The death knell of the humble hardtail has been tolled many a time, with lower-cost full suspension technology and the rise of the gravel bike being listed as causes.
And yet the category is still going strong in 2020, with plenty of us still favouring the simplicity of a front fork-only setup and in many cases, the hardtail just being the right tool for the job in hand.
What are the best hardtail mountain bikes of 2020?
If you want to head straight to our top picks on the Chain Reaction Cycles website, here are our favourites:
- Vitus Nucleus 27 VR: The best budget hardtail you can buy?
- NS Bikes Clash: Tough 26”: all-rounder with street and pump track leanings.
- Ragley Big Al: Big-wheeled cousin of legendary Ragley Marley.
- Nukeproof Scout 290 Race: Fast trail HT with impeccable stability at speed.
- NS Bikes Eccentric Lite 1: Big-wheeled mile muncher from Polish MTB masters.
- Vitus Sentier 27 VRS: Award-winning trail hardtail that’s frankly unbeatable for the price.
- Ragley Blue Pig: Now-classic steel hardtail with big mountain ambitions.
- Ghost Lector 3.9: Race-ready XC weapon with German engineering excellence.
- Vitus Rapide CRS: Fast-but-fun XC speed machine with alloy or carbon
The hardtail category in 2020 is a broad church, ranging from long, slack gravity fun machines to lightweight and aggressive XC racers. For the most part, the old 26” wheel standard has long been eclipsed by 27.5” and fast-rolling 29” hoops, while most of today’s HTs have a minimum of 120mm travel up front. The ‘plus’ tyre trend of recent years has also largely ebbed, with most hardtails going back to the 2.2-2.4” range for their rubber volume.
There are many reasons to have a hardtail in your quiver. If you’re just starting out in mountain biking, a good hardtail is a great place to start building the skills you need, allowing a little less margin for error than a squishy full-suss and therefore being a great teaching tool.
All things considered, you’ll also get more bang for your buck with a hardtail – at a given budget/price point, you’re likely to find less component compromises and a better overall selection of kit on a rigid frame compared to a full-suss.
Finally there’s the fun factor – there are plenty of riders out there who just love the straightforward simplicity of a hardtail, the sense of being connected to the trail and the old-school, grin-inducing pleasure of ripping up the trails with a rigid rear.
Ultimately, the right hardtail for you will come down to what kind of riding you plan on using it for, and of course your budget.
Read on for our pick of the best hardtail mountain bikes of 2020.
The now-iconic Vitus Nucleus range offers an object lesson in the value of getting the basics right. And when it comes to an entry-level hardtail trail bike, those basics can be simply summarised – geometry, geometry and geometry.
First introduced way back in 2011 as an alloy-framed all-rounder offering 120mm of front travel, quality components and dialled-in frame angles – all at a bargain price – the basic premise of the Nucleus family has changed little in the meantime, and its continued success attests to the fact that designers got it right day one.
In recent years it’s also swept the boards in multiple ‘Best of Year’ awards, dominating the £500-odd hardtail category. For newcomers to mountain biking or anyone looking for a simple, sorted HT that’s ready for singletrack action, long days in the hills or even a bit of XC competition, you’d be hard pressed to find better.
The Vitus Nucleus 27 VR is the starter bike in the range (if you don’t count the 24” and 26” versions for younger riders) and is available in a female-specific version as well as 29”. Boasting a triple-butted 6061-T6 aluminium frame and SR Suntour XCR32 air forks, it also offers Shimano Altus 2×9 gearing, Tektro hydraulic disc brakes and quality WTB tyres.
If you’d prefer a single chainring the slightly-more-expensive Vitus Nucleus 27 VRS offers 1×10 Shimano Deore gearing – but for our money, the price tag and the beautiful deep burgundy paint option on the ostensibly lower-spec Nucleus VR make it a hard one to pass by.
