A lot of mountain bikers want to try downhill riding. Sooner or later, you will progress to the point when you feel like you can ride a bit more aggressively. Usually, an average mountain biker starts with cross country riding on a hardtail bike and slowly progresses through trail riding. From this point, people tend to become more and more downhill oriented. Simply because it’s more fun than riding uphill, although some people are exceptions and enjoy that workout the uphill riding provides.
Since most mountain bikers start from cross country, it’s a reasonable question to ask.
Can you ride a hardtail downhill?
Yes, you can! Riding a hardtail bike downhill can help develop better mountain bike skills, so much that professional downhill racers often practice on hardtail bikes. It isn’t easy, but it pays off in the skill you gain from it.
In short, riding a hardtail downhill will be a lot more challenging and less forgiving for each mistake you make. You will need to know your limits and start slow until you get a feel for it. In return, that increased danger and difficulty will make you much more skilled.
There is a downside to riding a hardtail downhill, and that is the fact that hardtail bikes aren’t as durable as a proper downhill bike. However, I will tell you in detail how you can adapt your hardtail bike to be better and more durable at downhill riding.
Why Ride a Hardtail Mountain Bike Downhill?
Some time ago, I used to have a hardtail cross country mountain bike only. It was heavily adapted for trail riding, mostly because an average rider doesn’t need his bike to be a super-fast cross country bike but something more fun. I was still hesitant to try downhill riding, mostly because I didn’t have a full-suspension bike made for downhill trails. Buying one was too expensive for me at that time, so I gave it a shot with my hardtail. That’s the first reason I would say you could ride a hardtail downhill. It’s a valid reason, and you shouldn’t let not having a better bike hold you back.
It was scary at first, and I could never go as fast as some of my friends did. Eventually, I understood the trail and how to progress through certain jumps and corners much better than they would, thanks to the increased difficulty of hardtail downhill riding. Not having a rear suspension will force you to think a lot when going downhill. That, to me, is another good reason to ride a hardtail downhill. The skill you can gain is incredible, and it won’t apply only to downhill trails. You will ride much faster on any mountain trail. Learning how to choose the best path on a trail while going fast is probably the most underrated skill for an average mountain biker to have.
Pros and Cons of Hardtail vs. Full Suspension for Downhill Mountain Biking
I will mention only the pros and cons, which are directly related to downhill mountain biking.
Hardtail Pros and Cons
Pro: Hardtail mountain bikes are lighter.
Usually, expensive bikes mean lighter bikes. But what about different categories? A suspension is quite heavy compared to rigid forks or rear triangles. A hardtail bike means there is no rear suspension. That saves at least a few pounds of weight.
Less weight means the bike can be thrown around easier. By thrown around, I mean that you can go over any technical stuff with less momentum and focus more on your own weight and balance.
Pro: Hardtail mountain bikes are more efficient.
A rigid frame means better power transfer from pedals to the ground. That means very little for downhill riding, where you don’t pedal as much. However, once you need to get back on the top of the trail, you can actually pedal back instead of pushing the bike by your side.
Con: Hardtail mountain bikes have limited performance on difficult trails.
They will never be as fast or as capable as full-suspension bikes on downhill trails. Hardtail mountain bikes lose a lot of speed over bumps and technical sections. Not only that, but you won’t dare to go as fast in the first place. To reduce that speed loss and increase the quality of riding, you must have a perfect skillset.
A perfect balance and flow are difficult to maintain with hardtail bikes on such trails, but that’s what it is all about. In order to make them efficient on downhill trails, you must develop that skill, and you will be grateful that you did.
Full Suspension Pros and Cons
Pro: Full suspension bikes are faster on downhill trails.
Having a rear suspension means you can go fast over all the bumps and through any technical section. The rear shock will absorb most of the stuff on the terrain. Not only that, but you gain extra confidence to go faster, knowing there is a suspension that will help you with your balance if you hit some unexpected obstacle.
Pro: Full suspension bikes are more comfortable.
What this has to do with downhill riding? If you hit the same trail over and over again, all those bumps and hits you take on a hardtail bike start to add up. Having a rear suspension means you can ride for longer periods of time without feeling like someone beat you up.
Pro: Full suspension bikes are more versatile.
There are some technical terrains a hardtail bike simply can’t go through. While pro downhill trails usually require more flow than jumping over stuff, an average trail will be mixed with all kinds of obstacles. Full suspension bikes will make it easier to go over bigger rocks, steps, and jumps. No matter what is ahead of you, with a full-suspension bike, you can be sure you can make it through.
Pro: Full-suspension bikes are easier to ride.
