The Ultimate Hardtail Mountain Bike Buyer’s Guide

Some might say hardtail mountain biking is the workhorse of the off-road world. Whether you’re looking to push your comfort zone from gravel to mountain biking, or you’re entirely new to the trails, hardtail bikes are a staple in many riders’ bike stable.

What is a hardtail mountain bike?

A hardtail mountain bike is exactly that, a hardtail. A hardtail means the bike will have front suspension, known as a fork, but no rear suspension, so the rear of the bike is stiff. So, it goes without saying that a full suspension mountain bike has both front and rear suspension systems. Because of this design, hardtail mountain bikes are more efficient to pedal while still providing some comfort from the shock-absorbing front end when riding on rougher terrain.

Who does hardtail mountain biking?

Vitus Trail 27 VRS Semi-Rigid Riding-2.jpg, by Rachael Gurney

There are several reasons why hardtails are ideal for beginner mountain bikers. Hardtail bikes are lighter than full-suspension mountain bikes, more affordable, and better suited to lower-grade trails, which will help you build the skills and confidence to progress later.

However, hardtail bikes aren’t just for beginner mountain bikers. Although many XC bikes are now switching to full suspension setups, there is still a large population of XC riders who enjoy riding and racing hardtails. Choosing between the two types largely comes down to preference and the difficulty of the trail they travel.

And then, of course, you have the more specialized hardtail categories that are technically classified as mountain bikes but not designed for trail riding. These types are your dirt jump bikes and freeride whips, which can be smaller in frame and wheel size. And just to complicate things further, you can also get “fat bike” hardtails which have mahoosive wheels and are better suited to tough terrain like sand and snow.

Why choose a hardtail mountain bike?

Vitus Sentier 27 VRS hardtail Detail Whole bike-9.jpg

Vitus Sentier 27 VRS Detail Whole Bike-9.jpg Hardtail Bike, by Rachael Gurney

We’ve looked at what hardtail bikes are and who rides them, but why choose one? Well, many mountain bikers, XC riders and others like hardtails for several reasons:

Mechanical: Having a rear shock can bring its own mechanical issues such as worn bushings, pivot bearings and of course problems and maintenance of the shock itself. There are fewer things to worry about when servicing and maintaining your bike by not having rear suspension.

Efficiency: With a rigid rear part, all the power of your pedal can be directly transferred to the forward movement. When you have a rear shock, as well as moving pivot points, some of that pedal power is taken up by the movement of the rear triangle, reducing your pedal efficiency.

Line choice: It is claimed that because your bike does not have a plush rear end to absorb impacts, you need to consider your line choices more carefully. You’ll be looking for the softer lines that give you more comfort and control on the track, and by learning to outline the softer lines, you put yourself in a great place to build your skills and confidence. After all, smooth is fast!

Weight and value: Without a rear shock, pivoting rear triangle, additional bolts and fixings, a hardtail bike is generally much lighter in weight and price. Hardtail mountain bikes are certainly more friendly to budget conscious buyers, with some entry level hardtails starting from around £500.

What to Look for in a Hardtail

Riding an off-road bike requires rugged components specifically designed to meet the demands of mountain biking. Whether it’s a drivetrain, wheelset, or handlebar, certain variants are better suited to specific needs, like road, gravel, and off-road. Here are some components to seriously consider when buying a hardtail mountain bike.

Frame material

2021 Ribble 725 HT hardtail-15.jpg

2021 Ribble 725 HT hardtail-15.jpg, by Rachael Gurney

There are two main materials used in the construction of bicycles; aluminum and carbon fiber.

Aluminum is cheaper, heavier and sturdier than its carbon fiber counterpart. You can afford knocks, dings and crashes without seriously affecting the structural integrity of the frame. Because it has this tolerance for rough behavior, aluminum has a slight edge in vibration damping and shock absorption.

Carbon fiber, on the other hand, is generally more expensive and lighter. Carbon is incredibly strong, but brittle, so it cannot offer the same tolerances as aluminum. For this reason, collisions and rock impacts are more likely to crack the frame rather than dent it. However, the strength of carbon fiber compensates for the fragility.

Of course, there are other less common frame materials that you may come across in your search for a hardtail; steel and titanium. Steel frames provide strength and comfort while riding, while titanium frames are super light and very durable.

