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Overbiked or underbiked: How much Suspension do you need?

By Bruce Lin
Photos By Chris Motta

You’re going to a big party, but you’re iffy about the dress code. Would you rather show up overdressed or underdressed?

A lot of mountain bikers face a similar dilemma, but instead of choosing the right clothes, it’s about choosing the right bike. Ask a mountain bike nerd what sort of bike you need for your local trails and you’ll likely hear certain bikes described as “too much bike” or “not enough bike.” But what does that mean?
Overbiked underbiked mountain bikes
The ride's about to start. Are you biked appropriately?

Mountain biking is a sport where technology and equipment are as important as the actual act of riding. Suspension travel often receives the most scrutiny when rider are looking at bike specs. Depending on the types of trails you ride (or aspire to ride), there is hypothetically an ideal amount of suspension travel for your purposes. When you are outside of this range is when you become either overbiked or underbiked. Other specs such as geometry, wheels, and tires contribute too, but they usually are tailored to match bike travel. So, suspension travel will be the focus here. 

Most modern mountain bikes will have somewhere between 100mm and 170mm of suspension travel. This covers everything from cross country race machines to hard-hitting enduro bikes. (If you want to learn more about how mountain bikes are categorized check out our Mountain Bike Buyer’s Guide.)

What's the right amount of travel for you? Having a bike with suspension perfectly suited to your trails and conditions will help smooth out the roughest parts, while still feeling agile and easy to pedal when the trail is mellower. In reality, though, everyone's trails and needs are different and constantly changing. Most riders are going to end up with a bike that will put them more on one side of the spectrum or the other.

To find out which way you might want to go with your own bike, let's go into more detail about what it means to be "overbiked" or "underbiked," look at some of the advantages and disadvantages, and see what a few of our riders prefer. 

Overbiked: Too Much Travel

Enduro mountain bike overbikedDavid regrets pushing his big bike up this smooth trail.

When you’re overbiked, your bike's intentions and build are too downhill-oriented for most of the terrain you’re riding. For example, if you’re riding a big and burly enduro rig on smoother and flatter flow trails, you’re probably overbiked. The bike is overkill and will likely feel cumbersome, maybe a bit boring, and you’ll have to expend more energy to push it around and climb on it.

Some riders prefer to be overbiked. Let’s say you’re scared of descents. Choosing a slack enduro bike with ample suspension travel could help you enjoy riding more by increasing your confidence, comfort, and giving you more leeway for mistakes. On the rare occasion when you do encounter a steep, technical downhill that's at your limit, you’ll be happy to have a more capable bike.

There are riders that purposely ride overbiked because they're fit and athletic enough to pedal a big travel bike up big climbs and on long rides without much trouble. For them, being overbiked isn't a handicap.  

You also might prefer to be overbiked if you’re the type of rider that cares about descending as fast as possible rather than having a bike that's efficient for pedaling or climbing. Being overbiked will cater to your style and allow you to push harder and go as fast as possible in every possible circumstance.

Underbiked: Not Enough Travel

Underbiked enduro mountain bike
Seth questions if he has enough bike to handle this feature.

When you’re underbiked, your bike's intentions and build are not downhill-oriented enough for the terrain. For example, if you’re riding a lightweight XC hardtail on steep downhill tracks with huge rocks and jumps, you’re probably underbiked. The bike will feel sketchy. There’s a good chance you’ll have to get off and walk sections or risk crashing.

There are instances where you may prefer to be underbiked. Let’s say you’re you dread going uphill or are constantly getting left behind by fitter riders. Choosing a bike with less travel that’s lightweight and efficient could help you enjoy riding more by helping you expend less energy and stay fresher. As long as your technical skills are solid you can make do.

Hardcore XC racers often like to do all of their riding and training on their race bikes. XC race bikes are chronically underbiked because they have to be built as light and fast as possible. Riding this type of bike in all trail conditions keeps racers sharp and ready for any terrain they might have to compete on.  

