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How to Make Your Mountain Bike Fast… Really. On a budget.

December 2011
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To begin, let’s keep this simple. If you have enough money to walk into your local bike shop and buy a mountain bike and a road bike, stop reading. Don’t waste your time or your money – you’ll be happier with two bikes. Also, if you want to rocket down the flats at 35 mph on your mountain bike, it isn’t going to happen. Mountain bikes are too heavy and the front suspension will rob you of power that is normally transferred to the crank.  On top of that the chain rings are smaller for climbing, rather than speed and mountain bikes are not aerodynamic. Period. It’s physics and it’s the law. Not liking it won’t change it.  With that in mind, I built my Trek 3700 (which I bought used for $100) into a heavy weight screamer with less than $400 – including the price of the bike. Now that’s not all of the cost involved in biking, this is not a cheap sport unless you just want a decent workout or to tool about town.

When you go to implement some of these changes, search the procedures out on the web so you don’t break your bike (or you) in the process. Start simply and cheaply with the tires, which will give you the greatest increase in speed because of the decrease in rolling resistance. Knobby tires rob you of speed, start with a nice 26” pair of road tires for a mountain bike, they’re thin enough to race on but thick enough that you won’t kill yourself on a shoulder or dirt road – and they’re less than $30 each. Next, if your mountain bike has a 40 degree rise on the stem as mine did (the part that holds the handlebar), lose it for a ten or seven degree rise ($30 – $70).  Mine is a 10 degree, flipped upside down.  Also, if you have a 25.4 mm handle bar, this would be a good time to upgrade that to a 31.8 ($20-$40) – make sure you get the proper stem with the bar, though this won’t be difficult as bike shops rarely carry the 25.4 stems any more. This will drop your handle bar down by an inch or two so you can add aero bars ($115-$135). The aero bars, next to the tires, will gain you the most speed. Make sure your saddle is the right height for you, then adjust your stem so it’s a couple of inches lower than your seat. You can do this by juggling the spacers around (for those with Direct Connect stems). Let’s see, a decent Craigslist bike, some bolt on parts and you’re well on your way at a grand total of $265 – and all of the components that are linked are very decent. Now, if you’re going to buy your bike at an online auction site or on a garage sale website (like Craigslist) and you want a Trek, Specialized, Scott or Cannondale mountain bike for $100 or slightly more, it will take patience (usually), persistence and luck – and you will likely have to deal with a rusted chain, a dirty cassette, rusted control wires, dings and scratches or any number of issues. Most are cheap and easy fixes – Google is your friend, use it wisely to learn how to complete the repairs. Point is, most are between $150 and $350 so finding the really good deal takes some work, but beware: Don’t buy a nice bike that someone beat the hell out of. A poorly cared for bike can be a money pit. Take it for a ride before you pay… Check to make sure the crank isn’t bent, make sure the chain rings track straight as you pedal, no nasty noises etc.

Here’s my bike with the setup for my first two triathlons, the courses were mainly dirt roads:

Next up you get into the technical stuff (stuff, by the way, you would have had to add to your brand new $1,000 road bike anyway). Get rid of your stock pedals and trade up for the clip-less model (if you don’t want to fully give up your pedals – I didn’t – Shimano makes a dual pedal for around $85) and the mountain bike shoes to go with them ($90 – $120). Truthfully, the pedal upgrade should be done if you’re going to ride on trails too – I wouldn’t go near a trail without them (I’ll get into that another day). Get the mountain bike shoes too, not the road shoes… The mtb shoes have treads so you won’t be walking on hard plastic (or carbon) and steel as you would if you bought road bike shoes. Pedals and shoes will do wonders for your speed as well… We’re up to $420 – still under the price of a brand new high-end entry-level mountain bike. Throw in a helmet ($40), air pump ($30), gloves ($20), glasses ($30), water bottles and cages (2 ea. @ $25 total), a small bag to carry everything in ($20), new cables and some chain oil (use the new “dry” stuff) <$15, shorts ($60), jersey ($80) and, you’re ready. For less than the price of an entry-level road bike – and when you want to go out on the trails you can pull off the aero bars in 2 minutes and change the tires in 10 minutes and switch the spacers on your stem to raise your bar in another 5 minutes (with only 2 Allen wrenches, an air pump and tire tools)… You can hit the trails, and ride fast, with one bike, for under $750 if you work at it. By the way, and this is important. If you are reading this, you are not a purist and may not be too adept at bicycle maintenance and repair (I wasn’t)… Buy everything you can at your local bike shop. If you buy your equipment there and they get to know your face they will help you with issues that perplex you.

