Tag Archives: suspension

The Raleigh Activator 2: truly an abomination

In the mid nineties (1994?), Raleigh UK launched their first full-suspension mountain bike: the Activator 2. This was the successor to their popular, but very low-end, Activator.

Here’s how the Activators looked in the Raleigh catalogue:

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Incredibly, the catalogue blurb makes the rather bold claim of ‘improved acceleration’. On this note, I recall a school friend of mine had an Activator 2, and he thought it was far superior to my M Trax 400 – until we swapped bikes and raced each other up a slight hill, which showed him just how much energy was getting drained away by his gas-pipe steel and pogo-stick bike.

All in all, the Activator range was not for serious mountain bikers, and opting for suspension at this price point is almost always a false economy.

Marin Mount Vision: top of my list of full suspension bikes

With quite a few rigid mountain bikes in the collection now, I’ve been thinking about broadening the collection to include a cross-country capable, but inexpensive, full suspension bike. Top of my list at the moment is the Marin Mount Vision, which I’ve included in my list of the 100 best vintage mountain bikes. And below is an example of one, from this blog. With it’s M-shaped frame, it looks awesome, and the overall design is as efficient as vintage full suspension gets.

StaFast – Reinventing the Flexstem?

Way back in the early 90s, before real suspension was invented, Girvin came up with the innovative Flexstem. Designed to soak up a bit of trail buzz, which would otherwise be transmitted to the rider’s upper body, the Flexstem was little more than a normal stem with a hinge and an elastomer. Some riders complained that when using a Flexstem, the constant rotational motion of the handlebar would irritate their wrists. Nonetheless, the Flexstem plugged a gap for a few years until real, fork suspension arrived on the scene, and was then forgotten by nearly everybody.

The StaFast suspension stem

Now fast-forward to Fall 2014, when sta-fast announce they have developed an innovative suspension stem for bicycles, retailing at the hefty price of $350 United States Dollars.

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Although unlikely to pose a threat to fork-based suspension on mountain bikes, one might expect the StaFast to find its niche in the touring and commuter bike scenes, where rigid forks are the norm.

The good old Girvin Flexstem

n_girvin_stem

Little more than a hinge and a bit of rubber added to a quill stem, yet a huge innovation in its time.

Suspension: is it really necessary for mountain biking?

Convention now says that mountain bikes should have front suspension forks. They are now considered an essential feature, by nearly all mountain bikers and mountain bike manufacturers. Even the lowest end, cheapest of the cheap, steel-rimmed, gas-pipe framed mountain bikes in your nearest supermarket have something resembling front suspension.

And the benefits of decent front suspension are quite clear. They allow a rider to ride faster over most off-road terrain, give extra steering control due to the enhanced front wheel traction, and absorb vibrations that would otherwise sap a rider’s energy. In other words, front suspension allows a rider to go faster and for longer. Good suspension also provides an extra margin of error when you hit gnarly terrain features a little too fast – soaking up hits and giving you a better chance of staying on the bike.

Chili_Bomber4 vs. Kona Project 2 rigid fork

What has happened to our trails since the advent of good-quality, cost-effective, long travel suspension forks? Has mother nature added extra rocks, roots and bomb-holes to make our trails that much gnarlier? Have the laws of physics fundamentally changed to make it impossible to ride off-road on a rigid fork? No, of course not. Simply put, expectations have risen regarding the speed one can ride off road; riders usually want to keep up with their riding buddies, to win races, or get good Strava times.

So, having front suspension is a no-brainer then, right? Not necessarily, as it turns out. Suspension comes with several drawbacks:

  • adds weight to the bike
  • a fraction of the energy of each pedal stroke is lost compressing the suspension – unless locked out
  • slightly sloppier steering due to fork flexure, although the most recent forks are getting pretty stiff
  • head tube angle changes as the suspension progresses through its travel, changing the steering of the bike
  • modern suspension forks require regular maintenance, particularly when used in wet and muddy conditions
  • significantly increases the retail price of a mountain bike, or means the rest of the bike will be worse at the same price point

Most riders and manufacturers now agree that the positives that come with using front suspension outweigh the negatives. I agree with this, but only if your priority is to ride as hard and fast as possible.

While generally a little slower, riding rigid forks allows a mountain biker to burn calories faster than when riding with front suspension. Riding rigid also places a greater importance on trail skills, particularly the reading of terrain and selecting the fastest/smoothest line. This means a rider generally needs to become fitter and more skilled to keep pace with riding buddies who use front suspension.

In conclusion, there is probably no single answer to the original question: is suspension necessary? The answer will depend on individual taste, riding style, budgetary constraints, and the type of terrain being ridden.

My own view is that suspension is by no means necessary, but is not worth thinking about unless you’ve got the rest of your mountain bike kitted out with a decent frame and good components.