Six Upgrades to Make to Your Mountain Bike
In descending order of priority
Bikes are like computers: they work fine straight from the box, but some customization and personal setup will improve the performance and your experience.
I’ve realized this all over again as bike-test season gets rolling. This time of year, I receive dozens of bikes at once, and I ride them as built to test and compare spec the way the manufacturers intended. Through the spring and summer, however, when I have fewer bikes and can spend more time riding each, I tweak fit and substitute parts on testers to get an ever better feel and dial in handling. It’s much closer to the process I’d undertake on a bike I owned.
Case in point: the Salsa Deadwood XO1 Eagle ($6,000), the first widely available full-suspension, 29+ to market, which I received back in the heat of midsummer. Since I knew I’d likely hold on to the Deadwood through the autumn—and since my first weekend aboard the bike involved a multi-day bikepacking trip—I set about my regular course of modifications. Here's the checklist I go down.
Nothing can make or break a ride like a saddle. For the most part, the major bike brands spec good quality seats, so swapping is about fit. If you don’t ride a lot of bikes, figuring out your preferences can be tricky, though at least one company, WTB, offers a loaner program through its dealers so you can try different models before you buy. Having tested hundreds of bikes every year for the past decade, I know what works for me, and the WTB Volt Pro tends to make me sore after more than an hour or two of riding. So I subbed in my personal favorite, a WTB Silverado.
The minimal tread and round profile of the stock WTB Ranger tires are slick and lightweight for our rocky, desert Southwest trails. (Salsa said that there was no meatier option when they originally spec’d the Deadwood but that the 2018 model will have chunkier tires.) Still, though I know that one of the most pronounced changes you can make to a bike’s handling is by how it hooks up with the ground, I am loath to remove good tires until they wear out, both for the material waste and expense. So I resigned myself to a few months of skittery cornering.
Then, as if on cue, I tore the rear tire on my first weekend trip and the front one two weeks later. (Some manufacturers—Salsa is generally not one of them—spec the flimsiest version of a tire available to make bikes feel more lightweight on the showroom floor, a practice I detest because it ensures you’re going to have to spend more money on tires not long after you buy a new bike.)
In place of the defunct rubber, I installed a fast-rolling but still sturdy Bontrager Chupucabra 29 x 3.0 ($140) on back and a prototype Bontrager SE4 29 x 3.0 ($105) up front. (These will be available for purchase in early November.) That added some weight to the bike, but the confidence in rough terrain and corners more than made up for it. That new SE4, with it’s meaty side knobs and soft, grippy compound, is destined to transform the 29+ market. The big takeaway: whether mountain or road, choose tires appropriate to your terrain.
Touchpoints, where your body contacts the bike, will always be the most critical factors in comfort. And with chronic neck and shoulder issues, I’m sensitive to cockpit position changes. The Deadwood arrived with a 70mm-wide stem clamping 740mm-wide Salsa Rustler carbon bars. I actually liked the feel and sweep of those bars, but they were far narrower than I’ve come to like, making the bike’s handling feel twitchy and my shoulder blades feel pinched. Instead, I subbed in a Race Face SixC 35 bar ($170) that was significantly wider at 800mm and also a touch lower, given five degrees less rise.
To go with those new bars, I chose the matching Turbine 35 stem ($100) at 50mm to shorten up my reach. This put me in a more familiar position, and right away my neck issues resolved on rides and the bike’s handling felt much more even and confident.
I have always contended that the single biggest improvement you can make to a bike is with a high-quality set of wheels. It’s an expensive upgrade, but more than any other component, wheels make or break the feel of a ride. That’s especially true on plus-size and fat models, where the added rim weight or a low- or mid-range hoop is especially noticeable and hampering.
The Deadwood’s stock wheels, WTB Asym i35 rims laced to DT Swiss 350 hubs, are good value and performance for the money. But when I replaced them with a set of Bontrager Line Pro 40 TLR 29 ($1,200) carbon hoops, this bike sprung to life. Whereas accelerations felt gutless and clearing obstacles was hard before, with the new wheels, the bike was chipper and almost eager to clamber over rocks and roots. The additional rim width also helps spread the tires for an even bigger contact patch and better traction.
Out of the box, the Deadwood comes with an excellent but short 100mm RockShox Pike fork. This is great for bikepacking and everyday trail riding, but it felt underpowered for chunk and tech, and I found myself constantly blowing through all the travel. I also wanted to get weight off my hands for added comfort and easier steering in steeps and rocks. So a month into the test, I switched to a 120mm Fox 34 fork that I had on hand. It’s worth noting that Salsa will ship the Deadwood with a 120mm fork next season.
Even then, for me, the front end of the bike still wasn’t aggressive enough, and I traded up again, this time to the a new 140mm RockShox Pike RCT3 ($875). This fork is silky smooth, lighter than previous editions, and still plenty stiff for big drops and smashing descents. With my hands up higher, I also feel far more in control. I even prefer it for bikepacking, where comfort upstages the weight penalty. The change wouldn’t be for everyone, but the upshot is you shouldn’t be afraid to experiment with suspension changes.
The Bottom Line
Upgrades are expensive, and they can feel like a real drag if you’ve just spent thousands on a new bike. The good news is that most bikes are spec’d well enough these days that the primary changes you need to make are to the saddle (for comfort) and the tires (for handling). After that, you can tinker over changes as time and budget allows. Those first few weeks on the Deadwood, for instance, I was perfectly happy with the ride. I just knew I could make it better.
With all of those changes to the Deadwood—especially the fork and tires—I have almost transformed it into a different bike. Whereas it arrived as a hard-working adventure bike with some great trail attributes, I’ve built it into an all mountain shred machine capable of taking on nearly any terrain, no matter how burly. On a different bike, the 100mm of travel in the rear might feel underpowered for that long fork, but because of the extra diameter in the wheels, the suspension here rides bigger than the numbers suggest. The complete bike weight, over 30 pounds even with those carbon hoops, definitely trips me up sometimes, but it’s difficult to go superlight because of those big wheels.
It’s now a bike for folks who are more interested in a nimble, laugh-out-loud fun ride than a feathery rocket ship. Given the bike’s weight, this probably wouldn’t be my choice for a primary bike. However, as a capable, all-mountain machine, I can’t think of anything I’d rather ride—especially now that I’ve dialed it to my tastes.