The entry-level 29’er is a category that has become more and more practical over the years with the widespread adoption of the 29” wheel standard across the industry. More aggressively priced components and the trickle-down of technology has made this standard, once limited to high-end bikes, accessible to all. The strengths of 29’ers complement entry level hardtails very well.
They have greater stability, smooths the impacts of bumps and have more traction than smaller wheel sizes. The trade-off is a loss in agility, which manufacturers have compensated for in the geometry of the bike. Personally, I believe that it is also an advantage for new riders to get well acquainted with 29’ers from the get-go since there is a decent chance the entire industry will head in that direction in the next few years anyway. The Rockhopper is Specialized’s entry in this category.
This entry-level, cross country and light-duty trail bike is a great candidate for a first mountain bike and has the versatility to get you into just about any kind of mountain bike riding style. The Rockhopper expert is one of the higher-spec builds of the frame but still comes in at $925 (check here for the latest MSRP from Specialized), providing an excellent compromise between value and performance. It is a contender one a lot of people’s list for the best mountain bike under 1000 Dollars.
The Rockhopper Expert features a strong combination of Shimano, SR Suntour and Specialized’s own in-house brand components. The bike uses an SR Suntour XCR-Air fork up front that features a rebound adjustment and a tapered steerer tube for more stiffness. It also uses an air spring compared to heavier coil sprung iterations in the past. The air spring suspension also means that you don’t have to change out coil springs if you find the ride too soft or too hard. The progressive suspension characteristics of air springs also tend to be more forgiving and therefore better suited for novice riders. SR Suntour may not have much of a presence in the premium fork market like Fox or Rockshox, but they are a winner when it comes to value and can easily compete with, if not outperform, forks of similar price point from the big names.
One of the strengths of builds from Specialized is their in-house brand componentry. These components can come off as cheap on premium builds, but on value builds like this, the quality of the in-house brand components on Specialized bikes is a significant advantage compared to other manufacturers’ in-house brands and the low-end components of independent companies. On this build, the crankset, wheels, tires, saddle, stem, and handlebar are sourced from Specialized.
The handlebars, stem, and crankset are solid and just plain work! Specialized saddles are also one of the best due to the trickle-down tech from their Body Geometry program. You may even be able to get a deal for fitting and trading in a saddle of proper fit for you at your local Specialized dealer. The wheelset uses in-house rims with strong double wall construction and a healthy 25mm internal width. Mounted on these are some excellent Specialized Ground Control Sport tires. The tires are one of the most important components on a bike and Specialized makes some of the best in the world (in my opinion). The Ground Control tires are perfectly suited for the kind of riding that the Rockhopper Expert is expected to see. They roll fast and have ideal traction in dry and loose conditions. They can pack up easily in sloppy and muddy conditions, though.
The drive train is, unfortunately, one of the lowlights of the component list. The Rockhopper Expert uses a blend of Shimano components from different group sets to get the power to the wheels but almost all of these are outdated. The drivetrain uses the dying standard of three chainrings in the front and a 9-speed, 11t-34t, cassette in the rear. Although this setup provides a massive range of gears, ideal for cross country riding with fast road sections and speed climbs, this system is also much less simple to operate compared to newer 2×10 or 1×11 setups. It is also much more prone to having the chain fall off the front sprockets in rough situations which is only made worse by the rear derailleur lacking clutch technology. The system is not ideal for new riders who may have to wrap their head around having and using 27 gears, many of which are redundant. Despite this, there are some advantages, such as the very high gears that work well for riding on fast roads, and very low gears to give you some relief when your legs start to give in.
