Specialized Rockhopper £699

Entry-level trail bike

BikeRadar score 3.5/5

Few brands can claim a history going back more than three decades, so Specialized’s 2011 entry-level trail hardtail has a lot to live up to. Boasting a great frame, handling that'll suit beginners and experienced riders alike, and a price that looks like a misprint, it certainly succeeds.

Ride & handling: Lively trail bike with all-rounder appeal

The Rockhoppper’s low weight, light frame and well chosen kit all add up to a ride that gives bikes costing £100 more a run for their money. More day-long trailster than out-and-out racer, the relatively high front end and long top tube create a comfortably stretched position that’s stable most of the time, but responsive enough to make flourishes of pedal-to-the-metal lunacy fun.

Thin tube walls help to skim most of the harshness off the top of the frame’s constant trail feedback and give a hint of the long-term upgrade potential that lurks beneath the functional stock components. Unusually for a bike at this price, there’s little that we’d change immediately – even the tyres acquit themselves well on everything from damp rocks to thick mud.

The Suntour coil fork is the bike’s weakest link. It lacks the adjustability of an air unit and can’t match the overall alacrity of the coil sprung RockShox forks found on slightly more expensive bikes. But it’s among the better budget Suntours we’ve seen and, despite its relatively basic design, allows experienced riders to use an aggressive weight-forward stance to make the best of the frame’s lively ride characteristics.

Frame: Light, well-designed chassis that's a good base for upgrading

Specialized’s proprietary M4 aluminium tubing is butted, bent and hydroformed into the flowing tubes that make up the Rockhopper’s frame. The welding isn’t the neatest, but an all-up weight that puts more expensive hardtails to shame (12.7kg/28lb, without pedals) hints at a pedigree chassis that’s likely to benefit from some choice long-term upgrades.

The double-bend down tube strengthens the bottom bracket and head tube areas without adding unnecessary heft, while some clever tube manipulation at the rear yields wishbone seatstays and bridgeless chainstays with huge mud clearance. A set of rack mounts adds extra versatility and full-length gear cable housings should help to keep shifting clean in the filthiest of trail conditions, although they make for a rather busy cluster of cables under the top tube.

Equipment: Good components and a fork that’s not as bad as you might expect

Specialized's own brand finishing kit looks good, works well and extends to the wheelset and fast rolling, grippy tyres. Shimano’s M445 brakes are reliable budget discs, but Specialized’s choice of M505 levers gives them a bite and progressiveness that most other bikes at this price can’t match. Topping off a well thought out spec list is a low-profile Shimano Deore rear mech for extra rock clearance.

Given the Rockhopper's price, we’ve no real complaints on the fork front, either. The snappily named Suntour SF11-XCR-DS-26-LO-SP features 80mm of coil-sprung travel, adjustable compression damping and seems far less prone to leaving a mini oil slick on its stanchions than other Suntour forks we’ve ridden lately.

We reckon the standard Rockhopper is a better buy overall than its £200 more expensive Rockhopper Comp stablemate, which shares the same frame, and it would make an excellent base for long-term upgrades. As it stands, it’s an excellent introduction to the world of trail hardtails, with a good spec and great handling. And the bonus is that it’s only a fork upgrade away from excellence.

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