Racebike concept comparison

End of a purist idea?

Featherweight forks boasting 120mm of travel and World Cup racers rocking dropper posts pose a pressing query: Are race rigs with 100mm of travel still relevant? We’ve not only put various bikes to the test, but we’ve also modded one to pinpoint the nuances between these design philosophies.

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Progress obliterates. Case in point: high-quality 26-inch bikes are no more. The signs proclaiming „29ers suck!“ that were seen at the courses of Downhill World Cups for years have not followed through. The old wheel standard has vanished into obscurity. And any die-hard rider who expressed their early-millennium lifestyle with a 3-ring crankset tattoo now has to explain to their kids the significance of those seemingly excessive chainrings on dad’s calf.

The MTB industry’s giant waves of progress are undoubtedly behind us, yet the combo of marketing and engineering might just forcefully show us its will. Dear 100 millimeter race rigs, be warned. The enemy is lurking, and it’s armed with a relentless drive for change.

100-millimeter race bike
Are high-post, classic 100mm travel race bikes on the brink of extinction?

Why should 100 Millimeters of travel no longer be enough?

With the onslaught of marketing campaigns pushing new products and trends, it’s completely understandable that many riders approach each emerging trend with a healthy dose of skepticism. Why would the tried-and-true 100mm of fork travel suddenly not cut it? After all, World Cup races are still being clinched on quintessential 100mm race bikes. Moreover, the Alps can definitely still be conquered on a minimalist 100mm bike. Yet, the winds of change are unmistakable.

Cervelo ZFS 5
During our test run of the new Cervelo full-suspension racer...
Merida Big.Nine 10k
...we have found that the sweet spot for the Merida Big.Nine Race hardtail is very specific.

Last year, Nino Schurter clinched the 2022 World Championship and the overall 2023 World Cup title aboard a rig with 120mm of travel. The Cape Epic 2022 was also conquered with a plush 120mm of rear suspension. Off the race track, an increasing number of manufacturers are phasing out their 100mm travel bikes from their line-ups. Mondraker, Scott, and Orbea have all dropped the classic XC full-suspension models. Rose is even putting 120mm of travel into its latest racing hardtail and equips the PDQ exclusively with a dropper post.

Rose PDQ
New race bikes like the Rose PDQ are showcasing a fresh take on Cross-Country for 2024, with 120 millimeters of travel and a dropper post straight from the factory.

The reasons for the development are not immediately transparent but are inherently present:

  • Reason Number 1: Humans never settle for the current state of technology.
  • Reason Number 2: 120mm forks like the RockShox SID have become so light in recent years, that one might wonder why you'd ever want to skimp on that extra travel.
  • Reason Number 3: Mountain biking continues to evolve. Few riders are content with cruising down gravel paths. Most are seeking more trails and more challenging descents.

Ambassadors from the test fleet

Ever since we started our work at bike-test.com, we’ve emphasised that 100mm travel race bikes with a rigid post have a very narrow range of application. Models like the Scott Scale RC, the Rockrider Race 740, or the Cervelo ZFS 5 absolutely shred within their limits on descents. However, the Rose PDQ made it clear at its unveiling this summer, just how tight the boundaries of the classic XC rig truly are. And the Canyon Lux Trail solidified that sentiment in our most recent ride session.

The Battle of the XC Titans: 100 mm Full-Suspension vs. 120 mm Hardtail
Which offers more on the descent? The full-suspension rear triangle on the Cervelo ZFS 5, or the dropper post and 120mm fork on the Rose PDQ?

With an additional 20 millimeters of travel and a dropper post, both the PDQ and the Lux Trail open up serious singletrack to riders who aren’t as versed. When we last put the Merida Big.Nine to the test – a rig with a classic cross-country (CC) setup – we were keen to dig deeper. We wondered, what are the trade-offs when you commit to extra suspension travel and the versatility of a telescopic seatpost.

The Rose PDQ
Ultra-light 120mm forks, such as the Rock Shox SID SL, offer increased travel with minimal weight penalty.
Rock Reverb Dropper Post
A dropper post operated by the push of a button, such as the one pre-installed in the Rose PDQ, is now even making the rounds in the Cross Country World Cup.

To establish the facts, here's a showcase rebuild

We promptly converted the Merida Big.Nine 10 K for a reason. Why this bike? The Big.Nine captured our interest with its weight of 9.4 kilograms, but tests also clearly showed that it quickly reaches its limits off-road. Moreover, this newly introduced Merida bike is already available in a trail-ready version with 120 millimeters of suspension travel in other countries. One could say: the perfect specimen to highlight the conceptual differences both on the scales and on the trail.

