Mountain bikes have come a long way (in some cases literally) since the first mass-produced MTBs appeared in the early 80s. Today there are many different styles of riding and competitive disciplines within mountain biking, and many different varieties of bike tailored for each of these specialisms.
However, all of these wildly different bikes belong to one of three classes, according to the amount of suspension they have. They’re either rigid, hardtail or full suspension.
Rigid is a term that applies equally well to almost all road bikes as well as many hybrids. The simple definition is that a rigid bike has no suspension. As we’ll see, that’s a little too simple, but then there’s really no such thing as a completely rigid bike.
The most rigid bikes out there are track bikes, intended purely for riding on smooth banked ovals. If you rode a track bike for a few minutes and then swapped to a ‘rigid’ mountain bike you’d immediately feel the difference; the ride is much softer (and also more stable). This is very largely due to the bigger, fatter tyres, carrying much lower pressure, but it’s also due to a small degree of flexibility or resilience in the bike frame and forks. There’s also some resilience in the spokes of the wheels.
Hardtail is another term that is almost self explanatory. Hardtails have suspension for the front wheel only. The simplest form of suspension fork uses coil springs, concealed within the fork legs, but other forks use air ‘springs’.
Full suspension bikes
Full suspension bikes (‘full-sussers’), as you’d expect, have suspension for both wheels. The suspension forks are essentially the same as on a hardtail but there are a variety of designs for the rear suspension. It’s hardly surprising that rear suspension is more complicated as the rear wheel is also the driving wheel. The different types of rear suspension deserve an article (or several!) to themselves.
Which One is Better?
There is a tendency among novice mountain bikers to think that a hardtail must be ‘better’ than a rigid bike and a full-susser must be ‘better’ than a hardtail. In fact it’s nowhere near that simple.
- First, if you have a fixed budget, then you’ll face a choice between a well-specced bike in one class and a less-well-equipped bike in the next class. For instance, at a thousand dollars (or euros) you could be looking at a very decent hardtail or a bargain-basement full-susser. In nearly every case it’s better to go for the solid specification and performance of the hardtail rather than the bling of the full-susser.
- Second, for some types of riding, even a top-flight full-susser isn’t necessarily the best choice. If you want to go up hills as well as down, a hardtail or a rigid bike will out-perform even the best full-susser on the climbs, both because it’s lighter and because it has a stiffer rear end. Cross-country (XC) racers often prefer hardtails because races are usually won and lost on the hills, and hardtails are also better for acceleration and sprinting.
- Finally, if you’re new to mountain biking, a hardtail or rigid bike will make sure you develop trail skills from the beginning. On moderately technical trails a full-susser can be flattering to ride but if you don’t learn the skills it can only take you so far.
Putting all this together, unless you are absolutely sure from the start that you only want to ride downhill, the sensible choice for a first mountain bike has to be a hardtail. A good hardtail is an incredibly versatile machine and – most important of all – you can have masses of fun on it.