The proper order of mountain bike upgrades

A seven-step guide to a better ride

If you’ve just bought your first mountain bike, or are looking to upgrade an ageing model, you should keep in mind that not all upgrades are equal. Some will give you a significant benefit for very little investment, while some expensive upgrades will yield very small returns.

In my opinion, there’s a hierarchy of mountain bike upgrades that will give you the most bang for your buck, smiles per mile, or however else you choose to quantify your riding experience.

If you’re not quite ready to give up on your existing kit, I’ve also included a bit of advice on how to make the most of the parts you already own.

1. Fit comes first

Fit comes first
Fit comes first

Before diving into any mechanical upgrades, you need to make sure you have your contact points dialed. Find a comfortable saddle, along with a handlebar width and stem length that suit your riding style.

No amount of money invested anywhere else on you bike will make a difference if you don’t feel comfortable and confident.

Step one in this process is getting your saddle height right: Not sure how? Watch our guide on how to adjust your saddle height.

2. Tires

New rubber is a surefire way to improve your bike's performance without breaking the bank
New rubber is a surefire way to improve your bike's performance without breaking the bank

Without a doubt, the best bang for your buck upgrade is a new pair of shoes for your bike. This is especially true if you have a new bike and are rolling on stock rubber.

Tires are an easy place for companies to cut cost and shave weight. Skimpy tires keep the weight low and pass the parking lot test, but thin casings and hard rubber compounds don’t pass muster on the trail.

It’s not that bike companies are trying to pull a fast one on you. One product manager who asked not to be named stated that it’s incredibly hard to spec a set of tires that work well for every type of terrain — especially for a global company.

With that in mind, seek guidance from your local bike shops, regional forums and folks you meet on the trail. Find out what tires perform well on trails you frequently ride and buy accordingly.

To make the most of tires you already own: If your bike came with decent treads, try riding at lower pressure, or better yet a tubeless conversion.

3. Dropper seatpost

A dropper can transform your riding. The Fox Transfer has impressed us with with its reliability
A dropper can transform your riding. The Fox Transfer has impressed us with with its reliability

A few years ago, the third item I would have suggested would have been a quality wheelset, but there’s no arguing with the confidence a dropper seatpost will instill in your riding.

The ability to drop your seatpost on-the-fly will make you a more confident descender and improve your cornering skills.

Not ready to invest in a new dropper? At the very least, check out our video on how to improve your cornering technique.

4. Wheels

Lighter, stiffer wheels can improve your bike's handling
Lighter, stiffer wheels can improve your bike's handling

As previously mentioned, a quality wheelset can transform the handling characteristics of your mountain bike.

If you’re looking to make your bike lighter and more agile, consider investing in a lightweight, cross-country wheelset.

If you’re a hard-charger and want to be able to take your bike off drops without worrying about bent rims and broken spokes, then look for a more robust trail or enduro wheelset. 

When it comes to carbon or alloy rims, you will get more for bang for your buck with aluminum.

Want to keep your current wheels rolling a little longer? Watch this wheel truing tutorial.

5. Brakes

On the trail, brakes do a lot more than bring you to a halt
On the trail, brakes do a lot more than bring you to a halt

Not to undercut the importance of your bike’s suspension or drivetrain, but the ability to modulate your speed and maintain control comes first. Plus, good brakes will actually make you faster.

So much of mountain biking is cornering and a quality pair of hydraulic disc brakes will help you scrub speed without breaking traction.

Hydraulic disc brakes are increasingly common on entry-level mountain bikes, but that doesn’t necessarily make them superior to their cable-actuated counterparts.

In either case, cable-actuated and cheap hydraulic disc brakes both suffer from a lack of modulation.

If modulation is term you hear thrown around but aren’t quite sure what it means, think of modulation as the range between locking up your wheels and not working at all. The wider this spread, the more control you will have.

To make the most of the brakes you already own: If your brake levers have reach adjust, experiment with moving the levers closer to the handlebar (but make sure you can still fully lock-up the wheels before the lever reaches the bar). Brake with the knuckles closest to your palms. This will give you the most control for the least amount of effort.

6. Suspension

Quality suspension comes with a steep price tag
Quality suspension comes with a steep price tag

Now that you’ve got better brakes, it’s time to tackle the suspension.

Before you reach for the credit card, ask yourself what you are trying to accomplish by buying a new fork or shock. Are you looking for a stiffer chassis? Do you want more external adjustments? Or are you after better all-around performance?

If you’re giving an older bike with quality components a makeover, consider investing in a custom suspension tune, rather than a new fork and shock. Not only will a tuning shop replace the oil and seals, they can also tune the suspension to your weight and riding style.

Not ready for new suspension? Take the time to set up your fork and shock properly. Set the sag, compression and rebound damping — and do it in this order. Read our guide on how to set up your suspension if you’re confused about what those dials on your suspension are for.

7. Drivetrain

Suspension might be costly, but a decent drivetrain doesn't have to be
Suspension might be costly, but a decent drivetrain doesn't have to be

We’ve reached the time to replace your bike’s shifty bits. Compared to everything else on this list, the drivetrain is often the last set of components to wear out. Additionally, a new drivetrain might shed weight, but it’s not likely to have a massive impact on overall performance.

If you’re not overly concerned with weight, Shimano’s SLX and SRAM’s X1 group deliver impressive performance for a very reasonable amount of money.

To make the most of your current drivetrain:replace ageing shift cables as well as the housing.

Josh has been riding and racing mountain bikes since 1998. Being stubborn, endurance racing was a natural fit. Josh bankrolled his two-wheeled addiction by wrenching at various bike shops across the US for 10 years and even tried his hand at frame building. These days Josh spends most of his time riding the trails around his home in Fort Collins, Colorado.
  • Discipline: Mountain, cyclocross, road
  • Preferred Terrain: Anywhere with rock- and root-infested technical singletrack. He also enjoys unnecessarily long gravel races.
  • Current Bikes: Trek Remedy 29 9.9, Yeti ASRc, Specialized CruX, Spot singlespeed, Trek District 9
  • Dream Bike: Evil The Following, a custom Moots 27.5+ for bikepacking adventures
  • Beer of Choice: PBR
  • Location: Fort Collins, CO, USA

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