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Upgrading Your Mountain Bike - Things to Consider


My 2018 Norco Sight may not look too different from its original purchase state, but the reality is very few parts are actually original on it now.

Whether you purchased your mountain bike second hand or brand new, when it comes to mountain biking you'll likely at some point think about what upgrades you can do. It can be a fun thing to start doing, personalising your ride to really make it your own. But it can also be a dangerously expensive rabbit hole to dive into because just about everything on your bike can be upgraded.


So what makes for a meaningful upgrade rather than a waste of money? Well, like everything I talk about, it depends. There are a number of factors to consider. A lot of it has to do with your riding skill and experience level, some to do with your preferred riding style and where you ride while other reasons are just purely aesthetic.


Like most things in life, the amount of money you're willing to spend is probably the most important consideration. It's very easy to be convinced that you need to change something on your bike while spending a lot of money to do so when there's really no need. In some cases, spending more money can actually be detrimental to your riding if you make a purchase for the wrong reasons.

I will occasionally ride Kerry's e-bike and haven't really found a need to make any modifications or upgrades to it. Kerry did however want matching blue grips to go with her shoes, pack and pedals.

I think it's probably helpful to list out the main reasons as to why you would modify or upgrade a mountain bike component to something different. These factors are usually grouped into the following:

  • Weight - you're trying to make your bike lighter so it handles better on the trails. Changing alloy to carbon handle bars would be an example of this;

  • Function - you're trying to get a part of your bike to work better. As an example your basic gear shifters may only shift one gear at a time and you'd like to be able to shift two or three gears in one press instead;

  • Bling - you want your bike to look cooler. Colour of grips to match your bike is the most common (and cost effective) example of this.

  • Durability - you want your bike to be stronger and for components to last longer. Having a chain that doesn't stretch and need replacing as often is a commonly overlooked example of this;

Let's delive into these particular topics a little bit more....


Weight

Light weight components are the biggest reason that the price of an upgrade can sky rocket. Generally speaking though, you'll find that these lighter components will often also have better functionality as well as looking good, satisfying another two categories as well. So I guess you can say you pay more for lighter components because you're actually getting not just a weight saving, but often something that make your bike function better while making it look cool.

The XTR label is Shimano's flaship tier of product. Functionaly more advanced and always the lightest of components in its product line up, I found that I could damage components of this tier easily because this tier compromises strength to achieve a lighter weight.

Saving weight is helpful when you pedal a lot, particularly when you ride up a lot of hills. But lighter components also mean less strength and durability, and that's important to keep in mind. And while there's a lot of technology that attempt to make these high-end components not only light but also strong, they're never as strong as the product tiers that focus more on durability. Not only that, when you equate saving a few hundred grams to a few hundred dollars, it can hard to justify light weight components as good value. However, there riders out there that do love pedalling and for them, a light weight bike makes an enormous difference to their enjoyment of riding.


Function

It's a mountain bike. You pedal it and it goes, right? Well, sort of. A lot has been invested into just about every component on a mountain bike to improve the overall capabilities and experience of riding a bike on the trails. From the obvious things such as having seats that go up and down, to advanced suspension that smoothes out your ride on the trails all the way down to the edges of the teeth on a chain ring that help stop your chain from coming off while riding - there are so many ways of improving how your mountain bike actually works.

It's a little hard to see but after descending 500 meters my disc rotors had gotten so hot that they were glowing and pouring water to cool them down instantly turned it to steam. Hot brakes don't stop you very well so they have since been upgraded.

Function is certainly an area that you can spend a bit of money to get your bike working better. But contrary to what the mountain bike marketing engine will lead you to be believe, you definitely don't need to get the top of the line components to have a huge effect on your ride. In fact for most riders it's a case of diminishing returns. Upgrading components from your entry level equipment to your mid-tier levels will often find riders receiving a substantial improvement in their overall riding experience. Spending a lot more in contrast may not see you experiencing a whole lot of change unless you're the sort of rider that really notices the little things out on the trail. I'm talking about noticing a change in your shock pressure by 10 PSI kind of attention (yes, some of us do notice that sort of thing).


