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On the several occasions I've gone mountain biking, I was using a nice borrowed bike with full suspension and it felt nice.

I'm told that rear suspension, though nice, is not necessarily a must-have. I have notions of the bike seat bludgeoning the ol' undercarriage without it. What is the ride like without rear suspension, what do I lose? And are there any suitable substitutes or ways to compensate for the lack of rear suspension?

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FWIW people were mountain biking for years before suspension was even a thing. They didn't have bulletproof undercarriages or exorbitant hospital bills, either. –  WTHarper Jul 19 '13 at 19:52
    
@WTHarper: People were also building castles with steel and stone by hand ages ago. Your point? –  cherouvim Jul 19 '13 at 23:44
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@cherouvim Do you live in a carbon-fiber house? The questioner was worried about injury without suspension and I thought my comment pertinent. Suspension is nice, but anybody can do without. If one can't coexist with the idea of riding off road without full suspension, they're missing out. –  WTHarper Jul 20 '13 at 0:02
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Fun is when you are at 40mph+ down a fire road on an 1.95 tire XC hardtail, and suddenly an eroded rock garden appears around the corner and you think "OMG, I'm dead"... And you manage to float inside it somehow and emerge ALIVE at the other side... Now THAT is fun! –  heltonbiker Jul 20 '13 at 2:09
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My only trip to the Orthopedic Surgeon was a prang on a soft tail, yet 70% of my MTBing has been riding hard tails. –  mattnz Jul 20 '13 at 22:40
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5 Answers 5

Am I going to get injured mountain biking if I don't have rear suspension?

If you like going fast and flowy on very rough terrain then your knees will have a lot of work to do. Feet and knees will get more tired. Whether they are injured depends on how long you'll keep pushing in that situation. Regarding injuries from falls, you'll fall more (than having a full susp.) only if you don't slow down a bit in order to compensate for the nervousness and instability of the hardtail when going fast in rough terrain.

What is the ride like without rear suspension?

Rougher, slower, more technical, more dangerous, more rear snake bites (tyre punctures). For some people this means more fun.

what do I lose?

The bike is more accurate and immediate because it transmits everything on you and translates all your movements into action. It doesn't forgive errors. So you are no longer able to easily go fast and safe. Thus you need to go a bit slower in order to be safe.

And are there any suitable substitutes or ways to compensate for the lack of rear suspension?

Yes, your knees. In order to ride comparably to a full suspension you need to be more skilled on the bike. A lot of people with full suspension bikes who are serious about their riding also ride hardtails in order to gain that skill.

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-1: A few good bits, but overall an inaccurate summary with no consideration for rider skill, trails ridden and budget for bike. –  mattnz Jul 20 '13 at 2:08
    
@mattnz: Did the OP mention anything about budget? –  cherouvim Jul 20 '13 at 5:59
    
Correct, he did not mention budget, but it is not relevant to presume money does not matter. What I am saying is that below a price, a Hard tail is a much better bike. –  mattnz Jul 20 '13 at 22:34
    
Nobody dissagrees with that. Irrelevant to the question though. –  cherouvim Jul 21 '13 at 2:26
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No one has mentioned rider weight as a factor. I'm around 220 with my Camelbak, etc., and I ride a Trek Fuel EX 8, mainly for cross-country and fairly non-technical trails. In addition I'm middle-aged. I ride road more than I ride dirt (2000-2500 miles/year), so I would say my bicycle handling skills are not really sharp in an off-road environment. Adequate, but far from exceptional.

I believe younger and/or lighter riders have greater leeway to choose between HT and FS bikes, but older and heavier riders might be better off with FS for several reasons.

FS weighs more and costs more, but it offers some benefits as well. It's much easier on the bod, more forgiving when it comes to bicycle handling skills (as others have noted), and it's more comfortable. It's better-suited to my cycling situation than a HT would be.

I can climb certain trails on a FS bicycle which I probably couldn't climb on a HT. The rear suspension keeps the tire in contact with the dirt, and I'm riding for fitness and enjoyment, not racing, so the extra weight is acceptable for what it provides in collateral benefits.

I have a vintage 1980's MTB which I have ridden off-road (it's been converted to more of a townie now), and the FS Trek is so much more enjoyable and comfortable to ride off-road.

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Back in my student days, I could not afford full-suspension bike, so I rode hardtail with fat tyres and clipless pedals (to keep feet in position). The ride was rough, but I was not much slower than my mates on full-suspension bikes on the same trails. And sometimes when the trail was toooo technical (downhill trials), I was ahead of them. No hospital bills, no injuries related to type of bike.

If you are choosing what bike to get, but can't afford full suspension, go for the hardtail. Later on you'll figure out what exactly you need from the bike and how much suspension to get.

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First off, when riding over rough terrain you should be hovering above your saddle, not sitting on the saddle. This holds whether riding a hard tail (no rear suspension) or riding a full suspension bike. If you are sitting you have less ability to move your weight around, and therefore less control of the bike. When sitting it is easy for a large bump to throw you off balance making you crash or swerve into a crash.

