Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Buying a Full Suspension Bike

After ten minutes of internet research, the inside of my brain kinda looked like this. 
So you’re thinking about buying a full suspension bike.  Maybe you’ve been riding a hard-tail for a few years now, and have worked up the courage to conquer some drops, dips and other more technical terrain.  Maybe you’ve decided you have way too much money lying around.  Or maybe you’re just tired of coming home from Leominster feeling like you’ve been kicked in the ass all day long.  Whatever your reasons, if you’re like me, you probably need a road map to navigate what seems like a foreign language of parts packages, bike names, and bike styles.

I was once told that researching the law is like peeling an onion.  For every layer you peel there’s another lying just beneath... to make you cry.  Researching mountain bikes is kinda the same thing.

The first layer of the mountain biking onion is the name itself.  Mountain biking actually encompasses a number of different biking disciplines, and thus, a number of different bike designs.  Understanding these is the first step to picking the right full suspension bike. 

Cross Country

These are the kind of douchebags that
ride full suspension bikes on paved paths.
The first of the mountain biking disciplines is cross country.  These bikes are designed for trails that have a few technical challenges, but mostly consist of smooth “flowy” singletrack without any steep drops or jumps.  I am not, however, talking about paved paths.  Riding anything burlier than a hybrid on pavement is bike abuse- plain and simple.

A hardtail bike excels at smooth trail biking as speed is the key consideration and a second suspension system adds only weight and worry. 

Dual suspension bikes specifically designed for cross country do exist, and they will usually have less “travel” or cushion than other full suspension bikes.  Typically the front suspension fork will have 120 mm of travel or less, and the rear travel will be 3 inches or less.

Why am I mixing metric with standard you may ask?  Because that’s the way it is done.  For some unexplained reason, most front forks are defined by the amount of travel in millimeters, and rear suspensions are defined by the number of inches.   Calling out a rear travel value in millimeters is like calling the Mass Pike “the I-90”.  Avoid yourself the embarrassment and keep a conversion chart handy in your back pocket to impress strangers at parties.

In my uninformed and barely competent opinion, the cross country category is better suited for a hardtail bike.  That is to say, if you’re just looking to run the smooth trails in Belmont or fire roads in the Fells, you don’t need to spend the extra cabbage on a dual suspension rig.  Go get a really nice hardtail - or a really cheap one and a lot of beer- instead of blowing your inheritance on the wrong bike.  Even if you venture onto some technical trails, you’ll become really good at picking out smooth lines on rocky trails.

Further, if you already have a hardtail and plan on keeping it around after you get a full suspension bike, then having a full suspension cross country bike would be kinda like having two assholes.

Given that I already have TWO hardtails, I ruled out a bike in this category.

And when you're done riding
 you can defend against the
Covenant invasion.

Armor up, get a lift ticket and make sure the insurance policy is paid.

When your buddy asks you to go downhilling -or God forbid- freeriding, get ready to experience some gravity with a healthy does of fear induced adrenaline.  Naturally these bikes have A LOT of travel (think a motocross bike without an engine) and are built to withstand big drops.  As a result they typically aren’t light bikes. If you’re investing in one of these bikes you should have a lift assisted mountain in mind, or at least one with healthy switchbacks, otherwise you’re likely looking at doing a lot of hike-a-bike.   

This was not the bike I was looking for.

Trail /All Mountain

While some people claim that "trail" and "all mountain" are two different classes of mountain bikes, I’m calling bullshit on that.  As best as I can tell, the difference between the two is in how long you intend to ride.  If you’re out there for a few hours, it is trail biking.  If you’re going all day, then you’re going “all mountain”.  

Both of these categories of bikes try to climb well, as well as provide enough suspension to competently handle steep, technical descents.  Typically an all mountain bike will have between 120-150mm of travel on the front suspension and 3-6 inches of travel on its rear shock.

This Bob may be immortal
 but pedal bob is not.
While heavier than a cross country bike, these are still designed to climb well.  Some rely on rear triangle design, while others incorporate special shocks to reduce suspension sag (a.k.a. “bob”) while pushing hard on the pedals for an uphill climb.

Given that I already owned a pretty trusty hardtail, I was looking for something above an entry level full suspension bike.  

