Words: Amy Henchoz
I’m just gonna say it. Hardtails are awesome.
When you can tame them.
The feeling of smashing it down a descent when you and the bike are perfectly in tune, feeling everything the bike feels and accepting the abuse, using it to your advantage to feel where the grip is and just how slippy those slippy bits are. You can’t just rely on the bike getting down the descent. YOU have to get it down. But when that happens and you’ve grunted and heaved your way down, passing those on far superior bikes, the satisfaction is immense. And while the marshals at the bottom might be there to see if you are okay, all you can do is grin at them, you might have been tripoding it around that last steep corner but you sure made as hell made it and that success is a bigger feeling than any impending doom there might be in the knowledge that you are about to have to climb up another monster hill. Because, again, you have an efficiency machine!
So, I think it’s obvious that I love my hardtail. Every time I ride it I come back with a grin on my face and the words “That bike is amazing” on my lips. But then the euphoria wears off and just how sketchy some of those maneuvers were starts to sink in. The words “Yer but if it had a dropper it’d be perfect” start to come out. And it’s true, a dropper doesn’t half make a hardtail versatile, but none the less, is a hardtail really the better tool for the job with todays bike weights and modern course design?
My race at Extreme sur Loue
I just got back from the Extreme sur Loue, in Ornans, competing in what I’m struggling to decide if was my favourite event of the year, or my second favourite (the other contendor being the Belgium Stoumont MTB Marathon). Extreme Sur Loue certainly lived up to it’s reputation for being a techy mud fest. I really didn’t believe that a UCI Marathon would be as hard as that, how wrong was I! The descents were steep, long and consistent. There was no respite to recover your faculties, no sooner had you got through the steep switchbacks but then it was into a rockdrop that was only just about rollable, then it was straight into an off-camber narrow section, the entry of which was another drop, this time off a big, slippy root.
Trying to keep the speed low, while not braking on the lethal roots or rocks was virtually impossible, add in trying to do so with the saddle up your bum and you can imagine just how exciting the descents were. I think I spent most of the time with one foot clipped in, the other vaguely waving around in mid air, me claiming it was there to maintain some level of balance but actually that was just an excuse to try and maintain contact with the earth. Somehow that makes you feel better, even though it’s actually much harder to ride. Certainly it leaves you with a fair few scrapes up the inside of the knee from the pedal catching it as you and the bike lean into the “stability providing” tripod leg, you’re knee knocking on the top tube yet again, adding to what will eventually end up being a nice purple bruise to prove just how “in control” of the situation you really were.
Then the hike-a-bike section begins, and the satisfied feeling as you pick up a bike that you know weighs less than your competitors. The thought spurs you on to try and catch them while walking uphill. But that self-satisfied feeling only lasts so long when you realise that it was quite a few years ago now that you did any proper mountain walking, and cyclo-cross was over 6 months ago and any remnants of running legs have long since left the vicinity. It’s still lighter though, so shrug it off and get on with it.
Then comes a short road section; now this is the time to shine. Set the power down and utilise that blisteringly efficient pedaling platform to it’s max. Feel that rigid back end turn all those months of training into pure watts. No sag to worry about, stand up and sprint if you want, it’s all coming out as speed.
The problem is, lockouts are so good now that actually everyone else can do that too. And bike weights are so low that your self-satisfied feeling on the climbs has very little basis, their bikes are only a 1 kilo, maybe 1.5kilos heavier than yours. As a percentage of your bike and body weight that’s a difference of around 1-2.5% for women, even less for men. That sounds a lot, but then add in how much more tired your legs are getting from the abuse they’re taking acting as suspension. The way your back wheel stops going over ever rock on a climb and the power needed to overcome that. Then add in the time you gain on the descents and all of a sudden the hardtail efficiency machine doesn’t seem so efficient anymore.
The problem, as I only recently learned, is that full suspension bikes will roll over things without losing speed whereas the hardtail needs you to be constantly utilising Light-‘n-Heavy (the phrase my boyfriend has recited at me to get me to move the bike around obstacles), otherwise it’ll stop dead, and if you can’t go light, then you have to add more power, power that the full suss just doesn’t need you to give. And then you point it downhill, and it doesn’t really matter how well you can ride the bike, you’d still be faster on a full suss (and I’m sure there are exceptions, people that can ride a hardtail at silly speeds, but the majority of us mere mortals would struggle to ride a hardtail consistently faster than a full suss). And even if you are the same speed, are you the same level of safe? The main thing I recently learned getting on my first full suss bike is that all of a sudden I can think while I ride! No more riding on reactions and survival instinct, the only noises coming out of me being grunts when I hit something harder than intended or heave the bike off its trajectory and towards the one I want. No. Now I can talk and ride! Heckling the wheel in front is possible rather than just giving everything to stay with it. You can look ahead and decide where you want to put the bike and do it. Now, tell me that isn’t safer and more controlled than tripoding down a descent, thinking you’re super rad for even attempting this.
So, if the hardtail isn’t the solution on the steep, what about the flat, non technical? Well, if it’s flat then weight is less of an issue, so there goes that benefit, with lockouts they’re hardly much more efficient. If there was any course that you’d call hardtail territory all day long it would have to be the Marathon Worlds in Haderslev. And yet look at the entrants, hardly any were on a hardtail. Even when they had the choice. BMC make a suitably lightweight race machine that Pauline could have been riding, Jolanda could have been on the same bike as I ride; a Trek Procaliber. But all stuck with their full suspension companions and it definitely didn’t harm their results!
Unfortunately, however you cut it, hardtails are getting a bit outdated for XC racing. While you can do it, would you be faster on a full suss? Would you crash less? Would you be less fatigued at the end of the race? Ready to go again tomorrow?
I really want the answer to at least one of these questions to be no. But I just don’t think it is. I finish every race loving my bike and how it handles and how we got through it again. But is “getting through it” enough? The further out from every race it gets, the more I realise that I could have been faster. That I want to be faster. I don’t want to be surviving, I want to be smashing it, up and down. And what I want to ride is the techiest, gnarliest descents you can get on an XC course. The best of mountain biking!
I love my hardtail. But I might be having to come to the conclusion that I want something more capable. Hardtails have their place, and they are certainly a whole lot of fun when you do tame them, and the satisfaction of smashing it past someone on a descent who has the best of all the kit while you manage the unruly rear end of your 2nd hand, outdated old hardtail is unmatched. So to all those out there that do it, massive credit to you, that’s awesome! But I think I have to hang my head in shame and say I’m getting a bit of squidge in my life, and a nice dropper post so I can lift my bruised and battered leg over the bike a bit easier!