I Rode a Singlespeed for 3 Years. Then I Tried Full Suspension Again.

[I originally published this hardtail versus full suspension bike blog post in March of 2020, right when COVID-19 started to hit. It just got a major update. Read on for the fun!]

I’ve been riding a singlespeed mountain bike for the last three years. During that time, my 2011 Santa Cruz Superlight sat in the garage doing absolutely nothing.

A recent ride with a friend made me wonder what would happen if I:

  • Pulled the Santa Cruz out of deep storage and ran a lap on my local bike/equipment test track.
  • Rode the same on a modern slack-angled full-suspension bike.

During the ride with my friend, I noticed our bikes were the exact opposite from each other: My Domahidy Ti belt-drive bike has fairly traditional geometry. My friend’s bike was carbon fiber with barely any stem to speak of — and a generous amount of travel. I noticed where our bikes excelled and fell short (see the video for some of the fun we had).

And I got curious.

Hardtail Versus Full Suspension for a Day

I topped the Superlight’s tires off with some Stan’s sealant and checked the shock air pressure. Then, it was time to ride.

I’ve been on the Domahidy 29er since I’ve been using Strava heavily. I have a ton of data on it from my local trails. So this would be a perfect test for my Superlight.

I felt like the more slippery climbs were a bit easier on it. I definitely felt faster on one particular rocky descent.

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My Superlight when it was still considered a modern bike instead of a throwback.

Overall, the Superlight didn’t feel as stable or as quick to handle as the Domahidy. That titanium hardtail holds its speed and accelerates with tons of punch.

And there I was thinking about gears again. Especially cumbersome with a 3X9 system versus the modern 1X systems. With a singlespeed, all my concentration is on picking the line and braking.

Enough Feelings – What About the Data?

My Strava times shocked my gizzard. The Superlight was nowhere near as fast on this ride as my top times on the singlespeed (which is also slightly undergeared). It was 52 seconds slower over my nearly 4-mile lap.

That rocky downhill I mentioned? It tied my typical time on the singlespeed hardtail versus full suspension. No faster even over chop and small drops.

I felt like I was working hard, but not worked over (I’d ridden 40 miles on my road-plus bike the day before).

This bears mentioning: I admit that I’m kind of a chicken. My priority is to finish every ride in one piece. So I ride in control, more Iceman than Maverick.

What I Expected

My prediction was that the Superlight would make me noticeably faster. Maybe by as much as a minute.

hardtail versus full suspension

I expected its top-end speed and ability to crunch over some of the rocky sections to win the day — even against the Domahidy’s efficiency.

What about weight? I have no idea what either bike weighs. But the Santa Cruz Superlight has always been a light-ish full suspension bike. Certainly lighter than the slack dropper-equipped trail bikes of today.

What I didn’t expect was for the longer 29er to carve corners so much better and to give up next to nothing to the Superlight in rocky downhill bits. I’m at a loss for words.

There are still question marks with the singlespeed hardtail versus full suspension issue: How would I do riding the Santa Cruz on long rides, like the Fat Tire 40 or the 50-mile Tour of the White Mountains? (The answer to that: If it rains beforehand, the belt drive singlespeed will straight-up murder every other bike I could pick. The mud up there can change the game.)

hardtail versus full suspension
This bike is unstoppable, especially in wet weather.

What Next for Hardtail Versus Full Suspension?

I’m eager to repeat this experiment with a modern bike.

I may also rent a bike to test somewhere like McDowell Mountain Regional Park. The Long Loop there is currently in chewed-up condition. During the Cactus Cup and Frenzy Hills races, I got rattled pretty hard back there.

I’ll update this post with more info and data when I have something to add — I hope that’s soon!

THE UPDATE

Finally Testing a Modern Dualie

Almost one year after the quarantine scuttled my plans to demo a full-suspension bike with this new “progressive” geometry, I finally got my opportunity.

The Rocky Mountain Demo Tour made a visit to Rage Bicycles, just a few miles away from my home in Scottsdale. This also meant an apples-to-apples comparison on trails I know well — Papago is a short pedal away from Rage.

rocky mountain demo tour
The friendly Rocky Mountain Demo Tour van.

The bike closest to my preferences was the Rocky Mountain Instinct Carbon 70, a nearly $7,000 monster with a Fox 36 EVOL fork. That’s 150mm of travel in the front, 140 in the back. It was set up tubeless, with some CushCore type of insert in the tires. It also had a dropper seatpost.

