Updated: Dec 16, 2021
First off let me explain what I feel a hardcore hardtail actually is. That is, simply a hardtail equivalent of the aggressive trail or enduro full suspension bike. It should be capable of the same or similar terrain without causing too much death and handle in a similar way, as much as a hardtail can.
The very first hardcore hardtails were just extra small XC hardtails. We removed two of the front chainrings, fitted road cassettes (or removed the gears entirely) and a burly fork and rode them to death. People were racing slalom on bikes like this, some were hucking them off cliffs and the rest of us were doing what is now known as enduro.
The ‘genre’ began organically. The riders created it. Not the brands or the marketing departments.
Sure enough, though, they got a hold of it. And to be fair we started to see better products; parts and frames that broke far less often.
But it’s been a long time since the beginnings of the hardcore hardtail and it seems to me that some of the spirit has been lost and the very things that made these bikes so much fun has been eroded by the bike biz with their marketing and finance departments.
A). Bottom bracket height
I’ve already rambled - at length - about why low bottom brackets don’t make a hardtail hardcore. I won’t go into it all again - put simply I believe hardtails with very low bottom brackets are just road bikes with fat tyres.
I learned to manual and ride dirt jumps on my first hardcore hardtail when I was just a kid. Some modern ‘hardcore’ hardtails ride as though the wheels were designed to never leave the floor. It doesn’t seem very hardcore to me. And those tank-like characteristics are directly linked to excessively low bottom bracket height/ drop.
B). Fork travel
Long travel forks are not hardcore. At least where hardtails are concerned. And a hardtail certainly does not become hardcore at a certain travel, quite the opposite. The more travel you have up front, the more the geometry of the bike will vary as the fork travel cycles. The point at which you encounter a feature large enough to bottom the fork is exactly when you don’t want the head angle to suddenly become steeper than Slack Hill.
A burly, short travel fork with a firm setup will keep the geometry more stable and, though it may sound counterintuitive, provide more confidence.
You’ve zero suspension at the back anyway right? So you only need enough up front to provide an element of comfort on big hits - no more than is necessary. The burlier forks available tend to go down to around 130mm travel, which is ample.
A great man (Brendan Fairclough) once said “set it hard as fuck and ride faster until it feels good”. I’d say he’s pretty hardcore.
3). Head angle
Okay, I’ll concede on this point because I like slack head angles on my hardtail. But that doesn’t mean a hardcore hardtail has to be slack.
A slightly steeper head angle can make for a very engaging and rewarding ride. It can help to maintain a shorter wheelbase which creates manoeuvrability and under a skilled rider that can be a greater asset than plough-ability. Hardtails often don’t have the option of trucking straight through chunky terrain and must instead be threaded in, out and around large trail features. A steeper head angle and/ or shorter wheelbase can really help if your rides are often full of rocks bigger than Mike Levy’s car. Turning off the stability control is hardcore. Handling is hardcore. (And so is the ability to roast the dirt jumps every now and then).
4). Wheel size
Wheel size doesn’t have anything to do with it.
5). Tyre size
There’s a notion - mostly among experienced riders - that plus tyres or even just those ‘mid plus’ 2.6ish tyres are not hardcore. To be honest I agree, if we we’re talking about full suspension bikes. But we’re not. Larger tyres are said to be vague, squirmy and uncontrolled when pushed hard. But while a smaller, more taught tyre can provide precision and support for a full squisher it only leads to less control for a hardtail.
They say your tyres are the first part of the suspension system. Well for a hardtail they’re the only part of the suspension system!
Larger volume tyres can provide a hardcore hardtail with a small but very welcome amount of damping and actually increase the control as the bike is less likely to bounce and ping off trail features. Furthermore a little extra volume can help fend off rim damage, something that hardtails (particularly of the hardcore variety) are prone to.
Plus tyres may seem a relatively recent innovation but we were running big tyres on the back of our OG hardcore hardtails 20 years ago. Because it works.
And lastly). There are no criteria
Alright, I know I kinda just listed a load of criteria. But this is not a category for rules. Let the roadies, the cross country crowd, even the enduro bros have that. Let them waste their time looking down their noses at other riders’ bikes and what they do with them, while we spend ours riding. The hardcore hardtail was born to make that happen, to get us out into the woods, onto the moors; to get lost in the ride with your mates or just NOFX for company. Without a single thought for anything but riding. This is hardcore hardtail and there is no room for pretentious bullshit.