Hardtail vs Full Suspension Mountain Bikes

hardtail_or_full_suspensionHardtail or full suspension? This question comes up all the time on the Singletracks Forums so hopefully this quick list of the pros and cons of each of mountain bike style will help you decide which one will work better for you.

My Perspective

I will be 40 this year, and although I’ve ridden bikes all my life, I’ve been a serious mountain biker since I moved to Colorado in 2004. I started out on a Specialized Rockhopper hardtail which I rode for 4 years. Then I got a Giant Trance full suspension bike and rode it for 3 years. Now I’m riding a hardtail again, but this time on a 29-inch wheels.

What is the difference?

Those of us who have been riding for a while take this for granted, but for those who are new to the sport the differences may be a little hazy. Here’s the quick and dirty info:

A hardtail is a bike with a solid frame and it usually has a suspension fork on the front. Here is a typical hardtail model:

A full suspension (FS) bike has the same fork out front, but it has a frame that consists of two pieces, a front triangle and rear triangle, that are joined by pivots. This allows the two sections of the frame to move independently, and the rate of that movement is controlled by a shock absorber. Here is a typical full suspension model:

Okay, so which is better?

The answer is: it depends. It comes down to personal preference, riding style, average terrain encountered, and other factors. With that being said, however, we’ll go over what each model excels at, as well as some limitations of each. This should help you decide which model better fits your riding style, or perhaps it will convince you to buy one of each! Here goes…

Climbing

Hardtail bikes transfer pedaling power to the rear wheel more efficiently. On non-technical surfaces, this results in better acceleration and makes it easier to sustain higher speeds over a long time. Once the terrain turns technical, rear suspension allows more of the available rear wheel power to actually reach the ground by allowing the wheel to better articulate over obstacles. This helps to maintain traction and mitigates “spinning out.” Also, with FS it is generally easier to stay seated while climbing.

Downhill

On bumpy, technical downhill trails, FS bikes have a clear advantage – but don’t count the hardtail out just yet. I’ve ridden plenty of technical stuff on a hardtail and it handles just fine. The difference is that the “suspension” is your legs. The net result is getting tired faster, but if you’re conditioned to it, it’s not a big deal. In my opinion, technical downhill on a hardtail also makes you choose a better line, and in the long run can make you a better overall rider.

Maintenance

There is no disputing that hardtails require less long term maintenance. All of those pivots and linkages on the FS will need periodic servicing, and the rear shock will need new seals every season or two. Frame articulation causes cables to rub on the frame, and the chain has to work harder to keep up with everything. If you enjoy simplicity and want to keep your maintenance costs low, a hardtail is a good choice. (Or a rigid singlespeed for that matter, but that’s a topic for another post.)

Weight

Advancements in modern frame design are constantly shifting the meaning of “lightweight” in mountain biking. In general a hardtail can be built lighter than the average FS bike, but there are also some seriously lightweight FS bikes now too. Whichever type you’re considering, as long as the weight is reasonable, I wouldn’t worry too much about it. How well it fits and the overall ride quality are more important.

Price

The basic hardtail bike design has existed for over 100 years. FS design is a hotbed of innovation and various patents have been granted, resulting in license agreements between some of the bike manufacturers. Guess who ultimately pays those R&D and licensing costs… you do! The point is that if you are on a strict budget, you can probably get more bike for your buck with a hardtail.

Comfort (These Old Bones)

As I mentioned, I’m almost 40. It didn’t used to bother me to bomb down miles of rough downhill, holding my rear off the saddle all the way. The older I get, the nicer it is to be able to sit down on all but the roughest stuff. I also find that I can go faster over rough stuff with the FS. On the other hand, the hardtail 29er that I’m currently riding has a much smoother ride than my old 26er hardtail. It’s like a magic trick!

The Bottom Line

If you’re just starting out, on a really tight budget, or just enjoy simplicity, you should definitely consider one of the great hardtails on the market today. It can get you out there riding without costing a lot of coin up front and saves on maintenance costs down the line.

If you know you want to huck drops or ride rough, technical trails most of the time or if you’re an older rider and just want a smoother ride, then you’ll likely be happier on a full suspension bike. As I’ve outlined, each type of bike excels in different areas, and it really does come down to your preference and the type of riding you like to do.

So what do you think – hardtail or full-suspension?

23 thoughts on “Hardtail vs Full Suspension Mountain Bikes

  1. Great summary of the main benefits to each MTB style. One more note for those who may not be familiar with the terminology: a FS bike is not the same as a soft tail. Like a hardtail, a soft tail bike frame is one piece but with a small shock absorber in-line with the seat stay (the upper part of the rear triangle).

    I’ve had the same thought about hardtails making people better riders in terms of picking lines but every time I get on a FS bike I tell myself I don’t have to pay as much attention and I end up breaking stuff!

