Here’s a fun game to play at home: Before you click on that latest mountain bike review, how many words will you read before you get to that ubiquitous suspension descriptor? You know the one: “plush.” I’m as guilty as any bike reviewer. I’ve leaned on the “P” word to describe many a suspension fork or rear suspension design.
But recently I got to thinking … What does “plush” actually mean?
Honestly, this is as much of an exercise for you, the reader and mountain biker as it is for me, the MTB reviewer. Let’s break it down so everyone understands this common bit of bike jargon.
First, let’s agree on a basic definition for plush. A nice couch is plush. Your velour tracksuit is plush (welcome, “The Sopranos” extras!). A teddy bear is plush. The word generally means soft and fuzzy, but for our purposes, it’s all about cushion.
Suspension’s primary purpose is to buffer rough trail impacts, vibrations, and bumps. When mountain bikers use the word “plush,” what it often means is a bike or suspension product requires very little force to initiate movement. There’s little stiction, and the suspension responds quickly and generously to features on the trail — a plusher setup means a smoother ride.
There are certain bikes, shocks, and forks that tend to be plusher than others. For example, anything with a coil spring is typically plusher than an air spring. (Why? That’s a whole separate article). Naturally, longer-travel enduro and downhill bikes are plusher than cross-country bikes. But no matter the discipline, riders want plush suspension because it provides two important things: Comfort and performance.
How plush suspension contributes to comfort
So far, I’ve probably recapped what you already know or could easily infer with a little experience and knowledge. Now, what does plush mean in terms of your comfort on a mountain bike?
Long downhills are one of the key areas where I have always noticed the difference that plush suspension makes in terms of comfort. Unless you’re mightily strong, you’ll fatigue after a few minutes of hard, fast descending. Your hands might get tired and weak, your forearms might feel cramped (known in the moto world as “arm pump”), your shoulders could start to ache and weaken along with your lower back. Plush suspension won’t totally end all of this agony or eliminate the need for core strength work, so don’t cancel your gym membership. But the right setup can help you descend faster, longer, and more comfortably.
For the cross-country riders, plush suspension can offer significant comfort on trails that are flat or rolling and also bumpy. Sure, you can stand and pedal through rough terrain, but for extended sections, pedaling in the saddle is more efficient. And with plush suspension, it’s certainly more comfortable on that kind of terrain.
Finally, plush suspension can contribute to comfort when a big impact catches you off-guard. Whether it’s a sneaky rock in a shady section of trail or a rough G-out that’s difficult to judge, we’ve all felt that “ooof” feeling that jars the arms and shoulders.
How plush suspension helps performance
You might have been reading that last section and wondering, “Don’t some of these comfort benefits help performance too?” Yup, they definitely do.
On long, rough downhills, not only will you be more comfortable on a bike with plush suspension, but you’ll also go faster. That’s because your bike will stay composed and carry more momentum through the chop. Rather than getting hung up on rocks, roots, or other bumps, plush suspension absorbs those forces.
Along those lines, in the cross-country scenario described earlier, plush suspension will help you pedal through bumps in the trail without interrupting your rhythm. It’ll be easier to maintain traction as you plow across rocks and roots (more on traction in a moment). And similar to the case of a fast downhill trail, a bike with plush suspension maintains its momentum, which can be the difference between cleaning a technical feature on a climb and getting off to walk it.
Traction might not the first thing that comes to mind when you hear suspension described as plush, but it’s a knock-on benefit. All the knobs in the world won’t do you any good if your tire isn’t touching dirt. Plush suspension allows the tires to maintain contact with the trail surface more consistently.
Plush suspension — too much of a good thing?
First of all, a caveat: All of this is assuming that a fork or rear shock is tuned correctly based on a rider’s weight, preferences, and style.
Riders often experiment with lower spring rates, softer compression, and upgraded suspension components in the quest for more plushness. But is it possible to push it too far and end up with a bike that's too plush? What’s the difference between a mountain bike that is plush and one that’s just, frankly, bad?
To simplify, the positive attributes of plush are all in reaction to trail inputs — baby heads, scree, chunder, step-downs, drop-offs, and on and on. The fun stuff, basically. For these trail features, we prefer a plush bike over a harsh bike because, as we’ve explained, it will help us stay comfortable and perform better.
When plush breaks bad though, the suspension ends up reacting to rider inputs like pedaling, braking, and cornering. If a bike is too plush, its misbehavior will typically be characterized as bobbing excessively when pedaling, diving under braking, or wallowing in corners.
It’s extremely challenging to design a bike or suspension component that strikes a balance between good plush and bad plush. Maybe that is why modern mountain bikes are so expensive. Fortunately, we are getting close. Shock technology and suspension design have come a long way and the engineers have found clever solutions to minimize pedal bob, brake dive, and wallowing in the corners.
By now, it’s probably clear that the word “plush” is a blunt instrument when it comes to explaining how mountain bike suspension rides. I’m sure bike designers cringe when they hear it.
So, here are some better ways to describe suspension action. I promise I’ll try to avoid the “P” word and use the “ASS” terms more often:
Active: Under rapid impacts, active suspension can react quickly and absorb multiple bumps in quick succession. This is great for fast, rough downhills, but beware of active suspension that’s not controlled by damping or suspension design, because that can lead to pedal bob.
Supportive: This means the suspension sits higher in its travel. Cornering is more snappy. You can pump rollers and berms efficiently. There’s little brake dive. However, if the suspension is set-up wrong or tuned incorrectly, this might translate into a harsh feel on small bumps.
Supple: A close relative of “plush,” but for me, this term is more specific to how the initial suspension travel keeps the wheels almost glued to the trail. Excessively supple suspension action might lead to too much pedal bob or brake dive, however.
Hopefully this helps, but if you still have questions, please leave a comment below, and we’ll keep the conversation going!