Trying to decide what type of mountain bike to buy? Can’t decide whether to get a hardtail vs full suspension MTB? Then read this handy guide comparing the two in order to make an informed choice.
Brief history of MTB suspension
It is hard to believe that mountain biking is only 40 years old. In that time mountain bike technology has come a very long way. From the heavy, rigid bone crunchers of the early days, to the carbon fibre rigs of recent years. The evolution has been rapid.
Early mountain bikes were stiff with solid frames that would roar down hill – with no skill, no helmets and no body armour. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that front suspension was added to mountain bikes and the hardtail was born.
Companies like Rock Shox and Manitou couldn’t keep their forks on the shelves. Soon after, bike manufactures had the idea to make each wheel float independent of the frame to provide both front and rear suspension. Full suspension ‘soft tail’ bikes quickly flooded the market with heavy downhill beasts.
Since then technology has improved greatly. Top of the range full suspension bikes often have more than 200 mm of travel – this is how much give the suspension provides. Full suspension is now incorporated into lightweight bikes that are just as good at cycling up as they are tearing down.
Hardtail vs full suspension MTB
To help you decide what type of mountain bike to buy we have put together this handy comparative guide. So before you dump thousands on the latest ‘full-susser’ consider the below points. Hopefully we’ll stop you either buying more bike than you need, or a bike that is not up to your riding.
When comparing hardtail vs full suspension MTB the most important factor to consider is the terrain you’ll be riding. Now any bike can be ridden on any trail. Whether you or the bike survive depends on a combination of the difficulty of the trail, quality of the bike and your riding ability.
Full suspension bikes are easier and more comfortable to ride in more difficult terrain, and almost a prerequisite for riding proper downhill bike parks. Conversely, if you ride mainly flat, smooth flowing trails, or spend a lot of time on tarmac you don’t need full suspension.
So think about the kind of riding you plan to do and how likely you are to be going big off jumps and other features. Remember, although it will be more difficult and less comfortable, there is nothing stopping you from riding very technical terrain on a good quality hardtail.
Rear suspension comes in many different designs. There is the single pivot, the Horst Link (four-bar), the Twin-link, and a myriad of others. All of the extra metal, shocks and springs add significant weight to the bike. That’s not a bad thing if you’re into screaming descents and don’t plan to ride up any hills.
On the other hand, a hardtail has less materials which makes a difference when deciding what type of mountain bike to buy. If you plan to ride up hills, on the flat, or undulating terrain then it will be easier on a hardtail vs full suspension MTB, simply because it weighs less.
Top end full suspension bikes only weigh around a kilo more than the equivalent hardtail. One kilogram won’t make too much of a difference unless you are racing. However, with less expensive bikes the weight difference increases, and mid range full suspension bikes weigh around 2 kg more than hardtails which is enough to notice.
All that metal and technology comes at a price. As in any cutting-edge industry, you pay for innovation.
A full suspension bike will cost from 50% to 100% more than the equivalent (in terms of materials and components) hardtail. If you want to get a full suspension bike that is a similar weight to a hardtail you will be looking at paying around three to four times more.
Every moving part on your bike will need to be cleaned, maintained and potentially replaced when it breaks. With extra moving parts, full suspension bikes are more difficult and expensive to maintain, which is worth considering when deciding what type of mountain bike to buy.
This is of particular importance if you ride somewhere that is wet, muddy, sandy or salty as it will reduce the lifespan of all components. And don’t forget that full suspension is tougher to maintain so could lead to more trips to your local bike store.
Because of the float and extra weight full suspension mountain bikes are slightly less responsive than hardtails. This means you have to put in a little more effort to get the same result, and that there is a slightly delayed reaction to your movements.
For example, to get over a log you’ll need to start the movement to pop up slightly earlier on a full suspension bike. This is fine when you can see what is coming, but in tight single track where you don’t know what is around the next corner, a hardtail gives you slightly more time to react. This makes it a more agile and responsive ride.
In this hardtail vs full suspension MTB comparison we are going to talk about forgiveness. Not the kind that many deities offer, but the kind a bike can provide when you make a mistake. Front suspension itself adds forgiveness, but full suspension takes it to another level. And with suspension more travel means more forgiveness.
This means a full suspension bike allows you to ride in a less precise way and get away with it. You can take more speed into technical sections, jumps and drop offs, knowing that the bike can handle small errors you make.
Many people like this, but being quicker doesn’t make you a better rider. There is a school of thought that to improve your mountain biking skills you should perfect hardtail riding before going full susser.
With each pedal stroke you lose some of the power in compression of the suspension – which is known as bobbing. It effects both front and rear suspension but is much more of a problem for rear shox than front. Wasting some of your efforts during a long uphill slog can be very frustating.
There are various systems in place to reduce bobbing on full suspension bikes, not least of all suspension lock out. But again every little bit of technology you add increases the weight, the cost and is something else that could go wrong.
Regular innovation and tinkering with bike and suspension dynamics means the difference in efficiency between a top hardtail vs full suspension MTB gets smaller each year. For example, 10 years ago nearly all pro XC riders were on hardtails, but in the 2017 XCO world cup most were riding full suspension bikes.
I am going to finish this hardtail vs full suspension MTB comparison with a controversial statement….. It doesn’t matter what type of mountain bike you buy as all mountain biking is fun.
You will have full sussers telling you that being able to handle gnarlier terrain, at higher speed and in more comfort is more fun. Whilst hardtailers will say that as the trail is tougher without full suspension they have more fun, and get more from simpler trails as they are more challenging.
Both camps have a point. But at the end of the day both types of riders are having fun so who cares what they ride?
What type of mountain bike to buy?
I hope our hardtail vs full suspension comparison has helped you to decide how much suspension you need. But when deciding what mountain bike to buy it is not the only thing to think about.
You also need to consider the size of wheel, type of tyre, most suitable frame size and of course what colour bike to get….. Check out this guide to mountain biking which will help you make these other key decisions, whilst also covering other aspects of getting into the sport.
Ultimately what type of mountain bike you buy can only be decided by you. Think about your budget, how and where you like to ride and whether form or forgiveness are more important to you. And don’t forget bikes change all the time, so you can often pick up last years model at a much reduced price.
We hope this hardtail vs full suspension MTB comparison has helped you decide what type of mountain bike to buy. Be sure to check out our mountain biking discounts as you could save a fortune on your next holiday.