Mountain bikes are modern engineering marvels.
But with so many performance-enhancing components on the market, you might wonder which mountain bike upgrades are worth your hard-earned cash.
Mountain bike upgrades can range from straightforward component swaps to ride-altering performance upgrades.
Unfortunately, with so many options on the market, it’s hard to know where to invest your efforts.
In this article, we’ll be covering:
- Mountain Bike Parts – And How They Affect Your Ride
- Which Mountain Bike Upgrades To Make First
- The Problem Of Diminishing Returns When Upgrading A Mountain Bike
- MTB Upgrades: Accessories Worth Your Hard-Earned Cash
Ready to turn some wrenches upgrading a mountain bike?
Let’s get started!
Mountain Bike Parts – And How They Affect Your Ride
Before we can get into which upgrades for mountain bikes you should make, it’s essential to understand the different parts of your mountain bike we’ll be discussing and why upgrading them might be wise.
The contact points on your mountain bike are the spots on the bike where you physically touch the bike. The critical contact points on any bike are the handlebars, stem, peddles, saddle, and seatpost.
The contact points are crucial to your ride as they significantly impact your control of the bike, power delivery, and comfort on rides. Upgrading your contact points can be a relatively affordable and game-changing first upgrade.
Tires and Brakes
The tires on your bike are your interface with the trail; your brakes are critical to controlling your bike and riding safely.
Mountain bike tires can range from 1.9 inches on a cross-country bike to 5″ on a fat bike, with various tread styles, effectively changing your contact with the trail.
How you ride (e.g. XC, downhill, all-mountain) and the surfaces you ride on are essential to what tires will best suit you.
Of course, without brakes, what tires you’re rolling on is secondary, as you’re far more likely to fly off the trail than enjoy your ride.
Not all mountain bike brakes are created equal, and with the differences in levels, rotor size, and a wide variety of brake pads on the market, you can make more than a couple of brake upgrades!
The drivetrain consists of all the parts on your mountain bike that make the bike move. This typically consists of your cranks, chainring(s), chain, cassette, derailleurs, and shifters.
The drivetrain takes the power output from your legs and transfers it to the bike. So it should be a no-brainer that upgrading these components can drastically affect your ride.
Drivetrain upgrades tend to be more expensive, and the work involved in upgrading your drivetrain can be more complicated, requiring more tools and technical know-how.
Which Mountain Bike Upgrades To Make First
The most significant upgrades are the ones that make your bike more enjoyable to ride. Always prioritize upgrading the things that are bothering you first. A top-spec machine does no good if you can’t stand riding it!
For this reason, the absolute first upgrades for mountain bikes should be to the contact points.
Upgrades for MTB #1: Saddle and Seatpost
When you hop on your bike, almost all your weight is mounted on the saddle. Riding a bike with a poor-quality or ill-fitted saddle is one of the quickest routes to ending a ride early.
The bright side is that it’s a quick and easy upgrade. The hard part is that there are several major mountain bike saddle producers, each with multiple saddle models. It can be hard to know what to pick!
The differences between models are those of width, padding, shape, and more, and what makes the perfect saddle is often a matter of preference. Unfortunately, we can’t tell you what saddle you’ll like best – but your local bike shop can help!
Once your saddle is dialed in, another upgrade to consider is a dropper post. Dropper posts use a bar-mounted lever to control a seatpost that can be lowered and raised remotely.
This allows you to stay seated with a high saddle while climbing, swap over to a slammed-saddle downhill position, or choose anywhere in between – all on the fly.
The dropper post is one of history’s most ride-optimizing mountain biking developments. Upgrading to a dropper post will instantly improve your ride quality and performance on the climb and the descent!
Upgrades for MTB #2: Tires and Brakes
If you’re riding your mountain bike with any frequency, you’ll start wearing your tires out.
As the tread wears down and the rubber thins, your tires will stop performing as well. Or, you may not have the most appropriate tires for your riding style, warranting an upgrade.