Poland’s NS Bikes march to their own tune when it comes to bike design, eschewing cookie-cutter specs to produce mountain, dirt-jump and drop-bar bikes that are nothing if not unique. That’s why we’ve landed on the NS Bikes Clash as one of our hardtails of 2020, precisely because it offers something different to the run-of-the-mill ranges found elsewhere.
The first thing to notice about the Clash is its 26” wheels. Once de rigueur for both HT and FS MTBS, the smaller wheel size has been eclipsed by the 27” and 29” standards. But that’s not to say that it doesn’t still have a place, and we applaud NS Bikes for making sure that riders – of all ages – still have a choice.
For us, the Clash is a true all-rounder but in a different way to a bike like the Vitus Nucleus – in speccing 26” wheels, Kenda Small Block 8 tyres, stubby stem and 120mm XCM fork on a burly, built-for-punishment 6061 alloy frame, NS Bikes have made a machine that is ready for the dirt jump park, street and pump track as well as for the trails (maybe with a tyre change for the latter).
It’s the type of bike that has a little bit of BMX in its DNA, a pinch of 4X (remember that?) maybe even a little bit of slopestyle. If your riding takes in berms, drops and bunnyhops, take a long look at the Clash.
Ragley are specialists when it comes to hardcore hardtails designed with UK and Irish conditions in mind, having been among the pioneers of the slack geometry/long-travel fork combination that is so suited to the way many of us like to ride. Names like the Ragley Marley, MmmBop and Big Wig are no doubt familiar to anyone researching a do-it-all HT, and with the brand enjoying something of a resurgence, the range continues to expand.
For 2020 Ragley have introduced the 29”-wheeled Big Al as a complement to the highly-successful 27.5” Marley, promising the same combination of ride character and value as the latter… just with bigger wheels.
The Big Al also takes its cue from the Ragley Big Wig, a steel-framed 29er, offering the same geometry as its pricier cousin but with a 6061 alloy frame. That frame boasts plenty of modern design touches including a tapered head tube, ISCG 05 tabs for anyone that wants to run a chain device, a 44/56mm tapered head tube, low-slung bottom braket, 148x12mm Boost rear end and of course, internal dropper seatpost compatibility (that’s a future upgrade as this build comes with a normal alloy post).
It’s a versatile package, making for a bike as comfortable logging back country miles as it is threading technical trail centre singletrack. Shimano Deore 1×10 gearing is ever-dependable on drivetrain duties while a 140mm Rockshox Recon RL fork is a definite plus at this price tag.
Nukeproof have made their reputation on the design of full-suspension gravity bikes, with the Scout in various guises being a latter addition to their range, and to date the only hardtail. Looking at the frame design and angles it’s clear this is a hardtail designed from the outset for riders used to high velocity, inspired in no small degree by its FS stablemates.
If ever a bike fits the definition of ‘trail hardtail’, the Scout is it – a slack head angle, long wheelbase, low bottom bracket, 800mm handlebars and 130mm forks combine to make a ride that screams speed and stability.
The Scout is available in three ascending builds – Race, Comp and Expert – with both 27.5” and 29” wheels available for each tier (making six bikes total in the range). We’ve picked out the Nukeproof Scout 290 comp as our choice, the combination of larger-diameter wheels and Shimano Deore 1×10 gearing making a great option for gravity riders who fancy adding a fast trail-muncher to their arsenal, but without breaking the bank.
Of note are the massive Maxxis tyres in play, with a 2.5” Assegai up front matched to a 2.4” Minion DH in the rear. Tubeless (of course) these allow riders to run ultra-low pressures for maximum grip in technical terrain. Further up the range you’ll find SRAM SX Eagle 1×12 gearing on the Comp level Scout, and Shimano SLX on the Expert tier, both of which also come with a dropper post as standard.
Worth mentioning across the Scout range is the provision of quality Nukeproof cockpit kit, with the Neutron and Horizon stem/bar combo often an aftermarket upgrade of choice for discerning riders. The Scout is also available as a frame-only option for those who want to build their bike, their way (or anyone with an overflowing spare parts bin).
