DOES A GRAVEL BIKE NEED SUSPENSION?
It’s likely that because I began riding bikes on my own at the early age of about 5 or 6 in the Sapphire Mountains and Lolo National Forest, two mountainous ranges surrounding my hometown, which was then a mostly unpopulated mountainous area of the inland Northwest Rocky Mountains, I grew to adore and even love riding on endless dirt roads on my single speed 16” wheel bike. Kitted out in my unique cycling garb consisting of a tank top, jean cut-offs, car tire tread leather riveted sandals which were bomb-proof, and my favorite vintage baseball cap, I would ride and fish all day all summer long.
Lumber and timber companies’ massive timber yards, and their many mills, blanketed the valleys and river bottoms where the rugged semi-trucks would haul out their loads of freshly cut and trimmed pine trees. Bulldozers carved-out thousands of miles of amazing logging roads that most cars could not navigate and were only accessible with motorcycles, 4×4’s, or our trusty and beloved bicycles. These ruggedly tricky logging roads meandered through river valleys before they’d aim upward over the many mountaintops and smaller valleys up and down dirt roads and paved, county roads which would spill back into the Missoula Valley. It wasn’t uncommon to ride 60 miles, or more, in a day back in the early 1970’s mostly on what would be described today as “gravel.”
My first “gravel bike” was a Sears, Roebuck, and Co. steel framed 24” wheel 10-speed wonder bike I nicknamed “Bumble ” due to its bright yellow paint. Its black sidewall tires were probably 32c by today’s standards and although I rode those clinchers with innertubes at about 40 psi, I rarely had a sidewall tear or a puncture of any kind. Of course, I was young and weighed under 100 pounds, to this day I’m impressed at how few flats I encountered riding tens of thousands of miles mostly offroad and in what would be considered “very rugged” today.
If I went for a ride on those same rugged logging roads and the much smoother, pea-gravel washboarded roads today, I cannot help but wonder what they’d ride like with today’s modern gravel bike suspension systems. Would I still have so few flats as was the case in the 1970’s? (Now I’m jinxed!!!) Would I prefer a front and rear suspension, “full-sus, dual-suspension,” or just front suspension mounted on a new-geo whiz-bang gravy train modern gravel monster…formerly known as a “mountain bike?” Remember those wacky jalopies? But, I digress…
WHY IS IT CALLED A FORK?
Cannondale brings a lot of energy to the gravel bike front with their Topstone line of gravel bikes. Their new Kingpin’s stiff and light carbon frame dishes out 30mm of usable leaf-spring travel through flex zones in the frame’s seat tube, top tube, and chainstays. No moving parts to wear out is a big plus all while saving weight with Cannondale’s single leg suspension Carbon Lefty 1 helping keep the tire treads grabbing traction for speed. The Lefty 1 “fork” isn’t, by definition, a fork nor does it have stanchions. It stands on one column to the left side of the crown. I would imagine Cannondale chose the left side because the drivetrain is on the right side of the bike and doing so helps balance the bike’s weight. The Topstone is light and it is fast. Does that infer that gravel bikes and riders do, in fact, benefit from usable suspension (when attached to a lightweight frame)? Perhaps the combination of a very lightweight form of usable travel in a gravel suspension design outperforms both a fully rigid gravel bike of similar weight and a full suspension gravel bike weighing several pounds more overall.
LET’S GO ON A MAGIC CARPET RIDE!
I grew up listening to rock and roll and one of my favorites from the late 1960’s was Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride.” I’d be willing to wager Niner Bikes plays that famous song from 1968 in their heads while gravel grooving on their MCR 9 RDO full-suspension gravel bike. While this first fully suspended gravel bike rides well while seated and offers plenty of traction, it is not a bike intended for rampaging on gnarly, rooty, rutted out singletrack at speed. The MCR (Magic Carpet Ride) 9 RDO (Race Day Optimized) is not a lightweight bike. A fully assembled 53cm MCR 9 RDO weighs in at just over 25 pounds or 11.34 kilograms. When compared to BMC’s URS LT with its coil-sprung steerer MTT front fork and its mixture of XCell elastomer and dual-guide carbon stays offering 10mm of rear travel or Cannondale’s Topstone Carbon Lefty 1 (or their “Topstone Carbon 1 Lefty”) that’s a significant difference in weight.
