There's always talk in MTB circles of upgrades. Riders buy a new bike and they're keen, right away, to start customising it. This is especially true of new riders who might not start out with the best gear and are keen to improve their experiences quickly.
So what should you be upgrading? Should you get better suspension? Should you go from an Altus derailleur to an SLX, XT or XTR? Should you get rid of the heavy saddle that your bike came with and get a light, titanium-railed race saddle? Would buying better wheels lead to less rotating weight and therefore much more fun? What about replacing the stock tyres with something chunkier?
Well, yes, all these things are good, but the proper answer, I'm afraid to say, is none of the above. The three best and most important mountain bike upgrades, in my opinion, aren't even attached to the bike. They are, in order: good shorts, good gloves and good shoes.
It's no coincidence that these form your three main contact points with the bike. When riding, your interface with the machine is where you can really lose out. Let's look at number one: Good shorts.
Many mountain bikers have their earliest experiences of bikes in "street clothes", or maybe what would pass for "running kit". ordinary shorts, t-shirts - civilian gear. Upgrading to a proper bike short does several things
First, it provides the obvious padding. The insert is there for a reason, and after a long ride without one, that reason should be obvious. Second, a well-made short will be made of a wicking material that should keep sweat off your skin. Without that, you run the risk of chafing and rash, and that's downright unpleasant. Third, a really good pair of MTB shorts will be of mixed material construction. It'll have slippery enough material inside your legs to glide past the saddle when changing your stance and pedalling hard, but the main body will be tough enough to resist thorns and twigs that might tear the stereotypical thin lycra road short. And you'll be less likely to spend the day after the ride limping around in pain
So get proper MTB shorts.
The story is similar in the glove department. A good MTB glove will have enough padding in the palm and heel of the hand to reduce wear and tear and to help a little with shock absorbency, but will also be tough enough to resist wear and tear. A very good glove will have a chamois or towelling insert on the back of the thumb, useful for wiping a sweating brow on a hot day. It'll prevent blisters, it'll cut down on slippage in wet conditions and it'll do for your hands much the same job as your shorts do your your tender regions.
Finally, shoes. This will be a contentious area, but I'm a big advocate of clipless SPD pedals and shoes. Downhillers may sneer and advocate big platform pedals but I'm an XC rider who switched from toeclips to SPD over fifteen years ago and has never once regretted it.
SPD, or clipless, pedals and shoes do several things. First, they act like a ski binding, locking your foot into the pedal and forming a safe, solid and secure attachment to the bike. This means the chance of you slipping off your pedals and straight to the scene of the crash is vastly reduced. Second, they allow you to develop a more efficient spinning action on the pedals, putting power through the whole circle rather than just the downstroke. This helps with speed, obviously, but also reduces the amount of suspension dip you get on each pedal stroke - with modern, long-travel suspension, an appreciable amount of energy can be wasted in pumping the shocks up and down rather than spinning the wheels round and round. You can pull up on a pedal and kick forward as the other foot pushes down and hooks back. You can also make the bike behave much more nimbly if properly locked in - it's possible to "ski" a bike through fast sections by hopping the back end up and round, kick turning the bike rather like a slalom skier. The stiffness of the shoe aids in reducing fatigue while increasing efficiency at the same time. It's a win-win
There are a couple of downsides. For one thing, remembering to kick your feet out of the pedals doesn't come naturally, so you'll experience at least one embarrassing low-speed topple. It's also not quite as easy to walk, especially on slick, rocky trails, in a stiff bike shoe. It's also harder to just nip down to the shops in your street shoes if your bike has SPD pedals (though there are mixed platform/SPD designs available). Still, overall, pedals and shoes are one of the best investments you can make when starting out in mountain biking.
So there they are, the three best upgrades. Once you've done those, then we can talk titanium.