Full-suspension bikes were introduced to the mass-market in the early 1990s. As technology progressed through the decade, the bikes became lighter, more affordable and more common on trails. The hardtail, or front-suspension only, mountain bike was not deemed obsolete, though, as this style of mountain bike still has its advantages. The differences between hardtail and full-suspension mountain bikes are numerous, although technology has narrowed the divide. Riding style and cost are the two biggest factors that dictate which is the most sensible mountain bike for you.
Handling and Traction
Hardtail mountain bikes have front suspension that helps fight arm fatigue and absorb front-wheel impacts, but the rear wheel is still attached to a rigid frame, providing no cushion from obstacles. Riders who frequent rough terrain may notice that jagged rocks or logs cause their rear wheel to change tracts and lose traction. This problem is reduced on full-suspension mountain bikes since the suspension system allows the rear-wheel to follow an arc into the suspension travel, keeping the wheel in contact with the ground. Skilled riders are able to use the suspension system to aid in cornering, by applying pressure to the rear shock in corners and letting the rebound push them out of the corner.
Full-suspension mountain bikes inherently weigh more than a comparably constructed hardtail bike because of the extra shock and linkages, bushings and pivots associated with full-suspension bikes. The weight difference between a hardtail, or rigid frame, and full-suspension is not as significant as it was during the 1990s. The same full-suspension that provides cushion from impacts also causes bobbing during hard pedaling, such as up hills. This pedal-bob limits pedaling efficiency, but a lock-out control that freezes the shock can eliminate the issue.
Though both types of bikes require regular maintenance. A full-suspension mountain bikes also requires routine maintenance to the rear shock, as well as to the bushings and linkages that compose the suspension system. A single-pivot full-suspension design helps limit the maintenance schedule of bushings and linkages since it only has one moving pivot in its design.
Hardtail bikes are suited toward cross-country racers looking for a lightweight and efficient steed and for casual riders who tackle less technical terrain. Full-suspension bikes are also used by cross-country racers but often cost significantly more to keep them in the weight range desired for cross-country racing. Full-suspension bikes allows riders to handle more technical terrain, and specific models, with suspension travel over 6 inches, allow racers to handle free-ride and downhill-specific trails.
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