Suspension Bikes for All

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, May 1995

Suspension Bikes for All

Seven affordable off-road machines that make boinging a right, not a privilege
By Alan Cote

A mountain bike with front suspension isn't what it used to be, and that's worth three cheers. Just a couple years back, boinging privileges were reserved for those willing to meet the four-figure price tag on a bike with a sprung fork or to invest in an expensive retrofit. Now a good bike with a springy front end can be had for as little as $500. These days the stratosphere is reserved for good full-suspension bikes. Suspension forks have gone the way of the electronic calculator, the digital watch, and the VCR: Cost has come down, and performance has improved, as the technology has become more widespread. Designs have been simplified, the maintenance demands continue to shrink, and the shocks work better over bumps small and large. This review includes bikes that are priced between $500 and $1,200. Beyond that, performance gains start coming subtly and in small, expensive steps.

Who needs suspension? According to the folks who sell it, nearly everyone. Approximately half of all new mountain bikes come with suspension at least in front. What a sprung fork does is improve the rider's comfort by dissipating some shock and--more important--keep the tire on the dirt for better control over harsh terrain. Rear suspension does the same in back, but for that you have more than an extra price to pay: Even the best rear suspensions can swallow some of your pedaling power. So if you like to go where the going gets rough, we say go exclusively with a front suspension--at least for now. It's responsive yet supple, trick yet affordable.

The most popular suspension forks do their jobs with stacks of elastomers--small rubber bumpers--but not all elastomer forks are created equal. Riders who like to descend at bobsledlike speeds will find that the less expensive ones snap back and forth too easily. For those crazy few, I recommend one of the new oil-damped Judy series forks from Rock Shox. The oil allows fine-tuning of compression and rebound to suit different body weights and riding styles. There are also air-sprung, oil-damped models; they take the big hits well but aren't as supple over the small stuff.

Alas, suspension does have its drawbacks, like added weight (about a three-pound penalty) and price (an extra $150-$500). Plus, suspension forks raise the front of the bike about two inches, dangerously reducing clearance between you and the top tube.

The fork, however, should not be the focus of a suspension bike--or any bike. The frame still has the most influence on the way a bike rides. In this price range, you generally get a choice between steel and aluminum. The ubiquitous steel frame is the best value and offers a ride that's pleasantly stiff but not harsh. Better steel bikes use chrome-moly tubes that are double-butted, which means the walls are thin in the middle to pare weight and thick at the ends for strength. Aluminum frames are usually lighter and stiffer, and, like suspension forks, they've come down in price as they've become more prevalent. However, some will find aluminum rigs to be a bit harsh.

Most mountain-bike components bear the Shimano brand name for one reason: Components by Suntour (recently out of business) no longer appear on new mountain bikes, and--a related point--Shimano makes stuff that just works great: Its drivetrains are always precise and smooth, and the brakes, cranks, hubs, and so on work without complaint. In this price range you'll find Shimano's Alivio (good), STX (better), and LX (better still) lines, and you'll often find components mixed and matched to achieve a certain blend of features and price. The more expensive components offer slight advantages in weight and durability, but it's hard to discern real differences in performance. The shifter department is the only place where Shimano has met stout competition. Many new bikes come with Grip Shift shifters: A simple twist of the grip-style device and you're in a new gear.

Now choose from seven of the best values in front-suspension bikedom.

Raleigh M80
With their flexy frames and heavy forks, many $500 bikes that include a front shock aren't actually trail-worthy. But Raleigh's M80 ($525) is tough enough to handle the rigors of off-road use. The boing comes from the well-qualified Rock Shox Quadra 5 fork, an elastomer shock that you'll find on some far pricier bikes. It eats up small bumps and most of the large ones, but it reacts somewhat abruptly on fast descents over rough trails. Unfortunately the M80 also uses inexpensive carbon steel in the rear stays, and at 30 pounds it isn't the most agile climber. On the positive side, it has some fine components: Shimano STX and Alivio brakes and derailleurs, Raleigh's own bar ends, and a Vetta saddle that uses leaf springs to further take the bite out of the bumps. From Raleigh USA, 22710 72d Ave. S., Kent, WA 98032; 800-222-5527.