Width is important; a wider or thinner tire can make quite the difference depending on how and where you ride. Wider tires excel on softer and bumpier terrain, while narrower tires are likely a better option for more predictable surfaces, like light gravel or hard-packed dirt.
The same can be said for tread patterns; northwestern riders might want a wider and taller knob pattern to get a good purchase on spongey loam. Conversely, a shorter, more tightly spaced tread is better suited to the southwest’s fast and dry desert singletrack.
You can also upgrade to a tubeless tire setup. It might be a tighter fit on the rims, but you can upgrade a non-tubeless rim to a tubeless tire setup using a tubeless conversion kit. Flats begone!
Upgrading parts of your brakes can increase your bike control and help you ride more confidently.
Squeezing hard on your brake lever can cause your wheels to lock up, and skid, at which point stopping power is up to the tires – see the above section on tire upgrades if that’s your concern.
When upgrading brake parts, you gain a decrease in the amount of lever force required to lock your wheels. Simply put, your brakes are more responsive.
The first upgrade you should make is your brake pads.
Brake pads can be sintered (metal) or organic (resin). Sintered pads are more responsive, last longer, and are more reliable at high-speed and on long descents. In addition, upgrading from organic to sintered pads can offer instant gains in brake responsiveness.
However, some disc brake rotors will be “resin only” — be sure you don’t use sintered pads on a resin-only rotor.
- Want to know more? Check out our Complete Guide to Sintered Brake Pads here!
This brings us to the next best brake upgrade: your disc brake rotors. A larger rotor increases the leveraging action on the wheel, allowing you to stop easier.
A general standard recommends rotors around 160mm for XC riding and up to 200mm rotors for DH; trail bikes often fall somewhere in the middle.
However, if you need extra stopping power, upgrading to a larger rotor alongside a sintered brake pad can provide that. Make sure you get the correct adaptor for your brake caliper to fit a larger rotor!
Upgrades for MTB #3: Drivetrain
Last but certainly not least are drivetrain upgrades.
It’s easy to go overboard here, and drivetrain upgrades get expensive quickly.
A majority of modern mountain bikes have switched to a 1x drivetrain. If you’re on a 2x drivetrain, upgrading some parts and moving to a 1x is probably the best upgrade you can make.
A 1x drivetrain is less prone to chain drops, has more efficient gearing, and offers a longer life for your drivetrain.
First, ditch the big ring and front derailleur. Next, pick up a 30-36t chainring and a cassette in the ballpark of 12-speed 10-50t. Last, get an appropriate chain and index your shifting.
Without getting too deep in the weeds, know that this upgrade will help preserve the life of your components, provide efficient (and responsive) gearing, and reduce your bike’s weight and maintenance requirements.
The Problem of diminishing returns When Upgrading A Mountain Bike
Upgrading your mountain bike can be expensive. The truth is, some upgrades aren’t worth the cash relative to what you get from them.
While upgrading your entire drivetrain to the latest high-end offering may seem cool, but it will cost hundreds of dollars and provide marginal gains.
Provided you maintain your bike, unless you’re a competitive rider, more significant gains can often be achieved by riding than by buying.
Additionally, older bikes are often not worth pouring your cash into to make them comparable to newer bikes.
High-dollar upgrades like suspension, carbon wheelsets, and electronic shifting can be great when mounted on newer frames, but if you’re riding a dated bike, it’s better to save your money for a newer bike.
This is especially true as cycling standards change so frequently that bikes only a few years old may not be compatible with newer parts.
Make upgrades that count and get the most out of your bike and your dollar!
MTB Upgrades: Accessories Worth Your Hard-Earned Cash
Rule #4 states that it’s all about the bike. To an extent, yes, but a few accessories deserve an honorable mention.
A good quality chamois will make a huge difference. If you’re riding without a chamois, get one! Padding your sit bones can make even the worst saddle much more comfortable.
Next, if you’re not riding clipless, a flat-pedal-specific MTB shoe is worth the money. They’re more durable and protective of your feet than sneakers. They also provide a stiff, stable platform with sticky rubber to help your feet dig into the pins.
Now you can confidently make some upgrades and hit the trails!