Specialized RockHopper 29 Review

by FatBob on July 1, 2012

The Specialized RockHopper is the final bike for our $1,000 bike test. The exact MSRP is $940. If you are new to the sport, with a discount on accessories and no tax (yeah right), you would be able to afford a helmet with this purchase, which is the minimum of what you need to mountain bike. Most good shops will help you out with a helmet, if you ask. So, with just a little negotiating, you would be able to walk out of the store with a bike and helmet for under $1,000.

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The Specialized website tells us that this bike is designed for the enthusiast rider whose riding ranges from fire roads to single track. The emphasis is on durability, low weight, and quality. I would say, overall, they succeeded in their mission. For our test, the RockHopper spent very little time on fire roads, or any road for that matter. It was raced by Jamie and ridden by 7 riders total as a trail bike. The RockHopper came with us to the Georgia Mountains as we rode the Pinhoti trail, Tanasi trails, and the Dry Creek area. Of course, it spent lots of time at our San Lee home course, which is loaded with rock gardens. It saw mud, gravel and sand as we rode everything from buffed out single track, multiple mile climbs and descents, to roller coaster single track. We gave the RockHopper every opportunity to fail but it is still riding very well despite the beat down it was given. The durability claim on Specialized website gets a check. It may be a budget oriented bike, but it is tough!

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The frame of the RockHopper 29 is no worse for the wear. Besides scuff marks here and there, the frame looks and performs the same as the day it arrived. Should you start considering upgrades, the RockHopper is as easy at they come. The standards used on this bike have been around for a decade, at least, and parts are readily available.

The drivetrain is a Shimano Alivio and Acera mix. These are recreational level groups, and, as such, are affordable and functional. The Alivio rear derailleur was actually surprisingly good and is still on the RockHopper, and in good working order. We have done no maintenance to the derailleurs and still don't need to. Besides wiping them clean every couple of rides, they have needed nothing. This is where an argument can be made for the full length housing runs that Specialized uses. There isn't much opportunity to get contamination in the cables, which helps keep things working smoothly. Comparing these derailleurs to high end offerings is not worth doing. The high end parts are significantly better - they are lighter, and shift both faster and more crisply. Even so, since we had no issues with the stock parts, none of us cared to change them.

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Cranks are a SR Suntour set up with a 3x9 drivetrain. They have an octalink bottom bracket. This is a threaded unit that sits inside the frame. While not as stiff as the external, 2 piece bottom bracket variety, they are another item that goes largely unnoticed. The bottom bracket doesn't creak or squeak, despite multiple creek crossings. You can get a replacement bottom bracket online for as low as $10. That is a easy price to stomach when it is time to replace it, which could be years away. I am not saying I will get rid of my newer style, 2 piece cranksets with outboard bearings, but it is hard to justify changing out a part as reliable and easy as this SR Suntour crankset. In addition, the chainrings are a common size 104 outer BCD (Bolt Circle Diameter), so when you are learning how to get over logs and rocks and damage your chainrings, replacement parts are readily available and affordable.

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Wheels: The RockHopper’s wheels are heavy, like those on the rest of the bikes in our test group. Although the hubs finally loosened up a lot for us at the tail end of the test, they are still plugging away. Note: we rode them a few times a little bit loose during the test period but this is an easy fix, with no new parts being necessary. The RockHopper uses the tried and true 32 hole cross 3 lacing method, so long term maintenance is something any shop worth spending any of your money at can maintain them. The Specialzed tires are, by far, our favorite of the 4 bikes tested - best in class. The Fast Trak rear and Captain Control front are excellent in almost every condition we have ridden in. Besides mud, this tire choice does most everything well, while still managing to roll efficiently. This tire set up became Jamie’s go-to set up on his personal bike after riding this bike.

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The Brakes are Tektro Draco. They are solid dependable brakes. Nothing mind blowing but we also had no real problems with them either. Power wise they are completely adequate for the enthusiast rider. My only gripe with them is that the calipers are hard to line up with the brake’s rotors because the brake pads have a metal spacer that gets in the way of seeing the pad spacing. This is a relatively small problem for a brakeset at this budget.

The SR Suntour fork has 30 mm stanchions, and is structurally solid. The action is very good as well. Unfortunately, you have no control over the rebound, neither being able to speed up nor slow down the fork’s rebound. Like all of our forks, this is a coil sprung fork. If you don’t weigh between 155-180 LBS, it is more than likely not going to give you the ride quality that the fork is capable of. While the 30 mm chassis is structurally sound enough to justify spending a little money on, the fork is only going to get so good. In addition, the fork has only 80 mm (roughly 3 inches) of travel.

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For bigger riders, we recommend leaving it, unless you weigh over 210 pounds. In that case, an extra firm spring will be necessary. The spring, in addition to screwing down the preload adjuster, is your preload. Use too little preload and you will sag too deep into your fork’s travel. Lowering your front end not only uses a good portion of an already minimal amount of front suspension but it will steepen the head angle of the bike, lower the bottom bracket, and slightly push the seat tube angle forward. All of these affect the handling of the bike.

For riders under 140 pounds, you will need to lighten the spring. For example, Camye, would come off step downs and the fork would barely move. You could see her deflecting off rocks and not being able to hold a line that she could normally ride with no issue. The fork will not perform unless the spring is the appropriate type for the weight of the rider. Unfortunately, SR Suntour does not offer this as an upgrade for 80 mm forks. So, basically, if you are under 155 pounds, you won't be able to tune the fork to be supple for you and, chances are, you will have the same problem as Camye; a harsh riding front end. It seemed to bother heavier riders less than light ones.

