Guide to Full Suspension Bikes
Full-Suspension(FS) Mountain Bikes are designed for a variety of uses and disciplines. Featuring a dual suspension system with a fork at the front and a shock at the rear, Full-Suspension bikes absorb more impacts from rocks,roots,bumps and jumps that you will inevitably encounter on an off-road ride. Although they can be heavier, more expensive and require extra maintenance when compared with a Hard-tail - A full-suspension bike offers added comfort and technology that can revolutionise your riding by reducing muscle fatigue caused by vibrations from the trail and by greatly increasing the bikes efficiency when you're bombing down the tougher,faster routes. You get what you pay for when it comes to Full-Suspension bikes - As a general rule you need to be looking at a £1000+ outlay in order to get a full-suspension bike that has a good level of components and design. There are Bikes available for under that price point, but they're likely to be heavy and unresponsive. A high level Hard-tail would definitely be the better option when compared to a low-spec full-suspension. Above that £1000 mark there are some bargains to be had - our guide to 'The Best Full-Suspension Bikes Under £2000' will help you to find them!
Types of Full Suspension Mountain Bikes
Full-Suspension bikes are generally divided into four sub-categories, each offering different features to appeal to the drastically different requirements of bikes within each category - cross country (XC), trail, enduro and downhill (well 5 - there's electric versions too!).
Cross Country (XC) Mountain Bikes
A XC Bike is typically designed to be ridden over long distances in endurance styled events or shorter, lapped races. With the ability to climb as well as it can descend, XC bikes normally feature 80-120mm of travel and 29" wheels for increased traction and enhanced rolling efficiency. Although hard-tails tend to dominate this market, full-suspension XC bikes have made a resurgence recently due to the availability of ultra-light components that can increase comfort without adding a lot of weight or negatively affecting pedalling efficiency. Plus, XC courses - particularly at the professional level - have become increasingly technical to challenge the fitness and handling of racers. You'll find XC bikes try to position the rider low and stretched on the bike via the use of steep head angles, narrow handlebars and long stems combined with the increased wheelbase measurement from the 29" wheels. This geometry set up allows for greater speeds on the straights and reactive handling for the sections of the routes that are more technical.
Trail Mountain Bikes
The all-rounder of the group designed to be able to tackle almost everything you can throw at it. Ideal for the rider who wants to try a bit of everything, Trail bikes have increased travel when compared to XC bike and a more traditional and relaxed geometry with relaxed head angles, short stems and wide handlebars. This contributes towards a ride experience that balances the bikes performance,durability and comfort brilliantly. Trail bikes are usually manufactured from aluminium or carbon and can be made with 27.5" or 29" wheels depending on the rider's preference. Travel is usually equal throughout the bike, though often the front fork will have an extra 10mm or so to aid descending without adversely affecting climbing ability. Most new bikes will have a single front chain ring and wide ratio cassette, reducing the complexity of the drivetrain and the overall weight of the bike whilst also increasing efficiency by lowering shifting times, allowing you to keep your momentum when changing gear.
Enduro Mountain Bikes
The enduro category is essentially for riders who are after all the qualities of a trail bike but in a sturdier, higher travel and slightly slacker package. Enduro bikes are designed to be able to descend quickly on steep and technical terrain. As such the frames are slightly heavier as they need to be able to soak up a fair amount of abuse. 27.5" wheels are definitely preferred due to the increased accuracy of steering that they provide. 29" wheels are available for the quicker, less technical routes where speed is more important - some frames may have the clearance to fit either. Most enduro bikes will feature single front chain-rings and high-end suspension air or coil forks and shocks that can be finely adjusted and locked-out. These components work to ensure the bikes climb well as well as descending like a demon - vital if you're planning to enter an enduro race as you need to ride yourself between each timed descent and don't want to tire yourself out dragging a bike over the flats and up the hills.
Downhill Mountain Bikes
Built specifically for riding downhill, these bikes are for the gravity-ignoring, over jumps- soaring daredevils. Downhill bikes are all about suspension, with 180-220mm of travel found on most bikes of this type on the market. The geometry is super slack for greater control and balance as you're flying down the trail whilst gearing is basic for weight-saving and because you'd have to be a madman to try and ride these beasts up a hill. Tyres are chunky and reinforced whilst 27.5" wheels reign supreme due to their superior handling qualities. Air-sprung suspension is likely to feature on higher-end models, yet the allure of the reliability of a coil spring has meant that this is one of the major MTB disciplines where coils are still the favoured choice by many. Downhill bike frames are built to be strong and durable, ready to soak up the big hits and heavy landings that are synonymous with downhill riding.