The Eccentric platform has been a mainstay in the NS Bikes range for some years, but where previous generations offered a 27.5” option, in 2020 the company is all in on 29” wheels for its long-travel trail hardtail, designed (in the words of NS Bikes) to “roll over everything without thinking twice”.
Much like the Nukeproof Scout, the Eccentric Lite reflects that fact that many of its potential riders may be coming from a gravity bike background. NS Bikes see the ‘Lite’ version (aluminium-framed as opposed to the steel-tubed Eccentric Cromo) as a lightweight and fast all-rounder but don’t be fooled into thinking this is an XC race whippet – with slack geometry, long reach and a 120mm fork this is still capable of careening through rock gardens at pace and absorbing hit after hit without veering off course.
A highlight on this Eccentric Lite 1 build (the Eccentric Lite 2 is also available at a lower price point) has to be the 12-speed SRAM NX Eagle drivetrain, with a massive 50t lowest sprocket offering enough range to spin up the steepest of technical slopes.
The spec list is rounded out by a fast-rolling Octane One Solar 29″ wheelset, equipped with WTB Trail Boss 2.4” tyres. All in all the Eccentric is a far cry from what NS charmingly describe as the “short steep donkeys” found elsewhere in this category, and who are we to argue?
In many ways the big brother to our previously mentioned Vitus Nucleus range, the Vitus Sentier shares some of the key characteristics of that bike, namely a commitment to getting the basics right, and a deserved reputation as one of the very best hardtails of recent years.
However, where the Nucleus is pitched at the beginner rider getting to grips with their first trails, the Sentier assumes a little more experience, and a bigger appetite for technical terrain, fast descents and what we are assured is referred to as ‘the gnar’.
To that end it’s a beefier, burlier proposition than the Nucleus, with slightly slacker geometry, a longer wheelbase/reach and no less than 140mm of rock-munching front travel. It’s a bike that’s more than capable of spinning to the top of the slope, but which definitely comes into its own when sending it on the downs.
Again the Sentier s available in a selection of builds, starting with the sub-£1k base model offering Deore 1×10 gearing and available in 27.5”, 29” and female-specific versions. That’s followed by the SX Eagle-equipped Sentier VR (complete with the welcome return of Marzocchi Bomber Z2 forks), while the range tops out with the Sentier VRX featuring Fox Float 34 Rhythm suspension (should we also include the Vitus E-Sentier eMTB as part of our range roundup? Frankly we’re not sure…).
For us however – and we suspect we’re not alone in this – the pick of the Sentier litter for 2020 is going to be the mid-range Vitus Sentier 27 VRS, which manages to balance a no-corners-cut spec list (including a dropper seatpost, Rockshox Revelation RC 140mm forks with DebonAir spring and a Shimano XT/SLX 1×12 drivetrain) with a real-world price tag. It’s a formidable proposition which begs a key question – is there a better trail hardtail out there, for the price?
There’s something about steel that inspires misty-eyed reflection in many otherwise hardened bike riders, and the MTB hardtail category is no different. You’ll find high-quality cro-mo tubing used for framesets in many manufacturers’ ranges, especially among what might be called ‘boutique’ brands, and the compliance and ride character of steel will always have a market.
So it is with the brilliantly-named Blue Pig, a steel-framed, 27.5”-wheeled hardtail that has been a mainstay of Ragley’s range for more than a decade. In that time it’s forged a reputation as a do-it-all hardcore HT, as ready to carve up your local woodland trails as it is to take on an enduro event. To be honest, that’s a claim made by many bikes in this category, but if any can back it up it’s the Blue Pig.
For 2020 the bike gets some subtle geometry tweaks and increased rear wheel spacing (to the 12mm x 148mm Boost standard), but nothing that changes the ready-to-rip character that has made it so popular. The frame is engineered from custom triple butted 4130 chromoly tubing and features ISCG 05 tabs and internal dropper seatpost compatibility.
