Should you ride a hardtail or a full suspension bike? It’s an argument that lingers…like the Ford VS Chevy debate. I’ve got friends who are all-in for one or the other, & will NEVER change their mind. But, there are benefits to each. And, if you strip away the sexiness of today’s bikes & think about them as tools for accessing trails, you may find that one or the other is perfect for your riding pursuits.
First, you need to understand that hardtail bikes are just as good as full suspension bikes. Many riders come to Mojo with the fallacious idea that hard tails are beginner bikes & that as they get better, they should move to a full suspension bike. This idea is flat-out wrong. Hardtails are just as good as full suspension bikes, They’re just different. In fact, I know several riders who prefer hardtails.
Hardtails will always be more efficient pedalers. Their rigid chainstay/seatstay design has a few direct benefits. First, it puts your cranking power straight to the ground. Even the best full suspension designs always lose a modicum of your pedal stroke’s efficiency. This is a big deal for some riders. If you’re looking for a fast pedaling, snappy, climbing bike, a hardtail is something to consider. No frame movement in your bike’s aft end brings other benefits. You get more “trail feel.” You know how your bike is performing because you feel what it’s doing behind you, where you lack vision. This can help riders feel & correct their bike’s tracking faster than they might on a full suspension bike. (This is one reason that new riders should start on a hardtail. It teaches them to feel & understand what their bike is doing.)
Of course, hardtail bikes have other benefits. They’re usually lighter than their hardtail competition. Lacking pivots & linkages has a benefit of reducing weight; This can make it easier to “throw around” your bike on the trail. Some riders get the feeling that hardtails can be “rowdier” than their full suspension cousins because they’re so easy to “muscle” or “throw” around while ripping down the trail. Of course, another benefit of a hardtail is obvious: it’s more simple than a full suspension bike. You don’t have to worry about linkages, pivots or bearings.
People think of me as a big hit/full suspension rider, but, the truth is that I’ve always had a place in my heart for hardtails. When I ride a hardtail, I approach my ride differently than when I’m on a full suspension rig. I dig into the corners more & I boost jumps harder. The hardtail feel just eggs me on. The guys I ride with say that I’m faster on my descents when riding a hardtail than when I ride my full suspension bikes. Wow…go figure!
Finally, if you’re on a budget, hardtail bikes ALWAYS provide a better value. The reason is that it takes AT LEAST $500 for a manufacturer to add suspension to the rear of a bike. That’s money that is diverted from componentry elsewhere on the bike. For instance, if you have $2000 to spend on a bike & you’re considering a hardtail or a full suspension in that price range, the hardtail will always come with better components (unless, of course, the full suspension is on some kind of sale). Those dollars may go to better shifting, better wheels or better brakes. Plus, low end full suspension bikes are usually heavier & “clunkier” than hardtails in their price range because of compromises the manufacturer makes to “get the bike down to price.”
FULL SUSPENSION BIKES:
So, you’re looking for a full suspension bike. Do you know what the suspension is for? What are its strengths & weaknesses? Let’s dive in. First: if you’re looking for full suspension because you “want to do jumps,” you’re getting it for the wrong reason. I hear this almost every day & it’s based on a misunderstanding. Suspension is NOT for making your landings softer (although that is a side effect). If you can’t land most jumps on a hardtail, full suspension will not make you a better jumper…it only absorbs & hides your mistakes. So … what is suspension for?
As with automobiles & motorcycles, suspension keeps your bike in contact with the ground. When you’re blasting down a trail & your bike’s tires skate across the trail surface, every millisecond that your tire bounces off that trail surface, you’re not in full control of your bike. It’s also a millisecond that you can’t pedal your bike forward. Suspension ensures that your tires are not deflecting off the trail. Rather, your suspension cycles up & down, keeping your tires in contact with the trail’s surface. So, suspension is all about CONTROL. Additionally, suspension allows you to “push” the bike into corners, enabling you to “explode” out of them by releasing the energy generated by centrifugal forces.
Of course, there are side benefits & drawbacks to having suspension. A side benefit of suspension is that it makes your ride smoother. Many riders opt for full suspension bikes, just for the comfort that they provide. Besides comfort, a big suspension (6” to 10”) can help you while doing huge “hucks.” Big suspension helps riders absorb big drops (8’ to 75’+) without rebounding/bouncing upon impact. Drawbacks of full suspension are the added weight that linkages, a shock & bearings add. Finally, suspension adds complexity. You have to set the suspension up correctly or it can be detrimental to your riding experience. It also means that you’ll need to spend time servicing & maintaining the linkages so that they perform as designed.
SO . . . What Design Is Best?
If you’re looking for me to “reveal” which type of bike is better, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. One design is NOT inherently better than the other. But, one design can be better for YOU. Once again, think of bikes as tools for specific jobs. If you’re looking for performance, choose the bike that best fills your performative needs. For instance: if you’re on a budget, a hardtail will nearly always be a better bike for the money. If you’re looking for the lightest bike possible or a snappy pedaler for XC racing, a hardtail may–once again–be the bike of choice. However, if you’re an XC rider who likes long races with varied terrain, a low travel full suspension bike may be your cup of tea. And, if you crank up climbs so that you can blitzkrieg the descent on the other side of the hill, a longer travel full suspension bike may suit your needs best.
Finally: if you consider bikes as the means for mediating your trail experience, you will find the perfect design for your needs … the right tool for the job.