improve our ride and hopefully amp up our ability and enjoyment in the process. That’s why our encyclopedically minded test team have pooled all their experience to help you create the ultimate upgrade plan for your current mountain bike, whatever you’ve got to spend and however you want it to ride.
The most important thing to realise is that a clear plan will give much better results than random changes, so work out what you actually want to achieve: a bike for hitting stuff harder, charging uphill faster or just nailing that awkward bit in your local woods.
Know what you’re working with, too. Check the physical, geometry and warranty limits of your frame.
If you’re trying to save weight, actually weigh any part you’re thinking of replacing to see how much difference a swap could make. If possible borrow equivalent parts from mates to try different options before you buy.
Don’t rely on marketing claims for choosing new kit either. Check out the vast amount of reviews we’ve written for in-depth assessment and verified data to guide you.
A bit of homework now will be repaid with far better end results and a properly personal, custom tuned ‘new’ bike. Read on for our recommendations of the best upgrades for your MTB and be sure to check out our quick video below.
While the geometry (steering and seat angles, tube lengths and ride height, etc) govern the baseline handling of your bike, the cockpit can significantly change how you interact with it. Bars and stem are the parts we criticise most often on test bikes too, so how do you choose the ideal set-up for your riding?
While you’re only likely to replace a conventional headset when it dies, swapping it for an angleset can radically change the geometry of your frame. It’s remarkably simple too. Just select the amount of angle adjustment you need – sets like Works Components (£53-74) offer +/- 0.5, 1.0, 1.5 and 2.0 degree offsets – and carefully align the eccentric cups and boom! Your uptight XC bike is now trail happy or your enduro bike is now choppered out like a full DH rig.
Widening your handlebar is the fastest way to give your bike some serious swagger, especially if you’re currently crouching behind a 680mm pipe.
740mm is a good fit for general trail riding and tree spacing but the wider you go the more leverage you have to use against the trail, whether that’s to force the front wheel onto harder lines or stop the trail bullying you into the bushes.
More back sweep will also change steering in a similar way to having a shorter stem.
Switching from alloy to carbon will generally save around 100g but feel of the best alloy bars is very similar to composite for half the price.
Shortening your stem creates a lighter, faster and more easily corrected steering feel that’s vital to stop a wider bar or slacker head angle from feeling too heavy. A shorter (50mm or less) stem on a steep head angle can feel extremely twitchy though, so experiment with borrowed stems before buying if possible.
Always buy a wider bar than you think you need. You can always cut it down if it really is too big, but you can’t extend it.
As well as eccentric headsets you can also get offset shock mount bushings to slacken your bike’s geometry and lower its ride height, giving a whole new rowdier ride character for very little outlay.
It’s tempting to splash your cash on a fancy looking machine-carved stem but in terms of stiffness and strength, few if any of them can match a cost effective cold forged nugget from brands like Bontrager or Truvativ for £20-30.
The vast majority of bikes now come with Shimano or SRAM brakes and are basically sorted as a result. However, if you’re stepping up to those brands from something cheaper then go for at least Shimano SLX or SRAM Guide RS to get the extra control leverage cams both gain over cheaper models.
If you want maximum power on a budget then Shimano Zee is the answer and you can even buy the calliper separately to add to any Shimano lever and hose for £85.
Alternatively Formula has the lightweight market locked down, while nobody delivers maximum lever adjustment options and brilliant factory direct back up like Hope.
Whatever brakes you have, there are several easy and economical ways to boost power and control. A 20mm bigger rotor will increase leverage and therefore power by around 20 per cent. Even if you add the price of a mount extension that’s a lot of performance for £30-40.
Quality sintered pads will also give much better bite, power and lifespan in typical UK conditions, with our favourite Fibrax Extreme and RWD coming in at around £17 per brake.
Bleeding your brakes with fresh fluid to remove contaminants and bubbles can also give a much sharper, cleaner feel. Especially if you swap from DOT4 fluid on some cheaper SRAM/Avid brakes to DOT5.1
Sticky brake pistons reduce fine control and can cause excess drag and pad wear. Pulling out the pads and checking the pots are clean and move freely and evenly on a regular basis costs nothing and could noticeably improve brake performance.