In standard build the Blue Pig is matched to a 150mm Rockshox Yari fork and SRAM NX Eagle 1×12 drivetrain, but if that’s not gnarly enough for you the Blue Pig Race features a 160mm Rockshox Lyrik Select fork and Shimano SLX 1×12 gearing. Meanwhile if you are looking for something a little more trail-orientated, the Ragley Piglet bears many of the hallmarks of the Blue Pig in a shorter-travel package, with 130mm Rockshox Revelation RC forks up front.
So far, our roundup of the best hardtails of 2020 has leaned firmly towards the slack geometry/long travel side of things, but there is another side to the HT coin – the fast, lightweight cross-country race weapon.
Whether or not you have intentions to compete, some riders will naturally favour the aggressive, speed-oriented character of a short-travel racing rig, and particularly their prowess on the climbs, over the more laid-back ride offered by the hardcore hardtail.
For competitive XC MTB, smoother trails or Alpine exploration, a lightweight hardtail is hard to beat.
It’s fitting then that the first of this type on our list is from German brand Ghost, as both XC racing and large networks of manicured mountain trails are perhaps more common on the continent, making the short-travel cross-country HT as popular as ever in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and elsewhere.
The Ghost Lector 3.9 is a superb example of a modern racing machine, with a stiff carbon frame for efficient power transfer, fast-rolling DT Swiss X1900 29” wheels, SRAM NX Eagle 1×12 gearing and 100mm Rockshox Recon RL forks. This isn’t the kind of bike that will comfortably take on a rock-strewn descent but then, that’s not what it’s designed for. However, if your version of mountain biking comes with a heart-rate monitor and lycra shorts, look no further for a rocket ride.
Perhaps overshadowed a smidgen by its Nucleus and Sentier siblings, the Rapide is the third hardtail platform in Vitus’ MTB range, and if you’re looking for a lightweight, capable and great-value off-roader, ignore it at your peril.
Where the Nucleus is a ‘brilliant first bike’ and the Sentier ready for tough, technical terrain, the Rapide hits the sweet spot for those who want a fast mile muncher to take on smoother trails or cross-country competition (the clue is in the name really).
In many ways it’s a modern version of what the majority of MTB hardtails used to look like before everything went all slack and low-slung – lightweight frame, 100mm travel forks and 29” wheels. If you’re looking for a play bike to manual in the woods or a burly, long-forked mountain masher, the Rapide isn’t for you. But if you want to cover big mileage at speed, then you need something more subtle than a hardcore hardtail, and the Rapide is the right tool for the job.
It also has to be noted that the Rapide is far more than a high-strung race day special – a relatively slack 67° head angle and Boost rear spacing makes for confident handling over technical terrain, even with ‘only’ 100mm travel, and both riders and reviewers agree that the Rapide has plenty of the fun factor that make Vitus hardtails such a hit.
The four-bike Rapide platform offers a good spread of options, with two alloy bikes and two carbon. The alloy base model with Shimano SLX 1×11 drivetrain/Rockshox Recon RL 100m forks is great value for under £1k, while next up the ladder the beautiful burgundy Vitus Rapide VR upgrades to SRAM SX Eagle 1×12 gearing and Rockshox Reba SL.
After that the alloy framesets give way to carbon fibre, with the pinnacle of the range being the no-expense-spared Vitus Rapide CRX, a stunning race hardtail with SRAM GX Eagle 1×12 drivetrain, Fox Float 32 SC forks and a drool-worthy black and gold (sorry, ‘Midnight Sand’) colourway. For our favourite in the range however, we take one step back to the second-from-top Vitus Rapide CRS. This has the same lightweight, stiff and efficient carbon fibre frame as its range-topping sibling but specced with SRAM NX Eagle 1×12 and Fox Float 32 Rhythm forks is a little bit friendlier on the wallet, without sacrificing a performance edge.