If you’re in the market for a mountain bike and not sure what to get, you’ve found the right place. Finding the right one for you can be a daunting task. Between frames, components and accessories, pricing can skyrocket to a point where you wonder if it’s even worth the investment. Bottom line: Whether you’re riding a hardtail or full suspension, they’re both ultimately designed for one thing: FUN!
So, don’t stress out too much. Below we’ll go over some of the key features of each, why they’re different and why you may want to consider one over the other.
Naturally, you may have a price point already in mind. This is a great place to start – but we’ll try to go over the possible price pitfalls when it comes to a few key areas of both bikes; i.e. frame material and geometry, front and rear suspension, and components. The fact of the matter is, full suspension bikes are not cheap – and you can thank the rear suspension system for that. It’s a double-edged sword that many bike brands try to work around by offering full suspension bike platforms with cheaper components; that may or may not be a big deal to you. After all, you can always upgrade your components – but this can be even more daunting than your original task of researching the type of bike you want to buy in the first place.
The first questions you want to ask yourself is: “What type of riding do I want to do?” and “What type of terrain is out there for me to ride?”
If you’re out in the flat lands, with no downhill options, then a hardtail it is! If you literally live on top of a mountain with nothing but rocks and roots to roll over – then I see a full suspension mountain bike in your future. Odds are, however, that you have a nice mixture of both – or at least can get to a place that’s been specifically designed to accommodate mountain bike riding.
Hardtail VS Full Suspension
The most obvious advantage of a hardtail is stiffness and power transfer. Although rear suspension systems are improving, with lockout systems to help reduce the amount of travel in the rear, they’re still no comparison to a hardtail when it comes to climbing uphill or even just pedaling on the straightaways. If you’re not riding a hardtail, be prepared to bob up and down at a snail’s pace. At first, this may seem somewhat insignificant compared to the comfort advantages of a dual suspension system, but if you spend a day riding the trails and then need to trek additional miles back home, that extra power can really make a difference.
The disadvantages of a hardtail, you don’t get the squish. If the terrain you’re navigating is rough, be prepared for it to get a little bumpy, even with the benefit of a suspension front fork. Although the suspension fork will help, especially if you have sufficient travel, you’re still compromised with a stiff ride in the rear. This can be OK for a while, but after a few hours, you may start to feel a bit fatigued from all the bumpy chatter.
When you ride a full suspension mountain bike, you’re paying for squish. That’s the beauty of its unique pivot system. In combination with a suspension fork, this bike will give you confidence you never knew existed. You may encounter downhill mountain trails riddled with treacherous obstacles, like jagged, pointy rock gardens and gnarled roots and ridges. Without this plush suspension system, you’d find yourself slowing down more often and taking the safest passage – or possibly getting off the bike all together (Better safe than sorry). With the full suspension, however, you won’t think twice about plowing through nature’s rock gardens – you’ll do it without hesitation and you’ll relish in every subsequent opportunity.
The downside to full suspension is what we talked about earlier. For the added squish, you sacrifice climbing/pedaling efficiency. You’re going to lose some power and this will slow things down a bit – but it’s certainly not as fatiguing as riding a hardtail through a bunch of rock gardens for four or five hours. In addition to pedaling efficiency, the rear suspension will also require routine maintenance. For those of us who like a no fuss ride, this may not be too appealing, but for others, the benefits will far outweigh the disadvantages.
Frame material has obvious weight differences, special purposes and price points. If you’re interested in things like bikepacking and off-the-beaten-path bike touring – then a steel hardtail might be your best option. A steel frame is just about bomb proof and offers plenty of stability and comfort over long miles. The Marin Pine Mountain is an excellent choice for this type of ride. However, while steel is real – it’s also on the heavy side.
Aluminum frames provide an optimal balance of lightweight and durability. And, they can be found at a price point that’s appealing to most buyers. This usually means you can often get an awesome frame plus killer component to along with it – all without emptying your bank account. You really can’t go wrong with an aluminum frame for both hardtail or full suspension – because the material is relatively light, you’re going to get a nimble ride that’s fun and fast with plenty of opportunities to get some air. For full suspension, the Marin Hawk Hill is one of our bestsellers – for hardtails, the new Fuji Tahoe 1.5 is one of our top picks.
Carbon frames on mountain bikes are more and more common these days. These bikes are designed for the professional and/or race inspired rider looking for absolute speed and agility. Great for any XC racing – but also being used in Downhill and Enduro riding as well. Although it may not be the material of choice for the everyday rider – it still has the benefit of being the lightest frame on the market. The Marin Wolf Ridge is a full carbon frame with a totally unique suspension system designed to improve pedaling efficiency. And if you’re looking for a full carbon hardtail, the Breezer Cloud 9 is an awesome choice.
Due to the level of detail, in addition to wheelsets and tires, suspension forks deserve their own special attention that go beyond the scope this article. For sake of brevity, we want to give you the down and dirty details. If you look for one thing and one thing only, while there are other factors involved, (like chassis build and axle width for stiffness) the take away here is a focus on travel. Travel is the distance (measured in millimeters) the suspension fork can compress under pressure. The type of riding you plan on doing will coincide with the amount of travel you’ll want in the fork. Many recreational mountain bikes will have a standard 100mm of travel. Although this is certainly better than riding with a rigid fork, for more aggressive riding you’ll want to consider something more substantial – somewhere between 120mm to 180mm. Even upgrading from 100mm to a 120mm suspension can make a huge difference! However, you will also see this represented in the price point as well. Although suspension forks aren’t cheap, it does pay off in the long run to have to have a quality fork on your bike.
Cranksets, cassettes, derailleurs and shifters – this is where you’ll see the biggest price jump. Mid-range components like Shimano Deore and SRAM NX are both great, reliable choices that can be found on many top-notch quality bikes. If you’re stuck with a fixed budget, you can always upgrade your components – but sometimes, if you don’t happen to be a bike mechanic, scrimping on your components can put you off the bike all together. So, it might pay to wait awhile until you can afford a bike with good, reliable components.
Wheels & Tires
Like suspension forks, wheels and tires are a whole separate conversation all together. In addition to in-depth details – there’s also a general, on-going debate, often provoked by passionate riders dedicated to a specific type of wheel size and tire combo. But, it essentially boils down to preference when you get right down to it.
Although we’ve recently seen the wider 27.5+ grow in popularity, 27.5″ and 29″wheel sizes are the two most popular options on the market. Both ride a little bit differently and have their advantages and disadvantages. So, in addition to everything we’ve discussed above, you now have the added complication of choosing your wheel size. If you have the opportunity, I would highly recommend taking each one for a test ride. You can always hop on down to your nearest Performance Bicycle to do this. Knowing how each bike feels when you ride it will make your decision a whole lot easier.
However, with that said, here’s the basic difference between the two: 27.5″ wheels are lighter, accelerate better, and are more maneuverable in tight, technical terrain. 29er wheels roll faster and provide more straight-line speed, plus make it easier to roll over objects.
We hope this article helps you in your search for a new mountain bike. Although there’s a lot to consider, if you first examine what type of riding you want to do and break down all the best possible options to fit your central price point – you should be able to ride off into the sunset with a bike matched specifically to suit your needs.
If you have any additional questions, feel free to leave us a comment below – we’d love to hear from you!