You may already know that a full-suspension mountain bike has a suspension fork up front as well as a rear shock, but a hardtail only has a suspension fork.
So, is full suspension better than hardtail?
Well, if you’re looking for greater uphill climbing ability, low maintenance, and cheaper bikes, hardtails are a better choice. On the other hand, full suspension is awesome for downhill descents, super comfortable rides, and a wide array of shock absorbers.
This extensive hardtail vs. full suspension mountain bikes comparison will help you make the right choice.
What You Need to Know About Bike Suspension
To make a good comparison between full suspension and hardtail, you need to know exactly how useful a bike suspension is.
There are actually different types of bike suspensions.
Therefore, when comparing hardtails and full suspension bicycles, you need to consider whether they have similar suspension types.
That is evident from a study by Michael Orendurff from Oregon State University which revealed that suspension forks with moderate stiffness are potentially the best choice.
The study compared rigid forks as well as suspension forks set at soft, medium, and firm stiffness. And the bikes rode over a series of small, medium, and large bumps.
Besides the stiffness, multiple design variations exist.
So, make sure you’re comparing apples to apples, when comparing a hardtail and full sus (full suspension bike). Just a slight difference in design can have a major impact.
Key Beneficial Features of Hardtail MTBs
Having an understanding of the features of a hardtail mountain bike (MTB) can help you decide if it will benefit you.
Here are the main features.
If you’re on a budget, you’ll likely prefer hardtails.
You’re sure to find a decent product even with a budget of about $1,500 or less. Such bikes are cheaper than a full sus because of the simpler design that’s less expensive to manufacture.
Various bike shops offer prices as low as $1,000 or even $500.
Affordable High-End Components
A full sus at the same price range as a hardtail will likely have fewer high-end components.
That’s because manufacturers can afford to put in extra components due to the lower production cost of the hardtail. So, you’ll get higher quality derailleur gears, brakes, shifters, and other components at an affordable price.
Hardtails have fewer moving parts, which makes them simpler and less expensive to maintain.
How much does it cost to maintain a mountain bike?
The yearly maintenance cost can be as much as $200+. If you’ll use the bike for the next 10 or 20 years, that means an overall lifetime expense of $2,000 to $4,000.
Generally, hardtails weigh less than full-suspension bikes.
Although you can still get light full suspension bikes too, you’ll have to spend far much more since that’s only possible with the high-end versions.
Key Beneficial Features of Full Suspension Bikes
A full sus has special features that can make it more beneficial, depending on what you need.
Here are the key features.
New Suspension Technologies for Efficiency
Although a high-end full sus can cost as much as $12,000, you get the benefit of various suspension designs offering different riding experiences.
A few notable designs include:
- Single pivot: A swing arm connects the rear axle to the main frame, without pivots in-between.
- Linkage-driven single pivot: An uninterrupted swing arm connects the rear axle to the mainframe, plus a linkage to drive the shock.
- Horst-link: The rear pivot is located below the rear axle on the chainstay.
- Twin-link: A rigid rear triangle articulates on a pair of short links connecting it to the mainframe.
- Trek’s ABP system: A linkage-driven single pivot using a concentric dropout pivot at the rear axle.
- Yeti’s Switch Infinity: A lower pivot sliding up and down on a pair of vertical shafts, plus an upper link rotating clockwise as the suspension compresses.
- High-pivot: A single pivot design with the pivot point placed much higher than normal.
Extensive Capability and Versatility
A full sus is well designed for technical trails.
It’s a smart choice for many types of races or pedaling through rock gardens, off of drops, and over roots. The front and rear suspension combination creates a smoother ride, plus better traction and handling.
Speedy Rides through Technical Trails
- The front and rear shocks absorb bumps so well that you can carry more speed in technical trails.
The more obstacles there are, the better a full sus will perform compared to a hardtail.
Hardtail vs. Full Suspension Comparisons
Now that you know what features these bikes have, you probably have an initial perception of how they would perform in specific riding conditions.
So, let’s compare the two bikes in specific riding conditions.
When going uphill, you need to place as much effort as possible into the climb. Any wasted effort would be counterproductive, particularly in races.
Hence, a hardtail will outdo a full sus.
The rigid rear and lower weight of a hardtail means less energy wasted. That’s unlike a full sus that will absorb some of the useful energy at the rear.
This is a key consideration particularly for very steep climbs with a maximum 100% slope (45° incline) where you have to lean forward to avoid tipping over.
A full sus may have lockouts, but they aren’t as rock-solid as a hardtail.
But that’s not the full story.
If the climb gets rough or technical, a full suspension helps keep the rear tire in contact with the ground for better traction. In this situation, hardtails won’t perform so well.
You’ll also need to check the bike geometry.
A more slack geometry (slack head angle where the front wheel is further in front of the headset) will require more effort.
When descending, a full sus offers a more relaxed riding position, unlike hardtails that cause you to lean forward uncomfortably. The rear shocks retain traction for faster downhill descents, especially on steep inclines.
A longer wheelbase (horizontal distance between the ground contact points of front and rear wheels) also keeps balance and control at high speed for the full sus.