This is where I would encourage Specialized to offer this bike with a 100 mm fork that can be rider tuned, or to use a fork manufacturer that will be able and willing to provide support regardless of large sales numbers. 29erOnline realizes that this is a hard spot for a manufacturer. However, we are ultimately here to educate the consumer and caution the reader to select a bike that will suit your needs. This fork won't be able to be set up properly for light or, at opposite extreme, heavy riders. This has been the hardest part to overcome of all the test bikes. We have gone back and forth if we should tell you to suffer through the stock fork then upgrade as soon as you can or if we should encourage swapping springs. Realistically for many, coming up with $1,000 is difficult enough. Spending hundreds more on a new fork is not an option. The shame of this is that the fork rides nicely for riders in the correct weight range. In order to do its job, the fork needs to be able to track the ground. Preload, when set correctly, allows for enough extension of the forks legs into trail depressions. If you can't set the sag correctly, the fork doesn't have enough ability to extend. This makes the wheel not able to track the ground, ultimately, not optimizing traction benefits. In addition, it will lose its suppleness, eventually wearing the rider out sooner than if the suspension is set properly. Tuning springs need to be cheap and easy to swap or the product will not function properly for many riders.

Back to the travel range of 80mm. The other bikes in our test have 100 mm travel forks. It is my preference to run 100mm forks, especially on enthusiast level bikes. However, the rest of the crew never even asked about the travel and certainly didn’t complain. I’ll yield my preference but it is still worth noting that SR Suntour does provide spring kits for the 100 mm versions of this fork.

The Specialized cockpit parts are still in perfect working condition. Specialized did an excellent job specing the 700 mm wide bar with a 10 degree bend. You can always cut them down, but combined with the short stem, it accentuates the ability to really handle this bike. Try it, you may really like it. As usual we have to add that every one of us has different preferences. Still, 700mm is wide, but not extreme by modern trends. The stem, while initially an odd one to wrap my head around due to the split face clamps, works fine. Initially, in our introductory write up, I felt it was heavy. In actuality, when I took it off and weighed it, I was surprised that it weighed less than a high end Thomson. So, weight is not an issue. It never slipped, and is appropriately short - it’s hard to justify a swap. The seatpost is, in fact, heavy but it has been completely reliable, and is competitive with its peers. Nothing bad to say here. The only downside to the cockpit were the grips. The ergonomic Specialized grips slipped around from the first ride we took. Great concept but in practice was more of a liability. Trade up before you leave the store. Specialized makes a locking version.

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The saddle is a Specialized Body Geometry RockHopper. This is not sold as an after market. At least not on the website. It is still on the bike as nobody complained about it. It is a mid width saddle with enough padding to offer some comfort but not so much that it doesn’t support your sit bones. It’s comfortable for a budget saddle and practical for real off road riding. The only person we changed the saddle for was Camye who opted for the Specialized Ariel Women’s model.

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Upgrades? Unfortunately, the fork, if you are light or heavy. Beyond the fork, the wheels. Even then, they are only worth changing after you wear out the old ones. Beyond this, it's hard to justify changing anything until you wear out or break the old part. The RockHopper frame is a good quality frame and it is easy to upgrade with readily available aftermarket parts.

How does it ride ?

Climbing: Solid, but not aggressive. It does well - no one complained. It is a good technical climber because of its maneuverability. Riders talked about it being a much more relaxed bike than other bikes in the group. The head angle is bit slacker than the rider’s favorite climbing bike and, at slower speeds and steep climbs, you have to pay attention a bit more than with other bikes in our test group to stay on course. We are being very petty here. Really, no one riding the RockHopper was in a rush to get off it. In our usual fashion, we have to state what was felt, even if it is a small difference, or subtle feeling.

Cornering: the RockHopper can hit a corner with authority. It is fairly low and slack and this is where you see the RockHopper coming alive. The tires really help here, as the rider feels confident leaning the RockHopper over. The bike encourages you to put some weight and technique behind riding. This bike is not a passive rider type bike. It’s tough enough to handle this style of riding it and its geometry is playful enough to encourage it. Don’t be a passenger, be a pilot.

Descending: The RockHopper is an excellent descender and fun to go downhill on. It is easy to relax on the RockHopper because the bike is not difficult to keep in control. Changing lines is no problem and the bike never seemed out of control. The ability to control the bike allows you to push it a little harder - have more fun.

Conclusion: The RockHopper has excellent agility. It is the bike that is most fun hopping logs and finding jumps to play on. Its ability to carve singletrack makes it really fun to ride. If your emphasis is on speed and efficiency, other bikes are probably better suited. However, the RockHopper can be built light enough to race. We did it and, while it worked well, it still isn’t our first choice for racing. It can get you through your first race, but needs to be lightened up and generally tweaked to make it competitive enough for this to be a true racing bike. Even then, the geometry is more relaxed than most racers prefer. In reality, few who would consider this bike are interested in racing. The RockHopper’s description on Specialized website never mentions racing. The bike is designed to be fun and get its rider hooked on mountain biking. As a first mountain bike, you really can’t do better. It is confident and forgiving, but never sluggish. It is easy to maneuver, and is equally easy to handle at both slow speed and high speed. As you progress, a couple of key parts changes will allow you to go to the next level. In its stock configuration, it is the most playful of all the bikes we tested. It strikes a perfect balance geometry wise between long ride comfort, exploring rough terrain, and carving loose flowy singletrack. This is an excellent all arounder.