Hardtails are making a comeback. More trail friendly builds are finding their way into shops every year.
They’re a real alternative to expensive and maintenance-intensive full suspensions, or for people who want a purer riding experience.
Yet, if you ask for mountain bike advice, it’s almost a forgone conclusion you’ll be recommended a full suspension. A hardtail mountain bike is treated as a relic of days gone by. For crazy people who don’t know any better. Or for hardcore cross country racers only. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
They are rewarding, fun, simple, cheap, and will make you a better biker.
Riding a Hardtail Mountain Bike
Better Trail Feel
A hardtail mountain bike connects you to the trail.
Feeling connected to the trail is one of the great things about riding a hardtail mountain bike–that instant feedback every time you roll a hill or pedal out of a corner.
In Editor Bio I talk about my whitewater kayaking history. One of the best feelings with kayaking is that there’s only a thin layer of plastic between you and the water. It’s a pure, almost spiritual experience. A hardtail mountain bike is the best way to have this same feeling on two wheels.
With a full suspension there is a layer of insulation. On many trails you can point the bike downhill and let the suspension do all the work.
With a hardtail, you don’t have this luxury.
You rise and flow with the trail, weaving between rocks and trees as you seek out the smoothest line. The bike doesn’t bog down–it instantly reacts to your every input and motion.
A hardtail doesn’t sag when you start to pedal, whether it’s on a straight-away or up a climb. You put the power down and the bike reacts immediately.
There’s no rear suspension to worry about tuning, or switching into the right “mode”, or forgetting to switch entirely.
The hardtail mountain bike just is: ready for any descent or climb, the only limiting factor how aggressively you want to throw yourself and the bike around.
It’s a more engaging and rewarding experience.
You are one with the trail. There is nothing in between. And that, to me, is the best reason to ride a hardtail.
A Hardtail Mountain Bike will Save You Money and Frustration
A full suspension with its more complicated, and expensive, shock and rear triangle.
You get better components on a hardtail mountain bike than a full suspension for the same price.
Better fork, better brakes, better drivetrain, better wheels.
And you’ll save yourself time and money on maintenance costs throughout its lifetime.
On a full suspension the shock and rear triangle (the back part of the bike that moves up and down) are finicky. They creak. They cost more. The shocks need to be serviced at least once a year.
Every moving part in that rear triangle rotates around a suspension pivot. There are several pivot points on every full suspension. Pivots need to be checked periodically (at least once a month) for proper torque. If you don’t, bolts can fall out and ruin your day.
When your bike creaks, more often than not it’s a pivot. They can be improperly torqued, dirty, or worn out. Creaks are much easier to find on a hardtail, because there are less moving parts.
Rear triangles are tougher to clean.
With a hardtail mountain bike, you have none of these issues.
There are no complicated moving parts. There is no expensive shock to maintain and tune. It’s easier to clean.
Over the lifetime of a hardtail you’ll save time and money. Maintaining a full suspension, especially if you’re a Sasquatch Rider, takes patience and a keen observance of maintenance intervals.
Even if you’re buying a used hardtail mountain bike you’ll have more confidence in its condition. You won’t have to worry about extra moving parts, pivots, and shocks that are tough to test in someone’s driveway.
With hardtails what you see is what you get.
And there is beauty in simplicity.
Why Hardtails are a Great Choice for Beginners
You’ll learn how to use your legs and relax on bumpy sections like this, instead of letting a rear suspension do the work.
A hardtail mountain bike is cheaper and easier to maintain. For a first bike, these are huge benefits over buying a full suspension.
But the biggest benefit is that hardtails actually teach you how to ride. An over confident beginner who’s only been on a full suspension will often struggle on advanced trails. They have difficulty because they’re used to letting the bike do all the work. They don’t know how to properly shift their weight and use their legs.
On a hardtail you actually learn how to ride.
Proper body positioning and line choice is absolutely essential for a hardtail mountain bike.
To put it another way: you’ll learn how to ride competently quicker on a hardtail than a full suspension. You won’t find yourself getting in over your head, because a hardtail provides such instant trail feedback that there is no “cheating” or “floating down” like there is with a full suspension.
A hardtail mountain bike reacts quicker in turns. Full suspensions compress and bog down in corners. They can wander as the suspension dips and bobs. As a beginner it can be tough tuning your suspension to suit your style of riding.
Now, people will definitely say you’re crazy for considering a hardtail as a beginner because it is a “harsher ride” than a full suspension.
For this point, keep in mind that a key technique for descending is to drop your seat and hover over your bike, almost standing, while the bike works beneath you (see the picture above). On a full suspension this is straight forward–just stand off the seat and everything floats under you.
