Technique: Just Ride Better! Pt 3

30 tips to improve your hardtail riding

Don't think the lack of suspension will hold you back – hardtails are where riding skills are built. Here are 30 tips that will help you build skills even faster.

The fundamentals of off-road riding are best learned on a hardtail bike. You won’t get away with being lazy on a hardtail. Where a full-suspension bike will let you float over the rough, you have to work harder to make a hardtail dance.

When you get it just right, hardtails connect you to the terrain in a way that even the best full suspension bikes can’t – it’s pure and satisfying, and can actually make you feel like you’re travelling twice the speed you are.

There are a lot of things that you can do to really make a difference to your riding when you’re on a hardtail. Often it’s more about feeling the terrain and how the bike can ride it best, rather than attacking and hoping the bike will get you through the other side.

So let's take a look at both regular trail riding hardtails, and the more hardcore hardtails that are equally at home on the jumps as being drifted through the woods.

Bike setup

Setting your bike up correctly is essential. Your local bike shop will be able to help you make the finer adjustments to suit your riding needs, but our guide will point out what you need to do to get ready to shred – fast.

Cross-country/trail hardtail

Hardtail mountain bikes generally have a suspension fork with 100 to 140mm (3.9 to 5.5in) travel, a stem length between 70 and 100mm, and full gearing to ride up any hill, and for putting the power down. Your position on the bike is slightly more relaxed than on a cross-country race bike, so it’s more suitable for all-day riding.

1 Saddle height

Without rear suspension to cushion you when you hit the rough stuff, it’s advisable to run your saddle lower than usual to avoid getting kicked up the arse. If there are long stretches on your ride, you can always raise it again to make your pedalling more efficient. Make the most of putting it out of the way slightly when the going gets rough.

2 Saddle choice

On a hardtail, you’ll feel everything the trail transmits through the back end of the bike. Look for a saddle with a flexible body, a narrow rear to allow you to slide off the back easily, and a long nose to allow you to hover for steep climbs.

3 Stem

Trail hardtails tend to work best with slightly longer stems to stabilise the handling of the steeper head angles, and put you in a better position for climbing, both seated and out of the saddle.

4 Pedals

Clipless pedals come into their own on a hardtail, especially over rough ground – you won’t lose your footing and can still pedal where you might normally be concentrating on staying on. They’ll also help you pick the bike up over rough ground to avoid getting bogged down.

5 Tyres

In wet conditions, some prefer a narrower tyre to cut through, and others would rather have a wider tyre to float over the top. In dry conditions, large volume, low-profile tyres work best because they have shock-absorbing properties, but don’t sacrifice power to the rear wheel.

6 Brakes

With a bike that weighs less, and no rear suspension to aid traction under braking, there’s no point going overkill on the size of your discs. 160mm discs are lighter, lower profile and will happily lock a wheel at will.

'Hardcore' hardtail

How you build your hardcore hardtail will depend on how versatile you can make it. We prefer running gears, two brakes and having a fairly long seatpost fitted. That way, with a tyre change you have a bike that can be thrashed up the BMX track, hacked through the local woods and also used as a day-to-day bike – with the saddle raised and lowered.

7 Adjustable fork

On a burly frame, the benefit of having an adjustable travel fork is pretty significant. You can wind the travel in and lock it out for blasting to work, keep it low and the geometry fast for jumping, or wind it out for a slacker head angle and a more downhill-friendly machine.

8 Stem spacers

Make sure you leave your steerer tube long enough to use a spacer or two. That way, when you’re adjusting the travel of your fork, you can keep your bars at your preferred height by stacking the spacers underneath or on top of your stem.

9 Stem length

On a bike that’s going to be ridden really hard, a short stem – 30 to 60mm – is best. They’re stiffer and offer more responsive steering, while also keeping your body weight more central on the bike - which helps when you’re making quick changes in your body position.

10 Chainguide

Unless you’re planning on regularly riding uphill on your hardcore hardtail, fitting a chainguide and a single chainring keeps things simple and safe. Anything from a 32- to 38-tooth chainring will work, depending on where you ride.

11 Close-ratio block

If you ride BMX tracks, 4X and like hacking through the woods, opt for a close-ratio cassette – something like an 11-23. In combination with a 36-tooth chainring, it’ll give you the optimum gearing for sprinting, and you can run a short chain to keep the bike quiet on rough terrain.

12 Big discs

A big disc on your rear brake is pointless because you’ll just lock the rear wheel too easily. But if you run an adjustable travel fork, make the most of the long travel and the traction it offers with a bigger front disc. A 185mm disc will be pretty much spot on.

13 Chunky, fast-rolling tyres

More off-road riding requires knobbly tyres, and more jumpy stuff requires low profile, fast-rolling tyres. A happy compromise will be a low-profile rear tyre, and a front tyre with a square shoulder and deeper tread.

