I’m told there was a time, back in The Good Old Days, when all mountain bikes were fully rigid. Nevertheless, people shredded. Yet today, if it doesn’t have both front and rear suspension and a dropper post, many folks hesitate to leave the pavement with it. (Just teasing. Sort of.)
And yet, even as trail bikes grow squishier and more aggressive, the rigid mountain bike is making a comeback. It turns out we don’t all need to shred the roughest trails every time we take our mountain bike out for a spin. Sometimes we want to ride chill trails or remote two-track, and a simpler, lighter, lower-maintenance machine is the perfect tool for the job.
A rigid mountain bike is my personal favorite bike genre. I love to bikepack and explore, and a simple durable machine is exactly what I need. I may be a bit underbiked on some trails and overbiked for a nice gravel road, but a rigid MTB is the perfect compromise bike for long and varied routes. I’ve put about 8000 loaded bikepacking miles and plenty of day rides on two different rigid mountain bikes, and it’s the setup I keep reaching for on all but the most technical rides.
In this article I’ll explain this category-defying category of rigid mountain bike, its advantages and drawbacks, which bike models to consider if you’re looking to buy, and how to approach a DIY conversion if that’s your style.
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What Is a Rigid Mountain Bike?
A rigid mountain bike has much in common with mountain bikes in general – trail geometry, wide tires, low gearing – but no suspension. To be clear, we’re talking about fully rigid bikes here: no front suspension and no rear suspension. The fork doesn’t squish, the frame triangle doesn’t squish. Zero squish.
Though a rigid mountain bike lacks suspension, it has plenty in common with its MTB brethren. Its geometry is designed for control on rougher terrain; its moderately slack head tube angle and longer wheelbase might be similar to that of a cross-country hardtail. It probably clears tires up to 2.5″ and quite possibly wider. The drivetrain, if it’s new, is probably a 1x with a low climbing gear.
Modern rigid mountain bikes do a surprisingly good job of handling bumpy ground despite their rigid fork. This is thanks to high volume tires, modern trail-friendly geometry, and stiff-but-compliant carbon forks (on higher end models). More affordable options usually have a rigid steel fork, which is a bit heavier but still provides decent ride quality.
Handlebars… Let’s talk handlebars. Generally mountain bikes, including rigid ones, have flat bars for leverage and stability on rough ground. But you’ll even find a few rigid MTBs with drop bars – specifically wide, flared, funky drop bars designed to maximize both leverage and ergonomics. In terms of categorization, most drop bar mountain bikes are also rigid mountain bikes, except when someone puts on a suspension fork for kicks and giggles (rare but it does happen).
If a rigid mountain bike can have drop handlebars, is it the same as a gravel bike? Generally no, though the lines can be blurry. A true gravel bike lies a bit closer to the road bike end of the spectrum in its geometry (steeper head angle, for example) and tires (narrower and less knobby). However, it’s fair to say that gravel bikes and rigid MTB’s have a lot of overlap in terms of the terrain they like to ride.
Why Ride a Rigid MTB?
The whole point of a mountain bike is to smooth out bumps in the trail and make rough terrain easier. Now that we have suspensions, why would anyone in their right mind voluntarily choose to ride a fully rigid mountain bike? Plenty of reasons, actually:
Lighter weight: Suspension parts are heavy! A suspension fork, for example, can weigh around two pounds more than a rigid carbon fork. If you don’t actually need the suspension fork for light singletrack riding, it’s just weighing you down.
Less maintenance: A rigid fork can go its whole life without needing maintenance. A suspension fork, on the other hand, needs routine service to stay in good condition. We already have enough parts to take care of on our trusty steeds; it’s simpler (and cheaper) to not add suspension forks and shocks to the mix.
Less potential for failure: Suspension components are normally quite reliable, don’t get me wrong. But if you do big rides in remote places, it’s worth considering that more moving parts = more things that can break and leave you stranded 30 miles from a trailhead with an unrideable bike and no cell service.
Less expensive: Fancy suspension parts cost money! All else being equal, a new rigid mountain bike will cost less than a hardtail or full-suspension. You’ll also save a bit over the life of the bike by not needing to maintain or repair the suspension.
Better technique practice: A fully rigid bike doesn’t cover up your mistakes. You’ll need to choose lines more carefully and you’ll get immediate feedback on your choice. A rigid bike lets you “feel the trail” – both a pro and a con depending on your mood.
More efficient: With no squishy parts to absorb all your hard work, a rigid mountain bike will be more efficient on climbs. That said, you may not notice much difference from a quality suspension with a lockout unless you’re riding competitively.
More hand positions (drop bar mountain bikes): Some people particularly like drop bar rigid mountain bikes for, well, their drop bars. Drops offer more variety in hand position and riding posture, which can unlock pain-free longer rides for folks with hand issues or back and shoulder fatigue.
Easier to load up with gear: If you’re into multiday rides, a fully rigid bike offers more and easier options for mounting cargo. A rear shock limits frame bag space, a suspension fork can limit handlebar bag capacity on smaller frames, and suspension forks don’t come with mounts for bottle cages. A rigid frame with the right fork solves all these problems.
For all these reasons, rigid mountain bikes are an especially popular choice for bikepacking. Our rigs get knocked around a lot – packed into a cardboard box on a plane or strapped to the roof of a bus – and we have a tendency to end up far from bike shops in the middle of nowhere. We value simplicity, efficiency, and a comfortable ergonomic setup that’s easy to load down with gear. We’ll gladly choose some careful lines and take a few bumps in exchange.
