Buyers' Guide: Best 29er & 650b Cross Country Hardtail Mountain Bikes
May 11th, 2017
May 11th, 2017
Anna is a jack-of-all-bikes, and has been riding and racing in a myriad of genres for over seven years; from World Cup level cross-country, to grass roots coaching kids on the road.
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Cross country mountain biking is all about getting out there into the green, exploring hills and woods, tackling obstacles of varying scariness, staying fit and generally loving life traffic-free. There are a few genres underneath mountain biking itself, including downhill and enduro, but we’re going to focus on what is known as “XCO” or “cross-country Olympic”. It's called this because cross-country, or XC for short, is what we see competing in the Olympics. Despite the racing roots of XC, cross-country can also mean anything from a bridalway bimble to a testosterone fuelled epic in the mountains with your mates, and, despite the different styles of rides under this vast umbrella, one bike tends to dominate; the hardtail.
What is a Hardtail?
Generally a ‘hardtail’ refers to a bike that doesn’t have any rear suspension. Although suspension bikes are common among riders and racers alike, the lack of rear suspension mean that they tend to be slightly lighter and also less expensive; a double bonus. It is for those reasons that I believe the hardtail rules cross country for both types of rider; the racer wanting a fast and lightweight bike, and the rider who wants more bike for their money. Here are ten of our favourites:
Specialized have a wide range of mountain bikes, from hardtail to full suspension, fitness and race, men's and women's, and pretty much everything in between. The Stumpjumper has always been the high-end hardtail, but this year it's gone, and in its place is the Epic Hardtail. The price is no higher than last year, starting from £2,200 for SRAM GX 11-speed with RockShox Reba. The Epic is 29er only, so you'll have to look at the aluminium Pitch for a 650b, or the Fuse, which is now a 650b+, or "6Fattie" as Specialized name them, with their "Diamond Stay" frame design to keep the chain-stays short even with the bigger tyres, starting at a purse-pleasing £1,200. Check out their Women's equivalents for the same bike with components geared towards smaller, lighter riders. Search for "S-Works" if you want the best spec'd Specialized money can buy.
Cube have a massive six models in just their cross-country hardtail range, including their fat bike. In the middle of things is the Reaction, starting from around £1,249, which can be found in aluminium or carbon, and in 650b or 29er. We reviewed the Reaction GTC SL 29er and found it to be a very capable and well kitted out bike for the money. The more 'leisure' oriented LTD and CMPT also have this wheel choice, whereas the strictly race and marathon model; the Elite, only comes as a 29er, but starts from a savvy £2,299, working its way up to over £5,599 for the all-singing Elite C:68 SLT with big checkered raw carbon weave, RS1 forks and SRAM Eagle gold bling dripping off of it (pictured).
We reviewed the Methanol 27.3 650b hardtail last year and loved how fast and nimble it was. It has a bit of a sting in the tail due to the integrated seat post, but this year they've brought out the Methanol CV, which has a normal seat post, 29er wheels and the famous Countervail carbon technology to dampen vibrations. The new Methanol CV starts from around £3,000 for Shimano XT. If you want to stick with 650b wheels, check out the Ethanol, or the Jab Plus for 650b wheels.
The Scott Scale is the only cross-country hardtail in their line-up with a whopping 30+ options, not including the top level Scale RC range (of which there are a further 10). You'll have ample spec choices for both 650b and 29er, aluminium and carbon, and almost all models come in a Contessa (women's specific version). The Scale 700s are 650b and the 900s are 29ers. Both models are priced the same depending on the spec and they start from £890 for the aluminium frames, and work their way up to the Scale RC models at over £7k a pop, but this is largely the same bike used by World Champion, Nino Schurter, who incidentally often prefers the 650b to the 29er. There are also two 650b Plus bikes in the Scale range to consider too.