When the trail is really steep and rough not only you should be off the saddle, but you should also be putting your weight behind the saddle. Example below pictured below. These riders are on downhill/freeride bikes (tons of suspension travel, 6-8 inches) and they are not sitting on the saddle.

enter image description here

So what advantages does rear suspension provide?

  • When the terrain isn't too rough (smoother than the above picture) it can allow you to sit down and pedal in more circumstances than on a hard tail, which can especially help when climbing (assuming an efficient pedalling suspension design)
  • Although your legs are the ultimate shock absorber (when hovering above the saddle) rear suspension supplements this natural suspension. This can be critical when:
    • absorbing hits from big obstacles
    • landing off drops and jumps
    • absorbing a g-out
    • absorbing a series of fast rapid bumps as your legs may not react fast enough.
    • rescuing you from stupid mistakes or a bad line.
  • Depending on the suspension design, the rear suspension can also improve braking as the rear tire is in better contact with the ground. (Although in some suspension designs braking can negatively affect rear suspension performance and therefore traction.)

What about hard tail?

To compensate for lack of rear suspension travel you need to use your legs more. You should be riding above the saddle more often than with a full suspension bike. For example, if you are pedalling over roots or rocks you need to learn to pedal while hovering over the saddle. This lets the bike move over the terrain, maintaining traction and forward momentum.

So what are the advantages of a hard tail?

Hard tails are typically lighter bikes (less parts), and can be more efficient to pedal especially on long climbs. As such they still have a following among Cross Country (XC) mountain bike racers on smother courses. That said, I have personally found the efficiency gains can be easily lost in rougher terrain (e.g., Squamish BC). Hard tails are also cheaper to manufacture (the frame doesn't have any moving parts) so you can get a better equipped bike for your dollar. This makes hard tails good first bike.

Hard Tail or Full Suspension

Whether or you choose hard tail or full suspension really depends on your experience, budget, riding style and roughness of your terrain.

What constitutes rough differs from area to area.

I personally live and ride on the North Shore of Vancouver Canada which has some incredibly rough and steep trails (pictured above). My XC bike has 5 inches of travel front and rear and I use all of it on XC rides. It does not have enough travel for some of the more advanced downhill trails in our area.

When I was visiting Bend Oregon, the riding was so smooth that my 5 inch XC bike was a rather silly choice and I would rather have been on a rigid (no suspension) bike.

In the end the choice is a personal one and the cost/benefit will be different for every rider.

Injuries

Injuries really depends on a combination of your bike handling skill, your riding terrain, and your risk tolerance. There is also the probability of crashing combined with extent of injuries. Full suspension often lets people ride harder terrain than they might otherwise, which has potentially bigger consequences. Anecdotally, I have observed those with the most suspension also tend also to have the biggest injuries.

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Excellent answer. +1 –  heltonbiker Jul 19 '13 at 23:03
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@heltonbiker - Thanks! I realized I forgot to add hard tails have less maintenance (here is looking at you loose pivot). –  Rider_X Jul 19 '13 at 23:08
    
+1: At the same price, a softtail will be a much lower quality bike a hard-tail is. Below a certain quality, the bike will be a pig to ride and unreliable. You need to decide for yourself, factoring in budget, riding skill and trails you ride. For me, I ride a $1500 hard tail, because a $1500 softtail is heavy with lower quality components than I like to ride. Think hard before going to a ST if your budget is less than about $1500, and stay on a hard tail if it's less than $1000 –  mattnz Jul 20 '13 at 1:46
    
@mattnz you nailed my budget. I must have mentioned that before. –  MrBoJangles Jul 23 '13 at 18:33
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I'm told rear suspension is not a must have

That's right, there is even a category in Down Hill races called "hard tail", for people with, well, hard-tail bikes. And they kick some serious arses with those bikes.

What is the ride like without rear suspension, what do I lose?

You have to pay attention where you put that rear wheel on. With a full, you can let go more, either over very rocky terrain, either with jumps. But with a hard tail, there is a lower physical limit to what is possible to do. That doesn't mean it's less adventure. Most probably you won't need to go so fast to get a lot of adrenaline over tricky terrain.

Are there suitable substitutes to compensate for the lack of rear suspension?

Yes. A strong wheel (rim, spokes, hub) and most importantly high-volume tires, preferrably 2.35 inches or wider.

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And no: you're most likely to get seriously injured with a full-suspension that with a hard-tail if your risk-tolerance is high... –  heltonbiker Jul 19 '13 at 22:23
    
Risk tolerance has nothing to do with it. A hard tail will, if anything help you to stay within your limits. If you give someone a full suspension bike with 6inches of travel and say have fun they are going to be attempting much more risky things than the same person on a rigid bike. I would probably argue that a hard tail may be a safer bike for beginners. –  sixtyfootersdude Jul 25 '13 at 21:12
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@sixtyfootersdude: That's what I said, "your most likely to get seriously injured with a full suspension". –  heltonbiker Jul 26 '13 at 15:50
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