Fox’s lightest ever suspension fork happens to be their new gravel bike suspension fork. The just released Fox 32 Taper-Cast Gravel is their lightest front suspension fork Fox has ever manufactured and seems to outperform their previous gravel suspension fork called the Fox 32 AX due to the new 32 TC weighing less, having more overall options, including more travel. While this new gravel fork is light and although it is the culmination of years of suspension development, the all-new gravel fork does have its limitations: frames without 1.5 inch lower headset bearings will not fit; 650b wheels will not fit; flat mount brakes will only fit 160mm and 180mm rotors and 140mm rotors will not fit; there is no remote or crown lockout feature. Fox offers the TC 32 in three different builds with 40mm or 50mm travel varying with or without different dampers and Kashima or their black Performance hard anodized stanchions. Mudguard, or fender, mounts help fend off the grimy splatter on wet gravel rides and their proprietary Kabolt 12x100mm thru-axle.
Released in late 2021, another superb gravel fork is the very competitive, lightweight RockShox Rudy Ultimate XPLR with its air damper offering either 30mm or 40mm of stroke. The Rudy Ultimate XPLR is just a tad bit heavier than the new Fox TC 32 though after a healthy drink to stay hydrated the weight differences are minimal. There is a lockout feature though most riders seem to leave the lockout open. Of course, there are mudguard mounts and flat mounts for disc brakes as well.
Lauf has been a recognized gravel suspension performance option for about a decade now and offers two 30mm travel gravel forks: the Grit and the Grit SL made with maintenance free glass fiber leaf springs. No air to pump or control through dampers, no oil or seals, no moving parts requiring rebuilding every 50 hours of riding time, and no stiction or added friction numbing your bike’s ridability. The Lauf fork is light, less expensive, and provides excellent worry-free suspension.
IF A SUSPENSION FORK COSTS LESS WHY DOES IT WEIGH MORE?
Additional players in the gravel suspension market, such as MRP with their impressive Baxter front suspension fork, unlike the Lauf Grit, is a twin-leg (stanchions) telescopic fork like the Fox, RockShox, and the Suntour GVX. Both MRP and Suntour opted for 32mm stanchions and 1.5 inch tapered steerer tube, though the MRP manufactures 40mm and 60mm of travel while Suntour offers 40mm, 50mm, and 60mm of travel stroke. Both MRP and Suntour forks are more affordable than other forks previously mentioned though they do weigh more, as well.
IS A FRONT OR FULL SUS GRAVEL BIKE FASTER?
“YES!” is the quick answer. A gravel bike built with suspension is (or can be) faster! A long-winded version of the same answer could lead one to believe that a rigid, much lighter gravel bike is (or could be) faster (than a gravel bike without suspension). I suppose, and you may suppose the same, that each form of gravel suspension, whether it be front, rear, or full-suspension is intended for a specific use. Bikepacking, mountainous dirt roads, adventure gravel riding in all conditions, racing, exploring from home beginning on pavement and then on to loamy, pea gravel are all different surfaces.
Some gravel riders prefer not having extra moving parts on their gravel bike which will eventually require maintenance and tuning. Further, perhaps some gravel beasts enjoy the organic sensation of feeling every rock and undulation under their tires. Yet, gravel bicycle manufacturers have done their research, let alone looking back at what happened to the mountain bike since RockShox released their RS-1 in 1990. When every mountain bike manufacturer began releasing popular bikes with front suspension, then front and rear suspension, the industry never looked back.
When Keith Bontrager and Paul Turner revealed their iteration of a full-suspension mountain bike at the Long Beach, CA industry trade show in 1987, not too many were taken aback by the thought of their rigid mountain bikes becoming human powered motorcycles. When we glance back to that time in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, it is difficult to imagine today’s modern mountain bike without suspension. The same will likely be true regarding the future builds and manufacturing of gravel bikes. In my 40 years in the bike industry, I am actually a bit stunned that full-suspension has not advanced even further than our current technology in all forms of cycling, let alone on gravel bikes. Consumer purchasing cost, manufacturing costs, and availability of materials is always an issue, of course.
TRACTION LIKE A SPIDER
Keeping the tires connected to the planet while, like a wolf spider crawling across a lakeshore beach of rocks and driftwood, maintaining sticky traction and control, as well as being suspended with comfort over rough terrain, is key. As long as the weight of the bike isn;t hindering the rider, as well as the efficiency of the pedaling effort isn’t compromised, it seems to this gravel rider that suspension will only advance and become commonplace on more bikes being released. We do need suspension on gravel bikes but some riders will prefer their bike fully rigid and as lightweight as possible. In time, we will even be riding full suspension road bikes with 100% efficiency (can of worms opened)!!