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Photo by Matt Miller.

There’s nothing like a good hack. What a funny word that is, also. One of my favorite all time hacks is to put a glass of water in the microwave when I heat up leftover pizza. I think the difference is noticeable in the texture of the bread, and it does feel less chewy and rubbery and almost fresh again. 

Upgrading components to make a mountain bike more aggressive is also one of my favorite hacks. Over the summer, my trail/enduro bike saw quite a few review parts and a lot of them were freeride, downhill, and enduro-oriented components. My bike went from feeling like a spry, but aggressive trail bike, to a serious enduro and park-ready machine.

The bike gained some weight in the process, but with 820mm-wide handlebars, downhill tires, and other heavy-duty parts, it never felt more comfortable descending. Here are a few tips and tricks to level up your bike.

Cockpit

The Spank Vibrocore handlebars we tested earlier this year are some of the widest out there at 820mm. Photo by Matt Miller.

Take a mountain bike’s lack of aggressiveness by the horns, or handlebars. It’s an easy place to start and doesn’t require a lot of money to make a change.

A wider set of handlebars can add some stability to a bike’s descending capabilities, although it’s easy to go too wide these days. Adding a wider set of bars can complement the geometry of a mountain bike by putting the rider and their weight lower into the bike for a more centered stance.

There’s debate over whether this amount of width is necessary. Just find a wide set of bars and trim them down until it seems appropriate for your body type and comfort. Photo by Hannah Morvay.

Another way to set up a more aggressive cockpit is to go with a set of riser bars, or handlebars with a higher amount of rise. Trail bikes typically come with handlebars that have about 10-30mm of rise. Adding a set of bars with 40, 50, or 60mm of rise will put your body position further back to make descending on steep trails more comfortable.

Pair a more aggressive set of bars with a shorter stem, somewhere around 40-60mm for a modern cockpit look and a more responsive ride.

Geometry

One way to tweak a mountain bike’s handling in aggressive terrain is by using an angled headset. Angled headsets can change the geometry of the bike by a half or full-degree.

Photo: Cane Creek.

The head angle gets a little slacker for more stability and the seat angle will also get steeper. That’s generally a win on both accounts, although it has the potential to drop the bottom bracket height as well. Do a bit of research and see if an angle set may be a good fit for your mountain bike.

Tires

A tire like the WTB Judge with its big ol’ knobs can help any mountain bike find more grip. Photo by Abner Kingman.

The answer to a more aggressive mountain bike isn’t necessarily to make everything wider all around, but handlebars, tires, and wheels are a good place to start.

Wider tires are an easy change to make since they have to be replaced when they wear anyway. Going with a 2.3- or 2.4-inch tire in the rear and a 2.5- or 2.6-inch tire in the front provides more traction than a narrow tire, obviously, and more confidence over technical terrain and through corners.

On a cross-country bike, it might make sense to upgrade to a 2.3- and 2.4-inch set of tires for rear and front for a more aggressive setup without adding too much weight.

For a trail bike, why not go “full enduro” and put a 2.4-inch on the rear and a 2.6-inch up front? It’ll add some weight most likely, but there’s a good chance it will reduce punctures if set up correctly with the right size wheels.

Wheels

Now, don’t go throwing 2.8-inch tires on a set of 22mm internal width rims. See our guide on tire and rim widths here to find out why.

Using the guide linked above, it’s easy to take a look at your current setup and see how it can be modified to the next, wider category.

Another upgrade that is a little more painful to make than a set of new tires is a set of wider rims. The combination of wider rims and tires helps the tire expand and open up the tread pattern for more traction.

Fortunately a good set of alloy rims doesn’t have to be a bank-breaker. Consider the Stan’s Flow MkIII alloy rims, an enduro-ready hoop, that retails for $100 per rim. It’s good and wide with a 31mm internal width and ready to accept wide tires.

Just be sure your frame and fork are ready to accept the wider tire and rim combo with the proper clearances.

Tire inserts

Photo: Jeff Barber.

Ready to smash on a more aggressive tire and wheel set? Tire inserts help make this a possibility. By stuffing an insert in a wheel set, or even the rear wheel alone, it can reduce the chance of punctures or snake bites in a tire, and allow the rider to run lower pressure.

Tire inserts are also fairly inexpensive, at least relative to other mountain bike products.

Jeff Barber tested a set of Vittoria AirLiners earlier this year and found that they added to his confidence on the trail.

An un-inflated tire with a tire liner in it. Photo by Jeff Barber.

“I pushed myself faster and harder through chunky, jagged stretches of trail,” he said in the review.

The AirLiners cost between $85 and $95 per tire, but there are some variations in price between those and other liners like Huck Norris and Cush Core.

The liners of course add weight, but may be worth it for the added confidence and reduced flats.

Suspension

The Cane Creek DBCoil IL – Photo: Cane Creek.

This can be a tricky one. Most bikes have a set amount of travel that can’t be changed without affecting the geometry, but there are a few tweaks that riders can make for a more aggressive suspension setup.

Now, it is possible to change the travel on the front end of a mountain bike without a significant effect on geometry and handling. Most bike brands say that it’s safe to add a fork with +/- 10mm of travel without a big change.

Adding a fork with 10mm of additional travel will slacken out the head and seat angle just a touch and also raises the bottom bracket a little bit, but it’s still possible to get away with the change.

Aaron Chamberlain testing the Cane Creek Helm coil fork in Whistler. (photo: Aaron Chamberlain)

There are also coil spring conversions out there for air-sprung forks. Converting to coil will add a little bit of weight, but increases small bump compliance significantly.

The same can be said for rear shocks. Coil-sprung suspension has risen again in popularity in the last year or two, and there are more options to add coiled suspension to a trail bike.