Upgrading your wheels and tyres makes a huge difference to how your bike rides and grips the trail (or not). Traditionally, manufacturers skimp on both when kitting out new bikes and a tyre upgrade from new is often a good idea.
If we had to pick one component that makes a massive difference to the speed and control character of a bike but is also easy to change, it would undoubtedly be tyres.
Tyre performance is always a balance, though. Lightweight (5-700g), narrow (2.2in/52mm or less) tyres will make your bike feel amazingly agile and turbo charge acceleration, but you’ll get far more punctures.
Heavier (900-1100g) and fatter (2.4-2.8in/55mm and over) tyres will shrug off the sharpest terrain without flinching and flatter your suspension, but can feel like running in wellies.
Tread size, compound softness (40 duro is super soft, 70 duro is hard) and carcass construction also make a massive control difference.
Somewhere between the extremes you will find your ideal Goldilocks mix of control, speed and survival, so read our reviews and reference them against how/where you ride. Don’t be afraid to mix and match tyre types such as grippy but light front or fast but tough rear either.
It’s easy to forget about wheels until they bend or the bearings start grinding, but they’re a vital part of your bike’s character. That’s because the effect of weight, stiffness and ride feel is amplified by the fact they’re spinning round between you and the ground.
We all want lighter, stronger and more reliable but decide which of those performance parameters really matter and then refine your search through our reviews.
Match rim and rubber width to make sure wheels and tyres work together.
Whatever tyres you have, running them tubeless will increase control and smoothness while reducing the risk of punctures. Most rims and tyres these days are already tubeless compatible, so it’s just a case of adding sealing tape, a valve and sealant. We’re currently having great results with Stan’s Race and Orange Seal set ups, but there are loads of options available.
Premium wheels from DT Swiss, Enve, E13, Industry Nine and Mavic undoubtedly offer ultimate performance. However, we’ve been impressed with the ride quality of more affordable wheels from UK custom builders like Just Riding Along and Superstar Components who are also on point with the latest wide wheel trends for a couple of hundred quid upwards.
Dropper posts are rare on entry level bikes but are regarded by many as a must-have item on these days. Stock saddles also tend to be on the weightier side, so an upgrade can save you a fair few grams.
If there’s one upgrade we’d recommend to anyone who wants to boost their confidence on more technical, steeper trails it’s a dropper post.
If you’re unconvinced just try dropping your saddle for the next few descents and seeing how much safer it feels when you can get low and mobile over the bike, rather than hovering precariously over the back of a full-height saddle.
Before you start worrying about weight (they’re typically 300-400g heavier than a conventional post), remember that the current XC World Cup champion Julien Absalon has been using one all year.
As ever, fit is the most important aspect, which will limit options for those frames with skinny 27.2mm seat tubes. You can still get good quality external cable posts from Fox, KS and Thomson, though.
Those same brands – as well as the uniquely hydraulically controlled RockShox Reverb – are our current favourites for internally routed options, but check out our buyers guide to see our other favourites.
What saddle you like is a highly personal thing, but it’s years since our test team sat on one and thought “this is absolute murder”.
So while there are loads of different shapes, padding arrangements, cover choices and rail options, sometimes the simplest saddles – like Charge’s £25 Spoon – are the best of all.
They’re not easy to find and they’re not fashionable, but we’re massive fans of cheap and cheerful ‘rodeo’ droppers, which put the actuator lever under the saddle. Simplicity makes them super reliable and they’re easy to swap between. bikes or just pull out for transport.
The biggest cause of saddle sores isn’t saddles at all – it’s not wearing padded shorts. They might feel like a diaper at first but compared to bouncing your bits off the seat in sweaty boxers or sawing them in half with the seams of your pants. Trust us, your crotch will thank you forever for using decent under shorts.
The first thing to realise is that the big suspension picture – how well the wheels stick to the ground for control and how much of a battering the trail gives you – isn’t just about forks and rear shocks, but tyres also.
In other words, make sure your tyres are the right pressure and your wheels, bars, seatpost, etc aren’t the things causing the bruising before saying your forks/shock are rubbish.
There’s also enough adjustment on most suspension forks or dampers to make it easier to set them up wrong than right, so work through sag, rebound, compression and volume adjust options to be sure they’re not the issue.