You also might want to purposely be underbiked if you’re the type of rider that just wants to make riding more engaging and exciting. Shorter travel bikes provide a lot more trail feedback and give you less room for error. You have to think more, be more selective about lines, and be more active with your body. For some, this can be a much more enjoyable ride experience.

My Overbiked Experience

Santa Cruz Hightower LT OverbikedBeing overbiked can make riding feel like a slog, but you get brief moments where it's all worth it.

My last enduro bike was a Santa Cruz Hightower LT. It had 150mm of travel in the rear with a 160mm fork. It was downhill-focused, especially with a coil shock in the rear. The wheels had downhill tires with CushCore tire inserts installed. The full build came out at nearly 36 pounds. It could confidently smash ultra-steep and gnarly downhill tracks and send it deep on big jumps. For mellower cross country trails, however, it was definitely not the ideal bike.

There is a local trail system in Colorado called Buffalo Creek. It provides miles and miles of smooth, flowing singletrack perfect for XC and shorter travel trail bikes. When I ride these trails I’m usually doing full days on a 100mm travel XC bike that helps me race up the climbs and put in big miles. But there is one trail in Buffalo Creek that I don’t dare take my XC bike down. Its name is Blackjack, and it descends the rockiest, steepest hill in the area. The trailbuilders put in big double black rock features that do a good job of scaring the crap out of me.

To ride that short section of gnarly trail, I was often willing to take my heavy enduro bike on a 30-mile cross country ride. It rolled very, very slowly up all of the climbs and on all of the flat bits of trail where you had to pedal. It sapped a lot of my energy and I got dropped constantly by my fit friends. But whenever the trail went downhill I could go all out and when I reached Blackjack I was able to send every feature. It made all the suffering worth it. Being overbiked allowed me to go hard when the moment called for it. This is why I've historically been willing to sacrifice pedaling efficiency for that extra bit of speed and confidence.

My Underbiked Experience

Santa Cruz Blur cross country XC underbiked
Being underbiked makes the climbs easier and every rough bit of trail so much more exciting. Maybe sometimes too exciting.

I recently changed bikes to a Santa Cruz Blur. It has 100mm of travel and it is over 10 pounds lighter than my old Santa Cruz. I’ve added a dropper seatpost to make it more capable on descents, so it can still handle a good amount of technical trail riding. But with the short travel, a lightweight frame, lightweight wheels, and fast-rolling tires, it’s definitely more at home pedaling hard on cross country race courses than sending it on a high consequence downhill trail.

In the last few weeks, I’ve tried to take the Blur into uncomfortable terrain to see how far I could push it. Locally, we have a riding area know as Left Hand that has "secret" downhill trails. These trails are steep, extremely steep. They’re all rough and raw, and traditionally I’ve always ridden my enduro bike here. This is where I go to get a regular dose of high-speed, high-consequence riding. 

I rode the Blur here with trepidation, but I survived. Riding an XC bike on rough downhill trails wasn’t the worst thing in the world, but I definitely was not able to go as fast as I normally do. I had to remain extremely focused, pick my lines intelligently, and be very physical with the bike on the way down. There were lots of sketchy moments and a few near misses. Fortunately, I had more energy and focus in reserve because I didn’t have to work as hard to pedal the bike to the top.

It's definitely a very exciting way to ride, and I'd say it's a bit of an acquired taste. Sometimes it's quite scary, but that could be a good thing. I believe if I keep riding the Blur on this sort of terrain I can get used to the intensity and become a much faster rider as a result. 

What Other Riders at The Pro's Closet Think

I asked a couple of our shop's most experienced riders what they thought about being overbiked or underbiked. Here’s what they have to say.

