When shopping for a new mountain bike, one of the more important decisions you’ll have to make is which type of suspension system to go with. This choice mostly comes down to the type of terrain you plan to ride and your budget. This guide outlines the pros and cons of riding a hardtail vs full suspension mountain bike. We’ll cover efficiency, performance, maintenance, cost, weight, and much more.
What is a Full Suspension Mountain Bike?
A full suspension mountain bike features both a suspension fork as well as a rear shock. The suspension system helps to absorb shocks and dampen vibrations. This makes the ride more comfortable and more efficient on rough terrain. The suspension also helps to improve traction, control, and handling.
The rear shock is integrated into the bike’s frame. It can use either a metal coil or compressed air for resistance. Full suspension bike frames consist of two separate pieces: a mainframe and a swingarm. The shock attaches to both frame pieces. Either directly or through linkages. The swingarm pivots against the mainframe, allowing the rear axle to move as the shock compresses and rebounds.
Full suspension mountain bike frames can have one or multiple sets of pivot points and linkages. The pivot points and linkages control how the rear suspension behaves. We’ll talk more in-depth about that later on. A damping system in the fork and shock helps to smooth out the ride by preventing the shock from oscilating or bouncing.
Full suspension mountain bikes are a great choice for all types of mountain biking including downhill, trail riding, enduro, and CX. They work best for riding difficult trails with lots of rocks, roots, and drops.
What is a Hardtail Mountain Bike?
Hardtail mountain bikes only have a suspension fork. They do not have rear suspension. The frame is completely rigid. This is where the name hardtail comes from. The suspension fork absorbs bumps and vibrations from the trail. It can also improve handling, and steering while riding rough trails. Resistance in suspension fork is provided by either metal coils or compressed air.
Hardtail mountain bikes are a popular choice for cross country riding, trail riding, enduro riding, and bikepacking. They work well for riding double track, fire roads, gravel roads, and easy singletrack.
Hardtail Mountain Bike Pros
- Hardtail mountain bikes are more efficient- The rigid frame efficiently transfers power from the pedals to the rear wheel. This is possible because you’re not wasting energy compressing a rear shock as you pedal. Hardtail mountain bikes do not suffer from pedal bob. Many suspension forks also have a lockout mechanism. When engaged, the fork can’t compress. This improves efficiency while riding on smooth terrain because you’re not wasting energy compressing the fork as you pedal. Hardtail mountain bikes are also lighter. It takes less energy to accelerate and your maintain speed with a lighter bike. This increased efficiency is nice while riding long distance, easy trails, climbing, riding on-road, and sprinting. You can ride further while burning less energy. You won’t tire out quite as fast.
- Cheaper- Hardtail mountain bikes are significantly cheaper than comparable full suspension models. Mid-range hardtail mountain bikes cost around $1000-$1500. To compare, a mid-range full suspension bikes cost $2000-$2500. On average, a hardtail mountain bike costs around $800-$1000 less than a similarly specced full suspension bike. The reason is that hardtail bikes require fewer parts and are much simpler to manufacture. For example, they don’t need an expensive shock absorber or a complex pivoting suspension frame. Hardtail frames are one rigid piece. If you compare hardtail and full suspension mountain bikes at similar price points, you’ll find that the hardtail model will come with much higher-end components. This is possible because the manufacturing cost is so much lower. If you’re on a tight budget, you’re better off buying a quality hardtail bike than a low-end full-suspension bike. Particularly if your budget is lower than $1500. In addition, hardtail mountain bikes require less maintenance. This lowers the cost of ownership. You might save $150 per year on rear shock maintenance alone. There are no pivot bearings to replace because the frame is rigid. This savings adds up over the years.
- Easier and less frequent maintenance is required- Because hardtail mountain bikes have fewer moving parts, they require less maintenance. For example, there is no rear shock that requires oil, seals, or cleaning. Because the frame is rigid, there are no bushings or bearings in the frame to replace. Hardtail mountain bikes are also easier to keep clean because there are fewer nooks and crannies to collect dirt and debris. This makes hardtails ideal for riding in dirty, muddy, or snowy conditions. You can just hose the bike down to clean it off if it gets dirty. Cables can also be easier to replace because the cable routing is simpler. Minimal maintenance means you can spend more time riding and less time working on your bike. You save money too. Of course, the front fork suspension does need periodic maintenance. You’ll have to perform lower leg fork maintenance around every 25 hours of riding. This involves cleaning and topping up the oil. Full maintenance is required around every 100 hours. This involves replacing the oil and seals in the fork. Of course, you’ll have to perform this same fork maintenance on a full-suspension bike as well.
