Specialized is one of the few big brands keeping the faith with rigid forks for budget mountain bikes, and its entry-level Hardrock has been the benchmark at which 'real' mountain bikes become available for some years now.
Trickle Down Deign
The smooth-lines of the frame might look hydroformed, but it isn't. The curved down tube has been formed by what Specialized calls Optimised Radius Engineering (ORE). It was first seen on S-Works bikes and has now trickled down to the humble Hardrock. The aim is to increase stiffness at the head tube without the need for gussets, so as to save weight. The frame is light, and the all-up bike weight is the same as it's Giant rival
Similar to equally priced Trek bikes, the Specialized has a relatively short effective top tube length combined with a short reach stem. That shorter reach will likely help beginners feel comfortable, but for harder riding it makes the cockpit a bit cramped, especially when standing on the pedals to climb. A 100mm stem would help banish the ghost of 'upright comfort bike' that vaguely haunts this otherwise fine mountain bike.
In terms of material, the threadless fork is chromoly steel, while the frame is made from 6000-series aluminium. It's all good for a sub-£300 bike: it's light, has rear disc mounts (and bracing tube) for upgrading brakes, and has fitments for mudguards and a rear rack for utility use.
The Specialized climbs better than any of the bikes here. That's down not to its tyres, which are no grippier off-road than the Trek's, but the gearing - this alone has a 22-32-42 chainset. Compared to a 28T inner ring, that 22T cog is the difference between sitting and standing or getting up a hill and not. It's married to an 11-32 cassette - an 8-speed one, from Shimano.
Existing kit is good, given the price. Both derailleurs are Acera - this is a couple of cuts above entry-level. The QR seat binder says 'off-road', unlike the secure-around- town Allen binder bolts you'll see on city bikes. And it's genuinely handy for dropping your saddle at the top of a long, arse-off- the-back descent.
Since the bike is still sort of dual-use, being ready (if not kitted out) for the weekday grind, it gets dual-use tyres, too. The tight, shallow knobbles roll okay on Tarmac - as well, in fact, as the lighter-treaded Revolution. Off-road they're fine on firm surfaces. When you hit anything gloopy they clog quickly.
The Hardrock XC Rigid ticks all the boxes on the 'proper mountain bike' checklist. It's got a decent lightweight frame, it's eminently upgradeable, it's got a nice 24-speed drivetrain and reasonable wheels. Even with the steel fork, all-up weight is less than 28lb, including pedals. Its shorter reach means it's better suited to recreational mountain biking than putting the hammer down, but that's fair enough at this price point. With added extras, it'll do double duty as a town bike, too.
Great value the bike needs no immediate upgrades or extras. While you could ?t a rack or mudguards for the weekday grind if you wanted, it's ready for the trail from point of purchase. It's got a great, lightweight, upgradeable frame and a drivetrain that's as good as anything in its price range. It's still the benchmark for entry-level 'proper' mountain bikes. The suspension fork can wait; other things can't.