If you're looking for a new mountain bike, chances are you'll be faced with the decision of getting a hardtail or a full suspension mountain bike. Hardtail mountain bikes are bikes with only front suspension while a full suspension mountain bike will have both a front suspension fork and rear suspension (rear shocks). Here's a quick guide to the merits of the two. Which of these two styles will depend on a number of factors as we will discuss below. The main ones are weight, speed, price, whether you want a skill builder or instant gratification and ,finally, how technical or rough terrain you will be riding on. Dive in to the hardtail vs full suspension discussion.
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A hardtail mountain bike will be at least a kilo lighter weight than a similarly-spec'd full suspension mountain bike. This translates as a bike that can ride faster uphill but not be quite so forgiving on the downhill portions. Its rigid rear end makes a hardtail feel more natural when you climb out of the saddle. You do get variations in this category with entry level hardtail bikes to carbon fibre trail Hardtail or slightly more enduro hardtails.
A heavier bike with suspension can actually be an advantage on downhills because it will feel more stable and ‘planted'. This is thanks to the suspension maintaining tyre contact with the ground on lumpy descents. Full suspension can even be welcome on uphills, such as when traversing steps and waterbars. A full suspension mountain bike will also be more forgiving on technical trails as the rear suspension smoothes out rough terrain. On cross country routes it will be a more comfortable ride but be less efficient than a hardtail on the hills.
With such a choice of suspension fork and rear suspension these days you can choose more or less travel depending on whether you are on smooth trails and want the efficiency (shorter travel) or you are taking on the most technical enduro trails (more travel and a slacker geometry).
Whether it's to smooth out the rough stuff or to cushion landings when you jump, there's little doubt that a full suspension bike will help you enjoy the number one thrill most people enjoy about mountain biking - faster downhills. For less technical terrain, xc racing and for flatter trails, a hardtail mountain bike might be the better option due to the added efficiency of a rigid rear end as this will give you much more efficiency when climbing.
For those that would like a bit of 'best of both worlds' there are some amazing xc full suspension bikes that offer short travel (100mm or under) so you get the efficiency with some foregiveness on the downhill sections. Gorgeous bikes but you will pay a bit more for them.
With its simpler frame and a lack of rear suspension, a hardtail will be less expensive than a similarly-equipped full sus MTB. For instance, you will get a very good hardtail for approximately £1500 whereas for a well specced full suspension MTB you will likely be looking north of £3000. You can in fact get an entry level mountain bike for approximately £600 but with coil sprung suspension whereas air suspension on hardtail mountain bikes starts around the £1100 mark.
4. Skill Builder vs Immediate Gratification
There's a good case for starting off on a hardtail mountain bike because it gives you a fantastic incentive to learn the skill of picking the best line when swooping round rocky and rooty trails. You might not develop such finesse if you rely on a full susser that allows you to plough through near anything. Having said that, the very fact that a full suspension mtb can be more forgiving means that beginner mountain bikers often find mountain biking more enjoyable on a full susser. Take, for instance riding long, rutted downhills. One run might be enough for an MTB novice on a hardtail. Take the same run with full suspension with a smoother ride especially on rough ground and rock gardens, and you'll be more likely to want to repeat the experience.
5. More Technical Terrain
When the terrain gets proper gnarly and technical, even the most gifted mountain biker reaches for the most appropriate full suspension mountain bike. The general rule is that the more you prioritise the downhill, the more travel you require and the slacker frame geometry you need.
If you're on of the serious mountain bikers doing the World Cup DH course at Fort William, you want a specific downhill mountain bike with 200mm front fork travel, with similar on the rear, to absorb the most punishing hits.
150-160mm travel has settled down as the optimal level for serious enduro bikes as this is enough suspension to take on the downhills and still get you up hills well.
Beginners often find mountain biking more enjoyable on a full suspension mountain bike for general trail riding.
A full sus trail bike with 130-140mm suspension achieves the trick of being fit for black grade riding with big drop-offs, yet efficient enough to ride back uphill.
XC bike (CROSS COUNTRY)
A 100mm-travel full suspension MTB is closer in feel and weight to similar spec hardtail bikes than it is to a 200mm-travel full susser. 100mm travel XC (cross country) full sussers are recommended for enjoying natural trails, smoother trails and trail centres up to red grade level. (Apologies to readers who can clean double-black routes on their unicycles. We inevitably have to generalise when creating a guide like this.)
In the hardtail vs full suspension bikes discussion, one is not better than the other - it is just about how you intend to use it and which factors in the list above are most important to you. As always, please pop in to any of our shops or contact our online department if you would like a chat to discuss which mountain bikes are available and which are best for you.