This past year a plethora of new riders have developed a desire to escape and experience riding a mountain bike. Due to this high demand, bikes have been disappearing off showroom floors in record numbers, creating a shortage of new bikes. Fortunately, technology has reached a point where even the most affordable mountain bikes can put a smile on a rider’s face. Of course, choosing a bike is a highly subjective process. A major factor is the type of riding you want to experience. Should you go with a hardtail or a full-suspension option? (See page 34 for our thoughts on this tough decision.) No doubt full-suspension bikes have come a long way in terms of technology, but so have rigid frames. While how one wants to experience riding will always differ from person to person, we went ahead and put together a list of hardtails that covers what this category is capable of.
ROCKY MOUNTAIN GROWLER
There is a wave of brands now that offer hardtails with the kind of slack head tube angles seen on a typical full-suspension bike. Rocky Mountain joins that wave by offering the Growler, a progressive hardtail with an enduro-esque geometry. Rocky Mountain designed the Growler to be an incredibly capable hardtail that makes technical climbs manageable while still being able to rail corners or tackle uneven terrain.
Climbing: Make no mistake, just because it says “hardtail” doesn’t mean it’s a lightweight cross-country machine. If getting on your local podium is the goal, this option would not be our first pick; however, the Growler has a great entry-level price that should make it easier for riders to upgrade as they progress in their skills. When we tested it, we swapped to a lighter carbon wheelset to cut some grams. Our test riders were not expecting the heavy, long, and slacked-out Growler to deliver; however, it was comfortable while remaining efficient. It did well in smoother sections of climbs as opposed to tight, rough areas. It was a bit twitchy at slow speeds due to the head tube angle, but nothing unmanageable.
Descending: The Growler likes higher-speed, flat-out downhill terrain. The bike remained very stable, and we were able to move quicker than expected through rock gardens. Even in the big hits, the entry-level components held up very well. Given the length of the bike, we did have trouble in the tighter berms/switchback sections. Overall, it is still very obvious that you are riding a hardtail and not a plush enduro rig, but the Growler maintained its speed and composure, even on the most demanding trail features.
WHO IS IT MADE FOR?
This is one of those hardtails that is priced right for upgrades as the rider learns more about his or her riding style. Likely, this rider wants his bike to respond like an enduro-inspired downhill rig packed into a hardtail. Riders looking for this type of ride will appreciate a mountain bike with a price tag of less than $2000 that is outfitted with modern conveniences and components. Rocky Mountain set out to create a robust yet capable hardtail, and they nailed it!
Price range: $1599–$1899
Frame materials: Rocky Mountain 6061 alloy
• Very planted at high speeds
• Excellent value with quality parts
• Twitchy steering in slow-speed sections but nothing unmanageable
The Sage Powerline is a hardtail that can handle a variety of terrain. Essentially, it is a blend of cross-country, trail and all-mountain. To test the Powerline’s performance and see how titanium responds compared to other materials, we put the Powerline through its paces under our capable test riders.
Climbing: With its slacker head tube and seat tube angles, the Powerline is a little bit twitchy when taking on steep/loose fire roads. It is not as twitchy as the Growler mentioned in this roundup, and the steering is manageable but noticeably looser than on a cross-country race bike where the rider would be positioned over the front of the bike more. While the geometry for climbing is acceptable, it all comes together when the bike is pointed downhill.
Descending: The Ti frame weight allows the rider to place the bike where it is needed on the trail. The short seat and chainstays make the Powerline snappy and very playful. With a 130mm fork, the Powerline does its job well, but the compliance of titanium is really where the bike gets its steady feel. Aluminum (and even carbon) can bounce/chatter the rider into an unwanted line. Despite its imperfections, the Powerline is no slouch. It’s fast and well-planted when the speed picks up, and it is ideal for finding your groove on your favorite flow trail.
WHO IS IT MADE FOR?
This is for the rider who knows what he is looking for and is not afraid to spend the extra pennies for a handmade U.S. frame. Overall, the Powerline brought a certain balance and harmony to every ride we ventured out on during testing. We couldn’t get enough of just how versatile the Powerline could be. This truly sets it apart from other hardtails.
Price range: $3100, frame only; starting at $7200 for complete
Frame materials: Titanium
• Titanium compliance on the trail
• Geometry that suits a variety of terrain
• The U.S.-made quality comes at a cost
Another Canadian hardtail, the Kobain is Devinci’s answer to the market’s demand for aggressive hardtails infused with more modern trail geometry. This Canadian bike brand offers a machine that is robust, fun, versatile, comfortable and cost-effective.
Climbing: The Kobain is not lightweight in stock trim and would not be our first pick for making it on to the podium; however, the Kobain does offer a better climbing position and more efficiency than the Growler. This is partly due to the Growler’s 140mm of travel, 1.5-degree-slacker angle at the head tube and longer total length than the Kobain. The Kobain performed similarly to the Growler in smooth or rougher sections of climbs and was a bit nimbler in tight corners.
