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I have a ~1993 Giant mountain bike. It's not great, but I am a very new and casual rider.

The bike has a solid fork and it makes for the predictable rough trail ride. The trails are generally fairly modest (I live in North Texas, a 100' change in altitude makes our ears pop here) and the surface is generally dirt (very few rocky areas).

So, I am thinking that it would be very nice to have a suspension bike. And seeing that a modest fork can be purchased for a modest price, I am wondering if it makes sense to add a fork to this bike.

This question asked about going the other direction, and there were some cautionary words about changing steering geometry.

So, on balance, is this something that I would be best off to avoid? I suspect that if I have to replace a bunch of steering parts, the cost will quickly approach that of a new low end bike.

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You should not compare the cost of upgrades to a new bike but to buying a bike of comparable age, grade and condition which has the feature you want. How much would it cost to get a 1993 bike similar to yours with an original or retrofit suspension fork. Subtract from that how much you could get for your bike if you sold it. The result is likely close to zero. So the upgrade path is actually free. Of course, the good thing about your used bike versus someone else's is that it's the proverbial "devil you know". –  Kaz Mar 1 '13 at 2:01
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up vote 5 down vote accepted

I would consider looking at a used later model bike.The improvements made in the last 18 years are worth the money.A decent fork can run hundreds of dollars not including installation. Check with your local bike shop for used bikes or craigs list if you keep it local so you can see before you buy.Bikepedia is a good reference to make sure you have an idea what the bike cost new. Also check the minimum inflation recommended for your tires and run them softer than you have been,this will cushion some of the bumps.An alternative might be to install the biggest 26 inch tires you can fit in your frame and lower the tire pressure to get more shock absorbtion.Be careful of really lowend bikes from the big box stores Walmart etc. a really cheap shock with no dampening or adjustment is worse than no shock.

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Nice answer. Could you maybe go into detail about the improvements in the last 18 years that are relevant to this? –  Neil Fein Dec 30 '11 at 21:15
    
I did end up doing this and was able to find a decent bike for a bit over $300. –  Andy Davis Dec 31 '11 at 2:44
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One of the main problems with converting an old bike is the width of the headset. Old rigid mountain bikes[1] commonly have a 1" headset while modern suspension bikes have a 1 1/8" diameter headset. Suspension forks are mostly for 1 1/8" headsets so fitting suspension to an old rigid mountain bike is normally a non starter for that simple reason.

The geometry is another good reason and may in fact be part of the reason that bike manufacturers decided to use the different diameter, to prevent the conversion of bikes that weren't designed to bounce. It may also be that with the wider tubes they can take more load allowing the bikes to take more of a beating. Of course it all could be a conspiracy to take our money, but honestly, I think the technology has just changed.

In general I'd recommend keeping the old bike for getting about and getting a newer bike for doing the more hardcore stuff. Brake technology has improved dramatically, the bike frames are built stronger and lighter, and the gears generally shift smoother and more reliably. And that's trickled down quite nicely to the cheaper bikes too. There is a limit to how cheap you want to go for doing proper off road, but you don't have to spend too much.

[1] Note that there are still new bikes manufactured with 1" diameter headsets, but they are normally cheap rigid bikes.

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This is a valuable summary of what I was able to find, with some excellent points added in. The ~$300 bike (used) I found at the local bike mart is far better than the old one I had. I think that this conversion is just not practical. –  Andy Davis Dec 31 '11 at 2:48
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+1: This should be marked as the answer. –  OMG Ponies Jan 2 '12 at 23:50
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