A collaboration between the UK's Merlin Cycles and Californian frame designer Paul Sadoff, the Rock Lobster Tig Team 853 proves steel is still very real with a lively frame, excellent fork and great component pick.
Rock Lobster's Tig Team 853 has developed a small following of its own in the last few years and, in many ways, it's representative of the mini renaissance in steel hardtails that's been built on the back of Reynolds' venerable 853 tubeset. Although it lacks the fancy profiles of some tube sets, 853's airhardening properties - it's actually stronger after welding than it is before - have won it many fans in the school of no-nonsense frame building. It's light, it's strong and it's tough.
The Rock Lobster's front triangle is very much in the Kona/Joe Murray design school - long head tube, extended seat tube with forward-facing seat clamp and long, dropped top tube. It's a layout that makes a great deal of sense, simultaneously increasing standover clearance and stiffness while reducing weight. There are no pretensions towards freeride-lite status or concessions to the clumsy, aside from a ring reinforced head tube, and the lack of a seat post quick release (actually, we'd quite like to see one of these in place of the supplied steel bolt) cements this bike's image as a svelte all-day cross-country trail machine, rather than a wannabe/part-time hucker. The minimalist theme continues at the rear of the frame, with the wishboned and brake boss-less seatstays and Ritchey socket dropouts.
So the frame's good, but it's on the kit front that the Rock Lobster really delivers. From the full complement of Easton EA50 finishing bits to the complete XT transmission - right down to the rear cassette - and Hope brakes, there's nothing here that can be significantly improved upon without spending considerably more. The tyres are great, the rims are some of the best in their class, the spokes are double-butted and the wheels, unusually for an off-the-peg bike, are hand-built to a very high standard. Best of all, the Marzocchi MX Comp fork is the perfect partner to the frame.
The Rock Lobster has a spring to its step that's characteristic of high quality steel frames. It's not flex, it's not even really springiness as such, but there's a definite zest to the ride that's lacking from the duller responses of aluminium frames. This skippy character is perfectly balanced by the plush and confidence-inspiring fork, which takes the edge off everything from rapid braking bumps to big, square-edged hits without ever threatening to disturb the rider's lunch. Having a fork that'll do all this is more than just a comfort thing, though. It means you can also trust it to cope with the rider's weight shifted further forward over the front wheel, making it possible to brake later, corner harder and float the rear end over rough sections of trail at higher speeds. The result? More confidence, faster riding, bigger grins.
These days a good hardtail needs more than just a great frame - it needs a great fork up front, too. The Rock Lobster delivers both, throws in a top-notch componentry package and great build quality, and matches its competitors on price. It may not be the fastest or lightest hardtail there is, but it'd definitely be our choice for an all-round trail companion.