Suspension Shocks for Mountain Bikes

Mongoose mountain bike with full suspension.
(c) Mongoose Bikes

If you're thinking about getting a mountain bike, do you need to get shocks on it? It depends. It used to be the case that most basic mountain bikes had no shocks, and only high-end bikes came with front shocks. But these days pretty much anything resembling a mountain comes standard with front suspension, while the full suspension is more common on mid-range to high-end machines. This discussion will help you decide whether you want front shocks or full suspension. 

Front Suspension

Bikes that have shocks only on the front wheel, called front-suspension, have earned the nickname "hardtail," owing to the fixed rear end of the bike. As full-suspension bikes came into wide use, hard-tails fell out of favor for a while, but now they're back as a popular option for many types of riding and terrain. As mentioned above, very few new mountain bikes come without front suspension, so the decision to go with or without front shocks is often moot. And the fact is, most mountain biking is more fun and easier on your body with front shocks. 

How Front Shocks Help

The hardest hits a bike takes are in the front wheel, so front shocks are your first line of defense against taking a beating on the trail. But front shocks do more than help smooth the bumps. They also help you maintain control. Remember Newton's third law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction? When your front wheel hits an obstacle, the wheel bounces back in a shock wave that runs through your bike and your body. This can throw off your balance and make your wheel do funky things, like take an abrupt turn off the trail. Front shocks absorb much of this energy exchange to help your wheel and everything else stay on track.

Full Suspension

Full-suspension, or FS, bikes have front shocks and one or more rear shocks that provide suspension for the rear wheel. They are sometimes called "softtails." The rear shocks are some sort of spring or piston incorporated into the frame, and the rear part of the frame is hinged to allow the back wheel to move. Like front shocks, rear suspension absorbs energy from bumps and landings and has the same benefit of helping you maintain control. More than anything, rear suspension helps keep your rear wheel on the ground. This improves your control when descending and when climbing. If you've never ridden a full-suspension mountain bike, you'll be amazed when you do. You can descend much faster and with much better control than when riding a non-suspension or even a front suspension bike. You'll also notice that full-suspension means the bike isn't really designed for getting out of the saddle (pedaling when you're off the seat). This takes some adjustment. 

Suspension Pros and Cons

It used to be that hardtails could accelerate faster and climb better than full-suspension bikes because they were lighter and you didn't lose any transfer of energy to the rear shocks -- some of the pedaling force is absorbed by the shocks as opposed to going directly to your drivetrain -- but today's full-suspension bikes are coming closer to hardtails now in that respect.

If you are riding bumpy terrain, you'll notice (and likely lament) the lack of rear suspension in a hardtail bike pretty quick, especially feeling it in your back and backside. I'm getting older (40+) and am a bigger rider, over 200 lbs., so for me, I have found that FS is the way to go. However, that's not the case for everyone. Hardtail bikes are perfectly good for many riders, and it remains true that the bike is lighter and maintains more transfer of power to the drivetrain so you can accelerate faster.

So try out a couple of bikes, and see what you like. Unless you absolutely don't want shocks or are only going to be riding very smooth trails, go ahead and get shocks, at least in front. Going for full suspension is more of a decision because of the expense and extra weight.