Most bike companies are offering a wide assortment of bikes, but the lines between each model aren’t always clear. Bikes with different intentions, different travels, and different geometries exist in almost every manufacturer’s stable, but what’s the difference? And does it matter?
Three of our reviewers, Noah Bodman, Marshal Olson, and Tom Collier, took on the topic of short travel vs long travel trail bikes — what are they, when are they appropriate, and where do their personal preferences lie?
Q: What do you consider “short” travel? “Long” travel?
Noah: It depends a bit on the context, but for normal trail riding, I’d consider “short” travel to mean 120 mm and “long” travel to mean 160 mm.
Down around 100 mm is what I’d consider to be a bike more designed for XC racing, while 180 mm and upwards I’d call a Freeride / DH bike.
Marshal: It all depends on the trail.
Very steep and prolonged rough trail: short travel = 160 mm; long travel = 200 mm+.
Backcountry rooty and rocky trails: short travel = rigid; long travel = 140 mm
Wheel size dramatically affects travel. I am happy at 140-150 mm on 26″ wheels and 650b, and 100-120 mm on 29’ers on the same trail, though the bigger suspension and littler wheels don’t handle as well, and feel more twitchy to me at my somewhat lanky 6’2’’ build. I need a longer wheelbase, slacker geometry, and softer suspension with the little wheels to slow the handling down relative to bigger wheels.
Tom: For trail riding, I think of a short-travel bike as having somewhere around 120-140 mm of travel (this applies to forks and rear suspension). A bike with less travel than that probably ought to see time with a number plate attached and a spandex clad racer in the saddle.
A bike with 150-170 mm of travel falls squarely into the long-travel trail bike realm. Any more travel than that I think of as a DH or freeride-specific bike.
Q: How do hardtails fit into this schema?
Noah: Ummm, they don’t? Ok, around 120 mm for the fork is the sweet spot. Then, going either longer or shorter is obviously worthwhile for different situations.
Marshal: Unless the trail is super steep and technical / rough, causing the rear wheel to hang up on square edges, modern hardtails are wicked fun to ride — they certainly build skills and are very rewarding. For a hardtail, I have also settled on a 120 mm fork, but run it very stiff and set up more progressively to only use 90 mm or less of available travel. This keeps the front end up and well mated to the rigid rear end, and slows down the handling a bit.
Tom: I’d knock a bit of travel off for hardtails since they can be prone to feeling unbalanced without rear suspension to match. So I would call 100-120 mm “short” travel and 130-150 mm long travel. Plenty of people seem to like hucking off things on a hardtail with a 160 mm travel fork (or more), but I think that hardtails start diving too much in corners when they have more than 140 mm forks. (But maybe the huckers don’t turn.)
Like Noah and Marshal, I target 120-130 mm as being a balance between bump absorption and diving.