Descending: The Kobain harks back to the roots of mountain biking, but the modern geometry creates a new confidence. It flat out shreds when going downhill. The bike remains stable and can handle a heavy-hitting, fast-paced trail for a hardtail. It may not feel as stable when fully pinned as the Rocky Mountain, but we were able to move quicker with the Kobain through corners. Yes, there is the, “You are riding a hardtail” feel, but the Kobain maintained enough speed and composure for us to keep up with our full-suspension buddies.
WHO IS IT MADE FOR?
While it might not be everyone’s style of riding, we enjoy the benefits of modern aggressive hardtails. The Kobain is a solid machine that puts the rider in a confident position to take on the trail ahead. For less than $2000, the Kobain offers multiple modern conveniences and value-driven components that won’t disappoint you on your next ride.
Price range: $1349–$1849
Frame materials: Aluminum Optimum G04
• Comfortable geometry climbing and descending
• Exceptional value for the capability
• Riders will likely upgrade the entry-level components
KHS 4 SEASON
Perhaps the thought has crossed your mind that it might be fun to add a new fat bike to your stable to spice things up—and you could be right. One of our favorite bikes from last year, KHS’ 4 Seasons, comes in multiple builds and materials. Although we did a significant portion of our testing during the summertime, we still put the big tires to use on our local Southern California trails.
Climbing: The bike behaved differently from what we originally expected climbing up the dry/loose fire roads of Southern California. The 4 Season we tested was very composed while moving uphill. The minor changes to the head tube angle and the extended wheelbase gave us more control at the handlebars. Along with more control, we felt like we sat over the rear wheel right in the sweet spot for the tire to hook up while climbing. This upright body position created an impressive amount of traction while hammering the pedals to the top of the mountain.
Descending: Don’t be put off by the bigger tires, this bike is a ton of fun when pointing downhill. Due to the volume of air in a fat bike tire, 1 or 2 psi made a noticeable difference in how the tire interacted with the terrain. The low tire pressures (around 8–10 psi) allowed us to grab onto the loose sections of the trail. Once we adapted to the larger tire, we were impressed with how well the KHS 4 Season performed in rough terrain.
WHO IS IT MADE FOR?
With multiple options and various component levels offered, the 4 Season is versatile for any time of year, regardless of weather or terrain. Sure, it is not our first choice in terms of speed and pushing the limits down the trail, but that is not what it is intended for. Overall, it is a great bike for those looking to get into the big-tire world and experience the thrills that come along with it.
Price range: $1249–$4029
Frame materials: Alloy and carbon options
• Lots of traction with 4.8-inch tires
• Forgiving and comfortable over terrain
• Capable, but not an ideal hardtail for trail riding
Specialized offers a host of hardtail bikes—from the XC-ready Epic hardtail to the BMX-like P.3 dirt jumper. The Fuse, however, falls near the middle with a dash of modern trail-bike technology mixed in. First introduced in 2015, the Fuse was offered as a playful hardtail with 27.5-inch wheels. Now, there is also a 29-inch sibling. This newest Fuse rolls on long, slack and low geometry.
Climbing: The steepened seat tube angle provides a more centered weight distribution, which makes up for the short stem, and the long reach offers a roomy fit that feels similar to that of most modern trail bikes. On steep climbs, the bike stayed planted and managed to maintain traction well since we were able to get away with pressures as low as 18–20 psi in our tires.
Descending: Like most hardtails, the Fuse requires some finesse and pre-planning to be ridden to its full potential. On packed flow trails, the Fuse is lightning fast. It pops into the air with ease and rails corners like nobody’s business. As mentioned, rougher or more technical trails offer a different challenge. That said, this modern trail ripper uses its aggressive geometry and robust component spec to the best of its ability.
WHO IS IT MADE FOR?
The bottom line here is that the Fuse is an entry-level shredder built for hardtail riders who aren’t into cross-country racing. It’s a true trail bike and sports all the necessary design elements and components to be labeled as such. The ideal rider for the Fuse wants a shred-worthy bike, is maybe on a tighter budget or is even looking for a bike that could be used to cruise around with the kids while the top-dollar machine is reserved for race day. No matter how you plan to ride your Fuse, it can be set up for fun and a good time.
Price range: $1500–$2600
Frame materials: Alloy
• Durable and reliable builds
• Entry-level for those not into racing
• Higher price than most with a similar component level
NINER SIR 9
Flashback to 2008 when Niner released a Reynolds 853 steel hardtail that was said to be “the most versatile bike in its lineup” at the time. This model was the SIR 9 1.0. Since the SIR 9 came on the market in 2008, we’ve seen three different updates to the frame, leading us to the present version—the SIR 9 2.0. By today’s standards, is it still considered a do-it-all hardtail?
Climbing: Although our SIR 9 test subject came with 130mm versus the spec’d 120mm of front-wheel travel, the bike proved stable during steep fire-road climbs, as the extra travel didn’t destroy our goal of ascending efficiently. The seat tube angle placed us in an ideal position to consistently put down power over the pedals, while the bit longer reach assisted us in getting over the front of the bike.
