Upgrades. Fads…or worth investing in?

Let’s picture the scenario. You have just bought your brand-new mountain bike, it’s amazing. You love it and that ride around the car park really justified that it’s the bike for you.

You see people with the same bike and want yours to stand out, or people tell you that you need a shorter stem, wider bars, you need to go clipless or maybe you just need to put a mud guard on it.

Do you? Or are these things all fads that are designed to soak up your income?

To help you out with this, here is my personal write up of what I have changed on my own bike, and whether it was worth it, or just a fad.

Warning: We will be talking dropper posts so expect controversy!

The Bike:

Let’s start with the bike then. I ride a 2016 Scott scale 750.

It is a hardtail cross country bike, made up of an aluminium frame, fox float 32’s (100mm travel) and 27.5 inch wheels. The specs are below:

Seatpost: 31.8mm syncros aluminium post
Tyres: 27.5 Schwable rocket ron.
Forks: 100mm Fox float 32’s with Scott’s RideLoc system.
Bars: Syncros 120mm flat xc bars.
Brakes: Shimano Deore SLX.
Headset: Syncros OE
Stem: Syncros xc stem, 31.8mm
Drivetrain: Shimano 2×10.
Pedals: None, at standard.

So, a bit of a lowdown on the bike, full specs can be found on the Evans Cycles website at:

https://www.evanscycles.com/scott-scale-750-2016-mountain-bike-EV253330

I was on the lookout for a good entry level bike, I didn’t think I wanted to spend the money on a decent Full suspension and decided to buy a high-end hardtail rather than a low-end full suss. The bike is fantastic. I love it and I always have loved riding it. It is light, nimble and handles a lot of terrain that a full suspension bike would be recommended on.

But, you can’t deny that I have developed as a rider, technically and physically since I first bought the bike. My knowledge of bike components has increased drastically and I have upgraded the bike to suit both my riding style, and my idea of what makes a good MTB ride, well…good.

So how much of my love for this bike is down to the upgrades I have installed on it, and would I recommend these upgrades to you? Have I made mistakes and would I enjoy the bike as much as I do now if it was left stock?

Well let’s break down what I have changed according to the above specs on the bike:

 

SEAT POST:

Yes! The controversial one. Let’s jump straight into that:

When I bought the bike, I rode it with the standard quick release clamp, and the seat post mentioned above. I was just getting out of a power lifting style of training and weighed a hefty 220lbs. I rode the bike and saw someone with a dropper post and thought, that’s a cool idea. I want one.

However. I’d just got back into riding, wasn’t bike fit and was in no way needing to spend over £200 on a seat post when I needed the rest of putting my seat down. Fast forward to the new year (I bought the bike in September 2016) and my fitness had increased to a half decent level, my weight had also dropped to 190lbs (where I am now) and I felt like a dropper might be the next upgrade to the bike. So, in February I bought a RockShox Reverb (I know, the king of controversy) and installed it to the bike. So, how does it fare:

Having done research on dropper posts, messaging people on various bike related groups and spoke to my friends who ride I went for a reverb for two reasons:

1: It was the one most recommended to me by riders, and is currently still the most popular dropper on the market today.

2: RockShox have a very good warranty department, as do Chain Reaction Cycles where I bought it from.

Yes, I bought the reverb expecting it to go wrong. And it did!

After having it one week my Reverb got stuck in the lower position and wouldn’t move. I bled it, took it out the next day and after 10 miles it got stuck in the upper position, and wouldn’t move.

It got packaged up and sent back to Chain Reaction where I eventually received a replacement Reverb (we won’t go into what was wrong with it).

So how does this one fare up:

Well. It must be mentioned that the Reverb I purchased was in the clearance sale and was a 2016 model. I was sent back a replacement 2017 model so the reverb I run now is different to the one I purchased. There was no major difference aside from a few less parts in the box, and one less Allen key, and the cable feels better made.

This reverb (I say this touching anything wood in the house) has worked flawlessly, required no bleeding and has worked since I installed it onto the bike.

So, was it worth the money?

I paid £200 for the reverb, which compared to its original price of over £300 is a lot of money off. But is it worth it?

YES. After riding with a reverb and riding without one in between having it replaced I noticed a huge difference. I also notice a difference more and more as my fitness levels increase and I don’t want to stop riding. It makes riding a smoother, more consistent experience and allows me to constantly change my position according to the terrain and elevation I ride on.

