The Specialized Stumpjumper Expert FSR is a well specced trail bike that promises performance within a whisker of its gorgeous but spendy carbon stablemates. It turns out to be a solid and extremely competent trail tamer but it lacks the sheer pizazz of many of its competitors.
The heart of many current Specialized cross-country suspension bikes is Specialized's own rear shock technology, the Trail Tune inertia valve and its Brain Fade controller. The inertia valve stops the shock from moving until it gets a sufficiently hard hit.
The Brain Fade controller mitigates problems with earlier versions of the system, which felt rather like an on/off switch for the suspension. The adjustable 'fade' lets you dial in the action of the shock so you can choose the character of the ride.
This is the same technology as found on Specialized's range-topping £4,000 S-Works Stumpjumper FSR, with its carbon frame, custom fork and shock and weight-shaving spec. The Stumpjumper Expert FSR is for riders on a riders on a more realistic budget,
Ride & handling: highly adaptable suspension
Sizing works out on the small side of normal. Our medium test bike had a top tube length of just over 22 inches; the specs suggest it should be 23. In practice, the combination of shorter-than-normal top tube, steepish 75° seat angle and in-line seatpost makes the ride position feel a tad cramped; we’d suggest trying before you buy and consider a larger size if your normal frame size doesn’t feel right.
Suspension set-up is straightforward. The Trail Tune inertia valve integrates seamlessly with the rear shock. It provides a huge range of compression damping adjustment from ‘firm’ – which is almost hardtail-like in feel – to ‘soft’. Our test bike arrived with a faulty valve that made the shock feel disconcertingly constipated even at the softest setting, but a replacement worked much better.
The FSR set-up never delivers quite the same insta-plush as some other bikes over low-speed stoppers like roots and ledges on a technical climb, but crank up the volume and the inertia valve opens fully to soak up all but the biggest hits.
Riders accustomed to the firmer feel of a hardtail will love the wide range of Brain Fade adjustment, too. Turn the Brain to almost closed and the ride is more like a hardtail, though the suspension kicks in when it’s really required.
This can make the bike feel a little rattly until the shock gets more than a third into its stroke, but there’ll always be a trade-off in this pedal-friendly mode. Being able to tune the set-up to your preference is the key to this system’s success.
In other respects the Stumpy shows itself to be a competent all-rounder. Some bikes beg to be ridden hard; others – like this one– just get with on the job without fuss.
The Specialized won’t get the pulse racing, so if you’re looking for an adrenalin rush on every ride you should probably look elsewhere. For efficient day-long mile-munching, though, it’s a reasonable choice.
Chassis: classic looks, great detailing
Specialized’s FSR technology, complete with heavily patented Horst link, has been carefully honed over the years. (If you're wondering, it used to stand for 'Future Shock Rear' or 'Full Suspension Rig' depending on who you asked at Specialized, but now it's really just a snappy three-letter sequence).
There are no two ways about it: this is a good-looking bike. With its subtly curved and shaped tubes, tidy welds and classic proportions, it won’t frighten the horses – or, for that matter, riders who prefer their bikes to look like bicycles rather than stripped-out motocross machines.
Attention to detail is impressive, from the way the main frame has been carefully designed to accommodate a conventionally sited water bottle mount, to the thoughtfully routed cable housings and the way the front mech mounts directly to the swingarm.
Standover height has been lowered for 2008, and Specialized says the new frame is also stiffer than previous incarnations. There’s enough room in the seat tube to lower the saddle well out of the way on tricky descents, and enough mud room to comfortably run 2.1in tyres – although 2.35in would be a squeeze. The whole lot is well finished and beautifully presented.
Plugged into the front is Fox’s evergreen F120 RLC fork, serving up 120mm of predictably plush and well controlled travel, and all the adjustable bells and whistles a discerning rider could wish for.
It’s aided on the rock-swallowing front by Specialized’s proprietary AFR shock with Trail Tune inertia valve and remote Brain Fade adjustment. The Expert is the lowest-priced Stumpjumper to feature Brain technology, which uses movement at the rear axle to help separate bump forces from pedalling input.
Equipment: smart spec with a few niggles
Specialized’s product managers have done a great job with the Expert, endowing it with the kind of kit that looks good, works well and should provide long-lasting service.
We have a few minor niggles, though. DT Swiss oversize turn-to-lock skewers provide a more rigid anchor for the hubs at the expense of fiddly wheel fitting and removal, while the own-brand seatpost’s quick-release cam is poorly designed and allows the seatpost to slip unless it’s over-tightened.
Avid’s Ultimate 7 brakes look great and are easy to set up, but performance doesn’t quite live up to their billing.
There’s a well thought-out 100mm Specialized stem with adjustable rise. The bars were inoffensive, low rise numbers, although the 25in width was too narrow for some testers who slung a leg over a size large sample.
Transmission is a dependable mix of SRAM X-9 and X.0. Specialized finishing kit tops it off nicely.
Summary: missing 'wow' factor
We came away from our time with the Stumpjumper Expert FSR with mixed feelings. While it has a lot to live up to, in terms both of FSR heritage and the performance of its S-Works counterpart, it ultimately doesn’t quite deliver the ‘wow’ response we were hoping for.
Riders unconvinced by suspension will love it for the Trail Tune valve and Brain Fade adjuster’s ability to all but lock out the rear end. However, there are equivalently priced 120mm travel bikes out there that, for our money, provide a more convincing blend of pace and plush.