the dan milner photography blog: tales of an adventuring photo chimp

October 14, 2009

Hardtail fascism and the school of hard knocks.

Filed under: bike — danmilner @ 8:22 pm

Maybe a tad controvercial in the contemporary bike world this one, but I’m a believer that everyone should have to hang up their full-suspension bike for a year and have to ride a hardtail. Instead. Why? What the hell… read on.

During my time in the USA this month, I got to chat, sup a cuppa and ride with mountain bike legends Tom Ritchey and Keith Bontrager (as well as Gary Fisher and Rob Roskopp), two names that you’ll probably now associate with great bike componentry. Both however began making waves in the bike industry as passionate frame builders (there are few of us that rode in the late 80’s and early 90’s that didn’t lust after a beautiful fillet-brazed masterpiece from one of these two stables of creations). Of course things being as they are in the corporate world of ‘stack it high, sell it cheap’ idioms, before long came mass produced aluminium and Far-East manufacturing, effectively limiting the steel hardtail to an almost forgotten chapter in mountain bike history. Twenty years later any hardtails -aluminium and steel alike- are as rare as hens teeth out on the trails. Which of course I say, somewhat controversially, is a crying shame.

Don’t get me wrong, I ride a full sus bike and love every lovely millimetre of its 140-mm travel. But I still have three hardtails in the shed, including one Ti model. I learnt on a hardtail… and that’s the key.

Okay, I’m no Raffa-wearing fixie-wannabee or steel-framed wielding, Seattle-bike courier, and I am not lamenting the limiting of the steel hardtail to the endangered species list of bikes (beautiful though many of the handbuilt steel bikes are), but I am suggesting that everyone should, at least at some time during their riding experience, get some quality time aboard a rigid rear end. The skill-set you acquire by learning to ride trails on a hardtail are ones that will not only improve your riding whatever steed you ‘progress’ to owning, but also are the same skills that let you ride in a more trail-preserving manner. Six inches of suspension undoubtedly makes technical trails instantly accessible (and less scary) to the newbie rider, and will see you over most obstacles if you have the mettle to point your front wheel downwards, but the nimble subtleties (and pinch flat/frame destroying postential) that hardtail riding requires means having to develop better speed control, more efficient use of the brakes and less skidding, better weight shift about the bike, fewer pinch punctures and essentially a better appreciation of the trail you’re riding on.

If you’re not convinced (really, you’re not?) then consider this fine anecdote that is so perfectly suited to illustrate my point it’s as if I made the whole thing up: Last autumn I was riding the Posettes trail in Chamonix,  a winding 700 m descent that is strewn with technical challenges. Half way down I met two other riders and of course, rode with them for the rest of the descent, one of whom went over the bars on almost every rooty staircase we came across. It was clear where he was going wrong: weight too far forward, too heavy on the front brake. The rider was on a borrowed hard tail, replacing his heavy DH bike to make the 700 m climb a little more manageable.  The hardtail meant he had to ride the roots slower and so rely on skills he had never refined on his DH-do-anything rig. “I wish I’d brought my full susser “ he said as he picked himself up for the fourth time.

So vote for me (sic) and when I’m mayor I’ll make hardtails available for free. And once you have acquired that badge, you can see start towards your body-armour badge, then your hill-climb badge too. The list is endless. See what fun it would be? As easy as riding a bike.


Hardtails never seemed to slow down the legendary Keith Bontrager. His home trail in Santa Cruz.. and not a skid in sight.

Hardtails never seemed to slow down the legendary Keith Bontrager. His home trail in Santa Cruz.. and not a skid in sight.



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