To do this, the factory-installed 100 millimeter fork had to make room for a 120 millimeter version. The carbon seatpost was replaced with a Rock Shox Reverb AXS. It was crucial for us to maintain a comparable basis for this differentiation. Therefore, we swapped the Rock Shox SID SL Ultimate for a SID Ultimate. The fork, without the ‚SL‘ designation, offers 20 millimeters more travel but operates at the same level of quality.

Upgrading to a 120mm fork
In our latest back-to-back test, we've given the Merida Big.Nine 10 a serious makeover.
Removing the 120mm fork
The black Rock Shox Sid SL sporting 100mm of travel has been swapped out for the blue SID, now packing 120mm of travel.

Trading 20 Millimeters of travel for an extra 158 grams of weight

The first astonishing fact: the fork with 120 millimeters of travel weighs only 158 grams more. Along with the additional 20 millimeters of travel, you also get beefier stanchions. The 100mm fork uses 32mm stanchions, whereas the 120mm version from Rock Shox boasts 35mm stanchions. This makes the 120mm option noticeably less prone to twisting, especially when braking hard or railing through bermed corners. The increased steering precision not only enhances performance but also benefits the overall function, as less twisting equals less friction during compression.

Swapping out the carbon seatpost for the Rock Shox Reverb AXS is a breeze thanks to its wireless operation. Dropper posts that use a mechanical cable require a frame that’s prepped for cable routing and a bit more mechanical expertise. The Reverb AXS, on the other hand, can be universally fitted to any bike without these prerequisites. The upgrade does come with a heftier impact on weight, adding about 500 grams more than swapping the fork.

RockShox SID SL weight
The fork, featuring 32mm stanchions and offering 100mm of travel, tips the scales at 1349 grams.
RockShox SID 120 weight
The 120mm version with 35mm stanchions tips the scales at just 150 grams heavier.

Weight differences after the upgrades

  • Fork: +158 grams (from 1349 to 1507 grams)
  • Seatpost: + 486 grams (from 236 grams to 722 grams)
  • Complete bike: + 644 grams (from 9.4 to 10.1 kilograms)

What does additional weight mean for time chasers?

An additional weight of 644 grams is manageable considering the modifications, but it still has an impact. Especially in the Cross Country or Marathon sector, every biker is vying for the coveted KOM titles on the climbs. Hence, we ran a realistic experiment through your power calculator. What are the theoretical consequences of hauling an extra 644 grams up the notorious Tremalzo Pass at Lake Garda? Starting from Riva del Garda, you face 39 kilometers and 1828 vertical meters before you can traverse the legendary tunnel at the mountain pass.

Merida Big.Nine
Climbing becomes a breeze with the minimalist setup of 100 millimeters of travel and a rigid post, thanks to its low weight. Opting for a dropper post and a suspension fork with 120mm of travel will put on an additional 700 grams.

If you’re cranking out an average power of 200 watts on the pedals, with a body weight of 80 kilograms riding a 9.4-kilogram bike, it’ll take you 2:37:11 hours to reach the summit. Keep all other factors constant and only switch the bike’s weight to 10.1 kilograms in the calculation, the calculator churns out a ride time of 2:38:13. Our conclusion: To reach the tunnel in the same amount of time with both setups, you’d have to push an extra watt (that’s 0.5%) throughout the entire climb with the 120-millimeter bike.

Weight penalty calculation for Mountain Bikes

100-millimeter race bike build 120mm custom-tuned build
Rider weight 80 kg
Altitude meters 1828 hm
Kilometer 39 km
Power 200 Watt
Bike weight 9,4 kg 10,1 kg (+700 Gramm)
Duration 2:37:11 h 2:38:13 h (+1:02 min)
Merida Big.Nine
In its original version, the Merida Big.Nine 10 K tips the scales at a mere 9.4 kilograms.
Merida Big.Nine Trail
Outfitted with a telescopic seatpost and a dropper post, it tips the scales at 10.1 kilos, pedals not included. There's also word that a trail-ready version of the Merdia will soon be available from the getgo.

On the trail: spotting a difference?

The additional 0.5% power demand might seem manageable on the trail, but the logical counter-question arises: What’s the payoff? We put the Merdia Big.Nine through its paces both as a classic XC setup and in the 120-millimeter travel version on the same test loop. In back-to-back testing between the two setups, it becomes immediately apparent that not only the travel, but also the geometry is transformed.

