Unlike when you’re buying any hobby bike, buying a commuter bike is a very different story. A commuter bike is supposed to fit you like a glove and it is supposed to be so comfortable that it makes getting to work a joy. Front suspension can add a lot to that comfort. But…
Do you need a front suspension for your bike?
Whether you need a suspension for your bike or not depends on the quality and length of the road you are going to ride most on, and your riding style. A suspension fork provides a more comfortable ride on rough roads such as off road or bad quality urban or city roads. If your ride is mostly on good quality paved roads, a rigid fork is more practical.
Entry level bikes with suspension forks can actually cause more headache and be more dangerous than the benefits they offer.
What is a suspension fork and what difference does it make?
A suspension fork is a front fork that offers some travel, and absorbs some of the bumps and imperfections of the road. Riding two different bikes on the same rough terrain, the one with a suspension fork feels less shaky, and offers a smoother ride.
In the right circumstances a suspension fork feels like a dream to ride, especially when it comes to strain on your wrist and arms.
I’ve used both types for commuting. My current bike doesn’t have a front suspension because my ride is mostly on good quality roads, but there are a few segments or shortcuts that I just don’t like taking with my current commuter because of its stiffness, which makes the ride quite shaky.
Which types of bikes offer front suspension?
There are two categories of bikes where suspension forks are commonly available: hybrids and MTBs, even though not all hybrids and not all MTBs have them.
The main difference between the suspension found in these categories is the travel of the fork, which refers to how much it can be pressed in before it maxes out.
Hybrid bikes have a relatively short travel (60-100mm), which is sufficient to absorb road imperfections and minor bumps, but has its limitations when you take it to seriously challenging terrains.
MTBs suspensions have a longer travel (100-170mm), since they are designed for heavy duty off-road use.
Advantages of a suspension fork
Bike commuting is supposed to be something you do because you enjoy the experience. If you’re sensitive to vibration and you want to cruise in comfort, it’s worth considering a suspension fork.
Riding on cobblestones in cities, crossing tram or train tracks, single trail and gravel, you can take advantage of a front shock. It definitely feels good not feeling every single bump shaking your arms.
With a shock absorbing front suspension you can keep the front tires inflated to maximum pressure, and still get a pleasant riding experience without running the risk of getting a pinch flat.
Also, if you aspire to become one of those die hard commuters who’s unafraid of going any length to show their determination when it comes to commuting, including crossing anything that comes your way (such as rocks, tree trunks etc), you can take advantage of a front shock. In this case, you’re probably looking at a full suspension MTB though.
Some people just have fun deliberately choosing challenges. A front suspension fork allows you to be one of them.
Disadvantages of a suspension fork
There’s no such a thing as a free lunch. Everything has a cost, even a smoother ride.
Front shocks add some extra weight to your bike. It’s not too noticeable when riding on flat, but definitely noticeable when you want to lift up the bike or when riding up steep hills. Of course, a commuter bike is not meant to be a racing bike, but if you have to carry it up to your apartment or lift it up regularly, the added 4-6 lbs of weight make a difference.
Added weight also means a slower ride. This doesn’t affect everyone necessarily, but if you have a longer commute with some climbs, the difference in the effort with which you have to pedal to get you to the top is noticeable. You can feel the weight difference even if the slope is not very steep, but long enough.
A suspension fork absorbs energy as you pedal stepping out of the saddle. You can feel the front of the bike going up and down as you move your body and place more of your weight at the front. In this case there is significant energy loss, especially when climbing steep hills. It’s not a bad feeling, but it’s annoying to know that you could be more efficient.
Of course, this isn’t the case if your front suspension has a lockout knob, which allows it to act like a rigid fork.
Another disadvantage of some cheap suspension forks can seize up and stop working altogether. This means that you will carry the weight penalty of suspension forks, but won’t be able to enjoy its benefits.