Descending: Maybe the frame wasn’t intended for use with a 130mm fork, but we sure did love the extra bit of cushion in bigger drops. The short, 430mm chainstays on the SIR 9 2.0 delivered a dynamic ride that made the bike easier to pop and flick around trail obstacles. Some of you may be thinking that the SIR 9 would be slow to maneuver, simply because it is made of steel. This is not the case; in fact, the relatively lightweight steel tubing provides a stable platform to gain and maintain speed on even the most demanding trails.
WHO IS IT MADE FOR?
The SIR 9 is made for a rider who wants to spend long days in the saddle, bombing the backcountry, bike-packing to remote camping sites and having all-around fun adventures on the dirt. The frame’s geometry is meant to satisfy this kind of rider with what Niner calls “trail country” geometry. The idea is a geometry that is a cross between modern trail and traditional cross-country. Luckily for this type of consumer, the frame is highly compatible with various options, even if the buyer wanted to change setups, season to season or week to week. Overall, the SIR 9 2.0 is a great hardtail that happily brings to mind the phrase, “Steel is real.”
Price range: $1200, frame only; $2550–$6300, complete
Frame materials: Steel
• Versatile for a bikepack adventure or local trail session
• The strength and ride quality of steel are unmatched
• High-end frame tubing comes at a steep cost
MARIN PINE MOUNTAIN 2
Pine Mountain, a location just north of Mt. Tamalpais, was the inspiration for the name of this steel hardtail that’s still kicking decades later. Of course, the new Pine Mountain features vast improvements over its early ancestor. The new Pine Mountain 2 is a dedicated adventure bike built for the long haul. Marin says this bike is designed for trail rides, bikepacking and all-day epics.
Climbing: The Pine Mountain’s steel frame offers an efficient platform for pedaling and combines it with an upright seated position for all-day comfort. Like the other aggressive hardtails in this roundup, this is as far from a hunched-over race bike as one can get. Instead, Marin focused on offering a platform that riders could spend hours and hours on until they find their perfect camping spot.
Descending: While the Pine Mountain can carry all your backpacking gear, Marin’s slogan is, “Made for fun.” To live up to the motto, Marin uses 150mm-travel dropper posts on the higher-end build (125mm posts on size-small frames) to ensure fun and comfort are balanced. Furthermore, Marin designed the frame with a slack head tube angle for good measure, along with short chainstays to keep the bike snappy.
WHO IS IT MADE FOR?
The Pine Mountain rider loves to get off the beaten path and head deep into the backcountry with a few days’ supplies. It’s incredibly capable of carrying all your essentials with its multiple gear mounts and cleverly designed Bedroll handlebars. Overall, Marin did a great job targeting the adventure bike rider and offering a solid platform to build on.
Price range: $1449–$2369
Frame materials: Alloy
• Ready for adventure and built for multi-day trips
• Great platform to make it your own
• Versatile and comfortable for any rider to have fun
The Honzo fits the bill for a lot of riders with its range of capability, which is mainly dependent on just how hard the rider is willing to push. While the Honzo is first and foremost a hardtail, its progressive geometry and ability to run various fork travels will suit an everyday trail rider or a rider with more aggressive technical ripping in mind. There are several versions of the Honzo available, ranging from the chromoly Honzo ST frame for a modest $600 to complete builds starting at $1500 with aluminum frames. Now, each complete bike has different travel. The Honzo has 120mm of travel, the Honzo DL option has 140mm, and the Honzo ESD (inspired by the Kona Process X) has a heavy-hitting 150mm fork.
Climbing: Hardtails are known for being efficient climbers, and the Honzo is no exception. Between the stiff frame and ample traction from the low-pressure tubeless tires, there wasn’t any section of the trail too steep for the Honzo to conquer. Out of the saddle, the frame tested was incredibly stiff, especially the rear triangle. The longer reach gave us a nice, low, aggressive position to power over technical sections of singletrack and steep pitches.
Descending: Between the short chainstays and generous shoulder knobs on our knobby tires, the Honzo surprised us with how far it could be leaned over in corners. At high speeds, the Honzo could be whipped around playfully and didn’t stray from an inside line. On tighter sections of trail and at lower speeds, we could pick our way through tight switchbacks with some finesse. Flowing down our usual singletrack, the Honzo didn’t shy away from hitting extra features or bonus lines, no matter how technical. Rolling into steep sections of the trail, the progressive geometry allowed us to shift our weight back over the rear wheel confidently.
WHO IS IT MADE FOR?
While many companies are relying on more suspension to make their bikes more capable, Kona relies on good geometry and a rider who is willing to take some chances. The Honzo defies the notion that hardtails were only made for racing and training and delivers a fun ride experience. If you are looking for a bike that is simple and just want to go out and have a blast, the Honzo is ready to rip your local trails.
Price range: $599, frame only; $1599–$2899, complete
Frame materials: Steel or aluminum
• Great value with multiple options for different riding styles
• High-quality frame materials with well-thought-out geometry
• Best for a more experienced rider who can bring out its capabilities