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The 10 Best Mountain Bike and Gear Upgrades

Have you been bitten by the upgrade bug? Improving the performance of your mountain bike can be lots of fun. From grips to tires to forks and wheels, these are the big impact upgrades worth considering.

Written by: Bruce Lin

Published on:

Posted in:Guides

Photo: Kyle Klain / The Radavist

So you’ve got your helmet, pedals, and other MTB essentials, and you’re having a blast exploring the trails. But maybe you’re wondering, “Can it get better?” It sounds like you're ready to get some upgrades! Modifying and personalizing your gear is one of the best parts of mountain biking. The 10 upgrades I’ve picked out here are the components and accessories that have made the biggest difference in my own ride. You probably don’t need all 10, but adding a couple of these upgrades to your own gear collection can increase your speed, safety, and fun out on the trail.

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1. Comfy grips

Do your hands get numb, sore, or fatigued? Getting grips with more padding, ergonomic shaping, and sticky rubber can make it easier to hold on to the bars when things get rough and wild or they might help you tackle more long-distance adventures. Grips are often the very first part I swap out. Here are some of my favorites:

[product-block handle="odi-elite-pro-grips-lock-on-black"/]

ODI Elite Pros are the classic grip that I recommend to almost everyone. The cushy raised waffle pattern takes the sting out of rough trails without adding too much thickness. I run these on all my XC and trail bikes. 

[product-block handle="dmr-deathgrip-grips-lock-on-flange-1"/]

The DMR Deathgrip is super tacky, so you need less force to grip the bars. The ribbed thumb section is great if you experience thumb pain or blisters while descending. I love these on my dirt jumper and enduro bike, or when I feel naughty and ride without gloves. 

[product-block handle="nc_wolf-tooth-fat-paw-grips-black"/]

For the ultimate cushion, Wolf Tooth’s Fat Paws are it. These are what go on my bikepacking rig. They are THICK, so small hands might have issues, but nothing matches their comfort. Classic Oury grips are close, but Fat Paws are just a bit softer.  

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2. Better tires

Best MTB tire upgradePhoto: Kyle Klain / The Radavist

I NEVER cheap out on tires. If you care about performance, then tires are easily the best bang-for-the-buck upgrade you can make to any bike. If you’re trying to push your limits downhill, then a more aggressive tread pattern paired with stickier rubber and a tougher casing will help you smash everything with confidence. If you want to soar up climbs and dominate sprints, then a fast-rolling tire with minimal tread and a lightweight casing will give you the edge. If you want to add some extra style, then tanwall tires are where it’s at. 

[product-block handle="maxxis-aspen-tire-29x2-25-120-tpi-tubeless"/]

Personally, I’m a Maxxis fan and I use a confidence-inspiring Aggressor and Minion DHR II combo on my enduro bike in the 3C MaxxGrip compound and Double Down casing. On my XC race bike, I choose either Maxxis’ super speedy Aspens or do-it-all Ikons, depending on trail conditions. But there are a lot of great tires out there so this is the place to experiment with different brands, tread patterns, and widths to find what really suits your riding style and trails. If you need some guidance, check out my lists for the best enduro tires and the best XC tires

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3. Tire inserts

As someone who used to destroy multiple rear wheels a season, I am now a tire insert evangelist. If you aren’t familiar, check out my tire insert overview to learn more. The short version is that tire inserts are rings of closed-cell foam that sit inside your tubeless tires. The insert protects your rim from impacts, prevents punctures, provides extra damping on rough trails, and allows you to run lower tire pressures for more grip and comfort. They add some weight, but for me, the benefits are so pronounced it's worth it. 

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I still trust the original tire insert — CushCore. They weigh more than most, but nothing else matches the protection and support they provide. I run the full-fat CushCore Pro in my enduro bike and the lighter CushCore XC in my XC and trail bike. They let me run crazy low pressures which boosts my confidence on loose trails, and they have saved my rims and tires countless times from my bad line choices. I can be more reckless with my expensive carbon wheels and I don’t even carry a spare tube anymore!

