We are perpetually scouring the internet to find the very best hardtail mountain bikes. After researching over 50 models, we bought 12 of the most compelling hardtails on the market. Our team of testers spent months upon months riding these bikes to produce this comparative analysis. Our goal was to expose the strengths and weaknesses of each model to find the best bicycle for you. Yes, hardtails may fall short to squishy bikes in downhill performance and comfort. That said, they compensate for these shortcomings with a high level of efficiency, simplicity, and a lower maintenance cost. In addition, these bikes force you to use proper technique and smart lines to ride rough terrain. Carry on to find out which hardtail mountain bikes were our favorite.
The Best Hardtail Mountain Bikes
|Price||$2,150 List||$2,550 List||$2,399.00 at Competitive Cyclist||$1,599 List||$1,499 List|
|Pros||High value, fun on a wide range of terrain, dialed geometry||Swift climbing, sharp handling, excellent value||High fun-factor, rails corners, very poppy||Excellent descender, high-end fork, excellent pop out of corners||Excellent high-speed stability, great traction, capable on rough terrain|
|Cons||Poor fork specification, less compliant frame compared to outgoing model||Not as fun on rough trails, 11-speed drivetrain||Narrow range of terrain where it shines, terrible rear tire specification||No dropper post, weak tire specification||Geometry could be awkward for some, no dropper post, long wheelbase|
|Bottom Line||A stellar hardtail that is tremendously fun, versatile, and a solid value.||A swift-climbing hardtail that could serve as a daily driver or a cross-country race bike||A supremely adjustable hardtail that has a high fun-factor but is at home on a narrow range of terrain.||An aggressive descender with an impressive build kit despite a couple notable drawbacks.||An aggressive hardtail built for high speeds with some geometry quirks.|
|Rating Categories||Specialized Fuse Expert 29||Ibis DV9 NX||Santa Cruz Chameleon 29 R||Meta HT AM Essential||Whyte 901|
|Fun Factor (25%)|
|Specs||Specialized Fuse...||Ibis DV9 NX||Santa Cruz...||Meta HT AM Essential||Whyte 901|
|Weight (w/o pedals)||29 lbs 14 oz||26 lbs 8 oz||30 lbs 5 oz||29 lbs 8 oz||28 lbs 2 oz|
|Frame Size Tested||Large||Large||Large||Medium||Large|
|Available Sizes||XS, S, M, L, XL||S, M, L, XL||S, M, L, XL||S, M, L, XL||S, M, L|
|Fork||RockShox 35 Gold RL, 130mm||Fox Float Rhythm 34||Fox Rhythm 34 120mm||RockShox Yari RC, 160mm, 35mm stanchons||RockShox Recon RL Gold 130mm, 32mm stanchions|
|Wheelset||Specialized Stout Alloy SL, 29mm ID||Ibis Hubs, Ibis 938 Alloy rims||SRAM MTH hubs with WTB ST i25 TCS 2.0 rims||E*Thirteen TRS, w/ Formula Hubs, 35mm ID||WTB i29 w/ Boost hubs, 29mm ID|
|Front Tire||Specialized Butcher Grid, Gripton, 2.6"||Schwalbe Hans Dampf 2.6"||Maxxis Minion DHF EXO TR 2.3"||Vee Tire Co Flow Snap 27.5 x 2.6||Maxxis Forekaster 27.5 x 2.6|
|Rear Tire||Specialized Purgatory Grid, Gripton, 2.6"||Schwalbe Nobby Nic 2.6"||Maxxis Ardent Race EXO TR 2.25"||Vee Tire Co Flow Snap 27.5 x 2.6||Maxxis Forekaster 27.5 x 2.6|
|Shifters||SRAM NX Eagle||SRAM NX 11-speed||SRAM NX Eagle||SRAM NX 11-Speed||SRAM NX 11-Speed|
|Rear Derailleur||SRAM NX Eagle||SRAM NX 11-Speed||SRAM NX Eagle||SRAM NX 11-Speed||SRAM NX 11-Speed|
|Crankset||SRAM NX Eagle DUB||SRAM NX 30T||SRAM NX Eagle 148 DUB 30T 175mm||SRAM NX 32t||SRAM NX 30t|
|Bottom Bracket||SRAM DUB Threaded||SRAM GXP XR||SRAM DUB Threaded||Press Fit||Threaded|
|Cassette||SRAM NX 11-50T||SRAM PG 1130 11-42T||SRAM PG 1230 11-50T||SRAM PG-1130 11-42t||SRAM PG-1130 11-42t|
|Saddle||Specialized Bridge Comp||WTB Silverado 142||WTB Silverado Race||Ride Alpha||Whyte Custom|
