What suspends you?

Six years ago, mountain bikes were much different than they are now. The changes in mountain bike "technology" have been paralleled only by the changes in computers. Just as computers have become smaller and more efficient, mountain bikes have become lighter, stronger, and more efficient in recent years.

One of the most controversial issues to come from all this "cyclic" change is the mountain bike suspension.
Some believe only the lightest "hardtail" mountain bikes are the best overall performers, while others prefer bikes with a front suspension fork or even a full-suspension. Get enough knobby-heads together and you can be sure an argument about suspensions will ensue, sometimes ending in a sudden-death mountain bike challenge which is followed by a trip to the hospital with collarbone splints for everyone! (You would think that there would be more about mountain bikes to be passionate about.) Yet, it is not the color, the shape, or even the model of the bike which can spur such controversy. It's what suspends you that drives shred-heads to fists of fury.
The new buyer of a mountain bike is also painfully aware of the neverending dilemma of suspended bits. It is difficult to go into a bicycle shop without seeing every imaginable configuration, from the old cruiser-style Schwinn's to the newest, monoque, carbon-fiber concoction in the shape of some unnatural geometric object with enough suspension travel to drive over the Rocky Mountains without disturbing the coffee on the dashboard.
Many people end up making a bike purchase solely on the suspension, and this has become one of the primary selling points of mountain bikes these days.

So, what suspends you?

If you've ever crashed riding a bike, you know the pain involved. First you start with the realization that you are about to part ways with your steed. Next you get that flash which reminds you to get-the-hell-off-the-bike-in-a-hurry followed by the upper-body contorting into some odd shape for that last second attempt at saving the mistake which is now sending you earthward so rapidly. Usually the next thing you see is the ground, followed shortly by either pain or a slight stinging sensation depending on which limb/organ you selected for your landing. Fortunately, you only have to take this type of punishment once in a while. The rest of the time, you are supposedly humming along on your merry way at a confortable pace with few things in your path. Well, it does not work that way too often. Usually you ride a trail less than you deal with what is coming at you. As if turns were not enough to slow us down, there are ruts, roots, rocks, rises, riding-people, and rapid decents to further hamper our attempts.
A good strategy, if you are thinking of buying a bike, is to start shopping after you have an idea of where you will be riding. Do you need to soak up the big bumps? Do you have to deal with some irregular surfaces? Are erosion ruts a problem? Knowing something about the terrain will help the most to setup your exising bike, or when buying a new one.
As an example, I live in Austin Texas and the ground here is usually limestone shale or sharp outcropping rocks. In this environment you need some type of suspension - at least a front fork and some padding in your rear. Without any suspension, you will find it hard to make the bike go straight (since the tires careen off of odd-shaped rocks and boulders), and even harder to corner over the same surface without a bit of wheel-surfing.
If you live in a place where the ground is usually fairly smooth and the singletracks are not too poorly worn with ruts, you can probably get away without a suspension. If you are not sure, or fit somewhere in between, you can get a bike with a front fork for now and think about a full-suspension as soon as you or your relatives win a lottery.
Part of what makes suspensions such a peculiar selling point is that while most people want them, few know how to use them. If you went out and dropped a few hundred dollars on a new mountain bike sans- suspension, how long would it take before you could ride it "off" the front tire? In other words, how long before you could ride the bike beyond its limits? A few days? A couple-a-months?
What if I told you it would probably take a few hundred hours on the bike? Talk to any type of professional bicycle rider and they will tell you it took years to get consistent enough to race. They will not tell you they can ride their bikes to their absolute limits though.
While any type of suspension can make riding a bit nicer in some aspects, it will not necessarialy make you a better rider. Practice and application of what you learn, and how/why you crashed or failed is the only way to be a better rider. You cannot go fast without the legs and lungs to back it up, and you certainly will not go faster by making a huge investment in technology.

