Thursday, June 20, 2013

A History of My Full Suspension Bikes

I've always had kind of a love/hate thing going on with full suspension mountain bikes. On the one hand, I like their speed and comfort. On the other, I get tired of their complexity, maintenance, and even the easy speed--at my age, I don't need to go so fast anymore. Most of the time. So I tend to go through cycles: buy the full sus bike, enjoy it for a while, start yearning for the simplicity and clean lines of a hardtail, sell the full sus, repeat (and watch my bank account diminish)

Here's what I've had in the last 15 years or so:

My first full suspension bike was a 1996 Pro-Flex 856:

(not my bike shown). I was a young, single engineer (=significant disposable income.) So when Mountain Bike Action proclaimed this the best full suspension XC bike (or something like that), I marched down to Grandview Cycles and shelled out $2000 (!) for it. It had all the hot features back then: 8 speed Gripshift X rays, cantilever brakes, and maybe 1.75" of travel from the elastomers... on a warm day. I tried various ways to improve the suspension: drilling out the elastomer, breaking open the shock to change to a lighter oil, disassembling and lubing the dozen or so pivots on the fork... but it was never very good, even for 1996.

But it got much better the next year:

After a brief foray into a Titanium hardtail, I was back on a full suspension bike for the '98 (I think) Kenda/Knite Glo 12 hour race at Paint Creek SP (where team Sliced Bread Racing came in third in class, thank you). I built this up from a '97 Pro Flex 857 frame I bought on close out--see, I did learn something. It had real coil-over shocks, a very nice thermoplastic swingarm, and is actually one of the top three full sus bikes I've ever had. I did my first "fast lap" around Alum Creek on this (just Alum, there was no P1 or P2 then), leaving me in the parking lot shaking and shattered and satisfied. 

Of course, I then sold it in a fit of simplifying.

I went a couple of years before I got back in the full suspension game:

This is a 2003-ish Klein Palomino. I paid $2000 for it at the Bike Gallery in Portland, Oregon (maybe I hadn't learned after all, though I did save in sales tax). Great suspension action, but the oddball looks and paper thin tubing kind of turned me off. I sold the frame to a guy in Taiwan. Those overseas deals aren't always crooked.

The next FS bike also came highly recommended from MBA. This time, they were spot on:

It's an '03 Specialized Epic, with the parts from the Klein. This was a high tech, fast, cruise missile of a bike. But then I got into 29ers...

So a 29er full suspension bike should be good, right? Not always:

This Gary Fisher 29-something had all the handling grace of an ocean liner. Even better, it was cracked at the shock mount. Since I bought the frame used, I had no real recourse but to part it out and recover some of my cash. Which went to:

an '08 Specialized FSR 29er, bought used. I like 29ers, and this has a brain shock like my beloved Epic, but it just never came together. Too long, too slow, too squishy, too soft. This was at a point in my life where I was timing my laps around Alum Creek. My best time around P2 was about a minute faster on my rigid, singlespeed Gunnar. That was the death knell for this one--I flipped the FSR pretty quickly, but I didn't lose any money on it, at least.

I gave the full sus 29er one more try:

with a Salsa Spearfish (purchased new, on closeout) (look closely, you can see many of the parts from the FSR here). I just didn't really gel with this bike, either. It didn't have that bottomless, Cadillac ride of some suspension bikes, but it wasn't razor edged quick like my Epic, either. And I didn't like the non-standard bottom bracket and headset, either.

With the Spearfish gone, I was idly flipping through ebay looking for a 650B conversion candidate. Maybe, I reasoned, 29er + FS isn't a good equation for me.They just get too long and slow. Maybe 650B would be the ticket? Instead, I found yet another Specialized FSR with a $300 buy it now price. It wouldn't fit a 650B, but I wanted it:

I had some nice 26" Bontrager scandium wheels that came with a swap meet deal, and an X Fusion Enix fork that I had intended for the 650B project. Both nice pieces that complement this frame well. I love the central shock forging and the welded monocoque top tube:

These kind of details aren't found on the newer versions of this frame--I can only see areas where they cut cost (as an engineer, I've been there and done that) I have it set at 120mm rear/100mm front, and it makes for a sharp handling, fun package. The full suspension makes up for the smaller wheels lack of stability compared to a 29er, while still keeping the easy flickability of a 26er. Even when I think about downsizing my bike fleet, this FSR gets a pretty easy pass. Too much fun for not much money. It's a keeper--and I don't say that lightly or often.


  1. Where was the 650B interfering in he stumpy swingarm? Or was it a travel issue? Thanks!

  2. I haven't tried a 650B on the rear of the FSR, but it looks like it wouldn't fit. A 650B will fit on the Enix fork, though.

  3. If you happen to have a 650 rear wheel, would you mind test-fitting/jamming it into the stumpy's swingarm in a blog post? There seems to be a lot of data for 07+ conversons, but the information for the 04-06 FSR is inconclusive.
    Search results are complicated with Specialized's release of an actual stumpy 650b.

    1. I don't have any 650B gear around now, but I'm pretty sure I checked this when I first bought the frame, and it wasn't close to fitting. If you send me your email address, I can send you some pictures of the clearance with a 26" wheel back there.


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