Review: The Specialized Chisel is much more than an entry level hardtail

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Affordable, raceable, and capable — a rare combination in the modern world of bikes.  But the new, updated version of the Specialized Chisel achieves all that and more. And for the cherry on top, the 2021 Specialized Chisel is race-ready under $2K. 

Specialized Chisel XC Bike Review Front side

Cross-country racing is changing, and so are the bikes that set out to conquer these new features and tracks. The bike needs to be snappy for hard efforts and forgiving enough to ride longer events and rides. Specialized hit both requirements with its Epic HT — updating the geometry and staying true to the racing pedigree. The 2021 Chisel takes all its cues from the Epic HT in the geometry department and the Allez Sprint for frame construction. 

Specialized Chisel XC Bike Review Front headtube

According to Specialized, the new Chisel frame comes in at or under 1400g (including the thru-axle) and is stiffer than its predecessor. After miles and miles of testing these claims, we tend to agree. The Chisel is crafted from the same M5 aluminum as the Allez —the first Specialized mountain bike to use D’Aluisio Smartwelding.

You can read more about the D’Aluisio Smartweld system and the release of the Chisel 2021 here.

Specialized Chisel XC Bike Review welds

Chisel Frame Details

The 2020 Chisel Comp frame is clean, the welds are tidy, and the paint is strikingly similar to that of the new 2021 Epic Full Suspension bike. The hydroformed alloy frame employs slick internal cable routing, with one port on the drive side for shifting and two on the non-drive for the rear brake and dropper post. 

Specialized Chisel XC Bike Review Welds

All cables and hoses exit via a down tube bottom bracket junction — held neatly by a cap and clamp, with designated ports for each cable. This setup made routing a dropper post straightforward and secure, with absolutely no chattering in the frame. The bottom bracket is a threaded English style, which has been regaining popularity in recent years. Favoring a wrench to a hammer when I work on my bikes, I find it much easier to work on.

Specialized Chisel XC Bike Review Bottom Bracket

The rear triangle is dropped enough to give some compliance but stiff enough to make it clear you’re on a race hardtail. The space for maximal tire width is ample and can fit up to 2.50”, but 2.40” is my favorite tire width for this bike.

Specialized Chisel XC Bike Review Seat tube welds


Specialized Chisel Geo 2021

The Chisel is available in XS, S, M (tested), L, and XL sizes.

  • Effective Top Tube: 603mm
  • Head Tube Angle: 68°
  • Seat Tube Angle: 74°
  • Chainstay Length: 432
  • Wheelbase: 1124mm
  • Bottom Bracket Drop: 63mm
  • Head Tube: 95mm
  • Standover: 792mm
  • Stack: 605mm
  • Reach: 430mm
  • Weight: 33.00 (w/o pedals)
  • Price: $1900.00

Specialized Chisel XC Bike Review Shimano Deore Brakeset Rotor and dropout

Chisel Specs

  • Fork: RockShox Judy Gold, Motion Control damper, Solo Air, 42mm offset, 15x110mm thru-axle, 100mm of travel 
  • Wheels: Specialized Stout Alloy, Offset Design, Tubeless – 25mm internal width – laced to Shimano MT410 15x110mm front 12x148mm rear
  • Tires: Fast Trak, Control casing, GRIPTON compound, 60 TPI, 2Bliss Ready, 29×2.3″
  • Shifter/Derailleurs: Shimano SLX, 12-speed
  • Cassette: Shimano M6100, 12-speed, 10-51T
  • Crankset: Shimano MT511 175mm 32T ring, threaded BB 
  • Brakeset: Shimano Deore M6100 2-piston
  • Handlebar: Specialized Stout XC, 8-degree back sweep, 6-degree upsweep, 10mm rise, 31.8mm 760mm
  • Stem: Specialized XC 3D, 75mm 6-deg
  • Seat Post: Specialized Alloy, Single bolt 30.9

Specialized Chisel XC Bike Review Shimano Deore Brakeset

Shimano Workhorse Race Setup

Specialized went all-in with Shimano on the Chisel builds and didn’t skimp on the quality. Available in two models, Base and Comp, both are equipped with a RockShox Judy 110mm fork (Gold for Comp, Silver for base), 12-speed shifting (Deore or SLX), and Shimano Deore brakes. 

Specialized Chisel XC Bike Review Shimano Crankset

The Shimano SLX/Deore that arrived on my Chisel Comp impresses me daily. The brakes are far superior to what can be deemed entry-level. The brake lever and feel are similar to the XT/XTR; it’s hard to tell the difference. Though lacking in some of the quick adjustments and weight-saving measures of the higher-end brakes — the Deores stop, modulate, and cost far less than their race-ready brethren. 

