Full Suspension or Hardtail?
“I want to buy a mountain bike! I’m just starting out.”
“Okay! 29er or 650b? 2.5 inches or plus tires? How about slack? Hardtail or Full Suspension? What’s your budget?”
“I dunno, I just want a bike.”
Let’s hash this out a bit.
Hardtail Mountain Bike
A Hardtail Mountain Bike has a front fork but lacks rear suspension, like this Santa Cruz Chameleon.
Buying a hardtail has two major advantages:
Hardtails are less expensive than Full Suspension bikes.
They are less expensive because when you purchase a hardtail, you aren’t paying for that rear suspension, which includes a pivoting rear end and a rear shock. That seems super obvious, and I guess it is, but I mention this because the last time I compared prices, with all other things being equal (components) ditching a rear suspension was the difference of $1,000-$1,500. A rear suspension also needs to be maintained, however that is a modest yearly expense. Of course, hardtails can still break the bank, like this Procaliber 9.9 SL (you’d think for that price they wouldn’t have made it so…ugly). If you don’t want to sell your first born for some carbon hoops, check out these other models.
Hardtails are super efficient XC bikes.
If you’re into XC riding and racing, a hardtail might be your new favorite rig. Their rigid rear end is much more efficient than that of their saggy cousins. With each pedal stroke of a full suspension, power is lost through the dampening motion of the rear shock. By mile 20, you will definitely appreciate the improved efficiency of a hardtail. Furthermore, they are way, way lighter, which again, makes them a great option for getting shreddy on XC trails or rugged gravel pursuits.
It’s worth noting that hardtails aren’t just for XC. Lots of AM and downhill riders have one in their garage, just waiting around for that weekend when they want a challenge. You’ll often hear them say something like, “I love my hardtail—it reminds me how to ride!” What they mean is that when you’re riding a hardtail you’re experiencing all the bumps and thumbs of the trail, which teaches you how to be lighter, more nimble, and choosier about lines.
Full Suspension (Soft-Tail)
Full suspension mountain bikes have a front fork and a rear shock, as demonstrated by this Women's Stumpjumper ST Comp Carbon 29 – 12-speed by Specialized.
Full suspension bikes are going to set you back a lot more dollars and cents wise. The more complex the machine, the more costly it is. All other things being equal, these bikes are also heavier and less efficient due to the rear shock and pivoting rear end.
“So why would I want one of those?”
Glad you asked!
Full suspension bikes have a ton of pros, and for most riders, those pros outweigh the cons:
These bikes are fun!
The extra bit of “give” makes for an all-around more enjoyable ride. These bikes feel more playful, and the rider can make more “mistakes.”
If the trail is long, demanding, or both, a full suspension bike will offer your body a little reprieve from the onslaught of bumps on trail. This is true especially as we age.
Easier to handle
There is a reason why people will often tell you that their beloved hardtail made them a better rider: full suspension bikes are easier to handle. Because they absorb whatever the trail throws at you, they are easier to maneuver around obstacles, through corners, and over rock gardens.
Because these bikes are easier to handle, they tend to charge the downhill stuff faster.
For inspiration and added stoke, check out this video of women riding for the Hopetech Womens Enduro of 2018.
If you’re looking at your first rig (or second or fifth), go ahead and check out our other recommendations. We tackle tubeless setups, different kinds of bikes, and wheel size.