So you’re ready to treat yourself to a new mountain bike. Good for you, you can never have too many bikes!
Think of bicycles as shoes, having one pair just doesn’t cut it.
But you aren’t sure if you should get a hardtail or a full-suspension.
Which one is for you?
A pair of important factors that need to be considered from the start are one, your budget, and two, the type of bikes your riding buddies use.
Full-suspension bikes look so cool, but ouch on the price tag.
A hardtail seems more practical, and definitely easier on the wallet, but you may have a hard time keeping up riding hardtail if your friends are on a full-sus. You’ll be considered a badass if you do.
In this article, we’ll go through some of the questions and answers which will help you narrow down your choice.
What's A Full-Sus?
A full-suspension MTB has front and rear shock absorbers designed for more than comfort. Suspension greatly reduces the impact from riding over rocks, roots, and rugged terrain.
The rear suspension also keeps the back tire in constant contact with the ground, which improves control, steering, and braking.
Better control means you can go faster.
Having full-suspension smoothes out the ride and makes up for pilot error too. A full-suspension MTB is ideal if you’re prepared to spend more on a bike and you love to go fast on technical and challenging trails.
What's A Hardtail?
A hardtail MTB has front suspension, but the tail, or rear of the bike, is rigid (a.k.a. no suspension).
This type of MTB is suited for jumping, riding berms and pump tracks, and more mellow trails primarily free of ultra-rugged terrain, massive roots, rocks, etc.
With no rear suspension, the back wheel loses contact contact with the ground more often, diminishing traction, braking and a sense of control.
The ride is bumpier due to impact forces felt through the handlebars and pedals. However, without the added weight of the rear suspension, the bike is lighter and riders can generate more speed.
Theory states that hardtail MTBers will improve their piloting skills faster as the bike’s properties force the choice of the best line possible. Hardtails leave less margin for pilot error and require limited maintenance and set up.
On a tight budget?
A hardtail is a better value. More of your money goes into the bike itself, and not the fancy rear suspension. Hardtails were made for long flowing trails, banks, pump tracks and jumping. As for jumps, having no rear suspension means suck at take off.
What Type of Terrains Are You Riding On?
Each bicycle is better adapted to a particular terrain, but it’s important to reiterate the question of the type of trails you ride. It may just be the deciding factor in your purchase.
Is continuous and flowing to your tastes, or are more raucous and technically challenging trails on the menu?
If cross-country racing, berms, pump tracks, and dirt jumps are on your radar, you’ll want to get a hardtail.
Hardtails are also better suited for uphill climbs and perfect for riding on smoother, long flowing, and established trails free of ultra-rugged terrain, huge rocks, roots, and deep gullies.
Some trails can look really ominous, but a full-suspension bike can make them rideable. The rear suspension is designed to boost wheel traction, something vital for steep descents, deep ruts, and rough and technical, rocky landscapes.
Improved back tire adherence means you’ll descend with a greater sense of control too.
How Does the Bike Feel and Handle?
Hands down, a full-suspension bicycle will feel more plush, solid, and secure.
The rear suspension facilitates the back wheel’s contact with the ground, which gives an immediate sense of control and stability, but that’s not everyone’s flavor. While mountain biking is a physically demanding sport, your body will take less abuse with a full-suspension bicycle.
With no rear suspension, hardtails are more physically demanding on your body.
And because they are less forgiving, they’ll make you a better rider faster. As your technique improves, so will your hardtail’s handling and fun as you dominate long cruising runs, berms, pump tracks and dirt jumps.
Winner : Full-sus feels more plush and solid, especially for beginner riders.
Which Wheel Size to Use?
Mountain bikes no longer come with standard 26” MTB wheels.
A prominent bike brand started producing 29″ (700c) wheeled MTBs for their improved efficiency, rolling resistance, and stability, and other brands quickly followed.