It gets better when you hit rocks or roots.
Here, the rear shocks in a full sus provide additional traction, unlike hardtails that skip and bounce.
However, the full sus would still need a better quality fork like that found in a high-end hardtail to truly dominate the descents.
Choosing Different Types of Hardtails and Full Suspension Bikes
The choice between these two options gets a bit more complicated when you consider the different sub-categories of each type.
Here are the four subcategories to consider.
Cross Country (XC) MTBs
An XC bike is designed for long distance rides in endurance events, as well as shorter, lapped races. They can climb and descend equally well due to their increased traction and enhanced rolling efficiency.
Hardtail XCs have traditionally dominated this subcategory.
In recent years, full-suspension XC bikes are now offering ultra-light components to increase comfort without excessive weight or pedaling inefficiency. In fact, many professionals started using the full sus for XCO races in 2015 to 2016.
For fairly smooth trails, hardtail trail MTBs offer fast and fun rides.
They soak up moderate bumps through the front suspension fork. Moreover, they have more relaxed angles, wider bars, shorter stems, and between 100-150mm front travel (how far down the fork can compress).
They are essentially all-rounders.
These MTBs offer enough suspension to descend efficiently while not being too saggy when climbing. For someone who hasn’t decided on a particular discipline of cycling, the trail hardtails are a brilliant option to take you anywhere and everywhere.
In enduro races, you’re timed on your descents – not when climbing, getting to and from different downhill sections, or other bits in-between.
This is ideal for a full sus enduro MTB.
Such MTBs feature high levels of front travel (140-170mm), long wheelbases, long top tubes, and shorter stems for an aggressive riding style with excellent control at high speeds.
Although enduro MTBs are similar to downhill/ gravity MTBs, you are more likely to find a hardtail enduro than a hardtail gravity MTB. Competitive enduro riders may opt for a hardtail because it’s lighter and easier to fix.
These bikes are built specifically for riding downhill.
You’re sure to find as much as 180-220mm of travel in this subcategory. That’s complemented by a super slack geometry for greater control and balance when flying down the trail. But the gearing is basic for weight saving.
Another key feature is the chunky and reinforced tires.
For superior handling, you’ll get 27.5″ wheels. Coil springs are still the favored choice here due to their reliability, but high-end models may have air-sprung suspension.
Most importantly, the frames are made strong and durable enough to soak up the big impacts and heavy landings.
Is Full Suspension Better Than Hardtail
Now that you know all those important details about the two bikes, you’re better placed to determine the best option.
As you may notice, the best option depends on the following circumstances.
Where Hardtails are Better Than Full Suspension
One key place where hardtails would be best is learning to ride.
Although a full sus makes riding easier, that ease may actually be cheating you out of learning fundamental skills. Instead, you may end up learning bad habits.
Hardtails may be harder, rougher, and less comfortable, but they force you to ride at a speed that’s appropriate to your skill level. Without the rear shock to smooth out bumps, you learn to intentionally ride smoother while using your legs as suspension (an important skill when riding any bike).
You’ll definitely quickly learn line choice.
Simply because choosing the wrong line hurts.
You can also tell when you’re smashing your wheels about, which helps you learn mechanical sympathy. And you learn how to bunnyhop properly – not depending on the rear suspension.
All those skills are fundamental to riding.
If you jump straight on a full sus, you’re robbing yourself of those vital skills. But when you ride a hardtail first, your first time on a full sus will be incredible
Where Full Suspension is Better Than Hardtail
A full suspension MTB offers confidence and handling that you can’t get from a hardtail.
With modern MTBs, a full suspension frame would be only about a kilo heavier than a hardtail. Therefore, unless you’re an elite racer, the weight factor makes little difference.
The full sus delivers fun and comfortable rides too.
You don’t need to worry about poor pedaling performance either. With the right full sus MTB, just flick a switch to activate the front and rear lockouts. Even without lockouts, current linkages and pivots are so efficient, you’ll hardly lose any energy.
As mentioned earlier, the fun factor is the key benefit.
Rocky trails that terrified you on a hardtail now become fun to barrel over. As cross country riding gets more technical, the full suspension MTB is set to really shine.
Ultimately, you can ride faster and longer.
That’s because the MTB reduces fatigue by soaking up jarring bumps that would otherwise impact your body. With such comfort, you can race through bumpy surfaces and ride longer.
This extensive comparison covering major aspects of the two MTBs can help you select the best long-term riding option.
But you may also want to consider various other issues during your selection process.
For instance, you may prefer products made by specific manufacturers, regardless of the MTB type. This may have to do with the company’s proven track record of delivering quality products, extensive warranties, and good customer service.
Maybe the overall look of the bike is important for you too.
If you’re getting a bike just for casual riding, a good looking design might be a valid consideration. However, you can get a custom paint job if the color doesn’t suit you.
In some cases, you might not find the right fit of either the hardtail or full sus. Since a proper fitting bike is crucial for an excellent riding experience, you might opt for the option that simply fits you.
If you still can’t pick one of the two options, you might as well buy both of them