I should point out here that I mainly ride long distance or short distance XC style routes, with steep downhills and some DH/bike trials.

I mainly do my riding in the Peak District and on natural terrain where things change regularly. If I was riding just Downhill I wouldn’t bother spending the money on a dropper.

But if you like long distance, and to not have to get off the bike then a dropper is something I would consider buying. Try one out on a mate’s bike and you will feel like you need it. I 100% believe that.

Not that they are without their flaws mind. I have noticed some negatives about this post, and will list them below. Please not this is only for the reverb:

–          Doesn’t mount well to Shimano running gear.

–          They can be unreliable; however, you will hear about problems with a reverb more than other droppers because they are the most bought one.

–          They need servicing.

–          They are NOT cheap.

–          The lever feels a bit of an afterthought, and RockShox charge near enough £100 for the upgraded lever. Don’t buy it, it might be better…But it’s a lever!

–          The speed at which mine raises back up won’t adjust.

But, aside from the above. In my eyes, there is no doubt that a dropper seat post can transform how you ride. Depending on how fit you are, what style of riding you do, and whether you like to stop regularly.

 

TYRES:

Okay tyres a personal preference. You go to a race meeting and there will be all sorts of different set ups that people will be running. Some people will run different tyres front and back, others a matching set. The Scott Scale came with Schwalbe Rocket Rons.

A summer trial tyre, they’re quite narrow, and are not particularly good in the wet (I had three low sides on one downhill burmy section in the wet on mine). I had the Rocket Rons on the bike until the winter (December) and after those three low sides (which of course were not my fault in any way shape or form!) changed them for a set of Continental Mountain Kings. These are a more rugged, big treaded and wider tyre than the Rocket Ron (or they feel it) and have plenty of studs on the side. They were brilliant in the winter and I still ride with them in the summer.

I’m not a rider who wants to spend the money on new tyres if the weather changes so they’re staying on. They are grippy, great off road and round trials and handled the worst the winter threw at them. The only issue I have with this style of tyre is this:

I ride a lot of the time from my house, which means there will be some road or tarmac involved in my rides. These tyres are not great for that and the Rocket Rons wipe the floor with them. But they are a mountain bike tyre, for off-road terrain, which is 80% what I ride. So that’s fine by me.

When picking tyres, I would 100% say it is down to personal preference. A few rides on your bike off road will help with this, as will knowing how you ride and what you like to ride terrain wise.

Yes, new tyres can be great but only change them when you feel like you know exactly what you need.

Would I recommend spending a lot of money on tyres straight away? No. Would I recommend it after about 4 months of riding? Yes, if you feel your current set up isn’t geared towards your style of ride.

 

BARS:

Now this is an interesting one. Handlebars are down to personal preference and you will find loads of videos online about how to set your handlebars up, what style of bar you should go buy and so forth.

On the Scott Scale you get 720mm SYNCROS XC style bars. These are flat, narrow and very agile. Now one tip that you would benefit from knowing is that bar width generally boils down to how broad your shoulders are. I have quite broad shoulders and can generate a lot of power through my upper body. I am 5’10.

Personally, I found the standard bars very twitchy, way too narrow and not geared for my riding style. The bars were flat and when combined with the stem pushed my weight to the front of the bike. Which, as a XC bar you would expect.

I also found the cockpit very crowded due to the width of the bars (or lack of), so I upgraded to Renthal Fat Bars, 780mm width with a 38mm rise.

What does this mean:

Width: The width of the bar, wider bars generally mean less agile, more stable at speed, and vice versa.

Rise: The higher the rise the more you weight will be over the rear of the bike, vice versa. Aggressive riding styles tend to go for a higher rise, and a lot of DH riders will have wide and high bars.

I am all about backing the bike in, getting my weight over the back and pushing my hardtail to its limits on rocky terrain. I ride quite aggressively on the bike and having my weight over the back is very important to me.

So how are the fat bars?

Out of everything on this list that I have swapped. The handlebars have made the biggest difference, without a shadow of a doubt. As soon as they were on the bike I felt more planted, more confident to throw it around and a lot more stable at speed. Changing the bars allows me to whip the bike round corners with more ease, get my weight back down rocky terrain with more flow and speed and ultimately has made riding the Scale a completely different experience. The cockpit is also a lot less clogged up with switches, the extra space allows me to move the lesser used ones out of the way (for example, the RideLoc lever, which is purely awful).

