You’re a mountain biker who refuses to be defined by one riding style: trail riding, enduro, downhill bike parks–you love it all! There are a lot of bikers who would describe themselves this way, but unfortunately for many of us, buying a bike for each individual riding discipline is way out of our budgets. So instead, we have to choose one bike that does many things well.
Some choose a hardtail. These bikes sort of have a cult following, and for good reason: it’s how many of us started riding, and they’re great for learning the fundamental mountain bike skills. But when it comes to more extreme enduro and downhill riding, are they up to the task?
In the hands of a capable rider, a modern hardtail bike can handle more challenging terrain than you would think! Though they will be slower than a downhill bike and require more precise line choices, a hardtail bike can safely get you down some very advanced trails.
But just because it can, doesn’t mean it necessarily should. Let’s take a look at what a hardtail can and cannot do, so you can decide if it’s a good choice for the trails you plan on riding.
Can You Ride a Hardtail Bike Downhill? (Should You?)
Modern hardtails have come a long way in the past few years. Though most are still designed with cross-country and light trail riders in mind, some have been created with slacker geometry, longer travel forks, and more durable components to handle more challenging terrain – perfect for those more aggressive riders.
If you’re this kind of rider, you’ll benefit from choosing a hardtail with a head tube angle or 65 degrees or less and at least 140-150mm of fork travel. These features create a very capable bike, even on incredibly steep terrain.
Even so, you’ll have to be very precise with your line choices: where a burly downhill bike will plow right over rocks and roots, a hardtail needs to be finessed over and around obstacles whenever possible. And you won’t be able to go nearly as fast doing it.
Some hardtails run forks with up to 160mm of travel, but this still pales in comparison to most downhill bikes’ 200mm travel – which they also have in the rear too! As it lacks rear suspension, bumps are going to feel a lot more harsh on a hardtail, and this is going to tire you out much faster.
None of this will be relevant at all if your bike’s frame isn’t designed to handle rough terrain! All mountain bike frames are given a rating from 1-5: the higher the number, the more durable the bike. Each manufacturer should have their bikes’ ratings on their website, along with detailed descriptions of the terrain each frame can handle. Check this first!
A hardtail may be ok once in a while, but if you’re a frequent downhill rider, a downhill bike will be a better choice: they’re designed to be more durable and safer at higher speeds. You’ll have way more fun with the right tool for the job!
Unless you’re a pro like Kyle Warner…then you can ride whatever you want and still win races:
Can You Put a Downhill Fork on a Hardtail?
Downhill bike forks are dual crown: they’re stiffer, heavier and offer better stability at higher speeds. While you can physically install a dual crown fork on a hardtail…I don’t recommend it!
Dual crown forks have much more travel than single crown forks. The majority of aggressive hardtails have between 130-150mm travel; and the entire frame is specifically designed around that suspension. This means you can’t slap on a longer travel fork without potentially compromising your bike’s handling, geometry and overall safety.
Can You Ride a Hardtail Bike at a Bike Park?
Most people go to bike parks to ride super steep downhill trails, jump lines and technical stuff. But this doesn’t mean they’re only places for expert riders! Bike parks have trails catered to all riding levels, even those who’ve never ridden a mountain bike before!
A hardtail bike will have no trouble handling all of the green and blue trails at a bike park. It will even turn in a respectable performance on many black flow trails. Where it may struggle is on black technical trails with lots of obstacles, or double black trails with big drops and jumps (again, make sure you check if your frame is even rated for this terrain!)
If you’re ok taking things a little slower (or you’re just looking for a challenge), riding a hardtail at a bike park isn’t impossible, even on the most difficult trails at Whistler – one of the most famous bike parks in the world:
That being said, most bike parks have a fleet of downhill bikes available for rent, so why not try one out and see the difference. Renting is a lot cheaper than buying, especially if you rarely do this type of riding!
Can You Ride a Hardtail Bike on Trails?
Yes! Now we’re getting into the type of riding where hardtails really shine!
Hardtails are a fantastic choice for trail riding. They’re typically lighter than full suspension bikes, and the lack of a rear shock completely negates the issue of pedal bob. This makes hardtails more efficient pedalers. With a lighter, more efficient bike, you’ll be able to smoke your riding buddies on the climbs every time.
If you’re shopping for a hardtail trail bike, definitely consider choosing 29 inch wheels: the improved traction and ability to get up and over obstacles will be a welcome improvement, and will help smooth out the trail in the absence of rear suspension!
Can You Ride Enduro on a Hardtail?
Enduro is a classification that splits the difference between trail riding and downhill: you’ll encounter steep, challenging downhill terrain, but will still need a bike that can pedal uphill too.
Since modern aggressive hardtails are still very efficient climbers, they make much more capable enduro bikes than downhill bikes. They can even handle enduro racing:
Just remember you need to pick your lines carefully: a long travel full suspension bike can plow straight through a rock garden, but you may need to take that slower – but smoother – line around it!
If you’re in the market for an aggressive hardtail that’s well suited for enduro riding, here are some great options to check out:
Can You Ride a Hardtail on the Road?
If you’re going to choose a mountain bike for road riding, a hardtail would be the one to get: it’s going to be much more efficient than a full suspension mountain bike.
Is it going to be as fast as a road bike? Not a chance…even if you’re decked out in all your lycra roadie gear!
Locking out the fork will help a bit, but a hardtail mountain bike is going to be heavier than a road bike and have a different gearing setup that’s designed to perform well on rough terrain – not smooth pavement. Those big knobby tires also roll much slower than slim road tires. All these factors are going to slow you down…a lot.
If you’re using your hardtail to commute around town or just work on your fitness, it will be perfectly fine. Just don’t expect to set any Strava records.
Can You Convert a Hardtail to Full Suspension?
A bike frame can be divided into a front and rear triangle. On a full suspension bike, these sections are joined by the rear shock and the various linkages that hold it in place. On a hardtail, they’re welded together or built out of a single piece of carbon fiber. This makes separating them impossible without destroying the frame, which could lead to significant injury.
PLEASE DO NOT TRY AND CONVERT YOUR HARDTAIL TO A FULL SUSPENSION!!!
Hardtails: Not Just for Beginners!
If you’re a beginner, you don’t have to start on a hardtail. And if you’re an advanced rider, you don’t have to choose a full suspension! Modern hardtails are designed to tackle some pretty aggressive terrain. While they may not be as quick or stable on the rough stuff as purpose-built downhill and enduro bikes, they’re definitely still up to the challenge…as long as you are!