The Best Hardtail Mountain Bikes
Best Hardtail Mountain Bike
Specialized Fuse Expert 29 2020
The Specialized Fuse continues its reign of dominance as our Editor's Choice hardtail mountain bike. For the 2020 model year, this bicycle received a total overhaul and it shreds harder than ever with 29-inch wheels. This bicycle does it all, it is a respectable climber, has a high-fun factor, descends well on a wide range of terrain, and wears a relatively solid build kit. Specialized delivered well-balanced geometry and this bike now runs 29x2.6-inch tires which deliver a precise and fast ride. Better yet, the Fuse is a solid value with an impressive price point and largely stellar build kit. We love it, we think you will too.
The Fuse isn't perfect. While the build kit is mostly dialed, the RockShox Gold 35 fork leaves a bit to be desired. The fork needed service immediately after purchase. Upon dropping the lower legs, we found that the fork had essentially no oil in it and the seals were near bone dry. Once rebuilt, it felt marginally better. Otherwise, there was little not to like about this capable and highly versatile hardtail.
Read review: Specialized Fuse Expert 29 2020
Best Hardtail to Serve As A Trail and Cross Country Bike
Ibis DV9 NX 2019
The Ibis DV9 is a lightweight bicycle that can slay a trail ride and is just as well suited to entering a cross country race. This bike has relatively upright, conservative, cross-country oriented geometry. This bike prioritizes pedal efficiency and quick handling over downhill prowess. The result is tremendous climbing efficiency, zippy acceleration, and razor-sharp steering. The NX build we tested is budget-oriented, but Ibis didn't skimp where it matters with a great fork, tires, wheels, and dropper post that enhance its all-around performance. This bicycle is a great choice for the rider who wants a versatile hardtail and frequently rides primarily smooth and flowy trails.
The downside? The DV9 isn't the best choice for riders who ride rough or chattery trails. The lightweight carbon fiber frame translates a lot of the trail surface to the rider. When your motoring over choppy terrain, you can definitely feel it. As a result, this bike is best piloted by experienced riders who can use proper form and soften their elbows and knees to finesse downhill.
Read review: Ibis DV9 NX 2019
Best Aggressive Hardtail
Rocky Mountain Growler 50
The Rocky Mountain Growler craves high speeds and rowdy terrain. This hardtail has super-aggressive geometry that is typically found on squishy enduro race bikes. This long bicycle is insanely stable at high speeds and has the angles to feel exceptionally confident on steeper terrain. The Growler responds well to an aggressive pilot and despite its length, likes to boost off rolls and bumps in the trail. The build kit was highlighted by some meaty 2.6-inch WTB tires that have a hard-charging attitude to match the Growler's outlook on life. Climbing up mellow and buff climbs was surprisingly pleasant thanks to a steep seat tube angle that puts you right on top of the cranks. If you are the kind of rider who enjoys getting rad and going fast, this is a great bike.
The Growler isn't quite perfect. Despite being a fairly impressive climber on mellow climbs, technical climbing can be problematic. The long wheelbase and super-slack front end can be hard to manage in tight spaces. It can just feel a little awkward. Even on the descent, tight corners and awkward maneuvers can be more stressful than they would be on a shorter and steeper bike. The build kit was a bit of a mixed bag. The Rocky Mountain Toonie dropper post failed on us but was replaced quickly under warranty. Also, the brakes are a little weak for how hard this bike wants to charge. Beyond that, there was little we didn't like about this hard-charging hardtail.
Read review: Rocky Mountain Growler 50
Best For Fun-Loving Riders
Santa Cruz Chameleon 29 R
The Santa Cruz Chameleon takes home a Top Pick for The Fun-Loving Rider. We have now tested this bike with 29-inch and 27.5+ wheels. If your idea of fun is boosting every side-hit, manualing dips in the trail, and scorching through corners, this is the bike for you. The downhill performance is great on the right terrain and the Chameleon prefers blasting down flow trails chock-full of berms and rolls. This bike is a respectable climber and is at its best when working up buff singletrack. When having fun is a top priority, we recommend the Chameleon. It also features adjustable dropouts so you can run this bike with 27.5+" or 29" wheels and tires, and it gives you the option to set it up as a single-speed.