This is my bike with the new stem and handle bar (set back up for Island Lake in Livingston County, MI…it’s a fun 14 miles):

There is one technical item that I skipped over but I’m told can be done – the question is, at what cost; a new crank with bigger chain rings. In the end, I “geared out”, I couldn’t pedal fast enough in the top gear to go any faster, topping out at a little more than 40 mph going downhill. Switching the crank out to solve the problem is not a cheap thing. Depending on the setup on the bike, you may have to buy a new derailleur in addition to the crank… At that point, I just bit the bullet and bought a road bike.  Now I can get to 35 on the flat (though not for more than a couple of miles) and I’ve been faster than 50, simply impossible with my old setup.

Now this is the problem with trying to make a mountain bike do something it isn’t meant to; all told, I’ve got about $1,200 into my two bikes used bikes at this point (and this includes items that I’d have bought whether I picked up brand new bikes or gone with used)…  I’ve got a mountain bike that fits great and a road bike that I absolutely love but is a touch too small.  I’m going to hang on to the mountain bike, but I’ll be upgrading the road bike as soon as humanly possible because the down tube shifters are terrible and upgrading them to STI while possible for a seven speed, the cheaper option is not perfect and the idea is to shift correctly all the time and I don’t want to have to buy a new rear wheel, cassette, spread the back-end and everything else that has to be done to make it right.  So I’ll keep my old school as a back up (or a travel bike for vacations) and get into decent racing bike as soon as I can…  After all that money, I’m going to end up buying a new $1,500 road bike anyway.  Of course, when I started out in cycling, I just wanted to run a couple of triathlons – I had no idea that I’d like cycling as much as I do, so there’s that.  The point is, if you really want to assign a mountain bike to dual purpose, within reason, it is possible even on a budget.  Just be sure to think it through so you don’t waste more money than it’s worth.

UPDATE:  Changed a few grammatical errors…  Note to self, don’t post late in the evening.

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15 Comments

  1. […] this fits in with previous posts in which I suggest getting to know the people in your favorite Local Bike Shop (or Running Shop)…  The payoff is that Matt sold me my bike and set it up – he knows […]

  2. […] between road an mountain bikes – and even a “how to” on making a mountain bike fast on a budget.  But what’s the raw data on the difference?  I use Endomondo as a sports tracker so I […]

  3. jheg says:

    Me and my mate have been looking for info on this comparison for some time. Thanks for posting. We do quite a lot of road miles on our MTBs and are constantly flirting with the idea of getting roads. We have pretty much done everything we can to our MTBs (new lighter wheels, thinner tyres, straight bars,) the next step has to be a road bike.

    • bgddyjim says:

      Yes, once you get to a point where you’re gearing out the mountain bike, it’s time to move up to a road bike. If you’re anything like me you won’t be disappointed.

  4. Katherina says:

    Hey! Would you mind if I share your blog with my twitter group?
    There\’s a lot of people that I think would really appreciate your content. Please let me know. Many thanks

  5. […] How to Make Your Mountain Bike Fast… Really. On a budget. […]

  6. Mark says:

    OK Jim. Trusting your expertise. Here is a link to the specs on my Trek X-Caliber 6 http://www.trekbikes.com/us/en/bikes/2014/archive/trek/x_caliber_6/#/us/en/archive-model/details?url=us/en/bikes/2014/archive/trek/x_caliber_6

    I am thinking with the 31.8 low riser bar and the 7 degree race lite stem I do not need to change the handle bars or stem. In fact besides tires is there anything in here that needs to be changed to gain speed. I wore out the rear knobby and switched to a Specialized Fast Track Armadillo 29 x 2.0 and will eventually shod the front with it. I can tell you I gained 2-3 mph top speed just by switching tires. and that was when I only been riding about 5 months. Really love this piece.

    • bgddyjim says:

      Nope, not a thing to change. I would flip the stem to offset the rake of the fork though (actually, as that goes, a flipped 10 degree race stem good gives a 0 degree rise on many mountain bikes but that’s more for looks). Clip-less pedals, lock out the fork…

      Oh, and nice bike! I dig it! Happy riding, brother.

      • Mark says:

        Thanks. Yep the lockout on the fork was must have for the way I use it. My commute has one old railroad bridge with pretty uneven planks and a 12 foot section of trail where tree roots have created a washboard effect in the asphalt so it comes in handy. I am sure that must kill the roadies who ride it. Thanks again keep the rubber down brother.

      • bgddyjim says:

        Absolutely Mark. We bunny hop those bad railroad sections (or slow way down). No worries, the road bikes are tougher than most think.

  7. Chatter says:

    I know this is an older post but I noticed when getting a notification for another one of your comments and could not help but take a read and share a chuckle.

    A few weeks back I was at a local sprint triathlon and I saw the most amazing thing, one of the triathletes was riding an undersized mountain bike with aero bars attached. This triathlon bike course was on super hilly roads and was not a good race for mountain bikes. On top of that, I am still amazed that they thought adding aero bars would be a great idea.
    Thought I would share.

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