To some extent, this can be described as a pro or a con. Depending on your goals, you might want it to be more difficult. Although, generally, people want to get better results and be better equipped to do so. That means full suspension bikes being easier to ride is a big plus for most mountain bikers.
Con: Full suspension bikes are expensive.
The only real con when we talk about downhill riding is the price tag. A proper downhill or at least all-mountain type of bicycle is quite expensive. We are looking at prices from $3000 and above. For most people that is more than what they want to spend before they even tried downhill mountain biking.
Will Riding a Hardtail Downhill Make You a Better Mountain Biker?
Absolutely, riding a hardtail bike on a downhill trail will make you a far more skilled rider. You push yourself to adjust and learn to understand the terrain and make more intelligent decisions riding downhill. You force your abilities to grow.
Now, if you practice the same downhill trail with a trail, all-mountain, or downhill bike, you will be that much quicker and better rider. When you ride cross-country singletrack trails and fire roads and such, you will also become much more aware of the terrain and obstacles in front of you. It’s pretty clear why people prefer this training process.
Is a Hardtail Bike Safe to Go Over Jumps and Drops?
Yes, a hardtail bike can handle various jumps and drops on downhill trails with ease. Many Cross-country bikes are hardtails, and you can use many of those hardtail mountain bikes to jump up to around 2 feet high. My recommendation is to keep it reasonable. Remember just how valuable your bike is, and that should hold your inner thrill-devil in restraint.
Don’t forget; you are choosing the best path down the mountain, not the quickest. And you should adapt the choice to the type of bike you are riding. If there are any high jumps or drops, ordinarily, you can locate a path around them that isn’t as fast, but it’ll get you there with way fewer difficulties.
Can a Hardtail Bike Break If You Ride It Downhill?
Will a hardtail bike break if you ride it downhill was my original question, as well. Maybe the question to ask should be; How much downhill can you safely ride without destroying your bike? The answer to that depends. If you take it carefully, always stay within the flow, making sure you don’t go over your skill limit. In other words, I would make sure that I’m not forcing the bike to do hard work but instead learn to use body balance and skill to go over difficult sections. That way, your bike won’t ever take much of a beating.
Even though there are many hardtail trail bikes adapted to take difficult trails and even downhill sections, most hardtail bikes are cross-country bikes. The frames and wheels on these bikes are not as durable as the trail, enduro, or downhill ones. They will crack easier than trail bikes. When the bike’s rear triangle is taking hits regularly, that will wear out either parts of the wheel or the frame itself. The first thing that gives up on a hardtail bike when used for downhill is the rear axle unless it’s a boost thru-axle like full-suspension bikes use today. In that case, the hits are equally distributed between the rim, axle, and frame. This way, the bike is way more durable.
I’ve mentioned this before going into adapting the hardtail bike for downhill because it is something you can’t change on your bike. It depends on how the frame was manufactured, and it’s probably the most important if you want to use your hardtail for downhill.
How to Make Your Hardtail Better at Downhill
You could ride your hardtail downhill as it is, and you would be a bit more limited, but you would do just fine. However, if you are planning to ride downhill often, you might as well adapt your bike to be better at it.
Back in the day, when I went through with these changes on my hardtail, I actually went too far with it. It made my bike bad at almost everything else, which I wouldn’t recommend unless you will ride downhill parks where the only time you are on the bike is when going downhill.
From what I learned, I believe there are some simple yet effective changes you can make to improve your hardtail bike’s downhill performance. Some of these are a bit expensive, and you should invest in them only if you are fully committed to it.
Put Wider and Grippier Tires on Your Bike
I can already see someone saying, “I don’t want a fat bike.” But that’s not what I meant. Most hardtails come with 2.2 inch wide tires, which really isn’t enough to ride downhill on a hardtail. I would suggest 2.4 inches at least, with some good grip.
Before you buy bigger tires, you should check how wide the frame can support. I find the 2.6-inch width to be the sweet spot for reasons even beyond the grip itself for riding a hardtail downhill.
My choice would be Maxxis Minion II DHF in front and Maxxis Minion II DHR in the rear.
Those are pretty standard downhill and all-mountain tires. However, if you can’t get your hands on a pair of those, there are decent choices from other brands as well.
Continental has some decent options, which is the only brand other than Maxxis that I can talk about because I’ve ridden pretty much all of the MTB tires from both brands. I never really went beyond those two brands, so I won’t suggest anything else.
So, the alternative choice would be a combination of Der Kaiser and Der Baron with a preference for Der Kaiser for dry trails and Der Baron for wet trails.