A common mistake with mountain bikes is the concept that a bike is better because of the type of suspension it has. This is a myth promulgated by some bicycle sales people and those Felix Unger types with perfectly clean $3000 bikes that cannot ride over a raised lawn and avoid water like it was sulfuric acid. Just put all that stuff out of your mind for a minute, and lets take a look at four basic suspension options.

No Suspension:

Don't just breeze by this section. Just because nothing suspends you does not mean that you should not ride. If you have been doing your homework you already know that most of the pro's in cross-country, downhills, and slaloms still use hardtail bikes, or bikes without rear suspensions. Many of them also have no front suspension as it can interfere with the type of riding a pro would do. Living "suspension-less" is not as bad as one may think. You have the benefit of not needing the extra rigidity and hardware which goes along with any type of suspension. The result is a lighter bike. Generally, you can make a bike without suspension very light (usually ligher than a bike with any type of suspension). If you have to climb often, the lack of a rear suspension combined with a light mountain bike will make your climbs easier. You may also find that you want a bike just for "putting" around town. If you decide to buy a bike now, you may change the way you use it later. Then, later you have options when you go to upgrade.
There is another advantage to a mountain bike without suspension; you can always add a front fork later if you so desire.
Lastly, a suspensionless bike makes a good first bike if you are new to mountain biking. Besides the obvious upgrade options, you can learn to really ride the bike well before you get into the smoke and black-magic realm of suspension tuning and mail-order-anodized parts. A hardtail will allow you to learn to handle the bike better, turn smoother, and handle climbs with the least effort. Once you get to a stage where you can throw the hardtail around, you will find that any suspension add-ons will only add to your fun-level. You will also find that a seasoned hardtail rider will have some idea of how to setup a suspension. You will be used to riding with no suspension, so the feel of a sprung bike will be different. Since you will know how you *want* the bike to feel, you can more accurately dial in the suspension to help you go smoother and faster. After all, speed is what this is all about isn't it?

Front suspension (suspension forks):

In most shops you will have many choices of bikes with front forks. If you feel you need the fork, or have to deal with rough terrain you can choose a fork by the amount of travel it has, its weight, or numerous other factors. What you really need to look at is the bike itself.
I think consumers forget that the bike is as good as the frame. You have to think of the front suspension fork as just another bolt-on part. First, think about the bolt-on parts you get with a car. While you can buy a sportscar which handles well in the turns, if you replace the stock tires and suspension you will find that the car handles even better than when it was new.
Get the point?
If you buy a bike for the long-term, the only part you can expect to keep is the frame. Do not buy a bike because the front suspension is "red" or has your favorite company logo on it. I assure you, if you want your front fork to work for more than a few months, you will have to service it or get it serviced. You will also find that you may have to deal with a broken seal or two. Assuming you want a front fork for life, how do you know which one is best? Just remember the old adage that "less is more". With a fork, the more complex it is, the better it may work, but at the expense of greater tuning time, repair time, and it will generally cost a bit more. Most of the high-end forks you can get will be a spring or an elastometer stack, with some type of fluid dampening. The lower-end forks will generally be just simple spring or elastometer stacks and will not have as many adjustments. They will also tend to work longer between servicings, and have less parts to service or replace. Let's face it, if this is going to be your first fork you will not be sure how to adjust it. So do not buy a bike because the fork has more adjustments on it than another bike/fork combo.
The other fork killer can be the suspension technology itself. By the time you can get the latest, most radical front suspension, something better and lighter/cheaper/stronger is in the works for next year.
Get someting which is proven. This means people can get parts for the fork, and you can probably get tuning info from past magazine articles. This also means you know if any part of the fork has been recalled.
Without naming names, the 90's front suspension products have had many recalls and "product repairs". Let someone else find out which part of the new technology is prone to sudden, face-slamming failure. Also, things which are no longer the newest model tend to cost less.