Specialized Chisel XC Bike Review Shimano shifting

Shifting-wise, I usually ride Sram, but my hands quickly adapted to the Shimano paddles and found a comfortable home. The shifting is precise and easily tunable. I set the cable tension on the first build and haven’t adjusted it since (even with some crashing in the mix). 

Specialized Chisel XC Bike Review Rear side

Some of the precise shifting credit goes to the cassette. The jumps are intuitive and don’t feel forced — they’re comprehensive and keep the pedaling cadence smooth. The cassette’s top end is a 51T and gives a bit more climbing freedom to those that spin over mash on the assents — pairing nicely with the 32T front ring. 

Specialized Chisel XC Bike Review Rear

The wheel and tire pairing are Specialized, and while the combination performs well on and off the trail, the tubeless setup was not a walk in the park. The Specialized 2Bliss Ready rim strip provided didn’t seal effectively and would lose air rapidly. Specialized has acknowledged this can be an issue. The rim strip provided doesn’t use tape to adhere to the rim, so the rim strip can crease or fold over during the install process. After messing with it for a bit, I opted for trusty Stan’s No Tubes tape. 

Specialized Chisel XC Bike Review Shimano Deore Brakeset Rotor

Specialized went with its Fast Track Control 2.3″ — a 60 TPI tire offering excellent rolling speed and flat protection. I also like that these tires cover enough ground for various trail conditions and set up quickly with the newly installed rim tape. 

Specialized Chisel XC Bike Review Shimano Hub

Considering the price point, the wheel build is fantastic. The wheelset is Shimano MT410 hubs laced to Specialized Stout rims with a 25mm internal width rim. This Shimano hub is a popular one for 2021, and its performance, engagement, and overall bomb-proof build make it an excellent choice for this bike. The engagement is fast, and the hub build is standard Shimano — easy to service and perfect for training and racing. 

The Ride

The most exciting thing about the Chisel for me is that it’s an affordable race hardtail. The geometry isn’t “sporty” — it’s the exact same setup as the company’s highest offering and serves as a great starting point for racing. Specialized crammed as much race readiness into this build as possible. Nothing is toned down. 

Specialized Chisel XC Bike Review Head tube welds

On the open trail, the Chisel is very similar to the Epic HT, but the sloping top tube gives it a more casual feel. Coming from a carbon hardtail, I thought the alloy frame would be more noticeable, but it wasn’t. The frame is stiff but compliant in the rear, and the thin seat stays, and voluminous 2.3″ tires help. I can’t believe we rode rocky trails with 1.8″ tires back in the day and thought that was faster (head palm). 

The RockShox Judy Gold took a little while to get used to. Coming from a RockShox SID, I was used to the super smooth, above-the-bike feeling of Charger Cartridge. The Motion Control damper is OK, though it dives a bit more than the premiere forks. And after a few long rides, I was adjusted and didn’t notice the difference. The fork locks out stiff and doesn’t budge. You can dial in the travel a bit depending on how closely you turn the lock-out knob to full lock. 

Specialized Chisel XC Bike Review Side

Climbs and flowy pedal-heavy sections of the trail are the Chisel’s bread and butter. The 74° seat tube angle is right on the money for power and efficiency. Like the Epic HT, the Chisel feels like a road bike on fast, flowy trail sections. The frame is elegant and effortlessly floats in and out of turns. On punchy, steep sections of trail, you feel the frame’s stiffness and the ease of tracking.  

Specialized Chisel XC Bike Review Race Weight 20.4lbs

After a full month on the Chisel stock version, I made some updates and upgrades to see how the bike felt. I added some carbon bits, an FSA Flow Tron dropper post, and the SID fork from my race bike (same offset), keeping the shifting/braking components the same. 

Specialized Chisel XC Bike Review 20.4 lbs

With the dropper post’s addition, this bike became much more capable (and sendable). The fork subtracted some weight and felt better when I was out of the saddle — but didn’t change the bike’s overall feel.  

During the test period, most of my riding was on local trails with some technical bits where I would usually prefer a full suspension bike. After adding the dropper and some 2.4″ tires, I sent the Chisel off rocks, drops, and jumps — pleasantly surprised that it was more than up to the task.

Specialized Chisel XC Bike Review Rotor

After months of riding, heat, snow, drops, and intervals, the Chisel’s paint is still as glossy as the day it arrived — a true testament that it is much more than a price point alloy hardtail. This bike is a fantastic option for those ready to race but not ready to spend their life savings on a carbon bike. Although truth be told, it’s quickly becoming my favorite bike in the garage (race bikes and all). 

Specialized Chisel XC Bike Review Rear Wheels

It’s hard to beat the Specialized Chisel Comp’s performance and price. This bike is perfect for the NICA and highschool race crowd —race-ready out of the box but infinitely upgradeable. If you’re looking to craft one from the ground up, you can always snag a frameset for $1000 or one of the recently announced, limited-edition colorways for $1500.

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