There's a lot of smoke and mirrors in mountain biking. The available mountain bike styles are nearly as diverse as all other styles of bicycles combined, and the logic as to what setup performs best is really a personal preference. When it comes down to a hardtail mountain bike and a full suspension one, each has its pros and cons. Understanding the characteristics of each frame can help you decide which is better suited for your specific style of riding. Choose the one that fits you like your favorite jeans -- and head for the trails in confidence.
Hardtail Mountain Bikes
A hardtail mountain bike is one with a solid frame made from steel, carbon fiber, aluminum, or titanium -- and usually features a front fork with hydraulic suspension. These bikes can run with derailleurs for changing gears or with single speed gearing to reduce the need for maintenance on the trail.
Full Suspension Mountain Bikes
A full suspension mountain bike features a hydraulic front fork and a second set of hydraulics beneath the seat post. The frame consists of two pieces joined by pivots, which allow the sections to move independently with shock absorbers controlling the rate of that movement. These frames are available in the same materials as hardtails, but are slightly heavier because of the additional hardware of the rear shock. Full suspension bikes are typically run with a rear derailleur for gear changing.
Pros and Cons of Each Bike
A hardtail bike offers an extremely responsive ride. They are often considered faster than full suspension bikes because they transfer power to the back wheel more efficiently. On non-technical surfaces, this results in better acceleration and makes it easier to sustain higher speeds. However, hardtail bikes take the bumps of the trail harder and are less comfortable than full suspension bikes, which provide a smoother ride if you're hitting a rough terrain. The comfort of a full suspension bike can translate to better riding over longer courses, making it a good choice for long-distance riding. Hardtail bikes are typically less expensive than an equivalent full suspension frame, since the hinged frame and shock absorber both add to the cost.
Choosing a Hardtail versus Full Suspension
Choosing a hardtail or a full suspension depends on your skill as a rider and your intended purpose. Because the hardtail is more responsive, more difficult to control, and less prone to mechanical failure, riders who need a very precise bike for short courses or sprints typically favor it. These riders compensate for the difficult handling with high levels of skill and experience. If you're new to mountain biking, you might opt for a hardtail to save money. A full suspension bike might cost more to maintain over the long term as well, since there are more parts to service. Just keep in mind that a full suspension bike tackles more difficult terrain without sacrificing comfort -- and will usually be easier to control for newbies. Both bikes have advantages and disadvantages, making them both popular in their own circles of like-minded riders.
Max Roman Dilthey is a science, health and culture writer currently pursuing a master's of sustainability science. Based in Massachusetts, he blogs about cycling at MaxTheCyclist.com.