The world's most in-depth and scientific reviews of outdoor gear

How We Tested Best Hardtail Bikes

Tuesday April 30, 2019
Testers prepare for time trials.
Testers prepare for time trials.


It's not easy to navigate the wide, wide world of bike buying. How do you find the right ride for you? We're here to help. First, we scour the web for the most intriguing models from the most well-respected companies. Then, we narrow the field down to some of the very best bikes and buy them. Finally, we test the tread off them, using a benchmarking time trial process, to help you find your ride.

Getting ready to ride.
Getting ready to ride.

Addressing Component and Adjustment Issues

We buy and test complete bikes, operating under the assumption that manufacturers are building out their frame to showcase its capabilities. At the sub-$2000 price point for our hardtail test, component quality varied widely. The most significant issues were the presence or absence of dropper seatposts and the stock tires. While the former is an expensive upgrade, the latter is not.

Another aspect of the bikes to consider is the adjustable chainstay length on the Santa Cruz Chameleon, and Trek Stache. The Chameleon arrived in the shortest chainstay setting, the Stache in its longest, so that is how we tested them.

We conduct time trials and ride quality laps to get a feel for the bikes exactly as bike companies build them. However, we do make adjustments afterward and ride the bikes more to see if we need to investigate any issues in more depth. In this test, we switched out the 2.3-inch tires on the Kona Honzo for some 2.5-inch rubber and tried the Chameleon in its extended chainstay mode.

Bike logistics at its best.
Bike logistics at its best.

The Test Metrics

We rate the bikes on how much fun we have riding them, i.e.,fun factor, their build quality, and their downhill, climbing, and cornering performance. We rank the fun factor by judging which bike was the most popular amongst testers for throughout testing. We gather information on the bike's descending, climbing and cornering skills during our ride quality laps and benchmarking time trials. Then, we all stand around with beers and pick apart their builds, daydreaming about what we would do to improve their performance. After that, we rank them overall and then tell you all about it. It's a pretty fun process.

Ride Quality Laps

All of our testers get out on these bikes as often as possible on a variety of trails during our six week testing period. We also require that each tester designates one 10 to 15-mile loop that they ride at least once on every bike. This ride must, 1. Be a longtime favorite that they know like the back of their bars, 2. Incorporate a disgustingly steep climb, 3. Have a relatively technical and fun descent, and 4. Have a handful of switchbacks and some sweeping turns. They fill out questionnaires after every ride, and we interview them about their experiences after testing.

Faceoff -- hardtails v full-suspension. We tested both at the same time.
Faceoff -- hardtails v full-suspension. We tested both at the same time.

Benchmark Testing, i.e. Time Trials

We time the bikes on up and downhill courses to see if our feelings about how fast and efficient they are confirmed in reality. We're wrong pretty often. For example, the 3-inch tired Specialized Fuse feels a bit sluggish climbing, but it won the uphill time trials. To feel confident about our results, we have to be quite meticulous in our methodology. Read all about it below.

Test Trails

The first step is selecting the right time trial course. We didn't nail it this time. Our uphill and downhill courses were connected. We climbed switchbacking hardpack with a few technical stretches on an eastern facing aspect and rolled right into the downhill track. The downhill trail is a pedal-y descent on a southern facing aspect. We ran into a lot of wind, so we threw the downhill numbers out. The Trek Stache was still the winning bike for every tester by a good margin, so we feel comfortable mentioning that.

The climbing course was located on a more sheltered aspect, and we feel good about the numbers we got, with the bikes ranking very similarly across testers.

Timing Equipment

The Freelap Timing System that we use records times to one-hundredth of a second. All you have to do is attach a radio chip to the bars of a bike and set up the gates at the start and end of the track, with splits in the middle if you like. It's pretty slick.

Number of Laps Needed

In statistics, the more numbers you obtain, the better. We aim for four solid uphill and downhill laps for each of three testers. This gives us 12 lap times per bike. This amount of laps provides us with a lot of confidence in our numbers if they are consistent per rider per bike. If they are not, we have the testers run more laps. If we run out of time, we throw out the numbers and keep all the hard-earned antidotes from our testers.

