How Much Travel is right for me?

One of the most common questions asked in a bike shop is “How much travel does this bike have?”

It’s followed closely by “How much travel do I need?”

While the first question is answered easily by looking at the bike specs, the second requires a much more nuanced answer. There is no single answer to this question, of course, just like there is no single type of trail that you will ride exclusively for the lifespan of your bike.

To get the best answer to the “how much travel” question requires one of the most frequent replies we hear at Contender Bicycles - “What kind of riding are you going to do?”

Are you planning on long rides through the forest? How about fast and furious descents down tricky trails with big jumps and chairlift rides back to the summit? A little of both? With each question and answer we can narrow down the type of bike and amount of travel that might best suit you.

Of course, none of these questions can’t be answered without first asking “What is travel?”

Travel, simply put, is the maximum distance a suspension system can move to absorb impact forces. Shocks - both in the front fork and rear suspension - are designed to take more or less of a beating on the trail depending on how aggressive the terrain, speed and degree or descent can be. Bottoming out is the term used to describe a shock reaching its limit. More travel is better for bigger hits, less travel is better for climbing or rides with fewer scary moments.

Though not always the case, the more travel a suspension system has, the heavier it will be. Also, the more travel a suspension system has the less friendly it will be when climbing. More travel can take away some traction when going uphill while adding traction and better handling on descents. There is give and take with each level of suspension and with each bike.

Let’s take a look at each style of riding and the recommended amount of travel associated with each style. You’ll undoubtedly notice there’s some overlap because virtually no trail is consistently the same. Likewise, there are different kinds of bikes in each subset which creates an endless variety of bike-to-trail options.

Cross Country - 80mm to 130mm travel

If you’re aiming to go fast or ride smoother trails, a cross country, ox XC, bike is the one you’re looking for. A cross country bike can be full suspension with shocks in front and back or a hardtail, with only a fork to provide travel. Occasionally, you’ll see what is called a ‘rigid’ mountain bike which has no suspension at all. Fat bikes typically fall in the rigid cross country bike family.

A cross country bike might be ideal for you if your style of riding is predominantly made of less technical trails and singletrack without crazy bumps and jumps along the way. Mountain bike racers in the marathon or cross country disciplines often ride hardtails if the trail conditions are smoother than they are rough and speed is of the essence.

Trail - 120mm to 160mm travel

Ready to mix it up a bit with trails that have a fair amount of up to go with plenty of down but nothing too crazy or dangerous when it comes to catching big air or tackling massive rock gardens? A trail bike might be up your alley. A trail bike is popular among those who enjoy fast descents on smoother trails with big turns and berms, while also capable of handling more technical climbs with a few obstacles in the way.

Trail bikes are kind of a happy medium for mountain bikers who enjoy riding many different kinds of trails but don’t own multiple bikes, especially if your suspension system can be adjusted. Riding fast and smooth or mixing it up with

Enduro/All-Mountain - 150mm to 180mm travel

As your skills and bravery increase, you might find yourself eyeballing steep descents with some jumps or rocky/rooty obstacles in the path. Enduro or All-Mountain bikes have lots of travel to help absorb stiffer bumps. The frames are a bit heavier to take the beating they’ll encounter. They’re geometry is designed more specifically for precise handling rather than raw speed. Yet, an Enduro/All-Mountain bike must be able to climb.

Enduro racing has seen an increase in popularity in recent years. The races consist of timed downhill segments and climbs back to the start of each descent, lap after lap.

You’ll also see All-Mountain bikes at popular mountain bike resorts where riders take ski lifts to the top and enjoy fast, flowing downhill trails and catch some air for thrills.

Contender Recommendations: Santa Cruz Megatower, SCOTT Ransom, Orbea Rallon, Cannondale Jekyll, Santa Cruz Nomad.

Downhill/Freeride - 170mm to 220mm travel

By now you’ve undoubtedly seen the thrill seekers and death cheaters at Red Bull Rampage. These are Downhill riders taking it to the extreme in a discipline often referred to as Freeride. Massive drops, huge jumps and suspension systems made to take as much punishment as possible. Not everyone is going to end up on a viral YouTube video, but lots of you want to pump up the adrenaline every now and then - or maybe all the time.

If going uphill is a necessary evil you tolerate only because you have to go up before you can send it down, a Downhill/Freeride bike is your beast of burden. Downhill is generally considered a little less risky than Freeride but both styles are all about big thrills. Downhill usually sticks to existing trails while Freeriders kind of create their own trails and build out crazy drop-ins with gap-clearing jumps. If you’re up for big air, big thrills and potentially big spills, kit up with the protective gear and send it.

Contender Recommendations: SCOTT Gambler, Santa Cruz V10, Intense M29.