Over the past 5 years, mountain bike suspension designs have evolved from a few designs (essentially Horst and single-pivot) to a myriad of high-performance suspension designs (VPP, DW-Link, CVA, Maestro, ABP, I-Drive, ICT, ETS and the like). All the while, Specialized has become cornered–pinned in by the very patent that they’ve held so dear all these years. Their way is a great way, but is it the BEST way?
In no way am I discounting the Horst-link suspension design, but at this point, I could take it or leave it. Five years ago, that wasn’t the case though because it was the most reliable and efficient suspension design available. Now, there are several designs vying for the “best” suspension design on the market. While the topic of “Best Suspension Design” will be quite subjective, it’s still an interesting debate.
This year alone, I’ve ridden the following suspension designs:
- DW-link (Iron Horse MKIII, Iron Horse 6Point6, Pivot Mach 5 and Ibis Mojo)
- Horst-link (Norco Fluid LT and Ellsworth Evolve)
- ICT (Ellsworth Evolve)
- CVA (Niner RIP 9, Niner Jet 9)
- Maestro (Giant Reign 1)
- VPP (Santa Cruz Blur LT)
- Single-pivot (Ventana El Terremoto, Rocky Mountain Slayer, Kona Hei Hei 2-9 and Salsa Big Mama)
- ETS (Rocky Mountain Altitude)
My Thoughts on Modern Suspension Design
At this point, every manufacturer will tell you that their suspension design is the best. Of course they believe it and of course you should look at those claims with some degree of scrutiny. Those claims are just marketing hooey until rubber meets dirt and bumps are met with squishy travel in all it’s glorious varieties.
Quite honestly, every suspension design I’ve ridden in recent years has been good and sometimes they have been outstanding, but no single modern suspension design is inherently bad. There can be bad renditions, but each suspension design on the market has merit and can be stellar when properly executed with the right implementation.
Yes, you can easily tell the difference between each design and some are better suited to climbing while others are more well-suited to descending. Some are built for simplicity while others end up being flush with complexity. Again, the marketing engine will try to pit one design against another–claiming superiority.
Single-pivot designs are typically the most picked-on design these days, but when one is properly executed, you’ll have a hard time differentiating it from a Horst-link. On the other end, the VPP, DW-Link and their copycats are often written off as too complex or prone to breakdown.
The performance of virtual pivot designs is proof that the simplest solution is not always the best.
Is the Horst-link Becoming Irrelevant?
Horst-link suspension designs have been the ideal for a long time and suspension designers have been held back because of their reluctance to push the limits of the Specialized-owned patent. For 2009, Rocky Mountain is splitting hairs between the Horst and their own ETSX patent on the new Altitude platform. The untrained eye will never notice the subtle differences and even the most experienced rider will likely not be able to tell the difference in ride quality. Though only a few millimeters differentiate this from the Horst-link, you won’t find the Big S knocking on Rocky’s door because they know it’s clearly out of their patent, yet still offers all the good of the fabled Horst.
Trek is also pushing the Horst-link into its corner with the introduction of their Active Braking Pivot or ABP design, which puts both the axle and rearward pivot at the same location. Braking, suspension and pedaling forces are isolated with a stellar ride quality.
All the virtual pivot designs share enough similarities that I’ll lump them together. Each one does ride slightly different, but they are all awesome alternatives and sometimes superior alternatives to the traditional Horst-link. Pedaling and braking forces are canceled out and isolated from the suspension action.
Single-pivot designs can be simple (swingarm and shock) or more complex (four bar), but in the end the pivoting chainstay produces a simple arced wheel path. I dare you to ride a Rocky Mountain Slayer, Ventana El Terremoto or a Kona Hei Hei 2-9 and tell me that single-pivot designs have poor ride qualities. When done well, they offer outstanding performance.
So, I throw it out there to you… do you think the Horst-link (Specialized-owned suspension design) is becoming irrelevant in today’s mountain bike suspension world? Chime in below.
I think the modern shock, especially the Fox RP23 has made it easier to develope a non-horstlink suspention as well. Having a solid platform shock is the fondation for a good single piviot desighn it seams.
So true! The RP23 is a great shock which can make up for deficiencies inherent to some suspension designs.
