Wil is our self-confessed, dyed in the wool, cross country bike fan. He loves nothing more than knocking out a few hill reps. Yet even he has found that the rocky terrain we live in here isn’t ideal for ‘pure’ cross country race bikes, so he’s compiled a list of things that he’s found have turned an XC bike into a great bike for everyday riding and training on. You can always swap it back for race day…
Throughout 2017, I’ve had the pleasure of testing and reviewing a load of different ‘cross country’ bikes. From 8.2kg carbon fibre hardtails, through to sprightly full suspension bikes with clever suspension, there have been some absolute corkers! You may have already perused your copy of Issue 116, which includes our group test on three different short travel XC race bikes, and if you follow the website, you would have also seen our reviews of the genre-bending Kona Hei Hei DL, as well as the Canyon Exceed and Specialized Epic hardtails.
In reflecting upon my time spent aboard those test bikes (and others) over the past 12 months, I realised that although I did race some of them, the vast majority of my saddle time was spent just doing normal, everyday trail riding. Granted, I’m not a particularly competitive rider (Ha! – Ed), it’s not like I’m lining up at a race every weekend anyway. So to suit this everyday trail riding, each bike I’ve tested has gone through its own metamorphosis to increase its suitability for riding on some of the more demanding trails that surround our locale.
There have been small changes that have altered the bike setup to make it more comfortable, though I’ve also had the ability to swap around bigger parts like tyres, wheels and even forks too. The resulting alterations have been surprisingly effective at altering each bike’s personality, giving them more brawn and more confidence where I need it.
With that in mind, we’ve put together a list of potential upgrades, adaptations and considerations for those of you out there who own an XC hardtail or full suspension bike, but maybe don’t use that bike exclusively for competition. Be warned though – for the ultra competitive XC racers and weight weenies out there, this list is not for you. Almost everything here is going to add weight to your bike, and there’s nothing here that’s going to increase pedal efficiency. But if you think your XC bike could do with more comfort, more traction and more confidence-inspiring stability, then read on.
1) Dropper Post
Hands-down, the best upgrade you can make to any XC bike is to fit a dropper post. I won’t go each and every detail as to why it’s the best upgrade (this feature about dropper posts would be a good place to start if you want to know more), but put simply, it’s all about enhancing your bike control on the descents and during tricky technical sections. Without a saddle in the way, you can get lower over the bike, which also helps to lean the bike more to carve corners harder and faster.
Do you need one? No you, don’t need a dropper post. Then again, you also don’t need disc brakes, and you don’t need suspension either. But bikes are so much more fun to ride with them.
2) Quick Release Seatpost Collar
Although the price for dropper posts has come down significantly, they’re still a potentially pricy upgrade for most riders. And if you have a frame that only fits a slender 27.2mm diameter seatpost, your options are significantly fewer, as most droppers are made for 30.9mm and 31.6mm diameter seat tubes.
If that’s the case for you, then a simple quick release seatpost clamp is a cheap and cheerful way of being able to quickly modify your saddle height on the trail. Sure it doesn’t have the same fingertip control as using a dropper post with a handlebar remote, but then it’s a whole load cheaper, about as reliable as you can possibly get, and it’ll save you from having to pull out the multi-tool every time you want to raise or lower the saddle.
3) Shorten That Stem
You want more confidence on the descents? Being able to push your weight back on the steep stuff is crucial to being able let your front wheel roll smoothly, without your weight causing it to get hung up on obstacles as you’re descending. Most XC bikes come with a long stem that’s often inverted (flipped down) to provide a leaner, more aggressive riding position. This is great for climbing, but it can come at the expense of control on the descents.
Unless you’re Jaroslav Kulhavý, shortening your stem – even by just 10mm – will help to give you more confidence for attacking the downhills. Be careful though – a really short stem can quicken up the steering too much while also taking weight off the front tyre, so there’s a balance to be had. See if you can borrow a couple of different stems from your riding mates or your local bike shop, and experiment by shortening the stem length at 10mm at a time on a trail that you ride regularly and know really well.
