Ibis Cycles Ripley Review: A First-Timer’s Crash Course in Riding Full Suspension

Before getting to test ride an Ibis Cycles Ripley, Hailey Moore was pretty sure she’d never own a full-suspension bike. Now her feelings are, well, a little squishier. Read on for Hailey’s reflections on how riding a full-suspension mountain bike for the first time challenged her identity as a cyclist and furthered her mountain biking progression.

A Long-Winded Prologue

I’ve always chafed a little at the mainstream assumption that the sport of rock climbing is about chasing some brain-chemical rush. Terms like “adrenaline junkie” are a turnoff and feel wholly divorced from why I climb. By and large, climbing can be a very controlled experience where displaying more control (while performing hard physical moves, or keeping your mental cool on committing routes) is a sign of strength. A portion of the sport’s growing participants may be after some epinephrine spike. But I’d say that it’s this quest for control through technical mastery, competition and camaraderie, the aesthetic appeal of a line, and feeling outside of one’s self in rare moments of flow state that more accurately capture why many people climb. Oh, and also because it just looks pretty cool.

Bouldering in Tennessee (left) photo: Adam Johnson; bouldering in Rocky Mountain National Park (right) photo: James Lucas

While not discounting that the aforementioned incentives are relevant in mountain biking too, in the past I have mostly viewed the knobby-tired side of cycling as attracting the adrenaline-seeking crowds. There’s the speed and the scary features that, when combined, leave little room for control if things go wrong. I was still climbing a lot when I first started riding bikes with intention beyond commuting about six years ago and I remember a fellow climbing friend having to get her forearm stitched up after a bad mountain biking crash. At the time, I thought: no way am I risking my climbing season for some “fun” off-day hobby.

Although I may not have realized it back then, as I started getting more into cycling my subconscious perception of mountain biking had already been mostly baked by the popular marketing that I’d absorbed in passing. When I thought about mountain biking I thought about full-face helmets and body-armor-like pads; I thought about people hucking their bikes and bodies off of jumps and big rocks and over gaps, “getting air” and maybe doing some trick before they landed; I thought about people riding really fast on impossibly steep and winding and rocky trails and skidding around corners; I thought about ugly long shorts and baggy dude clothes and dudes congratulating other dudes on “sending” and “shredding the gnar” with fist-bumps then hopping back on the chairlift and riding back up to see if they could one-up each other on the next lap. I thought about bloody crashes and broken collarbones. I thought, these people must be “adrenaline junkies.” I also thought: this sport isn’t for me.

To reiterate: this is what I thought the sport was, though this was, of course, a reductionist perspective. Back then, I didn’t know the differences between short and long travel bikes, XC or enduro; I didn’t know that people ride mountain bikes down the length of the Colorado Trail. As a then outsider, I didn’t understand the nuances between different sub-genres of mountain biking (akin to a non-climber thinking that bouldering and free soloing – ”Like Alex Honnold?!” – are the same thing). And, perhaps most ironically, if I’d known then about the roguish off-road origins of the sport – with the OG Crested Butte and Marin contingents pushing the self-supported limits of where bikes could be taken on adventures like the early Pearl Pass rides – I’d have been more interested in learning more. But, as Travis Engel wrote in a Dust-Up not long ago, “The pop-culture machine hijacked the sport’s counter-culture roots and installed the ‘crazy mountain biker’ narrative.” So, I don’t think my assumptions were entirely off-base.

As I’ve started pursuing more technical terrain, motivated by routes like the Colorado Trail and Arizona Trail, first on a few hardtails and, most recently, on an Ibis Cycles Ripley (sent to me to provide context for this loosely-termed review), I’ve been thinking about the off-road continuum, the space between the Gravel and Mountain Bike categories. A conversation a little over a year ago with the duo behind Neuhaus Metalworks, Daniel Yang and Nick Neuhaus, put into sharper relief how distanced full-suspension riding feels from the more nebulous drop-bar all-terrain category that gravel bikes fit into.