By the way, you couldn’t be more wrong about vpp not being effected by pedaling and braking! All wheelpaths will be effected somewhat by pedaling and braking and vpp’s are actually among the worst! Why do you think shocks now have stupid pedal platform? it’s just extra low speed compression damping to deaden crappy ride characteristics caused by complicated, multi-arc vpp wheelpaths. Sounds like technology you can do without if you don’t buy a piece of crap vpp.
And that Rocky ets design isn’t as similar to a horst as you think, definitely not worthy of comparison. The chainstay pivot needs to be below and in front of the rear axle to have a true 4-bar wheelpath. That is how specialized define and protect the Horst-link; if you place the link in other places it actually makes a huge difference. and I bet that Rocky’s pivot is as close as it can be without violating Specialized’s technology.
All of the recent vpp bandwagoners are either misinformed or lying IMO, it’s just simple physics.
The performancce of vpp designs are proof that the more simple designs aren’t always best?
How is that?
When other companies are making aftermarket suspension parts (for bikes like santa cruz and intense) to try to improve the stiffness and cure creakiness, i think that is a bad sign. definitely not a sign of performance or durability.
and it wasn’t just a coincidence that platform valving (pedal platform) has become popular as vpp designs have become more trendy.. vpp bikes especially can ride so crappy, if they aren’t set up perfectly (like exact manufacturer sag) things happen that most people find too annoying to ignore. and over-damping with low-speed compression became an accepted way to deaden these poorly designed suspension systems in my opinion…
In addition, using chain torque to hold the rear axle in a certain spot in the wheelpath isn’t exactly efficiency. all vpp’s work this way and claim it’s just “pedalling efficiency” when it’s actually using a complex axle path to allow chain torque to pull the rear wheel to a certain spot, making the bike less active, sacrificing traction. and all vpp designs have brake-jack comparable to a single pivot as far as i’ve seen..
Whoa Jake… I obviously struck a raw nerve with you. Do us all a favor and tell us which bike company you work for. 🙂 Just kidding man…
You’re very correct in pointing out some of the challenges that have plagued the VPP designs of the past. I’m sure if we went back in time and pointed out every flaw with the first Horst designs or the first iDrive designs or the first single-pivot designs, we’d find the same things. With every new technology, it takes work to fix all the little issues. That said, there will always be issues with any full-suspension bike–no matter the suspension design.
And, I don’t think that there’s a clear correlation between suspension tuning and platform shocks and VPP designs. All suspension designs benefit from those technologies and who sells the most bikes? You guessed it… the Big S. Not satisfied with the way Fox was running the platform show, they built their own platform shock–they realize that all suspension designs–even the Horst–can benefit from modern shock technology.
I completely agree with you that there are trade offs with each suspension design. And, I’ve spared everyone the detailed engineering drawings and physics only to point out the riding characteristics of each design–isn’t that what counts?
Each design has limits, but, as I pointed out… each has merit and I’ve ridden great renditions of each suspension design. It all proves the point that the Horst link is further being pushed into the corner by other, equally suitable designs. Am I saying the Horst sucks? Heck no… I’m just saying that there are other alternatives and the Big S IS being pigeon-holed.
In the end, ride characteristics–not physics lessons–are the most important judge of a suspension design. Personally, I’ll be happy as a clam with any of the above suspension designs if it’s done well. I can name several kick-butt designs in each camp.
Great article. From a total noob’s perspective, where does the Yeti 575 suspension fit in?
575 is a single pivot…. a very well executed single pivot.
I think the Elsworth ICT and Specialized Horst link are the “gold standard” and others are trying to get as close as possible to that performance. Some designs are closer than others to the Horst link and most riders wouldn’t know the difference anyway.
It all comes down to axle path. A single pivot bike still needs a floating brake arm and more sensitive compression tuning to perform similiar to a horst link.
or…get a hardtail and harden up girls!
Good exchange on Horst-link suspensions. I have a related, but separate question> I have a 1995 Norco FTS-1, one of the first Horst-Link bikes made by Norco. Does anyone have a clue where I might find a replacement rear shock for this antique? the OEM unit, which has a proprietary mounting schema for the bottom of the shock, blew out on me. Anyone? thanks so much!
@Bob… have you contacted Norco? They would be the only ones I can think of who may know the eye-to-eye measurements and stroke of the shock.
