Cross-country hardtail or cross-country full suspension? BIG.NINE or NINETY-SIX? Which is best for you?
Are you better off with a hardtail mountain bike or full suspension? That’s a question that’s been asked since the early days of the sport and while it’s pretty much settled in the world of enduro and downhill, in cross-country racing, the question burns as bright as ever, so we’re going to run through the pros and cons of a cross-country hardtail like a BIG.NINE versus a full suspension cross country bike like the NINETY-SIX.
As you’d expect, both kinds of bike bikes share a lot in common. Weight is very important in cross-country racing, so they have lightweight frames. High-end cross-country bikes are usually made from carbon fibre, but we offer the BIG.NINE in aluminium as well as carbon. They both run 29” wheels with lightly treaded and fast-rolling tyres. Both bikes also have 100mm travel forks up front with a lockout to prevent the suspension from moving on big climbs or hard sprints. It’s also possible to fit two full-size water bottles in the main triangle with both of these bikes, though that’s a bit of a rarity on many other cross-country full suspension bikes.
Of course, it’s once you get to the back end of the bikes that the differences are really obvious. While the BIG.NINE has seat and chain stays that are flattened slightly in order to act like a leaf spring to give greater comfort, the NINETY-SIX uses our lightweight P-FLEX rear suspension system. That gives 100mm of rear wheel travel, but by doing away with a rear pivot and relying on carbon’s natural flex, additional weight is kept to a minimum.
Cross-country racing is all about efficiency and this is where the hardtail wins big. The lack of rear suspension means every ounce of effort is transferred to the rear tyre without any hesitation.
Not having any pivots or a rear shock also means the hardtail is lighter, which can make a real difference as to how much effort it takes to accelerate it and climb on it. Less weight will always make a bike faster uphill and is especially important when you’re dealing with short sharps climbs and punchy acceleration on a race course.
That’s not to say that the hardtail is always the winner when it comes to climbing. Most full suspension cross country bikes like the NINETY-SIX are fitted with lockouts that stiffen up the suspension and improve climbing efficiency, basically turning them into a hardtail – or fully rigid - when you want to.
Though it's inevitably heavier, having rear suspension is often a big advantage on rough, technical climbs, where the increased traction will prevent the rear wheel slipping. That in turn will allow more of your energy to be turned into forward motion rather than wasted as wheelspin.
Of course, the biggest advantage of rear suspension is that it allows you to descend faster and push harder on rough and rocky descents, sailing through areas where you’d be worried about damaging tyres on a hardtail.
It’s also much more comfortable and that means it requires less effort to descent or climb quickly, which will reduce fatigue on longer rides or during marathon events.
Obviously, at the very highest levels of cross-country racing, the pros will have both a hardtail and full sus bike to choose from. Which one they will ride will depend on the race format and terrain. For long, rough marathon and multi-day events, the greater comfort of a full suspension bike will often win despite the weight penalty, allowing the rider to stay feeling fresh and allowing them to recover on sections where the hardtail would simply beat them up.
It’s a similar story on the rougher and more technical World Cup XC race courses, where the weight disadvantage is outweighed by the superior control and descending capability full suspension offers.
For short-course races where it’s all about smashing out peak power, the hardtail is still an important tool, especially if it’s on a smoother course. You simply can’t beat the raw immediacy of the power transfer or the pure efficiency that a hardtail delivers.
So is the answer to have both? If you’re a pro then maybe, but in the real world, that’s just not possible for most riders. It’s at this point that price comes in. Comparing like for like, a hardtail will always be more affordable than a full sus as there are fewer components and the frame is easier to manufacture. Not having a rear shock or pivots means there’s less maintenance too, which also often makes them cheaper to run in the long term too.
You should choose a hardtail XC bike if:
- You want the lightest, most efficient bike possible and comfort is less of an issue
- Your descents and climbs are generally smoother
- You’re on a tighter budget and want fewer maintenance costs
You should choose a full suspension XC bike if:
- You want a more comfortable bike for longer rides that’s also more adept downhill
- The climbs and descents you’re riding on are rougher and more technical
- Budget is less of an issue for you
Of course, like with so many things in mountain biking it really comes down to personal preference, but hopefully, you will now have a much better idea of which would suit you best.