Modern bikes tend to be constructed using either aluminium or carbon fibre. The frame is the heart of your bike and you should always look after your heart - if you're on a budget always look to get the best possible frame for your money. Components are far easier to upgrade as you go whilst a good frame will be your faithful ally for a very long time if you do your research and get a really good one. New features such as built in tool-boxes and storage areas built into the tube or bar-ends are becoming more prevalent on many mountain bikes so that you can stash your essentials without the need for a pack, so make sure you keep an eye out for clever technology that differentiates one frame from another! Here's a brief run through of the qualities of each common frame material:
- Aluminium - the most common material for modern bike frame construction, aluminium is light and durable and offers some great ride qualities including the provision of reliable all-round performance. Mostly found at the lower level of the range but in some cases where strength of frame is paramount it may feature on the costlier models.
- Carbon fibre - this composite material is superlight, super strong, and has vibration absorbing properties that contribute to creating a stiff and responsive frame. Carbon fibre bike frames have been around for years now and design has been specialised and refined to, at the time of writing, offer the highest level of performance of all frame materials.
- Steel - steel frames are well known for their comfort, strength and durability. Once the go-to material for bicycle frames, steel is now only really featured on cheaper bikes and niche custom frames due to it's heavy weight when compared to aluminium or carbon fibre.
- Titanium - titanium is the material used in a lot of aircraft manufacture and other large vehicles because of its outstanding strength and unique appearance. It is expensive, but it has become a bespoke choice for bicycle frame manufacture.
Sizing & Geometry
Does size matter? many will tell you it doesn't but when it comes to a good ride the right size is vital. Mountain bike sizing is a little different to the precision fit of a road bike. On an MTB it's important to have a bit of room to manoeuvre and thus you'll need a bit of leeway on the bike (so if you're on the border of two sizes, the larger size would normally be the better option). Having to small a frame will restrict your movements, making handling feel sketchy and reducing your pedal efficiency. Too large a frame and you'll experience pain in the lower back and shoulders from overstretching and it will be difficult to shift your weight and hang over the back wheel, hindering your ability to tackle descents and technical sections. Make sure you check you've got enough stand-over room, a rapid dismount onto the metal top tube can be quite a wince-inducing moment if you haven't left enough room between your legs...
A bikes geometry is the layout in which it is designed. Changing the angles of tubes, the length of components and the size of certain parts completely changes the way a bike rides and can increase its suitability for a certain use. Most trail and XC bikes will have a relatively relaxed geometry based around the comfort of the rider whereas more specialised bikes used for enduro and downhill riding will utilise extreme geometrical changes that allow for a lower and compacted riding position that aids intricate handling and increased descending speed. Each bike manufacturer will have slightly differing approaches to the geometry of their bikes - hence why the best way to find the right size and geometry for you is to test ride all the options out there and ask for some expert opinions on what style will offer you the best overall experience. Luckily our lovely stores filled to the brim with bikes to try and welcoming staff to guide you in your hunt for your new bike!
Gears & Drivetrain
The gears and drivetrain are the powerhouse of the bike. Your gearing needs to be sufficient for what you are intending to use the bike for, with most full-suspension bikes having pretty decent systems fitted as standard due to the high price point of the products on the market. A wide gear range is an absolute must if you want to be able to climb hills without your calves exploding - most modern full suspension bikes will have a single front chain-ring with a large sprocket at the rear that supplies enough range to climb hills without adding to much to the bike's overall weight. 1x has been a staple of the downhill bike scene for many years, only recently becoming the standard across the broader full suspension range with the introduction of systems such as SRAM Eagle. The difference is in the cassette with downhill bikes utilising very narrow range cassettes and trail/XC and enduro bikes using a much wider cassette for enhanced climbing abilities. At the lower end of the market, bikes may still feature double or triple front chain-rings that, while a little heabvier, will provide plenty of gears for less experienced riders.
It's certainly worth the extra expenditure to get yourself a high-level drivetrain as these will be well made, last for ages and increase the crank-set stiffness and pedalling efficiency. Wear items such as chains sometimes suffer from to many weight-reduction features and as such going for a mid-range steel option here may increase the life of your chain whilst not seriously affecting weight or performance. Unique features such as clutches on derailleurs that keep the chain taut to aid shifting, and electronic systems such as Di2 that allows the rider to control their shifting via a remote on the handlebar are features that are becoming more commonplace on the higher end models. Expect that technology to trickle down over the coming years to become standard for all full suspension bikes due to the proven effect on performance.
Wheels & Tyres
In the past all mountain bikes were fitted with a standard 26" no matter what discipline they were built for. As technology improved and the mountain bike community diversified into distinctly different categories, 29" wheels entered the market and immediately became popular amongst XC riders due to the increased speed they offered. 26" wheels remained the norm for downhill riders and smaller riders who found the 29" difficult to manoeuvre on the technical parts of a trail. This led to the development of the 27.5" wheel, a fantastic compromise offering the snappy handling of a 26" with the better traction and speed of the 29" wheel. 27.5", or 650b, quickly became the standard for most modern mountain bikes, with most models from the larger companies available in both a 27.5" and a 29" frame option. Since the development of Boost wide hubs - a new dropout standard designed to widen the hubs on your wheels, increasing the rear axle by 6mm and the front axle by 10mm - some of the newest models feature forks with enough travel to accommodate either, so expect to see an increase of bikes with these capabilities on the market soon.