    It is indeed possible to ride very technical terrain with either type of bike; the only difference is the speed you’ll be able to ride it. Same goes for climbing – both bikes will get you up the hill but the HT will usually make it easier.

    At the end of the day it’s a combination of all these factors that makes a particular style of bike the right choice for each person. You’ll know which one is best for you once you’ve had a chance to try both.

  2. I think the comfort factor is a huge difference. While you can ride really rough terrain on both of these types of bikes, bouncing through rocks and over roots with no suspension day in and day out can get hard on your body (and your butt) pretty fast. Even if you’re descending technical terrain at the same speed on both (although I personally think suspension makes a huge speed difference), the suspension will provide a much smoother ride.

    I definitely agree with the climbing efficiency of the hardtail, however, an XC FS bike with properly tuned suspension has much greater traction up the climbs than a hardtail due to the suspension leveraging the rear tire into the ground more.

    I like your bottom line at the end though, that will really help people out!!!

  3. Funny, I just went through the same thing.. started out on a Hard tail a few years ago, went to FS for a couple years, and now I am on a HT 29er with Front suspension and a Rigid Single Speed 29er.. I am 46 BTW… :)

  4. Just to thow it out there I always felt like my senses were better on a hard tail. Since my body, legs primarily, would feel a more direct connection with that rear wheel I feel more in control. Its just good to know what the bike is doing and why, I think it gives you wisdom and preperation for those future rocks and roots. Granted if you feel that connection on your but thats not so good. Its terrible actually.But I think the strongest point you’ve made here is that its all about personal style out there, and be prepared to get bounced around anyway cause thats the fun part!

  5. I always say this to people I ride with .. a pound here and bump there.. Are we racing for money? were are out here for fun.. Most of us anyway.. I just bought a FS today so I will tell you all tomorrow how my beat up 40 year old back feels.. My thought process is that if you beat me to the top of the hill because a hard tail digs a bit better going up hill awesome. you got to rest a couple of minutes more than I did. you get paid the same amount I just did.. some sweat some burn and a kick ass smile when we head back down.. but if you continue to take a beating eventually it will catch up to you so why not go with something that will at least attempt to soften Some of the jolts and jars of the sport we love.. I can’t afford a 9er so by the time I can FS 9rs will be common place.

  6. I think you hit the nail on the head in your “CLIMBING” section. I think a lot of people assume that a HT will always climb better. But I know if there is any rough stuff on the way up, I’m better on my FS because I can just stay in the saddle and spin the cranks. With my rear shock in the climbing setting, the small bump compliance keeps the rear wheel in contact with the ground in places where my HT would bounce up and spin out. However, I would LOVE to try a HT 29er with large-volume tires set up for tubeless. It might be an excellent compromise!

  7. I had a Cannondale Super v700 and when I was looking at new bikes to someday replace it I thought about the lighter hard tail option. (usually cheaper) but then I found a deal at Nantahala Outdoor Center and bought a Jamis 650b1 2010 and I have absolutely loved it. I rode Pandapas pond in Blacksburg recently and I was tearing down the rocky river bed… i mean trail. It was a lot of fun and I know two things I would not have been able to do that in my 26″ bike and I would not have wanted to do it on a hardtail. They were some long descents and my legs were pretty tired already.

  8. Wait a minute, you forgot lockout system on FS bikes, I have the Cannondale Scalpel Lefty and the lockout in front and back make a HUGE difference. But I agree that for overall “bang for the buck” hardtail wins. FS is like the “extra” luxury in a car, you pay for it, but with a lockout it pays for itself….

    Great comparison!

  9. At nanook, the 29er hardtail is awesome.

    At Peteman7, My Giant locks out front and rear, but it’s still not quite the same as a true hardtail feel.

  10. Agreed even locked out there will be some compressive force acting on the shock. Having ridden all types of bikes both FS and hard tails I will have to say I am looking into getting a 29HT for my new XC bike. But when things get rough I am sticking with my FS bikes. When things get really rough I would have to say the FS have more of advantage though as the wheels tend to follow the terrain better.

    Good article.

  11. I have both and am glad I do. The fully definitely gets ridden more (I ride mosltly technical trails), but sometimes simpler is better. The HT also helps keep my skills sharp as the fully allows me to be sloppy and get away with it. I’m often surprised at what I can do on my fully after spending alot of time ont he HT.

    If you can only get one, a short-mid travel fully w/lockout seems to be a nice compromise. Haven’t yet tried a 29er, but lots of folks seem to have gone the way of the HT29er, so that may also be a nice compromise.

