A tried-and-tested frame design makes this an excellent cross-country all-rounder that's only limited by the shock.
Naturally fast, with a great handling balance and eager, enjoyable character, the FSR is a really good ‘go get ’em’ trail bike with an impressive spec package. Adequate rather than excellent shock performance means it feels really good rather than really great, though.
Specialized has got the fit of the FSR XC Expert bang-on. At 26in its bar is slightly wider than others in its class, but that adds a power-assisted authority, and stem size is well matched to frame size. Reasonably steep seat tube puts plenty of traction emphasis on the relaxed headtube. Even though the tyres are slippery sideways in wet and rooty conditions, the bike always controlled any sudden slip.
Our size Large model had ample top tube reach for breathing space, and together with the fast-rolling tyres and lightest weight on test it’s the most effortless ‘easy speed’ bike here.
The only slight fly in the ointment is the shock spec. The X-Fusion certainly wasn’t as bad as other cheap cans we’ve used. The rebound adjustment is both usefully controlled and free from unexpected compression complications. Trouble is, we found it impossible to achieve a Fox-like balance between slightly too firm and definitely too soggy.
On the upside, the FSR linkage handles bigger/faster square edge hits well despite shock compromises, while the lockout firms up its tendency to squat and wallow while climbing.
Specialized’s Pitch, Enduro and Stumpjumper FSR designs have now switched to a rocker link suspension configuration, but the Expert proves there’s still plenty of life left in the old design.
The ‘peephole’ design of the FSR XC still makes perfect sense for short-travel applications. The crucial patented Horst link pivot locations are unchanged anyway, so you’re getting the same smoothly neutral suspension action.
The butted and curved M4 frameset is a highly evolved piece. Typically neat Specialized touches such as the red anodised HollowLink linkage and laser-etched FSR ‘knuckle’ caps draw attention away from the few budget moves, like the open-backed seat mast support.
The interrupted seat tube can make saddle dropping awkward, but it’s less of an issue on this obviously cross-country-focused bike. Otherwise, mud clearance and cable routing practicalities are all totally fine.
The coil fork is slightly stiff for lighter riders, but the Motion Control damped RockShox Recon feels smoother than the RockShox Toras found on many similarly-priced bikes, and an alloy steerer makes it lighter.
Transmission definitely benefits from the £1100 price tag, with our favourite Shadow rear mech as a highlight. The Octalink BB chainset will likely last longer than the theoretically ‘better’ Hollowtech II external systems on other bikes because it's better protected from tthe elements.
The SL Juicy 3 brakes drop a bit of weight. Shimano rear hub adds longevity, DT rims are quality hoops and all the Specialized finishing kit is good gear.
The Captain tyres are a particularly good match for the bike, – fast-rolling, comfy and quick to clear in mud. Expect to replace the superthin innertubes quickly, though.