Specialized Carve Expert 29er - First ride £1300

All new hardtail 29er

BikeRadar score 4/5

New hardtails don’t make the news much. Sure, evolutionary changes in frame materials, tubing shape and so on will be incorporated into race-bred exotica before filtering down through the range. But new bikes? It just doesn’t happen much. Full-suspension is where it’s at. Apparently.

Specialized’s new-for-2012, 29er-only Carve is the exception to the rule. A fresh design from the ground up, it slots into the line-up between the stalwart trail-ready Rockhopper and the more race-orientated old man of the Specialized family, the Stumpjumper. There are just three models, kicking off with the £1,000, coil-sprung-fork-equipped Carve Comp and topping out at the £1,500 Shimano-XT-bedecked Carve Pro.

Our test bike, the Expert, splits the difference at £1,300. With a sensible mix of components and a RockShox Recon air fork, for our money it’s the pick of the range – although the spec on our pre-production bike varies slightly from UK versions. Light, lively and surprisingly comfortable, the Carve Expert proves that 29er hardtails are here to stay. As a simple, durable and affordable alternative to a shorter travelled full-susser, it’s well worth a look.

Ride & handling: Getting the best out of big wheels

It’s easy to be cynical about marketing claims, particularly where a bike’s geometry is concerned. But Specialized’s insistence that it has worked out how to get the best out of big wheels is borne out in the riding. The Carve isn’t just a regular hardtail with some big wheels shoehorned into the frame. It’s a completely different animal. The biggest compliment we can pay it is that, were it not for the fact that we already know it has 29in wheels, we could easily have got on and not noticed the difference.

Well, nearly. Those big hoops come with some upsides and one minor downside in the handling department. We’ll kick off with the single negative – which is that the extra rotating mass of all the extra rubber and aluminium makes the front end a bit less placeable than a similarly-specced 26in-wheeled Rockhopper. We’re talking fast-paced technical singletrack here, and it’s actually easy enough to compensate with a slightly more aggressive approach to muscling the handlebars through consecutive turns.

It’s a price worth paying, because the extra comfort and lower rolling resistance of the big wheels is noticeable on all but the most buffed of trails. Rocks, roots, water bars and ruts are despatched with the kind of nonchalant ease – if not quite the levels of comfort – that most riders would associate with a short travel full susser. Those bridgeless stays and kicked back, narrow seat post take some of the remaining sting out of the tail and, combined with a front triangle that offers stomp-and-go rigidity, it’s easy to carve out a fast, fluid line down all but the lumpiest of trails.

Frame: 29in only for 2012

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past six months you can’t fail to have noticed that 29ers are the hot ticket for 2012. Suddenly the gangly, awkward bastard child of mountain biking has grown up, learnt some trail manners and finagled its way into the mainstream. Specialized’s engineers have been telling us for some time that big wheels are the future for hardtail and short to mid travel full sussers, but up until now they’ve been giving many riders a choice.

Not any more. The Carve is a bold statement of intent – a take-it-or-leave-it approach that simplifies the choice for hardtail riders. Even the Stumpy is 29in only for 2012. If you want a 26in-wheeled Specialized hardtail, you’re stuck with the Rockhopper… for now.

Part of the reason for this confident approach is that Specialized is sure it’s got 29er geometry sorted. The Carve’s proprietary butted M4 alu tubes are carefully shaped to provide short chainstays and a stumpy looking tapered head tube, tucking the rear wheel in under the rider for efficient power transfer and keeping the height of the front end under control. Clearance around the fork brace and rear stays is predictably tight, leaving a question mark over the Carve’s suitability for year-round mud-plugging that our dry test session left unanswered.

The lack of seat and chainstay bridges should help in that department, as well as providing some resilience to the rear end that Specialized dubs ‘vertical flex’. Lessons have been learnt from Specialized’s experience building road and carbon frames, the result being a torsionally rigid front triangle and a comfortable back end. So the seat tube tapers to a comparatively slender 27.2mm diameter, the bottom bracket (BB) is a stiff Press-Fit 30 fitting and the top tube also tapers on its journey back towards the saddle.

Equipment: A selection of excellent own-brand finishing kit

Specialized’s experience in wheelsets and tyres shows in the own-brand hubs, Carve-specific rims and 29in versions of its solid trail all-rounder The Captain tread pattern. Eschewing the move towards 2x10 set-ups on many of its full sussers, the brand’s product managers have stuck with a 3x10 Deore-based transmission on the Carve Expert, giving it a useful spread of ratios that should cope with most trail scenarios.

Mid-range Shimano hydraulic discs do an adequate job, though they probably wouldn’t be our first choice for long Alpine descents. And 80mm of smooth, easily adjustable air sprung travel makes the Expert worth the £300 extra over its cheaper coil-sprung Comp sibling. The whole lot is topped off with a selection of Specialized’s typically excellent own-brand finishing kit.

This article was originally published in What Mountain Bike

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