The Absence Of Suspension On High-end Touring Bikes Is Not “Accidental”

Мodern suspension is considered a symbol of bicycle evolution and among the innovations that have enabled mountain bikes to become all-terrain machines with a futuristic look.

And yet we don’t find this revolutionary tech on high-end touring bicycles that could easily reach thousands of dollars.

Less experienced cyclists may find the absence of suspension on top touring models shocking. After all, it’s natural to expect an expensive machine to be packed with all the features that the industry can offer.

But when you get deeper into the topic, you will quickly realize that there is a logical explanation.

Touring bicycles do not have suspension because it adds another potential point of failure and severely limits the number of front racks that can be used.

And since most touring happens on asphalt roads and gravel, the benefits of suspension fail to outweigh the negatives.

What Are The Disadvantages of Suspension Forks For Touring?

A suspension fork is rarely seen on dedicated touring bicycles for the following reasons:

1. Reliability

Modern suspension forks are refined and capable of facing extreme challenges (e.g., enduro, downhill…etc.) But their mechanism comes with unneeded complexity that may turn into a severe weakness during touring.

In case of malfunction, it may be impossible to repair the fork due to a lack of tools and parts. And if the failure happens in the middle of nowhere, it would put the cyclist in a very uncomfortable position.

Even the most sophisticated suspension fork cannot match the reliability of a rigid fork due to the involvement of multiple moving elements, oil, suspension fluid, air chambers, and other components.

Another downside of suspension forks is that most are made of aluminum – a material that fails with little warning.

Conversely, a rigid fork is highly unlikely to malfunction because it’s as simple as it gets. Having said that, it’s still possible for a rigid fork to break during an accident, but in that case, a suspension fork would have had the same destiny.

To reduce the chances of abrupt failure, touring bikes rely on steel forks for a reason – steel tends to bend before breaking and is easier to weld.

Ultimately, no suspension fork will ever beat the reliability of a quality rigid one made of Chromoly steel. It’s just not possible.

2. Maintenance

A suspension fork comes with a list of maintenance tasks:

  • The stanchions have to be cleaned after every ride.
  • The lubrication oil and the suspension fluid have to be replaced occasionally. (The frequency varies according to each manufacturer and the style of riding.)
  • The seals and O-rings have to be replaced relatively often too.
  • Air forks need a periodical readjustment of the pressure via a shock pump.

The procedures above are fairly complex and require lots of tools, experience, and the right environment. Hardcore touring cyclists who spend most of the year riding may see fork maintenance as an inconvenience.

Another downside is the lack of parts. There’s a great number of suspension forks out there. And while they all work similarly, they require exclusive pieces for proper maintenance. This makes servicing more difficult, especially when you’re exploring new territory.

If the fork happens to malfunction while you’re in a small city with a single bike shop low on replacement parts, you may have to buy a new fork or wait for the needed bits to arrive. Of course, this is a custom scenario but realistic nonetheless.

Meanwhile, rigid forks require nothing outside of occasional cleaning which isn’t as critical as servicing a suspension fork. The main objective of this procedure is to prevent rust and contamination of the brake rotor and pads if the bicycle has disc brakes.

Regular cleaning is needed the most during winter when the roads are covered in corrosive substances preventing ice formation.

3. Limited Front Rack Options

A front suspension fork cannot work with a “primitive” front rack that attaches simultaneously to the legs and the crown via metal rods.

If you put such a rack on a suspension fork, it would prevent the suspension from operating.

In consequence, one has to stick with racks designed specifically for front suspension forks. Such racks exist, but they are fewer than those made for rigid forks.

The table below lists racks engineered for front suspension forks along with their corresponding weight capacity. The data is taken from the sites of manufacturers and distributors.

Minoura MT-4000SF1500g15kg/33lbs
Faiv Hoogar16kg/35.2lbs
Thule Tour Rack1100g10kg/22lbs
ZEFAL Lowrider Raider 750g18kg
Axiom Journey Suspension & Disc Lowrider575g18kg
Old Man Mountain Sherpa Frame Front Rack700g31.8kg/80lbs

Another problem with installing a front rack on a suspension fork is the effect of the extra weight on the entire spring system.

There are three possible ways to mount a front rack to a suspension fork:

a. To the lower legs

b. To the crown

c. To both but with a moving mechanism

The first scenario is a lot more common but has a real downside.

When you attach weights (e.g., panniers) to the lower legs of such rack, you’re immediately turning them into “unsprung weight”.