While the Santa Cruz is an exceptionally amusing bicycle, it has somewhat of a narrow range of trails on which it excels. Climbing up bony and technical terrain is quite jarring and uncomfortable. It is especially noticeable on the 29er version that has narrower tires that require higher air pressure. On the descent, this bike isn't quite as versatile as others, especially when things get super rough. We think there are better one bike quivers, but few that offer the fun-loving and playful ride of the Chameleon.
Read review: Santa Cruz Chameleon 29 R
Best For Versatility and Adventure
Marin Pine Mountain 2 2020
The Marin Pine Mountain is a versatile steel hardtail that does it all. This rig was clearly designed with an emphasis on bikepacking. The frame has a lot of mounts and the steel construction creates a smooth and damp ride. The pedaling position is rock-solid and the Pine Mountain is a surprisingly competent climber. While this bike clearly prefers adventure rides, it holds up quite well on the average after-work trail ride. The middle-of-the-road geometry avoids being too long and slack or too steep and twitchy. It descends confidently, corners well, and scoots back up the hill surprisingly fast. Oh yeah, the build kit is rock solid given the price with highlights like a Shimano SLX 12-speed drivetrain and 4-piston brakes.
The Marin is a bikepacking/adventure bike that holds up pretty well as a trail bike. It should be noted that there are much better options for riders looking for a hardtail mountain bike for daily trail riding duties. As a trail bike, the Pine Mountain is a little bland, dull, and never stands out as particularly impressive. The beauty of this bike is in the versatility and can-do attitude, not its trail riding prowess.
Read review: Marin Pine Mountain 2 2020
Why You Should Trust Us
Pat Donahue, our former Senior Mountain Bike Editor at OutdoorGearLab, leads our hardtail review. Pat has ridden well over 150 bikes in the past 15 years. While he has spent several years on downhill and enduro race tracks, he prefers to just go out and ride. He is joined by professional skier, singletrack enthusiast, and bike mechanic Kyle Smaine; our Senior Mountain Bike Review Editor, Jeremy Benson, and bike industry veteran, Joshua Hutchens, who has done everything from owning and running his own shop in Oregon to guiding around the world since his early days on a BMX bike.
Our testing process is extremely tedious and it focuses on all the details. Oh yeah, it is also quite fun. Rest assured, we put these bikes through the paces in our lab and, more importantly, on the trail. We spend time carefully measuring each bicycle with our own tools and processes to see if the manufacturers differ significantly from our measurements.
Next comes the fun part. Each tester takes each bike on multiple test rides. We test these bikes on trails we are extremely familiar with. This familiarity means we ride the same exact lines on each bike and can easily discern between the ride properties of each model. Our test rides are not quick, 25-minute, hot laps. They are substantial, multi-hour rides.
We also do switchout days where were jump on bikes back to back in quick succession. This is an extremely important element of our testing process. Riding different bikes on the same trail, one after another, makes the relative differences and strengths and weaknesses extremely apparent.
Related: How We Tested Best Hardtail Bikes
Is a Hardtail Mountain Bike Right for You?
Mountain bikes are expensive. In fact, mountain bikes can get really expensive really quickly. Every model year, the prices seem to creep higher and higher as new technology is introduced.
Hardtail mountain bikes can be very appealing. The price tag is the first thing that will grab your attention. The lack of a rear suspension linkage and shock make these bikes less expensive to produce and easier to maintain. Hardtails are a fantastic way for newer riders to build skills as they force proper form and soft knees/elbows over rough terrain. Also, these can be excellent second bikes for full suspension owners who want a simple, hearty bike for wet and sloppy conditions. It's not all wonderful; hardtails have a far narrower range of trails they can comfortably ride. Additionally, they provide a much less forgiving ride by translating the trail surface to the rider's body more directly.