However, if it has a proprietary lower housing/mount, my guess is you’re out of luck since suspension technology has changed A LOT since 1995 (HALLELUJAH!).
Do you have pics of it?
Have you taken a look at Marin’s Quad Link design?
I have… good point. It is really similar to both the VPP, DW and other “virtual” pivot designs:
On 12.17.08 rrpalma said:
Ditto. Love Jason’s perspective. As a noob I would like to hear(see) When executed well what are the strengths/deficiencies of each of the major variations. I note GT ID is not yet mentioned (a couple of boards rave about it). While I love the science, I agree it is function that counts. Therefore is the strength/weakness: braking, descending, maintenance, pedal bob, lockout under hard pedalling.
Caveat I have a Trance X1 2009 and only 500km of FS experience under easy trail conditions.
I should start by saying I have about 10 months of riding experience and a lot less experience in suspension design.
I own a Merida 2008 AM bike with single pivot designed suspension. My question is can I modify this bike to a Horst link type arrangement. Reason is I don’t like the “brake-jake” effect when applying the brakes on a serious downhill section. Suffice to say I been over the handle bars more often than I care to say. Would a change to a Horst Link improve things and is it possible?
Hey… welcome to the party! I had to go and educate myself on Merida bikes as I hadn’t heard of them until now. So, if you’ve got the older Merida AM bike, you have a 4-bar rocker-arm single-pivot. From what you’re saying it may be a poorly-designed system, but you’re pretty new to the MTB suspension scene, so it could definitely be something else.
Brake-jack can happen at inopportune times, but typically it doesn’t result in OTB scenarios. All that typically happens is the suspension locks up until you release the brakes, so braking efficiency suffers also.
If you are experiencing extreme brake-jack, you have a couple of options:
1. Purchase an aftermarket floating brake from Brake Therapy
2. Purchase a new frame or bike
You can’t convert your bike into a Horst, but you can do #1 above and have a similar effect. Best of luck man! No more OTB!
Thanks for the reply Jason,
My specific bike is the Merida AM 3000D. Merida is a bigger company than most peeple realise and they make bikes for a lot of other manufacturers. They tend to keep out of the same market they manufacture for that is why they aren’t well known; that is until now.
Merida themselves have designed a floating disc brake system. I did inquire a while back but was told that I cannot convert my existing system to the new system. Maybe they wanted me to buy a new frame hence the poor advice.
No more OTB it hurts too much at my age.
Thanks again – John
Jason, great exchange above, clearly no single outcome will ever be reached. I’ve been riding a Maverick ML7 & ML8 for the past six years. I’m at a point where I’d like to get a new rig and have struggled to find a design I like better. My ML7 is near end of life and I intend to change to a platform that is more broadly accepted and supported.
I’ve rode FSR, VPP and DW Link suspension designs but still like the way Maverick’s monolink suspension system feels. From my perspective it’s extremely responsive to pedal input, absolutely firms up and launches when you stand up and sprint, very stable and controlled descending. It’s got that organic feeling going for it and is stupid simple to maintain.
If I had to pick from the other designs, I liked the DW link implementation on the Turner 5-spot best. I’m likely too familiar and comfortable with the Maverick to be a good judge of anything else.
My question, how does the mono-link design stack up against the others and given my monolink bias what technology would you recommend next?
The Maverick Monolink is truly an interesting design that has a lot to offer. It’s kind of like the GT I-drive in a way with the floating bottom-bracket (sorry I didn’t cover either the Monolink or the I-drive). That said, I wonder if some of the new GT’s would be of interest? I’ve heard good things about their new carbon models, but haven’t ridden one yet.
As far as Maverick goes, it’s been quite awhile since I rode the old ML 7/5, so I can’t dig that far back in my mind on how it performed. I do recall that I liked it overall.
If you’re looking for simplicity, you can’t go wrong with Yeti and the 575 or the new ASR 5C (which is an awesome bike, BTW). That’s where I’d steer if you’re looking for an equally-capable bike.
Here’s my review of the ASR 5C:
That’s helpful information. I live in the Pacific Northwest where winter riding leads to a lot of maintenance. Short of purchasing a new full suspension bike I had toyed with the idea of building a rigid 29er single speed. Relatively inexpensive, I’m just not sure it will deliver on the fun factor!
