17 May 2016


While it’s easy to find gains with big upgrades such as top-end forks or carbon wheels, there are cleverer, smaller and cheaper tricks to boosting your bike’s speed. These are our top five.

1. The Tires

You wouldn’t fit a Ferrari with a €20 set of ValuRub DeathMasters, and you should never under-spec your bike tires either. All your fitness and all your bike’s qualities are for nothing you can’t get it down to the ground.

And while fast rolling is often vital – something a cheap, hard or overinflated tire can do – maintaining speed over a tricky course is always a trade-off with grip. Triple-compound tires offer strong combinations of edge grip and fast center lines, while aggressive treads create far less drag on the front than the rear. And confident steering will boost your corner speed every time.

Pressures are also vital. On rougher ground, lower pressures allow greater compliance for superior grip, stability and – perhaps counter-intuitively – rolling speed. There’s a lot of time to be found in tuning tires and pressures (neither of which have to match front to back) to the terrain.

2. The Cockpit

You’re fastest when you barely notice the bike underneath you, and to get that you need the right fit. The best way is through tweaking the dimensions of your cockpit.

A wider bar provides greater leverage without increasing your frontal area, and can help pull you forward if your bike is on the short side. Different stem lengths are obvious great for tuning fit – you want light pressure on your hands, but not the weight of your torso – but don’t overlook the spacers. Swapping them above and below the stem to alter the bar height really affects weight distribution, handling and comfort.

Further good news is that original equipment handlebars and stems are often heavy, so fitting a quality carbon bar and lightweight stem brings extra rewards. Removing weight from the top of the bike (consider the seatpost, as they can also be a good opportunity to save grams and increase control and comfort) will also help noticeably when flicking the bike from side to side.

FSA’s extensive collection of stems includes this SL-K -20 – light, strong, with a 20-degree drop/rise,and available in a range of eight different lengths

3. The Gearing

Swapping chainrings or cassettes is easy, and the benefits of always having the right gear are obvious. It’s also a great way to save weight – if you’re still running triple front rings anywhere but serious mountains, you can get an almost identical spread (with fewer repeated ratios) from a 2×10 setup that will – with a bit of tuning at the front – give you everything you need. Better still, switching to a single front ring can ditch 400g or more at a stroke, while dedicated designs such as MegaTooth  improve chain retention, noise, and ground clearance.

4. The Wheels

We’re concentrating mainly on cheaper, easier upgrades here, but there’s no getting away from it – wheel upgrades pay off big time. Start with the best you can afford – but you don’t have to go straight for an amazing set of carbon hoops. Wider aluminum rims create greater stability and larger volumes in your existing tires, while greater lateral stiffness improves cornering and handling.

Cartridge-bearing hubs tend to be far lighter and easier to service than the cup and cone type, and again, original equipment versions – especially the wheels of cheaper bikes – are often heavy.

5. Suspension

Forks and shocks are more big-ticket items, and upgrading certainly pays off. But does can tuning and servicing. A middling fork can be transformed with new seals, more advanced damping or changes to the spring curve, and the work typically costs a fraction of a new unit. So get your existing suspension working to the best of its abilities – preferably tuned to your weight and riding style too – and revel in the extra control. Check out our advice on fork set-up  and full-suspension rig set-up.