THE TRAILS ARE CALLING, BUT FOR WHAT KIND OF BIKE?

Our best tips on deciding between a hardtail and full suspension mountain bike

Owing to the COVID pandemic, the sport of cycling (in all its forms) has enjoyed a significant surge in popularity. Best of all, as more people are getting into the habit of riding, they might start thinking about riding multiple times a week. And so, for them, it becomes what it already has for so many others—a pathway to outdoor fun and adventure!

Despite the bicycle reigning supreme when you consider the simplicity-to-enjoyment ratio, mountain bikes especially have enjoyed a pace of technological evolution that can leave a newcomer’s head spinning. There is a lot to consider, such as different frame materials, electric or mechanical drivetrains, the category of bike, and even how many water bottles you want your frame to hold, which means there are definitely some key decisions to make before you head out to the bike shop to make your purchase.

If saving weight for cross-country performance is your goal, it’s hard to beat a hardtail like this Cannondale with a Lefty fork.

THE THREE-PRONGED QUESTION

The query we hear most often from new-to-the-sport cyclists is whether or not they need a full-suspension bike. Owing to our 35-year history of reviewing mountain bikes, we first began to answer that question back in 1992 when full-suspension bikes were just beginning to arrive on the scene.

Unfortunately, the not-so-simple answer is that it depends. What are your cycling goals? And before you answer that, you should also ask yourself, “What type of terrain do I plan to ride most?” If you live in New York, the riding will be much different than if Moab, Utah, is your backyard! And last, what is your budget? As with most consumer goods, spending more doesn’t always make for a better purchase. Having a bike that is designed to meet your particular needs is key. Sure, the latest shiny parts are great to look at and boast to your friends about, but for most newcomers, they are not necessary.

The most important goal for any aspiring mountain biker is to purchase a bike that suits their needs and helps them stay safe on the trail. Knowing your own abilities and limits while learning and progressing is crucial in deciding what to attempt on the dirt.

While there are many factors to consider, what we’re concentrating on here is the hardtail-versus-full-suspension debate.

Back in 1992 we did a comparison of full-suspension and rigid bikes with (l. to r.) Toby Henderson, Dave Cullinan, and MBA’s Sean McCoy testing them.

THE BASICS

Deciding between a hardtail and a full-suspension bike comes down to a few simple realities. Yes, full-suspension bikes offer more comfort and control over rougher terrain, but they are also heavier, more complicated and more expensive than hardtails. While there are some inexpensive full-suspension bikes out there that we’ve tested and liked, there is a trade-off. In order to arrive at a lower price point, bike companies make cost-saving decisions that can have an impact on both performance and durability. A hardtail priced similarly as a full-suspension bike will typically come with higher-quality components and weigh much less.

When we talk about hardtails, we are focusing on bikes that have front suspension with a minimum of 100mm/4 inches of travel, which qualifies them as off-road-friendly. Having less than 100mm of front-end travel tends to relegate a machine to the city bike realm. Because of their pedaling efficiency and weight, hardtails are often associated with cross-country riding and racing, but thinking of them as only that purpose in mind would be a mistake. Trail and even enduro-focused hardtails with slack, long, low geometry and long-travel forks are becoming increasingly common and surprisingly capable.

CONDITIONS AND CHARACTERISTICS

There are, of course, a variety of conditions mountain bikers encounter, so it is important to know what type of terrain you will be riding most frequently. Also, an honest appraisal of your skill level and purpose are important factors in deciding which bike is best for you. Hardtails are lighter, but a full-suspension bike provides extra traction for getting up technical climbs with less effort, especially when they are choppy or rough.

As popular as the contemporary sentiment is that only bikes with long-travel suspension can be used for off-road riding, don’t believe it. Long before mountain bikes evolved to their current high-tech state, the adventurous cyclists who founded our sport had only rigid bikes to ride and race. In short, modern technology does not make the experience, but it can add to it.

When jumping down big drops, full-suspension bikes can offer more safety and greater controllability.

FULL-SUSPENSION CAN BE FASTER

Sure, fast riders and many pro racers can make even the roughest terrain look smooth on a hardtail, but that doesn’t mean it’s the fastest option for a beginner. Full-suspension bikes not only take the edge off of impacts, they also increase a bike’s traction, which will help decrease physical fatigue and control.

Essential to consider is how much suspension travel you need. For most entry-level riders, a full-suspension bike with 3 to 4 inches of travel (usually referred to as a cross-country bike) is sufficient. Longer-travel bikes (popularly known as “enduro” or “trail” bikes) are designed for taking big hits and not only cost more and are heavier, they can also be less efficient for everyday riding. Most daunting for many cyclists is how complicated it can be just to properly set up longer-travel suspension.

The fact that the wheels of a full-suspension bike are following the terrain means more forward efficiency. Cornering is easier with a full-suspension bike because of the increased traction and reduced deflection when charging through rougher trails. Your ability to pick lines opens up with full-suspension, because you’re not as worried about bouncing around trying to avoid the rougher lines.

SIMPLICITY OF A HARDTAIL

Let’s not forget that hardtails can get the same job done as a full-suspension bike, but it requires more rider input and maneuvering in order to get through technical sections. A quality hardtail with a solid wheelset, proper tire pressure and quality brakes can take more abuse than you might think. And without linkages, bearings and assorted hardware associated with suspension, a hardtail will require less maintenance over the long haul, especially in wet climates.

