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The Suspension Experience

Today full suspension bikes are very popular. You can walk into almost any bicycle shop or Walmart for that matter and find several full suspension mountain bikes.

The full suspension revolution began in the early 1990's when Cannondale, Trek, Scott, and Pro-Flex released their first full suspension mountain bikes. Like almost everything else in life they were not a complete novelty. Huffy, Schwinn, Yamaha, and others had sold their first full suspension cruisers or BMX bikes 50 years earlier.

Trek 9000Most people saw full suspension mountain bikes as a curious thing made by a few companies that were trying to achieve prestige by showing how innovative they were. Most of us were still too busy trying to assimilate the industry’s previous innovations such as Rapid-Fire, X-Press, and suspension forks.

Of course most of us thought that something isolating us from the rear wheel’s bumps was a great idea, but we were still amazed by benefits that came with riding with a suspension fork. Did we really need more since just 6 months earlier we had a fully rigid bike and were crashing against rocks here and there? There were problems and weaknesses that came from using a suspension fork such as a lack of stiffness and excess weight excess.

A couple of years later, by 1993 our sport clearly separated in two camps: Cross Country and Downhill. With this fully suspended bikes had found their field. Their advantages and disadvantages were clear. On the positive side these bikes had more comfort, control, and speed. On the negative side there was biopacing, power absorption, lack of stiffness, and excessive weight.

MARKET ASPECTS
From then to now, companies have invested tons of money on two fields: Research and Development and of course advertising. R+D departments competing against each other had been able to build lighter, stiffer, and bikes that were virtually biopace free. The advertising departments have tried to convince us that nobody can be happy on a trail without a fully suspended bike. They have tried to convince us that if you have a hardtail, riders on their amazing machines will fly over your head at the speed of light, leaving a dirt cloud behind.

ARE HARDTAILS DEAD?
I purchase a rear suspension bike because I have an injury in my back that made me almost leave cycling altogether. If I wanted to continue to ride I would have to become a fool for suspension. Now with two years and a half of experience with a KHS FXT I can say riding a full suspension bike is great. It seems incredible how on your old trails, where you had to fight over with your hardtail, can turn into new ones. That extremely bumpy track that you didn’t like to ride on because it caused pain have become lovely ones.

For people with back injuries like me having a full-suspended bike has become the difference between having to think twice before going over a jump or riding down that bumpy track at high speed and enjoying every trail to its last dirt particle.

This added comfort comes at a price as now my bike weighs between 12’5 to 13 kg. depending on the wheelset. The suspension also absorbs a certain amount of energy, mainly during hard climbing, that doesn’t allow you to always beat your mates (or makes you end up walking up the hills).

WHO IS MOVING MY PEDALS?
Biopacing is the different feeling that comes from pedaling on a bike that swings under your strength. After a period of riding my KHS now when I use my road bike, I can also feel something similar to biopacing, because of the lack of that swinging.

In my opinion, suspension is positive to climbing. It is very difficult for the rear wheel to lose its grip. A well-tuned suspension will help your bike keep in constant contact with ground. This, along with bump absorption, will allow you to mount a thinner rear tire which will decreases your rolling resistance.

Of course, downhilling with a good fully suspended bike is great as you have more comfort, control, and braking power. The brakes work just the same as in a hardtail, but the rear wheel maintains grip even on steep tracks. This added grip will allow you to use the rear brake more than on your hardtail.

Be careful, most of us try to go as fast as we can on our full suspended bikes. As your speed increases your surroundings can become blurred. It feels like you are going slower than you really are on a fully suspended bike. It is not until you have to brake during a corner, that you will realize this speed. If you make a slight mistake the consequences could be awful. Look out for those trees!

NO, HARDTAILS ARE NOT DEAD
After a while riding my fully suspended bike I took my girlfriend’s hardtail out for a ride. She weighs 50 kg and has a very light bike. I was just amazed how although my KHS was very laterally stiff, the lack of suspension translates every movement you do into an instant reaction, making the ride very exciting. You can also feel the power as you press on the pedals and power the rear wheel. When I ride my bicycle, it feels like I am riding a train. It is impossible to do a sudden acceleration and takes a more time to gain speed. This can be nothing special for a rider who has not used a dual for a long time, but it was like rediscovering MtB for me.