Another advantage to the Fat Bars is when I am climbing on tarmac, or fire roads that aren’t technical – I can narrow my grip and relax. This allows me to get my breathing and body position into a shape that is much more efficient at climbing, giving me the best of both worlds.

With such a raving review is there anything bad to say about the Renthal Fat Bar? I tried:

–          Heavy (I went for the non-carbon option).

–          Wider bars can make you susceptible to trees. I have crashed a couple of times due to this.

–          They only come in one colour.

–          Carbon fibre models can be pricey.

A lot of bikes that cost upwards of £2000 usually have a decent set of bars on them to begin with, so this might not be a massively popular change. But, if you feel something isn’t right with your bikes turning, or you feel your weight distribution is off them changing the bars would be something I would recommend you look at doing this. I would also recommend you look at Renthal Fat Bar, and try a few pairs out in your local bike shop before making a purchase. You can also estimate width changes with tape measure to help you get an idea, and use the statements about rise and width above to help you decide what style of rider you are, and what you may need.

I can only say that If I had to pick one upgrade to keep on this bike, it would be the handlebars. And On my next bike, I will be sticking a set of Renthal Fat Bars on too.

 

STEM:

The stem, the part of your bike that connects the handlebars to the forks and makes your bike turn.

Simple as that. However!!!! A stem can be vital in how you bike handles, and how you position yourself on it.

Typically, a longer stem is what you see on XC bikes (like mine) puts your weight over the front and gives you a good position for climbing and riding distances.

A shorter stem puts your weight further back and is better for DH, descending a lot and riding more aggressively.

This is a part that is all down to personal preference, and your size compared to your bike. As I mentioned above I like to run quite wide bars as I feel more stable. These bars have also brought my weight over the rear more and make me feel a lot better at descending. I don’t particularly struggle to get my weight back and don’t feel over reached when my backside is over the seat. A shorter stem for me is not something I feel I need.

However, if you do find that you have changed your bars, and still feel too far forwards on descents then it may be time to think about that stem. Just be careful not to go too short and keep in mind the geometry of the bike.

My Scott can descend and I can handle terrain faster than some full suspension riders on it. But it will never be a DH bike, so setting it up for DH primarily would be silly.

Keep in mind:

–          Your bikes purpose.

–          Your height.

–          Your bikes geometry.

–          Your body position and ability to move weight forwards/back.

–          The style of riding you do.

I would recommend testing a stem before you buy one, or sit on you bike and play around with the body position of where you want to be with a stick to replicate the handlebars.

Just lock on your brakes with some tie wraps so you can focus on your position not on keeping the bike still.

 

HEADSET/MUD GUARDS:

Headsets are tricky little bleeders and only really get upgraded when they are damaged. Hence putting mud guards and headsets together in this section.

For those of you who don’t know, your headset is basically a set of bearing’s that go into your frame where the forks reside. They allow smooth turning of the bike and allow your forks to sit nicely into your frame.

Not really interesting, is it? Headsets however, can get damaged and corrode. This is especially prevalent during the winter when you will be riding through grit, mud and worse, which gets caught up in the headset. Stock headsets are generally cheap ones that get fitted to bikes to save production costs (good thing), this though means the headsets are of lesser quality and more likely to corrode and require regular maintenance (bad thing).

When I purchased the Scott Scale it had one of the cheaper headsets in it and developed a rough feeling over time. I crashed on a rock garden, pulled out my brake lever and had to leave it in my LBS overnight. It was a warm building and when I picked it up the mechanic told me to have go on the bars. It felt a lot worse, a lot rougher and wouldn’t turn. They informed me that if it was under warranty I should phone Evans about it and see if they would switch it out for me, as it was approximately 3-months old. So, I took the bike to Evans and they gave me two options:

1: They would replace the old cheap, nasty headset with the same for free.

2: They would swap it for an upgraded headset for the price of what it cost them to get it in, no labour, no retail price.

Obviously, I went for option number 2:

I have had the same headset in since last November and have ridden all winter with it. I regularly maintain it by stripping it down at least once a month (of if I crash into water and it gets submerged) and cleaning/re-greasing.

It’s an easy job to do and there are plenty of videos online as to how to do it. All you need is:

–          Allen keys.

–          Bearing grease.

–          Blue roll.

–          Degreaser in serious cases.

