Friday Five: Hardtail
Why a simple hardtail could simply be your best friend
By Seb Kemp
This is my bike. It is rad, simply rad. Call it a hardtail if you must, but truly this is just a very capable, all-terrain, all-mountain, all-seasons, all-weather, all of the above, all-purpose, all-around, all-aboard, all-inclusive, all-hell-breaks-loose, all-star, all manner of brilliance, bicycle.
Even if you don’t own a hardtail I’m sure you already understand some of the benefits of having one – easy to clean, reliable, lower maintenance, cheaper, less grease, fewer creaks, less stress – but there a few more reasons to own a hardtail than you might realize.
Elimination of geek science
If you turn up to a group ride or bump into another rider at a lonely trailhead the likelihood of you being bored to death with inane banter about some element of “science” is vastly reduced.
This is because other riders believe anyone who rides a hardtail is:
A) A newbie
B) A little bit “special”
D) Terribly naive
They won’t try and coax you into a conversation about digital telemetry, coefficient drag rates, leverage snakes and other such nonsense they read on the back of a catalog or in some ridiculous forum. They’ll think you don’t have the capacity to comprehend that level of cerebral stimulation or that you probably just just don’t care.
This is good, now you can ride in peace.
Who sang, “True perfection has to be imperfect/ I know it may sound foolish but it’s true”? Answer: Noel Gallagher of Oasis (‘Little by Little’)
My hardtail is the most beautiful bike I’ve ever owned. Its imperfection? Its simplicity.
It is classically beautiful in the most simple sense. It is geometrically beautiful; just two triangles whose lines interact and fuse into such an aesthetically pleasing form. It is elegant without being too pretty, classically traditional without being vintage, archetypal without being bone-stock boring.
When I think back to my formative years of mountain biking, 20 years ago, I think about the bike I rode back then. It wasn’t much different from the one I ride now. I’m pretty sure the 13-year-old me would appreciate the bike I choose to ride today. More so, there’s a chance that the younger me might think that the fashionable bikes of today are a little too sci-fi, complicated and plain weird. I think that when the 13-year-old me sees a modern bike all he sees is a mess of angles, bits and bobs, scribbles and radical mechanical accoutrements.
Hardtails were all but forgotten in the early `00s when the world went apeshit for full-suspension bikes. It has taken a while for full-suspension bikes to actually become reliable, responsible, fully-grown adults and we all took the brunt of the teenage experimentation.
When full-suspension bikes turned up and blew up, it would be easy to think that the innovation of hardtails completely stopped. Sure, no big company bothered to further engineer what they saw as blunt-tooth dinosaurs but lots of little companies took some of the better innovations in mountain biking – like beefier dropouts, bolt-thru axles, internal headsets, technical tubing and longer, shorter, slacker geometry – and upgraded hardtails. Now what we have are strong, reliable, light (sometimes), cheap (sort of) bikes that fit in with the world around them.
My hardtail today isn’t quite like the hardtail that the 13-year-old me rode. On the face they are the same, but subtle tweaks and tunes mean that it is just as capable as I am. Look at the picture of my bike. It has a great suspension fork on it, space-age drivetrain, carbon wheels, a dropper post, powerful brakes and big meat on the hoops. There isn’t much difference between that bike and a top-of-the-line full-suspension super bike. The geometry is dialed so that I can confidently ride aggressive terrain, it climbs like a rat up a drainpipe, and it goes where I put it. There’s no crazy setup, guess work, trail side second guessing, and mystery moments where body weight shifts, changes in terrain and suspension movements conflict.
If you have ever wanted to feel like a ninja on a bike, then a hardtail is the easiest way to get there. Where you point it, it shall go. You mess up, you get taught a lesson. Suddenly mountain biking returns to that principal feeling of being a person flying through nature. When you started biking, besides the moments of ‘Oh shit, this is going to hurt!’ what struck a note with you might have been the purity of it all. An elemental challenge of how your decisions result in the success or failure of your adventure. A way of exercising control and testing your skills with no safety net of society around you and where the only victim to your experimentation with the line of risk is yourself. That’s why I got into mountain biking, I think. That’s why I still love it. My hardtail is an exercise in purity again. Everything is stripped back to the point where it is me and the tests I choose to give myself.
Less flat tires?
Everything is exaggerated with a hardtail. Tire selection is essential on any bike, but on a hardtail there is no cutting corners. If you want to ride one fast and hard, then you need to have some meaty numbers. I run a 2.5-inch Maxxis Minnion EXO tubeless on the rear of my bike and I haven’t flatted once since February. I’m surprised too. What I could put it down to is not scrimping on quality tires and wanting to save weight. Hell, now I don’t have swinging bits to weigh me down or thoughts of sprung weight I can just go crazy and shod my horse in the finest of rubber bands. It’s brilliant to have one less thing to worry about. However, the real reason for fewer punctures might just be that I ride smarter now.
[Editor's note: The day after I wrote this I put a hole in the tire and the coagulated Stanimal couldn't plug the breach. Did I break the spell when I claimed no punctures? Did I curse myself for speaking out loud about this magical resistance to flat tires? Is Bikemag.com haunted?]
I won’t always ride a hardtail but I’m pleased to be reunited with the simplicity of one. I’ve always been afraid of technological devolution but now I know that I could still love mountain biking even if I only rode a hardtail for the rest of my life. That knowledge has given me a freedom and lifted a weight from my shoulders.