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By Matt Pacocha
The 2009 men’s podium at Mountain Bike Nationals at SolVista Resort in Granby, Colorado, looked like this: First place: Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski, Gary Fisher SuperFly 29er; Second place: Adam Craig, Giant Anthem X Advanced full suspension; Third: Sam Schultz, Gary Fisher SuperFly 29er; Fourth: Jeremiah Bishop, Cannondale Scalpel full suspension; Fifth: Jay Henry, Gary Fisher SuperFly 29er.
Sixth place did go to a traditional 26-inch hardtail (Andy Shultz, Tomac Type X), but seventh, eighth, and tenth places all went to 29ers or full suspension bikes. In fact Kona’s Barry Wicks took tenth place on Kona’s Hei Hei 2-9 Deluxe, a 29-inch full suspension bike.
So is the 26-inch hardtail dead? It sure looks that way on the domestic circuit. But why? The simple answer is technology. There are two distinct areas where technology has made breakthroughs: Suspension performance and efficiency and weight reduction.
Full suspension technology and cross-country racing has a bumpy history. Racers are always searching for speed (whether perceived or real) and when you’re bobbing around in your saddle or bogging down on climbs, it’s not perceived to be (nor is it) efficient.
While it took a bit of patience on the part of the World Cup-caliber racer, suspension technology is finally to a point where it is truly more efficient than a rigid hardtail. We know this because we carried out our own study here at VeloNews (A Racer’s Edge, VeloNews July 2009) and proved — to ourselves and hopefully others — that a full-suspension bike is faster than a traditional hardtail propelled with the same wattage.
And there’s another example that signifies that full-suspension bikes have come of age for cross-country racing: It’s the simple fact that the sport’s top World Cup contending professionals are racing them. Racers including Sauser, Craig, Paulison, Näf and others are all turning up at the races on full-suspension bikes, and it’s a phenomenon that’s becoming the norm rather than the exception.
Some of the latest suspension technology has come from true breakthroughs. The best breakthrough example may be the research and development done by Fox and Specialized to invent the inertia lockout that was first found on Fox’s TerraLogic forks and now Specialized’s BrainFade-equipped full suspension bikes and Future Shock suspension forks. So a racer like Specialized’s Todd Wells can compete in an entire cross-country race without having to flip, or think about flipping, a lockout lever.
Other technological developments come from the simple mantra these companies have — lighter, stiffer, more efficient — to legitimately improve their products. Examples are aplenty here. Every suspension company is working to make the next year’s product lighter and perform better. Fox has a new FIT damper in its 2010 forks that knocks considerable weight out, while making the forks even plusher and more adjustable. RockShox is bringing back a carbon crown on its benchmark SID fork next year, plus it introduced the industry’s first handlebar-mounted hydraulic lockout called X-Loc, as part of the new SRAM XX group. The lockout adds less than 20-grams to its forks.
Not more than a year or two ago, it was a challenge to reduce a 26-inch wheeled hardtail’s weight to the 20-pound mark. Metal bikes all seemed to hover around the 21-pound mark and full suspension bikes all posted up in the 24- to 26-pound range. Back then, you could see the carbon revolution coming, but now it’s truly here. Today’s carbon technology allows manufacturers to build 20-pound full suspension bikes, sub-20-pound 29ers and 26-inch hardtails that, amazingly, hover in the 16- to 18-pound range.
Now technology lets racers choose the benefits of a specific bike platform (29er, full suspension) without any real drawback. Take newly crowned national cross-country champion Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski who rides for Subaru-Gary Fisher. He’s whole heartedly thrown himself into the 29-inch wheel revolution, as has his sponsor, but it’s only now, since Fisher figured out how to build him a super light big wheeled bike with light wheels and tires, that he has advantage over those on light 26-inch hardtails.
The big wheels likely kept him safe on the national course’s treacherous downhill because of a better ability to keep a rider centered and rolling over obstacles on the steeps. Another technological advantage JHK had were his prototype 400-gram tires. Slow acceleration plagues 29ers because of their heavier rotating weight, but when you minimize those penalties, as Bontrager has with its carbon wheels and prototype tires, then the penalty can be justified for the advantage.
Another good technology-driven example are the choices available to Specialized rider Todd Wells. We saw him riding on a 29-inch wheeled bike for most of the early season domestic races and he was planning on racing his big-wheeled bike at nationals, until he saw the course. Knowing that he has a full suspension S-Works Epic that weighs around 20 pounds, just about the same as the 29er, he realized that the rough, straight-up, straight-down course better suited the full-suspension Epic. It was seemingly the right choice. Had the course been a roller coaster like Sea Otter, the big wheels would likely have been the superior choice.
Finally there’s racers like Giant’s Adam Craig, who have ‘gotten it’ for a long time — ‘it’ being the benefits of suspension. He’d be apt to tell you how not sweet it would be to ride a dirt bike, super moto motorcycle or race a rally car without suspension. Knowing this, he would then ask you why the heck would you want to race a mountain bike without suspension.
For Craig, it has been more of a matter of patience with his sponsors during the product creation process, while doing everything he can to help them develop the fastest full-suspension bike he can have to race. Unlike many of his peers, he wants to race a suspension bike. It has just been a matter of making one work, then making it lighter so that he can compete with all the racers who haven’t gotten it yet.
Is the 26-inch hardtail dead? Yes, I think so. Of course, you’ll continue to see the traditionalists and Europeans using them. And you’ll also some of the world’s most talented riders, like Orbea’s Julien Absalon, on them. But I would suspect that if these racers aren’t careful they’ll eventually be caught out. Maybe then, if the manufacturers can keep the steep technological development curve going, it’ll mean our U.S. racers who are willing to accept 29-inch wheels and full suspension will have the upper hand they need to win some big races.