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Time Tested

Smart Mountain Bike Upgrades

Shimano XT-12 Speed

Finally. That sounds kind of dickheadish, but fans of Shimano’s smooth shifting and durable drivetrains have been waiting for an XT 12-speed (one ring up front, 12 cogs in the back) offering since Sram launched its industry rattling Eagle 1X12 drivetrain in 2017. Yeah, yeah, Shimano released its spendy XTR-12 last year (it only hit the market recently though), but XT is built for the masses who ride their mountain bikes a ton while having mouths to feed and mortgages to pay. They, (well, we) want performance that’s tough to distinguish from XTR, and over the decades we’ve grown accustomed to getting exactly that from XT. Take XT brakes for example: If you’ve ridden them in the past few years, you know they match or best XTR for modulation and braking power. We were hoping for a similar story with the new XT-12. And while it’s true that the rear cassette doesn’t have four titanium cogs and the shifter paddles aren’t replaceable, visually the mechanics of the XT system are nearly identical to XTR. Which to us said that the shifting performance would be as well. And how does it compare on the trail? Luckily a few of our test bikes were equipped with XTR-12 so when Shimano sent us XT-12 for a seasoned XC bike that we’re updating we had a head to head comparison still fresh in mind. Our short take? In a blind test, not recommended while riding, we’d have a hard time telling if we were pushing through the gears on XT or XTR. And both drivetrains deliver a smoother touch with a lighter but more positive action than Sram. As for durability, we know that XTR’s titanium big cogs on a cassette boost system life. And the XTR chain is made of harder metal accordingly. But if you’re diligent about replacing chains as they wear, XT is just fine. Contrariwise, if you’re bad about replacing your chain, you can always upgrade the rear cassette to XTR when the time comes. The entire group with brakes and cranks sells for under $1,200. Or, if your cranks accommodate the front chainring, and you already have XT brakes, you can upgrade just the drivetrain for under $450.



Race Face Next SL Carbon Cranks

We’ve run Race Face cranks on and off on our bikes for most of the last 30 years because the Canadian brand has always strived to make lighter, stiffer, and stronger cranks. The Next SL is no exception. Engineered for XC and trail riders that want lightweight but rugged cranks, Race Face tweaked its design with the SL, which is built by hand in Britsh Columbia. The company claims the stiffness to weight ratio is off the chart, and although we have no way of verifying that (and if you care that much you should start a test lab), the SL’s felt noticeably stiffer than the cranks we replaced, and at 428 grams with a 32 tooth ring, they were way lighter too.


Industry Nine Microspline Freehub

Parts like this one from U.S. manufacturer Industry Nine seldom get any press, but we figured we’d include it because it tells a story. (Sit down children.) If you’re running an older 10 or 11-speed rear cassette on wheels that you love, but want to upgrade to Shimano’s XT-12 drivetrain, a small investment (in this case $150) nets you a new freehub that accommodates the brand’s new “microspine” 12-speed cassette. This is true with most hubs. In our case, we won’t give up our Industry Nine Torch hubs for anything. Unless we give them up for I9’s new Hydra hub with an incredible 690 points of engagement someday soon. $150


Race Face Cockpit

Even a few years ago, XC bikes were still getting spec’d with relatively narrow (700mm and 720mm bars) that were plenty lightweight, but plenty flexy too, robbing power and hurting handling. To update our 2013 race bike, we went with a full Race Face cockpit. The Next 35 carbon bars are 760mm wide—narrow enough to get through tight trees, but wide enough to help lever 29ers into turns—and they’re paired with the brand’s Turbine 35 stem. Why does that matter? The middle of the bars are oversized (35mm diameter) for stiffness, but to make that work you need an oversized clamp on the stem. And for good measure we ran Race Face’s new Grippler grips which offer uncanny grip but also a unique (we think) two bolt design that keeps them snug in wet weather. On the trail or on XC track this one change—in conjunction with a full length dropper—made our 100mm travel XC markedly more capable in corners and rough track. $170 (bars); $100 (stem); $430 (cranks); $30 grips.


Rockshox Reverb Stealth with 1X Remote Dropper Post

Don’t make the mistake I did and put a shorter dropper post on your XC bike to save a few grams. I started with a ridiculous 35mm dropper, moved on to 100mm post a few years later, and only recently did what I should have done in the first place and installed a 150mm Stealth Reverb with the new-ish and vastly improved 1X remote lever. I slam it to the frame on descents and ride the same saddle height as a road or gravel bike on the climbs. Here’s what I’ve found: If you think your XC bike’s 100mm of front and rear travel is slowing you down on most trails and backcountry XC courses you might be mistaken. Wider bars (see cockpit) and a full dropper make XC bikes way more capable. $399


Garmin Edge 520 Plus

I ran the Edge 510 for six years and didn’t think there could be a better GPS enabled bike computer for the money. And then Garmin released the 520 Plus last year making my few gripes with the 510 irrelevant. Gone is the touch screen control, which was a muddy, gnarly mess in real world riding—think finger painting with grime, snot, and sports gel. Now you simply press the buttons on the side of the unit to scroll through screens and functions that work the same as most Garmin devices. Better still, the 520 Plus lets you upload maps from Trailforks or Garmin, the latter of which offers turn by turn directions. I’ll regret saying this because I said it in 2013, but it’s the last bike computer you’ll ever need. But I will stand by this: You don’t need a more expensive bike computer. $280


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