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 with all the complexity of pivots and shock

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.