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I'm considering buying a mountain bike and have narrowed it down to two models (make and model aren't important for this question). One model is a full suspension bike (front and back), the other is front suspension only.

What are the advantages/disadvantages to going with a full suspension vs front suspension? (I'd prefer answers from people with experience riding both types of bikes.)

EDIT

To answer some of the questions looking for more detail... The 2 bikes are roughly in the same price range, around $1000 USD (the full suspension is slightly more money), and my plans are to ride it primarily in some single track trails that are in the area. There will be a lot of hills and rocks and such. I doubt there will be any on-road riding involved.

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The answer to this will depend heavily on whether you're going to ride the bike exclusively off-road or not, and your budget: Cheap full-suspension bikes aren't worth the money, but front suspension forks can be useful even off-road. Please reconsider telling us what models you're considering, or at least your budget. –  Neil Fein Sep 23 '11 at 2:41
    
And also, welcome to the site! –  Neil Fein Sep 23 '11 at 2:44
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Just to further Neils comment: What kind of riding will you be doing off/on-road? –  cmannett85 Sep 23 '11 at 6:31
    
just wanted to know that my riding would be generally limited to city riding and a little uphill riding, for me what do you suggest...I have shortlisted FIREFOX Dart 2.6 disc 21SP Full suspension & FIREFOX CYCLONE Hardtail, I live in India and am getting first time into mountain biking. Your expert feedback will be of great use to an amateur like me. Thanks, –  user6218 Feb 24 '13 at 16:12

6 Answers 6

If we assume that both models are at about the same price point, here is what you can expect:

  • The hardtail will be substantially lighter than a comparably priced full-suspension bike.
  • The hardtail will likely have a higher level of components and possibly a better front shock because of the increased expense associated with the full suspension frame.
  • Unless you can lock out the rear suspension, you will have higher pedal efficiency on the hardtail.

Your style of riding may dictate that an full-suspension is appropriate, so the best thing to do would be to describe how you want to ride to the professionals at your local bike shop and listen to their advice.

I have an admitted bias toward hardtails (and even fully rigid bikes). I've been riding a long time (since before mountain bikes existed...), and don't really ride anything seriously aggressive off-road (but I have ridden a lot of Utah Red Rock Desert). I've tried several full-suspension bikes, but for my type and style of riding I've not been convinced that the added cost to get to a similar weight/component mix was worth it.

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As someone who rides almost all well-maintained single track (still with interesting drops and rocks and trees), I would +1 the above recommendation for hard tail. –  Karl Katzke Sep 26 '11 at 1:33
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At the same price point (and around 1K)- it has to be a hard tail. I suggest looking closely at component specs, weight etc. Until you hit about $2K, the Hard tail will be a better bike. At 2K, you get a useable soft tail vs a great hard tail. Keep in mind a good rear shock will set you back $500-$1K –  mattnz Aug 19 '12 at 22:47

This choice really does depend on what kind of terrain you will be riding on. I'm also assuming you are intending to buy a quality full suspension bike. Anything under like $800-$1,000 USD, don't bother. Go hard tail with a good fork.

The bumpier the terrain, the more a full suspension bike will help suck up the hard hits. You can really fly over rocks and roots and things on a full suspension, that would beat you up more or kick the bike out a bit on a hard tail.

In general, I'd say:

Full Suspension:

+ More stable at speed over rough terrain (get bounced around less)
+ Faster over rough terrain, flat or downhill
+ Overall more comfortable for a long ride
- Increased cost
- Increased complexity and maintenance
- Slower on climbs
- Lower peddling efficiency (slower in a sprint) (shock with a lockout helps)

Hard Tail:

+ Faster on climbs and sprints
+ Reduced cost
+ Reduced complexity and maintenance
+ Frame geometry less important (no linkages and travel arcs to think about)
+ Faster on roads and smooth trails, if you don't always do technical rough offroad
  trails (generally better all-purpose?)
- Hard to blow quickly over rough rocky terrain (get bounced around a lot)
- Increased rider fatigue over longer distances

Personally, I only ride full suspension offroad any more. My hardtail got re purposed into a paved/gravel trail bike with skinnier tires (and now that I finally bought a road bike, it just sits unused)

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I'd add that while a full-suspension bike may be slower on smooth climbs (e.g. tarmac or fire roads), it will actually aid you on rougher, more technical climbs. The suspension allows the wheel to stay in contact with the ground more of the time, and on many designs the chain actually pulls the wheel into the ground. It all adds up to increased traction. –  Olly Hodgson Aug 21 '12 at 16:17

Let me introduce you to the term 'Bicycle Shaped Object'...

A 'Bicycle Shaped Object' (BSO) is not to be confused with a real bicycle. You get them in department stores, catalogue shops and supermarkets. They look like bicycles but they are not. Some BSOs come with 'full suspension' and this is the older patent-free design that gives 'pedal bob' - as you pedal the rear suspension goes up and down each time you pedal. There is no effort made in the design to separate 'suspension' from 'transmission' so it all inter-relates badly.
That said, if you were doing something like a paper-round and needed to get up and down kerbs then a BSO with hideous full suspension will be okay. To actually go on anything that looks like a mountain with it then you will quickly learn that you have a BSO rather than a real bicycle.

When it comes to real bikes, if you have the money, then you will be completely sold on full suspension 'normal' mountain bikes as soon as you ride on the slightest rough surface with one. Do note that there are all kinds of full suspension bikes nowadays, including 'downhill only' ones that are heavy unwieldy beasts with acres of suspension travel that only make sense if you don't do that pedalling thing.

