Specialized's entry-level Hard Rock is an old favourite. The Sport Disc model looks great, has a quality frame and comes with Avid's excellent cable disc brakes, but a poor fork spoils an otherwise decent bike.
Ride & handling: Lots of fun to ride, and worth upgrading as your skills evolve
If you’re shopping around with £400, we recommend short test rides to test bike fit and comfort, as well as fork and gear function – the two biggest sale or no sale factors on entry-level mountain bikes.
In terms of fit and initial ride feel, the Hardrock is a very comfy bike that impresses from the off. All the contact points help to soften the ride, from Specialized’s dual compound grips and ‘Body Geometry’ saddle to the surprisingly fast, big volume bump-taming tyres.
But the clunky fork top-out is irritating when the ground gets constantly rough and the chain jumping on bumpy climbs during the first couple of rides caused a couple of scary moments.
Still, chain/sprocket slippage settled down and we appreciated the sprightly acceleration and climbing – sprightly for a 12.9kg (28.5lb) bike at least.
Its handling is excellent on singletrack, although a low bottom made its presence felt with occasional pedal strikes on the rocks as the fork compressed on bumps when pedalling through bends.
Comparing the Hardrock with other bikes at similar prices, it seems quality starter bikes like this have suffered less from price hikes than more costly options. Despite a compromised fork, this bike is still a lot of fun to ride and is well worth upgrading as the low budget parts wear out and your riding expectations and skills evolve further.
Chassis: Superb frame design, but harsh fork rebound is annoying
The frame’s design and construction is certainly the Hardrock’s highlight. Specialized’s proprietary A1 Premium tubes are manipulated and butted to create the perfect blend of minimum weight and maximum strength. A frame as good as this would have cost as much as the whole bike just a few years ago.
The swoopy top and down tubes are pleasing to the eye and configured to boost strength and lateral rigidity while adding a touch of vibration damping comfort. The inclusion of bottle cage bosses and eyelets for a rear rack emphasise the bike’s potential for urban all-rounder duties.
All forks are basic on bikes at this price. This SR Suntour one deals with bumps well enough in terms of compression and has an effective lock-out lever, useful on the road or on long steady ups, but the rebound top-out is clunky when the fork extends fully between bumps.
If you like the idea of upgrading at some point in the future, the Hardrock geometry will happily take a 100mm (3.9in) travel fork instead of the 80mm (3.1in) one fitted. A 100mm fork would lift the bottom bracket (BB) slightly too, which is good if you’re looking to do some serious trail work because the BB height currently stands at only 11.75in.
Equipment: Excellent brakes and tyres, but white kit won't stay that way for long
The bright white finishing componentry on the Hardrock Sport is going to be a love or hate thing. White rims and bars might look great new, but they don’t stay that way for long.
Still, the handlebar width and height is spot on for most riders and the wheel build is excellent. We particularly like the fat, grippy, but fast-rolling tyres.
The double-bolted seatpost is a nice touch and we found the Body Geometry saddle comfy. There’s plenty of potential for adjustment in the stem, saddle and seatpost.
If you’re going to have cable rather than hydraulic disc brakes, the Avid units on here are among the best available. Full outer cable to the rear brake will cut down on maintenance and the stopping power, after a short bedding-in period, is excellent.
Drivetrain-wise, we didn’t experience any major problems, but it took a few rides for the chain to stop jumping occasionally under pressure over bumpy terrain. The low budget SRAM rear gears seem to have a lot of sideways play in them.
The SR Suntour cranks and SRAM X.4 gears are average fare on £400 bikes, but we’ve seen a few bikes around with nine-gear cassette clusters for that price rather than the eight here.
If you’re really pushed on budget, take a look at the £299 Hardrock. The frame’s the same but it comes with rim brakes and a slightly cheaper overall specification.