Thinking about buying a new mountain bike but stuck on the whole, hardtail vs full suspension conundrum?
Your basic choice in mainstream machines is between a bike with impact-absorbing suspension for both wheels, and one with just a suspension fork up front.
Which should you choose and why?
With the exception of downhill racing, where full-suspension bikes rule the roost, there are suspension and hardtail mountain bikes for every type of mountain biking.
Let’s look at the pros and cons of hardtail vs full suspension.
1. Mechanically simpler
With no pivots, rear shock and other complications, there’s simply less to wear out or go wrong with a hardtail. That means you spend more time riding and less time on repair and maintenance.
Wet, muddy British mountain biking is especially hostile to full suspension bikes, although proper post-ride cleaning and lubing helps a lot and better bikes have pivots that are more durable, better protected and easier to service.
At any price point, you’ll get better components and frame for your money with a hardtail, because the manufacturer doesn’t have to pay for the extra cost of a pivoting rear end and a rear shock.
Take a pair of similarly-equipped bikes from Trek, the Lush S and Mynx SL. Most of the £700 price difference between them is accounted for by the Lush’s suspension, though the better grade of aluminium used to save some weight is also a factor.
That rear shock and those extra tubes and pivots all unavoidably add weight. Manufacturers try and compensate with better, lighter materials, but that brings more cost. If having a light bike matters to you, because you love being the first up the hill, for example, then a hardtail is the way to go.
The challenge of tackling difficult trails without the ‘purchased talent’ of rear suspension appeals to many hardtail fans.
Full suspension Bikes Are:
Suspension helps the wheels track the ground better, so they stay attached to it. That’s good for cornering and also climbing as a the suspension keeps the rear tyre hooked up. This is important and perhaps not widely understood.
Good suspension doesn’t just absorb the bumps, it makes the bike handle better and so reduces your chances of crashing. We once watched a technician adjust the suspension settings of a rider who’d been struggling along a technical trail because the suspension was too bouncy. As soon it was set up right he sped off out of sight within seconds.
With the rear suspension absorbing hits, your body doesn’t get pounded as hard by the trail. For long rides in particular, this means you’ll finish feeling a lot less beat up.
The combination of extra traction and bump-absorption makes full suspension bikes the fastest thing on the hill, at least when you’re going down. That’s why downhill racers abandoned hardtails the instant full suspension bikes became available.
The downside, sort of, is that the extra speed takes some getting used to and can catch you unawares. You hit corners, and everything else, faster so you’ll need to build up your skills.
Better comfort, better handling and traction and higher downhill speeds all combine to make a good full suspension bike immensely fun and enabling.
Hardtail vs Full Suspension: Which to Choose
We don’t know anyone who has regretted buying a good full suspension bike once the hole in her bank account has healed. But the keyword there is ‘good’. One rider we know, refused to get a full suspension bike till she could have one the same weight as her elderly steel hardtail. She ended up with a much, much better bike, but it was twice the price of a new hardtail of similar quality to her old one.
Full suspension bikes start at around £1000 and the quality of their frames and components rises rapidly between that point and £3000, beyond which you get into bling and diminishing returns. We’d recommend spending at least £1400, unless you can find a discontinued model at a good price. Below that, you probably are better off with a hardtail. It’ll be more reliable, lighter and have better components.
All that is assuming you’re riding regular UK trail centres and tracks. If you’re heading off to Morzine or Lake Garda or anywhere else with lots of long, steep, technical descents, then drop the money on a full suspension rig or take care to stick to the easier trails.
Hardtail vs Full Suspension: The Skills Thing
There’s an idea in some quarters that you won’t develop ‘real’ mountain bike technique unless you start out on a hardtail. We think this is just daft. You will develop the skills to ride whatever bike you have.
We have found trails we couldn’t ride on a hardtail, nailed them on full suspension and then gone back and ridden them on a hardtail. The suspension gave us the confidence to go for it and learn the lines knowing we had room to make mistakes. Once we had it dialled, the section was doable on a hardtail too, but we’d never have got there on the hardtail alone.