So, would I upgrade a headset as a purchase on a bike?

Not really. Regular maintenance should be fine. If you have sealed bearings even better. Check with a manufacturer or sales team what the bike has, just keep it clean.

Also. As the heading says mudguards.

A good front mud guard can stop a lot of spray from getting into your bottom bearing, this is a £5 upgrade or you can make one out of an old bottle of coke and some tie wraps if you want, it’s cheap and saves you work and labour in the long run.

Another really good tip is to cut up and old inner tube or tyre and tie wrap that to the gap in your forks (just above where you would mount a mud guard) and that will also help.

I like to dry my bike at an angle so water can drop out of any holes in the frame too to keep it from staying in there…But I have cleaning OCD.

So, headsets:

Maintain them regularly, invest in a mud guard or make one, get sealed bearings if you must.

 

DRIVETRAIN:

1x drivetrains have become very popular recently, with more people running them every month. I ride with guys who have 1x drivetrains and have thought about upgrading my drivetrain too.

This is the newest craze but before you become a sheep. Think.

The positives to a 1x drivetrain are that it is lighter, you save weight and with the removal of your front shifter you can get rid of the clutter on your cockpit and keep your dropper post closer to your thumb. So, you have less going on your handlebars and your bike is lighter.

But. You have less gear ratios to play with which could mean one of 2 things:

–          You won’t have enough gears to get you up very steep climbs.

–          You won’t have enough gear ratios to power you on downhills or trials.

Either way you are going to have to spend big on a new rear cassette, which could prove to be expensive, and leave your bike out of action if you can’t fit it yourself.

You will need a new chain.

And you will often need to buy a new crank.

Costly.

My opinion is this:

My bike without the dropper weighs about 10kg, make that 15kg when it has the dropper, pump, bottle, spare tube etc on there. That’s 15kg. If I was to take away one cog, one lever, some hydraulic fluid and a derailleur I doubt it would make that much difference to the bike. With it being an XC bike it’s very light, and if you have a carbon frame that’s even lighter. If you struggle to push that up a hill then you need to invest in some training, not a drivetrain.

Another thing that changed my mind about converting is I have very powerful legs. I used to powerlift and can push out way over 1500 watts on a watt bike without really struggling. This on downhill sections for me meant that using my smaller cog was like having no chain on the bike. It felt wrong, didn’t get me quicker and just didn’t work.

So, after watching videos on YouTube. I decided to stick with the 2x drivetrain and enjoy the wider range of gear ratios as the weight of the bike isn’t an issue for me. What is an issue however, is that because my legs have predominantly trained to be powerful. Endurance in muscle strength can be an issue. Due to this I am considering in investing in one more cog on the back that will work with an 11-speed chain to help me up hills. As well as just training in a more endurance based style. Spinning has really helped with that! Unlucky for those in my spin class!

1x or 2x drivetrains, personal choice. Testing is the best way to decide whether it needs to change.

 

PEDALS:

Last but not least!!!! Pedals.

Now this is always going to divide opinion. Flats or clipless. People are always going to have their preference.

I can personally say that I have never rode with clips, and don’t really feel a desire to do so. Yes, they make you more efficient pedalling uphill but so does increasing your fitness. Yes, your feet don’t slip out going downhill but this has happened to me once in just under a year.

A good set of mountain bike shoes will stop this.

A lot of people recommend flats for people new to the sport, as you can learn a lot of technique on them and they don’t allow you to develop bad habits such as pulling the back wheel up when doing manuals or bunny hopping. This allows you to develop proper technique.

GMBN also suggest that they are better during the winter for perfecting technique and developing skills/confidence.

Read into it what you will but I have always ridden flats and will carry on riding them for the foreseeable future.

I ride Fatty’s Flatties at the minute because they looked cool after my first bog standard cheap pair got too damaged (they also looked shit). They grip to my shoes well and don’t really feel slippery. At £25 they were a decent buy but I will be swapping to some Nukeproof’s for my next pedals, just because I hear so many good things about them.

With pedals, it’s all about personal choice. I can’t really talk about clipless because I have only ever ridden flats. But if you have any thoughts feel free to post them below:

 

Well. That’s that. A (not so) short list of everything I have changed on my bike and why. I would love to hear what you have changed on your bike and what you recommend for others. Keep it light hearted and remember. It’s all about your own style, preferences and there is no right or wrong.

Unless you’re wearing lycra!

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