The conversion from a 100mm to a 120mm fork results in the following geometry changes (for size M):

  • Head angle: becomes 1.1 degrees slacker
  • Seat angle: becomes 1.1 degrees slacker
  • Reach: is 12mm shorter
  • Stack: is raised by 8 mm
  • Top Tube: gets 3 mm shorter
  • Wheelbase: becomes 9mm longer

After the rebuild, the riding position of the bike becomes significantly more upright. Notably, the reduced reach can be felt distinctly, whether you’re seated or standing on the bike, even with the 120mm fork. The bike retains its sporty vibe post-conversion, albeit in a less pronounced manner. This should actually appeal to riders who are into longer tours. Will the anticipated wow-factor in downhill performance be evident in a head-to-head comparison?

Dropper post performance when descending
On descents, the dropper post really plays its cards right, providing significantly increased range of motion. Conversely, the additional suspension travel on the fork becomes noticeable mainly in extreme situations.

The benefit on the trail: the dropper post

A particularly steep section right at the entrance of the first trail clearly sets the stage—the difference is stark. While having extra travel at the top of the steep section isn’t yet noticeable, the installed dropper post quickly becomes the star of the show. Where the rigid post previously forced you into a posture, that left your backside trailing behind the saddle and your torso nearly lying on it, now you are able to maintain a more centered position on the bike. From this neutral stance, you can execute maneuvers such as a bunny-hop or a quick change in direction despite the steep terrain. That is something which was unfeasible with the previous compulsory posture.

Increased suspension travel is noticeable, but not a game-changer

While the dropper post shines in every descent, allowing ultimate freedom of movement, the additional travel on the fork operates more subtly. It becomes noticeably beneficial when one encounters into extreme conditions. Upon compressions or when sticking landings after jumps, the 120mm fork has significantly more in reserve. Riding smoothly over mellow trails, the 100mm Rock Shox Sid SL performs with absolute sensitivity, leaving little room for criticism. However, on rougher terrain or during harder braking, it’s evident that the stouter 35mm stanchions twist far less than the slimmer 32mm stanchions of the 100mm fork.

Hardtail with a dropper post
When the trails get steep, a dropper seatpost aids the hardtail in enhancing its downhill capabilities.
Enduro descent
On the descent, it's clear: The dropper post offers even more advantages downhill than the rear shock on a full-suspension rig.

Telescopic seatpost offers more than the full-squish

We’ve even dared to conduct a head-to-head comparison between a 120mm hardtail with a dropper post and a race full-suspension bike to see which design promises more potential. Although you might assume that a full-suspension bike is more downhill-oriented, the reality on the trails tells a different story. The 100mm of travel in the rear of the Cervelo ZFS 5 do soak up bumps, providing steady traction and more comfort than the hardtail.

But when the going gets tough or the trail gets steep, you’re better off with a dropper post on a hardtail than a full-suspension setup in the rear. Sure, the full-suspension bike eases the strain on your entire upper body over long distances, but that high seat post won’t do you any favours when you need to bunny hop over a log. Just as fascinating, both the Merida Big.Nine and the Rose PDQ, outfitted with 120mm travel and a dropper post, tipped the scales at about the same weight as the classic 100mm-travel race full-suspension bike.

100 or 120mm of travel
The addition of a mere 150 grams makes running a 120mm fork a no-brainer. However, it's crucial to understand that the true advantage of this travel upgrade on a race bike really shines when paired with a dropper post.

Conclusion on more suspension travel for race bikes

Adding approximately 1.54 lbs (700 Grams), a dropper seatpost and a 120mm fork are truly game-changing upgrades for race rigs. The enhanced freedom of movement, improved steering precision, and increased traction at the limit are compelling arguments that modern hardtails, like the Rose PDQ, bring to the table. Riders blessed with exceptional bike handling skills, who put in daily saddle time, might be able to offset this with their prowess. This keeps the 100mm-travel race bikes relevant for a select group of enthusiasts. However, for the rest of the riding community, the contemporary design of such race bikes is a blessing, offering way more fun than the traditional iterations. Equipped this way, hardtails can even be dialed in for more downhill-focused performance than the classic full-suspension race bikes.

Ludwig Döhl – ride better bikes

About the author

Ludwig

... has spent more than 100,000 kilometers in the saddle of over 1000 different mountain bikes. The essence of many hours on the trail: Mountain bikes are awesome when they match your personal preferences! With this realization, he founded bike-test.com to assist cyclists in finding their very own dream bike.

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