- Lighter weight- On average, a hardtail mountain bike weighs 1.5 kg (about 3.3 lbs) less than a full suspension bike. Hardtail bikes are lighter because they have fewer parts and use less material to build. For example, there is no rear shock absorber and there are no bushings, bearings, and linkages. The frame is less complex. A lighter bike is better for those who ride long distance or climb often. Bikepackers and gravel riders generally prefer hardtails. It takes less energy to accelerate and maintain speed with a lighter frame.
- Hardtail mountain bikes are better for beginners- Everyone can benefit from learning to mountain bike on a hardtail. The reason is that hardtail mountain bikes force you to learn proper mountain biking technique. This makes you a better all-around rider in the long run. For example, while riding a hardtail, you’ll learn how to properly choose a line, take a corner, maintain traction, and handle large obstacles in the trail like roots and rocks. Once you develop some skill, this allows you to ride faster and more safely. You’ll also learn how to ride smoothly and use your legs for suspension. This is a skill that all cyclists should learn, regardless of the type of bike they ride. In addition, you’ll learn how to find grip if your wheel slides out. This can save you from dangerous situations. You can also learn how to bunny hop without the assistance of suspension. These are all fundamental skills of mountain biking that you may not learn if you start riding on a full-suspension bike. You’re forced to learn these skills with a hardtail because there is no rear suspension system to help you out or get you out of trouble. The skills you learn while riding a hardtail transfer to full suspension bikes. In the long run, you’ll become a better mountain biker if you start out on a hardtail. As an added benefit, you don’t have to spend as much money on a bike to get into the sport. This way, you’re not wasting a bunch of money to find out whether or not you enjoy mountain biking.
- Hardtail mountain bikes are faster when climbing and riding easy trails- Because the frame is rigid, you don’t lose energy by compressing the suspension. There is no pedal bob. This allows you to climb hills and speed down flat trails more quickly and efficiently. When you pedal, more energy goes toward driving you forward. On some types of terrain, you can ride faster with a hardtail.
- You’ll feel more connected to the trail- Hardtail mountain bikes give you more feedback. You can feel the terrain under your legs as you ride. This allows you to adjust your technique to suit the terrain. This is helpful while riding tight or technical trails efficiently. You can ride with more precision. Some riders also find that hardtail mountain bikes feel more responsive as well. For this reason, hardtail mountain bikes can be preferable for riding narrow trails, like riding a narrow ridge, for example.
- More versatile- Hardtail mountain bikes are suitable for all types of mountain biking including trail riding, cross-country, enduro, and even downhill. The efficiency of hardtail mountain bikes allows you to use them for other types of cycling as well. For example, you can also use your hardtail bike for commuting or running errands. You can mount some narrow tires on a hardtail and go gravel riding. Also, you can enable your fork lockout and ride paved bike trails with your friends or kids. You probably wouldn’t want to do these types of riding with a full-suspension bike due to the poor efficiency. In addition, the rigid triangle frame of hardtail bikes allows you to mount bikepacking bags or panniers so you can use your bike for bicycle touring or bikepacking. These types of luggage sometimes aren’t compatible with many full-suspension bikes. The versatility of hardtail mountain bikes makes them an excellent choice for those who only have the money or space for one bike. Of course, you can do all types of cycling with a full-suspension bike as well. The inefficiency just makes it a bit more difficult.
- More durable- The rigid frame of a hardtail mountain bike can handle harder impacts without damage. This is possible because there are no fragile linkages or pivot points. All of the tubes are welded together. There is no shock to worry about bottoming out and getting damaged. Hardtail bikes can also handle a bit more abuse because there are fewer parts that can break or wear out. If you neglect your bike and don’t always take care of maintenance on time, you may be better off with a hardtail.
- Easier to repair- If you ride your bike hard enough or long enough, eventually the frame will crack and fail. If you ride a steel hardtail, you can simply have the frame welded back together and keep riding. Any welder can fix your frame. This may or may not be possible with a full-suspension frame because repairs may interfere with the function of the suspension system.
