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Vintage Full-Suspension Mountain Bikes: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

By Bruce Lin
Full-suspension bikes are now so commonplace that many riders take them for granted. But 30 years ago, the concept of suspension on a mountain bike was essentially a fantasy. It took great determination and bold experimentation by some of mountain biking’s most visionary pioneers to create a foundation for the amazing bikes we have today.

The 2020 model year is almost here and an exciting crop of new fully suspended bikes is on its way. So, let’s take a look back through time at some of the most innovative suspension designs in our vintage mountain bike museum. These are the early ancestors of today’s full-suspension bikes. Some are good, some are bad, and some are ugly. It would be hard to convince anyone to ride one of these bikes now, but in their day, there was nothing more exotic. In their own ways, these bikes helped pave the way to the amazing machines we ride today.

1985 - Brian Skinner’s MCR Descender

Brian Skinner helped shape the sport by developing some of its most iconic products including Shimano Deore and Deore XT components, the Answer Taperlite bars, A-Tac stem, and Accu-Trax fork, and the Onza Porcupine tires and bar ends. But his most innovative creation was the MCR Descender, which was first conceived in 1982. 
MCR Descender Mountain Bike
Skinner rode motocross and knew that suspension was the key to improving off-road performance. The MCR Descender he designed is credited as the world’s first rear-suspension mountain bike. Yes, that's right, a “rear suspension” bike. The descender was designed before telescopic suspension forks for bicycles were invented, so it still uses a traditional rigid steel fork.

Skinner would have liked to have had front suspension as well, but it was beyond his business's means at the time. He also felt that rear suspension was the more important of the two. His thinking was that a rider’s weight was over the center of the bike, so by placing a pivot in the center, the front wheel would still be able to pivot up, activating the suspension and absorbing some of the impacts. How well this actually worked is questionable.

Skinner tried to augment the suspension with mixed wheel sizes. The larger 26” front would help absorb bumps, handle rough terrain, and activate the suspension, while the smaller 24” rear wheel would be stiffer to handle extra load from the suspension and afford more room for the linkage.
MCR Descender Shock Linkage
The Descender's design was focused on how to fit the shock and still have it “look cool.” The first Descender prototype was built by VVA (Victor Vincente of America) and a second was built with the help of Dan Hanebrink. The production version of the Descender seen here had its prominent suspension linkage modeled after a Kawasaki KX250, and in 1984, Champion Bicycles produced the finished frames which cost $650.

The Descender came with a massive (for the time) 6” of rear travel, the equivalent of most modern enduro bikes. If the bike was bottomed out, the rear wheel had a tendency to rub the suspension strut so there were spacers available to reduce the travel if desired. A coil shock was in the original plans, but Skinner didn’t like the idea of supplying different coil weights and ended up buying gas shocks from a California company called MotoSports as it went out of business. In all, only 25 MCR Descenders were made before Skinner moved on to work with Shimano developing products.

1991 - Travis Brown’s Manitou

In 1990, Manitou founder Doug Bradbury designed and built one of the first suspension forks for bicycles in his garage. While most modern forks generally use an air spring, the groundbreaking Manitou fork used elastomers. These were polymer cylinders that acted like a spring and could be tuned using varying levels of firmness. The fork provided a modest 2" of travel and worked as long as it wasn’t too cold outside. It took off, and at the 1990 World Championships, John Tomac and cross-country winner Juli Furtado rode Manitou forks.
Manitou Full Suspension Mountain Bike
The next year, Bradbury used his Manitou fork to create one of the first full-suspension mountain bikes. He used a second, reconfigured Manitou fork in place of the seat stays, with a pivot behind the bottom bracket, and the second pivot at the top of the stays to articulate the rear end. This unique Manitou mountain bike was more than just a concept or prototype, it was a real race bike, piloted by Travis Brown in the 1992 race season.

At the time, this twin-fork design was the simplest solution to add rear suspension to a bike, and it allowed the Manitou to be comparable to rigid or hardtail bikes in terms of efficiency. However, it was not the most effective design for absorbing bumps. The fork legs were pointed away from the direction of most impacts, which greatly reduced their effectiveness. Because of the non-linkage design, the rear wheel could only move forward and up. Most modern suspension designs provide a rearward axle path at the beginning or end of the stroke so that is easier for the suspension to move into travel and absorb bumps.

1993 - Missy Giove’s Yeti ARC ASLT

Missy “The Missile” Giove was a woman known for her personality and style as much as she was for her riding. Her wild hair, attitude, eccentricities, fearlessness, and undeniable speed earned her a devoted following, World Cup wins, and a downhill World Championship. This Yeti ARC ASLT was her race bike for the 1993 downhill World Cup season.
Yeti ARC ASLT Mountain Bike
Yeti was one of the early adopters of suspension on mountain bikes. Manitou forks were a common sight on team bikes, and Giove’s used a Manitou 2 fork with some hybrid Manitou 3 and RockShox Judy internals. The left leg has a RockShox Judy spring, and the right has a stack of Manitou 3 elastomers, modified to make the suspension feel more active.