Thanks again for your prompt reply and insight.
A rigid singlespeed 29er would put you permanently in the pain cave, but you’d be in killer shape! That would bring a whole different kind of fun to riding, that’s for sure. I’d prefer to keep my bikes squishy, thank you!
I love my rigid 29er, its hard and fast and teaches you all that riding stuff you’ve forgotten from years of riding full sus. i live in the lake district in the uk, where its wet rocky and v.hilly, most people ride things like Trek EX 8 or 9, 5 spots, 575s or similar.
Like Jason says theres loads of good stuff out there, its just finding the one that suits you. At the end of the day its got to fit you, your budget and riding style, any good store should be able to advise you.
Ilove riding suspension, and am lucky enough to have ridden a lot over the last few years, one of my faves is the Whyte E120, an absolute blast to ride, makes you want to charge at everything up and down. But right now its all about singlespeeds!
You rigid 29er singlespeed riders are all alike. 🙂
I need to get one just to have in the stable and remind me how to ride efficiently, but it sure is nice not to take so much abuse on the old body!
yeah, you do feel battered at the end of a ride, but kind of in a good way:)
full sus is easy man!
We’ve clearly drifted off of the topic as to whether or not the horst link suspension is becoming irrelevant.
If one were to purchase a rigid 29er single speed, what would you recommend? Frame and component mix?
What do you think of the suspension design on the 2010 Cannondale RZ 140? I’ve heard so many great things about them and I’m looking to possible buy one but I just can’t get over the fact that it’s just another plain single pivot design. I’ve heard time and time agian that simple single pivot designs can be great, but I just can’t convince myself.
Sorry, my fault for drifting off topic. 🙁
Err, The new Carbon Niner SS looks luverly, but VV expensive, you need to find the right head angle that works for you and where you ride/riding style. Most people say my Kona Unit with rigid Bonty fork is too steep but I love it!
Back on track…
There are so many good bikes out there these days it really is getting harder to differentiate between the diffent designs, they mostly work really well. If you have not ridden many full sus bikes, or with people on different types you might not notice the differences. If you have, and can tell, then they may not be enough to make or break a purchase?
I think that the Horst link design probably is still the best performing thing out there, but for me, off the peg Treks with ABP, or Fishers are great, Magic Link Konas are questionable but new and interesting to ride, Marin quads and Whyte e120s are mind blowingly quick, and plain old horst link bikes look dated and feel over active if there is such a thing…
Does this bike fit me well? I mean really well.
Can I ride everywhere I currently do and more on this bike?
The Rz 140 promises to be a good mid travel do everything trail bike, not the stiffest, or lightest or …anything, just good alround, with, in my experience great back up if you do have warranty issues.
What does anyone think of the DW Turners, compared to say an ICT Ellsworth or Tracer, or Blur???
I find that there is no superor design at all. I had 2 Santa cruz blur XC’s but with some weight gain the brake jack just got worse irritatingly worse. I tried the blur LT and Nomad and I even tried the Superlight and heckler, looking for something that performs well for a 210lb guy but they all had similar brake jack issues. The big thing I noticed was the more I weighed, the worse the brake jack got. I was using the brakes harder, I was pushing the bikes limits more. Do you know what I purchased? A 2009 Rocky Mountain Altitude. It climbed really nice and the longer travel was a great improvement over the Blurs, without being too slack. Quite a change for the flatbar and spandex fellow like me, but it suited me better. The big thing I liked about it was that the almost lack of brake jack. My needs canged, so I got a different design, there is no superior design at all. almost every brand of bikes has 2 or 3 different designs.
Andrew… thanks for your input. You’ve got me by 40 lbs, so your take on different bikes will completely vary. It’s good to get your feedback and confirmation that it really does come down to personal preference. I think in high weight applications, some of the negative characteristics show their ugly faces a little more. It’s then that the Horst or ETS designs shine.