- More gearing options- Hardtail frames allow you to use a front derailleur if you want to run a 2x or 3x drivetrain. This is great for those who want extra wide range gearing. You could install a 30-speed drivetrain with over 500% gear range if you choose. This would be ideal for riding hilly terrain or bikepacking. As an added benefit, 2X and 3x drivetrains are also more efficient than 1x drivetrains that are commonly found on full-suspension bikes. Many full suspension bikes are not compatible with front derailleurs due to the frame design. For more info, check out my guide to 1x vs 2x drivetrains.
Hardtail Mountain Bike Cons
- Slower on technical trails- Hardtail mountain bikes can handle the same terrain as full suspension bikes. The problem is that you might have to take some obstacles a bit slower. This will lower your average speed. You can’t ride as fast with a hardtail because you can lose traction if the wheel hits a rock or root too hard and bounces off. In some cases, the tire can bounce off the ground. When this happens you lose traction completely. You have to take corners a bit slower to keep your tire on the ground. Handling also becomes difficult when the bike is bucking around under you too violently. You can’t safely control the bike when it’s bouncing around too much. Comfort is a factor as well. If the bike is bouncing around, it becomes uncomfortable to ride. You might have to slow down. While riding a hardtail, you may not be able to keep up with your friends who ride full suspension bikes.
- Less comfortable- Hardtail mountain bikes allow more shocks and vibrations to transfer through the bike into your body. While riding over rough terrain or landing after a drop or jump, you’ll feel every impact a bit more. There is no rear shock to absorb the impact for you. As a result, the ride feels rougher and less comfortable. You must use your legs and arms as shock absorbers. This can be particularly hard on people with back, knee, and wrist problems.
- Less traction/less capable- Hardtail mountain bikes lose traction more easily. While riding on lose gravel or rocky trails, the rear wheel can rebound off a rock or root and slide out from under you. In some cases, the tire can lose contact with the ground completely. When the tire is in the air, it can’t provide any grip. Your handling suffers. You also can’t steer as easily when your rear wheel is bouncing around. You need to ride a bit more carefully and slowly to keep both tires on the ground when riding a hardtail. In fact, some rough trails aren’t suited for hardtails. You can still ride them. You’ll just have to ride slower and more carefully.
- Hardtails are less efficient on rough terrain- While riding a hardtail on a rough trail, the rear tire tends to bounce up off of rocks and roots instead of rolling over. This slows your forward momentum by pushing the bike up. It takes energy to pedal back up to speed. While riding a hardtail, your arms and legs also tire out from shocks and vibrations from the trail. On rough sections, you’ll have to stand on the pedals and use your legs as suspension. This burns energy and causes your body tires out faster. It’s fatiguing. You may not be able to ride quite as long or as far on a hardtail if you’re riding rough terrain.
- Hardtails can’t handle as large of drops or jumps- If you land too hard from a drop or jump, you could destroy your rear wheel. There is no suspension to help absorb the impact. Spokes and rims can only handle so much stress before they fail. Of course, you could injure your legs or back as well if you land too hard. In order to ride large jumps and drops with a hardtail, you need to know proper technique. This involves learning to use your legs for suspension. This requires skill and practice. A landing ramp also helps reduce the impact. You need to know your limits too.
- Less stable- Due to the lack of rear suspension, hardtail mountain bikes bounce around a lot while riding rough trails and descending. When the bike is bouncing around violently, it’s harder to control. It also feels less stable.
- Fewer adjustment options- On a hardtail mountain bike, you can only adjust the suspension forks. You can change the spring rate, damping, and sag. These adjustments will have an effect on the bike’s handling and steering. You can’t make any adjustments to the frame because it is completely rigid. The ride quality of the bike will remain more or less the same.
- Less technologically advanced- Hardtail mountain bikes are much simpler than full-suspension models. Some mountain bikers consider them to be lower end or for beginners. If you’re the type of rider who likes to have the best and most advanced gear, you’ll probably be happier with a full-suspension model instead.
