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Best hardtail mountain bikes: buyer's guide

Joseph Delves
30 Nov 2020

Cyclist directs you to the best hardtail mountain bikes for sweet trail action

A hardtail mountain bike is an off-road bicycle without rear suspension. While full-suspension bikes might have made more noise in recent years, hardtails still have a lot to recommend them. Lighter, cheaper and easier to service, their directness and acceleration are more than a match for more bouncy bicycles in many situations.

Of course, the most race-focussed cross-country bikes can founder in aggressive terrain. However, there are plenty of trail-capable hardtails that employ large tyres and deep reservoirs of suspension to soak up bumps, jumps and rock gardens.

Here are seven of our favourites…

Best hardtail mountain bikes

1. The best all-round trail hardtail mountain bike: Giant Fathom 29 2

Buy now from Rutland for £1,249

This perfectly pitched hardtail from Giant is light enough to nip up the hills and stable enough to swoop back down them. Based around an extensively worked aluminium frame, it features fairly raked-out angles, allowing the Fathom to concentrate its energies on the most fun parts of the trail.

It's the sort of bike that’ll have you searching the map for new places to ride, knowing that very few of them will be out of bounds. With its Suntour Raidon air-sprung suspension fork providing 130mm of travel, the chunky Maxxis tyres wrapped around its 29-inch rims are equally capable. With an internally wired dropper post, plus short stem and wide bars, it’s a very capable bike.

At the same time, its huge range of gears and decent weight mean the Fathom will happily ride all day. Single-ring, ultra-wide Deore 12-speed gearing, bolt-through axles, great paint job – it’s all benchmark stuff. Yet the Giant supplies it at a price that’s easy to swallow, leaving nothing but grins all round.

Frame: ALUXX SL aluminium Fork: Suntour Raidon 130mm travel Gears: Shimano Deore 12-speed Brakes: Tektro TKD143 Tyre Size: Maxxis Minion/Aggressor 29 2.5-inch Additional Features: Giant Contact Switch dropper post

Buy now from Rutland for £1,249

2. The best hardtail mountain bike for XC speed: Mondraker Podium Carbon

Buy now from Tredz for £3,799

The Mondraker didn’t come here to make friends. It came here to go fast, get the prize money and bugger off. An accessibly priced version of one of the lightest XC platforms on the planet, the Podium Carbon still retains enough pizzaz to put in by far the raciest performance of any bike here.

With an incredibly skinny top tube and seatstays, its conventional 27.2mm seatpost is equally svelte. Bolted into the bike’s low front end is a comparatively short 100mm RockShox SID fork, while the tyres are fast-rolling 2.2-inch wide Maxxis Ikon models.

However, while this bike is all about maximising your heart rate on the climbs and holding your threshold on the flats, it’s not been entirely passed over by the trend towards more trail-orientated riding. Its Sram GX Eagle 12-speed gearing needs only a single chainring thanks to its wide 10-50t cassette. At the same time, its clutch mechanism means your chain should stay in place whatever you get up to.

Frame: Podium 29 Stealth Air Carbon Fork: Rockshox SID SL Select 100mm Gears: Sram GX Eagle 12-speed Brakes: Sram Level TL Tyre Size: Maxxis Ikon 29x2.20-inch Additional Features: Tubeless ready

Buy now from Tredz for £3,799

3. The best hardtail mountain bike for endurance efforts: Santa Cruz Highball

Buy now from Leisure Lakes for £2,899

A race bike that still provides a more than average amount of fun when not competing. Sure the 100mm fork with remote lockout, quick handling, and conventional 27.2mm seatpost suggest a bike made for flat-out speed. Yet there’s just enough of a twinkle to make it a blast on more endurance-focused escapades.

Aided by its superlative comfort and the sort of manners you’d expect to come baked into a bike assembled under the California sun, it’s a great companion for marathon efforts – competitive or otherwise. Three bottle cages and a reliable threaded bottom bracket are also both features added by a designer who regularly rides in the real world.

Available in various custom builds, this entry-level one would easily be mid-range in most suppliers' catalogues. Employing a Fox Rhythm fork and Sram NX Eagle 12-speed groupset, plus a gorgeous red paint job, we can’t think of much reason to spend more.

Frame: Santa Cruz Carbon C Fork: Fox Rhythm 32 100mm Gears: Sram NX Eagle 12-speed Brakes: Sram Level T Tyre Size: Maxxis Rekon 29x2.25-inch Additional Features: Tubeless ready

Buy now from Leisure Lakes for £2,899

4. The best aggressive steel hardtail mountain bike: Marin El Roy

Buy now from Brink for £2,295

The Marin El Roy is one bad hombre. With a steel frame, huge wheelbase and 140mm Marzocchi Z1 fork, it’s basically the kid your mum didn’t like you playing with transformed into a bike. Not just capable for a hardtail, this bike is capable full stop.

