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A case for... not starting on a hardtail

By Bruce Lin

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Start learning first new mountain bikers on a hardtailYou’ve probably heard this before: “Start on a hardtail.”

There’s always a dusty old veteran ready to give that advice to a first-time mountain biker. It’s wisdom that’s been passed down from mountain biker to mountain biker since time immemorial.

There’s one practical reason behind it. Compared to full-suspension mountain bikes, hardtails are simpler, more affordable, and easier to maintain. That’s good for novice riders with tight budgets and sparse mechanical knowledge. They might be unsure if they’ll “get into mountain biking.”

But there’s also a more abstract reason for this mythos. The hardtail is supposedly the best tool for developing important skills: using your legs to absorb impacts, staying light over obstacles, and choosing good lines.

Are riders who start on full-suspension bikes somehow devoid of skills? Is their riding sloppier or less refined? Is it really necessary to ride a hardtail before upgrading to a full-suspension bike? Here’s another way to ask this: If you train on a hardtail will you get faster on a full-suspension bike?

The more experienced I become, and the more talented riders I meet, the more I think the answer is no. You don’t need to start on a hardtail. In fact, if your goal is to become a skilled and competent rider, especially descending, you probably shouldn’t start on a hardtail.

Salsa El Mariachi steel beginner mountain bikeMy first mountain bike. Not pictured: sore joints and shaky confidence. 

My own mountain biking journey started on a 2013 Salsa El Mariachi hardtail. Here on the Colorado Front Range, it was punishing, especially when things got rough and rocky. But I didn’t know any better. After dutifully riding the El Mariachi for a couple of seasons, I got good enough to keep up with some of my fully-suspended friends.

When it came time to upgrade, I felt I’d earned a bike to match my skills honed by the mythical ways of the hardtail. I went all-in on a 2015 Focus SAM with 160mm of travel, envisioning myself suddenly riding like Aaron Gwin, going full-blast into the chunkiest gnar, and mercilessly dropping my friends.

My first ride didn’t go as I imagined. I was slow and awkward. It felt like I was relearning how to ride and it took me several outings to adjust. Hardtails and full-suspension bikes simply feel different. The two bikes deliver different feedback and don’t react to impacts in the same ways. The timing for pumping and jumping is different. The specific geometry changes you experience when bottoming out your suspension is different. And the way you interpret terrain is different (or at least it should be). My fundamental hardtail skills carried over, but riding one type of bike didn’t automatically make me better at riding the other.

After I adapted to riding the SAM though, it opened a door to a new level of downhill speed. In a few months, I progressed more than I did in over two years on the El Mariachi. I honestly believe if I had bought the SAM first, I would have progressed faster.

Santa Cruz highthower lt downhillHaving a full-suspension bike (with modern geometry and grippy tires) made me more confident. This led to more experimentation with enduro and downhill, which grew my skills faster. This Hightower was the successor to the SAM. 

Descending on a mountain bike is largely a mental game. On the El Mariachi, I had a perceived limit, and I never went over it. My full-suspension SAM, however, raised my ceiling. Because the bike was more capable and forgiving, it reduced my fear. I practiced riding features and lines I would have avoided in the past. It helped me get accustomed to higher speeds, harder trails, and bigger consequences. All of this made me a better rider. When I did go back and ride the El Mariachi, I was faster because my new bike had shown me what was possible. Regularly pushing my limits expanded them.

Steve canfield nimble 9 hardtail dirt jumping downhill sendingSteve can make any bike work on any trail. I'm not sure he even remembers his first bike. Years of constant riding and practice matter more than what he started on.

People with a depth of experience and skills can go fast on any bike. Our warehouse manager, Steve, can drop me on a hardtail, or full-suspension enduro bike, or even a gravel bike. He has years of riding experience, a mastery of riding skills, and can figure out how to make any bike work. But newer riders don’t have a massive library of engrams and skills to draw upon. The main point here is that, no matter the bike, practice matters.

Good riders get good because they practice — a lot.

Riding scared is rarely conducive to effective practice. If your trails are technical or gnarly, trying to learn and refine skills on a sketchy and punishing hardtail might actually hold you back by presenting unnecessary challenges. A good full-suspension bike, on the other hand, can make you feel more confident, comfortable, and motivated. These are all things that create a productive practice environment. If you’re confident, you’ll push your limits and try new things. If you’re comfortable, you’ll ride longer and recover faster. And if you’re motivated, you’ll try to ride as much as possible.

Here is my advice: Get the absolute best bike you can for your terrain and budget. If that happens to be a hardtail, that’s fine! Hardtails are still awesome, especially for less rugged terrain or XC racing. If it’s a full-suspension, do it! You won’t regret it. You can progress faster, have more fun, and suffer less.

Whatever bike you get, learn to ride it really, really well. You can do everything on a hardtail. But it could take years to master everything. Life is short and mountain biking should be fun, so why handicap yourself?

Cannondale F-si, Niner Air9, Kona honzo carbon, Canfield nimble 9I have experimented with and loved many hardtails. As my experience and skills grow, their limitations become more apparent. But they're still fun!

And don’t think that I have forsaken hardtails. I’ve owned several since my El Mariachi. In fact, I just bought a Cannondale F-Si, my least downhill-focused bike ever. I'm not saying you should never ride a hardtail. They're fun. And I do buy into the mythos about hardtails making you feel more “connected” to the trail. I take one out whenever I’m looking for a change of pace or an extra challenge. But when it’s time to get serious, I always go back to the full-suspension.

