If you prioritise low weight and direct trail feel, there is no substitute for a hardtail. Foregoing rear suspension increases pedalling efficiency and reduces mechanical complexity.
For riders who are committed winter mountain bikers, repeated pivot bearing replacements after a muddy season’s off-road cycling can be annoying and expensive. With a hardtail, that is never an issue.
Mountain bikes without rear suspension are also, by implication, lighter and transfer a rider’s power output better when climbing or cadencing along on a flat trail or jeep track. Those mountain bikers who enjoy riding manicured singletrack at high speed and get great reward from perfectly railing berms will enjoy the trail feedback from a hardtail, undiluted by rear suspension sag under compression.
With advancements in frame technology and rim width, not to mention larger carcass tyres, hardtails are a lot less taxing on the body that was the case a few years ago. A carefully considered hardtail build can deliver tremendous all-round riding ability, for much less than a dual-suspension mountain bike.
The overall ownership cost of a hardtail is also much reduced, due to the absence of a secondary suspension damper and pivots – which can compound running costs. This is especially true for riders who roll most of their miles in extremely muddy or dusty environments, where trail contaminants can ruin bearings and pivots.
BEST HARDTAIL MOUNTAIN BIKES: EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW
The absence of rear suspension has benefits and disadvantages. Your bias in relation to either requires careful consideration, to make the best possible hardtail bike choice.
If you are trying to conquer black-rated descents on a hardtail, then yes, you need a frame that will accommodate the largest possible fork, longest possible dropper post and largest possible rear tyres.
For those riders who are more focussed on fitness, hardtails climb better than dual-suspension bikes because they have less mass and there is no energy loss being converted into suspension movement.
Conversely, they can be a touch more punishing if you attempt to rally through rock gardens and huck enormous doubles.
Without rear-suspension to cushion terrain, frame material and layup becomes an important consideration. Diverse materials and tube sizes will absorb terrain impacts differently, which can either increase or decrease your ride comfort.
1. Tyre volume
An easy way to add more ride comfort to any hardtail, is by increasing its rear tyre size and allowing that additional air-volume in that tyre to act as a marginal suspension intermediary of sorts. To run a larger rear tyre you’ll need wider chain- and seat stay spacing.
2. Seat tube diameter
Seat tube diameter is a huge influence on general ride comfort, too. If you are seated and rolling along on even terrain, or climbing - a great deal of terrain compliance results from your seat tube’s flexibility. The larger your seat tube diameter is, the harsher the ride quality will be seated on a fixed seatpost. This is the reason why 27.2mm seat tubes have remained in fashion with hardtail mountain bike designers.
This seat tube diameter issue, in as much as it is related to ride comfort, adds complexity to the question of dropper seatpost compatibility. There is a trend towards a minimal seat tube diameter of 30.9mm, due to dropper seatposts becoming more popular, even with weight-obsessed cross-country riders.
Seat tube diameter is a considerable specification decision for any hardtail rider. If you are going to roll big mileage and prefer a fixed seat post to save weight, the compliance of a 27.2mm tube diameter frame is important. Prefer having a more balanced riding experience with some fun on the descents? Then you’d need either a 30.9- or 31.6mm frame to accommodate most of the contemporary dropper seatpost configurations.
Hardtails are rationally better due to an inherent simplicity and lower cost of maintenance, but weight is their currency of appeal and if you are counting grams, the bike of the moment is Specialized’s new Epic. Despite its extreme race weight, Specialized engineers have also managed to add an assortment of geometry features which make the 2020 Epic a credibly confident descender too: slacker head angle and wider rear stays to roll bigger tyres.
Those hardtail loyalists who seek a light bike with winter weather survivability, should consider the Santa Cruz Highball. Its ability to run single speed will dramatically reduce component wear and rider frustration during an intense block of winter training in muddy conditions. It remains one of the very few carbon hardtails which accommodates the suffering of single-speed converts.
THE BEST HARDTAIL MOUNTAIN BIKES
The world’s lightest mountain bike – which is all you really need to know
Weight: 7.8kg | Size: S, M, L, XL | Seat tube: 30.9mm
Specialized has a proven reputation for spending big on R&D and the new Epic hardtail is evidence that its engineers are never content.
With a frame weight of only 790g, the new Epic is 75g lighter than its predecessor. What makes that achievement even more remarkable, is that the frame is longer and features a larger diameter seat tube – to accommodate a wider array of dropper seatposts.
Stretched out reached makes the Epic more stable when descending and its stays have been spread to accommodate larger 2.3in 29er tyres, which boost climbing traction. The range-topping S-Works version is a remarkable 7.8kg build. Unquestionably the cross-country hardtail race bike to have.
BMC Team Elite 01
The Swiss softail alternative
Weight: 10.18kg | Size: S, M, L, XL | Seat tube: 27.2mm
You’d always expect some uniquely clever technical innovation from the Swiss and BMC’s Team Elite hardtail is an excellent example.
Technically you could classify this bike as a softail, due to the presence of BMC’s micro-travel seat stays. The Team Elite features an oversized seat stay to seat tube junction, and this houses an elastomer damper which adds 15mm of terrain absorption to the rear triangle.
Beyond its appealing ride compliance, the BMC’s geometry also integrates a relatively low stand-over height for a cross-country race-biased hardtail frame. This means that you can get your weight lower and more centred when flicking the bike through switchbacks.
An aluminium riot bike with steel principles
Weight: 2.3kg (frame) | Size: M, L, XL | Seat tube: 31.6mm
The Canadian boutique brand has significantly redesigned its downhill-biased hardtail and if you love railing berms and launching jumps, this is the bike for you.
Banshee’s staff include a former Rolls-Royce aviation engineer and, as such, the brand does nothing for the sake of fashion or trend. All its frame engineering has fundamental technical justification. The claim is that the third-generation Paradox rides with the compliance and comfort of a steel frame, while bring the lower mass benefit of aluminium construction.
Beautifully machined stays with structural cut-outs (which allow for lateral flex) are supported by internally ribbed tubing, to guarantee strength.
Santa Cruz Highball
A versatile carbon Californian
Weight: 9.18kg | Size: S, M, L, XL | Seat tube: 27.2mm
Another contemporary carbon hardtail which runs a 27.2mm seat post, Santa Cruz’s Highball might have all the attributes of a lightweight racing machine, but is does not shy away from descents.
Santa Cruz established its reputation with trail and downhill bikes. The company’s engineering focus is biased toward descending but with the Highball it proves that if you wish to race a Californian cross-country frame that isn’t from the big red ‘S’, you have alternatives.
A specific design feature that Santa Cruz has endured with relating to its Highball, is the eccentric bottom bracket, which allows the frame to be run single speed. And for those who wish to add some power miles to their training programme, this single gear adaptability is appealing.
Mondraker Podium RR Carbon
A very stable Spaniard
Weight: 8.9kg | Size: S, M, L, XL | Seat tube: 27.2mm
With its integrated stem and pronounced top-tube kink ahead of the headtube, the Mondraker has a unique profile.
Although Mondraker was among the first bike brands to champion longer bikes with its forward geometry concept, the Podium does not rank as an exceptionally long frame by 2019 standards. Its reach of 437mm is shorter than the Specialized Epic, but in terms of aero is has an advantage with its IST-Evo integrated stem technology. Without having to accommodate an upper headset cup or steering tube spacers, you save weight with the Mondraker IST-Evo stem, which has a mass of only 128g.
It remains an impressively light bike suited to those who wish to register PRs on then climbs. With a built weight of only 8.9kg, the Mondraker is nothing if not efficient.