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Hardtail vs. Full Suspension Mountain Bikes: What’s the Difference?

For folks interested in taking their cycling into the woods, they have to decide if they want to ride a hardtail vs full suspension. Not a problem back in the day when Gary Fisher and his wild pals literally invented mountain biking in Marin, California. They took old fat tire cruisers, reinforced the frames with motorcycle parts and headed for the mountains. They threw the bikes in the back of their trucks and headed for the top. It never occured to them to ride uphill. When they got there, they pointed their machines downhill and they let ’em rip!

These days there are lots of trails in the woods and public parks. Some are flat and some have very challenging hills to climb and descend. There are dedicated mountain bike parks with marked and rated trails as well as ski areas that stay open in the summer for cyclists. Just as the places to ride have become more varied, so have the bikes. The determining factors in making your choice of a hardtail vs full suspension will be your preferred riding style and where you will be riding.

What’s a Hardtail Mountain Bike?

From the beginning mountain bikes have had big fat tires for stability and traction. Early bikes had 26 inch wheels but now almost all have larger 27.5″ or 29″ wheels for more speed and efficient climbing. Suspension didn’t arrive on the scene until the early 1990s. The first models had front fork “shocks” while the rear triangle of the bike frame was rigid.

With the addition of this front suspension, mountain bikes gained better control, traction and comfort on rough trails. These front fork shocks began as telescoping metal tubes with coil springs which eventually gave way to adjustable air pressure shocks. The coil shocks are still the basic equipment on the less expensive entry level models. Both the coil and air shock are available with different lengths of compression or travel depending on how rough the trails are where you will do most of your riding. Some have adjustable travel.

If what you are looking for is more speed on flat terrain, even some gravel and pavement, the single shock and overall stiffness of the hardtail will be your best choice. The hardtail is also better suited for long climbs for the same reason. That shock can certainly absorb the impact of bumps, roots and rocks, but it also dampens the energy you apply to each pedal stroke. This reduces your speed and climbing leverage. I

f this bike is your all-purpose bike which you will also be riding on bike paths and pavement or even commuting to work or school, you’ll want a model with a lockout on the shock to eliminate any compression at all for more efficient riding.

What’s a Full Suspension Mountain Bike?

The difference between hardtail vs full suspension bikes is that, in addition to the fork shock the full suspension bike also has a rear shock. There is a common misconception, especially among riders new to mountain biking, that full suspension is a comfort feature. The additional shock allows the rear wheel to soak up impacts, helping to keep the tire in contact with the ground for better control. Without suspension to smooth out the bumps on a fast, steep descent, the bike and rider can experience some unexpected “air time”.

It’s not all about flying downhill. The suspension gives the rear “drive” wheel better traction to handle tricky corners through mud and gravel. The rear frame triangle will have one or more pivot points which allow the wheel to travel through a limited range. The rear shock joins the main triangle of the bike frame with the rear triangle. Both the front and rear shocks are either a coil spring or an air pressure shock. Air shocks are adjustable and have smoother compression. They improve  ride quality and control. Coil spring shocks are better able to absorb big hits so they are often found on downhill and jump bikes.

A full suspension mountain bike, whether entry level or high end, should not be a “bouncy” ride. The fork shock and the rear shock should be adjusted for a firm ride on smooth terrain. On the rear shock, the rider adjusts the “sag” with a shock pump. Each bike comes with a chart which shows the settings for the coil preload or the air pressure or the rear shock to achieve the manufacturers recommended amount of sag.

Hardtail vs Full Suspension 

Let’s look at the specific differences between a hardtail vs full suspension bikes. These differences are significant and will determine where and how you can use your bike most effectively.

Frame

The frame of a hardtail is lighter and simpler than a full suspension bike. There are fewer complicated parts, less to go wrong, making the hardtail more reliable. The complexity of the full suspension frame affects the durability and means there are more service-prone components.

Weight

The full suspension bike will always be heavier than a comparable hardtail. The rear shock, additional frame support and pivots are there for a reason, but they certainly add weight.

Speed

With a hardtail vs full suspension, the lighter and stiffer hardtail will always win on the flats and pavement. The same is true on steep, long climbs.
The full suspension bike wins out only on the rough bumpy descents where the extra suspension will handle the corners and bumps and allow the rider to let the bike go.

Terrain

With the ability to adjust both the front and rear shocks, the full suspension bike is more adaptable to different types of terrain. The rigid hardtail offers more traction and easier handling. The full suspension bike will certainly handle the rougher terrain with more control and comfort, but the hardtail remains an able bike in the woods.

Climbing

The lower weight and the rigid rear triangle make the hardtail a better climber.  Compared to the full suspension bike, it is just a more efficient transfer of the rider’s energy to the drivetrain. As climbs get rougher and more technical, the full suspension bike can give you a bit more traction but overall the hardtail is the better choice.

Downhill

When it comes to going downhill fast, more suspension is better. The additional traction and control of the full suspension keeps the wheels in contact with the trail and allows for faster downhill runs. The hardtail tends to bounce off rocks and other obstacles reducing speed and control.

Price

The simpler design of the hardtail means a lower price. When you compare a hardtail vs full suspension, the fewer mechanical parts and components you have the less you’ll have to dish out in the future for repairs or upkeep. The hardtail ends up being less expensive to buy and less expensive to own.

Maintenance

When it comes to cleaning and maintaining a hardtail vs a full suspension bike, the differences are easy to see. Except for the shock itself, everything is open and accessible on the hardtail. If you’re handy, you should be able to do a lot of the mechanical adjustments yourself.

In contrast, there are lots of intricate parts to keep clean and serviced on the full suspension bike. As for service, most riders count on the mechanic at their local bike shop. Suspension units are expensive to replace and any service has to be performed by an experienced mechanic.

Conclusion

Different manufacturers have different designs for their rear shock. The basic idea is to absorb the impacts of the trail while maximizing the handling of the bike. When you compare a hardtail vs full suspension, the latter will be faster on descents, able to handle many types of terrain, and be easier to control.

We have discussed your preferred riding style and where you will be riding. What we did not mention was your budget.  Let’s talk about that now. If you ride in the woods occasionally but mostly on bike paths and pavement, a full suspension bike might be more than you need. If you want to ride difficult, technical trails and challenge yourself to improve your bike handling skills over time, by all means check out the full suspension bikes.

But if you are a 175 lb, 6 foot guy, and you want to ride mostly trails in the woods, the least expensive bike in the shop will not be your best choice. When you decide on a hardtail vs full suspension, you may have to spend a little more to get a frame that is durable, with double walled wheels that are strong enough and a shock that won’t bottom out. If you can’t afford the full suspension bike you need, buy the hardtail that best suits you.


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