Bling

Having a bike that people look at and admire can be pretty cool. In most cases when people think bling they're thinking matching component colours in such a way that is unique to them. And you might think that there are only a handful things that you can customise the look of on a bike, grips being the obvious one followed closely by pedals. But there are actually numerous components that you can change out to give you that unique look, down to the nuts and bolts of a bike. In fact there are even companies that specialise in offering different colours of their components so you can do exactly that.

The oil slick finish on bike components is a unique colour that comes with a premium price. It's not something I would personally pay for, but I know people that have.

As you'd probably expect, the cooler and more exotic a component becomes the more expensive it will be. And I'm not talking just a little bit, but rather exponential increases. However, most of the really cool looking, expensive mountain bike componentry will also come with much better functionality or capability as well. For example the DMR Vault pedals shown above also have one of the best gripping and form fitting surfaces on the market while having fully serviceable pins, bearings and spindles. But other than the colour, it is identical in function to its cheaper models.


Durability

I know what you're thinking. They are mountain bikes. They should already be durable. Well, like everything in mountain biking it's not really a black and white thing but more shades of gray. Lower end components aren't made with as strong materials while top tier products are made so light that they trade off strength and durability. And in some cases, having more function and capability actually means that components won't be as strong simply because the natural laws of physics won't allow it.

After replacing the derailleur five times and going through a whole new drive train every six months I "downgraded" my 12 speed drive train to an 11 speed gearset. I now rarely break a derailleur and get at least 12 months out of the 11 speed components.

While some riders might think of mid-tier parts or components that don't have as much function as a downgrade, the reality is for most of us strength and durability is one the most important aspects of a mountain bike. Components that last longer mean less maintenance and that means lower costs to keep you bike running smoothly. It also means that it's less likely that something will go wrong on the trails.


The Upgrade List

As I mentioned earlier, the list of things you can change on a mountain bike is fairly substantial, so I'm not going to talk through why you would or wouldn't in this post, but I'll try and do a bit of that over the coming weeks. Broadly speaking, the areas of your bike that you can upgrade are comprised of the following:

  • Wheels - These consist of the spokes, nipples, rims and hubs, or you can just replace the whole wheel. Wheels are a definite area that you'll notice a change to your riding experience. You can probably consider tyres in this area as well.

  • Brakes - Generally sold as a system some manufacturers do allow you to interchange components. Levers, hoses/cables, calipers, discs and brake pads are all things you can change and also another area you can notice substantial improvements.

  • Suspension - The front and rear shock aren't always areas of the bike that we think about upgrading, but different suspension set ups can make a mountain bike handle substantially different.

  • Cockpit - The stem, handlebars and grips are areas of the bike which might surprise you in terms of just how much small adjustments can change your riding experience. It's also one are of the bike that can be blinged up a lot.

  • Seat Area - The seat itself and the post that it's attached to can affect both the comfort level and your riding position on your bike.

  • Drivetrain - Lots of bits in this area from the obvious things such as pedals, gears, shifters and derailleur through to the gear cluster, chainring, chain, cranks, bottom brackets, derailleur hanger and even the cable hose.

  • Axles and Bolts - Yes, even the bits that hold your bike together are customisable. While you might think of it as pure aesthetics, it's possible to get these made in different materials as well which affect how strong they are and how well they hold your bike together.

Why I Upgrade Bike Bits

While it's nice to have light weight components to make your bike pedal easier, unexpected breakages aren't just inconvenient but can actually be quite dangerous. Glad my handlebars survived this ride!

For me personally, weight savings doesn't factor high on my list of important things. I will admit that once upon a time in galaxy far, far away I did want to make my bike as light as possible. But I very quickly learnt that light weight wasn't for me as I began to experience the joy of breaking bits on the trail. So as much as performance and function of a component are really important to me, so too are strength and durability. In fact, the main reason I tend to upgrade a component is simply because I'm likely to have broken the old component way too quickly in the first place.


If I have the opportunity to make my bike look good at the same time, I might do that as well if it's not too expensive. But worrying about weight is a distant last in any consideration of any upgrade decisions I make. After all, if I really want things to be light out on the trail, all I need to do is lose some weight!

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