|Seatpost||TranzX dropper 150mm travel 34.9mm diameter||KS E30i Dropper||Race Face Aeffect||Ride Alpha Rigid||Whyte Rigid|
|Handlebar||Specialized Stout Riser 780mm||Ibis 780mm Alloy||Race Face Ride||Ride Alpha 780mm, 31.8 clamp||Whyte 760mm|
|Stem||Specialized Stout||Ibis||Race Face Ride||Ride Alpha 40mm||Whyte 40mm|
|Brakes||SRAM Level TRL||SRAM Level||SRAM Level T||SRAM Level||SRAM Level|
|Grips||Specialized Trail||Lizard Skins Charger Evo||Santa Cruz Palmdale||Ride Alpha||Whyte Lock-On|
|Warranty||Lifetime||Seven Years||Lifetime||Five Years||Four Years|
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 delivers 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
Commencal Meta HT AM Essential 2019
The Commencal Meta HT AM is a rowdy hardtail that lives for fast downhills. This hardtail bicycle uses long and low enduro-oriented geometry typically found on full suspension bikes. The result is our most downhill capable and aggressive hardtail that charges harder than we expected. The downhill oriented geometry is a bit of a detriment to its climbing performance, but other than a wandering front end it still fares reasonably well on the uphills. Our test bike came outfitted with a stellar build kit at an impressive price. Our Essential build is highlighted by a 160mm RockShox Yari fork that is typically found on bicycles with a much higher price tag.
To be clear, this isn't the perfect bicycle. Due to the slack angles, handling can be quite sluggish at slower speeds and through sharper corners. In addition, it came stock with some miserable tires which we punctured multiple times. Oh yeah, it also came with a rigid seat post. The lack of the dropper post significantly detracts from the fun factor of this otherwise aggressive hardtail.
Read review: Commencal Meta HT AM 2019
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
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; elite, multi-discipline Australian competitive cyclist Paul Tindal; 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 very involved and thorough. You can rest assured that we did our due diligence with these bicycles. First, we gather our test bikes and painstakingly measure each model. Yes, manufacturers do provide geometry charts for each model, but we feel it is more thorough to measure each bike ourselves to eliminate any variance in measuring techniques. Furthermore, we frequently find some substantial discrepancies between our measurements and those provided by the manufacturer.
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 bike. 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 Whyte 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 Whyte 901 is similarly downhill oriented with a long wheelbase, low bottom bracket, and long reach that thrives at speed on the descents.
We hope this review has been helpful. These hardtail mountain bikes are a fantastic option for the budget-conscious beginner and the seasoned rider alike. These unforgiving bicycles force proper form and finesse and help build skills and require less maintenance than complex full-suspension bikes.
The Specialized Fuse continues its run of dominance as our Editor's Choice hardtail mountain bike. The Ibis DV9 is a clear choice for those riders seeking swift climbing, zippy acceleration, and might want to enter a cross country race or two. The Commencal Meta HT AM is still the downhill king. The Santa Cruz Chameleon returns to our test and earned a Top Pick for those seeking a fun and playful ride. Stay tuned as we will be sprinkling new bikes in periodically.
— Pat Donahue, Kyle Smaine, Paul Tindal, Joshua Hutchens