Full Suspension Mountain Bike Pros
- Full suspension mountain bikes offer better traction and handling- When you hit an obstacle like a root or rock, the suspension compresses so the tire can move vertically and roll over. The damping system in the rear shock holds the tire against the ground as it rolls over an obstacle. The suspension system ensures that the tires maintain contact with the ground at all times. The wheel doesn’t just bounce off like it can on a hardtail. This greatly improves your traction and handling. With a full suspension mountain bike, you can corner harder on rough or loose terrain without worrying about your tire sliding out from under you. You have better control of the bike while riding bumpy trails. After all, your tires need to be on the ground so you can have enough grip to steer and corner.
- Smoother and more comfortable ride- The suspension system absorbs shocks and dampens vibrations from the trail. While riding on a rough surface or landing from a drop you’ll feel less impact in your body. This makes for a smoother and more comfortable ride. This is great for those with joint or back issues. The full suspension can reduce shocks that cause pain for some riders. A smoother ride also allows you to ride rough trails longer without tiring out. Your arms and legs fatigue less when the bike absorbs the big shocks and vibrations for you.
- You can ride faster on technical trails with a full suspension bike- The additional traction and shock absorption capabilities of full suspension mountain bikes allow you to maintain a higher average speed. For example, you can take corners harder and faster without having to worry about your tires sliding out because the rear wheel maintains better contact with the ground. While riding on a rough patch of trail the contact points including the handlebars, peddles, and seat stay relatively stable because the suspension absorbs most of the bumps. This allows you to keep on pedaling while riding over bumps, roots, and rocks. If you’re a capable rider, you’ll outride your friends who ride hardtails
- Full suspension bikes can handle larger drops and jumps- The suspension absorbs most of the impact for you when you land. This allows you to handle large drops and jumps with minimal skill. You don’t have to worry as much about damaging your rear wheel or injuring your legs if you land hard. You can also land more easily without a ramp. If you like to jump and ride your bike off big drops, you’ll want to choose a model with long-travel suspension. Most freeride and downhill mountain bikes have 160-200mm of suspension travel. For most riders, 120mm of suspension travel is sufficient if it’s properly set up. If you don’t jump your bike or ride off drops, you can get away with 80-100mm of suspension travel.
- More forgiving and confidence-inspiring- Full suspension mountain bikes give you a wider margin for error. This allows you to ride above your skill level. This is possible because full suspension bikes offer better traction, handling, steering, and bump absorption. For example, maybe you chose the wrong line and hit a big root in the trail. The suspension system can absorb the impact so you stay on the bike. Maybe you took a corner too fast on loose rocks. The suspension system can hold your rear wheel to the ground so you maintain enough traction to make the corner. If you hit the same obstacles on a hardtail, you might have come off the bike. Full suspension bikes are a bit more forgiving of mistakes because the bike can make up for some of your shortcomings as a rider. This inspires confidence. When you ride confidently, you can handle more extreme conditions and your skills can improve more quickly.
- Full suspension mountain bikes are more adjustable- Rear shocks offer multiple adjustments so you can dial in the exact spring rate, progression range, suspension sag, compression damping, and rebound damping for the type of riding you do. This allows you to use the same bike for any type of mountain biking. For example, you can adjust the spring rate and sag for your weight by either changing the air pressure in an air shock or changing your coil. You can adjust the damping system to make the suspension more sensitive to small bumps and vibrations or optimize it for large impacts. Some shocks even allow you to adjust the way the damping behaves throughout the suspension range. You may also be able to adjust the progression of the suspension if you use an air shock. You can make the suspension become harder to compress throughout the range or operate linearly. All of these adjustments change the way the bike rides. You can dial your suspension in to suit your riding style and personal preference. The frame also plays a big role in the way the bike behaves. For example, some frames are more progressive and some are more linear. Some have different pedaling and braking characteristics. Efficiency varies as well. If you’re looking for a specific ride feel, you can get it with a full suspension bike.
- More efficient on rough terrain- Full suspension mountain bikes don’t lose as much forward momentum while riding over rough sections of trail. The shocks allow the wheels to roll over bumps instead of bouncing off and slowing the bike down. You’ll maintain your speed better and won’t have to pedal quite as much. This saves energy.
