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.
Strangely enough I started on FS purchased 2 different makes each at about 3K each as time progressed I sold one and kept one. I wanted to experience HT so I pulled the trigger and fell in LOVE. Yes the ride “was” stiffer as u all know however once I mastered the tire pressure and learned how to ride the pedals using my legs and knees as my go to suspension I m now uncatchable if your thing is going fast. True it’s not all about fast however now I m able to climb faster maneuver quicker and anticipate power out put much better than on a FS. I no longer own a FS, now I own 2 HT,s and 2 Gravel. The gravels are outfitted with seat post suspension which is dialable to preferred preference that makes that type of riding amazing. As for the 2 HT,s they both have very reliable front shock suspension one being a 3 inch 29er aluminum and the other a full carbon 2.6 29er.
For me it doesn’t get much better at this time…
This is an interesting question. Certainly FS bikes enable you to plow with impunity at times, but that’s a skill in itself. I think it depends largely on the trails you will be riding most of the time. On cositenty rocky trails a HT is really a beating. On smoother trails, even with sectoins of tech, I think they can be fun, and challenging. It also depends on your budget as you mentioned, as I’d reather be on a decent HT over a cheap FS. Another important factor is what hardtail. I have a modern 130mm relatively slack HT as well as a longer travel FS bike with similar geometry. They are both fun in their own way. I’d say it’s a good place to start for most people who want to stick a toe into mountain biking as you can consider a FS if you fall in love with riding, and they make a great second bike for around town or a change of pace.
I agree,the only reason I ride a hardtail is my current poverty
What a hardtail teaches you is how to be loose on the bike . If you are rigid on a hardtail you will get beat up a bit . I think we are looking at it the wrong way . You should start on a full suspension and then progress to a hardtail . This is why you see more seasoned riders with a full squish picking up a hardtail as it makes the ride more changing
Although, for the most part, I agree with the article I would have to say … through experience (I currently ride both), the hardtail has an advantage to making you a better rider as you must pay more attention to line choice and body position (even you foot positioning). However, the fact that you’re out there riding is the main thing, no matter what bike you choose.
What do you mean starting on a hardtail? One should always have a hardtail in their stable. 90% of mountain bike trails don’t require a full suspension bike. Way too many people are over biked!
We really need to stop treating hardtails as a lesser bike. They make some extremely awesome and capable hardtails these days and more people can afford them too.
Where do I find one of these $1,000 full suspension bikes that will withstand the abuse of an enthusiastic beginner?
I’ve been shopping for a full squish, but honestly it’s hard to justify when I’m having so much fun on my hardtail. Not to mention enough cash left over to buy a used fatty and a gravel bike to boot.
“… flat tires, ruined rims and fatigue” – what does that even mean? Taking big air jumps and landing on your back tire? Newsflash… some of us don’t do “jumps”. We ride XC and the small jumps, roots, rock gardens are easily circumvented with a hard tail. I use one by choice. What about not having to lug an extra 10lbs+ up a 1K/foot climb? At least 10lbs. My hard tail weighs 22 pounds.
Rode hardtails 7,000+ miles over four years when I began mountain biking at age 61. My first FS bike might have made me a bit lazy and more apt to keep my rear on the seat, but I find the short travel XC bikes are best ridden like a hardtail.
Unless budget is an issue, or young kids where weight is an issue, HT make no sense if you are into descending.
Giving a learner a less forgiving bike with less traction that is more fatiguing makes no sense. Especially if coming from a ski or snowboarding background where flex and support is consistent and they already know how to use terrain for fun, control and speed.
I started there for budget reasons to get a taste on a second hand HT. Then 9 months later bought an ’06 Enduro worth more than my car.
After hitting all our mainlines I built up an aggressive HT 4 years later and enjoyed the greater challenge of riding a HT on the same trails. And the different skills required on a HT compared to dual suspension.
But by late 30s, the rocky terrain was beating me up. Swollen ankles for a few days and getting fatigued on bigger rides. Went back to dually.