Bike Test: 3 Killer Hardtails Tested & Reviewed

by
November 24, 2017

Issue #114 of Singletrack Magazine, we reviewed three bikes as part of our Killer Hardtail group test.

Traditionally, owning a hardtail signifies a new rider’s official arrival into the mountain biking universe. Some see it as a rite of passage, an obligatory stepping stone. And for many riders, riding a hardtail is often responsible for providing that very first thrill. It’s the two-wheeled vessel that channels a shot of adrenaline as gravity takes over your body in a way never before experienced. The hardtail is typically – if you will – the gateway drug into our addictive avocation.

But while cost is often the reason that riders begin mountain biking with a hardtail instead of a full suspension bike, it isn’t the only reason to own one. Far from it in fact.

innsbruck issue 114 killer hardtails hannah rob wil nukeproof trillion kona
Hardtails aren’t just for riding easy trails on.

The most obvious advantage a hardtail presents is, of course, weight. Pure and simple, a hardtail frame will always weigh less than a frame with a shock bolted into it – usually at least a kilo or so – which can go a very long way if your riding involves anything but flat terrain.
Simplicity is another big factor. With no pivots or bearings to wear out, a hardtail offers a significantly longer service life – particularly for those who are uninterested in routine servicing in the first place. For this reason, a hardtail is an ideal choice for all-weather British riders who are fed up with replacing pivot bolts or listening to the tortured sound of squeaky bearings.

It isn’t all about practicality though – some choose a hardtail for ride quality. No, a hardtail isn’t going to be as comfortable to ride on choppy terrain as those bikes damped with a rear shock. But when it comes to things like responsiveness, acceleration, cornering, or directional changes, a hardtail possesses the inherent advantage of unrivalled trail feedback. Push into the pedals, and the bike pushes back. Feel the terrain through your contact points, dip into the rollers, pop off the lips, snap out of the turns. Yes, riding a hardtail can also deliver a helluva lot of yahoos.

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Hannah chasing Robbo & Wil on the trails of Innsbruck, Austria.

Then there’s the skills thing. Without a moving linkage and rear shock to duly swallow up the thunks and thwacks, a hardtail demands you to choose the smoother lines. It teaches you to find flow, and to read the trail ahead. No reckless ploughing like you’re reclined on a couch. Pessimists see a hardtail as being more difficult to ride on steep, rocky and rooty terrain. Optimists see it as a precision tool for dissecting trails to improve riding skills.

There are surely many reasons why one would choose to ride a hardtail, and simply being a beginner or on a budget is only the start.
To see what today’s hardtails have to offer, we chose three options that cover multiple wheel sizes, different frame materials, and provide their own unique take on the mountain biking experience.


Kona Honzo Carbon Trail DL

kona honzo carbon trail 29in hardtail innsbruck
Kona’s interpretation of ‘XC’ is a little different to others.

Admittedly, much of our test time on the Honzo was on far rockier terrain than it’s really suited for. Ultimately, this is a bike born to thrive on hardpack and loamy singletrack set deep in the forest, weaving its way around tree trunks like a black mamba snake. And on these types of trails, the snappy response of the laterally stiff frame, compact rear end and low-BB make it an absolute scream of a ride. Combined with its flickability, jumpability and acceleration properties, the Honzo encapsulates everything that is good about a hardtail…Read the full review here.


Nukeproof Scout 290 Race

nukeproof scout 290 race innsbruck hardtail
Looking for a bruiser on a budget? The Nukeproof Scout is a burly alloy hardtail that’s ready for everything you can throw at it.

The frame itself gives you the impression that it’ll survive WWIII. Being so stiff, the alloy tubing delivers feedback straight through the pedals and grips, so you’ll know exactly what’s going on underneath each tyre – for good or bad. The high volume 29er tyres do well to absorb smaller trail debris though, and the versatile Maxxis treads deliver a good combo that’ll handle mixed conditions. There’s oodles of mud clearance, and room for up to 2.5in tyres…Read the full review here.


Trillion Prime

trillion prime steel killer hardtail innsbruck
As a fresh-faced UK manufacturer, Trillion has bold plans for the Prime.

Rear dropouts are 148mm wide, and they use a sliding design with integrated tensioners. This allows you to tune chainstay length between 430mm–450mm, and also offers an easy conversion to singlespeed. However, according to Trillion, it also means the Prime can accommodate either 27.5in or 29in wheels, with max tyre clearance rated at 2.6in for both wheel diameters. To match the frame and its wheel size compatibility, Trillion has fitted a RockShox Yari 29er fork with 160mm of travel…Read the full review here.


innsbruck issue 114 killer hardtails hannah rob wil nukeproof trillion kona
Hardtail hoofing in Innsbruck.

Verdict

In a marketing landscape that’s dominated by pricey carbon fibre wunder-bikes and hyper-long geometry sleds, the humble hardtail regularly misses out on a lot of the media attention. Which is a shame really, because we like hardtails. As we’ve rediscovered during this group test, today’s hardtail is far, far more capable than those that have preceded it.

Modern technologies have certainly taken the hardtail’s performance a long way. Bigger wheels, fatter tyres, dropper posts, and stiffer forks have all played their part. But without doubt, it’s the new-school frame geometry that has upped the ride quality stakes and enhanced the speed capabilities of each one of these bikes we’ve tested.

Whether you’re looking to get into the sport for the first time, or you’re after that N+1 bike to accompany you through a wet and muddy winter season, or you just want the fastest and most responsive bike you can get for cutting up snaky singletrack, chances are that there’s a hardtail here that’ll answer your needs.

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Carbon, alloy and steel – which one would you pick?

Made right here in the UK and from every diehard mountain biker’s favourite material, steel, the Trillion Prime ticks all the right boxes for a hardcore hardtail. It’s slack, can fit semi-chubby rubber, and comes equipped with a cartoonishly long travel fork that will have downhill riders eyeing it up as a potential winter silly bike. Being a prototype, however, our test bike was far from perfect, and there’s some refining required both on the finish and on the geometry before the Prime is ready for its time in the spotlight.

Nukeproof originally wanted to get us the higher-end Scout 290 Comp model, but, due to availability, we ended up testing the cheaper Race spec. Despite a twisty fork and soft brakes, the £1,099 Nukeproof Scout impressed all testers with its composed attitude and surprisingly stable descending manners. It’s the perfect example of how far entry-level hardtails have come, with its tough frame, slack geometry and grippy rubber possessing masses of capability that’ll allow your skills and confidence to grow with it. It’s a terrific beginner’s bike with loads of upgrade potential.

On the other side of the price spectrum, the Kona Honzo CR Trail DL is no cheap proposition. There are certainly bikes with a better spec list than this for the same money, and some of those bikes have rear suspension too. Price aside though, the Honzo is just pure and simple wickedly fun. It corners on a penny, it blasts downhill way too fast, and rides with a gung-ho attitude that I have never experienced with any other carbon hardtail. Sure it’s lightweight and race-capable for all but the most elite World Cup level athletes, but it’s the Honzo’s responsive handling and on-trail feedback that makes it so addictive to ride.

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We had an absolute ball ripping around on these hardtails.

Disclaimer

This feature was created in association with Innsbruck Tourismus, which enabled us to shoot this Bike Test on location in Innsbruck, on the Nordkette Singletrail and at Bikepark Innsbruck. For more information, visit: innsbruck.info and bikepark-innsbruck.com. And to read about our Austrian road trip, checkout the full Innsbruck travel feature here.