The Best ‘Bang For Your Buck’ Mountain Bike Upgrades

by | Nov 22, 2023 | Buyer's Guide, Bike, Bike Setup, Featured, Skills & Setup, Sports

How to spend your hard earned cash on strategic upgrades most effectively to take your mountain bike from sad to rad!

Upgrading your mountain bike’s components is one of the best ways to keep it feeling fresh and, of course, performing optimally! We can tend to get sucked into the shiny bits and pieces by clever marketing and the lust for all that sparkles and glitters but those fancy parts don’t always have the best influence on your bike’s handling, comfort, and performance.

Now don’t get us wrong, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of bling on the bike and some personal customisations but if you’re wanting to make sure your hard earned cash goes the distance on a component upgrade, the following are where you want to focus your sights and ammo.

The buck stops with proper brakes

Good quality brakes are a necessity on your mountain bike to ensure control on descents and also to save you energy. If you have poor performing brakes you will be using unnecessary energy to slow yourself down or even failing to control your speed. You don’t need to be spending over the top here but aiming for the mid-tier models is a safe bet. That would be, for example, the Shimano Deore, SLX and XT or the R and RS versions of the Code brakes from SRAM.

If you are a trail rider we would really recommend 4 piston brakes with at least 180mm brake rotors. Ideally 200mm (and even 220mm) brake rotors for bigger riders and those riding a bit faster and more aggressively. That being said, even if you ride more XC or marathon style terrain, some bigger rotors or more powerful callipers/pistons could allow you to ride faster and with more confidence and control.

Best Upgrades For Your Mountain Bike Brakes
Power doesn’t need to be reserved for enduro and downhill bikes! Put some proper stoppers on your XC / Marathon bike and see how your riding improves! (c) Magura

The mid-tier models will likely just have fewer tool-free adjustments which isn’t a major issue but will get you a brake that performs powerfully and consistently.

You can buy second hand when it comes to brakes but you do want to make sure none of the parts are bent or seized.

Getting a grip on your performance

When it comes to buying grips for your mountain bike, find what suits your preferences, and don’t compromise. We talked a bit about choosing the right grip in our article discussing contact points setup.

Best Upgrades For Your Mountain Bike Grips
Comfort, control, and confidence. Your grips can bring it all!

You’ll want to look for a softer compound and lock-on style (or at least slide-ons that don’t rotate on the bar) grips in the particular dimensions that you prefer. Big hands will call for thicker diameters and increased lengths, the opposite will be true for smaller hands. Grips that suit your hand size and are well cushioned will maximise your comfort and control on the bike. Second-hand is not a good idea when it comes to grips because they are such a high-wear item. Thankfully, there are plenty of great options at an affordable price.

Tyres might just be the ultimate upgrade

Mountain bike tires are expensive but the performance you get out of a decent set of tires is non-negotiable. An appropriate tread for the kind of riding that you’ll be doing and a soft rubber compound on the front wheel are highly recommended to get the best traction. 

Look for an appropriate casing for your weight and riding style to make sure you’re getting good support and puncture protection. If you’re not a full-blown XC racer, we suggest you compromise a little bit on rolling efficiency and try a tire with a more aggressive tread to see how it changes your riding experience. Don’t go second-hand here but you could consider rotating your front tire to the back when you get a new front tire. Also, be sure to set the tire pressure appropriately to maximise performance, we spoke about tire pressures in our suspension setup article.

Best Upgrades For Your Mountain Bike Tires And Wheels
Although they wear out eventually, tires might be your best value for money upgrade.

Quality tools, the upgrade you probably didn’t think of

When buying tools for working on your mountain bike, higher quality items will last longer and are less likely to damage your bike and strip bolts etc. Nothing too fancy is necessary but rather a set of tools made of good materials and accurate tolerances.

You can consider buying tools second-hand if they’re in good condition and of good quality.

Best Upgrades For Your Mountain Bike Tools
A quality set of tools will last you for decades and help your bike do the same! (c) Abbey Bike Tools

Suspension upgrades. The mountain bike’s centre of control.

Before you rush off to shop for a new shock or fork, was your current model serviced in the last 6 months and have you checked your air pressures and tuning to make sure they are suitable for your weight and riding style? If not, that is 100% the place to start and you can find our suspension setup guide here. 

Good suspension (that is set up properly and well looked after) will deliver control and traction in technical terrain and ensure efficient riding in a variety of situations. For most riders, when it comes to suspension, a current mid-tier model from a reputable brand will give you ample performance. It can be worthwhile to find out if your current suspension could receive internal damper and air spring upgrades. These are much cheaper than a whole new fork or shock and will often get you on-par performance with the latest models.

You can buy your suspension second hand but don’t go older than a couple of seasons and make sure it is in good working order and suitable for your bike in terms of hub spacing, wheel size, and travel.

Best Upgrades For Your Mountain Bike Suspension
Forks and shocks are the mediators between rider inputs and trail feedback, keep them regularly serviced for best results!

Wheel upgrades. Revolutionary?

When it comes to buying new wheels for your bike you’ll want to be a little bit cautious. You don’t want to have a set of wheels that are weak, so make sure to go for a reputable brand and be willing to spend a bit more than the base model prices for good durability.

Your wheels can have a very significant effect on your bike’s performance by their weight and strength. To have wheels that are both lightweight and strong you will incur a higher cost. You may need to add a few grams of weight in exchange for a more affordable price if you are on a tighter budget but they are a worthwhile component to spend more on if you can afford it.

Best Upgrades For Your Mountain Bike Wheels
Lightweight, durable, and affordable. You con only really have 2 of these at the same time when it comes to wheels (and most other components).

Second hand wheel purchasing is an option. Check the bearings are running smoothly and make sure there are no cracks in the rim. Also make sure they are the correct size and hub spacing for your bike.

With all of that considered you should have some good direction on how to get the most advantage out of any bike upgrades that you may have planned for your beloved steed. Not all of these are sheep but they are the changes that will get you a notable performance upgrade over other options. You can watch the video below for a recap and some more details.

The best ways to spend money on your mountain bike.

At the end of the day, a thorough service and suspension setup and your bike will be feeling almost as good as new! You don’t need the best gear to have a good time (as nice as it is). Just get out there and ride your bike!

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