The other Shimano componentry not yet mentioned are the brakes and the hubs. Both of these are classic strengths of Shimano and are definite advantages in a build. Although they may require relatively more maintenance if you ride in wet conditions often, the unique serviceability of Shimano hubs guarantees a longer than average lifespan if treated right. As for the brakes, they are signature Shimano: powerful, reliable and serviceable. Shimano does a great job of trickling down technology from their premium brakes from a few years ago to the entry-level ones now that cost just a fraction of the price. Their use of mineral oil instead of corrosive DOT brake fluid, center-lock rotors and readily available, cheap brake pads make Shimano brakes an easy choice for anyone getting into mountain biking.
Specialized may often be priced higher than competitors but one thing they do right is build quality. The frame finish is fantastic and easily sets it apart from frames in the same niche. The quality of the paint and finish is immediately noticeable in person. The frame welds are clean and smooth and a good sign that Specialized has a solid quality control system.
Specialized is also an established brand with a wide network of quality bike shops that carry their brand. This is important in monitoring build quality of the components, how well they are assembled on the bike and their aftermarket service support.
Getting on the Rockhopper is instantly comfortable. This is likely due to the refined geometry that is almost identical to its premium cousin, the Epic Hardtail. The modern trend of longer frames may take a little getting used to for riders used to much older bikes but be patient with it and you’ll find yourself more comfortable and more capable on the bike once you adjust to the new posture that modern geometry puts you in.
The bike is at home on flatter rolling trails and climbs are very easy due to the geometry, digging grip of the Ground Control Tires and the capability of the drive train to get very low gear ratios. Once the trail gets rough, the bike handles itself quite well and confidently but the chain slap is immediately noticeable. The long cage, clutch-less derailleur and the triple ring setup up front make for an inherently noisy ride but you can mitigate these with some DIY chain stay and seat stay rubber protectors.
There are several strong contenders in the ~$1000 range of entry/enthusiast level hardtails. Among these are the Cannondale Trail 5 and the Giant Fathom 29 2.
The Cannondale is the most immediate competition when it comes to price, costing about $950. It comes with a better, more modern drivetrain but compromises on many other components, including the frame finish. Its geometry is also geared slightly more towards aggressive riding with a head angle that’s 1-degree slacker, a slightly lower bottom bracket height and a slightly longer reach on the sizing.
The Giant, on the other hand, shares a very similar geometry with the Rockhopper but is also significantly more expensive at about $1,100. The increase in price is well justified by a massive upgrade in the drivetrain, fork and a few other components. A huge plus is that it also comes with a dropper post. The frame finish is also very good but, in person, it just doesn’t match the quality of the finish Specialized has put on the Rockhopper. The construction of the frame is a little different from most hardtails though, with the seat stays coming up to the seat tube right below its junction with the top tube. This is a refreshing change in a niche where all frames look extremely similar and maybe a deal maker or breaker depending on your personal take on the look.
The Specialized Rockhopper Expert is an excellent choice for anyone’s first real mountain bike. The 29’er standard strongly complements a hardtail in this category and has been proven to work well even with shorter riders. The versatility of the bike is also a strong plus for new riders. Even though the drivetrain may not be up to date, it holds on to the very wide range of gear ratios that allow the bike to go almost anywhere. The quality in-house components are noticeable and will likely stay with you throughout many upgrades in the future. This is an easy choice of bike for a rider who is looking to get into cross-country or longer rides over flatter terrain.
But I would strongly recommend an upgrade to the Giant Fathom 2 if budget allows, especially if the 2019 model is available. This takes the drivetrain upgrade even further to a 1×10 setup and is a step up even from the 2018 model of the same bike. The Rockhopper does hold an advantage when it comes to wider gear ratios but the system can only be considered an advantage in that regard if you stick to the smoother trails. The 1×10 setup on the Giant is a huge advantage on rougher trails and will also be much quieter, cleaner and, if set up right, idiot-proof. The dropper post is considered a luxury at the entry and enthusiast level of mountain biking and I could not recommend it enough. The Giant is definitely the better choice if you have the budget for it and especially so if you want to get into technical trail riding on steeper, rolling terrain.
Image credit: Specialized.com