Hardtails are cool, but they aren’t magic.

Shop used mountain bikes 

“A case for…” is a place for unpopular opinions, weird ideas, and unloved bikes and components. For every cyclist who rides to the beat of their own drum, there’s a case for you. Did you start on on a hardtail or a full-suspension? Is Bruce right or has he taken too many falls to the head? Let us know in the comments!

If you'd like tips for practicing skills on any bike, hardtail or full-suspension, check out some of our posts with world renowned mountain bike coach Lee McCormack: How to corner, How to brake, How to pump, MTB body position.


7 comments


  • I guess I’m one of the weirdos of the bike world that owns a bike for every equation, current stable of 5 bikes, DH, Enduro, XC full suspension, gravel bike, and my beloved Santa Cruz Chameleon hardtail. I’ve been riding for 35 years and when the words “fun ride” are mentioned on a saturday with the kids,….guess which bike I grab…the hardtail. A hardtail makes you see everything on the trail, makes you know the trail, and refines how you ride the trail. Just my opinion. The main thing that sucks about a hardtail,….when you turn into an old fart like me, they get hard to ride because your joints and back just can’t take what they used to. What really matters is that you’re on two wheels and turing the cranks my friends, I think the cycling world may to too wrapped up in strava stats and how big of jumps you can do before you break your neck.

    Ed on

  • Good points on both sides here. I started riding on hard tails back in 1990. (dusty old guy) As FS bikes became more available I went there as I wanted to huck off of stuff. I broke a lot of bike parts and learned a lot about building/repairing bikes. Newer bikes of both flavors have come a looong way. In a strange turn I changed from my last FS bike (Rocky Mountain Slayer) to hard tail as a means of self preservation. Less likely to huck off of big stuff. Leave that for the young bucks. Currently riding a Jamis Dragon and looking for a new HT frame to build out over the coming winter. The main thing with mountain bikes is to ride and have fun. Then pick the style that best suits what you want to do. Oh and if you don’t make it over something (HT or FS) go back and try again. You’ll nail it the next time if you do.

    Stephen Gioacchini on

  • It’s not a choice about technology but rather about location and terrain. What’s good for Wichita ain’t the same for Austin.

    Shawn Harrington on

  • For the well endowed budgets full suspension is a great entry into the sport. Used bikes that yuppie buyers who didn’t take to the sport and have their rig collecting dust in the garage and the wife is preggers often make a great purchase. The trouble with hardtails is marketing types see them as an entry level arena. Party geometry isn’t in their designs so the XC style bikes are great for gravel paths. New school steep seat/slack head tubes are available with supple seat stays to take the harsh edge off the bumps but you need to know what to look for so if you start on a hardtail, be aware of the style and you can get into the sport without undue suffering.

    Julian Lobato on

  • Thanks Bruce, very good article and directionally correct – who doesn’t love bombing on a fully suspended rig while suffering less? However, my POV is that mastering a hardtail helps immensely when transitioning to a gravel bike. Especially when you ride your gravel bike past rolling gravel roads onto challenging trails. The “point and plow” capability of a full suspension bike does not translate well to hardtail/gravel bike moments when you have to carefully pick your line and negotiate an off camber, chunky trail with drops, ruts and roots. Hardtails may not allow the rider to achieve terminal velocity on a trail, but they will provide invaluable skills that translate well.

    John on

  • Horses for courses, I guess. If I was growing up learning in Moab I’d likely agree with this full stop – get a full squish bike as you’ll inevitably NEED one.

    That said, what you learn on a hardtail is more obvious. i.e. picking lines; the consequences on a hardtail are definitely more apparent, and as a rider improves they will be able to transfer those to a FS and go even harder should they want to go that route. Starting on a bike that has more built in margin for error negates this, or at least extends the learning curve.

    Forget the fact that the same budget will buy you a way better spec’d hardtail than it will a full suspension bike 99% of the time, and learning is also aided by having tools that don’t fail on you or are designed for a purpose. I’d point to how XT/XTR drivetrains have double shifting vs. lower end stuff doesn’t. Take a Specialized Epic, the price spread on the FS vs. HT is are enough to allow a rider to upgrade from SLX to XTR (not that you need xtr, just making a point) and still have cash leftover.

    Ben on

  • Great article…and I agree to some extent.
    I was a part of the mythos and started on a hardtail at the advice of a seasoned friend…and my meager savings account (I was in high school).

    Jump to the purchase of my first full suspension bike…and I crashed and bent my front wheel on the first ride I took because the rear suspension added a little more dynamic spring to a feature I jumped off of.

    I mostly ride a full suspension bike now and grew up in an age when full suspension was only just appearing to the mass market. I always wonder if my skills might have progressed more quickly if I’d had more access to the great number of full suspension bikes that are available now.

    I see merits in learning and expanding skills on a hard tail. There is less margin for error and you pay for the any missteps you take…that being said, in the end, when I planned the purchase of a “first mountain bike” for my wife…we came to the same conclusion that “fun” and “rideability” were top priorities and that for her to have fun and progress simultaneously, a full suspension would be the obvious choice.

    :-)
    Eventually if and when she’s ready, she can ride my “B” bike…a Salsa El Mariachi hardtail…

    Chris Magel on


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