The results are in! These are the best hardtail mountain bikes out there from enty-level up to mid-range. Read on to find out what came out on top.
These bikes are the best hardtail mountain bikes available. From budget up to mid-range price points, we have chosen four winning options for any budget.
What is a hardtail mountain bike?
It’s a mountain bike that has suspension at the front (a suspension fork) but has a rigid un-suspended main frame and rear wheel. The term hardtail differentiates it from full suspension bikes – with suspension at both wheels – as well as fully rigid bikes – which have rigid forks as well as rigid main frames.
Best hardtail mountain bike test bikes
Hardtail of the Year is by far the biggest and most important test in the mbr calendar. And this time we’ve made it bigger and better than ever.
By expanded the test down to include a new £/$375 price point, we have increased the number of bikes by a whopping 25 per cent. So instead of 18 hardtails we now have 24, covering the key £/$375, £/$500, £/$750 and £/$1k categories and making this the biggest test we have ever undertaken.
If you’ve been following this test over the years, you’ll know that we’ve traditionally said that £500 really is the minimum spend for a proper mountain bike; one that’s capable of withstanding the rigours of off road riding, while making it a fun, enjoyable experience.
Why the sudden change of heart? With all of the bikes getting better every year, we wanted to test the water and our theory, so that’s why we added six sub £/$375 bikes into the mix. Hopefully we haven’t bitten off more than we can chew.
It’s the end result that we are ultimately interested in. But the reason we make such a big deal about this test isn’t the sheer volume of bikes, it’s that these humble hardtails could be the first step for many on the amazing journey that is mountain biking. People, places, product and passion, mountain biking has it all, and the winning bikes in this test are guaranteed to set you off down the correct trail so you never have to look back. So let’s dive straight in.
Best hardtail mountain bikes: winners
Best hardtail mountain bike under £/$375
Calibre Two Cubed
At £399 the Two Cubed is unbeatable, it has the best sizing and geometry of any bike here, and comes in three usable sizes so most riders should be able to get the right fit. The bike encourages you to push your luck on the trails, ride faster and have more fun, knowing the Two Cubed has the geometry, suspension and components to back you up.
This bike looks like a more expensive bike too, and there lies the rub — it actually is.
Calibre had discounted it for its launch, and although the price has now crept up to £399, it’s still as amazing deal.
Best hardtail mountain bike under £/$500
Vitus Nucleus 27 VR
As four-time winner of our sub £500 Hardtail of the Year award, the Nucleus 275 VR has singlehandedly changed our expectations of what’s possible at this price point.
Nothing needs changing or upgrading straight out of the box, which is exactly how it arrives.
But make no mistake, this isn’t just the best value bike here, it’s also by far the best performer. So much so, that in all of our back-to-back testing the Vitus always felt like it was in a class of its own. So to say that it’s simply standout, is something of an understatement. The new 2020 model gets a quick-release thru-axle fork to stiffen up the front end. Although the price has risen to £549.99, the Nucleus 27 VR remains an outstanding bike for the price.
Best hardtail mountain bike under £/$750
Making a really good hardtail is not hard because they’ve been around for ever. Voodoo is essentially a direct sales brand, which means it has a bit more budget to play with. That’s has been spent wisely but it doesn’t cost anything to weld the tubes in a different place and Voodoo nailed that too. The Bizango is the best shape, has the best spec, and the best price. If you’re looking for a £650 hardtail this is it, end of.
Best hardtail mountain bike under £/$1,000
Vitus Sentier 27 VR
You can only buy this bike direct from Chain Reaction Cycles or Wiggle. This means a massive cost saving for the suppliers and it’s evident in build kit. The only downside is you can’t try before you buy at your local bike shop — so you’ll just have to trust us when we say that you’ll love it.
It’s a playful bike that really wants to rip; it makes you want to stoppie into turns and pull wheelies on the way out. It’s a whole load of fun. Just upgrade those rotors for the winter and you’ve got a do-it-all bike that will do it all year long.
For 2020 the Sentier gets some major upgrades, including a Marzocchi Bomber Z2 fork, SRAM Eagle drivetrain with wide-range cassette for winching up steep climbs, and a dropper post as standard for bombing down them again. Considering that only adds an extra £100 to the price, we reckon it’s a steal.
Rinse and repeat seems to be the design process that most brands apply to their entry-level hardtails. There’s no hype or fanfare about new designs and the painful truth is that evolution tends to creep along at a glacial pace at this end of the price spectrum.
And it’s incredibly short sighted of brands not to pay close attention to these bikes. After all, if someone has a great experience on their first hardtail, brands could win a customer for life, and eventually have them ripping around on one of their flagship full suspension bikes.