Riding the Neuhaus Hummingbird, photos: John Watson

As I wrote in my review of the Neuhaus Hummingbird hardtail, Daniel has a hunch that might explain this bigger jump:

“‘As the MTB chainline and q-factor gets wider and wider, it starts to drift away from gravel bikes [in the bike’s fit, feel, handling, and capabilities]. I think that mainstream mountain biking culture is drifting further [away] and it’s separating further from road, gravel, trail, and adventure riding, which is where I feel like most people end up riding.’”

I tend to agree that full-suspension mountain bikes seem pretty estranged from the types of bikes I’m used to riding. Like a flock of birds that got stranded on an island evolutionary ages ago, mountain bikes have developed specialized traits that make them nearly unrecognizable to their genetic relatives. As Daniel and Nick posited, mountain biking – at least in terms of curating more widespread appeal – might be suffering an identity crisis, especially as the design focus continues to bias downhill performance with the ever longer, steeper, slacker trend.

What I’d add to their point is that some gravel bikes today (to use this as a loose umbrella term) can handle the type of terrain that ‘80s and ‘90s mountain bikes were being ridden on. This is not synonymous with saying that today’s gravel bikes are the same as earlier mountain bikes, rather that they can fill a similar need. In doing so, riders coming from gravel have the opportunity to experience approachable technical terrain, find their limits of underbiking, then “graduate” to some form of suspension if they so choose.

Meanwhile, full-suspension design and technology has been advancing independently, such that modern MTBs can be ridden on things that would have been unfathomable a few decades ago. Daniel and Nick have hopes that the humble hardtail will bridge this gap – technically but also existentially speaking – between those coming from the all-terrain drop-bar camp and those who, like me, are more MTB curious.

But if the hardtail is the bridge or gateway machine for drop-bar riders on a curious migratory path to proper mountain bike terrain, what happens when they arrive in full-suspension territory? Aboard the Ibis Ripley, I thought I’d be as good a guinea pig as any to find out.

Photo: Thomas Woodson

Ibis Ripley Overview

With the help of Travis, The Radavist’s unofficial tech editor, I landed on testing an Ibis Cycles Ripley, now in its fourth iteration under that name. Founded in 1981 by Scot Nicol, Ibis is a core mountain bike brand that has continued to innovate and, in the past few years, has made the shift to manufacturing some of their carbon frames in the US (though this does not currently include the Ripley). Travis recommended the Ripley in hopes that it wouldn’t feel too foreign to me, a first-time full-suspension rider, while still feeling enough like a trail bike to supply an edifying experience.

As the Santa Cruz-based brand’s mildest-mannered full-suspension trail model, the Ripley promises to be a “snappy, flickable, playful, fast, lightweight, and versatile 29-inch trail bike” that utilizes modern geometry via its longer and slacker front end, paired with a steeper seat-tube angle. For reference, the Ripley features a 66.5° HTA and 76° (stated) STA across sizes. By mild-mannered, I mean the bike is designed around 120 millimeters of DW-link rear travel and Fox’s Float 34 130-millimeter fork up front. That makes it less sendy than the 147-millimeter rear-travel Ripmo or 165-millimeter rear-travel HD6, but more sendy than the 100-millimeter Exie. I wasn’t really sure how much flicking I would be doing during my time on the Ripley, but the lively-sounding buzz words and numbers seemed promising enough.

Photo: Thomas Woodson

Getting My Full-Squish Legs

Aside from the type of terrain (read: intimidating) I assumed one must ride on full-suspension bikes, the two other primary deterrents keeping me from previously investing any time in the category were: 1) the complex nature of shocks (dialing in the suspension, servicing); and 2) not being able to – efficiently – pedal to the trails from my doorstep.

The second one is big for me. Yes, I feel fortunate that I live somewhere with cycling infrastructure and readily accessible dirt roads and trails. However, when thinking about the entire scope of what a bicycle can be, I think this parameter is more indicative of the perhaps-limiting nature of such a specialized bike taken in any mixed-surface context. Whether you’re pedaling on pavement to a trailhead from home, or on a forest service road to access another section of trail after driving the bike out of a city, there’s really no getting around the fact that a trail-focused bike is not going to feel as enjoyable to ride on more pedal-y miles as, say, a hardtail. That (relative) specialization is, after all, the point. While the Ripley’s Fox Float 34 fork does not have a lockout, at least the rear shock does; so I decided I would still maintain my usual habits of riding to the trails when possible. Once on the trail, I was keen to see what the bike could do, or, rather, what I could do on the bike.

