Hardtail vs. Full-Suspension Mountain Bikes

If you’re a mountain biker on a budget, is it better to get a basic full suspension (AKA dual suspension) ride or a higher-level hardtail for the same money? It’s a common question we get asked from riders looking for a decent bike without breaking the bank, so let’s look at the pros and cons of a hardtail mountain bike vs a full suspension.

Put simply, if you look at a full suspension machine and a hardtail at the same price, the added complexity of a rear suspended frame means compromises must be made in terms of components. But will the better components on the hardtail make for a more capable bike, or is the quality trade-off worth the benefits delivered by rear suspension?

As you’ll see, this battle offers a great illustration of how crucial your riding style and personal preferences are when choosing bikes or gear – and how important it is to consider the bigger picture rather than just how individual components compare.

The frames

Given a full suspension frame needs a rear shock and way to pivot the rear end of the frame in order to activate it, it’s far more complicated and costly to design and manufacture.

The added complexity also comes at the cost of durability, with service-prone components in the way of a rear shock and pivot bearings (or bushings) added to the frame.

The frames are clearly the biggest factor in this whole battle. In pure terms of design complexity and highest tech, the full suspension is the winner. The hardtail gets in a few punches with its low weight, greater manipulation to the frame tubes, its tapered head tube and generally lower maintenance, but it’s not enough to overcome the addition of a rear shock.

Components winner: Hardtail

Weight

At the top end of the sport where money is no object, the lightest hardtail is commonly 1kg lighter than the lightest full suspension ride.

Weight winner: Hardtail

Ride style and ambition

We’ve looked at the component specifications and weights, but what really matters is how the bikes perform on the trail. Before we go comparing exact trail situations, it’s important to look at your ride style and ambition. Despite being at the same price point, it’s clear these bikes aren’t necessarily aimed at the same rider.

With this, riders looking to hit the trails with their more experienced riding mates will probably have the most fun on the full suspension. Those seeking a more efficient climber or a bike to do some competitive cross country racing will be suited to a hardtail. It’s also worth mentioning that hardtails teach you how to ride properly, using your body to absorb shock and not relying on the bike; so if your ambitions are to become a skillful rider, the hardtail may be your best starting point – though you can expect a steeper learning curve.

Ride style and ambition summary: This is the most personal aspect of the battle and the result depends on you. Want to refine your skills and ride fast on cross country trails? Go the hardtail. Want to ride technical terrain and just keep up with your more experienced mates? Go the full suspension.

Ride style winner: Draw

Climbing

If your rides consist of long, testing climbs, then the low weight and rigid rear end of the hardtail is going to lead to the least amount of wasted energy. Here, it’s common to see XC racers go with a hardtail for its ability to stand out of the saddle and pedal without energy lost into the suspension. Sure, full suspension setups have lockouts, but you need to remove to use them – and even then they’re never as rock-solid as a hardtail.

When climbs get rough or technical though, then the full suspension starts to fight back as the suspension helps to keep the rear tyre in contact with the ground and allows you to keep cranking with less interruption. Sure, the extra weight will be felt, but sometimes traction is more important.

Another factor to consider is geometry – the more relaxed ‘trail’ position of the full suspension tends to wander on steep climbs and requires a little more muscle to point it where desired. The hardtail is a more thoroughbred climber, in that its aggressive position stays pointed to the sky and screams for you to go faster.

Climbing summary: Smooth and/or extended climbs have the low weight and energy-efficient hardtail storming ahead. As trails get rougher and more technical, the additional traction afforded by the full suspension hits back. But the overall weight and more relaxed position isn’t enough to overcome the hardtail’s ascending poise. 

Climbing winner: Hardtail

Descending

Finish that climb and hit the descent… now the full suspension is rolling into the lead. That relaxed position and bouncy rear end hurting on the climbs is now a huge positive. The full suspension bike offers a more rearward-biased position that promotes confidence going downhill, especially when it’s steep. A longer wheelbase also helps to keep the full suspension balanced and controlled at high speed, while the hardtail can start to feel skittish.

Hit some rocks or roots and the additional traction afforded by the rear suspension is obvious as the hardtail skips and bounces.

It’s not a complete knockout for the full suspension though, as consecutive large knocks and generally rough terrain show the limits of the One-Twenty’s cheaper suspension fork. Here, despite the 20mm less suspension travel, the additional stiffness and improved damping of the RockShox fork found on the Big-Seven helps it to regain some ground.

Descending summary: Additional traction, shock absorbing rear suspension and geometry designed to descend, the full suspension wins hands down when the trail heads in a similar direction. That said, a better quality fork, similar to that found on the hardtail, would mean an absolute knock-out win for the full suspension on the descents.

Descending winner: Full suspension

Commuting and road going

If you’re looking to do more than just weekend trail rides on this bike, then you need to consider how it rides on the road. Here, the more aggressive position, rigid rear end and lighter weight of the hardtail sees it ride up the road with the full suspension in its dust.

The full suspension does have lockouts front and rear for these situations, but these just greatly firm up the suspension, and so there is still some give felt.

Roadie summary: You don’t need suspension when you’re on the tarmac; for this, the hardtail wins without question. If you’re planning to ride the bike mostly on road or smooth rail trails, the simplicity and efficiency of the hardtail is likely to better serve you.

Road Going Winner: Hardtail

Verdict

The hardtail, with its lower weight and rigid rear end, is more efficient when your ride consists of road or smoother trails and plenty of pedalling. With this in mind, the better quality hardtail would best suit a rider with racing ambitions or someone seeking a well-rounded bike to use for both commuting and weekend trail riding.

As you can see, much of this choice is based on your overall riding environment – so it’s always a good idea to ask riders and stores nearby to you for opinion.

All credits to bike radar for this content. See link here: http://www.bikeradar.com/

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