It was the Rockhopper's more expensive stablemate, the Stumpjumper, that introduced the world to the delights of mass-produced, affordable mountain bikes back in the early 80s – but the Rockhopper wasn’t far behind. Long-running it may be, but 2011’s Rockhopper Comp is bang up to date with a tempting-looking pricetag and 100mm-travel (3.9in) fork. It's the superb frame that's key to the appeal of this bike, though.
Ride & handling: Feels like a more expensive bike, with great handling for long rides
The Rockhopper Comp is living proof – if a collection of aluminium, steel, rubber and plastic components can be called ‘living’ – that the frame really is the heart of a bicycle. There’s nothing remarkable about any of its components, despite the fact that they all work well. And yet this is a bike that comes alive under a good rider, devouring technical climbs and dispatching fast, flowing singletrack with the same nonchalant ease.
Efficiently rigid under hard pedalling, taut and accurate when it’s time to throw it around and yet inspiringly skippy and light at high speed in the rough, its thoroughbred breeding shows through. It’s not perfect, of course. The fork – like most budget coil forks – holds things back when things are getting on the hairy side of lumpy. It’s also relatively constipated on the smaller stuff.
And some riders will find the stem a tad on the long side. It's really just a conservative length for cross-country efficiency, though, and lopping 15 or 20mm off with a shorter stem would liven up the handling without seriously affecting straight-line speed. Most shops will be happy to make a change like this at the time of purchase for a nominal fee.
Don’t let these minor niggles put you off though. The Rockhopper Comp demands more finesse of its rider than some of the longer-forked competition, but it does repay a fluid riding style with a tautness and liveliness that few hardtails – short of race-bred exotica – can match. It also provides a pretty solid platform for long-term upgrading, leaving little on the table in terms of either frame quality or design. At this price, that makes it an option well worth exploring for riders more interested in big ride comfort than big-hit ability.
Frame: Light, stiff but comfy chassis that'll make a solid base for upgrading
Whichever way you look at it, the Rockhopper’s frame is an elegant piece of plumbing. Its flowing lines are no accident – Specialized are big enough to have an in-house design department that works closely with the engineers to tweak each tube, weld and frame detail to work as efficiently as possible and look good at the same time.
The devil, as always, is in the detail. Curving the down tube where it meets the head tube eliminates the need for a strengthening gusset at this highly stressed part of the frame, while morphing to a wide, boxy cross-section at the bottom bracket improves stiffness under hard pedalling. The chainstays are bridgeless, to give masses of mud clearance, and the seatstays join together at the top to form an equally gloop-friendly wishbone-esque arrangement.
For a bike that’s been designed in the relatively mud-free environs of southern California, it’s a surprisingly practical proposition for slime-surfing duties. There’s also a very neat set of rack mounts at the rear, making the Rockhopper one of those rare bikes that’s capable of doubling up as a commuter during the week and a trail machine at the weekend. And, of course, every tube is butted where possible to save weight without sacrificing strength.
Equipment: Coil fork is okay for the price but holds the frame back
The Rockhopper’s competitive all-up weight and tempting pricetag don’t leave room in the budget for either 10-speed or an air-sprung suspension fork, but Specialized’s product managers have done a decent job in spite of this. Own-brand hubs, tyres and contact points all look good and work well, though the white saddle doesn’t keep its looks for long in fecund riding conditions and the red anodised spoke nipples are prone to rounding off and seizing.
Avid’s Juicy 3 hydraulic disc brakes provide plenty of stopping power, though a bigger rotor up front wouldn’t go amiss. And although they may not go all the way up to 10, the SLX gears are as slick-shifting and reliable as you’d expect from Shimano. Up front is 100mm of coil sprung travel courtesy of a RockShox Recon fork. It can’t match the small-bump response or easy adjustability of the air alternative but, as coil units go, it’s a good ’un.