Shock absorbers let cyclists take the road a little easier

June 26, 1993|By Bill Laitner | Bill Laitner,Knight-Ridder News Service

Your car has shocks. Why not your bike? Shock absorbers are the latest in a stream of improvements trickling down from elite mountain bikes to anyone's two-wheeler.

The bicycle business still is coasting on the brainstorms that sparked mountain bikes a decade ago, using shock absorbers and other new gadgets and materials to make riding easier, safer and cushier. That's a hit with baby boomers and their elders, who may never pedal a mountain trail.

"We call them the gray market," says Dick Burke, president of Trek Bicycle Corp. in Waterloo, Wis., a prime mover in the suspension trend.

Middle-aged and older Americans "can only play so much golf and do so much jogging and then their knees are gone. They want to ride for pleasure, maybe with their families.

"They're not the yuppie of the '80s, who was performance-oriented. Today's buyer is health-oriented and comfort-oriented," he says.

Like most recent bike trends, suspension systems were born on the West Coast. California mountain-bike racers wanted to soak up the shocks of downhill runs while adding traction for acceleration, turning and braking. A few years ago they turned to motorcycle suspensions on custom bikes costing thousands of dollars.

Now shock-absorbing springs, pistons and plastics find their way into every bike shop. "This year the companies made suspensions much more affordable," says Tim Krukowski, assistant manager of Town & Country Cyclery in Livonia, Mich.

Still pricey but within reach of enthusiasts are suspension systems on mountain bikes like the Raleigh M-50 LT (about $490), the GT Timberline (about $530) and the Trek 850 (about $550).

Of course, you could pay more. Cannondale Bicycle Co. supplied two top-of-the-line Super V 3000s -- the "V" is for Velocity -- due out this fall. They're regularly $3,500.

Suspensions also have spread to triathlon bikes. The exotic Slingshot frame from the tiny Greendale Bicycle Co. of Grand Rapids, Mich., runs about $1,300, but double that to add racing wheels and components.

Best of all for typical cyclists, suspensions are showing up on hybrids, the lightweight cross between mountain and touring bikes experts say is the best bike for most people.

Even the Burley Rock 'N Roll Allsop tandem (about $1,700) sports a suspension beam under the rear seat. That's a boon to any stoker, the back seat partner who suffers the sting of road bumps without seeing them coming. It may help Burley capitalize on a spurt in tandem sales, says Bill Wilkinson, executive vice president of the Bicycle Institute of America, a Washington trade group. "Couples are staying together longer now and they're consummating that with tandems," says Mr. Wilkinson, who commutes by bike 10 miles each way to his Washington office.

Can't part with your old bike? For $160 to $260 you can buy suspension parts from Softride that fit under an existing bike seat or handlebars. You'll even find suspension bikes on a stroll through the kids department at mass merchandisers. The Impact Shock System is on Murray's Rock Canyon (about $165) and the Hammer Head Fork on Huffy's Sledge Hammer (about $135).

Bargain suspensions, however, are no bargain. "They're pseudo. They don't work," says Fred Zahradnik, technical editor of Bicycling magazine. "We've found you really don't get good quality until you reach a bike costing about $500."

Market gurus predict that three-quarters of U.S. bike companies will sell at least one suspension model by next year, most of them mountain bikes, which own an amazing 70 percent of the market.

Even if suspensions cost too much for average buyers, this high-tech hardware is part of a welcome trend. The mountain bike's zooming popularity spawned a generation of two-wheelers with wider seats and tires, upright handlebars and simpler controls. All told, it means freedom from the shackles of traditional racers, with their rock-hard ride, back-straining posture and problematic gear shifters.

As comfy as mountain bikes are, they're sluggish on the street. Frames are rock-solid and heavy as boulders. Knobby tires sing with resistance on pavement. For recreational riders, the best bet is the hybrid.

Great performers in town, hybrids (or "city bikes" or "cross bikes") represent a cross between touring and mountain bikes. They sport upright handlebars for a relaxed posture, wide seats and tires for a softer ride, and "click shifters" for can't-miss gear changes.

Hybrids are ideal for people who rate speed behind comfort, safety, convenience and fitness benefits.

One of these, NordicTrack's Fitness Bike (about $360), sits a rider virtually straight up on a design that says "good-bye, speed; hello, comfort." You can order the standard model or one with an "Easy On" frame.

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