DINOSAURS, DODO BIRDS, WOOLY MAMMOTHS, AND NOW THE 26-INCH HARDTAIL? WAIT, SHOULD THAT LAST ITEM BE ON THE LIST?
I encountered an online magazine article a couple of weeks ago that had a 2016 review of the “latest and greatest” mountain bikes for the upcoming year. This review came with a warning: “our new bike reviews do not include hardtails of any kind because they are simple machines and don’t vary much from model to model.” As I read this, my face began to turn red and beads of sweat started dripping down my neck. I thrust my hands towards the sky and shouted, “NO! They can’t do this to us!!”
Well, maybe my reaction wasn’t that dramatic, but as a loyal hardtail rider I was offended by this blatant exclusion. How could they cast aside hardtails like a ‘70s polyester leisure suit? I felt as if I had been punched in the gut – well, again, maybe not quite, but this exclusion certainly got my panties in a bunch. It did start me wondering though, how many mountain bikers ride hardtails, specifically 26-inch hardtails, when bike manufacturers seem to promote the idea that they have fallen out of favour and are no longer produced due to a lack of rider interest?
A couple of years ago, I acquired a 26-inch full-suspension cross-country mountain bike from a leading manufacturer with all the bells and whistles: carbon frame, 120 mm fork in the front and 4 inches of travel in the rear. The weight was acceptable at 27 pounds for an XC/All-Mountain bike. Previous to this I had been riding a 26-inch carbon hardtail, and switching to a full-suspension bike was big change for me. I needed a couple of rides to adjust to my new steed, but I did find that my downhill skills began to accelerate. I could fly down fire roads with ease and was more surefooted when attacking rocky terrain.
Nevertheless, although the more relaxed geometry meant that the bike felt stable on the downhills, it was not nimble going uphill. It was difficult to shift to the front of the saddle when climbing steep hills, which had me struggle to keep proper position. My climbing times increased and, furthermore, even on flat terrain, the bike felt sluggish and plodding versus light and frisky. Naturally, I was disappointed because I was hoping the bike would deliver the goods, but it just did not. Subsequently, I undertook a quest for the ultimate machine, over the course of which I tested 29er hardtails, 27.5 hardtails and umpteen other full-suspension bikes. Ultimately I decided to return to a 26-inch hardtail, though finding one was a whole other story!
I was not able to locate a single 26-inch hardtail anywhere until, while at a local shop, I noticed a bike tucked behind the mechanics’ counter. It was a very workman-like bike – but still swoon-worthy – hanging from a stand and being upgraded with a new set of XTR cranks. I commented out loud that it was a sweet bike. The mechanic turned, removed his grease-stained hands from the crank puller and told me that a customer had dropped it off for a tune-up. Well, what do you know, I thought. Another hardtail rider within the vicinity of my local trails! Maybe we would run into each while riding at some point, eyeball each other’s bike and realise that we both belonged to a small but hardcore group of unhinged hardtail riders. As for my hunt, although I had unearthed a 26-inch hardtail, it was, alas, already owned by another rider. So I continued on, scouring online bike shops, but with no luck. Any that I did mange to find were only available in sizes that no one wanted (unless you were 7-feet tall!).
My search for the ever-scarce hardtail was becoming frustrating to say the least. Did the fabled 26-inch hardtail still exist or had it indeed become extinct? I felt like I was on the lookout for the elusive Bigfoot: I suspected it was real, but just couldn’t prove it. Finally, a friend told me that she knew of a small, fairly local bike builder who still produced 26-inch frames by special order. At last, a promising lead! After a few emails back and forth with the builder, I was able to secure a handmade frame, made to my specifications. Wow! For a while there, it seemed like I would find one only if a Sasquatch rode out of the forest on it. (Then again, THAT would have been awesome!) But the 26-inch hardtail does indeed exist – you just need to know where to look for it.
Today, a 26-inch hardtail rider might be regarded as a bit of a misfit – a rider who refuses to keep up with the technological advances of current mountain biking, a “retro-grouch.” Keep in mind, however, that sometimes, if not most of the time, simpler is better. In fact, a virtual mantra in the world of technology itself is “KISS”: Keep It Simple, Stupid. A 26-inch hardtail proponent is the more kind of rider who avoids unnecessary trendy gadgets and gizmos that are expensive and/or become outdated after one season and need constant replacing. And, in reality, 26-inch hardtail riders do readily embrace the latest and greatest. We love our long-travel forks, disc brakes, advanced-compound tires, dropper seat posts and carbon rims, handlebars and stems. We are not against technology at all – we love it as much as any other mountain biker! It is the abandonment of the 26-inch platform that we take issue with. Arguably, the 26-inch wheel is the perfect size for mountain biking, being neither too small nor too large, and just as capable as any other type of mountain bike out on the trail. Add in the hardtail aspect, and what you get is a lightweight, flickable mountain bike that communicates every nuance of the trail.
In my personal quest to find a new 26-inch hardtail mountain bike, I discovered that indeed the selection out there has decreased significantly to make way for 27.5-inch bikes and 29ers. This is unfortunate, as there is room for all three wheel sizes to coexist and advantages to each. Luckily, there are numerous small builders out there who continue to make 26-inch hardtail frames for riders who want them. I believe that change is constant, and that improvements in bikes and components should be welcomed. Innovation can bring immense advantages. But the basic platform of the hardtail continues to remain relevant in today’s mountain biking world and will – like other types of bikes – just get better with any cool new stuff bolted onto it. Long live the 26-inch hardtail!
Michelle Lambert is a cycling obsessed resident of Southern California. She loves being outside, training, and exploring new trails. Michelle has been racing cross-country mountain bikes off and on, and five years ago she took up cyclocross as well.