An entry-level full-suspension bike generally sells for somewhere in the neighborhood of $2,000. Reasonably well-equipped bikes will usually start above $3,000. If you ride regularly, all of the bearings and pivots on these full suspension bikes require maintenance to keep them running smoothly and quietly. This maintenance will likely run you a few hundred dollars a year. The enormous upside to full suspension bikes is they offer far superior performance in almost every area of the trail compared to hardtails. Great climbing traction, far more aggressive descending abilities, and all-day comfort are all benefits of full-squish rigs. Riders who intend on getting into mountain biking for the long-haul will typically benefit from dropping the extra coin for some rear suspension.
Which is right for you? Taking a look at your goals is essential.
If you are looking to head out on a relaxing ride once a week on mellow terrain with minimal amounts of technical features, a hardtail is a solid choice. Beginners looking to build their skills are also great candidates for these bikes. If you're in this camp, know that mountain biking can potentially be more fun on a full-suspension bike. Riders who want to ride a wide range of trails should strongly consider rear suspension. If you're going to ride multiple times a week and push your skillset, a full suspension bike is often the best option.
Some riders simply prefer the simplicity and efficiency of a hardtail. They have fewer moving parts, often weigh less, and you'll never lose energy through rear suspension movement. The added challenge of riding without the crutch of rear suspension appeals to many riders as well. It's really about personal preference. So, whether you're just starting out or you've been riding for decades, there are more styles of hardtail mountain bikes on the market than ever before, and something sure to match any rider's needs and budget.
If the price tag associated with a quality mountain bike has you choking, look no further! Hardtails are typically a pretty good value compared to their full-suspension counterparts. We don't rate the bikes we test based on their price, but we do love a good value. Bikes such as the Commencal Meta HT AM Essential represent what we believe to be an excellent value while a bike like the Trek Stache 9.7 is far more expensive.
Modern hardtails typically have one of four common wheel sizes. Each wheel size has strengths and weaknesses.
- 27.5 — Great for those who want a quick and playful ride. These are the smallest wheels that are being widely produced in 2020. These ninja-like wheels produce a quick, agile, and playful ride. These may be better suited to smaller riders or for experienced riders who are skilled pilots.
- 29 — Best for those who want to ride fast. As they say, big wheels keep on rollin'. These larger diameter "wagon wheels" roll very fast, carry loads of momentum and stay out of holes in the trail. It's harder to disturb the momentum of these big wheels. You sacrifice a bit of agility compared to 27.5-inch wheels. These are the best choice for those concerned about speed and covering ground.
- 27.5+ — 27.5+ wheels run 27.5 x 2.8 or 27.5 x 3.0 wheels. These deliver boatloads of traction. In addition, you can run these tires at much lower pressures and they add an element of cushion or damping to the ride. This can be extremely important on a hardtail.
- 29+ — A few bikes run 29+ wheels. This runs a 29 x 3.0 or 29 x 2.8-inch tire. These are really, really big wheels that deliver insane stability and roll very fast. These are great wheels for exploring and maybe a bikepacking mission. Given the sheer mass of these tires, acceleration is not a strong suit and they can feel quite clunky in tight spaces. In addition, they are about as far from playful as you can get
Note: Tire choice can make a massive difference within a wheel size — for example, a 29 x 2.3-inch tire rides very differently than a 29 x 2.6-inch tire. Adding a bit of width can make for a more aggressive feel and provide a bit of damping.
Carbon Fiber vs. Aluminum vs. Steel
Frame material is important. Each frame material has inherent strengths and weaknesses that can have an enormous effect on performance and price. Your budget will dictate frame material to a large extent, but here is a brief rundown of the strengths and weaknesses of each material.