- More stable ride- The suspension prevents the bike from moving around too much while you ride rough sections of trail and descend bumpy hills. After all, this is what full suspension bikes were built for. When the bike is stable, you can stay in control more easily. The handlebars, pedals, and seat aren’t bouncing around quite as much. You can steer and pedal while the shock and fork absorb bumps and vibrations. This allows you to handle rougher trails at higher speeds.
- More technologically advanced- Because the pros ride full suspension bikes, lots of research and development goes into engineering full suspension frames and shock absorbers. Modern bicycle suspension systems are incredibly sophisticated. Through engineering, manufactures can optimize the bike for efficiency and performance. For example, modern full suspension frames don’t suffer from much pedal bob, because the frame is designed with anti-squat. This minimizes the oscillation of the suspension compressing and rebounding as you pedal. Braking performance can be improved with anti-rise. This reduces suspension extension as you brake. Frame and shock designs can also be optimized for different types of mountain biking. A downhill bike will be set up completely differently from a trail bike. The engineering that goes into these things is incredible. If you’re the type of rider who enjoys using the newest and most advanced technology in the sport, you’ll appreciate riding a full suspension bike.
- Looks- Full suspension bikes look cool. Particularly when fitted with a coil shock. The thick, metal spring looks pretty rugged. You can match the spring color to your frame.
Full Suspension Mountain Bike Cons
- More expensive- On average, rear suspension adds about $800-$1200 to the price of a mountain bike. Suspension components are expensive. Mid-range full suspension bikes run around $2000-$2500. Generally, you should avoid full suspension mountain bikes that cost less than around $1500. The reason is that manufacturers must sacrifice the quality of the components and frame for the additional cost of the rear suspension system. You’ll end up with a bike that performs worse than a comparable hardtail because the components and frame are lower-end. You should also consider maintenance expenses when buying a full suspension bike. A rear shock service can cost $150 per year. Pivot bearings cost hundreds of dollars for some frames. You’ll need to replace these every year or two. Over the life of the bike, you may spend a couple of thousand dollars maintaining the rear suspension system.
- Full suspension mountain bikes are less efficient- The rear suspension tends to compress and rebound a bit as you pedal. This happens because your weight shifts back during every pedal stroke as you accelerate. The pedaling force also pushes the bottom bracket down. This motion causes the suspension to compress. At the end of the stroke, the shock rebounds. This causes an oscillating motion where the suspension is compressing and rebounding continuously as you pedal. This is called pedal bob. All full suspension frames suffer from some level of pedal bob. Every time you compress the suspension unnecessarily, you’re wasting energy that could be used to drive you forward. The energy is being converted into heat in the shock instead of forward motion. Some energy is also lost pivoting the frame. How much energy is lost to pedal bob depends on the frame design, how your suspension is set up, and the quality of your bike and suspension components. Modern shock absorbers greatly reduce pedal bob with anti-squat but they don’t eliminate it. In addition, full suspension bikes tend to be heavier than hardtails. It takes more energy to accelerate a heavier bike. For these reasons, full suspension mountain bikes are not ideal for long-distance riding like bikepacking, riding smooth trails, gravel riding, or climbing hills. They are just too inefficient. You’ll burn more energy and tire out faster. For downhill riding efficiency doesn’t really matter because gravity drives pulls you down the hill.
- More maintenance required- Full suspension mountain bikes have more parts. These parts all require periodic maintenance. The rear shock contains oil that lubricates the system. This needs to be topped up and replaced once in a while. The shock also contains a series of seals that keep dirt and debris out and keep the oil in. These need to be cleaned and replaced periodically as well. How often you need to perform maintenance on your shock depends on the type of shock, the brand, and how much you ride. Air suspension components require more frequent maintenance than coil suspension components. Most manufacturers recommend a complete shock overhaul after every 100-200 hours of riding or once per year. This involves a complete cleaning, changing the oil, and replacing the seals. You may need to perform some more basic maintenance every 25 hours of riding. This involves topping up the oil and some cleaning. Suspension frames require maintenance as well. There are bearings in the pivot points of the frame that wear out over time. There are also bushings that need to be replaced once in a while. You should also clean off your suspension components after every ride. This helps to prevent the oil, seals, and bearings from getting contaminated. Full suspension frames are more time-consuming to clean because there are small spaces where dirt can collect. The cables can also be a bit more difficult to replace due to the more complicated cable routing. You will spend more time and money on maintenance when you ride a full suspension bike.