Unfortunately, unless you're going to try your luck on the used markets (i.e. Craigslist and Ebay), a step above entry level will cost in excess of a thousand dollars.  The good news, however, is that there are alot of options in this area.

My first full suspension love.
The Felt Virtue Expert.
So once you figure out what type of bike you're interested in, how are you supposed to tell whether you're looking at a good deal?  After all, most of the bike designs offered come in different versions.  To the untrained eye, the only decipherable difference between a Trek Fuel EX4 and and EX5 is the price tag.

The Components
The primary influence on the price tag of a full suspension bike, like any other bike, is the material that its made of.  Carbon and Titanium bikes, while exceptionally light, are at the top of the price pyramid.  Most bikes are still made of aluminum, which is relatively cheap, light, and strong.  Bikes made of steel still exist, but then again so do coal powered locomotives and eight track players.

Components like the shocks, rear derailleur, drive train, and wheels are the most important components to focus in on given that they are generally the most expensive parts.  On the flip side you can pretty much ignore the tires, chain and pedals, given that these wear down quickly and will likely be replaced in the short term.

When looking at Shimmano drivetrains (including shifters, derailleurs, bottom brackets and cassettes), the XTR components are the top of the line racing gear, with XT, SLX, Deore and Alivio rounding out their offerings.  For SRAM, the top of the list are the XX components, with X0, X9, X7 and X5 in descending order of cost.  When I was doing my search I eliminated those bikes that came with Deore and Alivio, as I had tested bikes with these components and found them to be awkward and clunky.  But one man's Alivio is another man's XT as they say, so the best bet is to demo a few bikes with these components to get a feel for what is acceptable.

The rule of thumb when looking at front suspension forks is that the lighter air filled forks are going to cost you more than heavy metal coil shocks.  The metal coil shocks will be more durable, however, and better suited for downhill biking.  In the all mountain category, Fox and Rockshox are the two big players.  I'm still at a loss as to how Fox and Rockshox categorize their shocks, all I know is that a Fox RL beats any Rockshox, and the Gold Recon Rockshox beats the silver everytime, all the time.  Also, be sure that any fork has a lockout so that you can avoid the squish while climbing.  If it has a remote lockout, or a lockout trigger for your handlebars, even better.

As for rear shocks, the more expensive models are both lighter, and will have technologies to reduce bob.  Some even come with remote lockouts.

When you throw in some different wheel combinations you've got yourself the difference between the various bike models in a nutshell.

Here's a list of similar bikes that I put together using the excellent comparison tool at Pinkbike.
Somebody tell GT to use a white background for the stock picture next year.
The next step to figuring out which bike to pick is to go for a test ride.  There's simply no substitute for sitting in the seat and getting a sense of the balance and geometry of a bike.  For example, I test rode each of the bikes on the chart, all comparable in price, but each one had a very different feel.

Ultimately, my decision came down to the advice of my local bike shop... or better yet, "bike shops".  I called a number of different stores looking to test drive the bikes on my list, even visiting a few, and spoke to the tech and sales people at each, asking them questions and their thoughts on the different types of components that came with the bikes.  No less than three of the people I spoke to indicated that they rode the Giant Trance (including techs from some stores that didn't even carry Giant bikes).  This insider information, combined with the need to run a test ride, underscored the fact that with all the information on the internet, the local bike shop was still my most valuable resource in buying a new full suspension bike.

Unfortunately, everyone I talked to was out of the Trance, and they all seemed convinced that I wouldn't find one this late in the season.

Eventually, after calling all over New England, I found a Giant Trance X3 for sale in my size and jumped at the opportunity.  Kathy, the owner at Blue Steel Cyclery in Manchester, NH offered to assemble the bike in the time it would take me to drive up there, and got me a price that I couldn't refuse.

After touring the technical trails at FOMBA, Harold Parker, and Leominster on my new full suspension rig, I can safely say that it has opened up new ways of looking at the trails.  The climbs are much more forgiving, as my rear tire clamps onto obstacles that I probably should have avoided in the first place.  Then, when busting down a bombed out rocky trail, where even small rocks would have thrown me off balance, the suspension allows the rear wheel to glide over obstacles and cushions jumps and drops, encouraging me to pick burlier lines.

Where the full suspension really shined, however, was on my ride home from Leominster.  Instead of fidgeting in my seat to get comfortable, my ass sat comfortably still.

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