Air vs Coil
Without getting lost in details, it’s important to mention that not all suspension forks work on the same principle. The two main types are coil and air suspension forks.
Coil forks have been around for longer and they have a spring coil inside the tube, which absorbs the energy coming from impacts and provides a smoother ride. You can adjust the smoothness of the ride by adjusting the tension of the spring.
Air suspension forks have a chamber filled with air. When the tires hit bumps, the air is compressed and this absorbs the energy. You adjust the smoothness of the ride by pumping more air into the system or by letting out some air.
Note that not all suspension forks are adjustable.
Front suspension forks have moving parts, and they are partially exposed to the elements. Dirt and grime can slowly make their way under the bearings that keep the inner mechanism separated from the outside.
In order to keep your front suspension functioning for a long time, it requires some maintenance, which involves disassembling the fork, greasing it. The regularity depends on where you ride your bike and how much you use it. It can range from once every two years if you ride your bike on relatively clean urban roads, to once every 4 months if you ride it off road or if it gets in contact with a lot of grime.
The suspension maintenance is not a very long process if you know what you’re doing, but it is another thing to keep in mind to do on a regular basis. Most people have their mechanic do this at their local bike shops.
Rigid forks require no maintenance, which means that there’s one less thing to keep track of.
How does suspension for affect commuting speed
A suspension fork means some extra weight; usually about 4-6 lbs. If you have a relatively flat commute and you ride at a comfortable pace, you won’t notice the extra weight. Where the weight becomes noticeable is on hills.
Let’s be clear: most people wouldn’t notice a huge difference, and speed isn’t going to be affected significantly even going uphill. In fact, if I didn’t use a bike computer I probably wouldn’t notice the speed difference even on the 400 yard long 10% gradient I have to climb every day.
Keep in mind that if you commute in the city, you stop at red lights, yield to traffic, slow down at crosswalks, etc. All of these factors slow you down way more than the added weight of the suspension fork.
A scenario where the speed difference is noticeable is riding long distances on paved roads involving hill climbs. A road bike or a gravel bike will be faster in this case, but the difference comes not only from the presence of a suspension fork, but also from the geometry and overall weight of the bike.
Tackling off-road without a suspension fork?
If you have some off-road segments on your commute or you want to take out your ride for some light trail riding on the weekend days, you may be wondering if a bike without a suspension fork could handle the terrain.
As long as you’re not on technical terrain, you can opt for a gravel bike (no suspension fork), which is probably the most versatile bike type available, and you’ll be able to take on road, off-road, gravel, dirt and a vast range of terrain types. You will have ample gearing to go fast as well as to climb steep hills.
How much do suspension forks cost?
Most suspension forks are in the 200 to 800 dollars range, although some cost as little as 100 dollars and they can be as expensive as 2500 dollars.
Keep in mind that anything under 200 dollars is too cheap to be any good. Between 200 and 800 dollars you will get a better fork for every dollar spent, but the difference between an 800 dollar fork and 2500 dollar one isn’t noticeable to the average rider.
Given that forks are expensive, you need to be aware of department store bikes, or other cheap bikes that come with front suspension forks. The cheap price comes at the expense of low quality components (not only suspension, but also derailleurs, brakes etc).
Do you need a suspension fork for your commute?
The decision as to whether you need a suspension fork or not comes down to the type of terrain you’ll be riding on and to how well you tolerate road bumps. In my option, most commuters don’t benefit a great deal from the presence of a suspension fork unless they ride on very rough roads or they are looking for a MTB, which they intend to use in the mountains on weekends.
If you’re in the market for a new dedicated commuter, get your hands on a loaner bike without a suspension fork if you can, and see if it feels too uncomfortable. If that’s not possible, go to your local bike shop and try out different bikes to see how they ride, paying attention to the shock absorption.
The decision of whether or not you need a suspension fork shouldn’t paralyze you in trying to decide. The most important thing is to get out there, and enjoy the ride.