- Full suspension mountain bikes are heavier- On average, a full suspension mountain bike weighs 2-4 lbs (0.9-1.8 kg) more than a hardtail. The rear shock absorber, bearings, bushings, and more complex frame design all add weight to the bike. A rear shock alone weighs around ½-1 pound. Coil suspension systems are heavier than air suspension systems. A heavier bike takes more energy to accelerate and climb with. It’s also a bit harder to maneuver and man-handle.
- Not ideal for beginners- Full suspension mountain bike allow you to ride sloppily, roughly, or lazily. This is possible because the bike can compensate for your mistakes or lack of skill. For example, line choice is less important with full suspension because the bike can absorb most of the bumps that you hit. You won’t learn how to choose the best line, use your legs for suspension, or ride as smoothly on a full suspension bike. This ends up slowing you down in the long run. It doesn’t matter as much how you take a corner with a full suspension bike because the bike offers better traction. This makes it harder to learn how to corner properly, maintain traction, or recover when your wheel slides out. You also won’t learn how to bunny hop without the assistance of suspension. These are all fundamental skills that you won’t learn as well when you start out riding a full suspension bike. You rob yourself of the opportunity to learn important skills. For these reasons, full suspension bikes aren’t ideal for beginners. In addition, full suspension bikes are too expensive for many beginners. Most people don’t want to spend thousands on a bike, not knowing whether or not they’ll use it.
- Less trail feedback- Because the suspension system absorbs most bumps, you can’t feel the texture of the trail as well when you ride a full suspension mountain bike. The handlebars and pedals remain relatively stable while the wheels bounce up and down under you independently. This can make you feel a bit disconnected from the trail. It’s more difficult to adjust your riding to the trail conditions when you can’t feel the texture of the trail under you. You may not be able to ride with as much precision. For this reason, some riders find it difficult to ride a full suspension mountain bike on tight, technical trails. For example, you might have to ride a bit slower through a tight canyon or on top of a narrow ridge.
- Less versatile- Full suspension mountain bikes are really only suitable for mountain biking. You won’t want to use your full suspension bike for other types of cycling. For example, you can’t easily load the bike up with camping gear and go bikepacking or bicycle touring because many full suspension can’t fit frame bags or racks and panniers. Because they are less efficient, you probably won’t want to use your full suspension bike for gravel riding, commuting, riding on the road, or riding long distances. You may need a second bike for these types of cycling.
- Fewer gearing options- Many modern full suspension frames are not compatible with front derailleurs. The reason is that the front derailleur got in the way and limited suspension designs. When 1x drivetrains became common, frame builders decided to eliminate the front derailleur. Of course, this limits you to only using 1x drivetrains. For most riders, this isn’t a problem. They would be using a 1x drivetrain anyway. Some riders prefer a 2x or 3x. 1x groupsets offer less gear range and larger steps between gears than 2x groupsets. They are also a bit less efficient. For more info, check out my 1x vs 2x drivetrain pros and cons list.
- Full suspension bikes are less durable- Because there are more moving parts, there are more parts that can fail. For example, your rear shock could get contaminated with debris, causing the oil or air to leak out. If this happens, the suspension will stop working. The pivot points in the frame could work their way loose over time. The frame bearings can wear out. If you don’t stay on top of maintenance, you can run into issues. You don’t have to worry about this with a hardtail. It is also possible to damage a shock by bottoming out too hard or frequently if it’s not set up correctly. Generally, full suspension bikes can’t handle as hard of impacts as hardtails.
- Harder to repair- If you neglect maintenance and your shock starts leaking oil or air, you can’t just fix it at home. You’ll need to take it to a professional for a rebuild. If your full suspension frame cracks, you may or may not be able to get it welded. Depending on where the crack formed and the frame material, a repair may interfere with the function of your suspension.
Another Option: Rigid Mountain Bikes with No Suspension
Both hardtail and full suspension mountain bikes feature fork suspension. These days, some cyclists are choosing to forgo suspension completely and ride with rigid frames and forks. This is popular among bikepackers and gravel riders.