And it’s no different for us at the magazine. If you read this test and buy one of the test winners, we can guarantee that you’re on the best bike for your budget. And that’s because we ride these bikes every bit as hard as any we test. We take this test seriously, because if we can get you on the best possible hardtail you’re more likely to have great time on the trail, and hopefully become a regular reader.
If we take a closer look at the four winning bikes, it’s obvious that the sales-direct bands are dominant and have a huge advantage in terms of pricing, which allows them to fit better suspension forks, disc brakes and tyres, the three key components that really improve the ride quality of any bike.
That said, good geometry and sizing don’t increase the bottom line, so brands that aren’t asleep at the wheel can narrow the gap between mail order brands and your local dealer, or at the very least get a running start.
In the sub £/$375 category, Calibre showed that it’s not just a one trick pony, the Two Cubed proving that it can be just as dominant in the hardtail arena as it is with £/$1k full suspension Bossnut. It’s a discounted bike though, so if you’re reading this test and the discount is no longer available, check out the Norco Storm 4. It’s £/$350 on the nose day in, day out and it’s also the best option for taller riders as it is available in a genuine XL frame size.
So the addition of a new category to our Hardtail of the Year test revealed a new winner, but in the sub £/$500, £/$750 and £/$1k tests it was business as usual. The Vitus Nucleus 275 VR taking the win for the fourth time in a row in the sub £/$500 class. Next up, the Voodoo Bizango 29 increased it’s tally of wins to three in the £/$750 category, while the Vitus Sentier VR also made it four wins in the sub £/$1k test.
All of the bikes in every category improved incrementally, but the dominance of the test winners is undeniable. It could be that the gap between the also-rans and the winners is simply too big to bridge, or maybe the best bikes just have that spark that transcends the numbers and specification? More likely, it’s that once a bike gains momentum, brands throw more resources at it and it just starts to snowball.
Whatever the reason for certain bikes winning year after year, the end result is four amazing hardtails that deliver unmatched performance for the price. Given that the same bikes keep cropping up though, it probably time for us to shake the tree a little. Next year’s test is twelve months away, but were already thinking about changing the price point to £/$400, £/$600, £/$800 and £/$1k just make sure there aren’t any killer hardtails we’ve overlooked.
How we test hardtails
Now, if you’re thinking, how does one person test 24 bikes? The simple answer is, they don’t. We have four testers, with over 60 years of combined experience, putting these bikes though their paces, one tester dedicated to each price point. This way we can maintain the same exacting testing standards that we would for any other bike test. The one caveat being, we don’t fit our own control tyres to these bikes.
Hardtail of the Year really is four separate tests in one bumper issue, this also explains why we have four individual winners, one for each price point. After all, it just wouldn’t be fair to compare a £/$375 bike with one costing almost three times as much money.
And even though this is billed as our Hardtail of the Year test, you’ll notice a distinct lack of high-end hardtails, of which there are plenty. And it’s deliberate, because once you start spending over £/$1k on a mountain bike, the advantages of full suspension really come into their own, so we switch our focus to finding the best full sussers instead.
We have 24 hardtails, split evenly across four distinct price points, £/$375, £/$500, £/$750 and £/$1,000, the only stipulation for being that the bikes can’t cost more than the celling price in each category.
Where possible we’ve tried to compare apples with apples, which was made that much easier this year by the growing trend for fatter 2.6in and 2.8in tyres in the sub £/$1,000 class. Bigger 29in wheels with improved roll over also dominate the in the sub £/$750 category. Once you get down to the £/$375 and £/$500 bikes however, you find a much bigger mix of wheel sizes and attitudes, and it’s in these two categories where the advantageous pricing of sales direct brands really makes a big difference to the end result.
Advice on where to buy, how to set up and where to ride your new hardtail
You’ve read the reviews, studied the specs and feel ready to hand over your hard-earned cash on the new bike of your dreams. But do you buy online, walk into a shop or click and collect? How do you choose the right frame size? How do you set up your suspension? What about tyre pressures and saddle height? And where are the best places to ride?
Where to buy?
- Good bike shops will hold your hand throughout the process and offer all the advice and after-sales support you need if anything goes wrong. Try and choose a mountain bike specialist; one with passionate staff that ride regularly. Often these shops are situated close to the best riding spots.
- Go armed with a shortlist of models, and try and visit during the week, when it’s quieter, if you want to really pick the brains of the staff.
- Ask to test ride the bikes if you can (take ID just in case).
- If you decide to buy, don’t be afraid to ask if you can substitute things like tyres and stems – a good shop may just charge you the difference in price.
- Usually a shop will give you a first free service, too, after a few weeks. This will include checking the gears and brakes once they’ve bedded-in, and lubing the chain. It’s also a good opportunity to ask any questions you have about set-up.
