The obvious edge that the Rockrider 720, from French sports hypermarché Decathlon's B'Twin brand, brings to the sub-£1,000 price bracket is rear suspension.
Not many manufacturers have credibly brought in a full-sus machine for under a grand, with Calibre's The Don – a product of Decathlon rival Go Outdoors – being a notable recent exception.
Frame and equipment: classy touches meet compromises
Unlike some of B'Twin's other bikes, such as the Rockrider 700S that impressed us last year, the 720 doesn't rely on a simple set of hinges out back, but the firm's own ‘Neuf’ suspension system. This mounts the main pivot on a rotating inner tube inside a large open drum section in the mainframe. The upper swingarm corner and shock stroke are then guided by a narrow blue anodised rocker linkage.
Boutique bike sniffers will spot that it’s a system largely shared with Yeti’s ‘Switch’ system, although B'Twin actually got there first.
B'Twin's Neuf rear suspension setup impresses, but elsewhere things aren't so hot
Elsewhere things are, as you might expect, a lot further removed from high-end machines. Getting clipless pedals included rather than plastic throwaways is a bonus, but the SRAM X7 and X5 equipment is noticeably less durable than budget Shimano gear. The straight steerer fork and ‘never seen that before’ 29.8mm seat post diameter also make it very awkward to upgrade or add a dropper post at a later date.
Ride and handling: uneven performance makes this a bike of two halves
Out on the trail though, the rear end at least is impressive enough. It’s smooth over the small stuff without being too bouncy when pedalling and there’s enough consistent control through the 120mm of wheel movement to keep the Rockrider appropriately composed along boulder lines that'll knock a hardtails all over the place – and kick the speed out of it too. Bear in mind though that with no adjustment of the rebound damping on the air sprung X-Fusion shock, it’ll only feel this controlled within the pressure ranges of a relatively narrow (65-75kg) rider weight range.
Unfortunately the control boosting effect of the rear end highlights the lack of similar competence up front. The actual suspension stroke of the RockShox TK32 fork is reasonably smooth and consistent. The air spring means you can adjust it for different rider weights and there is rudimentary rebound control from the little plastic flag hidden in the base of the leg.
Even in the dry, the Hutchinson Taipan treads aren't the trustiest choice
The skinny quick release spindle and straight steerer let the front wheel wander all over the place on random rocks, ruts or off camber sections. Combined with the 690mm bar and 90mm stem, it makes it worringly weak willed in the face of trail trauma.
While they'll roll fast, the plasticky compound Hutchinson Taipan tyres are generally disinterested in providing decisive grip in the dry and they’re downright treacherous in the wet. It’s at least 1.5kg heavier than similarly priced hardtails we tested alongside it too, with no lockout or rebound adjustment to help if you’re pedalling out of the saddle.
Ultimately, if you’re the right weight the rear suspension of the Rockrider is an advantage but the compromises in cockpit, front fork and components, plus some weird details leave it lagging behind the competition.
This article was originally published in What Mountain Bike magazine.