The goal of eliminating suspension is to increase efficiency and reliability. A rigid frame and fork transfer power efficiently. No energy is lost compressing the suspension unnecessarily as you pedal. Without suspension, there are also fewer parts to maintain and repair. A rigid fork and frame require basically zero maintenance other than cleaning. As an added bonus, bikes without suspension are lighter as well.
To compensate for the lack of suspension, some riders mount wider, higher volume tires or use a suspension seat post. Plus-sized tires that measure 2.8-3”+ can greatly reduce vibrations and dampen shocks without the need for a shock absorber. Most fat bikes don’t have any suspension because the 4-5” wide high-volume tires do such a good job of absorbing shocks. A good carbon fiber or suspension seat post can soak up most small shocks and vibrations. If you spend most of your time riding easy trails or gravel roads, you may consider a mountain bike with no suspension at all.
Of course, there are drawbacks to not having any suspension. The ride is less comfortable. You can’t handle large jumps or drops. You’ll have to ride much slower on rough terrain. Traction and handling may not be quite as good either, depending on the tires you choose. There are compromises.
A Few Important Considerations when Buying Hardtail or Full Suspension Mountain Bike
Whether you go with a hardtail or full suspension mountain bike, there are a few considerations you’ll want to make before choosing a frame or shock. You can choose from multiple wheel sizes, suspension types, and frame designs. In this section, I’ll outline a few of the most important decisions you’ll have to make.
Wheel Size for Hardtail and Full Suspension Mountain Bikes
The wheel size plays a major role in efficiency, comfort, the way your bike rides, and the amount of suspension travel you’ll need. The most common wheel sizes for mountain bikes these days are 27.5” and 29”. 26” wheels were common in the past but have fallen out of style over the past decade or so. That said, 26” mountain bikes are still available.
Larger diameter 29” wheels allow the bike to roll over obstacles more easily without losing as much momentum. They also allow the bike to roll over larger obstacles. This is possible because larger diameter wheels have a lower angle of attack than smaller wheels. In other words, when you hit an obstacle like a rock or root, it will hit lower on the wheel. It takes less force for the larger wheel to roll over an obstacle when the angle of attack is lower. When you hit a bump or root with a 29” wheel, you won’t lose as much speed as you would if you were riding smaller 27.6” or 26” wheels. For more in-depth info, check out this article about bike wheel size and rollover.
Larger 29″ wheels also help to smooth out the ride. This is possible because a larger diameter wheel remains in contact with an obstacle longer. In other words, it hits the obstacle sooner and leaves it later. This gives the bike more time to react to an obstacle. In addition, larger wheels can’t sink as deep into dips and holes due to the larger diameter. This also helps to smooth out the ride.
Larger wheels can also offer better traction. This is possible because the contact patch between the tire and ground is slightly larger. This allows you to corner and accelerate harder and stop faster.
For these reasons, you can get away with less suspension travel if you use larger wheels. For example, if you normally ride smooth trails, you might be able to do without rear suspension if you choose a bike with 29” wheels instead of 27.5” or 26”. If you prefer smaller wheels, you might need an extra 10-20mm of suspension travel to achieve the same level of efficiency and comfort as a bike with 29” wheels.
Of course, there are areas where the smaller diameter 26” and 27.5” wheels outperform the larger 29” wheels. Smaller wheels are lighter because they contain less material. They also create less wind resistance because they have a smaller surface area facing the wind. This allows you accelerate faster. Smaller wheels can also turn faster. This can make the bike a bit more maneuverable.
For more in-depth info on different wheel sizes check out my guides:
Coil Vs Air Forks and Rear Shocks
Another decision you’ll have to make when choosing a mountain bike is whether you want to use coil or air suspension. Both suspension forks and rear shocks are available in coil and air options. Coil and air suspension each behave slightly differently.
Coil Suspension Pros
- More consistent performance- Heat buildup during long descents generally isn’t an issue. You won’t experience suspension fade.
- More supple feel- This allows for better traction because the suspension moves more easily at the beginning of its range. There is less stiction.
- Less frequent maintenance required- Most coil shocks and forks only need service once per year.
Coil Suspension Cons
- Heavier- The thick metal spring adds more weight than the compressed air used for suspension in an air shock.
- Adjustment is more involved- To change the spring rate, you’ll need to remove the coil completely to replace it with a heavier or lighter model.