The term “unsprung weight” refers to mass that isn’t supported by the springs of the suspension because it’s positioned below them.

The increased unsprung weight has a negative effect on the suspension.

In general, the goal is to have less unsprung weight in order to make the suspension more reactionary to input thanks to the smaller inertia that it has to overcome.

People agree that by increasing the sprung and decreasing the unsprung weight, one can increase the comfort of the ride.

Well, the front racks attaching to the lower legs do the exact opposite.

Unfortunately, however, there are only two popular models that turn the rack and subsequently the gear attached to it into sprung weight – Tubus Swing and Faiv Hoogar.

According to most sites, Tubus Swing is a discontinued product which tells us two things:

  • You can only find it second-hand.
  • The demand for it probably wasn’t all that great. After all, why would it be discontinued otherwise? This outcome backs the idea that suspension forks just aren’t all that popular among touring cyclists.

The Faiv Hoogar rack is available, though. It has two connections – one to the crown and one to the lower legs. The low connection is a moving one and allows the suspension to operate normally. This design does not hinder the performance of the fork.

In conclusion, the front rack options are incredibly slim when running a front suspension fork, especially if you want your rack and luggage to be “sprung weight“.

This point alone is stronger than the previous two (reliability and maintenance) because efficient transportation of luggage is of vital importance when touring.

Note: Another notable drawback of front racks designed for suspension forks is that they tend to be expensive and less common on the second-hand market.

If you’re trying to save money, this would be another incentive to stick with a rigid fork.

3. Lack of Full Fender Options

Some consider full fenders a necessity for touring as they protect your body, gear, and the bike from the dirt and mud on the road better than the partial options.

This creates another incompatibility issue – many suspension forks do not have mounts for the installation of full fenders.

While it is certainly possible to install a full fender on a suspension fork even if it doesn’t have eyelets (here’s an example), the task requires tinkering which isn’t a process that everybody looks up to.

Having said that, this downside is technically a symptom rather than a reason why touring bikes don’t implement suspension.

If the rest of the issues with front suspension didn’t exist, the manufacturers would have a strong stimulus to collaborate and build multiple suspension forks offering easy full fender installation.

Somewhat ironically, most of the forks that offer than functionality at the moment are found on trekking bikes running modest suspension forks.

The higher-end forks are designed primarily for mountain biking and therefore do not make fenders a priority.

4. Inefficiency when riding on the road

Suspension shines when riding off-road because it absorbs the irregularities of the terrain, increases traction and makes the ride safer and more comfortable. Hence why mountain bikes are big on suspension.

But when the road is smooth, the suspension is just a hindrance because it eats a lot of the pedaling effort.

The simplest way to witness the inefficiency would be to climb a hill out of the saddle. When you do it, you will feel how a big part of your effort sinks into the front fork.

You can minimize this effect by locking the suspension, but if you find yourself riding with a locked fork all the time, what is the point of having suspension at all? You would be getting the negatives (maintenance…etc.) with none of the benefits (comfort).

4. A Futuristic Look That Goes Against Tradition

Many touring cyclists are purists who prefer the appearance of an old-school bike without suspension and often criticize the effort of the industry to turn bicycles into motorcycles that you pedal by adding a variety of new tech.

The popular touring cyclist known as UltraRomance is a good example of this mentality. He prefers his bicycles to be “retro” and “rusty” and is rarely if ever seen on models with suspension.

The Customers Do Not Want Suspension

The customer is king and dictates the market. If the potential buyers of high-end touring bicycles wanted suspension, then the companies would have delivered such a feature as in most cases it makes little sense to go against the preferences of your clients.

Ultimately, the lack of suspension on high-end touring bikes reveals that the people who have desire and money to buy those models do not see suspension as necessary.

Suspension Costs Money That Can Be Invested Elsewhere

The type of suspension that would suit a high-end bike isn’t cheap. The money that one would have to invest in it would be better spent on parts and gear that matter more to touring cyclists.

E.g., a stiffer frame, stronger wheels, upper-class components, more durable drivetrain, a gearbox, high-quality panniers or bags…etc.

Big, Wide Tires Go a Long Way

Wide tires set at low pressure provide “continuous cushioning” and are more effective than suspension when riding over roads with a high density of small irregularities (e.g., cobblestone streets).

On my hardtail, I am running Schwalbe Big Ben (a balloon tire) on the rear at relatively low pressure (around 2.2), and it definitely softens the ride noticeably.

In conclusion, the suspension effect of the tires in combination with a steel frame provides sufficient comfort for most touring cyclists without compromising the reliability of the bicycle with extra technology.

