Judging by advertisements in the bike media and the stream of edits on Vimeo and YouTube, you’d be forgiven for thinking that if you’re in the market for a new mountain bike the only true option is a full-suspension model. Indeed, as suspension designs and shocks have improved and weights have dropped, more and more riders have gravitated to full-squish machines. But, having cut my teeth in cycling long before suspension existed, then been wooed by the comfort and capability of dual suspension, I’ve recently gravitated back to a trusty hard tail. Here’s why.
It’s true that bike suspensions have improved, but it’s also true that the added complication means more upkeep, with manufacturers recommending shock service as often as every 30 hours of riding. And the addition of suspension to a bike, as with all moving parts, introduces a host of bushings, bearings, and seals that are susceptible to breaking or wearing out. A hard tail, on the other hand, lets you ride more and worry less over maintenance and repairs.
2. HARD TAILS ARE LIGHTER
The main reason that hard-tail mountain bikes dominated the cross-country racing season for decades is because of their weight advantage. Even the shortest-travel full-suspension mountain bikes are 15 to 20 percent heavier than comparable hard tails, and less weight means more speed and faster times. And it’s not only about racing: A lighter bike feels quicker and more maneuverable, and in mountainous terrain with lots over vertical, pushing around less weight often makes riding more fun. Hardtails sometimes are an advantage on technical features, too, where a few less pounds can mean the difference between getting up and over an obstacle cleanly or getting off and walking. Low weight isn’t everything—fatter tire treads weigh more but deliver added traction and cushion, for instance—but often, the lightweight of a hard tail can deliver a more entertaining and easier-feeling ride.
3. THEY COST LESS
There’s no debating that bikes have become incredibly expensive, but one way to save a heap of cash is to skip the suspension. In general, a hard tail will costs between 20 and 50 percent less than a comparably equipped full-suspension model. And even if you plan to spend a lot of money, say $6,000 on a top-of-the-line M.1, that cash buys far nicer components and wheels than you’d get on a similarly priced full-suspension bike, meaning your investment will likely last longer and required less maintenance and replacement parts.
4. IT’S ALL YOU NEED IN MANY PLACES
In the same way that a one-ton pickup would be ridiculous for commuting in New York City and snow tires would be useless in Florida, full-suspension is often just overkill. Generally speaking, the point of a rear shock is to smooth out rough trails and add capability and ease on steep and precipitous obstacles. But in many places, even popular riding destinations such as Bend, Oregon, Santa Cruz, California, and Sun Valley, Idaho, the single track is often buffed out and flowing, making lots of travel unnecessary. And even if you live somewhere with some chunk and chunder, consider your riding preferences because if you gravitate to faster and smoother terrain, you still might be better off on a hard tail.
5. IMPROVED DESIGNS
It used to be that choosing a hard tail meant you were picking a bike with stretched-out geometry and nervous steering. But in the last few years, the trend in hard tails is toward slacker head angles, longer forks, and lower bottom brackets, all of which improve confidence and handling. Tire clearances on hard tails have increased, too, and 2.4-inch tires instead of 2.0s or 2.1s is the difference between a plush ride and a harsh one. That means that you can get much of the comfort and capability advantages full suspension without the added weight and complexity.
A high-quality hard tail is great for technical trail riding and racing, but it’s also a more all-purpose option than a full-suspension model. If you plan to do any bikepacking, for instance, the main triangle that’s unimpeded by a shock provides better cargo space, and the lack of sag in the rear makes it possible to run a bigger seat bag without rubbing your rear tire. The rigid frame design also allows for easier addition of racks and fenders, meaning had tails make far better crossover commuters. And if you ever have to leave your bike locked up in an urban setting, a simple-looking hard tail is less likely to attract the attention of would-be thieves than a flashy full-suspension model.
Look, a high-quality dual-suspension mountain bike is a solid choice for certain uses and places, especially extremely rough and technical riding. However, it’s important to think carefully about your needs, preferred terrain, budget, and riding style. In many cases, perhaps even most, a hard tail will deliver a better riding experience for much less fuss and cost.