I spent about 90 minutes/16 miles on the Instinct. It made a good first impression with crisp shifting and a pretty efficient feel as I cruised on the canal bank to Papago. I noticed that it responded to small amounts of handlebar input, probably because of that super-short stem.

My first real dirt was at Hole in the Rock, a well-known short climb followed by a short rocky downhill. It took zero concentration for the Instinct to handle the climb. It also knocked off the downhill easily, and this was the only time I deployed the dropper post. But when I got the numbers from Strava, the Instinct was nearly 10 seconds slower up the climb, and a second slower on the downhill. This would become a theme.

Taking Aim at My Record

My real test for the Instinct was the 3.8-miles Pivin Loop, a handy litmus test for messing with bike, tires and suspension.

I was definitely running the Instinct hard. Big suspension, big tires, outstanding brakes. Why not?

Apparently, those big treads don’t like loose rocks. The front tire washed, causing me to dab. Obviously, this was not gonna be a record-setting loop. Sure enough, I was nearly three minutes off my best time.

Rocky Mountain Instinct 70 Carbon
A look at the Rocky Mountain Instinct 70 Carbon I demoed.

I did a second lap, concentrating on riding clean. It was the slowest lap I ever turned at the Pivin Loop, nearly 5 minutes off my best pace and about 4 off of a typical run.

So it suffices to say that, on my Domahidy Ti singlespeed and even my outdated 26er-wheeled 27-speed Santa Cruz, I would handily beat my doppelganger who’s on an Instinct 70 on the type of terrain I usually ride. So that’s two major points in my hardtail versus full suspension debate.

I think it’s fair to expect that I’d get faster on the Instinct as I got used to it. I also think riders with different skillsets might get more out of it than I did.

So Why is This Bike So Slow?

This is actually a very good bike. I want to get that out of the way. I can think of a bunch of black trails at Brown’s Ranch and South Mountain where the Instinct Carbon 70 would be an asset with its dropper and long travel.

But that’s not my type of riding. I am not the kind of guy who has a quiver of bikes. I want something that can let me haul ass when I race and requires minimal maintenance.

And honestly, there’s just a fun factor in that belt-drive singlespeed that makes no sense on paper. It makes me feel like flying a Colonial Viper every time I ride it.

I did notice that the Instinct Carbon 70 was a hefty bike, probably exacerbated by the CushCore inserts dropper seatpost. A lot of the weight seemed concentrated to the rear, giving that bike one hell of a bodonkadonk.

Rocky Mountain Instinct Got Back!

I’m very curious about what I’d think of an Element Carbon 70, which is far more race-oriented. I also don’t want to give the impression that I’m slamming Rocky Mountain: I’m willing to bet that I’d have the same issues with any trail bike.

The Conclusion: Hardtail Versus Full Suspension

This makes me go back to a point I’ve made many times before: Someone needs to bring back the lightweight, cost-effective, short-travel dual suspension bike. At one point, Santa Cruz made a $1,700 Superlight dualie that was about 28 pounds. Someone needs to bring a bike like that back. I realize it’s not 2005 anymore, sure. But could you get a light, responsive, modernized XC speed machine for $2,200? I’ll bet someone out there could do it.

I think that, to be as fair as possible, I also need to do another demo with something a little more race-oriented.

Keep in mind, this might be exactly the bike you need. But if your preferences are more like mine, you might have to swipe left on this one.

5 of the Best Places to Mountain Bike in Phoenix, Ariz.

EDITOR’S NOTE (May 1, 2012): This post is really old. I will publish an update soon. Subscribe (it’s free) in the box to the right so you don’t miss it!

EDITOR’S NOTE PART II (May 11, 2012): UPDATED and cooler than ever.

I just recently ran into an old classmate at an ad hoc high school reunion. He’d moved from the area, and mentioned that he was getting more into mountain biking, but isn’t sure where to ride here. Naturally, I promised him some tips … and then I thought, “hey, maybe some other people besides Mitch would dig some advice!”

