Specialized Rockhopper review

What will $700 get you from the Specialized MTB catalogue? It'll get you a rugged little donkey that can take you to amazing places.

Words and Images - James Raison


I know what you’re thinking; “wtf is a $700 MTB doing on La Velocita?” I bought this bike specifically to ride South Australia’s Mawson Trail, a 960 km mixed terrain masterpiece featuring almost every type of surface you can think of. I contacted my Specialized selling mate and asked what 700 clams would get me in a hardtail 29er, and this entry level Rockhopper was it. So I bought it with the intention of flogging the hell out of it.

SPEC

If you piled up all of this bike’s sex appeal, it wouldn't be enough to stub your toe on. You couldn't pick it out of a lineup of one. The paint job is pretty nice though, a lovely bright candy red.

Spec all very blue collar. Here’s the highlights:

  • Fork - SR Suntour XCT 29 custom Multi-Circuit Damping coil spring with 100mm travel
  • Frame - Specialized A1 Premium Aluminum 
  • Mixed bag Shimano 3x8 drivetrain with 42/32/22T chainrings with Sunrace, 8-speed, 11-34t cassette
  • Saddle - Body Geometry mountain, steel rails, 143mm
  • Tyres - Specialized Ground Control Sport, 60TPI, wire bead, 29x2.1"
  • Wheels - Specialized Stout, Hi Lo disc, alloy, double-sealed, ground race, QR, 32h laced to 29", disc, alloy, double-wall, pin joint, 25mm inner width, 32h
  • The rest of the bike is all from the Specialized alloy parts bucket and I can't be arsed listing it all.
 Triples ain't sexy but they're pretty handy for this adventure riding caper

Triples ain't sexy but they're pretty handy for this adventure riding caper

THE RIDE

It’s ok. Y’know? It’s fine. It’s only 700 dollarydoos. Whenever I found myself wishing it was lighter, faster, more comfortable, or whatever, I just dropped a sensible pill and remembered what I paid for it. 700 buckaroos.

There’s no escaping that it’s a pretty stiff, frequently harsh feeling bike. Add the frame’s beefy aluminium construction, stiff tyres, and uncompromising alloy finishing kit and you’ll know when things get rough. I did whack some phat thorn-proof tubes into the wheels which certainly added to the discomfort so I’ll take some responsibility for that. Each day’s 6-ish hours of rough riding did leave me a bit fatigued from the bike. But hey, 700 bones doesn't buy you plushness.

DSC02129.jpg

The Suntour Fork is sometimes decent and sometimes very daft. Its 100mm travel is fine but there’s only so much basic coils can do. It handles small-to-medium and spaced-out bumps pretty well. Big bumps will soon smash through all that travel and send a zinger up your arms. Very high frequency bumps completely overwhelm the fork. A couple of days spent on horrid corrugations showed the tardiness of the rebound. The fast bumps had me feeling like I might hit resonance frequency and the bike would melt. Either that or my teeth and eyeballs would rattle out. It will lock off rigid and has some basic pre-load adjustment. Nice, simple features. It isn’t a sexy fork but $700 isn’t much cheddar.

Rolling stock is rugged and serviceable, as it should be. Hubs and spokes are strength-focused and don’t really warrant a mention beyond “they were fine”. The Ground Control tyres had solid grip almost everywhere. I smashed them through bike-destroying clay mud, rocks, loose gravel, sand, and thick grass. They doggedly clung to it all. Wheels are wide-ish and can be converted to tubeless if you’d like. It’s all well and good for your 700 squids.

 I was not kind to this bike

I was not kind to this bike

Contact points range from rudimentary to pretty darn good. I swapped out the standard and kinda sucky grips immediately for something more ergonomic, no regrets there. I want to give a shout-out to the Body Geometry saddle. It’s a banger. Padding and shape are just damn good. My arse got to know it well over 48 hours in 8 days. Handlebars are a basic 10-degree backsweep, 4-degree upsweep. There’s close to zero compliance in them which played a part in my sometimes sore arms and back. Guess what though…. 700 dubloons. 

I quite liked the Shimano cable stoppers mated to big 180mm disc on the front and 160mm disc on the rear. Hydro is better every day of the week but there’s a good amount of power on the Rockhopper, it just needs a decent pull to get there. That long lead-in to the power suits the riding I was doing, but faster and more technical riding definitely benefits from hydro’s power. Hydro will cost you more greenbacks than I was willing to spend.

DSC02127.jpg

Shifting was perfect. People look down their noses at triple mated to an 8-speed cassette but I loved that massive range of gears to choose from. I was riding with several kilos of gear and the 22-34 granny gear had me happily spinning up some 20% walls with loose surfaces. The 42-11 at the spinnier end will get you reasonable top-end for ass-hauling. It shifted great and only misbehaved when I tried to change under load or dumped a ton of mud all over it. There's a reason this drivetrain format has been around since Stonehenge was being dreamed up. It just works well. I didn't even need to adjust it during the ride.

THE INTANGIBLE VALUE

Something that will never show up on a spec sheet is the immense potential of cheap, simple, reliable bikes. I took this little donkey on an absolutely brilliant adventure. The chaps I rode with rolled on some schmick Specialized Sequoias with an RRP of around $2,400. I still made it on the ‘Hopper, just slower, definitely less comfortable, and with a very singular riding position. I had zero mechanicals and made no adjustments to anything. I just rode it and had an awesome time. What more could I ask for that amount of bread?

 Isn't this what really matters?

Isn't this what really matters?

OVERALL

I put this bike through a brutal 8 day flogging and it didn’t flinch. It’s capable and reliable. If you want a hardtail MTB for $700 then this one is fine. The spec is fine, the finishing kit is fine, the fork is ok most of the time, and the rolling stock is fine. More importantly, it’ll be a good companion if you want to take it on adventures. It certainly was that for me. What more could you want for just 700 smackers?

So what now? I'm shifting this little battler on to another owner. The holiday is over, the romance is gone. I'll always remember the good times I had on the intrepid Rockhopper. It's been a timely reminder for me that bikes don't all have to be lustworthy wall-poster material. Some of them are tools for adventure. The Rockhopper made me feel like a kid on a bike again. Before carbon. Before power meters. Before lycra. It was brilliant fun. If you're looking to spend a bit of paper on cheap and cheerful fun machine then the Rockhopper could be for you. Now... I forget how much it costs...

Video Review