Beginners guide: how to upgrade your bike (for more technical riding) on a budget

As you get more and more into mountain biking, you will find yourself gaining more confidence in your riding skills, going faster , seeking more technical terrain and taking more aggressive lines on the trails. At one point, you will probably start thinking about upgrading your bike so that your riding skills development would not be limited by your frame/components. Most of us start out on basic bikes, and the logical thing to do would be to upgrade to a new, more advanced ride. While it is always great to get a brand-new bike, not all of us can afford a new bike purchase as soon as they feel they’re ready for it. While you save for that shiny new ride, here are some small but effective and low-cost upgrades you can make to your current ride (with recommendations for what to buy)

Image: Easton EA50 riser bar

1. Wider handlebars: Most entry-level bikes come with relatively narrow handlebars. Swap those out to a set of wide, low-rise bars and you will immediately feel the difference it makes in comfort and bike handling. Wider bars give you more control on technical descents, more leverage to lift the front end of the bike over rough terrain especially at speed, and the placement of your arms further apart makes for easier breathing. Keep in mind that correct bike fit, so you may need to see what width would work best for you. A good idea is to get a wide bar (710-750mm) and start riding and see if you need to cut it down. You can then cut it down in 5mm increments on either side and find the perfect width for you.

Recommended products: Look for the entry-level models from Truvativ, Easton and Sunline. Odi even makes a bar with screw-on extensions.

Image: Easton Haven All-mountain stem

2. A shorter stem: Again, bike fit is something that varies from one rider to the next, but in general (and since we’re talking about upgrades for recreational trail riding, not racing), shorter stems provide a more upright riding position and place the handlebar closer to your body, thus improving control and leverage on the trail. A shorter stem also let’s you move your weight over to the front of the bike more easily, making for better cornering and climbing. (Tip: if you upgrade to wider bars, it also makes sense to get a shorter stem to go with it, as a wide bar with a long stem would put you in a very outstretched position)

You will have to experiment to find the length/rise that works best for you. On my current bike (size medium frame, full-suspension, 5-inches of travel), I tried four different lengths and degrees of rise until I settled on a 75mm, 6 degree stem (with 20mm of spacers under the stem and a 680mm bar). (Tip: Also experiment with the number/height of spacers you have under your stem, as this makes a difference in weight distribution and riding position in technical climbs/descents).

Image: Shimano M30 DX platform pedals

3. Better pedals: Ditch those cheap pedals that came with your bike and start looking into either clipless or more advanced platform pedals. With clipless pedals, you use special shoes with cleats at the bottom that attach to the pedals, making power transfer more efficient because you are pedaling in both your upstroke and downstroke. If you still prefer platform pedals, get one with a large, thin platform and replaceable pins. Good pedals + good shoes = excellent stability, power transfer and control.

Recommended products: For clipless: Shimano M520 pedals (super-durable, adjustable tension, and cheap!). For platform: Shimano DX, DMR V8 or Sunline V3. For shoes, dual-use MTB shoes like the Shimano MP66W or AM45 shoe work with both types of pedals, so you can switch when you want. (Tip: if you find yourself leaning more towards riding clipless, you will want shoes with stiffer soles, like the Shimano M076)

Image: ODI Ruffian lock-on grips

4. Lock-on grips: This is a very simple and cheap upgrade, but does make a difference if your bike came with cheap slip-on rubber grips that twist and turn on the bars. This type of grips uses lock rings for a secure fit to the handlebar, which also makes it easy to remove an reinstall grips when you need to perform brake lever or shifter maintenance or position adjustments.

Recommended products: Odi makes some of the best lock-on grips on the market. I personally prefer the Ruffian.

Image: Schwalbe Wicked Will 2.35. A monster of a tire!

5. Tires: A set of good tires can make a huge difference in how your bike handles. Tire choice depends on terrain, but since we are talking about progressing into more aggressive riding, you will want something with a deep tread, durable rubber compound and thick sidewalls to offer some pinch flat resistance. For recommended tires, see our post on the best mountain bike tires for riding in Egypt.

Closing remarks:

There are many, many other upgrades you could make, of course, but these are the ones you could make without spending a small fortune on expensive suspension, wheels or drivetrain upgrades. We will discuss more sophisticated and expensive upgrades in future posts.