So here are 5 places in the metro Phoenix area where you can ride. Each will offer something different. These are in no particular order. I’ve linked each to my buddy at MTBikeAZ.com, who has produced some fine maps and profiles!
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McDowell Mountain Regional Park: There is something for everyone here. The Competitive Loops host all sorts of races. You can choose from the Long Loop (about 9 miles), the Sport Loop and the Technical Loop (both about 3 miles). You can string them together for some uberloops. All require some skill to handle steep drops, breaking bumps, rocks and lots of loose nastiness. Speeds can run high. Leave your iPod at home … rattlesnakes love hanging out trailside, and your earbuds will mask their warning signal. And watch the trail closely – that big rock you’re zooming around just might be a desert tortoise! Also, the park offers a 15-mile loop called The Pemberton, aka Trail B. This is technically easier, a varitable mountain bike super highway. By the way, the MTBikeAZ site’s map of this is outdated. Pick up a fresh one when you come into the park. Some snobby riders will label it boring: Not true. It has all sorts of offshoots to explore – and if you’re not up for a 15-mile loop, it has lots of connections back to the trailhead to cut it short, some of which are so fast that you’ll arrive at the bottom before the sound of your tires on the ground does. The park entry fee is $6, and it’s a screaming deal: The race loops feature a beaut of a new bathroom. Trail B’s launching pad has a groovy restroom AND a vending machine!

Pima and Dynamite: This is great for winter epic rides. You can just go forever and really get away from the red tile roofs. As you head away from the intersection, you’re on a false flat as you roll your way up. The terrain undulates and wiggles beautifully. Lots of hardpacked stuff, but it gets more wild and wooly the further north you go. Bring lots of food, water, sunscreen and tubes! Epic high desert scenery makes it even better. The terrain can be tricky and the speeds can be high. I rode here once with a friend, and we went home bloody, thirsty and late: His wife banned me from their house for one year, saying I brought him home sun-baked, penniless and smelling of cheap perfume. I only participated in two of the three! No bathrooms or facilities of any sort here. A bummer … this is State Trust Land, which means you need a permit. Yes, you really do. It’s pretty cheap, though it requires prior planning.
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Phoenix Mountain Preserve: Trail 100 is the mainstay of this ludicrously awesome urban park. The visionaries who set land aside for this gem deserve medals. There’s a trail at Tatum just south of Doubletree Ranch Road. You can ride this monster clear to 7th Avenue … and don’t forget all the side trails! Bring a GPS for sure so you can log everything you ride. Some terrain can be tricky: Crossing the Dreamy Draw freeway and heading west takes you up a few nasty climbs, and into a hideous, rocky wasteland. That eventually turns into some wild, good-time singletrack. If you’re lucky, you’ll see a snake, a bunny or three or even a ringtail. There are actually water and toilet facilities scattered around, which is nice.
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Papago Park: You experienced riders out there better stop snickering. You were once a newbie, a squid, a beginner. And I’ll bet this is where you cut your teeth. Mountain biking isn’t just about YOUR ride – it’s about what you pass on to create a new generation of riders. And Papago is the place to train your apprentices. And let’s face it: this place is fun. That four-mile loop around the old golf course is fast as hell, with beautiful sweeping turns that’ll help even the stoniest veteran keep them skills up. Parking, bathrooms, vending machines and water fountains are scattered all around. As your skills (or those of your apprentice) improve, head south to some short but steep climbs and a few super-secret drop-offs way south toward the freeway.
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Fantasy Island North Singletrack (FINS): This is a new trail, and I pumped out 900 words or so about it for the awesome Mountain Flyer magazine. It’s a bit controversial, though, as you’ll see from the article. But we won’t worry about that, for now. Let’s focus on this: People who know and love mountain biking built this beast, and did a right bang-up job. They smashed a lot of miles (15 and counting at last check) into a really small footprint. It’s all hardpacked and groomed. These trails are fast, like bowling balls on a greased bobsled track. There are some switchbacked climbs that’ll burn your legs and scald your lungs. Lots of turning, barely any straightaway flying; that’s to keep the speeds reasonable and hone your turning and braking skills. No facilities here, either, so stock up on the water and be willing to pee outside.
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Okay, I know some people’s rides got the shaft. I know there will be weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth. I’ll give some explanations below about why some got left off the list, but here’s the bottom line: If you don’t like my choices, go write in your own blog about your favorite rides!

Onto those that didn’t make it:

South Mountain: The Mormon Loop, the National and the Desert Classic are legendary around here. But you know, they’re just too crowded and eroded to be my favorites.

Hawes Loop: Too much road pedaling to fully access everything.

Estrella Mountain Regional Park: Because it’s the most suck-a-licious, pointless, loose-rocked POS trail I’ve ever turned tires over.

A few quick mountain bike notes about Wandering Justin: Riding since 1992. Ex shop mechanic. Raced in several 12-hour races (including one win in co-ed sport category), several epic singletrack races, one state series. Rides a 2006 Gary Fisher Cake 2 DLX, but likes Santa Cruz and Specialized way better. Has been (falsely) accused many times for gross malfeasance, negligence and nincompoopery leading to riding parties getting lost.