If you're the type of person who calls a sliding, frantic trip down the side of a mountain a good time, mountain biking is likely your sport. Choosing the right mountain bike can be difficult; almost no other segment of cycling has as diverse a collection of bike styles and builds as mountain biking, and the differences between these bikes can be subtle. Understanding the unique qualities of rigid and hardtail bikes can make your decision a little easier.
A rigid mountain bike has a completely solid frame. Where other mountain bikes occasionally have a front or rear suspension, a rigid bike has none. Rigid bikes can be made of a wide range of materials, although the most popular choices by far are alloys like steel and titanium because of their easily reparable nature. Carbon fiber and aluminum can be used, but are much less used. The wheel size of rigid bikes can be 26 inch or 29 inch, and some rigid bikes even come with the over-sized wheels and tires typical of “fatbikes,” which are used for extreme conditions like snow.
A hardtail mountain bike has a solid frame like a rigid bike, but with a suspension fork in the front. A suspension fork allows for a few inches of travel on the front tire when the bike is traveling on rough terrain, which makes for a smoother ride with better handling. Hardtail bikes still retain some of the precision of their rigid cousins because of their solid rear triangle, and are very popular with highly technical riders. The frames are available in all materials and the wheel sizes vary between 26 inch and 29 inch.
Comparing Rigid and Hardtail Bikes
Rigid bikes are very popular with bikepackers, who strap cargo to the frame of their bike and travel off-road for multiple days, since the rigid frame doesn't compress under the extra weight like a suspension frame does. Additional mounts for equipment on the solid fork are not uncommon. On a hardtail bike, the front fork can usually be locked for a similar effect, but the bike is less specialized. Hardtail bikes are often used for more aggressive sports like off-road singletrack racing and cross country. Both bikes are highly maneuverable, though not quite as comfortable as a full suspension bike.
Choosing a Bike
For moderate trails and beginners, both of these solid-frame bikes are ideal. They require less maintenance and are potentially much cheaper than their full-suspension cousins, making them a good way to get into the sport without spending a fortune. Hardtail bikes are especially popular with general riders, since they excel in most conditions and are reasonably comfortable. A rigid bike is slightly more specialized, but can be an ideal choice for a rider who wants a mountain bike that performs reasonably on bike trails and pavement, since the lack of suspension translates to better pedaling on hard surfaces.