Ever since full-suspension technology stormed the scene with its early, downhill origins, there's been a debate raging among racers about rear suspension for cross-country events.
Which is better: a light, stiff hardtail or a plush, but heavier full-suspension bike?
Each side offers reasonable arguments. Hardtail fans say a lighter bike maximizes the power-to-weight ratio. Suspension converts claim their bike keeps them fresher and allows them to put more energy into the pedals, rather than fighting the bike.
One thing is for certain: More than a decade after full-suspension bikes started popping up in World Cup cross-country competition—think Henrik Djernis and his BMW-Proflex team of the mid '90s—they're still the exception at the highest levels of cross-country racing. But is this for good reason, or just tradition?
To answer that question, we tested the two technologies.
The Right Tool for the Job
What you should ride is largely determined by what kind of course you ride, and in the specialized world of World Cup cross-country racing there are certainly courses that lend themselves to hardtails. For example, the course in Madrid, Spain, is a smooth speedway that plays to the benefits of a stiff, light bike.
But times are changing, and the rest of the 2009 World Cup courses are tougher, bumpier and more technical. Because of this, more and more full-suspension bikes are showing up in the pro ranks, sometimes even on the podium.
Perhaps the most prime example is Christoph Sauser's 2008 world championship, which he took on a moderately technical course in Val Di Sole, Italy, on Specialized's full-suspension Epic. Cannondale's European team consistently rides its Scalpel full-suspension bikes into the top 10 of the World Cup. Merida's Ralph Näf turned in an impressive performance in Houffalize, Belgium, in April, where he spent most of the race riding off the front on his Merida Ninety-Six Carbon, and at day's end, two of the five podium spots in Houffalize were taken on full-suspension bikes.
Still, there is residual resistance to full suspension, which is rooted in the three traits every cross-country rider looks for in a bike—stiffness, weight and perceived performance. The first two make sense. But the third?
Top European riders choose a stiff, light bike over one that is more efficient because of their explosive racing style. Instead of lots of in-the-saddle spinning, they train to sprint up every climb and hammer out of every corner, out of the saddle in a large gear.
A stiff platform is beneficial to this style of riding. World Cup events are generally less than two hours long, so an athlete with strong core strength doesn't worry too much about fatigue or a sore back.
Regarding weight, all racers want their machines as light as possible without a performance compromise, and rear suspension adds about a pound. But what the debate comes down to this: which design allows the most efficient use of power?
Many top-level riders shy away from full-suspension because it feels slower. Ride a hardtail and full-suspension bike on the same trail, back to back, and you'll likely perceive the hardtail to be faster. But perception can be wrong.