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4. Dialed-in cockpit

MTB cockpit upgradePhoto: John Watson

As you get more experienced, you might start tinkering with your cockpit and riding position. At this point, I’ve figured out what works best for me, so I swap out the stem and handlebars on every new bike and it immediately feels like home.

[product-block handle="oneup-carbon-handlebar-35mm-x-800mm-20mm-rise-carbon-black"/]

I’ve been loving OneUp’s carbon handlebars because they’re designed to flex more than other bars to increase comfort. I finish it off with some cushy grips and can plow into rocks all day. Handlebars are one of the few parts where I only choose carbon, simply for extra comfort. 

[product-block handle="oneup-aluiminium-stem-35mm-clamp-0-degree-black"/]

As for stems, I usually push things to the limit with stubby 35mm stems. I like how direct it makes the front of my bike feel, and when things get steep, they keep me confident and in control.

Getting a fresh cockpit allows you to play with bar width, rise, sweep, and stem length, so your bike will feel and handle exactly how you want it to.  Plus, new bars just look good and really help personalize your ride. 

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5. Smaller or oval chainring

MTB chainring bash guard upgradePhoto: John Watson

Some macho mountain bikers might scoff at this idea, but I think the vast majority of riders are over-geared. Most will probably ride better and be happier with a smaller chainring. Ask yourself how often you use your hardest gears? I almost never touch mine. Instead, I prioritize climbing gears. This helps me crawl up tough climbs and keeps me fresh so I can descend better and ride longer. So be practical and go smaller! 

[product-block handle="sram-x-sync-eagle-12-speed-3mm-offset-direct-mount-lunar-polar"/]

I usually choose a 30t because they’re easy to find. One of my fast friends rides a 28t oval chainring and he smokes me uphill.

[product-block handle="absoluteblack-oval-narrow-wide-direct-mount-chainring-32t-sram-3-bolt-direct-mount-3mm-offset-black"/]

On that note, oval or elliptical chainrings are a super popular chainring upgrade. These chainrings get bigger where you’re strongest (the downstroke), and smaller where you’re weakest. This can smooth out your pedal stroke, increase your power, and help you speed up hard climbs. 

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6. Chain guide / bash guard

[product-block handle="one-up-iscg05-top-v2-chain-guide"/]

If you ride rough and technical trails, adding a chain guide is cheap insurance against a dropped chain. It doesn’t add that much weight, and if your bike came with ISCG05 mounts (3 bolts around the bottom bracket behind the chainring), then there is no reason not to run one. 

[product-block handle="one-up-iscg05-bash-v2-chain-guide"/]

If you think dropping your chain is bad, well a bent chainring or smashed chain link will really ruin your ride (ask me how I know). For the really rough stuff, a bash guard is essential. Not only will it protect your chainring and chain from impacts, but it can also prevent your bike from getting hung up on protruding rocks and logs. This “feature” has actually saved me from a few potentially bad crashes. 

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7. GPS head unit of watch

Riding with your smartphone strapped to your handlebars is asking for trouble. If you use Strava (or another ride-tracking app), getting a dedicated GPS device can enhance the experience. It will have better accuracy and provide other fun and useful data that you can view while riding. 

[product-block handle="garmin-edge-130-plus-gps-cycling-computer"/]

Any GPS head unit is fine (check out my favorites) but for mountain biking, I prefer using the small and simple Garmin Edge 130. Not only is it affordable (so it sucks less when you scratch it up in a crash), but it has a long-lasting battery, and is still packed with features. 

[product-block handle="garmin-forerunner-745-smartwatch-black"/]

If you’d rather ride without a computer on your bars, many mountain bikers enjoy using a GPS watch. I wear a Garmin Forerunner 745, but any GPS-capable watch (like the cheaper Forerunner 55) will work great. Watches are nice because you can use them for other sports, or for tracking your daily steps and sleep. 

