How to Buy a Full-Suspension Bike at a Glance
- Try Rental Bikes
- Get Familiar With Geometry
- Think About Frame Material
- Don’t Obsess About Parts
- Considerations with Buying Direct
- Pick the Right Bike Shop
One of my co-workers is looking for a new bike, and he asked me for some pointers about how to buy a full-suspension bike. He just moved to a neighborhood near some nice, rough, rocky singletrack – and he wants something more modern and well-equipped than his 10-year-old Diamondback hardtail.
So what should he look at?
I have some ideas. And I know exactly what you’re thinking — “Is he gonna mention my favorite brand?!”
I might. Before I mention brands, though, we’re going to talk about features. Look, I know a lot of us are very brand-focused. I am, too, but in the opposite direction of most (I avoid the Big Three – Specialized, Trek and Giant).
I’m going to start this off with a features-first, brand-agnostic look at what I’d look for in a good full-suspension bike. This is based on my personal preferences and experiences – your mileage may vary.
This is also intended for newer riders. If you’ve been around awhile, you probably have your own preferences. My intent here is to give less-experienced riders a look at my decision process and let them grab some ideas from it.
How to Buy a Full-Suspension Bike
Try a Few Rental Bikes
A test ride in a bike shop’s parking lot won’t tell you much. Putting in a few hours on your home trail, though, is invaluable. Heck, even riding somewhere unfamiliar is educational.
I realize that spending a few hundred on rentals sounds harsh. But you’ll get real education for how the bike and you perform together.
Also, some bike shops might have free demos. Still others may apply your rental fee to a purchase if you buy from them.
About this Modern Geometry …
This is tough to define. In the last few years, mountain bike stems have gotten way shorter, and the angles of their head tubes have gotten much slacker. The seat tubes also seem to be getting less slack. It can make for some funny-looking bikes.
I haven’t tried this new generation, but riders I trust tell me that these changes to frame geometry have made their bikes more fun.
UPDATE March 21: I got a chance to try a Rocky Mountain trail bike recently with “progressive” geometry. With its short stem and wide handlebar, the steering was very responsive. I am still not 100-percent convinced it’s the be-all, end-all solution to mountain bike geometry. But there were a lot of other variables compared to the bikes I’m used to riding — like nearly 10 extra pounds of weight and way more travel than I’m used to. I still need to try progressive geometry on a bike more like mine.
Anyway, if you see a stem longer than 80mm on the front of a bike (maybe even 60 or 50!) that interests you, you might have the wrong bike if you’re after progressive geometry.
One more thing: There are a bunch of types of full-suspension bikes, starting wth cross-country bikes (shortest travel) to downhill bikes (longest travel). Down country, trail and enduro bikes wedged between them in order of travel. This can get confusing, RIGHT?
I Prefer Aluminum Frames
I know carbon fiber is cool. Bike shops tout it as lighter and all-around more awesome.
It’s also more expensive, which means you’ll have trade-offs. Compared to an aluminum-framed bike, you’ll get lower levels of components (drivetrain, wheels and suspension forks being the most-important and likely to affect performance). I’d put some extra money toward a nice wheelset from November Bicycles.
I also don’t like the idea of rocks and other trail detritus plonking off of a carbon frame. All those impacts can add up and weaken the frame. If you don’t think this is a problem, just take a look at all the frame protection stuff coming on carbon mountain bikes, especially on chainstays and downtubes. Those are there for a reason.
On the plus side for carbon (aside from weight), it seems like carbon frames can be shaped to maximize space for stuff like extra water bottles (more on that in a moment).
What About Water Bottles?
Look, I know just about everyone mountain bikes with a hydration pack. But believe me, the water bottle is not dead.
I live in the desert, and I do long rides. I sweat electrolytes out like crazy. If I don’t replace them during a ride, I will be the mayor of Cramp City.
Also, putting electrolytes into your hydration pack is iffy. You will at some point forget about it after a ride, leave it in your car and then grow an absolutely hideous colony of funk in there. No bueno.
Here’s another reason I insist on two water bottles: When I race, I don’t want to use a hydration pack. When I do something like the Fat Tire 40, I want to be able to keep the weight down, while also not dying of thirst. Two water bottles are enough to get me through with the electrolytes and fluid that I need, as long as there are aid stations where I can refill.