There’s a distinct sensation of acceleration that only a hardtail can provide, and, quite honestly, the uphill is where most of the workload is based. You might think, “Oh, but I’ve got a lockout on my full-suspension.” And yes, it will help climbing, but you still get more flex with all the linkages and pivot points on a full-suspension frame, not to mention an extra couple pounds of weight.

That’s Dave Cullinan in green getting the big air for our cover story on “Suspension vs. Rigid Bikes” back in 1992. Cully won the UCI Downhill World Championship later that same year.

PRICE POINTS WITH PURPOSE IN MIND

It’s no secret that you can spend a huge chunk of cash on bikes these days. Any bike shop will tell you that a lot of what you’re paying for is the quality of the components that come on the bike. Often in the case of expensive bikes, you get less overall weight, upgraded suspension, high-end materials for parts and higher-grade frame materials.

Keep in mind, it is not necessary to get an expensive bike in order to get out on the trail and start having fun. You can get a decent hardtail for as low as $1000 that can generally take a beating, assuming you keep up on maintenance. When it comes to full-suspension bikes, you should expect to spend another $1000 for a capable entry-level model.

So, again, you must ask yourself how extreme you plan on getting and what your experience level is. Less experienced riders can benefit greatly from full-suspension bikes while riding through singletrack trails because of the confidence and capability they offer. On the other hand, maybe you only plan on hitting some graded fire roads and smoother trails with moderate features. If that’s the case, you’ll likely enjoy a less-expensive hardtail bike. Honestly, knowing what we know, for most entry-level riders we would advocate choosing a less-expensive hardtail over a cheap full-suspension bike.

Yes, 180mm of travel may seem like a lot—and maybe too much for some—but longer-travel bikes can make for a more forgiving and safer ride when taking on bigger hits and rougher trails.

MOUNTAIN BIKE ACTION OFFICIAL WARNING

As we mentioned, you can get a trail-worthy hardtail for around $1000. If you find that puzzling considering you saw a department/big-box store bike for $200, we want to warn you. First of all, ask yourself if you plan on riding more than one trip around the bike path once a year. If the answer is yes, then remember that you get what you pay for. While the quality of the big-box bikes have improved over the years, the ultra-cheap generic brands are cheap for a reason. There’s almost nothing worse than being 10 miles into a ride and having problems with a subpar derailleur, brakes that won’t do their job or a seat clamp that won’t stay tightened.

It’s always worth taking some time to research the components that come on the bike you are looking to purchase. Weigh the options and do some comparing of reviews. If it means spending a little more cash on a bike to get the next level of smoothness and quality, it’s money well spent.

Full-suspension technology and design have come a long way since they first began showing up at the races in the early ’90s.

DON’T FORGET SAFETY

Whether you buy a hardtail or full-suspension bike, it’s worth noting that the quality of the components matters greatly when your speed, confidence and ability increase.

We’ve seen riders charging down hills and G-outs only to collapse a wheel or bend a handlebar that wasn’t designed for a high level of abuse. Cheaper disc brakes can heat up and fade, which can be disastrous. While a full-suspension bike sticks to the ground better than a hardtail, it also allows for greater speeds, which can spell trouble if either the rider or components aren’t up for the challenge.

WHAT IS “FUN” ANYWAYS?

In a way, suspension has made mountain biking less of a challenge for the average rider, and that’s not a bad thing. It allows people who might not have as much skill to handle things that would be tough without rear suspension. We believe, though, that adventure riding on a hardtail can bring a whole new level of excitement, particularly for the experienced rider. Picking your way down a technical section of mountain on a hardtail could be more of an achievement for many modern hardcore riders. Yes, harder can be more fun and rewarding than just sending it down the mountain with a full-suspension bike that could be jumped off the top of your house with no hesitation.

We are seeing modern hardtails have similar geometry to a full-suspension trail bikes. They may tackle nearly the same terrain while generally being more affordable.

HARDTAIL UPGRADES

If a hardtail is the only bike that fits your budget, then by all means go for it and don’t look back. Keep in mind that any mountain bike can be accessorized to better fit your needs. The more noticeable changes are actually quite simple and can make the bike more comfortable for your intended riding purposes. Things like a dropper seatpost, ergonomic grips, bigger tires, saddle type and pedals can change a ride for the better.

Of course, there are always bigger component upgrades you can do down the road as well. Things such as a higher-performance/longer-travel fork or lighter wheels can totally change your riding experience and the capabilities of your bike.

THE CHOICE IS YOURS

We hope this breakdown of the differences between hardtail and full-suspension bikes demonstrates that it is more about personal preference than anything else. If you’re on a budget or primarily ride smooth trails with lots of climbing, a hardtail could be a great fit. For those with a bigger budget and rougher terrain, full-suspension is almost always the answer. Exceptions might include those who race cross-country and need the lightest and most efficient setup for a smooth course or someone who wants a second or third bike for certain rides or just to mix things up. Whether your focus is racing or fun, there are different hardtails and full-suspension bikes specifically designed for each. 

For more on hardtail bikes, check out our round-up here.

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