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On the ski slopes, we’ve all seen those bros who think the waist-width of their skis is a status symbol for how hard they rip, and they wind up skidding down bulletproof groomers on skis built for heliskiing in AK. Well, there’s a similar phenomenon happening these days with suspension on mountain bikes. Sorry to break it to the Pit-Vipered, flat-pedaled bros out there, but big travel does not necessarily equal big skills (or cojones, for that matter).
According to Hunter Keating, who works at Ridgway Wrench outside of Wagner’s hometown of Telluride, the biggest segment of the mountain bike market right now is those with 160-180 mm of travel—which was previously considered appropriate only for lift-served freeride downhill biking. These big-travel machines are now migrating from park to trail, a habitat best-suited for bikes with roughly 140 mm of travel.
“I definitely think there is a trend for being over-biked,” Keating said recently during a phone interview from his shop. “I view it as a status thing. It’s like having a big, lifted truck.”
Sure, ego certainly comes into play—park riders who post videos of themselves sending it in full-face helmets on the socials have undoubtedly influenced people who are just getting into trail riding. But technology plays a part, too.
Time was, bikes with a lot of travel were heavy and unwieldy, definitively unsuited for hauling uphill or over long distances. But bikes have become far lighter and more efficient. “People are able to ride longer suspension bikes and not suffer the consequences,” Keating says. “It’s not as much of a burden to ride that up a hill.”
That’s not to say there aren’t any downsides to having too much suspension, however. For starters, the long-travel bikes might be lighter than they were yesteryear, but they’re still heavier than modern trail bikes. “Generally speaking, you’re pushing around something you don’t need to push around,” Keating says. “I spent the year riding a 160-mm travel bike, but I wouldn’t want to spend all day in the mountains on it.”
Long-travel bikes can also mask the rider’s ability or impede the learning curve, because instead of having to pick a line and use skills and balance, a rider can just plow over everything. “That’s why you’ll hear old-timers and luddites saying everyone should have experience riding a rigid bike,” Keating says.
The riders who buy into the long-travel-trail-bike trend are paying far more attention to travel than they are bike geometry, which is arguably just as important as suspension. While geometry doesn’t really help with high-speed absorption (you still need a moderate amount of suspension for that), but it does help the bike corner more smoothly and be more stable, which gives the rider more confidence on slow maneuvers. Suspension, on the other hand, comes into play at higher speeds and with repeated impact.
“The front angle improves the rider’s confidence. It makes bigger, slower speed moves easier. But if I’m riding fast with a bunch of repeated square edge rock hits, I can go faster more safely and be less abusive to my equipment if I do have some suspension,” Keating says.
To that end, he has seen a number of brands making more capable short-travel bikes, too, which some experienced riders are gravitating toward. “That would fall in the category of 125 mm of travel in the back. When I ride bikes like that, I don’t feel any less confident in high-speed rough stuff than I did with my 160-mm Specialized. It’s just lighter and easier to ride up the trail.”
All that said, Keating also feels that the categorization of bikes by travel has gotten a little bit out of hand. “When we’re talking about a half of an inch of wheel travel, there’s not a world of diff between bike A and bike B,” he says. It does, to some degree, come down to personal preference. People ultimately should opt for what they’re most comfortable on—while keeping in mind that if riding uphill and longer distances is important, they might have more fun on a bike that’s better suited for it.
As for those skiers still rocking 130-mm waist-widths as daily drivers, well, call Wagner today. They’ll talk some sense into you.