- Find out how much delivery costs – it’s free from Vitus and Sonder, but some brands, such as Canyon, charge.
- Be sure to read the terms and conditions before you buy. These will spell out what happens if you buy the wrong size, or something is faulty on the bike. Expect to pay the cost of shipping the bike back to the manufacturer if anything goes wrong – check the FAQs.
- Decide whether you are confident enough to assemble the bike yourself. It’s not complicated, but you’ll need basic tools and mechanical competence. If not, a good bike shop will do it for you, but expect to pay around £50 for this job.
- You probably won’t be able to see the bike in the flesh, let alone sit on it or test ride it, so triple-check what size you need. Email the brand to check, or search forums for any owner recommendations. When it arrives, ask yourself does the cockpit feel roomy enough? Is the standover height good enough to lean the bike over in a corner? Is the seatpost and saddle in the right place? If the worst comes to the worst, you can usually send it back, unused, for a different size, but check this is the case. For reference, all of our test riders are 5ft10in-5ft11in, and we’ve listed the frame size tested in the spec panel.
- When the bike arrives, make sure the box looks undamaged.
- For sizing advice, read below…
How to choose the right size
Bike manufacturers use seat tube length to denote frame sizes. These can be in inches, or use descriptive terms like Small, Medium and Large. The problem is, there’s no standardised sizing tool, so one brand’s medium can be the same as another’s large.
Mountain biking is a dynamic sport, and you’ll be moving around the bike a lot when you’re riding. It follows, then, that you want plenty of clearance over the top tube when you’re standing astride the bike (called ‘standover’ height, and around three inches is a good starting point) but enough length between the seat and the handlebars that you don’t feel too cramped when sitting down and climbing.
Be careful with online size calculators. They’re not always that accurate. If in doubt, we’d recommend you go for the largest size you can get away with that still provides adequate standover clearance.
Inflate your tyres
Ignore the recommended pressures printed on the sidewalls and aim for around 28psi front and 30psi rear – adjusting either way by a few psi if you weigh more or less than 75kg. Wide tyres can be run slightly softer than narrower ones, too – as low as 15psi for a 2.8in model. Either way, too hard and they’ll be harsh and offer little grip; too soft and you’ll be more prone to pinch flats and you may even roll the tyre clean off the rim.
Adjust your controls
Disc brakes are so powerful you should only need to use one finger to slow down. Loosen the clamps and slide the levers away from the grips until your index finger rests right at the end of the lever blade. This gives you the most leverage and the most secure grip on the bars. Now slide your shifters against the brake clamps to make them accessible. Your brake levers should be angled in line with your arms – don’t rotate them to point straight down.
Optimise your position
Firstly, it’s critical you get the saddle height sorted for seated pedalling. As a rule of thumb, your leg should be straight, with your heel on the pedal and the crankarm in line with your extended leg. This allows for a slight bend in the knee when you place the ball of your foot on the pedal at your maximum saddle height. For technical singletrack climbs, drop your saddle by 1-2cm to make balancing on the bike much easier. Slam the saddle all the way down for descending, and for the next step; setting your suspension…
Set-up your fork
Don’t get distracted by handlebar lockouts as they aren’t much use off-road. Instead, focus on setting your sag correctly. With an air-sprung fork – common above £/$600 and found on all the winning bikes – start by using the recommendations printed on the leg. RockShox and Manitou have them, but not Suntour. You’ll need a shock pump to do this (around £/$20). If it has a lock out, check it’s in the open position first. Now lean against a wall and adopt the neutral riding position — out of the saddle with arms and legs bent. Bounce up and down on the fork and let it settle to the sagged position. The sag is how much the suspension compresses under your weight. Start with 20 to 25 per cent of the fork’s travel — so, if you fork has 100mm of travel, it should compress by 20-25mm. Use the rubber O-ring or a zip tie on the leg to measure this. Be sure to set the sag in your full riding kit, with backpack and water included.
Set your bar height
Finally, adjust your stem height. Raising your stem will give you more confidence on the descents, by making it much easier to shift your weight rearward. Too high, however, and you won’t have enough weight on the front tyre for grip on flat corners. It’s worth noting that stem height is closely related to fork set-up, as a combination of both will determine the height of the handlebar.
There are two main sizes of wheel on the market. They are 29in and 27.5in. So what are the pros and cons of each?
27.5in – The most popular wheel size. Doesn’t roll as fast as 29in, but easy to turn and accelerate. Generally stronger and lighter than big wheels too. Paired with big volume tyres (2.5in and upwards) you get a more comfortable ride and improved grip.
29in – Rolls fast, more stable at speed and less interrupted by bumps, which makes them great on a hardtail, so long as the geometry is right. Wheels can be weaker and heavier though.