Full-Suspension:

I have a full-suspension and a no-suspension bike. I admit that I get much more hammer-age out of the FS bike, but this is becuase I setup each bike for a specific task. Most mortal mountain bikers may not have this option. You need to keep this in mind if you want a FS bike. My FS bike is totally useless around town. Besides worring about it getting stolen, it is not comfortable for long forays on the rolling highways of my great state. On the other hand, put the FS bike on a singletrack and you will have to read my tool kit as I leave you like you were parked. Put the hardtail on the same singletrack and you will spend quality-time surfing the dirt through turns as various animals look upon you with chagrin. This is not a pretty sight.
Full-suspension can be a great asset, but only if you have a purpose for it. Where I live, rocks and limstone trails are common, and soaking up the bumps can sometimes be the only way to get through a turn. In another state I rode for some years, the trails were smooth and my hardtail never gave me any problems.
There is also the burning question of how much suspension to get. I have a bike with an active 2-inch suspension. Both my suspensions are a bit more than 2 inches, but you get some sag when you sit on it, and you need enough suspension to keep it from bottoming out when you slam on it.
More and more bikes are going to 3 and 4 inch suspensions. Why you ask? Well, I do not know. With each type of rear suspension comes some sort of compromise. Some rear pivot designs are prone to breakage or excessive maintenence. Others are well-designed but poorly gusseted, and flex like a plastic cotton-swab. There is also the various effects that a rear suspension has on the drive system. The suspension bobs about as you pedal and this is not only wasted energy, but it eats up portions of your suspension travel when you are in need of serious traction. A rear-suspension is also not too light. In fact, the majority of "heavy" mountain bikes are full-suspended models. The overhead weight from a suspension is there, and it will be a factor to deal with if you want to own one.

Downhill-specific suspension:

This is one of those topics which is in a grey area. The seating position, suspension travel, frame stiffness, and many other factors are different than a regular mountain bike. Why does the "industry" not think of these bikes as a separate type? This is only recently starting to happen, and we will see more and more of these downhill-blasters coming to market. Unless you intend to compete in downhill competitions, there are few places that a rear DH bike could be "opened up".
Not recommended for the mortal mountain biker.

You may think that picking a suspension is just a choice of the suspension itself. You got a fork (or no fork), life is good right? Dream on. If you want your bike to handle better and corner with more precision and control, don't get forked into a suspension bike just yet.
When you corner you do not do it on your fork. You corner on your wheel. No, I am not going to recommend some magic front tire with adhesion just beyond that of epoxy. What about your wheel? You forgot about the wheel. You corner on the wheel, why worry about a suspension if you own crummy wheels?

Do you own crummy wheels?

A suspended bike gets the poop beaten out of it. If your wheels and hubs are flexing like a Volkswagen swaybar, no suspension on the planet is going to help.
Most stock rims and hubs, while adequate for daily strides to the Quickie- Mart, cannot take repeated abuse. Most of the hammer-heads I know have creamed a few Shimano STX and LX components after only a few months of 5-day-a-week rides. This is because for serious use, the hubs and rims are not designed to last a long time. Keep in mind that the cheaper the bike, the cheaper the components.
After getting sealed, rebuildable hubs and stiff rims and spokes you will find that your bike handles MUCH better. In fact, this investment can make the most radical change in the cornering ability of your steed. A good hub will be rebuildable, and have a strong area where the spokes lace into the hub. Repeat after me: "The thickness of the hub does not make it strong." What makes a strong hub is the "flange" that the spokes go through.
What seems to happen with most stock rims is a tendency to flex too much. You feel this as you approach a turn. You lean the bike into the turn, and unknowlingly you have to make small steering adjustments as the rim and tire deform under the cornering forces and the obstacles striking the wheel. With a good strong wheel, the forces cause it to barely flex. Thus, you get a feeling that the steering is more responsive and this helps you control the bike better. Having the ability to switch between a stock rim and a well-built rim on the same bike is absolutely amazing. The difference is so noticeable that I still know of no other modification you can make (sans a new frame!) which will give you so much result.

Flyin Al


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If you have any fishing or mountain biking questions for Flyin' Al, you can send an email to: aeb@adobe.com

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