[Originally published in August, 2001]
PARK CITY, Utah -- The writing is on the wall for fat-tire fans: hard times for hardtails. A new world is opening up for cross-country mountain bikers, and it is fully suspended.
The stiff old rump-busters with no rear shock are no longer more responsive, and barely lighter than smoother riding front and rear shock models (full-suspension).
The world's top racers are switching, and winning, and full-suspension technology allows them to "descend faster than a celebrity in a private plane," as one Schwinn advertisement claims. Recreational riders will not be far behind.
In 1999, top U.S. racer Alison Dunlap took one look at the rocky, loose-gravel 'Tour de Homes' stretch of the Deer Valley National Championship race and switched to her full-suspension lightweight cross country racer to win the gold. She now races for GT.
She was not the first to switch. Ruthie Matthes reached the podium this year at the Deer Valley race on her 23-pound Trek Fuel full-suspension, and is the top American woman on World Cup circuit after switching from hardtails to full-suspension this spring.
"I'm just so impressed, more relaxed on descents. You come into climbs and it's a lot of fun, it's easier to just get on your bike and flow," Matthes said. "It's the way of the future."
Paul Skilbeck, spokesman for the National Off-Road Bicycle Association (NORBA), first saw a full-suspension cross-country bike at a major mountain biking event in 1993. Now top pros employ them about half the time.
"The technology is now at a point where full-suspension bikes weigh so little more than the hardtails, and ride so much better, that on some courses, the athletes have no hesitation in opting for full-suspension," he said.
U.S. Olympian Travis Brown, the colorful Trek front man, reclined by his mechanic's truck at last year's NORBA race and commented that the tiny shock on his seat post was sufficient, that he did not need a true full-suspension bike. A year later, he trains on one exclusively and races on one about half the time.
"I train on a full-suspension no matter what I recover faster from the training, because I'm not getting as much abuse," he said.
The rear tire on a hard-tail bike kicks out sideways when it strikes a rock, Matthes said. Rear-shock bikes do not kick out, allowing you to bomb downhill. On really wicked climbs with loose gravel, a rear shock keeps better traction, too.
Full-suspension also takes up unevenness, and that allows you to take really efficient circles on the pedals, Brown said.
"On a hardtail, you tend to suspend your body up off the pedals and that's a pretty inefficient way to pedal," he said.
The difference struck only Brown when he went to a full-suspension after riding a hardtail.
"You go back to a hardtail and you notice you are leaning your weight on to the saddle and you are getting bucked around a bit more," Brown said. "It's a really different style."
Once Brown started getting some time on the Fuel (full-suspension) to evaluate it, he started racing it and chose the full-suspension for the 2000 Olympics. The trail at the Sydney Olympics had many small bumps, so Brown used a superlight wheel set and small tires, and could get away with that because he rode a Fuel. He missed the top 10, but it was not because of the bike, he said.
Front shocks (on the forks) became standard on mountain bikes in the early '90s because they allow riders to soak up all kinds of bumps off road. A rear shock was not an advantage because hard-tail bikes were much lighter, so racers on heavier full-suspension bikes got massacred on the climbs.
The mushiness of the full-suspension (front and rear) shock bikes also absorbed some of the push a rider gives on the pedals and handlebars, wasting precious energy.
So two schools of mountain bike racing developed. Downhill racers bomb down steeps over logs, rocks, roots and boulders at kamikaze speeds and perfected heavy full-suspension bikes to take the hits. They couldn't care less about climbing, riding uphill or pedaling.
Cross-country racing, which is the Olympic discipline, stuck to hardtails for lightness and responsiveness.
Now, high-tech materials and engineering allow bike companies to make superlight full-suspension bikes with a rear lockout shock, meaning riders could hit a switch and make the bike a hardtail on a climb, reactivating the shock to bomb downhill under full suspension.
Brown still races his hardtail on certain courses, because it is still about a pound or two lighter.
"It's a 50-50 choice, splitting hairs, and comes down to the kind of course," Brown said. "Sometimes the responsiveness and weight savings of a hardtail is where it is."
The biggest advantages of riding a full-suspension bike in cross-country racing come on gradual downhills or flats (pedaling efficiency) or on downhills and climbs that are particularly rough, said Brown.
For recreational riders who choose only one bike, there is no question, Brown said.
"Go with the full-suspension. The weight difference now is minimal and most shocks come with lockout option, so if you have a long section on a road, you can lock it out totally rigid and efficient," he said.
Still, sales of hardtails will never become fully suspended. Only truly high-end ($3,000 to $4,000) full-suspension bikes are light enough to be competitive for cross-country racing. Hardtails remain less expensive, and their simplicity appeals to some.
"For the same reason some people enjoy riding off road on a single-speed bike, rather than on one with multiple gears, full suspension will never completely take over," said Skilbeck.
Mechanic Spook Groengwald looks at Olympic cyclist Alison Dunlap's full-suspension bike in Park City, Utah. A new world is opening up for mountain bikers. The world's top racers are switching, and winning with the new technology.