Photo: Thomas Woodson

Aside from the “why not?” impulse when presented with this story opportunity, the reason I wanted to give full-suspension a try is because I was worried I was developing bad habits on my hardtail that would hinder my mountain biking progression. This is, in part, a personality thing, but I found myself starting to avoid features on my hardtail rather than deciding to try riding them if it meant that I might fall or have to put a foot down in a hurry. Someone bolder may not feel the same reticence, but I didn’t want the limitations of my hardtail to become a crutch (this is also why I’ve yet to experiment with a singlespeed setup for my hardtail). I thought that having a more forgiving bike might let me experience what certain types of riding could feel like and, in turn, boost my confidence and engrain some better habits.

To start finding my full-squish legs, I took the Ripley on a few trails close to home that I’ve ridden on a hardtail. On bumbly baby-head sections the Ripley was noticeably smoother, and through short rock gardens, the rear suspension seemed to gobble up any bumps (Pac-Man style) with only muted sensations transferred to me. On longer climbs (but not long enough to lock out the rear shock) the bob – subtle as it was – did take some getting used to. I think the give of the rear suspension saves a lot of energy on short, steep, explosive sections of riding, but it does levy a tax on more pedal-y terrain.

Photo: Thomas Woodson

For example, during one of my first rides on the Ripley I came upon a short and moderately steep rock slab. My hardtail-engrained muscle memory got ready to stand up and mash, but I was surprised when I was able to clear the feature, shifted forward over the bars but still seated, in a few turns of the pedals. Alternately, on one trail commute that I’ve done dozens of times – a 7-mile bike-path ride that gains 700’ to access one of Boulder’s primary MTB networks – I was all but ready to call it a day by the time I managed to pedal the Ripley, specced with the aggressive Maxxis Minion/Dissector tire combo, up to the dang trail head. The Ripley was making its preferred riding surface known.

The irony of full-suspension marketing is that these bikes are routinely touted for increased traction, but are commonly shown airborne. This is not a knock against having fun, just an observation. Along with feeling more sure-footed while climbing thanks to the rear wheel staying planted, I certainly noticed this advertised increased traction while descending (especially as I am not often airborne). That rear DW-link Pac-Man comes back out with some high cadence chomping on rumbly, rock-studded descents and – when I managed to carry speed – through corners, kept me feeling extra planted on the ground.

Photos: Thomas Woodson

On the chance occasion that I did boost off a little rise or rock, the full-suspension landing felt very cush. However, I did find that having to intentionally load the rear travel before hopping screwed with my timing and took some getting used to. A little like the leg-deadening effect of a botched “double-bounce” on a trampoline.

Overall, my impressions of riding the Ripley confirmed some assumptions I had going in. Full suspension works (and I heard especially high praise from Travis about the Ripley’s DW-link, though I don’t personally have much to compare it to): rough descents were smoother and less taxing, and feeling the suspension push the tires more into the ground made it feel easier to lean the bike while carrying speed.

Photo: Thomas Woodson

That extra traction and rear-shock forgiveness improved my climbing, but it didn’t work miracles. I still contend that technical climbing is how I will gauge my MTB progression, as the bike just takes up so much more of the slack for you on the downhills, and this slow-twitch body has a long way to go in that regard.

The biggest revelation I had while riding the Ripley is, perhaps, the aspect of mountain biking that will take me the longest to adjust to and that is moving around the bike. In drop-bar riding, you might nose up on the saddle on a grinding climb, or drop behind it on a rowdy descent, but you’re largely leaning with the bike. In mountain biking the opposite is true and it can feel insecure to try to start finding a bike’s limits before you’re comfortable with more pronounced bike-body separation. This is where the full-suspension nature of the Ripley felt the most forgiving and educational. There’s fun in that forgiveness and more freedom to choose different lines.

