The biggest decision to make when buying a new mountain bike is whether to go for a hardtail or full suspension MTB. Hardtails are the simplest form of mountain bike. They have a suspension fork for the front wheel while the rear wheel is attached securely to the frame. Full suspension or full sus bikes are a little more complicated. As the name suggests, these bikes have suspension for the rear wheel as well as a suspension fork for the front.
Entry level mountain bikes are all hardtails while you’ll find mostly full sus MTBs at the top end. In the middle you have the choice of both types. It is between the £1,000 and £2,000 mark where you’ll find the bikes evenly split between hardtail and full suspension bikes. These are mostly trail or XC MTBs that are ideal for riding trail centres as well as cross-country tracks.
In this hardtail vs full suspension mountain bike guide we look at the pros and cons of each type to help you decide which is best for you. As well as the inherent design differences with the two types of frame it is also useful to consider the component differences at specific price points.
Full sus vs hardtail, which is best?
Where can I ride?
Choosing between a hardtail and a full suspension bike won’t necessarily limit the scope of your riding. The character of your ride will be different on a full sus compared to a hardtail, but that doesn’t mean you can’t ride the same trails. You will be able take on exactly the same sort of terrain on trail hardtail with a 140mm travel fork as you can on a full suspension trail bike with 140mm of travel front and rear. All mountain bikes, whether full sus or hardtail, are designed for specific types of riding. We go into this in more detail in our what type of mountain bike should I buy guide.
Comfort and traction
The two main advantages of a full suspension bike are comfort and traction. As the rear wheel conforms to the trail by tracking over the bumps the ride is much smoother and more comfortable on a full sus MTB. This is most noticeable when sitting in the saddle or when standing up in the pedals on very rough ground.
As the rear wheel tracks over the ground better on full sus bike you get more grip. This is because the tyre bites into the ground more effectively when it’s not bouncing around. On smoother trails you get plenty of grip with a hardtail. This is because there is enough compliance in the tyre to give you grip on smoother terrain, so you’ll only notice the difference when the going gets rough. On bumpy trails a full suspension bike will help you to feel more confident, so you can ride faster.
A hardtail gives you a much more direct experience of the trail than a full suspension bike. Riding a hardtail encourages you to pick your lines more carefully and to be more active on the bike, using your legs to absorb the bumps on the trail. Learning to hop over obstacles rather than ploughing through them is an essential skill that will improve your riding whatever bike you ride. This is why many experienced mountain bikers say that it is best to start on a hardtail.
With no rear shock or suspension linkages in the frame, hardtails are inherently lighter than full suspension bikes. Hardtail frames are also less expensive to produce than full sus mountain bike frames. This allows brands to fit better-quality components to hardtails than they do to equivalently priced full suspension bikes. Higher end components tend to be significantly lighter than those at the lower end. As components make up a big part of the total weight of a bike, this make hardtails even lighter than a similarly priced full sus MTBs.
Being simpler and less expensive to produce means that you get much better-quality components on hardtails compared to an equivalently priced full suspension bikes. The quality of the fork, wheels and tyres make a difference to the way a bike handles on the trail, so a full sus bike isn’t necessarily better on the trail than a hardtail. Better-quality drivetrains often give you a bigger gear range as well as making gear shifting easier. Tyres male a real difference to the way a bike rides, although these are easy to change it is good to start off with a decent set.
Another advantage of hardtails is that they are much easier to maintain. Other than wiping the mud off there isn’t much else you have to do with the frame on a hardtail. The same can’t be said of a full sus frame with its suspension bushings and bearings. Bearings and bushings are wear parts of a bike, so you will have to replace these from time to time. Of course, you will still need to maintain the drivetrain, wheels and fork whatever bike you ride, but there is one thing less to worry about on a hardtail.
Speed and fun
Full sus or hardtail, mountain bikes are fun to ride whatever type you choose. Full sus bikes are easier to ride on rough tracks, while hardtails require more effort. This makes full sussers faster and more comfortable on these trails but the effort you need to put in on a hardtail can make them more rewarding. On smoother trails hardtails are actually faster because they are lighter and have a more direct connection to the ground so there is no loss of power as you stand on the pedals.
Riding a hardtail on smoother tracks can be much more fun than on a full sus because they are more responsive. Full suspension bikes take over in the fun stakes when the going gets really rough. This is because it is difficult to find your flow on rough terrain when you are bouncing around on a hardtail. Full sus bikes smooth the ride making it easier to pick your lines and find flow on those rocky and rooty trails.
The two main things to consider when choosing a full sus or a hardtail mountain bike are; where you are going to ride and how much you want to spend. Think of the type of riding that you will do most often and base your decision on this.
When it comes to price point a hardtail will give you a much better specification for the money, which makes them particularly attractive at the lower end of the MTB price scale. Which ever bike you choose, a new mountain bike will be a positive force for change in your life.
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