The Sedona Mountain Bike Festival may be the new kid on the block, but founder Mike Raney has his finger on the pulse of what’s making the mountain bike world tick. Walk around the festival grounds and you’ll see everything from fat bikes to long-travel enduro rigs, and more trail bikes than you can shake a 140-millimeter fork at.
Hardtails are largely absent from the party, though. Even XC racers (yes, those still exist) are most often riding short-travel full-suspension bikes because they’ve become so light in recent years that there’s no reason to go without some cush. And frankly, full-suspension bikes allow you to go faster and tackle more difficult trails. That alone seems like it could be the hardtail-killer.
But the hardtail’s not dead. Like vinyl and fanny packs, the hardtail may have taken a back seat for a while. But it’s still relevant and cool for those in-the-know enough to spot the trend, and its resurgence.
Adam Miller, founder of Why Cycles, is one of those finger-on-the-pulse guys. Back when fat bikes were hitting the scene hard, Miller read the tea leaves correctly and co-founded Borealis bikes. And now he’s moved on to his new project, Why Cycles, with a renewed focus on titanium. Two of his marquee mountain bikes are hardtails, and there are no full-suspension bikes in the Why Cycles lineup.
“I personally love hardtails,” says Miller. “I love full suspension bikes too. But there’s something pretty magical about a super simple bike that is reliable and always works for you. So we do hardtails with rigid forks, but mostly with suspension forks because, let’s be honest, that makes riding bikes a whole lot more comfortable and a whole lot more fun. And we only do titanium bikes. The reason for that is, hardtails are rigid and can be tough to ride sometimes on bumpy terrain. What we’ve tried to do is make a modern, aggressive, fun, fast hardtail. And I think we’ve done that really quite well.”
Lest you begin to think we’re talking about the short-travel, clunky beasts of yore, rest assured Miller’s hardtails are an entirely different animal. It would perhaps be overselling to say they’re like a full-suspension bike without the rear suspension, but that’s at least getting you close to the truth. For starters, the geometry is far more aggressive than your typical hardtail from 2006. The head tube angle on the S7, for example, is 67.5 degrees — not exactly your slacked-out enduro rig, but this isn’t an XC bike either.
“So I think a few things are important,” says Miller of this new class of hardtail. “The S7 is our playful, fun, really ripping singletrack hardtail. It’s built around a 130mm travel fork, which is a great amount of travel. It’s more than old-school hardtails by a lot, and with good quality forks these days, bigger forks, they do really well on a hardtail.”
I happen to be one of those old-school hardtail guys who used to ride the trails in Sedona sans-dropper post and with just 100 millimeters of travel to cushion the often-large blows my 26-inch wheels lined up with. I remember those hardtail rides being hard on the body, but also fast. The hardtail always felt quick and lithe. Climbing felt natural. Descents required more attention. There was a different pace to the experience.
Modern hardtails feel entirely different. Suspension and geometry aren’t the only things that set the new crop of hardtails apart from their ancestors. For starters, the dropper post has been just as revolutionary on hardtails as it has been on full suspension bikes. And while plus-size tires are still hotly debated on the full-suspension end, they make a lot of sense on hardtails.
“That’s made a world of difference when it comes to the hardtail,” says Miller. “They soak up a little bit of the trail, but they give you so much traction and control.” So while you may not have a rear shock, you still get some suspension from large tires run at lower pressures than we customarily ran back in the day, on 26 x 2.1 or 2.2-inch tires. And if you’ve never felt a hardtail outfitted with big tires and a dropper post rail into a corner and pop out of it, boy are you missing out.
Yet there’s always an element of that different pace, the slower and more methodical means of picking your way through a rock garden rather than steamrolling over it. Call it a push back to simplicity, the ease with which a rider can hop on a hardtail without having to check bushings, or rear shock settings. It’s always ready to go, just pump up the tires.
Bryson Martin, the founder of DVO Suspension, agrees. “Oh, heck no,” he says when asked if the hardtail is dead. DVO Suspension makes forks and shocks for some of the most advanced full suspension bikes on the market, and Martin cemented his place in mountain bike history when he developed the original Marzocchi Bomber — paving the way for freeride, and every aggressive form of mountain biking that followed.
But the allure of the hardtail remains, even for a guy like Martin who cut his teeth in the motocross scene. “I actually just designed my own hardtail with Foes, with my own geometry and stuff, “he says. “And Why Cycles has these badass titanium hardtails. Hardtails are fun because you have these updated geometries, slack head angles, 29er hardtails, 76-degree seat angles, short stays, short offset forks…that’s a fun bike. Hardtails are not dead.”