Hardtail versus Full Suspension (Updated 10/2021)

[I originally published this hardtail versus full suspension bike blog post in March of 2020, right when COVID-19 started to hit. It just got a major update. Read on for the fun!]

I’ve been riding a singlespeed mountain bike for the last three years. During that time, my 2011 Santa Cruz Superlight sat in the garage doing absolutely nothing.

A recent ride with a friend made me wonder what would happen if I:

  • Pulled the Santa Cruz out of deep storage and ran a lap on my local bike/equipment test track.
  • Rode the same on a modern slack-angled full-suspension bike.

During the ride with my friend, I noticed our bikes were the exact opposite from each other: My Domahidy Ti belt-drive bike has fairly traditional geometry. My friend’s bike was carbon fiber with barely any stem to speak of — and a generous amount of travel. I noticed where our bikes excelled and fell short (see the video for some of the fun we had).

And I got curious.

Hardtail Versus Full Suspension for a Day

I topped the Superlight’s tires off with some Stan’s sealant and checked the shock air pressure. Then, it was time to ride.

I’ve been on the Domahidy 29er since I’ve been using Strava heavily. I have a ton of data on it from my local trails. So this would be a perfect test for my Superlight.

I felt like the more slippery climbs were a bit easier on it. I definitely felt faster on one particular rocky descent.

new mountain bike

My Superlight when it was still considered a modern bike instead of a throwback.

Overall, the Superlight didn’t feel as stable or as quick to handle as the Domahidy. That titanium hardtail holds its speed and accelerates with tons of punch.

And there I was thinking about gears again. Especially cumbersome with a 3X9 system versus the modern 1X systems. With a singlespeed, all my concentration is on picking the line and braking.

Enough Feelings – What About the Data?

My Strava times shocked my gizzard. The Superlight was nowhere near as fast on this ride as my top times on the singlespeed (which is also slightly undergeared). It was 52 seconds slower over my nearly 4-mile lap.

That rocky downhill I mentioned? It tied my typical time on the singlespeed hardtail versus full suspension. No faster even over chop and small drops.

I felt like I was working hard, but not worked over (I’d ridden 40 miles on my road-plus bike the day before).

This bears mentioning: I admit that I’m kind of a chicken. My priority is to finish every ride in one piece. So I ride in control, more Iceman than Maverick.

What I Expected

My prediction was that the Superlight would make me noticeably faster. Maybe by as much as a minute.

hardtail versus full suspension

I expected its top-end speed and ability to crunch over some of the rocky sections to win the day — even against the Domahidy’s efficiency.

What about weight? I have no idea what either bike weighs. But the Santa Cruz Superlight has always been a light-ish full suspension bike. Certainly lighter than the slack dropper-equipped trail bikes of today with their Cushcore inserts and whatnot.

What I didn’t expect was for the longer 29er to carve corners so much better and to give up next to nothing to the Superlight in rocky downhill bits. I’m at a loss for words.

There are still question marks with the singlespeed hardtail versus full suspension issue: How would I do riding the Santa Cruz on long rides, like the Fat Tire 40 or the 50-mile Tour of the White Mountains? (The answer to that: If it rains beforehand, the belt drive singlespeed will straight-up murder every other bike I could pick. The mud up there can change the game.)

hardtail versus full suspension

This bike is unstoppable, especially in wet weather.

What Next for Hardtail Versus Full Suspension?

I’m eager to repeat this experiment with a modern bike.

I may also rent a bike to test somewhere like McDowell Mountain Regional Park. The Long Loop there is currently in chewed-up condition. During the Cactus Cup and Frenzy Hills races, I got rattled pretty hard back there.

I’ll update this post with more info and data when I have something to add — I hope that’s soon!

THE UPDATE

Finally Testing a Modern Dualie

Almost one year after the quarantine scuttled my plans to demo a full-suspension bike with this new “progressive” geometry, I finally got my opportunity.

The Rocky Mountain Demo Tour made a visit to Rage Bicycles, just a few miles away from my home in Scottsdale. This also meant an apples-to-apples comparison on trails I know well — Papago is a short pedal away from Rage.

rocky mountain demo tour

The friendly Rocky Mountain Demo Tour van.

The bike closest to my preferences was the Rocky Mountain Instinct Carbon 70, a nearly $7,000 monster with a Fox 36 EVOL fork. That’s 150mm of travel in the front, 140 in the back. It was set up tubeless, with some CushCore type of insert in the tires. It also had a dropper seatpost.

I spent about 90 minutes/16 miles on the Instinct. It made a good first impression with crisp shifting and a pretty efficient feel as I cruised on the canal bank to Papago. I noticed that it responded to small amounts of handlebar input, probably because of that super-short stem.

My first real dirt was at Hole in the Rock, a well-known short climb followed by a short rocky downhill. It took zero concentration for the Instinct to handle the climb. It also knocked off the downhill easily, and this was the only time I deployed the dropper post. But when I got the numbers from Strava, the Instinct was nearly 10 seconds slower up the climb, and a second slower on the downhill. This would become a theme.

