Whether you’re a seasoned veteran of cross-country (“XC”) mountain bike racing or you’re looking to try your hand at your very first off-road race, or perhaps you just want to start riding your local trails, your primary concern will undoubtedly be choosing the best bike. There’s no single greater point of differentiation when it comes to mountain bikes than the topic of rear suspension. So that’s what we’re going to take a look at, and how it affects the design, ride quality, and performance of different types of mountain bikes. Should you choose a full-suspension bike with both a suspension fork and a rear shock, or a hardtail with only a suspension fork? It’s a debate that’s raged in the mountain bike world for several decades now, and not just when it comes to XC racing. Many trail riders who don’t spend any time on a racecourse opt for either one or the other, which each type of bike offering a unique riding experience. When seeking some insight into whether a hardtail or full-suspension bike is better for racing, one of the best ways to start looking is to check out what your favorite pros ride.
THE PRO PERSPECTIVE
When it comes to professional racing, fans typically see pro riders pull up to the pits at a race with several different bike options available. This is certainly true at the Elite level, with most of the top pros being given a stable of bikes from which to choose, depending on the day’s course conditions. Indeed, most professional racers will tell you that they’ll decide on the day of a race which bike they’ll ride, and it often comes down to a simple notion: for smoother racecourses, opt for the hardtail, and for rougher racecourses, jump on your full-suspension rig.
Pro mountain biker Savilia Blunk bases her bike choice on racecourse conditions. Photo: Above Four
“For me, it usually depends on how technically demanding the course is,” says Sho-Air TWENTY20 pro rider Savilia Blunk. “With the full-suspension, you obviously have more suspension, which gives you less fatigue over the course of a race. But the hardtail can also be quite nimble on the climbs. Usually with courses with a lot of natural technical features, like rocks and roots, I’ll choose the full-suspension. But on more of a climber’s style course with smoother terrain, I’ll for for the hardtail.”
Pro racers have the luxury of choice, however, and most amateurs don’t want to splash down the cash for two different bikes for XC racing. So if you could have only one, which is best for you? And if you're not planning on racing, you still need to know about the unique characteristics of hardtail and full-suspension mountain bikes. Let’s break down the differences.
The hardtail mountain bike is a timeless design, and it’s what helped proliferate the sport from the antics of small pockets of ragtag cycling rebels into the worldwide phenomenon we know and love today. A hardtail bike has a rigid frame, meaning that there are no suspension components. But the typical hardtail bike will be mated to a suspension fork, meaning that the front end of the bike has some vertical travel to soak up the bumps, ruts, and big hits that a rider will encounter on the trail or racecourse. A full-suspension bike is nearly identical to a hardtail bike, save for one major difference: In addition to a suspension fork, the full-suspension bike also has a rear shock, along with pivot points in key areas of the frame, in order for the bike’s rear-end to travel up and down to further isolate the rider from rock, roots, and other rough spots on the trail or racecourse.
It should be noted that in addition to hardtail and full-suspension designs, there also exists a third, albeit far less popular, option. A relatively small subset of riders opt for a “full-rigid” bike, meaning that both the frame and the fork have zero suspension whatsoever. The vast majority of riders will want to choose a mountain bike with at least a suspension fork. Today’s bike and component manufacturers are adept at creating suspension fork-equipped bikes that offer a fun, stable, and plush ride, all at relatively low price points. Indeed, full-rigid riders opt for their suspension-less steeds not because of a lack of funds, but to satiate a desire for a truly unique riding experience. Because most riders, if they could choose only one bike, will settle on either a hardtail or full-suspension bike, we’ll be focusing the rest of this article on those two types of bikes.
As we mentioned, rear suspension is the single most significant differentiator when it comes to the mountain biking experience. But it’s by no means the only differentiator. When seeking a new bike, it’s also important to consider things like frame material. The two most common materials are aluminum and carbon fiber, with the former yielding a lower price point, and the latter producing a lighter, stiffer, and more more efficient pedaling bike. Wheel size is also a major consideration. While we’re big fans of 29-inch hoops for both XC racing and trail riding, many riders prefer the lighter steering feel of 27.5-inch wheels for all types of racing and riding. There are dozens of great bikes out there, and most will have small variances in suspension travel, as well as fork and rear shock types, so be sure to seek out a bike with components that will suit your riding style and racing goals. Finally, in the immortal words of Robert Duvall in the seminal racing flick Days Of Thunder, “Tires is what wins a race (sic).” A good tire with an appropriate width, tread pattern, and compound can be the difference maker between a podium position and an also-ran result, or even the difference between an epic ride and a boring one. So always be sure to seek out the best tire for your particular racecourse and conditions.
Well, that all depends. How’s that for a non-answer?! But really, consider those pro racers again. By and large, they choose between their hardtail and full-suspension bikes on the day of the race, depending on how rough the terrain is and whether or not any potential wet weather has transformed the course from dry and dusty to wet and muddy. That’s the best recommendation we can make: Consider your own local racecourse or the trails on which you most often ride. If they’re more commonly smooth and fast, we recommend the hardtail. If they’re rougher and more technical, get yourself a full-suspension bike. But also remember that, all other things being equal, a full-suspension bike will give you more versatility and to explore more technical trails during training or casual rides.
“The full-suspension bike gives you the opportunity to ride a wider spectrum of terrain,” says Sho-Air TWENTY20 pro rider Savilia Blunk. “And I think the full-suspension is more comfortable for beginner riders, and also makes handling easier on rough trails, so it can give riders more confidence.”
Remember, no matter what type of cycling you’re into, it’s all about having fun. Whether your version of fun is pinning a number to your jersey and throwing down all of your watts in an XC race, or exploring new trails with your buddies, get yourself a bike that will give you the most amount of your preferred type of fun. And don’t forget, the terrain isn’t the only factor that goes into how you’ll experience fun on the bike. Also consider your riding style. Some folks have more fun when they’re engaging more with the trail by focusing on picking out the smoothest or fastest line. Those types of riders often relish in the feel of a hardtail bike. Others want to rip through ruts and fly over rocks and tree roots as quickly as possible, and they’ll most likely find more enjoyment in a full-suspension bike.
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