For the rear suspension, the ARC had a simple low-single-pivot design. It’s primitive by today’s standards, but it was state of the art at the time. Similar single-pivot designs became common for many early suspension designs because it kept the suspension simple and reliable. Yeti even continued to use a more refined linkage driven single-pivot design on its ASR cross country bike until 2018. 

The suspension drives a custom Risse shock built specifically for the ARC. It was robust enough that it still held air when the bike was rediscovered over 20 years later. Risse Racing Technology is based out of Oregon and continues to design and manufacture suspension components, and they were able to fully restore and service the shock so the bike is actually still rideable.

The shock was attached to the frame with custom welded plates that had two mounts, allowing the bike’s geometry and travel to be slightly altered depending on if the shock was mounted in the high or low position. It’s a design feature that was far ahead of its time and now a large number of trail and enduro bikes feature some form of adjustable geometry.

The Risse shock is likely the plushest and highest quality vintage shock in our museum, but it was let down by the flexy rear end of the ARC, which tended to sway and flex wildly. With the suspension set in the “low” position, the ARC only had about an inch of travel, but still managed to pedal quite poorly. Despite all this, Giove was able to pilot the bike to third overall in the 1993 season and third at the World Championships in Metabief, France.

1995 - Kurt Stockton’s Kestrel Rubicon Comp Kamikaze

Kestrel designed the Rubicon Comp as a cross-country bike with four inches of front suspension travel and nearly five in the back. It used a modified high single-pivot layout with a top tube that acted as a pivoting beam. A link connected the swingarm to the articulated top tube so that when the rear wheel went up, the saddle went down. This was intended to increase leverage on the Rubicon's shock when the rider was seated, making the ride more forgiving when pedaling in the saddle.
Kestrel Rubicon Comp Kamikaze Mountain Bike
The carbon fiber Rubicon Comp was already one of the most radical bikes of its time, but professional racer Kurt Stockton took it to a new level with his dual-shock Mammoth Kamikaze Special. One night, Stockton was tinkering in his garage noticed that part of the Rubicon's linkage appeared to be about the same length as the single Fox Alps shock that was already fitted to the bike.
Kestrel Rubicon Comp Kamikaze Shock Linkage
As an experiment, he replaced the linkage with a second Fox Alps shock and it nearly doubled the travel to eight inches. The two shocks allowed Stockton to run less pressure in each which provided a much more forgiving spring rate. Increasing the travel also allowed him to run more sag, which slacked out the Rubicon's head angle and improved the bike's handling at speed. Even though downhill courses of the era weren't super gnarly, having more travel meant you were less likely to flat. For the Mammoth Kamikaze race, Stockton ran a massive 63t chainring to provide high enough gears to continue pedaling at 50-60kph. 

Despite the downhill improvements, the Rubicon was still a cross-country bike. The articulated top tube design was intended for seated cross country riding and, as a downhiller, Stockton obviously spent less time sitting than his climbing counterparts. Even with two shocks, more travel, and the slacker head angle, Stockton still felt the Rubicon’s geometry and suspension weren’t quite enough when courses got steep and gnarly.

The equipment of the time also wasn’t robust enough to handle the rigors of downhill racing. The long and slender swingarm driving the rear suspension was very flexy laterally, and it actually snapped during a race in 1994. Kestrel had to quickly build an updated, fully custom version with additional layers of carbon fiber. The fork and shocks worked well enough for cross-county, but Stockton would blow them out regularly when he subjected them to downhill abuse.

1998 - Myles Rockwell’s Cannondale Fulcrum DH

The legendary Volvo-Cannondale team was the first time a major corporation had committed a large budget to the sport. A huge amount of resources went into R&D. The team hired big-name racers like Missy Giove, Tinker Juarez, and rising downhill star, Myles Rockwell. The Cannondale Fulcrum DH represented its attempt to build the most advanced full-suspension mountain bike ever seen.
Cannondale Fulcrum DH Mountain Bike
The demands of World Cup racing in the ‘90s were different. The tracks were nearly twice as long as today’s shorter and more intense courses, and there was significantly more pedaling required. Rear shocks were much more primitive and lacked the platform valving to keep the back end from bobbing when racers had to put the power down. Engineers had to build as much pedaling efficiency as possible directly into the kinematics of the suspension design. No bike exemplifies these efforts better than the Fulcrum DH. 

The goal of the Fulcrum was to develop suspension that would pedal well, but also move easily through its travel. A major issue the engineers had to contend with was swapping chainring sizes. The wide range of World Cup courses required a similarly broad selection of chainrings. Changing the chainring size would change the anti-squat, anti-rise, and pedal kickback characteristics of the suspension, and sometimes negatively impact performance.
Cannondale Fulcrum DH Jackdrive system
Unwilling to accept the kinematic compromises of swapping between multiple chainring sizes, Cannondale instead developed the complex jackshaft drive system. The Fulcrum suspension was optimized for a single chainring size, and gearing was changed using the jackshaft. It used three separate chains, four additional cogs, an army of bolts and bearings, and even an eccentric bottom bracket borrowed from a tandem to separate the chainring providing the chosen gearing from the chainring driving the rear wheel.  