By using a coil-sprung rear shock, it might take a little bit away from the bike’s climbing ability since air shocks are more progressive and stay in the top of their travel better, but the descending benefits will be appreciated once the correct tune is found on a coil shock.

Dropper post

Photo: Jeff Barber.

By now, most everyone has made the switch to a dropper post, but if not, get on it! It is a revolutionary upgrade and will change the overall quality of a mountain bike ride.

It’s also a great time for affordable dropper posts. Jeff Barber also tested a coil-sprung PNW Components dropper post that seems to be a reliable and affordable option at $200. And even the small bump compliance was noticeably better compared to an air-sprung dropper post. (Kidding).

Kind Shock also makes a few affordable dropper posts and its entry-level ETen retails for around $100, so there is no shortage of affordable options.

What else?

sedona-roam-mtb-festival-specialized-00561

Photo: Leah Barber.

We know there are more choices to make a mountain bike more capable, but we wanted to leave readers some room to comment also.

What are your hacks, or ways that you’ve found work to make a mountain bike more aggressive? Let us know in the comments. 

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# Comments

  • Oldandrolling

    One comment on front suspension. I upgraded from 120 mm travel to a 145 mm travel which made my bike a more comfortable ride for me. I have experienced no downsides to to this change.

    • Matt Miller

      Glad to hear. It’ll vary quite a bit. I tried it a while back on my hard tail, my first MTB, and put on a fork that was too large and ended up with very floppy steering. Usually +/- 10mm is a safe call.

  • mongwolf

    Good introductory article Matt. Explain one thing for me. Why go with an insert and tubes instead of just going tubeless?

    • Matt Miller

      Thanks, Mongwolf. The inserts are meant for tubeless. I don’t think a tube and an insert would play well together at all. But, insert in a tubeless tire = lower air pressure and less chance of snakebites and rim dings.

  • mongwolf

    Gotcha. I was seeing “snakebites” and associating that with tubes. Yes, no inserts and tubes together. No dah. Brain cramp this morning.

  • kenjoh

    Fitted a Fox Float 120mm fork (+20mm) to my Yeti ASR and added a 1 deg works component angleset, these 2 upgrades complement each other perfectly,Shorter stem and wider bars also fitted result a brilliant handling much more capable bike !!

    • Matt Miller

      So do you go up or down a degree with the angleset when you added the 120mm fork?

    • kenjoh

      Slackened the head angle by 1 deg so I guess that’s down.

  • vapidoscar

    Did the push up on a yard stick test and came out right at 740mm. I could see going to 760mm and cutting down if needed but can’t see 800-840mm as other measurements have suggested. Partly because I ride tight trails but push up position-wise would feel very odd.

    • Matt Miller

      I don’t think a lot of people really need 820mm bars, haha. Very wide. I liked the stability when I tested the Spanks, but felt like I lost some agility, and definitely too wide for a few trails.

    • Curtis Cameron

      Here in the Dallas/Ft Worth area, there’s much discussion in the forums and FB groups about bar widths. Around here, anything relatively wide will give you lots of problems with narrow passes through trees. My son demo’d a nice Niner bike a couple of years ago, which had the widest bars I had ever seen at the time. He crashed it on a short downhill run that passed through a couple of trees near the bottom.

  • Oldandrolling

    Here is a small but, a noticeable upgrade, if your you have not been fit for a proper seat width. I used to ride on a 143 mm wide seat mostly because is felt more comfortable. However, My proper width seat is 130 mm based upon my bone measurement from my local shop. I switch to a 130 mm seat and found my ability to move around on the seat significantly improved both front to back and side to side. It did not feel as comfortable initially but, after a few rides it became unnoticeable. Definitely worth looking into if you have not been measured.

  • PaulieDC

    I’m a noob to MTB and a Clyde (300lbs+) and this is now my favorite exercise on earth. Couldn’t agree more about bar and stem changes. Got an entry level hardtail (Trek Marlin 7) because it easily holds 350lbs regardless of the specs, but found it so uncomfortable because I felt like I was having to hold my core up over the front wheel, and the steering felt like pushing a grocery cart. Made a couple changes that made a HUGE difference: Renthal FatBar Lite bars with 40mm rise to get them up more, and the Apex stem in 40mm length (stock stem is 80mm since it’s entry level XC). I also threw an FSA carbon post with 20mm setback (stock is 12mm), and those three things have made SUCH a difference. The steering is sharp and on a dime now and the ride is noticeably comfortable. It’s probably and odd combination to shorthen an XC bike’s stem but if you are a heavy rider and trying to not be a Clyde anymore, this combo WORKS, at least for me. Oh, VP Components VP-Vice Pedals hold me up NO problem, great flats. Just some info for noobs and heavy riders. Great article and website, so glad I found you.

    • PaulieDC

      Oh, this $15 seat is also a must, it is SO comfortable for big folks like me that are getting into this for fitness: https://www.amazon.com/R-Med-Trekking-Elastomer-Suspension/dp/B076H6SJ22
      The stock seat on Marlin 7 is nothing short of a torture device (and I’m broken in already from my Hybrid road bike I got before the Trek). Suffice it to say, that stock Bontrager seat should never get into the hands of our country’s enemies…

  • Cougar Slayer

    Great article! I have a 2015 Epic with a 70.5 degree headtube angle. I’ve added wider bars, rims/tires but I’m going to install the adjustable headset and add a 120mm air tube to the 100mm Reba RL forks. Hoping these changes will make it a more capable trail bike rather than full on xc bike. I did buy a new 27.5 Stumpjumper recently though but really like the climbing abilities of the Epic

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