It’s hard to imagine a more perfect machine for most mountain bikers than the hardtail. Hardtails, also known as ‘rigid’ or ‘singlespeed’, are bikes that don’t have suspension, and generally don’t have gears either.
What they do have is a frame and forks with enough clearance for wide ‘fat’ tyres and a rigid back end – ideal for tackling rough and technical terrain. Hardtails aren’t as capable as multi-geared bikes when it comes to lugging heavy cargo loads or climbing steep, long hills. They’re also heavier and less sophisticated than their full-suspension brethren.
But they’re also less expensive than multi-geared models and can offer as much as – or more than – all but the most dedicated of riders. The growing following for cross-country mountain biking has spurred a fierce debate among riders on all aspects of their sport. One of the most controversial topics of recent years is whether a hardtail is a good choice for a dedicated XC competitor. The case for a fat-tyred rig is based on several beliefs, not all of which are universally accepted. The frame of a hardtail is lighter, stiffer and stronger than that of a full-suspension bike of similar price.
The lack of rear suspension also makes it simpler and less expensive to service, maintain and customise. Rigid frames of a certain age – designed for 27.5in or 29in tyres on a 5in or more rim – have similar or greater tyre clearance than most multi-geared hardtails. A rigid mountain bike also handles more quickly and responsively, and on technical climbs is less likely to get kicked out of line on rough trails. But the biggest factor in favour of a hardtail is its cost. You can have a new carbon-framed, full-suspension rig from a top brand for around $5,000 these days. You can get a really nice hardtail mountain bike for under $2000
Used rigid mountain bikes on offer online
Have a look online or in your local second-hand shop for used mountain bikes. These are the bikes that will suit most people well for wide, mud-shedding tyres. Older sizes of big-brand bikes are very abundant, but ‘proprietary’ frames built in the 1990s and early 2000s work well for this purpose. Here are some to look out for: Giant Maestro or Talon, Cannondale R2000 or Aeroad, Trek 8000, K2 Lynx, Orbea Alma, Raleigh Militis, Bianchi X2, Saracen X, Orange C16, Specialized Hardrock or P.2.
The 2006 Specialized Hardrock is a good place to start looking. Make sure to try any bike you’re thinking of buying, and check the tyres for cuts, bulges and thorns. Check suspension will move freely in all directions, and that the fork steerer is straight – if it’s bent, sell the hardtail straight away. Saddle, wheels and other components are likely to be in okay condition given the age, but be sure to check for broken spokes, cracks in the fork blades, in the frame and in any carbon parts in particular. If in doubt, take it to a mechanic for a thorough inspection. The right wheels are very important if you’re buying a rigid bike for cyclocross or trail riding.
For CX use, get 32h wheels with robust tyres. DT Swiss makes nice wheels that are stiff, durable, affordable and available in fat-bike hubs. If you’re into hardtail racing get Mavic Crossmax XL wheels.
If you’re buying a bike to try to follow fast CX riders, I strongly recommend getting 32h wheels so you can run specialised cyclocross or ‘cyclocross-style‘ tubeless tyres. I have both 26h and 32h wheels on my fleet. The 26h DT wheels are lighter, cheaper, work well with tubes, are fine for trail riding and are lighter, quieter, mine are lighter and cheaper, but are subject to pinch flats. The 32h wheels are slower on flatter trail rides, are heavier, are less nimble and sure-footed, but better suited to CX-style riding – especially when running tubeless tyres. The swap without any modification to tyres, wheels, seatpost or anything else is 15 minutes. Click this link for more details on how to convert your wheels. The right seatpost You need a seatpost at least 400mm long to run smaller, 27.2mm diameter tyres. The seatpost itself needs to be stiff, durable and ideally reinforced where it passes through the frame.
There are short seatposts made for 26in mountain bikes, such as the Planet X Dropper 22 and On-One post. I don’t recommend this approach, because these posts also flex. If you’re worried about your seatpost flexing, or just want to run a long post, you’re in luck: order a seatpost with a 31.6mm outer diameter and replace the seatpost collar and seatclamp with a 25.4mm or 31.8mm alternative to make it fit your frame. The longer seatpost will allow you to dolly forward over the front wheel when your bike is loaded up with gear and you’ll be able to fit wider tyres in the rear. It’s all about the fit! Many people fit wider tyres to their hardtail mountain bikes in an attempt to cure slow handling and hard work on rough ground – and for many riders this trick helps a lot. I prefer to fit wide tyres in combination with a longer, sturdier seatpost. When you’re sitting in the saddle and grab the handlebars in the drops and lean back, you should be able to place the rims on the floor.
The Right Tyres for Your Hardtail
For riding on boggy, wet bog tracks, groomed singletrack, muddy logging trails and so on, get a set of tyres with a smooth tread. If you get a set of gumwalls, stick with the more rounded, wide profile. If you’re going to ride a lot on hard pack trails, get a set of tyres with a stiffer sidewall. Tubeless, please! Tubeless tyre sets cost a bit of money, but they’re a great upgrade for a hardtail. Tubeless tyres are easy on rims and on your wallet, and lighter than tubes.
Don’t bother with ‘seamless’ tyre sets where the inner tube and outer casing are glued together. You can’t get a new tube or a patched tubeless tyre.
Fitting a set of 35-45mm clinchers to a 26in wheel is easy. There are some expensive kits on the market, but you can get a good tubeless conversion for around $30. Loctite 1186 is a good product, or you can get a bag of tyre plugs and a tubeless valve for a few dollars more.
When fitting a new tubeless tyre, use no more than a few small dollops of tyre goo. Don’t blow it up to 80psi! Instead, ride the bike around for a while and check for burping. If the tyre burps, you’ve overfilled it.
Hardtail Mountain Bike Comparison
There’s really no comparison to be had between a hardtail and a full-suspension bike of similar price. Fully suspended bikes, with their ability to absorb and negate trail chatter and to deliver a smoother ride, will always deliver more of a pleasurable experience. The more expensive the suspension, the more the pleasure. And the less expensive the hardtail, the less pleasurable the ride. But there’s no reason you can’t get a hardtail with suspension forks and add a short travel (100-130mm) seatpost suspension. You can add a little plushness and lateral movement control to your hardtail with a rear shock, while keeping the price and weight down and the frame stiff and responsive. I’ll go into this in more detail in a later article.
The popular and widely used Singlespeed Worlds and Singlespeed Race Series allow you to ride a rigid frame and enjoy the fun and challenge of a singlespeed race. If you have a hardtail creek bike, concentrate on ups, downs and basic trail navigation, and you don’t plan to do any real hill climbing. A rigid beam hardtail with a no-nonsense attitude can be a good choice for this sort of riding, especially if you’re on a budget, know what you’re doing, or have a limited timeframe to have a lot of fun.