The Advantages of Starting on a Hardtail: Real Versus Imagined

Whether it's a rite of passage, a less-expensive way to test the waters, or an opportunity for building skills, mountain bikers have opinions about starting on a hardtail.

A few months ago on a ride a buddy of mine grumbled out that mountain bikers should start on a hardtail. It was early into the climb — one we were both on full-suspension bikes for.

“I don’t know that I agree,” I replied. We chugged along, our wheels floating over the trail, shocks absorbing the rocks and chatter, butts nice and cozy.

I argued that there’s a chance someone really might enjoy mountain biking more if they were on a full-suspension over a hardtail. And if they enjoy mountain biking more, then there’s a good chance that they’ll ride more.

“Yeah, but..,” he continued, arguing that the skills one gains are vital for mountain biking, and not too long after, I saw a similar argument in a forum. There wasn’t any mind-changing that day, but it’s a question I chewed on for a while, weighing the merits of beginning your mountain bike career on a hardtail. I asked friends and eventually the Singletracks community.

The merits of starting on a hardtail – or a full-suspension – seem to be broken into a few main groups. The first one we’ll tackle is the cheapest argument for starting on a hardtail: It’s what I did and that means it’s what you should do too.

It’s a rite of passage

There are sports and organizations where this matters: Say the military or earning your way through a martial arts belt system. There’s no getting around the fact that in some spaces you have to put your time in to progress and that you should be recognized and respected for your persistence and perseverance. But, this happens differently in mountain biking.

In the military, or martial arts, or any hierarchal society a rank signals to others that you’re at the level you’re at because you deserve to be and you have succeeded completely and grown out of the previous position.

But, if you’ve seen Jeff Kendall-Weed ride a hardtail, then it’s clear that the threshold at which one completes the hardtail level of the mountain bike game doesn’t really exist. And how many skilled riders who have been on two wheels for years return to a hardtail after a full-suspension because they love the challenge?

Singletracks readers had some great responses in our survey as well, adding that there are a few reasons a rider might pick a hardtail over a full-suspension as a first bike. If the rider is younger and the hardtail is lighter, that could make for a more maneuverable bike, and hardtails give you feedback at lower speeds so people don’t get ahead of themselves.

It’s a matter of accessibility

The dominant reason that most beginners will end up on a hardtail though is likely cost. Hardtails are almost always less expensive than full-suspension bikes, and if you’re younger you probably have less money to spend on a first bike. Even if you’re starting at an older age, you might not be so smitten by the sport that you want to spend upwards of a thousand dollars on a full-suspension bike when you could spend less than half that on a hardtail.

More than ever, hartdtails serve as a gateway to this sport for kids and adults, and though it might seem a rite of passage to “progress” into a full-suspension, it might be more of a signal that someone has committed to mountain biking when they decide to put the money down on a full-suspension model.

What skills do you really gain?

But, you’ll be a better rider starting on a hardtail, right? An underlying piece of this argument is that you’ll gain invaluable skills by starting on a hardtail that you won’t learn on a full-suspension, like body positioning or line choice. But, line choice is important on any type of bike, from cross-country to downhill. It’s kind of like saying new drivers should start on a manual transmission because they’ll be a better driver, even though they’ll be buying an automatic.

And, yes skill is one of those things that comes with time spent on the trail, but it also comes with proper coaching or learning from friends who have been riding longer.

Another friend I asked made a good point that it’s dependent on the rider’s goals. If you want to gain more skill and are patient enough with yourself, then sure, go for a hardtail. But like Singletracks reader Zoso noted in the Sunday survey, sometimes hardtails just add more frustration to the mix in the form of flat tires and ruined rims and fatigue.

For a lot of riders, progression happens when they are comfortable and confident enough on their steed and they’re willing to take the risks because the payoffs are clearer, like reader Varaxis pointed out in the Sunday survey.

To bring the discussion full circle, the reward of progression is often what keeps riders new and old going, and if that happens on a hardtail or a full-suspension, then that’s the right bike to ride.