Take a look at the high end full suspension models designed for the trail, also feel the weight of them. Some models from the top brands are now amazingly light considering the mechanical complexity of them. Part of the expense of these bikes comes down to patent royalties. The suspension and the transmission forces are separated and you do not get obviously problematic pedal bob. In my opinion full suspension bikes are quicker over rough terrain because you 'float' over the rocks rather than take a hit out of them.

A decade ago I was very sceptical of full suspension, nowadays, with lightweight models that have sensible geometry, I am fully sold. Plus they look cool and you feel good riding one. If the money isn't there for something sensibly high end, or if you do a lot of riding on the road, then go hardtail.

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I Like this post! - but doesnt much help answer the question –  Mark W Jan 3 '12 at 13:59
    
+1 - Good post. In your opinion what is the entry price point to not have a BSO. –  sixtyfootersdude Feb 13 '13 at 22:38
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This kind of answer/mentality is the reason entry-level riders get so turned off of the sport. Pilots over on Aviation.SE don't accuse each other of flying "airplane-shaped objects" when discussing ultralights. Musicians don't accuse each other of playing "trumpet-shaped objects" (what little there is is mostly among guitarists with more money than talent). Hockey players with $50 wooden sticks aren't sneered at for using "stick-like objects" by those with $150 CF shafts. Yet it's perfectly acceptable in cycling for shop owners to openly insult shoppers asking for a < $1000 "BSO". –  KeithS Aug 11 at 18:35
    
@KeithS I would say more people get discouraged from cycling by riding heavy unwieldy bikes that look hi-tech and flashy in the catalogues but are exhausting and uncomfortable to ride. I don't think there is any price point where buying one is justified. If you can only afford(/want to spend) £100, look on ebay/craigslist/gumtree. A second hand rigid/ht mtb would be orders of magnitude better and let new riders enjoy the sport much more. –  Trengot 2 days ago

The advantages of a front suspended bike is that holding the handlebar in off-road downhill is way less tiring and comfortable, and above a certain speed (and if the fork suspension is good enough) you will have much better grip on the ground and steering/braking control.

The downside is that if you can't lock the suspension you might feel it's absorbing power when you're pushing hard on pedals (you will mostly want to lock it only on very smooth uphill surfaces). Also consider a little more weight (air suspension is not that heavy, though), and periodical maintenance.

The same is true if you add a rear suspension, but doubled: the downhill comfort and control is much greater, and you'll have greater comfort even on rough uphills (this makes a full suspended bike very suitable for long all mountain rides).

Again, the downside is more power absorption (but there are good technologies to limit this, ex: Fox's Pro Pedal), some more weight and maintenance and quite a lot more money.

So, if you think you'll be going off-road for most of your time, trying to be fast in downhill, or having long mountain rides, or you have back troubles, I'd suggest a full suspended bike.

If you're mostly riding roads and country tracks, a front suspended bike will be more suited.

Note that with both bikes you still can ride both kind of paths, but of course they're better on those they were designed for.

(I've been riding both on- and off-road, with rigid, front and full suspended bikes.)

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It's kind of subjective but I kinda think the effect of the rear suspension is more than double. Being able to lay down power all the time because the rear wheel is constantly in contact with the ground is awesome. Fundamentally I agree with your answer though. –  Colin Newell Sep 23 '11 at 15:06
    
At $1000 for a FS, I doubt you can lay down the power all the time.... –  mattnz Aug 19 '12 at 22:35

I know that Ned Overend successfully campaigned a full-suspension bike in some of his off-road "ironman" triathlons, and that at least one pro MTB racing team fielded a full-suspension model with good results some years ago.

However, in both these cases, we're talking sponsored riders with extensive budgets and factory support; and likely a factory mechanic to go along...

For most riders, a hardtail will be more than adequate. Riding technique becomes involved; your legs are after all suspension of sorts but that does require a lot of effort over really rough terrain. Remember, a good rear shock absorber can cost as much as many entry-level bikes.

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How does this answer the question? As far as I understand, you are saying that some professional riders use full suspension bikes. Well, of course! I guess most DH racers use a full suspension bike. –  Vorac 2 days ago

A good full-suspension bike will make offroad riding better in two respects:

1) The rear suspension can help keep your rear tire almost glued to the dirt, meaning better traction when needed; 2) The rear suspension can help soak up trail buzz, resulting in greater comfort/less fatigue, especially if you don't have the bod of an elite cyclist with noodle arms and a concave chest.

I've ridden a local trail with my 1980's vintage MTB (no suspension) and my recent vintage full-suspension bike (Trek Fuel EX 8) and it is like night and day. The bike weight is roughly the same (they built those first-generation MTBs like tanks), but I can go much faster and more comfortably on my Trek Fuel EX 8, especially when I am descending. The full suspension on the Trek makes it much more controllable and comfortable.

I admit that I have been passed by guys on hardtails many times, but I outweigh these guys by a few pounds and I definitely don't have the elite cyclist bod. I'm also older than most of them, judging based on appearance. Those are two factors that none of the other responders to-date have mentioned: age and size/weight.

In a nutshell, according to my experience, if you are young and/or thin, you may do just fine with a hardtail. But if you are not young and/or not thin, you would probably find greater enjoyment with a FS bike. Most of the folks that I ride with would qualify as "Clydesdales," meaning they weigh 200 lbs or more. All of the Clydes have FS bikes for offroad riding.

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Whats the price points of the two bikes you have compared? Effectively all you have said is "My 2012 Lexus is a much better car than that my 1980 Ford" - guess what - No one is surprised at the result. How about comparing the ride of a modern Hardtail agianst a modern soft tail AT THE SAME PRICE POINT. –  mattnz Aug 19 '12 at 22:45

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