No Creaking Bottom Brackets
I do almost all of my own bike maintenance. That means I want stuff that works well. Let’s start with the humble bottom bracket – that thing that your cranks are attached to.
There are way too many ways to stuff a bottom bracket into a frame. My favorite is the threaded bottom bracket shell. It’s low-maintenance and relatively fuss free.
The other popular alternative for full-suspension mountain bikes is the Pressfit bottom bracket. The Google machine has numerous stories of woe about these, as do shop mechanics.
29er or 26.5 Wheels?
For me, 29ers are the right choice. Not because there’s a huge difference between the two. It’s just that I have a 29er singlespeed, and I’m all for maximizing the commonality of spare parts – which is another good reason for the threaded bottom bracket, as well.
But if this is your first “good bike” or the first one in awhile, try them both. Or grab whichever one is a better deal.
I’ve ridden and am fine with either one.
On the other hand, I would never own a bike with 26.5+ wheels. They are ridiculous if you plan to do any climbing. I also don’t like the way they turn. They’re solid going downhill in a straight line.
What about a Dropper Seat Post?
It will make riding in difficult terrain easier, for sure. If you need to save a few clams, go without one. Buy a better one later, preferably from the shop that’s best at helping you out.
Don’t Get Hung Up on Parts
A lot of newer riders get caught up on the parts – especially derailleurs. But drivetrain parts, stems, handlebars and seatposts are easy to change.
Don’t lose sight of the frame, fork and wheels/tires. Those are the bits that really make your bike. I’d rather have a killer frame and fork with mediocre components than a stellar drivetrain on a crap frame and fork.
Keep in mind, Rock Shox makes everything from high-end to low-end. I wouldn’t go any lower than a Rock Shox Recon. Marzocchi and Fox don’t have anything crappy. I’ve had good luck with X-Fusion, too I rarely see Manitou, so I have nothing to say about them.
Who Puts This All in One Full-Suspension Bike?
Based on what I have here, Salsa would rocket to the top of my lists. Their Spearfish and Horsethief bikes check every box. They are also reasonably priced, starting at $2649 for a complete bike. If they had a frame-option for aluminum frames, I’d grab one and start building. Alas, they only offer carbon frames without parts on ‘em.
There are more-expensive options that at least meet the two-bottle rule: The Specialized Epic, the KTM Scarp, a few different models from Santa Cruz and Rocky Mountain. The Orbea Oiz. Also the Canyon Lux, Cannondale Scalpel and the Fezzari Signal Peak.
These are all good bikes. Some, though, are carbon.
A lot of you can disregard my “two water bottles” obsession. I realize it’s a weird personal quirk. You could argue the same about carbon fiber. I tend to keep bikes longer than most people — if you do, too, maybe you’re nodding in agreement.
If you’re going to ignore me about the water bottles, I recommend a look at Marin. They make some super well-equipped bikes for the money. Also, they’re not a direct-to-customer brand. That means you can see one before you buy. I haven’t seen them as rentals, which is a bummer.
But at least you can buy from a local shop and get the support and service you need.
Direct-to-Customer versus Local Bike Shop
I honestly don’t need much shop support. That said, I like to do what I can to support my local shops. They’re important and helpful.
The industry is moving more toward direct-to-consumer, and I’m starting to see hybrids. For example, I can order parts online through the web portals of some stores. They get credit for the sale, and I just need to either pick them up or have them delivered. I like that.
I’m not sure how you’ll be treated if you show up at the local shop needing help for your Canyon, Framed or Fezzari. Old habits die hard in the bike shop, which is part of the reason so many of them fail. A customer is a customer — and not every customer is going to like the bikes a shop offers. They need to do a better job of understanding this, and some are coming around.
That reminds me …
Buy the Shop, Not Just the Full-Suspension Bike
I recommend giving your money to people you actually like. If the shop staff isn’t friendly and excited to get you into the sport further, find a different shop.
Getting the right shop might be the most important part of how to buy a full-suspension bike. Make sure they’ll know how to help you when it’s time to have shocks rebuilt and pivots replaced.