Lower the Air Pressure in Your Tires
Lower psi means the tires are squishier. That effectively increases rolling resistance and grip. Since we are riding downhill, rolling resistance isn’t much of an issue, while the grip is something we want nearly as much as possible.
Lower psi in your tires won’t only increase grip but will act as a suspension as well. Hardtail bikes are limited in the amount of beating they can take, and having the tires soak up some of those harder hits will make sure everything else on your bike lasts longer.
Convert to Tubeless
There is only so far you can lower the psi before you start to snake bite pinch your tubes on rocks and roots. A tubeless system allows you to reduce psi even lower and achieve that maximum grip and ride quality.
If you already invested in some good downhill tires, you have already acquired the most expensive part of the tubeless conversion. Now, there is no reason not to go all the way through.
Lower Your Bike Seat
A good thing to do is to try riding downhill with a lowered seat.
Normally, hardtail bikes don’t come with a dropper post to lower or raise your seat whenever you want. It’s a great addition to your bike, which I would always recommend, but the problem is not every hardtail is even compatible with it.
Hardtail bikes don’t come with dropper posts because they are pedal efficiency-oriented, which requires your seat to be high at all times. However, going downhill, you won’t need pedal efficiency, and lowering your seat will allow your body to move in all directions while on the bike. That way, you can keep your balance where it needs to be.
If you decide to upgrade your bike with a dropper post, keep in mind that you will need an external cable dropper post unless you have a dropper post routing frame. Also, make sure the diameter fits your frame, which you can check by looking for a measurement number on your old seat post.
Pedals are often an underrated aspect when talking about mountain bike adaptations. People often don’t realize you can’t ride any type of trail with any type of pedals. You can, but not without a great risk of injury.
Especially when converting hardtails to downhill capable machines, you need to consider getting a pair of large surface flat pedals with great grip. There should be many evenly distributed pins so you can catch the pedal firmly even when you get your foot halfway onto it.
Clipless pedals are completely out of the question for someone that isn’t a pro. At least, in my opinion, even enduro clipless pedals make no sense unless you are already really skilled. If you want to ride enduro or downhill properly and develop a proper skill while doing that, you need to be able to control your bike without using your feet to pull it around. You can’t do that on clipless pedals. An even bigger reason is that it is a lot more dangerous than any other MTB discipline. That split second that takes you to unclip your feet makes a lot of difference between landing safely and going over the handlebars.
My favorite choice is Crank Brothers Stamp 3 pedals in large size. I’ve been using them since they first came out.
Invest in a Better Fork with Increased Travel
Fork change can be quite expensive a maybe not worth it in the long run for a hardtail. I would look to invest in a full suspension bike in the future. However, if you decide to go for it anyway, here is what you should be looking for.
Other than making sure the steerer size, tire size, wheel axle size all fit, there are some other complications to keep in mind as well. Some people claim that the travel increase can’t be more than 20mm because you increase your fork’s angle so much that the head tube can break. That’s not really that correct, yes it puts more force on the headtube every time you bottom your fork, but the risk of breaking is really low.
What actually is bad about it is that all the capabilities of your bike might change a lot, and you will need to adapt other things as well to keep it rideable. Handling might be ruined because the “trail” distance in geometry will increase, and you might need a shorter stem to increase turn momentum.
Another thing to consider is how often do you plan on climbing uphill with your bike. Increasing a fork suspension travel too much can make it impossible to go uphill, similar to how full suspension downhill bikes are.
Tips to Ride Hardtail Downhill Better
There are a few things you can do to lessen the chance of breaking both the bike and yourself. Take it slow, learn the trail, and progress in your skill level. If you go a little slower, the hit you take on roots and rocks will be a bit lighter.
Keep your weight back, so the forks don’t bottom out every time they take the hit. Keep your arms and legs bent and absorb impacts with your joints’ flexibility instead of putting direct stress on them.
Avoid holding onto the brakes all the time. When you want to brake, squeeze the brakes and release and soon as possible. Brakes can get really hot on downhill sections, and they might end up not braking well enough when you need them the most.
Watch your path, instead of everything around you. Focus on choosing the right trail lines.
For starters, try to avoid as many jumps as you can and ride smarter by going around them. Slowly progress through bigger and bigger jumps with time. Taking a hardtail bike through all the jumps is not nearly as easy as full-suspension bikes.
So yes, you can ride your hardtail downhill. It’s not the most pleasant experience at the start. At least not until you learn how to control a hardtail bike on downhill trails. However, it lets you take a Cross country hardtail bike and do something fun and original with it.
Riding a hardtail downhill teaches you how to pick your path better. A skill from which you will benefit for a long time. Just throw on some fatter tires, take it easy and enjoy the ride.