Photo: Thomas Woodson

Stuck Between a Rock and a Hardtail

In summary, Ibis has generously let me hold onto the Ripley longer than I’d like to admit (suffice it to say, I had to wait for some low-elevation trails to melt out before really putting it to the test). I’ve ridden it on my home trails, new-to-me trails in Colorado, at a women’s MTB clinic in southern Wyoming, and in the Phoenix area. I’ve ridden it on old standbys and unknown terrain that I would have never approached before. And yet, unsatisfyingly, I’m still very torn on what my long-term full-suspension ambitions are, if they exist at all.

Anytime I was out riding the Ripley, I felt like a total imposter and fought the impulse to let people know that this isn’t even my bike and I’m not qualified to ride it, much less review it. And yet, on many of the familiar trails I took the Ripley on – trails that I’ve previously visited and will return to in the future on my hardtail – I largely saw other rides also on full-suspension bikes, and not necessarily doing any of the crazy things that I’ve associated with proper mountain biking. It would have been hard to peg any of the riders I saw as “adrenaline junkies.” In part, this is a product of the terrain I am comfortable riding, but I also think that my observations get back to Nick and Daniel’s points about the disparity between how the mainstream rides mountain bikes versus the most skilled. It’s the same way that the fastest riders are used to hype gravel brands; the difference is that – in a still photo – a gravel pro basically looks the same as anyone else on drop bars.

Riding the Ripley on a Radavist retreat in Phoenix, photos: John Watson

On most of the trails where I rode the Ripley, I hardly ever saw a hardtail rider. And I think this illustrates the cultural gap in the cycling continuum that I mentioned earlier: If hardtails are a bridge between drop-bar riding and technical terrain, they’re still a widely under-discovered one. For most people, I think Mountain Biking exists on its own isolated island (which you can only reach by car, apparently) that you need the most specialized traits to inhabit. For me, this is simultaneously a pro and a con. I felt like I was able to ride certain trails better on the Ripley and I enjoyed feeling more competent, but I lamented not wanting to pedal it on truly all-day rides.

I suppose this frustration gets at the crux of what I value most about bikes, which is using them as a tool for human-powered exploration and – in less high-minded parlance – as something to organize my life around. An ideal all-day ride for me might include starting from home and stitching together gravel climbs, sections of machine-built trail and more backcountry-style chonk tracks to gain the significant elevation required to access one of Boulder’s neighboring high-altitude mountain towns. A quick snack and ‘spro stop later, and I’d take similarly-mixed terrain back down, with the bike I’m on ultimately dictating the route. But I might want to pop by the store, or run an errand, or grab a burrito at the end of the ride – since I’m already out, after all – and I don’t want the bike I’m on to dissuade me from taking a short urban detour (which, admittedly, the Ripley has).

Photo: John Watson

This is not to say I don’t ever drive to ride: I do and my aim here is not to set some kind of holier-than-thou standard. While using bikes over cars is important to me on principle when possible, I also just enjoy riding my bike more than being in a car for the sake of not sitting in traffic and getting to feel the breeze. I also understand that my motivations for riding are not – and don’t need to be – shared by everyone. Depending on where you live, or where you’re at in life, your priorities are very likely different. Maybe riding to the trails doesn’t feel safe, or a five-mile one-way paved commute means a full hour less of riding time on the kind of terrain that you actually want to ride. Or, the trails that you’re interested in riding are best experienced on a more aggressive MTB, which feels even less appealing to pedal around town.

And yet, to provide a more MTB-relevant example that removes the conversation about how I might cross-town commute to a trail, riding the iconic ~100-mile White Rim loop in a day comes to mind as a quintessential all-day ride. I’ve ridden the loop twice, the first was as an overnighter starting and ending in Moab on a rigid drop-bar REEB Cycles Sam’s Pants but the second time was in a single day on a flat-bar Bearclaw Ti Hardtail MTB, also fully rigid. Even though I’ve now circled the loop twice sans squish, I can’t really recommend it. I didn’t feel too battered, but the slick rock definitely takes a toll on your contact points in the second half. However, if I were to ride the loop single push again with suspension, I think an XC bike or hardtail would suffice.