The tyre you need will obviously depend on the type of riding you expect to be doing. When you're riding mostly smooth single-track or tarmac there's no need to have super wide,knobbly and thick tyres as this will increase friction with the ground and lead to you tiring quicker and losing efficiency. A light tread is perfectly sufficient and will keep you rolling faster. For off-road riding you will need traction from your tyres to cope with the loose terrain. Large tread and triple or at least double compound tyres are a must and reinforced sidewalls will go a long way to reduce the number of punctures you get. Plus-sized tyres are available for ultra-loose terrain like sand or gravel - just check those all important sidewalls. Plus tyres work better at slightly lower pressures as this increase the traction they offer. No matter which tyres you opt for, going tubeless is definitely a good move. Most modern full suspension bikes will have tubeless ready rims that you can convert yourself or bring into our workshop for one of our mechanics to do it for you whilst you wait!
Almost every full suspension bike will use disc brakes due to the increased stopping power required on a full suspension bike. Disc brakes are hugely preferable to old-style rim brakes as they offer consistent braking in all conditions and better modulation of brake pressure allowing you to control your braking with much less hassle. Disc Brakes come in either mechanical or hydraulic varieties, with the major difference being that mechanicals are controlled with a cable whist hydraulics use a fluid. Hydraulic brakes tend to be the most popular as they are the lightest and have proven to be the best performing system for braking within the full suspension market. Downhill bikes will have far larger rotors than their XC brethren as they will need to be able to stop sharply and quickly and therefore the larger the brake's surface area the better. Good brakes that have been set-up correctly combined with a wide handlebar is the basis of any confident,controlled ride on a descent.
Saddle & Seat-posts
Having a correctly fitting saddle is one sure-fire way to make your bike rides a more pleasurable and comfortable experience. Extra padding may look like it's going to be super comfy but over long distances the added flexibility can cause lower back discomfort. There are different male and female specific saddles as well, so ensure to check your spec and have a saddle that's going to support you correctly. Pop into any of our stores for advice and a saddle measurement and tackle that sore-bum issue once and for all!
Dropper seat-posts are likely to feature on most bikes from the trail category upwards, and certainly on higher end models. A dropper seat-post revolutionises your ride by allowing you to remotely control your saddle height from a switch on the handlebars. This means that you no longer have to stop and start constantly playing with your QR and resetting your saddle height as you move around the trail - killing your rhythm and momentum as a result. If your bike doesn't currently feature a dropper post there are plenty of third party suppliers of droppers that can be fitted easily onto your bike by a trained mechanic.
A good quality fork is a must have if you're looking for a high quality full-Suspension bike. Suspension forks are normally telescopic and will use pressurized air or a coil to supply suspension to your bike frame. High quality forks will allow the rider to set up the compression and rebound settings to their personal weight and riding style. Clever technology such as lock-outs, lightweight alloys and boost hubs are all things to look out for, as is the width of stanchion tube with wider tubes increasing lateral stiffness whilst narrow tubes offer superior shock absorbing from jumps and high-speed descents. Dampening technology is very advanced these days and the forks at the top of the market offer the ability to control the dampening of your fork remotely whilst you're on the go. In addition, the introduction of tapered steerers and bolt through axles over the last couple of years has meant that forks are lighter, stiffer and more efficient across the board from XC to enduro. Make sure that your fork compliments your frame, bearing in mind that frames are specifically designed to cater for a certain amount of travel. A quick fork upgrade to your 110mm trail bike may be a great idea if you want to tackle increasingly challenging terrain but any more than 20mm added and you'll end up with a bike that is geometrically confused, seriously hindering its performance.
Look out for:
- XC - up to 120mm of travel, well balanced suspension, lock-out capabilities, air-sprung forks
- Trail - 120-150mm of travel, balanced suspension front and rear, adjustable, air-sprung forks
- Enduro - 150-180mm of travel, dampening control, stout upper legs, air-sprung fork or coil depending on rider preference, adjustable rebound
- Downhill - 180-230mm of travel, dampening control, stout upper legs, air-sprung fork or coil depending on rider preference, adjustable rebound, large rear hub, strong build structure
Rear shocks work in tandem with a bikes fork and supplies the suspension for the back end of the bike. As with forks, rear shock design will depend on the manafacturer and type of bike with increased travel on downhill and Enduro bikes when compared with trail and XC full suspension varieties. Once again lock-outs and adjusters are features to expect on higher quality components whilst air-sprung systems are again more prevalent than coil systems. Additional oil reservoirs are found on bikes with larger travel as this gives the suspension an added boost to combat the large forces involved in jumps and technical descents. There are many different designs of rear shocks, each with advantages and disadvantages that make them suitable for certain styles of riding over others.