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. A hardtail mountain bike is a bike 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 bike 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 bike 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. A full suspension bike 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).
When talking hardtail vs full suspension models, there is a very tangible trade off between speed downhill and speed uphill or another way to look at it would be in terms of efficiency.
As there is no rear shock on the rear of a hardtail bike, this makes the rear end stiffer and for that reason, a hardtail will be faster and more efficient on the uphill sections of a mountain bike trail.
Adding to the efficiency angle, hardtail mountain bikes will be lighter, thus making you faster and more efficient on the uphill sections.
Full suspension bike
Whether it's to smooth out the technical terrain or to cushion landings when on the rough stuff, there's little doubt that a full suspension bike will help you enjoy the number one thrill most people enjoy about mountain biking - faster and more efficient downhills.
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.
This is another biggie in the hardtail vs full suspension consideration. With its simpler frame and a lack of rear suspension, a hardtail bike will be less expensive than a similarly-equipped full suspension MTB. For instance, you will get a very good hardtail bike for approximately £1500 whereas for a well specced full suspension MTB you will likely be looking north of £3000. You can in fact get entry level hardtail bikes for approximately £600 but with coil sprung suspension whereas air suspension on hardtail mountain bikes starts around the £1100 mark.
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 suspension MTB that allows you to plough through near anything. Having said that, the very fact that full suspension bikes can be more forgiving means that beginner mountain bikers often find mountain biking more enjoyable on a full suspension bikes. Take, for instance riding long, rutted downhills. One run might be enough for an MTB novice on a hardtail bike. Take the same run with full suspension bikes, with a smoother ride especially on rough ground and rock gardens, and you'll be more likely to want to repeat the experience as a full sus bike will keep the rear wheel in touch with the ground for longer.
When the terrain gets proper gnarly and technical, even the most gifted mountain biker reaches for the most appropriate full suspension 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 full suspension 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 bike 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.)
Hardtail Mountain bikes
You can pick up a hardtail mountain bike for as little as £425 to over £2000 depsnding on the spec you would like. One of the FAQ's we get is "what do I get when I spend more money?'. Here are your answers.
Suspension is one of the main differences as you spend more money on a hardtail mountain bike. On your more entry level hardtails, you will get a coil sprung fork with basic adjustment. You will likely be able to compress or decompress the forks so they are marginally stiffer or more compliant but some entry level forks will not have the ability to lock out.
As you spend more, you will receive coil sprung forks that are smoother and have the ability to lock-out to provide more efficiency when riding uphill or on tarmac and be smoother when riding down hills due to the improved quality of the internals.
When you get to a certain level/price, you will get air suspension forks that offer individual customisation because you can adjust the amount of air inside the stanchions. This means they can be adjusted to different weights of riders and will offer a much smoother ride due to being controlled by air, rather than springs.
Not all air suspension forks are made equal though and as you spend more, you get more adjustability with compression and rebound settings for setting how fast or slow the fork compresses and rebounds - great for adjusting your mountain bike to different terrains and personal preferences. Aside from the adjustability, you will get wider stanchions for more braking and cornering stability when pushing it hard when downhill riding. If you spend enough, you will also get high and low speed compression for maximum adjustability for mountain bikers who push the limits.
As with most bicycles, as you spend more money, you will get a better groupset (gears) and contrary to some beliefs, more gears does not mean better - in fact, sometimes it's the opposite. Bikes on the less expensive end of the spectrum will usually come with 2 or 3 front gears with 7 or 8 on the rear. This will usually be a heavier set up and will not be as smooth or robust. As you spend more, you will get lighter and smoother gears but will likely get a single front chainring with 10, 11 or 12 gears on the rear. Spend enough and you will get electronic gearing.
Brakes are another major factor of what you get when you spend more money. A basic or entry-level hardtail bike can come with mechanical disc brakes that are controlled by a cable. These are great as they are relatively cheap and have better stopping power than rim brakes (you don't see many mountain bikes with rim brakes any more).
As you spend a little more, you will move on to hydraulic disc brakes which are controlled by fluid and are more sensitive. The calipers themselves will adjust the brake pads as they wear to give you consistent braking through the life of your brake pads.
Another difference in brakes as you go up through the price points is to progress from 2-piston brakes to 4-piston brakes. The 4 piston brakes offer much more stopping power and will be on the more downhill oriented bikes as stopping power is paramount as you are travelling faster downhill in all weathers.
Completing the "what do I get when I spend more on a mountain bike?" is the frame. The differences here are due to the material and the craftmanship that goes into them.
An entry level hardtail bike will likely come with a basic aluminium frame. We say 'basic' as the more expensive aluminium frames will be formed and then worked to remove any unnecessary material to give a lightweight but robust frame - 'basic' aluminium frames do not do this. So for more money, you will get a lighter aluminium frame that is also just as strong but as you spend more, you will also see different materials.
Carbon is the other main frame material for hardtail mountain bikes and the reason for the significant hike in price is due to the cost of materials but moreso the skill, labour intensity and relative difficulty of turning the composite and resin into a bicycle frame. The benefits of a carbon frame are extra power delivery, lighter weight and more comfort.
Full Suspension mountain bike
The main difference when considering a hardtail vs full suspension mountain bike is the rear suspension (rear shock). All of the points above on what you get when you spend more on a hardtail mountain bike applies to a full suspension bike also.
The difference a more expensive rear shock makes is in terms of smoothness and adjustability. As you spend more, the internals will be improved to give predictable and smooth rear suspension when compressing and rebounding. In terms of adjustability, a more expensive fork will have compression and rebound settings and if you spend enough, you will get low and high speed compression (that's probably a chat for another time) but this will make a difference to full-on downhill mountain bikers who want maximum adjustability and customisation on their rear shock.
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.