Disadvantages of Rigid Mountain Bikes
Limited terrain options: No surprise here, the biggest disadvantage of a rigid mountain bike is the lack of suspension. Skilled riders can work a rigid MTB pretty darn hard, but the rest of us will find ourselves too underbiked for fun once a trail becomes moderately rocky, rooty, or rutted.
Less comfortable: Even if you have the skills to ride a rigid mountain bike on technical trails, it’s a lot less comfortable. Arms, shoulders, butt, and pretty much everything takes more of a beating without suspension to soak up the bumps. Even on gravel and relatively smooth dirt roads, a front suspension can add significant comfort to long rides. For folks with back problems or other physical issues, a rigid MTB might not be feasible.
Not confidence inspiring: Though “feeling the trail” is often cited as an advantage of riding rigid because it improves technique, I’m here to say this doesn’t work for everyone, especially newer mountain bikers. Because I came to bikepacking from a road touring background, I never learned technique in the first place! I muddled through all kinds of gnarly stuff on my rigid (and usually loaded) mountain bike, but it wasn’t until I tried front suspension that I started making progress in my technical skills.
Limitations of drop handlebars: If you choose a rigid mountain bike with drop bars, you’ll have a few extra drawbacks in exchange for all those extra hand positions: less stability on rough ground, less gadget and cargo space on your handlebars (important for bikepackers), and potentially a reachier posture that doesn’t play as well with rough trails and long days in the saddle.
Popular Rigid Mountain Bikes
Are you convinced? If a rigid mountain bike sounds perfect for you, here are some popular models to consider.
Surly Karate Monkey: Surly’s legendary 27.5″ hardtail mountain bike also comes in a fully rigid version, in keeping with Surly’s legacy of making sturdy rigid steel bikes built for adventuring.
Bombtrack Beyond+: Designed for adventurous off-road riding, the Beyond+ sports 27.5″ tires and flat handlebars with a suspension-corrected rigid steel fork.
Kona Unit / Unit X: Fully steel rigid mountain bike with either 1×12 or singlespeed drivetrain and trail-friendly geometry.
Chumba Yaupon: Highly versatile mountain bike designed to run either a rigid or suspension fork, with drop bars or flat.
Trek 1120: Trek’s dedicated bikepacking offering is a rigid MTB with flat bars, a carbon fork, and racks already attached.
Converting From Hardtail to Rigid MTB
Maybe you’re liking the idea of a rigid mountain bike but can’t quite justify a new bike right now. Good news: many modern hardtail mountain bikes can be converted to rigid simply by swapping out the suspension fork for a rigid mountain bike fork.
To choose a compatible rigid fork, you’ll need to check a few things:
- Axle to crown height: To preserve your bike’s handling and fit, it’s important to choose a rigid fork with similar axle to crown height as the fork you’re replacing (with sag taken into account).
- Hub spacing and wheel size: You’ll need to choose a fork that fits with your front wheel.
- Material and weight: Carbon is lighter and absorbs road chatter better, but steel is also good and costs much less.
- Other compatibility concerns: A few other standards, like brake mount type and steerer tube type, need to be considered, especially if converting an older bike.
For more detail on compatibility plus a roundup of popular rigid MTB forks, see Best Rigid Mountain Bike Forks.
Converting from Rigid MTB to Hardtail
If you go for a rigid mountain bike and don’t like it, can it be converted to a hardtail? The answer is a solid maybe, depending on whether the bike’s geometry was designed around a suspension corrected fork.
If the bike already has a suspension corrected rigid fork and flat handlebars, then it’s a pretty simple job to swap in a suspension fork and turn your rigid mountain bike into a hardtail. You can even swap back and forth at home – it’s an easy DIY job especially once the initial install has been done.
If the rigid bike’s fork is not suspension corrected, its geometry is likely designed around a shorter axle to crown distance and it may not play well with a suspension fork. If the bike has drop bars, switching to flat bars often (but not always) involves replacing the rest of your drivetrain and brakes in order to be compatible with road-style shift and brake controls. So in these cases, no, it’s not an easy conversion.
To summarize: if you’re considering a rigid mountain bike but want to keep your hardtail options open, choose a suspension corrected fork / frame with flat handlebars.
Rigid mountain bikes are popular for certain styles of riding because they fill a very useful niche: trail-capable bikes that are lighter and simpler but can still take you to adventurous and remote places.
Will you enjoy a rigid mountain bike? I think a lot depends on where you plan to ride it and what your current riding style is. If you’re used to a squishy trail bike and love navigating technical obstacles, a fully rigid MTB may feel limiting unless you use it mostly for fire roads and smooth trails.
On the other hand, if bikes for you are more about going to faraway places and having adventures, a rigid MTB might be just the thing. You’ll be perfectly equipped for gravel and dirt roads, even pretty rough ones, and you can muddle through or walk around the occasional gnarly section.
My own rigid mountain bikes have been indispensable tools for adventure and exploration. They’re adaptable, easy to understand and maintain, and perfect for loading down with gear and riding off into the sunset. If you decide to bring a rigid mountain bike into your life, I wish you many happy – if slightly bumpy – suspension-free miles.
More Bike Resources
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- Bike Repair and Maintenance Skills Every Cyclist Should Know
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