Niner are an American brand that are massive in the US, Australia and growing in Europe. They are lesser known here in the UK as they were considered quite expensive and niche, but prices are looking more competitive as others start hiking up prices. As the name suggests, you only get bikes in 29" wheels. The Air is their cross-country hardtail which is now only available in their “Race Day Optimised” lightweight carbon, though you may be lucky to find one of the old Air 9 Carbon or even aluminium versions still for sale from pre-2017. These bikes are limited in the UK, with either custom builds being made in shops, or standard builds being dictated by the UK supplier, Jungle Products, who sell direct on Stif. Expect £3,999 for Shimano XT with RockShox SID. There is also the aluminium EMD starting from £1,399.
Given the past success of the Topeak Ergon Race Team, the Grand Canyon is clearly a bike that can take on the world, from short World Cups to 8-day marathon epics. This year, the Grand Canyon is now an aluminium-only model starting from £599. If you want a carbon race machine, you'll need to look at the Exceed. New last year, but the weapon of choice from most of their cross-country sponsored riders, this model now comes with lower specs allowing the range to start from £1,799, with the Exceed CF 7.9 with Shimano XT and Fox 32 Performance forks retailing at an incredible £2,399. See our review here.
Giant / Liv
The XTC is Giant’s staple cross-country hardtail, available in with 650b or 29er and now 650b+. This year they have also added more spec options to each model. The 29er starts from £1,775 with the Shimano XT 11-speed Fox 32 Float edition retailing at £3,399. Last year the XTC 650b version was questionably more expensive than the 29er, but has now thankfully dipped below in price with an Shimano XT equivalent coming in at £3,149. If you're on a budget, the aluminium Fathom starts from £799. The Liv equivalent to the XTC appears to be the Obsess Advanced, which has expanded to two models this year (hold your hats!). Curiously still patronising women with poor specs, the top model is Shmano Deore XT with Fox 32 performance, but this comes in surprisingly lower than the men's at £2,499, presumably because it saves on other components.
Trek have a decent range of cross-country bikes with three hardtail models, plus women’s specific versions of each, and even scaled down junior versions. The cheapest hardtail, not including the fitness oriented bikes, is the aluminium X-Calibre 7 at £675. Confusingly, the Superfly is also an aluminium hardtail (although it used to be their mid-range hardtail available in both aluminium or carbon), but these are available with a higher specs than X-Calibre and a women's-specific version too (pictured). At the top of the tree is the Procalibre, with a unique take on comfort and design with the IsoSpeed decoupling system, which is basically a flexible insert near the seat tube that allows the seat post to have enough give for comfort, but without sacrificing power to the rear wheel when pedalling. Despite using actual rocket scientists to design these frames, they start at a lower price of £1,700 this year, all up to date with boost technology, but spec options are limited so price ranges do jump quite substantially.
These guys offer a 29er (The Nine) and a 650b (The 7) as expected, but have finally stopped offering the 26″ wheel size. The Nine and The 7 are available in both aluminium with budget-conscious kit for way under £1,000, or carbon with more lightweight oriented kit from around £1,599 upwards. Expect stealthy black bikes that sometimes don’t even show off the brand name and even come in big weave raw carbon on show if you pay enough for it.
For some reason I always forget about these guys when I consider bikes. I shouldn’t, because they’re huge in Europe and their road bikes do a great job in the pro tours. For mountain biking, there is the 650b (the Big.Seven) and 29er (the Big.Nine). You can expect signature black and green colour combos with the odd bit of white if they’re feeling adventurous on most bikes, but there are a few models in bold and solid colours if you look for them. The aluminium models start from as little as £455, and the carbon models start from around £1,600, with the Big.Nine with Shimano XT retailing at a strong price of £2,500. For the serious racers among us, the Team Edition is also well priced at £5,500.
Others to consider;
We have stuck with the top 10 biggest brands in the UK as we could literally harp on forever about cross-country hardtails. Pretty much everyone makes one these days, even big-time roadie brands like Pinarello make them. Other big players that didn’t make the cut, but have certainly made great hardtails over the last few years include Commencal, Ghost, Saracen, B’Twin, Orbea, Genesis and GT, Lapiere, BMC, KTM and Raleigh to name a few.