The success of the 29er spurred the 650b (27.5”) to market, designed to handle even better than a 29er, accelerate more quickly, and fit a wider palette of rider sizes and styles.
Riders can run increased tire volumes on 650b wheels with no negative effects on handling or frame geometry. The 650b is considered the model compromise between 26″ and 29″ wheels.
While the 29” wheel has become the new norm for its smooth ride and improved grip, this larger-sized wheel is not ideal for riding pump tracks or dirt jumps.
650b wheels handle more instinctively, accelerate more quickly, are stronger, stiffer, and more agile than a 29er.
Winner : 29″ are now commonly specced with both hardtail and full-sus mountain bikes.
Are You Doing Other Types of Riding?
Full-suspension bikes are meant for steep descents, trails, and rugged terrain. If you use your bike anywhere other than on the dirt, most of your pedal power goes into the rear suspension system.
You’ll be bobbing up and down like an inchworm on the road, and its heavier weight is guaranteed to slow you down even more. Forget about any water bottle cages, you’ll need to carry a hydration pack instead.
On the other hand, hardtails are lighter, more efficient, and can be used for general fitness, XC racing, and all-around training.
Throw some slicks on your favorite hardtail and you’ve got a fantastic all-around town or commuter bike too. If your friends ride gravel, you’ll have no problem joining them on their next adventure.
Hardtail frames can normally hold a water bottle cage or two, something you rarely find on a full-suspension.
Winner : Hardtails have a slight edge over full-sus as they’re suited for a wider range of rides.
How Good Are Your Bike Maintenance Skills?
Full-suspension MTBs come with a greater number of parts prone to breakdown or failure. These additional parts will call for extra maintenance to compensate for the repeated abuse they take.
Since suspension technology is not everyone’s forte, having a full-suspension bike may limit how much work you can do on your own bike.
To take full advantage of a bike’s full-suspension properties, time and knowledge are required to set it up properly based on rider weight. They are not ready to ride directly off the salesroom floor.
Poorly set up bikes will be too mushy or bounce you around like a pogo stick! If set up isn’t offered at the time of purchase, ask for it or check this out.
The simplicity of a hardtail is visually clear.
Fewer parts equal reduced maintenance and more DIY mechanic potential. Hardtail riders can expect less potential downtime, and more opportunities to ride their favorite trails, killer berms, or dirt jumps.
Front suspension forks are quick and easy to set up. If you are looking for general set up information, you can find more information here.
Winner : Hardtails are easier to maintain and set up by yourself at home.
How Heavy are the Bikes?
Full-suspension bikes weigh more than hardtails.
The offender is the additional rear suspension that provides a super plush ride and makes the bike feel more stable. There are other factors that determine a bicycle’s weight, but you can expect most full-suspension MTBs to weigh between 13 and 15 kg (30 to 33 lbs). The additional weight helps a full-suspension feel more stable.
Without the added weight of the rear suspension, the average hardtail will be at least a kilo lighter, coming in somewhere between 11 and 13 kg (26 to 28 lbs).
A lighter bike feels more natural, is more responsible, and lets you climb faster, especially when you’re out of the saddle.
Winner : Hardtails are 2 to 4kg lighter than a full-sus, on average.
How Much Do They Cost?
Having front and rear suspension on your bike is great, but it automatically comes with a higher price tag.
Instead of investing more in the frame, wheels, or componentry, the final price has to cover that extra suspension at the back, and the necessary testing, tooling, and engineering it requires.
So don’t be tempted by the tag alone. This is especially true when comparing a hardtail and a full-suspension listed at the same price.
Go beyond the sticker and inspect the components. Full-suspension bikes of equal face value to a hardtail will have a cheaper drivetrain, wheelset, or other bits just to meet that price.
Hardtails come at a lower price point and give you more bang for your buck since you’re not paying for any snazzy rear suspension.
More of your money goes into the fork, frame, components, and wheels.
Winner : Hardtail. If you are on a strict budget, you’ll get a better value with a hardtail.