On the bike

14 Gnarly stuff

Don't think you have to walk every time you see something gnarly looking – get off your bike and take a look, there's always a readable line. Focus and trust your bike. Big wheels will roll over a surprising amount of stuff if you allow your arms and legs to become supple shock absorbers and get your weight off the back of the bike.

15 Pumping

Before you jump, learn to pump. As you roll over the take-off ramp, push the bike into the backside to accelerate. Practise until you can pump around a BMX track with no pedalling, then take this skill to your trails. Pump every dip, hollow and backside of a pack of roots you can.

16 Carving a turn

On sketchy terrain, your hardtail’s rear end can break loose quite easily, so the key is really sticking the rear end into the turn. Be prepared for the rear end to break loose, but don’t fight it. Hovering a foot off the pedals can help move your weight around, and also lets you dab if you lose the front end.

17 Line choice

There’s always an obvious line, but it’s not always necessarily the best one. There are two lines here – one around the rock, and one straight over it. Around the rock actually has more risks – knuckles of rock can hit your pedal, knocking you off-line and off a huge drop to the right – so over the rock is safer, and you can aim to fall to the inside of the bank if you stall. If in doubt, give it a second look – chances are there’s a better line, especially for hardtails.

18 Off-camber turns

You should treat off-camber as delicately as you would a flat, loose turn. Don’t shy away from it, and keep your weight on the outside pedal, but make sure you stay flexible and let the bike track with the. The rear end of a bike with no suspension can easily break loose – but it will usually grip again. Just try to relax and keep focused.

19 Rock slabs

Some rocks can be incredibly slippy, even when dry. Keep your line as straight as possible, and avoid braking or making any sudden movements. Do this and you’ll be able to tackle most rock sections without stacking.

20 Manuals 

Instead of letting the rear wheel become airborne off lips, absorb the lip with your legs and extend your legs, pushing the rear wheel onto terra firma. When going over holes or through puddles, lean back as you pull up on the front end of the bike. Push through with your heels and control the manual with your body weight and rear brake.

21 Steep climbs

There’s more chance of the back wheel breaking loose on a hardtail, so get your weight in the right place. The best way to do this is by adjusting your weight back and forth while perched on the nose of the saddle – that way you’re ready to lurch forward out of the saddle for power when you need it, but keep your weight on the rear wheel.

22 Rock steps

Stay as straight as possible, control your braking before you hit the obstacle and use your whole body to minimise the impact between steps. Keep your head up and focus on your exit point, as well as being aware of approaching obstacles.

23 Uneven terrain

With no rear suspension, you risk bouncing off-line. Your bottom bracket height will be lower than most suspension bikes too, which makes you likely to bash your feet on the ground at some point. Try to time your pedalling so you don’t clip rocks, stumps and roots, and when pedalling on rough terrain, try to be as smooth as possible. Spin circles rather than stomping on the pedals.

24 Climbing on roots

Hit roots as square-on as possible to avoid the front wheel washing out, and when approaching an uphill section of roots like this, get your speed together on approach and then use a leading root as a kicker to either unweight the bike, or bump jump it over the rest of the roots.

25 Jumping

Work your way up from rolling over a jump to getting enough speed to pull up and clear the jump. Practise until you know how much or how little speed you can clear a jump, and how fast is too fast to make a dangerous over-jump. It’s an absolutely essential skill for riding off-road fast.

26 Read the terrain

Scan the terrain and look for the best lines possible. Glance 20ft ahead and note the bigger rocks, roots and  holes – the more you practise looking ahead, the better and faster you’ll become at reacting to what you’ve seen. Look where you want to go – avoid focusing on stuff that bothers you, it’ll just make you head that way!

Off the bike

Riding a hardtail means you’ll feel a lot more of the ground, and you’ll be out of the saddle a lot more than on a full-sus bike, as well as using different muscle groups. Keeping in shape, eating well and stretching are just as essential as for any other cycling, but you’ll need to focus on different areas.

27 Lower back and core

Hardtail bikes transmit a great deal of shock through your lower back, and you’ll be muscling the bike around differently to a fully suspended ride. Work on your core with a gym ball – doing crunches, reverse crunches and back extension routines.

28 Stretch

With the extra load your back is taking, it’s important to release the strain in your muscles. Stretching properly is an absolute necessity – try glutal stretches, pelvic tilts and spinal twist stretches.

29 Energy

With a bike that has less traction, your body will have to work harder as you adjust your weight in and out of the saddle and back and forth a lot more - so take on enough food to power your body. Proteins and carbs are most important for supplying and maintaining strength and energy, but an overall balanced diet is essential too.

30 Isotonics

Be sure to replace lost sugars and salts with isotonic drinks. If you don’t want to pay for expensive ones, make your own. Fruit juice diluted with water and a spoonful of salt and sugar does the job too, and gets into your body just as fast.

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