The perennial Rockhopper is a name bursting with heritage, but is it still the go to mid-level hardtail?
The Specialized Rockhopper is a name dripping in MTB history. There are not many other bikes boasting a heritage spanning over four decades. For many of us, the Rockhopper was the gateway into mountain biking, renowned for being a capable cross country companion. But as we have all grown up, and as mountain biking has matured and changed direction; the question is, has the Rockhopper grown up and matured? We take a look at Specialized Rockhopper Comp, one step up from the entry point Rockhopper Sp 29.
Specialized has been at pains to keep the Rockhopper’s wheels firmly planted in the broadest sense of XC, mainly to appeal to a broad sector of riders. However there have been a more than a few tweaks to the formula to just about keep it relevant for most of us.
Now the Rockhopper sports Specialized’s own A1 SL aluminium tubing. Butted throughout the tubes to keep weight down and strength up, the Rockhopper frame still features the ORE bent downtube for additional clearance of the wagon wheels. The new frame has been given what Specialized call its Trail Geometry, which equates to a low 311mm BB height, short 440mm chainstays and a longer top tube.
The SR Suntour XCR-Air fork won’t win any prizes for its performance. It does however provide a tunable air spring, which is slightly better than some of the coil sprung forks for dialling the fork in for your weight and preferred riding style. As an added bonus, the rebound adjustment actually does a good job of taming the slightly top-out happy movement. The XCR-Air also benefits from a remote lockout, something that will benefit newer riders as it means you don’t have to take your hands off the bars to lock the fork.
Often Specialized are accused of being a little too expensive when you compare the spec sheet against other brands, especially now with so many up and coming brands vying for the same market share. But the Big S sticks to its guns, maintaining the view of providing the best quality frame for the price point. With this in mind, the Pick n Mix drivetrain of Specialized Stout square taper chainset, Shimano Acera shifters, SRAM X5 front mech and Shimano Deore rear mech is eclectic but functional. 36/22 chainrings and 11-36 cassette should help save your lungs on the climbs without sacrificing too much top-end speed.
Brakes are the utilitarian Shimano M315 units. The longer lever blades make setting up the brakes a little tricky. Resin pads give a better initial bite and shorter bedding in times but at the expense of wet weather performance and durability.
Wheels are heavy but durable. Featuring standard spokes and Shimano centre-lock hubs, they should be easy to keep rolling. Specialized’s own grippy Ground Control tyres are fitted, but we would have liked to have seen a wider 2.3″ version fitted to the front. The Henge saddle is exceptionally comfortable for all day riding and thankfully the Rockhopper Comp has been specced with a 720mm width flat bar and 75mm stem (size large).
It’s fair to say that the A1 aluminium frame on the Rockhopper Comp has a ride quality better than most. Pitch it around familiar singletrack and it gives a lightning fast response to direction changes, all with a lovely softness to the feedback felt through the rear end. It’s equally sprightly on the climbs, with applications of power being rewarded immensely.
Things do come apart when the confidence it inspires pushes you to try more demanding trails. Here the decidedly old-school angles and dive-happy fork combine to pitch your weight too far forward. This can make challenging trails into an ordeal and can knock confidence more than encouraging it. In this respect the improvements to the Rockhopper’s geometry haven’t quite gone far enough and it lags behind the majority of other similar bikes.
Bang, crash, wallop
One of my other gripes, albeit small, is the lack of a chainstay protector; the Shimano Deore rear mech lacks the strong spring tension of the more advanced Shadow Plus version. As a result, any rough ground smashes the chain onto the chainstay. After the first ride it was alarming to see just how chipped the paint had become. A simple solution would be a cheap neoprene protector. Not only would it stop the paint chipping but also quieten the ride considerably.
The speccing of a sensible 720mm handlebar is to be applauded, as it aids the handling. But the sticking point in the cockpit are the Acera shifters with their in-built gear windows. These make it hard to put the controls in the right position to aid confidence.
As a bike for getting into mountain biking, or for more leisurely rides, the Rockhopper Comp excels. But once you start pushing the limits, there are weak areas in the design and spec that are hard to miss.
There’s no doubting the Rockhopper Comp will continue to play a part in many riders' lives. But whilst the geometry tweaks are helping, it’s going to need to address a few other areas if it is to ever become more than just a stepping stone.