Specialized Rockhopper FS
I'd call the Rockhopper FS ($599) the perfect bike for those who want to feel like they're on a racing machine but don't want to pay the price. Its sprightly personality comes from a butted chrome-moly frame that has the same go-fast geometry as Specialized's more expensive models. The SR Duotrack elastomer fork does an admirable job of taking on bumps at low and medium speeds, but like the Quadra 5 it gets a bit jerky when the bike flies. The components are mostly Shimano Alivio, with an upscale STX rear derailleur and Grip Shift shifters. Specialized's excellent 1.95-inch tires--a Shockmaster in front and a More Extreme in the rear--provide plenty of traction, whether you're climbing or cornering. From Specialized Bicycle Components, 15130 Concord Circle, Morgan Hill, CA 95037; 408-779-6229.

Mongoose Zero-G SX
I can't help but wonder whether Mongoose is losing money on the Zero-G. For $750, it includes a double-butted chrome-moly frame accessorized mainly with Shimano's LX components and a Rock Shox Quadra 21 fork--basically a Quadra 5 that can be more easily adjusted for riders of different weights. The Mongoose feels at home in the hills: You get 24 speeds instead of just 21, and they're all quickly accessible via Grip Shift shifters. The upscale Quadra 21 shock handles high speeds just like its lesser sibling, which is to say not perfectly, but it's still supple over small washboard-type bumps. And when you point the Zero-G uphill, its tiny, 22-tooth front chainring provides amply low gearing. Then again, you'll need it, because the Mongoose weighs in at a heavyish 27 pounds. But that's a small kvetch, as is the lack of bar ends. This bike will take you anywhere. From Mongoose Performance Bicycles, 3400 Kashiwa St., Torrance, CA 90505; 800-645-5806.

Univega Aluminum 703
If you're looking for a bombproof bike, check out the Aluminum 703 ($829). The oversize tubing delivers that trademark aluminum-stiff ride, and up front, the air-oil Rock Shox Mag 21 fork rides rough over the small bumps but soaks up the large ones. Hence this is a bike for big, powerful riders who might make mush out of a whippy steel frame and an elastomer fork; hammering on the pedals brings instant response, and air can be pumped into or bled from the Mag 21 to fine-tune its compression qualities. The bonus is that aluminum is light as well as stiff, so the 26-pound 703 is a worthy climber. A mélange of Shimano STX and Alivio components rounds things out. From Univega, 3030 Walnut Ave., Long Beach, CA 90807; 310-426-0474.

Scott Comp Racing CST
The Comp CST ($999) made me feel a little guilty about my own $2,000 racing machine, simply because it feels so similar. Thanks to a long top tube, I was comfortably stretched, and the chrome-moly frame was nimble underneath me over the most technical terrain. The 25-pound bike comes with the same Rock Shox Mag 21 fork found on the Univega and predictably delivers the same type of ride: a little unforgiving, until you really get going. It has Shimano's LX components, Scott bar ends, Victor clipless pedals, and a Vetta saddle with fancy, lightweight manganese rails. With a faux-titanium matte-gray finish, the Comp CST even looks race-ready. From Scott USA, 1690 38th St., Boulder, CO 80301; 800-292-5875.

Cannondale F600
Cannondale's bikes always stand apart. The aluminum frame of the F600 ($1,120) is made with thin-walled, oversize tubes for a combination of light weight and rigidity. The CODA brakes and cranks are made specially for the company. The front shock is not in the fork as you would expect: A single elastomer oil-damped unit is positioned in the head tube. And it all delivers. The frame is stiff, while the shock takes the edge off. Actually the shock does more, lapping up big bumps and leaving the steering responsibilities to the rigid fork blades, which are a bit more precise than those of a conventionally sprung fork. As for Cannondale's components, they're up to snuff, especially when teamed up with Shimano's STX/Alivio drivetrain and Grip Shift shifters. From Cannondale Corporation, R.D. 7, Friendship Road, Bedford, PA 15522; 800-245-3872.

Gary Fisher Cronus
The Cronus ($1,199) boasts the pick of the component litter. Start with the Rock Shox Judy XC fork: Its elastomer-oil shocks represent the latest in front-suspension technology. It's marvelously supple, soaking up obstacles both small and large, while never wallowing in the process. The Onza clipless pedals operate smoothly and are some of the lightest around, and I really like the narrow Bontrager saddle--I could quickly slide off the back on steep descents. Throw a lightweight, double-butted chrome-moly frame into the mix and you get a 25-pound machine that's eager to climb, descend, and handle single-track. From Gary Fisher Bicycles, 801 W. Madison, Waterloo, WI 53594; 414-478-3532.

Alan Coté has been racing bikes for 15 years, and writing about them for the last five.

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