Is Front or Rear Suspension More Important? (Explained)

Suspension requirements vary between bikes from rigid cross-country bikes to full suspension, but you may be wondering where you get the most bang for your buck: the forks, or the rear shock?

Front suspension is valuable to every mountain biker. The shock absorption from the forks means the front wheel stays in contact with the ground and enables the rider to turn the bike effectively. Rear suspension makes a bike more comfortable but is less important than forks for most people.

To decide whether front or rear suspension is more important on a mountain bike, we need to look into the functionality of each part.

Both the forks and the rear shock provide the same basic function – absorbing the impact from any bumps or obstacles in the terrain.

Whilst they provide the same function in principle, the benefits of having front suspension aren’t the same as the benefits of a rear shock.

What’s Most Important – Front or Rear Suspension?

It’s impossible to give an answer to this question that is true all the time and for every rider. In all honesty, which suspension is ‘most important’ is determined by a number of factors that will vary from person to person.

One of the major factors to consider whether front or rear suspension is most important to you is your riding style and the terrain you most commonly ride on.

If you find yourself primarily riding trails with moderate descents that are relatively smooth, you’re not going to benefit that much from rear suspension, and will likely be experiencing more of a benefit from the steering control afforded by the forks.

If on the other hand, you find yourself on high-speed, flowy berm tracks, rough/bumpy terrain, or loose gravel tracks then the additional traction through the back wheel and increased pedaling efficiency will be most noticeable to you.

There are cases like downhill mountain biking where it becomes almost impossible to say which suspension is more important.

The forks are vital when landing a steep nose-heavy drop-off, but the rear shock is just as important to make it through those rapid berms without the back end skidding out.

Whilst it’s impossible to give a ‘1 size fits all’ answer to this question, it is fair to say that in most situations, rides, or tracks that would benefit greatly from rear suspension will also see a significant increase in performance with front suspension.

The same cannot be said the other way around. Depending on the terrain and rider, many people often find the front forks to be invaluable but would not get anywhere near the same benefit from using a rear shock.

This explains why hardtail mountain bikes are so common but hard-nose bikes aren’t.

So on that logic, the front suspension is more important to a larger number of riders than rear suspension, so technically we could say front suspension, on the whole, is more important – but as we’ve already discussed this doesn’t really mean much as it’s too generalized to apply to most riders.

So, if you’re dissatisfied with the answer ‘it depends’, perhaps instead we should just ask whether it’s best to replace/upgrade your front or rear shock.

Fork or Shock – Which Should You Upgrade?

Suspension upgrades can be really expensive, and chances are if you’re looking to take your bike to the next level you’ll have to pick between a new fork and a new shock, at least to begin with.

(Speaking of expensive upgrades, check out the article we wrote here on whether or not expensive forks are worth the money.)

We’ve already seen that each rider will benefit differently from the front and rear suspensions based on their preferred riding styles and terrain. However, when considering which part to upgrade there are a few other things to think about:

Is either of the parts damaged or in need of replacement?

This first one’s pretty obvious, but if either your fork or shock is broken or worn beyond repair, that’s the best candidate to replace first.

Do you feel either suspension part is holding you back?

You’ll get the most bang for your buck by replacing the part that you most feel is holding you back. If you’re finding you often bottom out your fork or your front wheel skips around a bit too much on rocky terrain, upgrade the fork. Likewise, if your riding outgrows the shock first, replace that first.

Are you planning to change bikes anytime soon?

A good quality fork or shock will set you back a pretty penny, but it should last a long time as well (check out the article we wrote here on how to identify a good quality fork). If you’re planning to change your bike anytime in the next few years, a fork upgrade is likely the best choice.

Forks can usually be transferred from frame to frame easily whilst a rear shock that fits one bike is highly unlikely to fit a different bike.

So if you think a new bike may be on the cards but would like a suspension upgrade in the meantime, get a nice shiny fork and put it on your new frame when the time comes.

What’s the Difference Between Front and Rear Suspension?

Front suspension helps to keep the front tire in contact with the ground by absorbing small bumps in the terrain and keeping the wheel in contact with the ground for longer, making the steering more controllable. Additionally, the forks perform the majority of the shock absorption when riding steep sections.

Rear suspension works much in the same way as it absorbs the bumps from the trail, just through the back wheel as opposed to the front. The difference however is that rear suspension provides more traction to the back wheel whereas front suspension provides traction to the front wheel.

Whilst both are important, the front suspension will improve steering control whilst the rear suspension will increase traction on the back wheel.

Additional traction at the back gives more grip when turning through corners and berms.

Rear shocks also make bikes much more comfortable to ride on rougher terrain, as well as make larger jumps and drop-offs more manageable as the suspension absorbs most of the impact.