Trying to illustrate the type of MTB terrain I’m most drawn to hopefully serves to illustrate that I’m still coming to terms with how – and on what kind of bike – I’ll try to keep growing on as a rider on technical trail. Removing riding on surfaces other than true MTB terrain, the Ripley seems like a smart choice. However, at this point, I’m still not willing to relegate my mountain biking experience to a realm apart from how I see cycling as a whole.

The Rub

As I’ve accumulated more experience, I’ve become drawn to exploring more technical terrain and becoming a Mountain Biker is a means to achieve this end. The increased challenge of the terrain is attractive in itself, but also a byproduct of the backcountry routes I want to discover and the landscapes I want to travel through. I do get enjoyment from doing a few laps on a nearby trail network for a shorter morning or evening ride but, at my current skill level, each one of these rides feels like I’m practicing for something down the road. Going into the ride, I have to be mentally ready to feel like a less competent cyclist.

My current relationship with mountain biking reminds me a lot of my relationship with skiing: I enjoy riding ski lifts to log downhill laps as a novel thing to do with friends a couple days a year, but I’m just not wired to want to make it a weekly habit. I get bored easily with ski lifts, or rather I don’t get enough satisfaction from the repetition to justify the cost AND the driving. And the park sections hold basically zero appeal. The way I most enjoy skiing is going up – tallying vert on groomed early-morning resort skin tracks, or mellow backcountry terrain – but what’s holding me back from more advanced backcountry terrain is the technical demand of descending (in addition to reading snow conditions). I’ve considered buying a lift pass to Boulder’s quaint backyard ski resort to work on my descending in order to develop my technique; more practice, another means to an end. Still, I have friends who get so much joy from park laps – be those at ski resorts or mountain bike trail networks, or ski resorts-turned-summer-MTB parks – and that is also a completely valid way to experience those sports. I’m not trying to thrill police anyone just because I’m not inherently drawn to gravity sports.

Photo: Thomas Woodson

I almost laugh writing this, but my primary motivation to keep riding full-suspension bikes is so that I can develop skills that I can then carry back to my hardtail, or maybe an XC bike down the road. I want to overbike so I can get better at “underbiking” (if you’ve ever seen a mountain biker on a drop-bar bike, you’ll know what I mean). Then, eventually, maybe I won’t be underbiking on my hardtail anymore, I’ll just be mountain biking. Still, I know that the most direct path to achieving this regressive ambition is probably to keep riding bikes like the Ripley, bikes that help me push my limits without feeling over my head.

In rock climbing, one of the most beneficial things you can do for your progression is to climb with people stronger than you are. Watching them effortlessly execute moves that you flail through gives you a visual to aspire to and sets an example of proper technique, even if it hurts your ego in the short term. Also as in rock climbing, I find that in mountain biking there are hundreds of moments for success and failure on a ride, not just in the binary terms of “did I clean X?” but in stylistic terms, too; “how well did I clean X.”

Photo: Thomas Woodson

Watching more experienced riders – at the women’s clinic I attended and riding with my Radavist colleagues – I got to witness some truly impressive technical mastery. I’ve heard a coach say that, while sessioning, if she cleans something for the first time, she makes herself go back and do it again so she knows it wasn’t a fluke and she trusts herself to be able to repeat it in the future. It could be the adrenaline carrying her through on that first successful attempt, but it’s the chase of the craft that makes her go back.

Pretending to be the owner of a full-suspension mountain bike for the past months has been a revelatory experience, in furthering my own mountain biking trajectory but also in understanding how I view my relationship to riding bikes in general. It’s kind of ironic that full-suspension bikes are supposed to remove limitations in riding, though I previously saw them as defined by limitations, real or perceived, based on marketing, personal reservations, my identity as a cyclist, or a combination thereof. And while I wouldn’t consider myself a full-suspension convert, my time riding the Ripley has allowed me to be less rigid in what I’ll try as I continue to grow as a cyclist.