Go and enjoy your Altitude… that’s one fine machine!
wow, I just worked a huge demo weekend in the Lake district in the uk, and was once again blown away by just how ggod the new 5 spot is. I’ve ridden all incarnations of it and can categorigally say it is by far the best. Maybe not the lightest, prettiest or cheapest but it IS amazing. Stiffer, more agressive, with more feedback, and more challenging than the older 4 bar horst link bike, more reactive, better on square edged stuff than the faux bar bike, this is THE turner to buy…. Horst link? What’s that…
Like Aristotle asking, “why does the arrow stay flying?” we are all asking the wrong question. It took 2000 years for Descartes to ask the right question, and that was, “why does the arrow stop?” Newton discovered gravity within years. He then advented the third law of motion, that every action has an equal and opposite reaction.
We must consider that a “neutral” suspension linkage only removes the most ostensible inefficiencies of bicycle suspension dynamics. There are many more it cannot cope with.
The horst link is a great suspension design. But, I will go as far as saying it is antiquated. Not because of what it does. It is, in fact, perfectly neutral. It is antiquated because of what it cannot do. A horst link is nothing more than a single pivot suspension design with a patented neutral link. It was the best previously, but it’s downfall is in it’s former strength; that it is neutral.
As modern kinematics have illustrated adeptly, there is no way to dial out many unwanted physical effects on bicycle suspension, mass transfer, squat, gravity, and changes in angle of a climb or descent.
Dual link designs have the POTENTIAL to mitigate these physical factors. I agree on the most repeated point that Jason made, some of the bikes that ride the best are of the most simple designs. The Athertons killed it on Single Pivots in the UCI Downhill this year. But we are nearing the threshold where efficient designs are equaling the ergonomics, cornering, rigidity, trackability and huckability of the best,and at some point efficient characteristics will be found in the “best riding” bikes.
Let’s not be ubiquitous and say all designs have their drawbacks, like we are pissing in the wind of all technological advancement. And I don’t want someone to feel that he or she made a 5K dollar investment in obselescence with a horst-link. Just be aware that the physics behind bicycle suspension dynamics are currently evolving rapidly and even now some designs are coming close to referencing all known physical limitations and deliver a faster AND more intuitive ride.
Jason, you state, “I’ve spared everyone the detailed engineering drawings and physics only to point out the riding characteristics of each design–isn’t that what counts?” The detailed engineering, drawings are what I want to get to know and understand. Is there somewhere you can point me that does a good job of breaking it all down and showing graphs and curves. thanks,
TM… not sure where those might be. I’ve seen detailed suspension curve paths, etc., but they are typically on each manufacturer’s sites. I don’t see much of that these days though.
The new Santa Cruz APP design and VPP is outlined here:
Here’s the best resource I’ve seen though:
Hope that helps!
FSR suspension decouples the suspension from braking and pedalling forces leaving suspension completely free to do what it is there for; to stay open, to provide traction and control.
Shocks with lock-outs seek to stop nuances in other linkage designs, but they are silly as they contradict the very reason we suspension back there and the same goes for platforms. Rider induced bob cannot be stopped with any linkage design, but that is why Specialized’s brain is so brilliant.
Single pivot designs have so many flaws. Pedaling forces and braking forces interrupt the suspension action and many have whacky curves in their travel = less performance (so why are the athertons so quick on the ciruit?? because they’re freaky).
vpp, dw link etc are complicated single pivots essentially and so they often suffer from the same problems as single pivots.
with the horst link, fsr is fully active all the time with out the rider input (pedalling, braking) disrupting its job.
that is all.
Excellent points, Nick. While other designs do have negatives, I think they are at the point where they are splitting hairs in many ways. Each design has merits and as I stated, I’ve ridden good/bad in all camps–including FSR designs.
is there a published listing (i’m guessing not) of all the true Horst Link licensees these days? i drank the kool-aid a while back w/ my 2000 Intense Tracer, but am now looking for something in the 6″ category…
UK What Mountain Bike July/August 2010 has an interesting “Idiots” guide to Full Suspension. Part 2 is in the next issue. The article opened lots of doors to me, although I have to say I am a relative novice. One factor I found ingenious was the use of Linkages (levers), the pivot positioning and length which could be designed specifically to achieve a purposeful (tuned) Instant Centre of Rotation Curve ( an “IC). This effectively can move the “Virtual” pivot point of the rear axle anywhere in the 2D plane of the bikes front/rear axis. In simple terms, a single pivot bike cannot do this – the virtual pivot point is always located at the single pivot. A multi-linkage suspension’s virtual pivot moves as the suspension compresses and decompresses. the Design of this curve can be used to compensate or tolerate the negative factors at various points through the travel. In short, there is plenty of mileage still in all the designs, success however, depends on how ingenious the engineering can become to tune in with the bike geometry and riding style.