4) Get Wide & Get High
A wider bar helps to brace your weight over the top of the bike by widening your hand placement. Think of it like doing a pushup – if you put your hands together, it feels quite difficult, and if anyone pushes you while you’re doing it, you’ll be tipped over. Now do the same pushup with your arms at the width they’d be on your handlebar – much more stable right?
Like stem length, bar width is worth experimenting with, and there is no one width that suits all. If you start with a wider bar though, you can trim it down if you find it too wide. Personally, I like riding with a bar somewhere between 730-750mm, even on an XC bike. I also much prefer the feel of a riser bar – even if it’s just a 5-10mm rise. I find this puts the grips in a more natural position for your wrists, without jacking the front end up too high.
5) Fresh Grips
For many stock bikes, grips can be a cheap afterthought. XC models often come with thin grips that are made with a firm compound, but these types of grips lack vibration control and may not have enough traction to stop your hands from slipping on them when wet. As one of the main contact points between you and your bike though, changing out the grips to something more comfortable can make an enormous difference to comfort and control, and thankfully it’s one of the cheapest upgrades you can make.
There are loads of options out there, so try and match up the diameter to your hand size to ensure a natural curve for your digits. Most quality grips come in a variety of diameters for you to get the right size, and if you’re searching for more comfort from your XC bike, getting something slightly thicker that uses a softer compound will be instantly noticeable on the trail.
6) Chunkier Rubber
If you’ve bought an XC bike, but you’re mostly using it for non-competitive purposes, there’s a good chance you can improve on those lightweight, race-oriented tyres it came with. Changing the tyres to something that’s a little more robust will give you more durability so you’re not repairing flats all the time, and if you elect for a more aggressive tread pattern, you’ll be able to enjoy more dependable grip, even if the conditions aren’t always the same. At the very least, a chunkier front tyre is a good place to start.
Another factor worth considering is tyre width and volume. In general, a wider and higher volume tyre will be more comfortable to ride with, as there’s more of a cushion between your wheels and the trail surface. Every XC hardtail and full suspension bike is limited as to how wide you can go with the tyres, but there’s a good chance that if your bike came with 2.1in tyres for example, it’ll probably fit a 2.3in tyre.
7) Wide Rims
This doesn’t rank up there as the cheapest upgrades in our list, but if you’re on a bike that you already love and you’re on the hunt for some bigger performance-enhancing upgrades, this one’s worth consideration. Wide rims have been very on-trend for bikes of all disciplines in recent years. The general concept is that a wide rim helps to broaden the treads of the tyre to provide a more stable base for the tyre (kind of like our analogy for running a wider handlebar). This is particularly important with tubeless tyres and running lower pressures, which can cause casing roll through the corners, as the tyre tries to fold over itself.
There are limitations to how wide you can go depending on what sort of tyres you’re running, and if you go too wide, you run the risk of deadening the ride by reducing the tyre’s inherent springiness. As a point of reference, most modern XC and trail wheelsets seem to be settling somewhere between the 25-30mm inner rim width. Partner a rim of that width with a tough 2.3-2.4in wide trail tyre, and it’ll feel like your XC bike has been injected with steroids!
8) Dial In Your Suspension
Is your fork and shock set at the right sag amount? If they’re air-sprung, you’ll be able to adjust the air pressure to make them feel smoother or firmer. In the search for efficiency, XC racers will run their suspension on the firmer side with around 20% sag in the fork, and 25% in the rear shock. For most XC bikes though, you can increase sag to 25% in the fork and 30% in the rear shock, which will increase small-bump sensitivity so your suspension absorbs more of the impacts before your body has to.
Rebound damping is another adjustment worth getting setup properly. Many XC riders often have the rebound damping set far too fast, so the suspension bounces back really quickly. This feels fast and feels efficient in the carpark test, but it can often reduce control and traction when riding off-road. If your suspension is pogoing, try slowing down the rebound setting a couple of clicks at a time to improve control on the rough stuff. Additionally, if your fork and shock has some kind of lockout or compression adjustment, try riding the bike with these wound all the way open. The bike may not feel quite as firm under pedalling, but it will be smoother, and it will track better too.
