The 6 Best Hardtail Mountain Bikes

Published on 05/13/2023 · 8 min readCycling Expert Adam L. explains the best offerings that you should check out when shopping around for your first or next hardtail mountain bike.
Adam L., Cycling Expert
By Cycling Expert Adam L.

Photo by Nathanaël Desmeules

Hardtail mountain bikes are some of the most dependable mountain bikes out there. With no rear suspension, they’re lighter, more efficient, and simpler to maintain than full-suspension bikes. It also means they’re a little less capable on rough trails, but they’re a great option for moderate trail riding or mixed trail/road riding.

Curated’s specialized team of Cycling Experts has combed through the marketplace and has a few favorite hardtails, which I’ve compiled into a list of our most recommended hardtail mountain bikes. With so many good options out there, it’s tough to narrow it down, but these models are some of the best hardtail mountain bikes out there, thanks to features and specs that set them apart from the rest.

There’s something for everyone, from new riders to intermediate shredders who want the simplicity of a front suspension-only frame.

Key Features

Before diving into the bikes, let’s review a few key features you’ll want to keep an eye on when looking at a hardtail mountain bike.

Wheel Size: 27.5” / 29”

  • 27.5”
    • Benefits: Smaller size is more agile in technical terrain
    • Be Aware: Not as fast as a larger wheel.
  • 29”
    • Benefits: Faster and more easily rolls over obstacles
    • Be Aware: Slightly more challenging for shorter riders.

Drivetrain: 2 or 3x/1x

  • 2 or 3x: Multiple front chainrings
    • Benefits: More gear range, lower cost
    • Be Aware: More components and more shifting when riding.
  • 1x
    • Benefits: Simple, one-handed shifting and no front chainrings to worry about
    • Be Aware: Higher initial cost.

Fork: Coil / Air

  • Coil
    • Benefits: Simple and reliable operation with very little maintenance, low cost
    • Be Aware: Not as sensitive or adjustable.
  • Air
    • Benefits: More sensitive ride, adjustable to different rider weights and styles
    • Be Aware: Higher costs and more maintenance are required.

The 6 Best Hardtail Mountain Bikes to Check Out

1. Cannondale Trail 5

Retailing for around $990, the Cannondale Trail 5 is a fantastic choice for a first hardtail under $1,000. It has a durable aluminum alloy frame with a 100mm travel coil suspension fork from Suntour. Shifting is handled by a microSHIFT Advent X 1x 10-speed drivetrain, and the bike’s hydraulic disc brakes provide great stopping power in all conditions.

One of my favorite features of this bike is its size-specific wheels. Most sizes are built with 29” wheels, but XS and S frames get 27.5” wheels, so all riders are matched to the best wheel size possible.

2. Rocky Mountain Fusion 30

The Fusion 30 takes Rocky Mountain’s mountain bike heritage and distills it into a fun, capable trail bike at a great price point. I really like the modern geometry, slack front end, and low-top tube for maximum standover on this bike. These are features we usually see on much higher-end bikes.

The Fusion 30 is built up with 29” wheels and a Suntour XCM 100mm travel air fork with a lockout lever that’s a serious upgrade from coil forks. Shifting and braking is provided by a mix of microSHIFT and Clark’s components, and the Fusion 30 has a 1x9-speed drivetrain. Rocky Mountain also makes the Soul, with similar specs but with 27.5” wheels.

3. Marin Bobcat Trail 4

If you’re looking for a quality mountain bike, the brand named after mountain biking’s birthplace is a great place to start! Still based in California’s Marin County, Marin is known for putting out quality bikes at great price points, and the Bobcat Trail series is no exception. These are some of our most popular recommendations because they balance great components with really approachable prices.

The Bobcat Trail 4 has an aluminum frame and size-specific 27.5” or 29” wheels. XS and S frames have 27.5” wheels, L and XL frames have 29” wheels, and M frames come in both sizes.

The 120mm travel SR Suntour XCM HLO-DS is a nice upgrade over other bikes at this price point, and the 1x9 speed microSHIFT Advent drivetrain gives plenty of gear range. The Advent drivetrain is very popular on hardtail bikes; it’s hard to beat the combination of quality, features, and price. Tektro hydraulic disc brakes complete the build kit and ensure secure stopping power in all conditions.

The Bobcat is considered a unisex bike, but Marin also makes the Wildcat series with similar specs and a women’s specific saddle and narrower handlebar. Finally, there are several other Bobcat models for those looking for component upgrades or a slightly lower price point.