Taking Aim at My Record

My real test for the Instinct was the 3.8-miles Pivin Loop, a handy litmus test for messing with bike, tires and suspension.

I was definitely running the Instinct hard. Big suspension, big tires, outstanding brakes. Why not?

Apparently, those big treads don’t like loose rocks. The front tire washed, causing me to dab. Obviously, this was not gonna be a record-setting loop. Sure enough, I was nearly three minutes off my best time.

Rocky Mountain Instinct 70 Carbon

A look at the Rocky Mountain Instinct 70 Carbon I demoed.

I did a second lap, concentrating on riding clean. It was the slowest lap I ever turned at the Pivin Loop, nearly 5 minutes off my best pace and about 4 off of a typical run.

So it suffices to say that, on my Domahidy Ti singlespeed and even my outdated 26er-wheeled 27-speed Santa Cruz, I would handily beat my doppelganger who’s on an Instinct 70 on the type of terrain I usually ride. So that’s two major points in my hardtail versus full suspension debate.

I think it’s fair to expect that I’d get faster on the Instinct as I got used to it. I also think riders with different skillsets might get more out of it than I did.

So Why is This Bike So Slow?

This is actually a very good bike. I want to get that out of the way. I can think of a bunch of black trails at Brown’s Ranch and South Mountain where the Instinct Carbon 70 would be an asset with its dropper and long travel.

But that’s not my type of riding. I am not the kind of guy who has a quiver of bikes. I want something that can let me haul ass when I race and requires minimal maintenance.

And honestly, there’s just a fun factor in that belt-drive singlespeed that makes no sense on paper. It makes me feel like flying a Colonial Viper every time I ride it.

I did notice that the Instinct Carbon 70 was a hefty bike, probably exacerbated by the CushCore inserts dropper seatpost. A lot of the weight seemed concentrated to the rear, giving that bike one hell of a bodonkadonk.

Rocky Mountain Instinct Got Back!

I’m very curious about what I’d think of an Element Carbon 70, which is far more race-oriented. I also don’t want to give the impression that I’m slamming Rocky Mountain: I’m willing to bet that I’d have the same issues with any trail bike.

The Conclusion: Hardtail Versus Full Suspension

This makes me go back to a point I’ve made many times before: Someone needs to bring back the lightweight, cost-effective, short-travel dual suspension bike. At one point, Santa Cruz made a $1,700 Superlight dualie that was about 28 pounds. Someone needs to bring a bike like that back. I realize it’s not 2005 anymore, sure. But could you get a light, responsive, modernized XC speed machine for $2,200? I’ll bet someone out there could do it.

I think that, to be as fair as possible, I also need to do another demo with something a little more race-oriented. I’ve gotten close with the Trek EX 8.7 trail bike I rode in Santa Cruz. But I’d really like to try an Orbea Oiz or Salsa Spearfish.

Keep in mind, this might be exactly the bike you need. But if your preferences are more like mine, you might have to swipe left on this one.

As for you, if you’re researching your next bike and it’s a question of “hardtail versus full suspension,” think about your budget, where you plan to ride, and HOW you plan to ride. There are plenty of places where full suspension just isn’t necessary. But if you ride in a chonky place like Sedona, it may be worth the cost and weight tradeoff to get full suspension to deal with that rough stuff. Just realize that climbing performance will cost you more $$$.

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2 thoughts on “Hardtail versus Full Suspension (Updated 10/2021)”

  1. I like your comparison, but you mentioned a number of times that you were comparing it to your best times … that’s all fine and dandy, but today’s time on your SS might not be anything close to what your best time was 🙂
    A real no poop comparison would be if you would’ve rode the dualie first and then rode your SS afterwards … showing that you gave most of your efforts to your first ride, and then ultimately see that riding your SS in round 2 still ends up giving you better numbers.
    At least that my two cents … I’ve done a similar comparison (~12 mile loop) on 3 different bikes immediately following each ride, which provides interesting stats.
    Bike/round 1: Mid-fat HT 29r 3×7 @ 43 lbs = 69 mins
    Bike/round 2: Full squish 650b 2×10 @ 33 lbs
    Bike/round 3: CX 700c 1×11 @ 19 lbs = 52 mins

  2. Ah – the last time I rode that laps, I was within 4 seconds of my record. Most days, I’m within 30 seconds of it so we’re still apples to apples. The second lap on the Rocky was also my worst time ever on that loop, which seems significant. Maybe I should update it comparing with my dead-middle time, which is 21:44. The laps on the Rocky were 23:17 and 24:50.

    And I just don’t have that many bikes lying around. Heck, I had to wait nearly a year to get a hold of the Rocky for a day. (Thanks, Covid!)

    What I really want to see is how something like a Kona Hei Hei would do with me.

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