9) Put A (Bigger) Fork In It
Many bikes out there are able to accommodate a range of suspension travel on the front. As an example, the Kona Hei Hei (pictured) will take either a 100mm or a 120mm travel fork. With 100mm, the bike sits lower at the front, and the angles sharpen to improve nimbleness through tight corners and on uphill sections of trail. With 120mm, the bike is lifted up a touch, and the angles are slackened off to help improve descending stability.
If you’re looking for that boost in descending confidence, it may be worth checking the specs for your frame. If the manufacturer allows it, upsizing to a slightly longer travel fork and one with larger diameter stanchions can offer more comfort for the front of your bike, as well as added high-speed control.
10) Offset Bushings
This one is more for the tech-heads out there, because it involves messing around with the geometry that the bike company spent so long trying to get dialled in the first place. If you’ve got a short travel full suspension bike that feels a little too steep and twitchy for your liking, offset shock bushings allow you to alter the effective shock location, which changes the bike’s overall stance.
Most often than not, these offset bushings are used to slacken out the geometry to kick back the head and seat angles, while lowering the bottom bracket height too. If used correctly, they can transform your bike’s personality, and for a fairly minimal cost. Be warned though – if used incorrectly, they can totally ruin the ride quality of your existing bike!
11) Upsize Your Rotors
XC bikes are typically spec’d with lightweight brakes and 160mm diameter rotors, and these days, that’s all you need for racing. If you’re not racing though, you might want a little more braking force for tackling steeper and less-forgiving terrain, or simply to reduce the amount of effort (both physical and mental) you have to put in on longer rides.
The good news is that you don’t necessarily need to get new brakes to get more power though. Before shelling out for new stoppers, consider upsizing your rotors. A larger rotor will help to boost brake force, so you can slow down with less effort from your fingertips. The bigger surface area will also increase heat dissipation, which will provide more consistency on long descents. To begin with, I’d recommend trying a slightly larger rotor on the front (if you have a 160mm rotor already, go to 180mm), and see how that improves things.
12) Brake Pads
Another easy upgrade is brake pads. It’s not a particularly desirable upgrade (I could buy a gold anodized stem first!), but it’s a crucial component that can make a world of difference to your confidence on the bike. After all, more trust in your brakes gives you more trust in your bike and in your ability to clean a really tricky descent.
In general, there are two main types of brake compound: Organic and Sintered. Organic pads generally provide more bite, but they don’t last as well in wet weather, and they can exhibit brake fade when they get really hot on long descents. In comparison, Sintered pads are much more durable in wet weather and they handle heat better too. Then there are pads out there that use a compound that sits somewhere between those two. Like any other component, there are also varying degrees of quality between brands. Whatever compound works for you, don’t skimp on brake pads, and make sure you replace them before it’s too late.
13) Bigger Pedals – Flats Or Clips
You’re probably sensing a theme in this list. Bigger is always better right? Well, not always, but when it comes to pedals, using something with a slightly larger platform can be an option to better support your feet – another one of those main contact points between you and your bike. If you’re running flat pedals, then (just like grips) matching up the platform size to your shoe size will help to ensure that your foot isn’t flexing and bending over the top of pedal body. If you’re still riding with the cheapie flat pedals that came free when you bought your bike, consider trying out some higher quality flats with a thinner platform and adjustable pins.
As for clip-in pedals, I’ll be fairly trepidatious with this recommendation, because some pedals do work better with particular shoes, and vice versa. If you just go out and buy the biggest platform clip-in pedal you can find, there’s a chance that the tread on the underside of your shoe might interfere with that platform, causing issues with engagement and disengagement, and that is going to do nothing for your riding confidence. However, get the right combination, and the additional platform can reduce lateral shoe roll, while providing a bigger target to aim for when you’re trying to clip back in.
Still not happy? Bike still twitchy, nervous and generally awful on the descents? Then maybe check out Tip 14;
14) Go Out And Buy A Trail Bike!
There’s just no pleasing you, eh? And if you’ve not sampled the delights of a modern mid-travel trail bike recently, you might be surprised to find how capable they are on the ups, downs and alongs.
Need some more inspiration on potential upgrades to make your XC bike more shreddable? Then check out our dropper post group test, high tech trail tyre group test, and our flat pedal group test for some more food for thought. Otherwise, let us know your tips and recommendations in the comments section below!