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8. Good suspension

MTB suspension upgradePhoto: John Watson

Here’s where upgrades start getting pricey, but if you really want to transform your mountain bike and maximize its performance, then suspension is the way to do it. High-end forks and shocks have better springs and dampers so they feel more comfortable and stay more consistent in the rough stuff. They often have increased adjustability so you can fine-tune your bike’s performance. Upgrading your suspension also gives you the chance to play with the travel and ride characteristics of your bike. You can get a bigger and stiffer fork to help tackle steeper and gnarlier downhills. Or you can shave weight to turn your bike into an XC weapon. 

[product-block handle="cane-creek-helm-mkii-29-air-fork-160mm-sunburst"/]

For most riders, the fork is the first place to start since it has the biggest impact on your control, comfort, and confidence. RockShox and FOX’s high-end forks are the most popular, and you can check out our RockShox fork guide and FOX fork guide to explore their line-ups. Cane Creek is also a solid option, and I’ve been enjoying riding the latest Helm air fork on my own enduro bike. When it comes to rear shocks, the question most trail and enduro riders need to ask is whether they want to go with air or coil

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9. SRAM Eagle AXS Upgrade Kit

MTB electronic AXS drivetrainPhoto: Kyle Klain / The Radavist

Most riders don’t necessarily need electronic shifting, but after using it and discovering how good it is, I’m a full-on electronic convert. Not only are shifts quicker, more consistent, and effortless feeling, but I find electronic derailleurs are also way more reliable when I’m playing in the rain and mud. A couple of years ago, I hit my SRAM AXS derailleur on a rock hard enough to completely tear it off my bike. Thanks to the damage-limiting Overload Clutch, it came away with only a few scratches and I’m still running it today. 

[product-block handle="sram-gx-eagle-axs-upgrade-kit"/]

If you have a SRAM Eagle drivetrain, it’s super easy to switch to a wireless electronic setup with an AXS upgrade kit. It provides the derailleur, shifter, battery, and charger. Installing it literally takes a few minutes and you instantly get the speed and reliability of electronic shifting, plus a cleaner cockpit with fewer cables. 

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10. Carbon wheels

I put this upgrade at the very end because it’s definitely the most controversial one on this list. I love carbon MTB wheels, and personally, I ride nothing else. Carbon wheels are lighter, which helps me spin up tough climbs. They’re laterally stiffer, which feels great when you pump features, spring out of corners, or perform quick direction changes. And my favorite benefit is that they stay straighter and thus require less or no truing, even after heavy abuse. 

So what’s the downside? The biggest one is cost. Carbon wheels can cost as much as top-of-the-line suspension, and they don't provide nearly the same benefits. There’s the belief that carbon wheels are fragile. In reality, I’ve destroyed more aluminum wheels than carbon. Carbon, however, is more expensive to replace. Since adding CushCores to my setup though, I haven’t had a single failure in the last four years, and I’m a heavy rider that takes bad lines. 

[product-block handle="nc_enve-am30-carbon-clincher-29-wheelset-ms"/]

My current favorite wheels are ENVE’s Foundation-series AM30 wheels. I’m extremely happy with their performance. When purchased new from TPC, they come with ENVE’s lifetime warranty which will cover rim replacements if you do manage to break one. 

If you’re an XC racer, or a rider that cares about weight, Strava PRs, and beating your friends uphill, then going carbon is a no-brainer. For trail and enduro use though, it’s really down to your personal preferences and budget. Ultimately, I think riders should pursue the other upgrades on this list first. To me, carbon wheels are the cherry on top after you’ve optimized everything else on your bike.  

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It was a tough call, but I left out brakes and dropper post upgrades. Depending on your bike build and riding needs, those might also be good upgrades to consider. Do you agree or disagree with my upgrade list? Let me know what I missed!

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