Still a problem? Perform a basic strip down or send it away for a service as that can make a massive difference. Most pro service centres can also change suspension character (if not basic structural performance) to suit your needs too, potentially giving you a new feeling fork or shock for as little as £100.
If you still need to upgrade, then check what kit will fit. Most frames won’t take a fork more than 20mm longer than the original without voiding the warranty or screwing the geometry.
If your frame has a straight rather than tapered head tube, modern fork options are very limited. Moving up to a through-axle fork also means getting a compatible front hub/wheel. Piggyback shocks can also cause clearance issues, particularly on smaller frames.
Once you’ve worked out what will actually fit ,choose a baseline character that matches your needs.
Structurally lightweight, skinny leg forks will flex more than fatter legged forks, and with only around 500g between a Fox 32 Step Cast and a 36, ask yourself whether you’ll notice missing precision or missing grams more.
If you want maximum smoothness and sensitivity a coil sprung shock is worth the extra weight.
In terms of feel, forks and dampers from Fox, DT, Magura and BOS tend to have a firmer race bred feel. DVO, MRP, Manitou and Formula are naturally super supple while RockShox’s have a really broad, easy to tune bandwidth.
While you should only buy super tuneable suspension if you actually know what you’re doing with it, don’t overlook up-and-coming brands such as X-Fusion and Suntour who deliver premium performance at a bargain price.
Whatever you buy, go back through all those tyre, pressure, damping and tuning options to unlock its full potential.
We’re constantly working on test bikes to improve suspension performance without swapping out major components and you’d be amazed what difference playing around with volume reducers, a larger volume air can or just a spray of shaft lube can make.
Don’t underestimate how much a well damped tyre can enhance ‘suspension’ control either, and while £50 seems steep for a ring of rubber, that’s a lot cheaper than a new fork or shock.
Drivetrains are made up of many components that will eventually break or wear out. We tend to upgrade when this happens, unless we’re converting to a 1x system.
While cheaper shifters tend to be clunkier and stiffer there’s probably nothing intrinsically wrong with your shifters. Given that most bikes come with cheap outer cables, you're more likely to improve shifting dramatically with a top quality ‘official’ cable set from Shimano/SRAM or an aftermarket option from Fibrax or Jagwire though.
If you’ve currently got a double, the obvious change is to a single thick/thin toothed chainring system paired to a bigger rear block. That gives you simpler sequential shifting, loses the weight of the rings, front mech and shifter and reduces chain slap and drop.
As for the actual chainring go for steel for longevity or a direct mount SRAM or RaceFace Cinch option for maximum style and minimum weight.
Because they’re mounted low and central, crank weight matters less than any other component. However, stiffness and the ability to get smashed on rocks without complaining are at a premium. That makes alloy cranks with the biggest axle your bike can handle a sensible upgrade option whatever your riding style.
If you’re rocking an external bearing screw-in bottom bracket, you can feel smug and just fit the best quality bearings you can afford when your current bearings eventually die.
If you’ve got a press fit bottom bracket, though, you should upgrade to a self-contained cartridge set-up ASAP before your frame gets reamed out. Either way, an upgrade from Hope, Chris King or similar will easily repay their initial investment in terms of reduced creak and extended lifespans.
If you’re going single ring, then you’ll likely want to expand the range of your rear cassette to offset the loss of your inner ring. There are loads of extender cogs available all the way up to 50 teeth in size, but the bigger you go the more obvious the change in cadence and the harder the shift, so a 40-tooth is the sensible limit for an 11-36 10-speed block. Or switch to a smoother stepped wide range 10- or 11-speed block from SunRace (£65-70) but skip the Shimano 46t block as it’s a growler.
Rear mech and chain
Single-ring systems need more chain tension to keep everything secure, so check your rear mech has a ‘clutch’ to keep it tight. If you’re going bigger on your cassette then you’ll get better shifts with a derailleur mount extender like the Wolftooth Goat link kit. Some bikes are also compatible with extra stiff Shimano Direct Mount extensions for a sharper shift. Bigger cassettes need more chain to wrap round them so don’t forget to add a few links if you cog up.
Whatever transmission you have, nothing guarantees smooth, accurate running and a long lifespan more than keeping it clean and lubed. TLC should start straight after any ride before corrosion starts or even mid ride with a mini bottle of oil if you’re on an epic.
This article was originally published in What Mountain Bike magazine.