Hey. I encourage everyone to read up on suspension design – checkout pathanalysis and download linkage v2.5 – this and the related articles will assist ones understanding greatly. eg. Demos do NOT have a “vertical axle path” it is, like many other DH bikes, initally rearward, and only varies by a little from a true circular arc. Most peopel here seem to not be making outlandish claims of knowledge they dont have so thats a suggestion not a criticism. For big blokes I recommend (in defense of horst link style designs) that you speak to a distributor for Knolly bikes. Im riding a Knolly delirium-t, large, and im in the 225 lb butt naked weight class. this bike has a solid 5/5 review from over 30 reviewers on mtbr – and all that is said of these bikes is true. they make several models from all-mountain all the way to DH. essentially they are true four bar based with the damping unit driven off an additional linkage. it will pedal like a champ, stick like glue under braking and techy climbs, and feels truly bottomless… I am still amazed at how all the positive claims of this bikes general superiority have held up as being exactly the experience you get when you ride on… 4xFour link… i love you!!!
Everyone might need to step back a little and have a rethink. Efficiency, stability, feedback ,brake jack are all issues sure. All systems have their limitations and advantages. The Athertons win because they can ride. All winners win because they are the best on the day be it xc, 24hr, dh, 4x, whatever. ANd bike companies although claiming that their bikes win because of their design are selling hype. Riders win races on whatever bike gets put under them. Jason English won 24 hr wolds on a DW-Link Pivot and then moved to Merida on whatever that design is. Test a bike and then test another. Buy the one that feels best under you. Let your own riding style decide the bike, find a good dealer that will let you test different bikes, buy one and go ride. I once saw a 12 year old run a black diamond on a 24″HT and burn an adult on an 8″ from one of the big manufacturers (they dont tell you that in the brochure).
GT idrive, Giant Reign, Commencal super 4, I have owned and loved every one of them over the years.
One more thing to bat on about. I read about the physics of suspension, but very rarely read about the physical attributes of the rider and their effect on different suspension and reckon this would be a better discussion.
Stepping off the dirt for a moment and looking at a roadie – road bikes are generally stiff at least to a degree at high level that would be negligable between companies, uet contador ‘dances’ up a hill where others ‘grind’ or ‘stomp’ but they often are split by seconds after 6 hours racing.
Its not ‘horses for course”s its horses for riders’ when talking MTB, a bike shop owner once told me – I have since bought 2 x MTBs and a roadie from him as well as everything I have needed since even down to water bottle holders.
this shop also takes their full fleet out from time to time for a half day demo, sets it up for you and lets you go at it no prejudice.
Try it and all this discussion about suspension designs becomes irrelevant.
I have had the opportunity to ride several of the old and current designs. The big S Horst Link being my least favorite. I have been riding mountain bikes competitively for 6 years now and have been able to demo quite a few bikes, Ibis, Norco, Specialized, Marin, Santacruz, Giant, Yetti and Intense to name a few. All have their ups and downs but the best performing bikes I have been on are Santacruz. Specialized being the worst, and the least friendly to deal with… This is all my preference, just take it for what its worth.
Nice article. Many put a lot of attention on bikes, suspensions and gear, forgetting that a big chunk of the riding quality comes from the technical skills of the rider itself. A lot of work goes into re-inventing suspensions that later on will be sold at ridiculous prices. How come an enduro bike costs the same as an enduro motorcycle ? The motorcycle has more expensive gear, the engine and shifting box just to begin with (not to mention electronic fuel injection and many other expensive stuff). A nicely equipped KTM enduro motorcycle runs for 5 K, the same price for an enduro bike…. (absurd?)….
I don’t think the Horst link is becoming irrelevant ?
It’s interesting to see this post, now 15 years later. A standard Horst-link design is still common, but several other designs — including single-pivots — are actually more common. The Horst patent is now long expired and so is the VPP. And, the fantastic DW-Link expires later this year. That said, the Horst Link is still relevant, but other suspension designs are more common.
No unicode support? That’s so 2008