A hardtail is the ideal bike for enjoying hills. I am better on flat rides (ask my road partners, XDDD) than when I am riding uphills, but I have always liked the suffering during a hard climb. This was one of the reasons for me to got into MtB. With my FXT I have had to develop a constant pedal stroke to prevent the shock absorber from sucking the energy.

On a hardtail you can use an explosive riding style, continuously changing speed. On a fast flat curved tracks the bicycle seems to react to every little movement you do. This makes riding a bit more like walking on a razor’s edge. It can be much more exciting than with a dual suspension at the same speed.

It is good for full suspension riders to ride a hardtail periodically. Hardtails make you jump over or avoid obstacles if you want to be fast. With a full suspension you pass over bumps or obstacles like an steamroller.

YOU PURCHASE A BIKE TO RIDE
When my girlfriend and I come back home after a muddy ride (very often in Cantabria, Spain), she just quickly washes off her ride with a hose, has a shower, and then waits for me to finish washing my bicycle. I have had no troubles with the FXT’s rear suspension system, but when I think the money I paid for that frame and the troubles some friends had with other dual suspensions, I prefer to be very careful.

Yes, I’ve been lucky because my bicycle is very very reliable (I haven’t heard not a little noise coming from the suspension system), but that’s not the case with a lot of other very prestigious and expensive ones. Maybe you’ve heard about noises and failures on some bikes using friction bearings for rear suspension links, but don’t think sealed bearings are universal solution.

Tuning such a system can be very complex. I know some people who spend more time trying to make their bikes work rather than riding. I have also seen how a long awaited ride can turn into a nightmare due to a failure or break. Even with a reliable bicycle as in my case, the maintenance of a dual suspension will always take more time than with a hardtail. For example, it is recommended to clean and lubricate the rear system periodically. I do it each six months, and this is something that requires at least half a day. If you are not confident working on your suspension, you will have to take your bike to your local shop and spend some bucks to have a good mechanic do the job.

If you wrench on your own ride be sure of what you are doing and follow this advice: Be very careful choosing a lube for bearings. Even a very high quality one can be not suitable for some systems. Ask the dealer for a suggestion. It is very important to tighten the system correctly. If you exceed the right tightening torque, the bearings will wear quickly. If you do not tighten it enough it could break.

I will describe in an upcoming technical article how to work on a rear suspension system and what you need to complete the repair.


RACING WITH A DUAL SUSPENSION
If you race you will see that cross country competition is dominated by hardtails. The top riders almost exclusively avoid full suspension bikes during their races. XC racers are normally very meticulous (or should I say maniac?) with their bikes, and it is can be very difficult for them to change anything. Imagine how hard it is to convince them to use anything other than a hardtail.

Trek 9000 More full suspension bikes are being spotted at XC races and brands like Ritchey, Trek or KHS are trying to find an intermediate point with hardtails. As bicycles evolve so should racers. This has happened in downhill competition. Remember when Mammoth Kamikaze was the state-of-the-art downhill race? Comparisons with the World Cup races are impossible. Maybe in the future we will see more full suspensions in XC races, but hardtails are still the standard.

MAKE YOUR CHOICE
If you go to a bicycle show, read advertisements, or look a bike shop’s window because you are searching for a new MtB, you will surely think anything not being a dual is something from the past. As you have read, that is not true. Hardtails have been also been continually improved.

Mind the money on your pockets. A good full suspension is much more expensive than a good hardtail and will require much more maintenance than a hardtail. Be clear of your needs.

If you finally do decide to purchase a full suspension, consider how much travel do you need. There is a great difference between that so called “freeride” bikes and XC oriented ones. Try to find owners with the kind of bike that you are considering and ask about their experiences. Find out if they have they had failures or if they think their bikes work well.

Another option to consider are softails. They have different rear suspension and are not as complicated as duals. Softails are worth considering if their construction is durable. These bikes do not use a pivot for the rear suspension to swing, but make the stroke depend on their chainstay’s elasticity. The welds on these bikes are important because they have to handle the added elasticity of these frames.

I hope this article would open some bikers’ minds. We are lucky because now technology allows us to choose. Don’t blindly follow fashions. Research, ask questions, ride, and then buy the right bike for your application.

By: David Díaz Blanco


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