NOTE: This post is really old, especially in bike years. Still, the basic ideas will still help anyone pondering upgrades to their first decent bike. If you have other questions, hit me up … I might add them to a new version of this post.
One thing I notice about new mountain bikers: They can’t wait to make some mountain bike upgrades. They start salivating over new bits, from stems and derailleurs to suspension forks and wheelsets. I’ve seen this in a few online conversations lately.
But question Number One shouldn’t be “what’s the best upgrade to my mountain bike?” It should be “is this bike worth upgrading?”
I’m going to use two different bikes as real-world examples to answer this question: The $600 Diamondback Overdrive (because a beginner I spoke to recently has one) and the $1,200 Airborne Goblin (a solid budget off-road racer).
Here are a few questions beginner mountain bikers should ask before splashing cash on mountain bike upgrades:
1. Is this frame actually meant for off-road riding?
Some bikes look like mountain bikes. But they’re not really meant for off-road riding. They have the fat tires and stout-looking frames — but the dimensions of the frame are all wrong. Instead of long top tubes and aggressive angles that allow quick handling and good power transfer, they have a high center of gravity and short wheelbase. I expected the Overdrive to be a faux-mountain bike based on its angles.
Surprise! They’re not that different from the Goblin (View a few key specs here).
So, these bikes are close enough in design that either should give you true mountain bike handling characteristics.
2. Is this a high-quality frame?
Look, you can do all sorts of cool stuff to a Geo Metro to make it better, faster, cooler. But at the end of it all, you’re still stuck with a Geo Metro. Very few mountain bikes at the lower price points will have super high-quality frames. Both the Diamondback and the Airborne are made from 6000-series aluminum tubing.
That’s all we know. I have no clue which frame factory produced these. The Airborne’s claimed frame weight is 4 pounds – decent, but not likely to inspire many epic heavy metal concept albums.
On this question, it’s a wash for either bike. I simply don’t have the information to say either frame is definitely better than the other. All things being equal, both seem worth some mountain bike upgrades.
At the end of it all, though, I still don’t think upgrading the Diamondback bit-by-bit is a very cost-effective strategy.
3. How much of the original components do I need to replace?
Aside from the frame, the fork and wheels are some of the most important mountain bike upgrades. Let’s start with the Airborne: I’ve ridden for 20 years — epic singletrack races, 12- and 24-hour races, all that stuff. The only thing I’d change immediately on the Airborne would be the wheelset and the saddle.
Otherwise, it’s solid. The Rock Shox Reba fork is excellent, as are the SRAM drivetrain and the Avid Elixir 7 hydraulic disc brakes. The stem, handlebars and other minor bits are house-branded components – nothing fancy, but good enough.
On the other hand, I don’t even know where to start with the Diamondback. The fork, brakes and wheels are pretty bargain-basement.
Let’s say I did all these mountain bike upgrades: $350 for an X-Fusion Slide 29 RL2; $250 for Avid Elixir 5 brakes; $250 for a decent but low-budget SRAM/WTB tubeless wheelset; $140 for decent tires for said wheelset; $70 for a Stan’s tubeless kit. That’s $950 in upgrades — without touching the shifters, derailleurs or crankset. Another $200, and you’re in an entirely new bike.
4. OK, so how can I upgrade my mountain bike sensibly?
Tires, for sure. High-quality tires are lighter and give you a better ride. Also, consider clipless pedals and shoes – you can easily transfer those to your next bike when you’ve ridden your current bike to death. They’ll give more power to your pedal stroke and improve your handling.
At this point, the best upgrades will be off bike — a quality helmet, good shorts, gloves, hydration gear and a tool kit. Get all that. Ride your current bike like crazy – determine its limitations, hone your skills and save your money for your next bike.
Airborne Goblin: $1,200
TT – 24.4
Head-tube angle/Seat-tube angle: 71/74
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