In the trenches: full-suspension vs. hardtail mountain bikes

Evan Martin is a Goldstream Bicycles customer who’s bought road bikes, hardtail cross-country, and full-suspension mountain bikes from us. He spend a lot of time on a Devinci Cameleon XC mountain bike, followed by a Devinci Dixon all-mountain full-suspension. We often have customers asking about the differences between hardtail and full-suspension, and Evan graciously took the time to share his experience with us, and to let us share it with all of you.

I gave up mountain biking and started road biking during university due to the shortage of good trails close to where I lived. After years away from mountain biking, I decided to pick it up again about a year ago. Not knowing whether or not I was serious about picking it back up or any knowledge of the local trails around Victoria, I purchased the lowest quality bike I felt comfortable riding black diamond trails on. This led me to the Devinci Cameleon, a hard tail cross country bike with mechanical disc brakes. I rode the Cameleon for a full year, averaging about a ride a week. Starting off I rode a lot of local trails around Langford including Thetis Lakes and Royal Roads. After getting some confidence back I progressed to Harbourview area where a typical loop would be to leave the Harbourview parking lot climb to the Tera Nova Trail and cross over into Sooke Hills ending with Sooke Road back into Langford. After about 6 months I started frequenting Hartland. I would ride most of what’s available at Hartland save for the most difficult downhills such as Organ Donor, Hot Cherry, Birth Control, Small Craft Warning, and Dirt Fall. My most frequently rode trails at Hartland are Twister and Dave’s Line, followed by Who’s Your Daddy and Night Shift.

After a year of riding it was obvious that I had fallen back in love with mountain biking and that as long as I lived in Victoria it would be regular part of my life. I had also started to learn the local trails and identify the style of riding that I enjoyed. It also become obvious that the Cameleon wasn’t the right bike for me or my riding. After spending the last 4 months researching bikes and browsing bike shops, I purchased a Denvinci Dixon that was special ordered from Goldstream Bikes. While still remaining in the cross country to all mountain genre of bikes, the Dixon was probably the farthest thing from the Cameleon I could have purchased: full suspension vs hard tail, hydraulic vs mechanical disc brakes, slacker geometry, air vs coil fork, double vs triple crank, the list goes on; not to mention the obvious difference in price point and build quality.

I’ve now had a chance to ride the Dixon for four long rides both at Hartland and Partridge Hill. When first riding the Dixon, I didn’t get the instant gratification I expected. Turns out that making such a vast change in bikes has a learning curve. Each ride on the Dixon is pushing me further along the curve and the more I ride it the more I love it. Unfortunately I cannot compare the Dixon to other all mountain bikes, but I’ve decided to write this to share with others my experience is switching from a hard tail cross bike to a new all mountain bike. Hopefully what I’ve learnt in the process will help others decide what traits they want in a bike to match their riding style.

After riding a hard tail cross country bike, one of the most noticeable differences was that long steady climbs (the ones found on many fire roads) are more difficult, due to the increased weight of the full suspension and the all mountain geometry. However, here is where the learning curves started to help out. I have found a few things that make hill climbing easier. Reducing the travel on the front fork makes a dramatic change in the riding position, placing me much further over the bars making climbing significantly easier. I notice very little if any compression in the rear suspension while climbing, but do find that locking the rear and front suspensions makes the bike feel a little more like my hard tail, which helps if the climb is smooth. This can make a significant difference on long climbs, but I tend not to bother on short climbs. On rougher climbs, the rear suspension reduces the amount of fore and aft balance required to keep traction, allowing more attention to be placed on pedaling and keeping on the line.

It is definitely easier climbing over obstacles with the Dixon than it was with the Cameleon, whether they are small steps or steep sections of climbs. It seems like the main reason is that the rear tire is kept on the ground by the suspension, keeping better traction. The rear suspension also makes it less sensitive to how high you rise you off seat when lifting the back tire up over a lip allowing me to get back on the saddle and regaining traction quicker. Another thing that I have noticed is that the rear tire keeps a better line. I had problems with the Cameleon keeping the rear tire on my line when the going got rough. It tended to slip to the side if the rock was sloped. With the rear suspension it seems to be easier to keep the tire on the high points and out of the grooves.

The higher bottom bracket and smaller chainrings allows it to roll over larger drops and bigger logs & rocks without striking the chainring. This was a huge issue with the Cameleon as was obvious by the how frequently I was damaging the chainrings. So far, I have not touched the chainring on anything, despite rolling over and climbing over rocks that the Cameleon would bring up solid in. However, despite the higher bottom bracket clearance, it seems like I’m striking my pedals a little more often. I’m not sure if this due to the drop in bottom bracket height when the suspension is compressed or if I’m simply able to ride it harder than the Cameleon.

Another noticeable difference was that the Dixon could not turned as sharply as the Cameleon. This is a drawback of the Dixon when riding both up and down switchbacks. One interesting feature of the Dixon is that it has an adjustable length seat stay, which slightly changes the geometry. In the low geometry, I found switchbacks were very tough. Changing the link in the seat stay to the high geometry setting seems to have help with this. The Dixon still doesn’t turn on a dime like the Cameleon used to. I don’t think this will limit what I can ride, but makes it requires better balance on sharp switchbacks.

When tipping down hill the advantages of the Dixon over the Cameleon are obvious. On flowy sections of trail the Dixon eats the bumps, rock, and roots giving a feeling of total control. The Cameleon would bounce around and the only way to stay in control was to slow down so that tires stayed on the ground. Its incredible the amount of speed that can be obtained on these types of trails. I rode a trail the other day and couldn’t believe how short it felt.

As the hills get steeper, the geometry of the Dixon is very noticeable. I could bike fairly steep hills on the Cameleon, but once they started to get rough, the Cameleon just couldn’t handle it, or I couldn’t handle the Cameleon is probably more proper. The travel in the front fork, likely combined with the slacker head tube angle, allows the Dixon to handle the rough spots. I don’t get the feeling like I need to be sitting on my back tire for the wheel to roll over a root on a steep descent.

On smooth roll overs, the modulation available in the hydraulic brakes allows the bike to crawl over things at speeds significantly slower than the Cameleon could. I always felt that once the hills got steep, there was no controlling the speed of the Cameleon. I found that occasionally I would try to revert to the back brake, which of course just made the situation worse. I was generally able to keep this in check by constantly adjusting the front brake. However, so far the Dixon has provided better braking control on steep descents.

Another noticeable difference is the handle bar width. I have not found any noticeable difference in handling that I can relate directly to the handle bars, but they sure are irritating on tight trails. I will definitely be experimenting with bar width once I get familiar with how the Dixon handles.

What do you think? Feel free to comment away!