How To Choose The Best Mountain Bike For Your Riding Style
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.
- Weight: Because a hardtail mountain bike doesn’t have a rear shock, nor any of the necessary pivots, bearings, and/or bushings needed to make a rear shock function properly, it’ll have a lower overall weight than a full-suspension bike (all other things being equal). This means that a hardtail bike will be able to climb more easily, as the rider will carry less weight uphill.
- Stiffness: Just like when it comes to a lower overall weight, a hardtail’s lack of a rear shock and additional hardware equates to a frame that will be laterally and torsionally stiffer. This means that the hardtail frame will be more efficient at pedaling because less of the rider’s energy will be lost to potential frame movement. This greater overall stiffness also adds to the hardtail’s distinction as a better climber than the full-suspension.
- Maintenance: Because a hardtail frame is a simpler design than its full-suspension cousin, there is considerably less maintenance required. There is no rear shock to be adjusted for rider weight and/or terrain conditions, and there are no pivot points are may need service.
- Cost: Anyone looking to buy a new bike will undoubtedly factor in the bike’s cost into their purchasing decision. Because of its less complex design that doesn’t factor in a rear shock, as well as the more complex design and construction challenges to accommodate all of the pivot points associated with said rear shock, a hardtail bike will be less expensive than a full-suspension bike (all other factors like frame material and components being equal).
- Comfort: Because a full-suspension bike has both a suspension fork and a rear shock, the bike will be more comfortable than a comparably equipped hardtail bike. This is because the rear suspension will aid in isolating the rider’s primary contact points (saddle, pedals, handlebar) from excess bumps, rocks, and ruts in the terrain. In both trail riding and racing scenarios, this added comfort can lead to reduced rider fatigued over the length of a pedaling session.
- Traction & Handling: This is where a full-suspension bike truly sets itself apart from its hardtail counterpart, and is the primary reason why many trail riders and XC racers alike will choose a full-suspension bike. With both front and rear suspension working in tandem, a full-suspension bike will have better traction because both wheels are able to remain in contact with the ground more consistently. This means that the rider will have better steering response, more immediate braking, and better overall control, particularly on rougher sections of trail or track.
- Speed When It Counts: The aforementioned traction and handling chops that a full-suspension bike possesses mean that on certain racecourses, a full-suspension bike will be faster than a hardtail bike, despite being heavier with slightly less efficient pedaling. While the full-suspension will lose a little time on the climbs, it will more than make up for it on the descents. The complete suspension system’s better handling will enable a rider to descend more smoothly with greater control and reduced fatigued, meaning that the rider can carry more speed downhill and get to the bottom more quickly. On a racecourse with particularly treacherous descents, the difference in suspension could make for massive gains in overall speed and lap times throughout the duration of the race.
- Variety: There are countless more full-suspension mountain bike models available than there are hardtail versions. The full-suspension platform allows for a wider variety of bikes to tackle different types of terrain and different levels of technicality. If you're looking for a fast full-suspension bike for racing or smooth trails, check out a full-suspension XC bike. For the gnarliest and roughest trails, get yourself an enduro mountain bike. And if you're looking for the best all-rounder that will perform well in all conditions, including climbing and descending, check out a trail bike.
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.
SO, WHICH BIKE IS BEST?
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.”
BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE
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.
- You enjoy climbing and want to put all your efforts into uphill speed
- You prefer the timeless experience of a rigid frame
- You relish carefully picking the perfect line on each descent
Full-Suspension, XC Bike—Buy It If:
- You prefer descending
- You want the most traction and control possible
- Your local trails or racecourses are a bit rougher than average
- You want an all-around bike that can do it all
You want great traction and descending capability
- Your local trails feature mixed terrain and surfaces
- You want a bike for the roughest terrain and fastest descents
- You want the best traction and the plushest ride for handling huge hits
- Your local trails have more downhill than uphill