- More likely to bottom out- Coil suspension operates linearly. In other words, the force required to compress the suspension increases at a constant rate through the suspension range. It takes less force to compress the suspension completely and bottom out.
Air Suspension Pros
- Lighter- Air shocks weigh around 500 grams less than coil shocks.
- Easier to adjust- You simply change the air pressure in the fork or shock with a suspension pump to change the spring rate. You don’t need to take anything apart.
- Less likely to bottom out- The suspension becomes harder to compress the further it travels. The suspension is progressive, not linear. This makes it harder to bottom out.
Air Suspension Cons
- Heat build-up can cause performance to fade- This happens during long descents. Heat build-up is caused by friction between the seals and suspension interior.
- Less compliant for small bumps- It takes more force for the suspension to begin actuating. This is caused by static friction created by the seals. This leads to a rougher ride.
- More frequent maintenance required- Many models require maintenance twice per year.
For a more in-depth analyses, check out my guides to air vs coil forks and air vs coil shocks.
Full Suspension Bike Frame Design
If, after reading this guide, you plan to go with a full suspension mountain bike, you’ll have a number of different frame design options to choose from. The best frame design depends on the type of mountain biking you do, whether you plan to use an air or coil shock, and your budget.
To optimize the bike for different types of mountain biking, manufactures can vary the location and number of pivot points on the frame as well as the type of shock (air or coil). Each suspension design has its own set of pros and cons.
Ideally, you want your rear suspension to absorb shocks and vibrations without being affected by pedaling and braking forces. Manufacturers achieve this by designing frames with anti-squat to resist pedal bob and anti rise to resist reduce shock extension caused by braking force. Suspension also needs some progression to resist bottoming out. Progression can be created through frame design or by using an air shock.
A few of the most common full suspension frame designs include:
- Single pivot suspension- This is the simplest frame design. There is one pivot point where the swingarm connects to the mainframe. This is usually just above the bottom bracket. The shock absorber connects between the mainframe and the swingarm. This design is simple and does a good job of absorbing large shocks. Single pivot suspension has a linear leverage curve. This makes it easier to bottom out. For this reason, single pivot suspension bikes pair best with air shocks, which provide some progression.
- Linkage driven single pivot suspension- With this design, a linkage connects the shock absorber to the swingarm. The other end of the shock connects to the mainframe. On most models with this design, the rear axle connects to the chainstays. The seat stays pivot where they meet the chainstays. The benefit of this design is that it offers some progression, making it harder to bottom out. This is possible thanks to the linkage. This design offers good bump absorption. The drawback is that linkage driven single pivot suspension tends to be inefficient.
- Horst Link (Four Bar) suspension- With this design, the rear axle connects to the seat stays. There is a pivot point on the chainstays, below the rear axle. There is another pivot point at the top of the seat stays. This way, the rear axle does not connect directly to the mainframe. The axle path changes as it moves through the suspension range. This design allows manufacturers to optimize the levels of anti-squat and anti-rise. This can improve braking performance and bump sensitivity. The drawback is that this design is pretty inefficient.
- Twin link (virtual pivot point) suspension- This design uses two small linkages to connect a solid rear triangle to the mainframe. The linkages can move in the same direction or in opposite directions depending on the design. This creates a ‘virtual pivot point’ that changes the axle’s path throughout the suspension range. When the linkages move in opposite directions, this design can offer anti-squat and anti-rise to reduce pedal bob and increase pedaling efficiency and braking performance. The drawback is that this design doesn’t absorb small bumps as well as other designs.
Another thing to keep in mind is that some full suspension designs are patented and some are not. This can greatly affect the price of the bike.
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Final Thoughts About Hardtail Vs Full Suspension Vs Mountain Bikes
The choice between a hardtail and full suspension bike mostly comes down to the type of terrain you plan to ride, your budget, and your level of skill. Full suspension mountain bikes are best for more experienced riders who spend their time riding rough trails with lots of rocks, roots, bumps, jumps, and drops.
Hardtail bikes are better for easier terrain and beginner riders. They are also ideal for those who can only afford one bike. If you’re on a tight budget, you’ll want to stick with hardtail bikes as well. Whichever type of mountain bike you choose, I hope this guide has helped you in making your decision.
Do you ride a hardtail or full suspension mountain bike? Share your experience in the comments below!
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