Front suspension

2021 Ribble 725 HT hardtail-3.jpg

2021 Ribble 725 HT hardtail-3.jpg, by Rachael Gurney

Hardtails only have front suspension, aided by a component called a fork. A suspension uses a hydraulic system that allows the front wheel to move up and down when riding over rough terrain. Fork legs, also called stanchions, vary in length, which is called displacement and is often measured in millimeters. The more travel your fork has, the more your front wheel can move up/down to absorb shock.

The number of trips you need will depend on the driving you are doing. For cross-country trails, you should look for travel between 100mm and 120mm. Whereas, for all-mountain trail riding, you might want to look for around 130mm to 150mm of travel. However, a new niche of aggressive hardtails sees up to 180mm of fork travel with a longer, lower and slacker geometry designed for steep technical trails. You will also notice that the amount of travel you have will affect the geometry of the frame. The more fork travel, the slacker the head angle to accommodate steeper, more demanding riding.

Brakes

2021 Canyon Spectral 29 CF 8 brakes-12.jpg

2021 Canyon Spectral 29 CF 8 brakes-12.jpg, by Rachael Wight

Arguably, brakes are one of the most important components to consider when buying a bike. Not only do they bring you to a complete stop, but they also provide speed control on the trails.

Disc brakes are the obvious favorites of mountain bikers as they offer quick responsiveness and strong stopping power. However, some low-end and entry-level hardtail mountain bikes will come with rim brakes which are cheaper and easier to maintain. However, rim brakes are not suitable for fast trail riding and performance can be hampered when wet.

Disc brakes that use a hydraulic system are available in many variations and at different prices. They are fairly simple to maintain and upgrade if you need more biting power down the line.

Transmission

Specialized Rockhopper Expert 2020 Detail Drivetrain.jpg

Specialized Rockhopper Expert 2020 Detail Drivetrain.jpg, by Rachael Gurney

For many modern mountain bikes you will find the gear arrangement in a 1x or 2x drivetrain. This number indicates whether there are one or two chainrings up front, often followed by a second number which indicates how many rings (or sprockets) are on the cassette at the rear.

However, the majority of mountain bike brands lean towards a 1x drivetrain because there are so many cassette sizes that you can get a wide range of gears for all your trail riding needs. Additionally, having a chainring up front saves weight by eliminating the need for a front derailleur and an additional handlebar shifter.

wheels

Crankbrothers-12 Alloy Synthesis Wheels.jpg

Crankbrothers Alloy Synthesis Wheels-12.jpg, by Rachael Gurney

The most common wheel sizes for mountain bikes are 27.5″ (aka 650b) and 29″. Previously, for more cross-country riding, the larger 29-inch wheels were better suited. This was mainly due to their ability to overcome obstacles with greater ease and to climb more efficiently. While the 27.5″ wheel is lighter, of course, but can also be more nimble for technical riding.

However, the argument for which wheel size is better is hotly debated across all disciplines of off-road riding, with some enduro and downhill riders preferring a mix of the two (aka a mule). It usually comes down to what you feel most comfortable with, so it’s highly recommended to try before you buy when possible.

Buy a semi-rigid

Vitus Trail 27 VRS semi-rigid Riding-4.jpg

Vitus Trail 27 VRS Hardtail Riding-4.jpg, by Rachael Gurney

When shopping for a hardtail mountain bike, there are a few key things to consider, the first of which is setting yourself a budget. Bikes can quickly become more expensive when you start looking at higher-end components and brands, so it’s best to set yourself a spending limit.

You can buy a hardtail mountain bike in person at a bike shop, on the internet, and from used retailers and individuals. Never underestimate the used market, because you might end up finding a bargain. Discover our practice used buyer’s guide be aware of the pitfalls.

Of course, trying out a bike gives you valuable insight into what’s right for you. Some brands hold demo days at bike parks and trail centers where you can get tips and take a bike out for a spin on the trails. Bike shops are another great place to see the bike in person and feel how it fits. Some stores may even allow you to walk around the parking lot to get an idea of ​​what you think.

So this is it ! Hardtails in a nutshell, who they’re for, what riding they’re good for and where to find one that’s right for you. We have some additional hardtail resources below if you want to become a self-taught expert on them!

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