The Hardrock is Specialized’s entry-level hardtail, but its four-bike range tops out at around the point where you typically find properly capable mountain bikes. From there you upgrade to the Rockhopper line.
The two cheapest Hardrocks have 26in wheels. We chose one of the 29ers for a more direct comparison to the Rockhopper – and it’s the most expensive, to create the narrowest gap.
The Hardrock looks similar to its more expensive brother, but it’s a very different ride. It’s tall, upright and heavy and, while it’s tough enough to use on proper trails, it’s unhappy on anything beyond towpaths and well-maintained bridleways.
It’s a solid chassis and, though it’s a little unforgiving, the big wheels and weight – 14.8kg without pedals – force the rear tyre to deal with a lot of the chatter before it gets to you. This, combined with a Body Geometry saddle, mean it’s comfy for long rides across rough, swooping ground.
It’s not so good at meaningful climbing and descending. Rear traction is good, but the tight wheelbase and short front triangle create a front end that’s hard to weight. The front wheel wanders and skips up hills, and treats rough downhill ruts like an angry trolley wheel treats a supermarket car park. Even with all the spacers removed and the 10-degree stem flipped upside down, the Hardrock’s bars still feel too high.
The basic Suntour fork and short front triangle make heading downhill over anything remotely rough a dicey experience
While the front is tall – the head tube is 110mm, but effectively 140mm thanks to the external bearings forced by its narrow gauge – the real problem lies elsewhere. At 1091mm, the wheelbase of our large is shorter than Whyte’s 729 hardtail in small. Yet the Hardrock’s chainstays are 450mm, leaving the front centre at a titchy 641mm.
In its gentle-riding element, the softly-sprung 80mm SR Suntour fork moves freely to suck up bumps and give a comfortable ride, but its spring is completely undamped. This rebound makes the unweighted front end skip around more while climbing, as the spring fires the tyre into the air over stones and roots instead of keeping it grounded. Its 28mm stanchions are also flexy and vague if pushed. The slim but heavy straight steel steerer and 9mm QR axle don’t help, either.
The Hardrock isn’t a good choice if you’re looking to upgrade. The axles are QR at both ends when most serious off-road kit uses bigger screw-thru options, while the narrow head tube can’t take tapered-steerer forks. The wheels are heavy (2.2kg front, 2.85kg rear complete), as Specialized’s hubs run steel axles, a steel cassette body, loose-ball bearings, 36 spokes and steel-beaded tyres.
The Hardrock's narrow head tube won't accommodate a tapered steerer
Tektro’s M330 brakes need a good pull but are surprisingly powerful and well modulated, and Shimano’s Alivio nine-speed rear mech copes reasonably. The Acera front mech is weakly sprung, and struggles to shift into the granny ring if the chain is out of line. Both Altus shifters have largely useless indicator windows, but no Two-Way triggers – you’re forced to reposition your hand to reach the front lever.
If your plans are to leave it standard, stick to gentle riding and look forward to developing calves that could close the bow door of a cross-channel ferry. The base Rockhopper is a significant 589g lighter for a modest extra outlay, and the frame upgrade alone is worth saving for.
This article was originally published in What Mountain Bike magazine.