Hard Tail vs Full Suspension

by writerbob on January 26, 2012

Can’t decide if you want a hard tail or full suspension? I have been rotating back and forth between my hard tail and full suspension bike lately. I enjoy riding both and have been pondering the phrase “pedals like a hard tail”. The inference and conventional wisdom is that hard tails pedal more efficiently than full suspension bikes, and, therefore, the best. It seems pretty intuitive that, yes, a hard tail is more efficient – nothing moving besides the drive train. That said, rather than debating the relative pedaling efficiency of hard tails vs full suspension, I think “rides like a hard tail” is more a more useful way of looking at things when comparing the the two types of bikes.

full suspension Hard Tail vs Full Suspension

Full suspension with all the complexity of pivots and shock

hard tail Hard Tail vs Full Suspension

The elegant simplicity of a hard tail

Why do I say “rides like a hard tail” is more useful? As far efficiency goes, I honestly wonder if the average rider will notice any downside to riding a quality full suspension bike – by quality I mean a bike in the general league of full suspension bikes most major manufacturers list for more than $2,000. I guess there are two caveats to this statement.

First, it has to be set up correctly. If sag, rebound, etc are not at least in the ballpark, all bets are off on how it will perform. Second, is that I am not fortunate enough to live where there are the types of long, steep, smooth climbs where I alternate between pedaling out out of the saddle and spinning at a high cadence while seated. When I have slogged up a hill for an hour straight, I confess, I have resented even the thought of any energy being wasted by the suspension moving around due to pedaling forces. But really, it’s not like climbing for an hour is fun – no matter what you are riding. (I have also felt like locking out the front shock had more impact on long climbs – but that’s another article.)

So, back to the idea of riding like a hard tail. Compared to riding a full suspension bike, riding a hard tail is a much more active experience – you stand to absorb impacts and you choose your line more carefully to keep the back end from bouncing around too much and popping you off the seat. You are much more in touch with every nuance of the trail. On the full suspension, you probably do those same things, but to a lesser degree. You are more likely to just choose a line and let the suspension do its thing while you stay seated, which can save some abuse on the body. This ability to just point it down and go fast with full suspension definitely adds to the grin factor on the downhills.

I suppose one way to look at it is that, since the level of engagement required on the hard tail is greater, spending time on a hard tail probably makes you a sharper rider, and, therefore, a better rider. Alternately, riding smoother and feeling less beat up means you’ll ride longer and more, which makes you a better rider.

Keeping all components equal, hard tails are cheaper and lighter, since they lack things like linkages and rear shocks. A Specialized Stumpjumper Comp Carbon hard tail is $900 cheaper than a Specialized Camber Comp Carbon with largely the same component kit and weighs several pounds less. A lighter bike can have snappier handling and feel quicker. Lighter bikes are great and handle a bit differently, but see Death of a Weight Weenie on why I am not hung up on the weight issue more. Plus, with $900 in your pocket, you could put the extra money towards a higher component spec, snazzy outfits and a decent biking trip.

So, is there a winner in this discussion? For me, as in most of life, there is no clear cut, one size fits all answer. If I could only have one bike, but had a good sized budget, full suspension is my choice. On a rough, rooty trail, my achy back says yes, and, on a big old downhill, the grin on my face leaves little question that the extra money is worth it. Start bringing more variables into the equation, and the decision is less clear. It really depends on how and what you ride and how deep your wallet is. On a smoother trails with a limited budget, the racy, active feel of a hard tail would be nothing to complain about – racy with money in your pocket might just be something to cheer about.

Bottom line is you can have a ton of fun on both on any type of trail. Just don’t feel like you need to choose based on perceived efficiency – choose based on how you want to ride and what best fits your budget. Of course, if you can swing both, then you can set the bikes up differently and choose which one to ride based on your mood.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Randy Bell July 12, 2012 at 5:55 am

great well written article. answered questions for novice trail rider. easy for me to read and understand

David Nicholl August 22, 2012 at 2:34 pm

Excellent article. One additional consideration you did not specifically mention: maintenance/longevity. How many 10 year old full suspension bikes do you see on the trail? (Maybe a little bit misleading, but you get the point).

FatBob August 23, 2012 at 1:26 pm

David, good point. realistically this should be high up in the buying process and a definite down side to all these new standards. most of us buy a bike with multiple seasons in mind. It is really hard to beat the longevity of a hard tail.

Certain brand suspension bikes are still ticking after a decade of riding . One nice thing about full suspension is that you should be able to replace what ever part of the linkage gets damaged. An Aluminium hard tail repairing is an expensive process if not a throw away item. Under the right rider with the right company behind it full suspension has its pluses even in longevity. No matter what though a hard tail with no pivots or rear shocks is extremely reliable.

Kyle Gusek February 9, 2013 at 9:39 pm

Very well written and to the point. I’ve been riding full suspension for years, but always regret the choice on some of the steeper climbs. It looks as though I’ll be looking into a hard tail for everyday/trail use, and start looking into some full suspension models once I start getting into downhill a bit more.

Carlos Montes February 13, 2013 at 7:51 am

Made up my mind. Thanks a lot!

el chango peludo May 1, 2013 at 10:43 pm

Bien!,, gracias,,, i made up my mind, Hardtail….

Bone June 15, 2013 at 10:46 pm

Very nice. I ride a hardtail 29er on some wild terrain here in Montana but I pay the price also. I like to ride hard which means Im gonna fall hard. With climbing being my week point the hardtail sure helps when I have several thousand feet of climbing in front of me but it also forces my riding ability to take over on the descents. Upgrading to fatter tires and putting a seat dropper (Two musts if you wanna ride downhills most would think is out of a hardtails capabilities) on has made a huge difference on my downhill riding but again compensating some weight.

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