Made of quality steel, and with all mod cons, its frame should survive pretty much indefinitely. Unlike many other ultra-aggressive hardtails, the El Roy sticks with larger 29-inch wheels, improving its ability to roll over rough terrain without hanging up. Wrapping these are monstrous 2.5-inch Maxxis Assegai tyres that provide further impending through their volume, along with huge amounts of grip.

Although riding uphill is unlikely to be your biggest priority, Shimano’s Deore 12-speed groupset provides a wide 10-51t cassette to ensure you can manage it when called to. Rounded off by a long-travel X-fusion dropper post, 780mm handlebar and stash mount beneath the top tube, the Marin comes ready for trouble.

Frame: Double Butted CrMo Fork: Marzocchi Z1 140mm Gears: Shimano Deore 12-speed Brakes: Shimano MT420 Tyre Size: Maxxis Assegai 29x2.5-inch Additional Features: Dropper post, stash mounts

Buy now from Brink for £2,295

5. The best value hardtail mountain bike: Calibre Two Cubed

Buy now from GoOutdoors for £500

Calibre’s Two Cubed is a phenomenal bike for the money. It’s got a Rock Shox XC30 fork that gives 100mm of travel, it’s got Tektro hydraulic disc brakes, a sensible Shimano Altus 2x9-speed groupset, plus splendid high-volume WTB Trail Boss tyres. But it’s not just a collection of bits, at heart its design also shows a degree of care usually reserved for more expensive bikes.

For one, with a long top tube and slackish head angle, the aluminium frame steers a course between being fun and efficient. Its smaller diameter 27.5-inch wheels make for a nimble ride that’ll suit younger riders but will also work well for taller folk too. The bars and stem fit the modern trend by being wide and short for control through rough sections, although not so much as to limits the bike’s more general usefulness.

Applied to the trail, the whole thing is mediated through fast and grippy WTB Trail Boss tyres. With plenty of extra squish, they ensure that anyone using the Two Cubed as a first trail-centre bike is unlikely to find themselves lagging behind those on more expensive machines. An incredibly competent bike for very little cash.

Frame: 6061 Alloy Fork: Rock Shox XC 30 100mm Gears: Shimano Altus 2x9-speed Brakes: Tektro hydraulic Tyre Size: WTB Trail Boss 27.5x2.35-inch Additional Features: n/a

Buy now from GoOutdoors for £500

6. The best hardtail mountain bike for mucking about: Kona Mahuna

Buy now from Wiggle for £759

A great frame and solid parts list make the Kona Mahuna a contender for those after a versatile trail hardtail. Long and low, its frame both looks great and provides plenty of standover height, great for increasing your confidence when pointed downhill or over obstacles.

The Shimano Deore 11-speed groupset provides decent stopping power and an excellent range of clutch-controlled gears. With a cassette that spans 11-51t, it’ll master both climbs and descents. Making the most of its willingness to be thrown about, the knobbly Maxxis Forekaster tyres provide volume and grip, while the 29-inch wheels ensure the bike rolls well on most trails.

Given the price, the 100mm RockShox Judy fork is a good find. However, it’s perhaps lacking a last 20mm of travel. Although the bike’s slack angles and short and wide cockpit make the most of what’s on offer. And while I might be the only person to still think so, the inclusion of rack mounts is also nice to see. They’ll allow for a bit of adventure-touring if that’s your thing.

Frame: 6061 Aluminium Fork: RockShox Judy 100mm Gears: Shimano Deore 11-Speed Brakes: Shimano MT201 Tyre Size: Maxxis Forekaster 29x2.35-inch Additional Features: Rackmounts

Buy now from Wiggle for £759

7. The best ‘budget’ racer hardtail mountain bike: Vitus Rapide 29 CRS

Buy now from Chain Reaction for £1,800

Budget is in the eye of the beholder, but we think £1,800 for a bike capable of winning your next Elite-level XC race is pretty cheap. Key to the Vitus Rapide’s potential is its super-light carbon fibre frame and RockShox SID suspension fork. Two big-ticket items, these are backed up by a solid and feature-rich Shimano SLX 1x12 drivetrain and hydraulic disc brakes.

It's an area where many bikes fall down, but any racer will know that wheels and tyres can’t be neglected. Here the Vitus again scores highly. Its WTB rims are light and come with tubeless tape fitted. Clipped into them is a pair of equally feathery Schwalbe Racing Ralph and Ray tyres replete with the brand’s top-end compound and casing options. Set up with sealant, they’ll be competition-ready.

As a podium contender, the Vitus requires a degree of flexibility in the rider to be comfortable. However, it’s not so aggressive as to rule it out of longer duration events or escapades.

Frame: Superlight Carbon Fork: RockShox SID SL 100mm Gears: Shimano SLX 12-speed Brakes: Shimano Deore MT6100 Tyre Size: Schwalbe Racing Ray/Ralph 29x2.25-inch Additional Features: Remote fork lockout

Buy now from Chain Reaction for £1,800

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