Seth H., Merchandising Manager 
"I moved to Colorado with an XC hardtail and rode everything, even gnarly downhills on it. It had a dropper and I did just fine. I really thought it was I would ever need. Then I went to Moab. I rode a borrowed enduro bike on The Whole Enchilada and it kind of opened my eyes. I bought a bigger bike not long after and started riding all my regular trails again. It changed how I rode.

"Having a bigger bike, or being overbiked really showed me how hard I can hit stuff on the trail. I can blast straight through things I used to have to pick my way around. I’m finding new levels of speed all the time. I still haven’t found the limits of my bike and feel like I can keep just progressing faster and faster. It’s really fun to work on this aspect of my riding.

"Personally, I really don’t mind being overbiked for most of my riding now. I ride alone a lot so I go my own pace. But I'm also decently fit and I can keep up with everyone I ride with on my bigger bike (an Ibis Ripmo). If you’re fit, I say go as big as you want.

"Right now I’m doing a lot of riding on a 120mm Orbea Oiz Trail. I’m using it as my XC race bike. For XC racing I’m definitely overbiked. But it’s worth it for me to have the extra downhill capability. That’s what I really care about now."

Chad H., Warehouse Manager 
"I would prefer to be underbiked on the majority of trails. Being underbiked keeps the skills sharp and makes the trail an exciting challenge. I feel that being overbiked takes the challenge and excitement out of trails. It leads to laziness and dulls your skill as a rider.

"I used to ride XC hardtails but they are overwhelmed quickly on the terrain we have here in the Colorado Front Range. I stopped riding one because it limited my trail choices too much and it was too hard on my back. But I feel my big and burly enduro rig is too much for mellow trails. Every little bump and undulation that feels fun on a shorter travel or more nimble bike is just flattened. For me personally, I think my enduro rig is suited best to very technical, steep and rocky terrain, and the bike park.

"Right now for me, I believe the best bike for 85 percent of the riding I do will be a full suspension cross country bike, like the Santa Cruz Blur. I would add a dropper seatpost and Fox Step-Cast 34 120mm fork just to give it a tiny bit more capability. Or the new Trek Top Fuel, or possibly a Yeti SB100 are good options. It's what people are calling 'downcountry' now, even though I hate the term. It will be a little bit more capable than a full cross country bike, but it’ll have the same quick handling and speed. That'll be perfect for me." 

How much bike do you really need?

Enduro mountain bike overbikedNo matter what, the best bike is a fun bike. It's possible to have fun riding while overbiked or underbiked. Having the perfect bike isn't everything. Keep in mind too that the rider is always going to make a far bigger difference than the bike. A skilled rider on an imperfect bike will almost always outride an unskilled rider on the perfect bike.

The Pro’s Closet is filled with riders far more talented than me so I’ve had plenty of personal experience with this. Good descenders have dropped me on gnarly downhills riding XC hardtails, and fit climbers have dropped me on long and steep uphills riding heavy enduro machines. Good riders can take what they have, and make it work.

That being said, you can always play to your strengths or weaknesses. Having a bike that enhances the parts of riding that you care about the most will make mountain biking more fun and less stressful.

If it’s important for you to keep up with your riding buddies on big climbs and long rides, choose a lightweight, shorter travel bike that will help you pedal and climb. If it’s important for you to set fast times on downhill sections and send big features, choose a longer travel bike that will let you push harder and let off the brakes. Bikes are supposed to be fun, and a good bike should make you happy.

For now, I’m happy doing most of my riding while underbiked for my local trails. It's easy to pedal, and it keeps my old trails fresh and exciting. I have a new enduro bike now too, a REEB Sqweeb. I'm usually overbiked while riding this bike, but it might be good to boost my confidence. I’ve already crashed a few times this year by going over the limit. We’ll see...

If you're interested in finding a mountain bike with your desired amount of suspension travel, check out our huge selection in our Mountain Bike Collection

 

Are you overbiked or underbiked? Do you prefer one to the other for your trails? Do you have a bike that sits perfectly in the middle? Let us know in the comments!


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