The Fulcrum's rear end provided roughly 6" of travel, and the axle path was designed to move rearward toward the end of the stroke. It does so with the help of two, short, rotating links, a feature we now see on many modern suspension designs like DW-Link and VPP. At the front, Cannondale adapted its Headshok suspension fork into the dual-crown Moto DH. The fork used eight sets of needle bearings and square-profile stanchions to increase torsional stiffness over typical inverted fork designs. The oversized front-end also had interchangeable cups that could adjust the head angle, an advanced feature that wouldn’t be common until 10 years later when Cane Creek introduced its AngleSet.

Ultimately, the Fulcrum DH was too heavy, a headache to maintain, and too expensive. It was estimated that each one cost $20,000-30,000 to make. The Fulcrum DH had the potential to be further refined, but unfortunately, the program was canceled after just two years.

 

Have you ridden an early full-suspension mountain bike? How was it? What's changed? Tell us about your experience in the comments below!

If you want to see more beautiful vintage bikes, browse our extensive vintage bike museum.


16 comments


  • I have hanging up retired Proflex 953 and 855 frames. A still ridable very rare 1996 Rocky Mountain Xs Speed and have just gone back to riding my 2000 Cannondale Raven 900 Sx. There is just something special about the way the Raven feels and its look with the lefty fork

    daniel on

  • anyone else see the shrek sticker on the first bike

    Ryan Brown on

  • Got a beater Schwinn S-10 sweet spot ( yeti designed!) for $75.00, changed @ everything, its an incredible ride! Nimble n fun! Much lighter than these newer carbons too…GREAT article thank you!

    JAMES PRICE on

  • I have a ‘94 Cannondale Super V that’s gone 60 mph on the downhill course at Vail. It’s currently wishing for a headshock fix. I have a ’92 Amp Research B2 that I still ride. My wife has a ProFlex 656 with Magura rim brakes, Kooka levers, and Risse shocks to replace the original elastomers.

    Rob Collins on

  • I have an amp b 5 beauty. Sad it’s not here

    Steve on

  • I had one of the Manitou FS bikes. A DH version that was about a size too big for me. It was fun to ride a few times, although I eventually parted it out.

    An older frame I still have (although retired) is a 1998 Yeti Lawwill DH-6. I fitted it with a E-type XTR front derailleur and a triple ring crankset. While on the heavy side, it was a great pedaling bike.

    Ian F on

  • I still have a 2000 Cannondale Super V Raven that I rode until last year, when I finally broke down and got something more modern. It was and is an amazing bike, carbon frame, headshok and full suspension. Both shocks are still holding air just fine and riding Trestle in Winter Park, or Crested Butte got me plenty of compliments for the bike. The lack of disc brakes on my model is probably the #1 reason I upgraded, everything else is still great and the bike climbs, jumps and handles amazingly.

    Alex on

  • Good story.
    Great to read something without pop up advertising distractions.

    Mike Carey on

  • In 1991 (I think) I shared a gondola lift ride at Mammoth Mountain CA with Greg Herbold, his girlfriend and a prototype of the Manitou full suspension bike. Coolest moment in my young MTBing life.

    Chuck A on

  • Oh man. I rode quite a few “vintage” mountain bikes back in the 90’s, and my favorite was the Cannondale Super V. The suspension was barely 80mm of travel in the rear, and 50mm in the front, courtesy of the headshok. It was too active, too heavy,and it was not very efficient. But it was plush and bombproof. I loved the massive aluminum tubes, the smooth welds and the low stand over (I’m only 5’6"). I rode Super Vs for a long time, even when people made fun of them and said they were outdated. I didn’t care. But compared to my current bikes, yes, they’re dinosaurs. But I still love them. Maybe I should look for another one, for memory’s sake…

    Danny on

  • I have a 1999 GT frame thermos plastic full suspension ,manitou fork with a 1998 world champion signature saddle stored all this time
    ! Rare/classic full XTR components-love it!

    Paul Kubicki on

  • All hail the Pro-Flex!! Agreed on the overall performance of the suspension. Just needed to make sure to swap out the elastomers before they got too old and brittle. When you lose one miles from the car and have to fashion a makeshift elastomer out of a spare tube, things can get a bit dicey.

    Steve on

  • No Amp Research/Horst link? How does this omission happen?

    Bobby on

  • I’m still keeping the 2000 GT iDrive 2.0 built in Longmont CO going and it gets lot’s of notice on the trail. Rim brake and disc options together? Dog bone anyone?

    Elwood on

  • No love for Pro-Flex? The “back-up-and-over” action of that Girvin fork was pretty cutting edge. I thought my P-F Animal was one of the better riding fs bikes of its era. And the simplicity of the micro cellular elastomers had great dampening properties on return energy.

    PLR on

  • I have a 1990s GT LTS 5000 with a cro mo frame that ride as smoothly as my 2011 Kona cadabra

    Kevin on


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