- Carbon Fiber — The lightest, stiffest, and strongest option. It's also one of the more expensive materials. Carbon fiber transmits your power and body movements most effectively. The stiff ride is responsive, and the lower weight is a huge bonus. Carbon fiber ages well, meaning it retains its integrity better than aluminum that weakens over the years. It is also the strongest of the frame materials. The catch, while carbon fiber is extremely strong, it doesn't stand up well to being crashed into rocks. Also, it isn't eco-friendly as it has no way of being recycled.
- Aluminum — This reliable metal is less expensive and doesn't age as well as carbon fiber. While aluminum is not as stiff as carbon fiber, it responds better to getting dropped in rocks. Additionally, it isn't quite as unforgiving as carbon fiber, which results in minor amounts of frame flex. No big deal. This flex can work in your favor by softening the harsh feel of a hardtail. This material is easily recyclable.
- Steel — Some hardtail bikes, particularly from smaller manufacturers, are built with steel. Steel is less stiff than carbon fiber and aluminum resulting in a bit of frame flex. The upside? It provides a more damp ride than the other materials. Additionally, steel can be repaired if a weld fails.
Hardtails are typically associated with a more old school ride feel and this is related to their rigid rear ends and frame geometry. Modern mountain bike geometry trends are slowly but surely making their way into the design of hardtail mountain bikes and there are currently more different styles of hardtails on the market than ever before. Brands have been diversifying their frame geometries to achieve different ride characteristics. Nearly all hardtails are efficient climbers due to their lack of rear suspension although there are differences in uphill handling based on the length of the wheelbase and reach as well as the head tube angle.
These days you can get a quick-handling carbon fiber framed model with a middle of the road geometry, like the Ibis DV9 or the Trek Stache, that are lightweight, efficient, fast-rolling, and eat up miles and vertical like it's their job. In the case of the DV9, it's a versatile trail-worthy bike that could easily double as an XC race bike on the weekends. Moderate geometries lend themselves well to versatility and bikes like the Specialized Fuse are great examples of this. The Fuse is very well rounded, and it performs impressively well in virtually all situations. You'll also find models like the Marin Pine Mountain, with more conservative geometry, that are better for less aggressive trail riding and are well suited to bike packing and adventure riding.
On the other end of the spectrum, we now have companies bringing long and slack to the designs of their hardtail frames. The terms aggressive and enduro haven't been associated much with hardtail mountain bikes until more recently as brands like Rocky Mountain and Commencal have started producing downhill oriented models. The Commencal Meta HT AM, for example, has a slack head angle and a 160mm fork that give this bike the ability to get rowdy. The Rocky Mountain Growler 50 is similarly downhill oriented with a long wheelbase, low bottom bracket, and long reach that thrives at speed on the descents.
There you have it, our comprehensive review of the best hardtail mountain bikes. There are plenty of reasons to buy a hardtail as opposed to a full-suspension mountain bicycle. These unforgiving bicycles teach proper form and technique as there is no suspension to bail you out. In addition, the lack of rear suspension requires far less maintenance than a complicated full suspension bike with a ton of creaky bearings. In addition, they tend to be more affordable for the masses. Oh yeah, they are also really fun.The Specialized Fuse continues its reign as Editor's Choice for Best Hardtail Mountain bike. The Fuse is incredibly fun and it offers balance and well-rounded performance. The Ibis DV9 is a no-brainer for riders who value a light and efficient hardtail. The Ibis climbs like the wind and relies on its razor-sharp handling to slice and dice through tricky sections of trail. The Rocky Mountain Growler 50 dominates the descent. The Growler is one aggressive bike and is unbelievably stable at high speeds. The Santa Cruz Chameleon is a fun-loving hardtail for riders who like to manual, boost, and drift their way down the trail. Those looking for a versatile bike that is equally at home on casual trail rides and bike packing adventures alike should give the Marin Pine Mountain 2 a look.
— Pat Donahue, Kyle Smaine, Jeremy Benson, Joshua Hutchens