Staging area art.
Staging area art.

Reducing the Chaos

To make sure our numbers capture bike speed and not confounding factors like trail conditions or rider fitness we take the following precautions:

Trail Condition — Our first test day sets the pace for the rest. Ideally, it is a dry day that isn't edging toward drought. If it rains or snows after that, we skip a few days until the trail returns to a similar condition. (The benefit of working in the arid west.)

Bike Order — Each tester rides each bike on two different days staggered throughout our timed testing period. This way, if the trail does shift subtly, each bike is exposed to that shift equally. It also mitigates any off days a tester might experience. Riders pilot one bike for two laps, and then another for two laps on each test day. Then, we have a schedule ensuring that the first bike is ridden last on another test day and the last bike is ridden first on yet another.

Laps per day — We look at the length of a course, whether it is uphill or downhill, and the fitness level of each tester to determine how many repeatable laps a tester can complete on a given day.

The Human Factor — Ideally our riders would be robots, but then they'd be less fun to hang out with after work. So, we make sure that they are as consistent as possible by taking the following precautions.
  • Find racers. Racers are great at moderating their efforts.
  • Know the trails. Unless you know a trail very, very well, it's easy to get faster with every practice run. These testers have to have their line dialed on day one.
  • Kill competition. No one gets to tell anyone else their times. Competitive pressure can speed times significantly over several weeks.
  • Have mad skills. We want laps that push the limits of repeatable speed, even on the technical elements. Think interval training. These riders need to be on it at all times.
  • Wear a uniform. Riders wear similar kits every day to reduce drag differences.

We measured all the bikes and refer to these numbers in each review. The Fuse's measurements are above. Read about our methods in How We Tested.
We measured all the bikes and refer to these numbers in each review. The Fuse's measurements are above. Read about our methods in How We Tested.

Measuring Bike Geometry

Bike geometry gives you an idea of how a bike will perform and how it will fit. Unfortunately, there is no standardized method for measuring geometry across manufacturers. For that reason, we measure all of our test bikes so that we can compare apples to apples. Our methods may differ from those of the manufacturers; our measurements might differ as well. Our tools for measuring bikes include a Park Tool Digital Scale, an Intercomp Digital Angle Gauge, a grease pen, a six-foot beam level, two straightedges (three and six-foot), a tape measure, a laser beam, and a digital protractor goniometer.

Effective Top Tube Length - We locate the center of the seat tube at a level point across from the center of the head tube. We mark the seat tube with a grease pen and confirm it is level with our six-foot beam level. Once we are comfortable the marking is level; we measure the distance with our six-foot straightedge.

Reach - Reach is determined by holding our straight edge from the center of the head tube from the mark mentioned above on the seat post. Once we have confirmed the straight edge is level, we use our laser beam to create a vertical line that bisects the bottom bracket shell upwards to the straight edge. The point on the straight edge where the laser intersects perpendicularly is our reach measurement.

Head Tube Angle - We find the head tube angle by placing our Intercomp digital angle gauge directly on the front of the fork stanchion. We confirm by measuring the fork lower legs as well, being careful to avoid any bumps or ridges in the leg. We double check our measurements with the digital protractor goniometer.

Seat Tube Angle - Whenever possible we like to use our digital angle finder to measure seat tube angles. The problem is that modern frame design often features a good deal of curves and interference in the seat tube. We do the bulk of our seat tube angle measurements with our digital protractor goniometer.

Bottom Bracket Height - We use our three-foot straight edge to measure vertically from the ground to the center of the bottom bracket.

Standover Height - To find our standover height we place the vertical laser beam on the ground 7-inches in front of the bottom bracket. We use our six-foot straightedge to measure the height where the laser clears the top tube. We put the beam 7" in front of the bottom bracket because that is where people stand over a frame.

Chainstay Length - Chainstay length is determined by using the six-foot straightedge to measure the distance between the center of the bottom bracket to the center of the rear axle.

Wheelbase - To find wheelbase we measure from the center of the front axle to the center of the rear axle with our six-foot straightedge.

Weight - Weight is determined simply by using a hanging Park Tool Digital Scale to weigh the bikes without pedals.