4. Cannondale Trail SE 4

Checking back in with Cannondale, we have the Trail SE 4, which has a few upgraded features over the standard Trail series. The SE shares much of its geometry with Cannondale’s top-end Scalpel HT carbon fiber race bike, including dropped seat stays, but has a more durable C2 aluminum frame. This is Cannondale’s mid-grade aluminum alloy, which is lighter than the alloy used on their entry-level bikes.

The frame also has Boost 148 spacing and thru-axles, increasing stiffness and ride quality, especially on rough terrain. Up front, there’s a 120mm Suntour XCR fork. I want to highlight that it’s a coil fork and is the lowest-end spec on the bike. It’s not a bad fork, but it is definitely a possible upgrade to improve performance. Suntour does offer an awesome trade-in program for a discount on a new fork.

The Trail SE 4 has a Shimano Deore 1x10 speed drivetrain and Tektro hydraulic disc brakes. The frame has a rigid post, but dropper post routing is available. Like Cannondale’s Scalpel HT, the Trail SE 4 is only offered in a 29” wheel size for maximum speed.

5. Scott Scale 970

The Scale 970 is a fun and fast cross-country-focused hardtail. It’s on the shorter travel end of things, so it would be great for XC racing, smoother trails, or a mix of singletrack, paths, and pavement.

The frame is Scott’s 6061 lightweight aluminum, and all models have 29” wheels for maximum speed. I also like that this bike is offered in extended sizes, ranging from XXS to XXL. The slightly higher price point brings with it serious component upgrades. The 100mm travel RockShox Judy Silver Air fork is a great adjustable mid-level fork that can be locked out to ride rigidly. The Sram NX/SX Eagle 1x12 speed drivetrain has a fantastic gear range, with a 50T largest rear cog making it easy to spin up steep climbs. Another unique feature on this bike is a RideLoc remote lockout, which can adjust the fork via a handlebar lever. A Shimano MT200 hydraulic disc brake set provides braking.

Scott also makes several other models in the Scale series, including aluminum and top-flight carbon fiber race bikes used on the UCI World Cup.

6. Marin Team Marin 1

The Team Marin 1 is another great value from Marin. While this is designated as a cross-country race bike, I think the modern geometry and solid component spec also make it versatile for trail riding. The Team Marin 1 is one of my favorite bikes to recommend, and it represents some of the best value of any bike we sell, not just the mountain bike category!

The bike is built up with a lightweight aluminum frame with Boost spacing and internal cable routing for a clean look and dirt protection. This aluminum frameset is comparable in weight to lower-end carbon frames but more durable and reasonably priced. There’s also clearance for wide tires, with the stock 29 x 2.3” Vee Rail Rocco tires providing gobs of grip and increased offroad comfort.

A 1x12-speed Shimano Deore drivetrain handles the shifting, while TRP G-Spec hydraulic disc brakes handle deceleration duties. The Team Marin 1 is also specced with the dependable Rockshox Judy Silver TK fork, which has 120mm of travel. While it’s only 20mm longer than the fork on the Scale 970, the bigger travel fork helps make the Team Marin a more versatile trail bike, improving traction on both uphills and descents without sacrificing speed between the tape.

A note on models: You’ll notice a number follows each of these model names. Each brand offers these bikes in a few different build kits. For some, the higher model number represents a better bike, while for others, the lower the number, the better the build.

The upshot is that each bike is offered in different configurations to the specific spec listed here. So if you like the model but need different features or a price point, there’s a good chance the brand offers a different spec that would fit your needs.

Conclusion

Hardtail mountain bikes are some of the most dependable, versatile, and high-value ways to get into mountain biking. Modern geometry and new features, like 1x drivetrains with wide-range cassettes and dropper posts, have made these bikes more capable than ever. So whether you need a dedicated single-track ripper or are dipping your toe into off-road riding and need a bike that can also handle some pavement duties, there’s (at least) one perfect hardtail for you.

Thanks for tagging along as we took a tour through Curated’s most recommended hardtail mountain bikes. To explore more Cycling articles as you pursue your journey in the sport, check out the Expert Journal here on Curated.

Curated experts can help

Have a question about the article you just read or want personal recommendations? Connect with a Curated expert and get free recommendations for whatever you’re looking for!

Read next

New and Noteworthy