Bike Snob

Bicycle Suspension Is Evil

Why it will destroy cycling, society, and the planet if we let it

Winters in Santa Fe are unpredictable. It’s entirely normal to go from skinning up in a blizzard on Saturday to mountain biking under sunny skies in 50-degree weather on Sunday. That’s why I’m so psyched to spend the season on my Surly Krampus. Sure, it was a riot to ride all summer—confident on loose terrain, surprisingly snappy on the uphill, and a constant challenge to my bike-handling skills—but I’m expecting it to be even more fun this winter. With 29+ wheels that float over snow, no fancy front or rear suspension to get ruined by the mud, and stable geometry, Krampus is guaranteed to keep me off the trainer—no matter what Godzilla El Niño sends my way. —Scott Rosenfield, online editor (Photo: Jakob Schiller)

At present, I have two mountain bikes. Neither has front or rear suspension. This means that whenever I happen to pass a stopped rider as I'm picking my way through a rocky section of trail, I always get the same comment:

"Whoa, rigid bike. Badass."

Mostly, I find this embarassing. See, I'm much more of a tightass than a badass. To me, riding tricky terrain in front of strangers is a lot like peeing in front of them, except instead of freezing up, I put a foot down. This totally undermines any semblance of bad-assitude on my part.

At the same time, yes, fine, I'll admit it: I do feel just a little bit special when I ride a rigid bike. Hey, in the absence of any exceptional abilities to otherwise distinguish me from the herd, my lack of suspension is all I have. And while I certainly don't ride a rigid bike in order to solicit comments from strangers, indulging myself in a little bit of smugness on those rare occasions when I get to pass someone is admittedly a fringe benefit. Is that so wrong?

Of course, the real reason I prefer rigid mountain bikes is simple: they're better. Not necessarily better in the glossy-magazine-bicycle-shootout sense, but definitely better in the existential sense. It's not like there's anything wrong with suspension—it's just that it's the physical manifestation into bicycle form of everything that's wrong with our culture, society, and humanity in general. No big whoop.

Consider that since at least the mid-'90s, the prevaling notion has been that buying a mountain bike without a suspension fork is like buying a house without an indoor toilet: weird, puritanical behavior for people who like to punish themselves unnecessarily. That attitude soon spread to the rear of the frame as well, and before long pretty much every mountain bike sold came equipped with some form of suspension, regardless of whether that bike was a state-of-the-art racing machine precision-engineered for elite competition or a 60-pound lump of hi-tensile crap on display across the aisle from the gardening supplies in the local big-box store.

The problem is that those state-of-the-art bikes are now obsolete, and the vast majority of the remaining bikes didn't need suspension in the first place. On all but the most technical terrain, a rigid bike is perfectly serviceable, and indeed in the vast majority of situations a typical cyclist is likely to encounter, it's actually preferable. (Watching someone riding a full-suspension bike on anything other than rocks is like watching a kid trying to walk in one of those inflatable bounce houses.) Yet not only were all these bikes equipped with unnecessary suspension systems, but many of them were equipped with shitty unnecessary suspension systems. The result? Garbage. Basements, garages, vacant lots, and Craigslist "for sale" sections full of complete garbage.

Over the long term, suspension is second only to rust in its power to render bicycles useless. Even those 1970s-era 10-speeds have found new life as fixie conversions or vintage commuters, but that first big mountain bike boom unleashed more unsalvageable crap on the planet than BP, Exxon, and Michael Bay combined. At this rate, the earth will soon be a scorched landscape of plastic shopping bags and dual-suspension department store bikes as far as the eye can see, and when sweet merciful death finally comes, you'll arrive at the gates of Hell only to find a Magna with two flat tires cable-locked to the wrought iron.

Fortunately, like the shoot of green emerging from the crack in the sidewalk, the bicycle constantly strives to free itself from the suspension systems we use to dampen it into submission. For example, in the darkest days of the de rigeur dual-susser came the 29er, and those larger wheels reminded riders that with just a little finesse, it's perfectly possible to ride pretty much anything on a well-designed bike. Alas, it didn't take long for the bike companies to figure out how to build suspension around those 29-inch wheels, but light scored another triumph over darkness with the rediscovery of the importance of the right tire width and pressure. As a rider whose cycling skill set is in imperial rather than metric and is missing, like, half the sockets, I assure you that with this new crop of "plus"-sized tires and a really low gear, there's really nothing you can't ride. Just hurry, because even the fat bikes are getting suspension now, so who knows how long you'll have to wait for mountain bikes to shake it off again and regain their integrity.

And yes, of course a great suspension bike can be a joy to ride, and the enhanced traction and reduced fatigue are a considerable advantage in a competitive situation. At the same time, cycling works best when you're exploring the contours of the terrain, not trying to isolate yourself from it, and riding a bike with too many moving parts can be like caressing your lover with oven mitts. Meanwhile, a great rigid bike can be a joy to ride to the trail and on the trail and on the way home from the trail. It will also cost you less money, less maintenance downtime, and less angst in the future because frames that don't move never become obsolete.

Sometimes it helps to be more rigid in your thinking in order to open your mind.  

Filed To: BikesBagsRacing
Lead Photo: Jakob Schiller
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