The Dust-Up: Most New Mountain Bikers Should Start on Full-Suspension Bikes


The Dust-Up: Most New Mountain Bikers Should Start on Full-Suspension Bikes

In today’s installment of our ongoing opinion column, The Dust-Up, we bring you Travis Engel’s thesis on why full-suspension bikes offer the most inviting, user-friendly experience to people trying mountain bikes for the first time, and why the commonly held “hardtail-first” doctrine is flawed and outdated. Please read in full before commenting, but please comment.

Here’s a quick breakdown of this article’s title, just so we’re on the same page:

Most: Somewhere between 51% and 99%. I think it’s closer to the latter, but I want to be clear that my claims will not apply to all new mountain bikers. Just most of them.

New: Anyone who will be riding off-road on a regular basis for the first time. This doesn’t necessarily apply to prospective mountain bikers already experienced with gravel or bikepacking. If the rigid experience is what’s most familiar and comfortable, it’s a fine place to start.

Mountain bikers: Anyone whose primary interest is doing day rides on singletrack. If a new rider also wants to bikepack or commute, this does not necessarily apply to them.

Should: What we’d like to happen if possible. Within reason, new mountain bikers should spend as much money as they comfortably can. But if full suspension is still out of reach, it is probably better to get a hardtail with some modern features (fluid-damped front suspension, current geometry, etc.) than a full-suspension with none.

Start on: Use as a gateway into the sport. Every rider changes over time. Some become full-suspension fans, some become hardtail fans, many become both. I’m just talking about that first bike purchase.

Full-suspension bikes: Whatever category of full-suspension bike is most appropriate. This depends on external factors like what types of trails they will be riding, and what types of bikes their friends will be riding.

I started mountain biking on a hardtail. I had my reasons. I was 13, so I could barely afford the bike I got. And it was 1994, so full suspension still had a lot of bugs to work out. Nevertheless, I fell in love with the sport. And I wasn’t alone. Mountain biking boomed in the mid ‘90s, but it wasn’t very inviting. There were lots of wailing guitars, lots of things being called “extreme,” and lots and lots of crashing. My local shop’s sticker collection included gems like “Over-the-bars club” or “Crashing’s cool.” The pop-culture machine hijacked the sport’s counter-culture roots and installed the “crazy mountain biker” narrative. But it wasn’t totally unfounded. The bikes we rode back then were little crazy. Our 120mm stems and flat 560mm handlebars didn’t exactly make for a forgiving ride. No wonder “OTB” earned its own acronym. We were already halfway over the bars as soon as we got in the saddle.

That would eventually change. Bikes have gotten much safer in the past thirty years. And I understand that it’s cost us the misguided thrill of cheating death on every ride. It’s why I sometimes hit the steeps on my steel drop-bar bike. There’s purity in riding without technology’s crutch. But if that notion is anywhere in your head when advising a curious new rider about their first mountain bike, please keep it to yourself. Purity is a pretty high-minded pursuit if someone’s just looking to have fun. And I’m not talking about dropper posts and modern geometry. We’ll be here all day if I need to make a case for their value. I’m talking about full suspension. The type of fun offered by a full-suspension bike is universal. Almost primal. It more closely mimics that feeling of flying. A quest for purity can come later, if a rider so chooses. That’s the most brief way I can explain why I think full suspension offers the most instantly gratifying, most addictive version of mountain biking. But I’m not here to be brief. Here are the reasons why most new mountain bikers should start on full-suspension bikes.

Full-suspension bikes are better teachers

I know some people say hardtails encourage good habits. And I understand the logic. Riding a hardtail does incentivize picking the smoothest line, but on a full-suspension bike, the smoothest line isn’t necessarily the best line. The best line is the most fun line. Or the safest one, or the one that offers the most consistent traction, or sets you up to flow into or out of a turn. If the hardtail-first die-hards are acknowledging new riders will likely “graduate” to full suspension, I argue those new riders should just start there. They will learn more quickly what the suspension can and cannot absorb through a turn, what role speed and incline plays in activating the travel, or what terrain they can or can’t effectively brake through. This also applies to pedaling. If someone is likely to end up with a full-suspension bike, better to get them familiar with how they climb. To encourage pedaling circles, not squares, and to learn what is or isn’t too bumpy to be worth pedaling over.

Hardtails do have some really cool handling characteristics. You can pop and pump and flick more effectively. But those are some advanced skills, and are still plenty accessible to full-suspension riders. I often think about this scene in “The Professional.” Léon has given into Mathilda’s pleas to teach her how to “clean,” the film’s shorthand for hired assassination. While assembling a sniper rifle (which—spoiler alert—turns out to be loaded with paintballs), Léon lays out his lesson plan. “The rifle is the first weapon you learn to use, because it lets you keep your distance from the client,” he explains. “The closer you get to being a pro, the closer you can get to the client. The knife, for example, is the last thing you’ll learn.” Some people will eventually want that close, intimate relationship with the trail, but most of them shouldn’t start with it.

