Why Buy a Full-Suspension Mountain Bike?
Whether you are new to mountain biking or have ridden an older bike and are thinking of a new purchase, you are likely to ask yourself “Should I buy a full-suspension bike this time around?” While the answer ultimately depends on many variables specific to you, more and more riders are choosing “YES!” and are happy they did. Full-suspension mountain bikes have come a long way in the past few years in terms of their technology, design and weight. Currently, a full-suspension bike has a number of key benefits over a rigid, hardtail mountain bike.
Modern FS bikes are more efficient designs that convert your pedaling into forward motion much better than in years past. Whether you are looking at a downhill bike or a cross-country trail machine, your precious leg power will result in the maximum amount of forward motion possible.
This efficiency is then added to the shock absorbing benefit of the suspension units to give you a level of ride comfort that a hardtail cannot compete with. Your arms and upper body do not get jostled and thrown around, which means you can have a looser grip and ride more relaxed than ever before. Being less tense on the bike reduces rider fatigue and lets you pedal faster, longer.
Because both wheels are able to travel vertically to absorb bump force, the tire/wheel does not get bounced into the air after every trail irregularity. This means your tires stay more firmly planted on the trail surface where they can give you much greater traction. In fact, after a shock absorbs the force of a bump, it pushes the wheel/tire back into the ground as shock rebounds, again aiding traction on slippery trails.
This added traction ultimately gives a rider more control over the bike. A full suspension bike will dart left and right between trees, even when the wheels are rolling over exposed roots. It will also slow down or stop quicker, as the tires don’t lose contact with the trail as easily. The control a FS bike has also offers improvements in climbing ability and line selection/options, both of which add up to faster riding.
If you look at any other sport that has wheels used on dirt or pavement, you will see that some form of suspension is used and any large leaps in speed have gone hand in hand with improvements in suspension technology.
Basic Terminology and Styles
Full-suspension bikes come in many different flavors. Some are very purpose-specific, while others allow a wider range of use. Here are a few of the more popular categories of FS mountain bikes, their characteristics and intended use.
With a smaller amount of suspension travel (<4”), short-travel FS bikes are generally used for cross-country riding. By ruling out big hits and focusing on smoothing out the trail, these bikes are built lighter, quicker, tighter and most efficient to suit the demands of a XC rider. They do this so well and have so few drawbacks that many former hardtail riders have switched to short-travel bikes.
All Mountain bikes, with 4-6” of travel, hit the happy medium between XC and DH bikes. They are designed for riders who “earn their turns” by climbing the roads or trails and then launching down technical, DH-style trails. Front and rear suspension units may have adjustments to allow temporary limiting of travel, for the sake of improving the bike’s climbing ability.
The 7-10” of travel these FS bikes have make them ideal for absorbing the huge landings that downhill or freeriding dishes out. High speed stability is built in with steering angles that are much slacker than short- or medium travel bikes, while suspension units offer maximum adjustability, strength and durability. Frames, brakes, controls and drivetrains are all built with stout reliability in mind. While a long-travel bike’s downhill prowess comes at the expense of light weight and climbing ability, there is no substitute when the trail points down.
Looking at Full-Suspension bikes, you will commonly see frames made from aluminum and carbon fiber, depending on the price range and style you are looking at. Cross country and All-Mountain bikes will be made from either of the above, where long-travel downhill bikes will, more often than not, be made of aluminum. Regardless of the material, the purpose of the frame is to build a rigid platform for the suspension to work off of. Short- and medium-travel bikes can be made of lighter materials, because they typically see less brutal conditions than a long-travel bike will. Additionally, the long-travel bike is less concerned about weight than outright durability, so fewer exotic materials are seen.
Maximizing Your Full-Suspension Ride
While a Full-Suspension bike can offer you an unparalleled riding experience, they are more complex machines and require a few things that other mountain bikes do not. Tuning your suspension to your body weight and riding style will allow the bike to work as it was designed and will return the maximum amount of performance to you.
Get your suspension set up properly. Each manufacturer has guidelines for adjusting your FS bike’s front and rear shock units for your body weight. These adjustments are made by adding air pressure or spring preload to the shock unit and effect the suspension’s “sag”. Sag is the measured amount a suspension is compressed with the rider’s weight on the bike. When the suspension is adjusted to your riding weight, it will be in the sweet-spot of its design and react optimally to the bumps and hits along the trail.
Once you have your suspension set up for your weight, you should then adjust compression and rebound damping settings, which tailor the bike to your riding style. Damping refers to the amount of resistance or delay the shock adds, whether being compressed by hitting a bump or extending (rebounding) to full length after the bump. If a shock has too much compression damping, it will not readily soak up bumps and seem harsh as it resists collapsing under bump force. If a shock has too little rebound damping, it will snap back after hitting a bump like a pogo stick, forcing the handlebars or seat back at you quicker than you are ready for. Just as trails vary, how a person adjusts their compression and rebound damping are fairly subjective. A manufacturer may offer some baseline settings, but feel free to tweak it in small increments to tune it to your liking.
The rear suspension linkage also needs routine attention to keep it working smooth and reliably. Each of the pivot points should be inspected for wear that results in side-to-side play or binding as suspension moves through its travel. Keeping the bike clean prolongs pivot life and gently pushing the rear wheel side-to-side provides a quick check of wear. Pivot bushings or bearings can be replaced as needed to keep the linkage working in the same plane as the frame.
Full-suspension bikes offer amazing comfort and control, compared to their hardtail siblings and there are designs suited for whatever type of riding you like to do. Choose a bike with an appropriate amount of travel for your trails, adjust the suspension to suit your weight and style, then see for yourself why so many people are making the switch! Happy Trails!