  12. I went from really getting into the sport on a HT and I have put on about 20 miles on my new FS and I don’t think I would ever go back to a HT . I have to worry less about lines logs rocks etc.. I can blast over a 6-10 inch log accross the trail now without a second thought with a HT I had to make sure I got that tail up and over .. Plus my back feels that much better at the end of a ride.. I still consider myself at the bottom end of moderate skill level and it has refreshed my desire to ride and put on more miles than I would on a hard tail. Again I do not have Mega $$ and I am not racing so I would rather have the FS.. every second doesn’t count but every bit of fun does

  13. Great article! I ride in New England, where roots and rocks aren’t something you encounter – it’s just a reality that your entire trail is like that. Having moved from a HT to a FS in fall of last year, I’m very married to the FS now. At the end of the day, it allows me to ENJOY riding more, and to me, that’s what it’s all about.

    It’s nice to see so many in agreement that it’s a “what works for you” mentality – there are a lot of bikes, a lot of riding styles, and a lot of trails, so do what works for you!

  14. I started out on a hardtail and I will always have a hardtail, even if someday I also get a FS. Admittedly, the primary reason I’ve never had a FS is due to the cost and secondly the maintanence. Honestly, I think even less these days about the need for a FS. I’ve been riding a 29er with some seriously fat tubeless tires for quite a while now. With the greater roll over stability and control I’ve found with the 29er wheels coupled with riding tubeless at lower pressures for greater traction, comfort and shock absorbtion I think the overall differences from a FS are less than ever! I’ve always anticipated that when I get up there in age (36 right now) there will come a time when it will be healthier for my body to go FS and give my back and joints more of a break. Also, by then, with the kids out of the house (hopefully) I can finally afford a good FS bike. Now, I’m not so sure if a FS will ever be necessary. I just have too much fun on the hardtail! Who knows…even if I do go FS someday it will still be a 29er and tubeless!

  15. Agree that this article is pretty well done. The time tested discussion of whether HT or FS is better will never be answered. It’s like comparing a minivan to a sedan?!?! It depends on the type of riding. Are you riding XC, all mountian, big travel, etc. Basically, if you think you need it, get it. Each one has pros and cons and every rider should try both out to get an idea of what will work the best for them. As for me, it’s a FS with lockout. Done and done.

    bv
    white-knuckled.blogspot.com

  16. Agree..its a tricky call.
    I am late 40′s and have had FS for over 16 years…specialized, GT, Turner etc….I now have a Meta 5 as I guide in NZ (mostly heli) and want the travel. However when riding on the tracks around lake Wanaka, New Zealand I have purchased a 29er hard-tail.
    So for my 2c …having 2 x bikes…all mountain 26 and a 29er Hardtail (carbon) the technology in the carbon hard-tail 29ers is amazing…a little nervous about the lower back…but a better riding position, (seat forward) should assist.

  17. Agreed the best bike to have…..is both. I have always ridden a handrail until I herniated a disc in my back(not from biking….Airborne). Anything after 10 miles would cause serious fatigue in my lower back. I tried a FS and really enjoyed the ride. I shopped and finally went with the carbon Scalpel 1. A key tip is shop for last years models around August; that is the only way I could afford it as the dealer gave me a $3000 break off the price just to move it.

    I also kept my carbon handrail, and now I can choose which option oft the course and type of riding. And yes, at 44 how well my back feels in the morning!

    Don’t laugh you will all join me sooner or later….ha, ha! Great article.

  18. I’ve rode both and perfer the FS. I end up using my legs for suspension still anyway, …gettin’ after it. I agree they are for different styles, but for me it’s FS. I have lockout, but never use it. Don’t think I’ll ever get a HT.

  19. For most of us, we can only afford so much bike. If you have $500 to spend, you’ll get more for your money with a hard tail. If you have $3000 to spend, you’ll get more for your money with a hard Tail. Etc.

    At the end of the day, I’ve never had enough money to spend that I didn’t want the lighter frame or better components on the hard tail. And, my friends who got FS bikes eventually came back to hard tail.

  20. i started with a full suspension mountain bike Cannondale SuperV 700 and when I decided to replace it I went with a full suspension Jamis 650B1. I loved the Cannondale but I have ridden over, through, and into more stuff with the Jamis. I am not sure if it is the larger wheels that made the bigger difference or the more all mountain frame versus a XC ride but I will take the weight “penalty” for the toughness of the bike.

  21. Started riding this year at age 61 on a Hardtail. Traveled from Florida to the PNW and rode several trails. Only once, at Sandy Ridge in Oregon, did I dismount at the end of the ride and wish I had a FS. I generally ride 10-15 miles a day, but did ride few trails that were 25+ miles. The price difference was the deciding factor in my purchase. The components on my $2200 Hardtail were comparable to those on a $5000 FS model.

Leave a Reply