On a hardtail mountain bike your legs work a bit harder because they flow up and down with the trail, instead of an expensive rear shock. But this just means you’re learning better technique which will pay off down the road. You’ll be better for it and miles ahead of you friends that don’t learn this skill.
To put this clearly: a full suspension does most of the work; on a hardtail you do more of the work.
Very rarely will you sit down on descents. But I should note: if you do sit on a hardtail while going down a trail, it will be bumpier than a full suspension.
Lastly, one of the biggest surprises for most beginners–the amount of physical work it is to climb a trail–is less of an issue with hardtails. The solid rear end instantly translates your power to the ground, making your pedalling more effective (i.e. easier) than a full suspension.
Biking has many assumptions–and the assumption you can’t be on a hardtail is one of the biggest.
If your friends or the bike shop insist you start on a full suspension, take the time to make your own decision. Demo a hardtail and a full suspension. The full suspension may feel more comfortable but the responsiveness, simplicity, affordability, and better components of the hardtail should be kept in mind.
Lastly, if you’re on a hardtail mountain bike and your friends are on plush full suspensions, you get automatic bragging rights!
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Why Hardtails are a Great Choice for Intermediate/ Advanced Riders
A hardtail mountain bike is a perfect second bike for social days and spicing up the same old trails
Hardtails are a great way to make the same old trails interesting, or for cruisy social rides.
Since hardtails require more focus and work they provide a new perspective on the same trails you’ve done over and over. And they make Blacks more interesting and fun.
To use an example from my experience: I had reached my limits on my enduro full suspension. I found myself flying off jumps and down technical sections with little care. As long as I landed “rubber side down” the suspension would take care of everything.
Now, on the Rocky Mountain Growler, I need more focus to negotiate the same trails and keep my speed. In fact, because of tighter line choice, I’m now faster on some trails than I was before.
I feel like I’m actually riding the trail, instead of coasting down and letting the bike do all the work. Steeper Blacks are definitely more effort, but the feeling of accomplishment is worth it.
Using your legs as a suspension and constantly shifting your weight around on steep or fast technical sections is so much more engaging.
Simply riding a hardtail mountain bike will make you stronger, tighten up your core, strengthen your legs, and build your shoulders.
For advanced riders that also get out with beginners or on mellower trails, a hardtail is a fantastic option to mix things up.
It is absolutely worth adding a hardtail mountain bike to your quiver, especially if you find one for cheap or build up as a project.
The Main Challenges of a Hardtail
Bigger roots require careful body positioning, especially on steep technical climbs, to prevent the back wheel from spinning out.
For transparency I want to mention potential drawbacks and point out where your experience may differ from mine.
The instant trail feedback and lower margin of error (compared to full suspensions) will take some getting used to for intermediate and advanced riders.
Beginner riders likely won’t notice these problems, and that’s a good thing because you’ll learn them as soon as you start riding–and be better for it.
But for riders used to higher speeds and steeper descents, the lack of traction on a hardtail mountain bike compared to a full suspension will take some adjustment. This was the biggest difference for me when I made the switch.
It takes more focus to keep the rear wheel grounded in certain situations. At higher speeds, or on climbs, those same roots and small rocks that would get absorbed by the rear suspension can make the hardtail mountain bike bouncy if you aren’t paying attention.
Braking requires more modulation. A lighter touch is needed to maintain traction and make micro adjustments to stay on line. With a full suspension, getting slightly offline typically isn’t as big a deal because the suspension eats up so many rider errors.
Finally, because steeper technical sections (both climbing and descending) require more rider control, a hardtail is a full body workout that may cause extra soreness on your first few rides. But once your body adjusts you’ll be stronger and fitter.
Hardtails are Making a Comeback
A hardtail mountain bike carves berms before you blast out. No sagging suspension to ruin the fun!
More hardtails are appearing on the market.
They used to be built for cross-country only, but more are designed with slacker geometry, beefier components, and an all-mountain feel. Bike technology has come a long way and a hardtail is an excellent choice for all skill levels.
Aggressive hardtails, like the one I ride, are a whole new category of bike that has popped up in recent years. With it I ride everything I used to take my enduro full suspension down.
Full suspensions have their place, I won’t argue that. But for me, as an everyday rider, they were becoming a dull mix of boring and too forgiving. I would have to push myself on more consequential gnar to get a feeling of accomplishment
Now, on a hardtail mountain bike, I get that feeling on all the same trails while becoming a stronger rider.
Give a hardtail serious consideration, no matter what kind of biker you are.
Their simplicity, riding style, and trail connection can’t be beat!
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