Some Touring Cyclists Rely On Other Methods To Soften The Ride

Suspension forks aren’t the only way to boost cycling comfort. There are other options such as:

  • suspension seat posts

Suspension seat posts could be surprisingly effective as they reduce the stress from small bumps and thus minimize the rider’s discomfort and fatigue.

Another benefit of suspension seat posts is that they are easy to maintain and can be installed on any bicycle.

Moreover, if something were to go wrong with the seat post, you could just replace it with a cheap rigid one and fix it later.

  • suspension stems

Suspension stems are even less popular than suspension seat posts and have developed a bad reputation due to the initial versions which offered subpar performance.

Times have changed, however. Suspension stems have improved over the years. For example, many people are giving good reviews to the Redshift Sports ShockStop suspension stem.

A suspension stem and seat post on a rigid bike come with an unexpected positive – they make the ride smoother without the loss of energy caused by traditional suspension systems.

Suspension Is More Popular For Light Touring

Bicycles with suspension are significantly more common among the bikepacking/light touring crowd.

When the trip is short, the negatives that come with a suspension lose a lot of their impact since there’s no time for the inefficiency to multiply.

For example, if you go on a 2-day trip, the suspension would still slow you down, but the loss of time would not be as detrimental in comparison to a journey of multiple months.

What Are The Primary Features of a High-end Touring Bike

The primary features of a high-end touring bike are as follows:

Solid frame. Most top touring bikes have a high-quality butted Cr-Mo frame because steel is reliable, easier to weld than other metals such as aluminum, and also compliant.

Some touring cyclists pay premium money for a custom made frame. To them, it’s worth it because the frame will fit them like nothing else and steel is practically eternal if taken care of.

Touring frames have a longer wheelbase (the distance between the two axles) for extra stability and come with the necessary eyelets for the installation of racks, full fenders, and many bottle cages.

Top tier disc brakes. Disc brakes are highly beneficial to a touring set-up as they offer solid braking power even in wet conditions.

Both hydraulic and mechanical disc brakes can be found on a touring bike. Mechanical are more common since they are easier to repair in the middle of nowhere whereas hydraulic require a bleeding kit and brake fluid.

Having said that, there are experienced touring cyclists who use hydraulic disc brakes and see them as very reliable.

Bulletproof wheels and tires. A touring bicycle needs strong wheels that can sustain a lot of abuse without losing their shape. Hence why high-end models rely on ultra-strong rims and a high number of spokes.

The tires also have to be of high quality to prevent unnecessary punctures. Schwalbe’s best-selling model Marathon Plus is among the most popular choices.

Dynamo hubs. Cycling tourists carry a lot of electronics (phone, lights, cameras, power banks…etc.). For that reason, dynamo hubs with USB charging support are considered an indispensable tool as they charge your devices while you’re riding. This further increases the self-sufficiency of the bicycle. However, the entire set-up is not exactly cheap.

Top tier saddle. The saddle is among the components that contribute the most to the rider’s comfort. As expected, top of the line touring bicycles come with a saddle that matches the rest of the machine. A popular choice would be a leather saddle from the Brooks B17 family.

A decent drivetrain or a gearbox. An expensive touring bike would rarely come with a drivetrain that isn’t at least Shimano Deore level.

Some of the more luxurious models use a belt instead of a chain combined with a gearbox such as Rohloff Hub or Pinion Gearbox.

The biggest selling point of a gearbox is that it’s protected from the elements and performs well regardless of the weather. The downside is that gearboxes are very expensive and difficult to service.

Are There Touring Bikes That Come With Suspension?

Even though touring bicycles with suspension aren’t really popular, the following options exist:

Riese & Müller

The company Riese & Müller offers many revolutionary bicycles including touring models with electric motors and suspension.

Tout Terrain Panamericana

This bicycle is a full-suspension touring model. Its rear cargo rack is built above the suspension and allows the luggage to be a sprung weight which, as already discussed, is a beneficial characteristic because the suspension can offer better dampening.

Trekking Bicycles

Trekking bicycles come with a front suspension fork and perform fairly well on dirt roads while also being fast on asphalt. Their qualities make them a suitable option for those looking for a cheaper touring bicycle with suspension.

Repurposed hardtail mountain bikes

Less aggressive hardtails can be easily turned into trekking bicycles by changing the tires with a model more suitable for asphalt and by adding fenders and a rear rack. Back in the day, when I was into light touring, I did this to my hardtail. It worked just fine.

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