Full suspension bikes are more inclusive

Our sport and our industry would be healthier if it were more popular. Which is why I get a little miffed when I hear beginners being encouraged to start on hardtails. Let’s not make the first steps in a new sport any harder than they already are. I witnessed the friendliness of full-suspension soon after my wife and I first met. She wasn’t an enthusiastic mountain biker, so initially I was just borrowing bikes for her to ride. Sometimes hardtails, sometimes full suspension. For someone not already motivated to go out and exert herself on a bike, having suspension was the difference between real fun and forced fun. We eventually went dutch on a fully, and it’s our go-to whenever there’s dirt involved.

I do acknowledge that a $2,000 full-suspension bike—probably the ground floor for something modern and full-featured—seems less inclusive than a $600 hardtail. It’s just not in the cards for some people. I don’t have a solution for that here. But if it is at all possible, it’s worth the stretch for a beginner to have the best experience possible. Speaking of things I don’t have a solution for, there’s a theory in education that the best teachers should be in grades K-5. That’s when a child will decide whether this whole “school” thing works for them. If they’re effectively stimulated, they’ll trust the process and learn more. But elementary and preschool teachers tend to be the lowest-paid educators in the U.S., while university professors tend to be the highest-paid. With better early education, we might produce higher earners down the road, stimulating the economy and justifying the investment. There’s a similar relationship between initial price and later payoff when buying a bike. Starting off with a quality full-suspension bike—like a quality teacher—will both make a new rider’s experience more fun and rewarding, and better prepare them for what they’ll face in the future.

Buying a hardtail just to save money is false economy

I used to use a clever sales line in my bike-shop days. “If you want to buy one bike, buy a full suspension. If you want to buy two bikes, buy a hardtail.” Meaning, it’s better to start with the bike you want. Granted, this was in dry, rocky southern California. If I were somewhere with a higher concentration of smooth trails, I may not have taken such a hard line. Selling is tricky that way. Best not to discourage the choice that a customer is most likely to make. They might not buy anything. Nevertheless, I maintain that starting with a decent full-suspension bike will save money in the long run. Not only is it likely to be the bike they stick with, but it’s also the bike that will make them feel better about the purchase. This is a catch-22 for the non-committed. They’re not sure they’ll like mountain biking, so they don’t want to drop $2K into it. But if the bike they end up with makes them feel like they’re flying, they’re more likely to fall in love with the sport.

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Full-suspension bikes are more versatile

We make a sort of over/under wager whenever we choose a bike: Is it worse to feel numb when we’ve got too much capability, or overwhelmed when we’ve got too little? I would argue that, for a new mountain biker, the answer is pretty obvious. Most won’t feel the least bit bored with a full-suspension bike on a smooth trail. But they will feel discouraged getting beaten up by a hardtail on a rough trail. Before a new rider even learns their preferences, a full-suspension bike is simply the safer bet. It liberates them to explore more types of riding. Maybe they find themselves enjoying navigating technical rock crawls through no-flow zones. Maybe they like visiting a bike park once in a while. Or, maybe they find their stoke on flow trails. A full-suspension bike will do a pretty good job anywhere. Especially today’s full-suspension bikes.

Full-suspension bikes are better than ever, especially at lower price points

A lot of today’s anti-full-suspension sentiment may have come from experiences with bikes of the past. Even just six or seven years ago, things that I now consider to be deal breakers were common practice. The most obvious of which were slack seat tube angles. They’ve gone from 72 or 73 degrees up to 76, 77 or more. Body weight isn’t cantilevered as far back when seated, and sag isn’t multiplied as heavily, so climbing is easier and more comfortable. Also, brands are paying more attention to their linkage’s leverage curve, making the suspension feel less sluggish when standing. And these two features combine to make seated pedaling more supportive. Plus, 1x drivetrains have made it easier for frame designers to optimize around the chain force coming from one spot instead of three, drastically lessening the nagging feeling of too much or too little “squat.” And we’ve graduated from some of the growing pains in shock and pivot design, leading to better (but not infinite) longevity. The best part is, none of these things make a bike more expensive. They’re just smarter design, meaning lower-priced bikes benefit just as much as higher-priced ones. Now, I acknowledge that setting up suspension has not gotten any easier, but new riders have never had more or better resources for learning how to find proper sag and how to choose their damping speeds. Note I didn’t say anything about bikes getting lighter. Partly because most bikes kinda haven’t gotten lighter. But also because I think saving weight is overrated, though that’s a topic for another Dust-Up.

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None of this is meant to yuck hardtail fans’ yum. If you’re one of them, you are not on the wrong bike. But you don’t need me to tell you that. You know what bike is right for you. Most new mountain bikers don’t. Like it or not, the full-suspension has come to represent the aspirational ideal of what a mountain bike is. I want us to take a non-cynical look at that for a moment, and consider that it may be because they actually offer a better experience … for most new mountain bikers. I guess I also want to start some shit. Let me know what you think in the comments.

If you’re new to this series, welcome to The Dust-Up. This will be a semi-regular platform for Radavist editors and contributors to make bold, sometimes controversial claims about cycling. A way to challenge long-held assumptions that deserve a second look. Sometimes they will be global issues with important far-reaching consequences; other times, they will shed light on little nerdy corners of our world that don’t get enough attention.

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