A couple of weeks back, I rode a carbon GX Sentinel vs an aluminum NX Sentinel. The price difference between those two bikes is exactly $2,000. That got me thinking. How good could I make that cheaper NX bike with the extra $2,000 put toward the best MTB upgrades? I thought long and hard about what upgrades I’d make with that money. I wanted to have actual performance gains rather than strictly weight savings. The upgrades I chose are things you’ll actually notice on the trail. Stick around to see what they are and why I picked them.
If you want the whole carbon GX vs aluminum NX story, go check that out in the archives. Here, we’re just going to recap.
The alloy bike felt very nice, and for a less expensive build, I enjoyed it quite a bit. It was no less fun to ride and I’d still be stoked if that was my only bike. I didn’t have any huge complaints, but when compared to the more expensive build, there were a couple of categories where the alloy bike fell short. The cheaper bike rode a bit heavy. It wasn’t as lively and responsive as the carbon bike. The brakes felt a bit underwhelming and maybe a little underpowered. The shifting was ok, but not great. Based on personal experience I know that the NX drivetrain isn’t going to last as long as some others either.
Those are the areas where I tried to improve ride quality. I had to use my budget effectively. While $2,000 is a lot, in the land of bikes and bike parts, it can disappear quickly. I felt the following upgrades made the most of the money I had. I started off with a set of Enve AM30 wheels to address the responsiveness and fun factor of the bike. A good set of carbon wheels will go a long way in livening up a little more muted bike. The AM30’s do the job nicely and don’t break the bank at $1600. Next up I went with an Enve M7 handlebar. Last year I did a blind, back-to-back carbon vs alloy handlebar test. I was pretty blown away by how big of a difference carbon handlebars can make. Carbon handlebars have become one of my go-to bike upgrades on any new bike. The Enve bars will run you $170. To address my issues with the braking performance, I installed a set of MTX Braking Red Label Race pads. If I had the budget, I would have replaced the brakes entirely, but given my constraints, I spent $66 for a set (front and back) of high-performing brake pads. They offer a bit more power without killing the modulation Sram Codes are known for. Lastly, I spent $150 on a Sram GX shifter and derailleur to make the shifting a little more crisp and reliable.
MTB Upgrades Ride Impressions
Let’s talk about how those upgrades affected ride quality out on the trail. After setting a baseline lap or two on the stock alloy bike, I swapped out all the parts and repeated the same lap.
GX Shifter and derailleur
A couple of the upgrades were more readily apparent than others. The performance gain in shifting was pretty obvious from the get-go. The quality and ergonomics of the GX shifter just feel better. The derailleur moves smoother and from personal experience will outlast the NX one in terms of durability. There’s not much else to say about shifting performance other than the fact it was simply better.
Enve AM30 Wheels
I noticed the difference in wheels rather quickly too. I didn’t choose the AM30 wheels for their savings in weight — they’re not much lighter than the stock wheels. Although, saving even a small amount of weight on your wheels can make a big difference. Wheels are rotational and unsprung weight. Make them lighter and you’ll feel it. On the climbs, I noticed the wheels pretty quickly. I’d imagine it was the combo of the lighter weight and more noticeably the faster-engaging and higher-quality hub. The wheels really shone on the downhill, though. They made the bike feel much more energetic, especially in the corners. I felt like they allowed me to get a better pump in the berms.
MTX Braking Red Label brake pads
The MTX Red Label brake pads made a pretty surprising difference given they were the least expensive upgrade on the list. I wouldn’t go as far as saying they made the brakes feel like high-end, premium brakes, but they certainly improved the feel of the lower-end brakes. They offered more power without sacrificing modulation. They were dead quiet and consistent throughout the entire ride.
Enve m7 handlebars
The Enve M7 handlebars worked wonders for keeping trail chatter and arm pump to a minimum. They take a lot of the sting out of the trail. The best way I can describe the difference between carbon and alloy bars is that the carbon bars make your fork feel like it’s working better. They make the ride feel smoother and softer. That in turn, leads to better control of the bike and less arm and hand fatigue over the course of your ride. For a rather inexpensive upgrade, they make a huge impact on ride quality.
Are the Best MTB Upgrades worth it?
Let’s try to answer the big question. Was it worth spending $2,000 to make my bike better? I’ll start by saying yes, my bike got better. The upgrades helped assuage some of my complaints about the lower-end build. The bike felt more lively, my hands felt better, and the brakes gave me more confidence. Those are all good things in my mind. You’ll have to decide for yourself if that’s worth $2,000. Keep in mind, any amount of upgrades will not make you better at riding bikes. They won’t make you faster, stronger, or more skilled. They might help you enjoy riding your bike a bit more, but they’re not going to make you better.
If it was up to me, I’d probably purchase the nicer build to begin with. I still think the carbon GX bike outperformed my hodge-podge NX build. There’s something to be said about a full carbon frame for keeping a bike lively and responsive (if you couldn’t tell, that’s high on my list of priorities). The advantage to buying the cheaper bike and upgrading over time is exactly that — you’re not forking out that extra $2,000 all in one go. If that’s the case, I’d personally make the upgrades in this order: handlebars, brake pads, wheels, and drivetrain.
If I had more budget
I realize I limited myself in the number of upgrades I could make. If I had more than $2,000, these are the upgrades I’d make. I would still swap bars and wheels, but instead of just upgrading brake pads, I would buy entirely better brakes. Then I’d go for the drivetrain. I personally, didn’t have any complaints with the Fox Rhythm fork, but then again, my rider weight is probably pretty close to the base tune for most suspension components. I also don’t tinker too much with my compression and rebound. I set it up where I like it and don’t touch it too much after that. I’ll change it as my riding style evolves, but not for every trail. I can see how some folks would benefit from a fork with more adjustability. In that case, I would say buying a higher-end fork is a smart upgrade.
The bottom line
If you can afford it, I’d suggest buying the nicer bike to begin with. If that’s not in the cards, the upgrades will make your bike better, but I wouldn’t beat yourself up over making them right away. In the big picture (how much fun you’re having while outside on two wheels), component upgrades don’t make a huge difference. They certainly won’t make you better at biking.