Specialized Chisel, the ultimate underdog icon MTB?

Specialized Chisel Project
(Image credit: GuyKesTV)

The Specialized Chisel and I go back a long time. I remember when she first appeared on the testing scene. Coyly showing the ridiculously skinny, sculpted alloy tubes that a revolutionary new ‘SmartWeld’ tube junction allowed. A genius bit of ‘ends formed like Coke cans’ engineering that I first chatted to Specialized design savant and ‘Director of Advanced Research and Design' Chris D’Alusio to over a decade ago when it first appeared on road bikes. He related the story of how closed end tube set experiments that were just meant to make welding and fabricating easier, revealed almost unbelievable fatigue test results. Because the much stiffer formed ends essentially stopped flex in the weld junctions, SmartWeld frames were lasting twice or three times as long as traditional alloy frames even when the mid-tube wall thicknesses were paper thin. The formed tubes with cutaway head tubes also created a much more stable junction to weld too while removing weight where it wasn’t needed. That meant as soon as the concept had been proved on the sweet riding Allez road bike, Chris and his team set about creating the Chisel XC MTB.

Chisel alloy

I was lucky enough to get one of the fancy Ltd Edition 'Element' paint job frames to play on (Image credit: Specialized)

Freak AND unique

Not only did the Chisel look like nothing else in an XC hardtail world dominated by oversized carbon frames, it rode nothing like them either. While the default design priority of most XC hardtails at the time was to create truly sado-masochistic stiffness results that would guarantee high scores in German magazine lab tests, the Chisel felt like liquid poured onto the surface of the trail. Time and again when we tested it on race courses and fast trails the sinuous, cat-like fluidity of the Chisel would leave the brutalist carbon competition slamming and stalling in it’s wake. Because it was alloy, complete bikes were half the price of most carbon race frames. Plus, while the frame was double the weight, the extra budget for fancy bits could build you a complete bike that was a lot lighter for the same money. 

That’s why after multiple wins in tests I curated for magazines, I jumped at the chance to get build up a ‘Ltd Edition’ paint finish frame Specialized had going spare back in lockdown. It was an opportunity to do some really perverted experiments with stuff I was lucky enough to have in the ex-test bin too. Sure the XL frame was actually too big for me with a proper stem on, but sticking on an OG Syncros ‘Nino Schurter’ carbon combo cockpit with a vestigial stem sorted that out. Plus it was silly light and looked absolutely sick. SID SL 100mm fork was a no brainer and while it’s run on all sorts of carbon wheels over the years Hunt’s alloy XC wheels were enough to get the scales displaying some fitness flattering numbers. I went proper old school when it came to dumping serious weight at the expense of equally serious effort on steep climbs though. With fiendishly fond memories of tiny road blocks on my race bikes in the early '90s (albeit with a triple chainset) I bolted on a SRAM RED AXS rear mech and a 10-36 cassette and saw the scales go comfortable sub 10kg. Carbon seat post, superlight Race Face Era cranks and skimpy saddle have since followed and that shaved off another half kilo. That put it at the weight of most gravel bikes I was testing but with 63mm Specialized Renegade S-Works MTB tires rather than 40mm gravel tires and a proper 100mm of travel up front. I even went sub 9kg with a rigid carbon fork, but that was too much of a vibe killer to stay on long.

Bikepacking MTB in slate mine

The Chisel even made massive mountains in miserable weather fun when filming and guide book researching the Traws Eryri route across Snowdonia for Cycling UK (Image credit: GuyKesTV)

New tech for old skool fun

Adding a ‘proper’ suspension fork adding that kind of insane acceleration and altitude gain advantage to the already whip spring frame (it flexes visibly under power if you’re riding behind it) created a properly mental predator for less technical off-road rides. The fluid ground connection also meant the 10-36 cassette wasn’t as stupid an idea as it sounds even on proper MTB terrain either. And yes, minimal stem on a steep head angle frame with tube walls so thin you can squish them between your fingers does create an absolutely hysterical handling character. When you’re trundling along on dull and dutiful bikes with ‘ride themselves’ geometry and unshakeable surefootedness as your daily job though having a play bike that’s utterly psychotic is a delicious (if dangerous) escape. In the years I’ve been whoring it over my socials and YouTube channel, I’ve compared it to pretty much every sort of competition from gravel race bikes to premium XC hardtails and FS bikes and it’s come out as an underdog champion. I even put a proper cassette on and bossed the recce ride for the new Cycling UK Traws Eryri bikepacking route on it back in February. 

It’s been borrowed and ridden by a bunch of other ‘Chisel curious’ riders and started something of a cult online. And for all it’s freakish ride feel – I generally describe it as “the best titanium bike I’ve ever ridden, but made of alloy” – nearly everyone who’s tried it – and everyone who’s bought one as a result of seeing me raving about it has loved having a new alloy ally in their life. 

Specialized Chisel in profile

I've tested thousands of bikes but the Chisel has to be the best example of cost effective performance, sublime ride quality and insolent underdog charisma (Image credit: Specialized)

Valuable value lessons 

Perhaps unsurprisingly ‘my’ Chisel won’t actually be going back to Specialized either, it’s been snapped up by one of my riding mates who’s it’s regularly given a hard time to over the past couple of years. So that’s probably going to add a whole extra level of revenge pain to the sadness I’m already feeling for not having this weird and wonderful alloy underdog in my quiver any more. However, it's been a brilliant reminder that you don't have to follow the herd or spend a huge amount of cash to have a brilliant time off road on a bike. Because while mine did end up silly exotic just to prove a point, the base model Chisel is still well under 2k in dollars, euros or pounds. You can find plenty of them second hand from the silly idiots who 'don't get it' too.

Obviously I’m plotting what my next build could be too so watch this space to see what weirdness I create next and whether it can get anywhere close to creating the giddy memories and collection of premium carbon road, gravel and MTB scalps the Chisel has.

Guy Kesteven
Technical-Editor-at-Large

Guy has been working on Bike Perfect since launch in 2019. He started writing and testing for bike mags in 1996. Since then he’s written several million words about several thousand test bikes and a ridiculous amount of riding gear. To make sure he rarely sleeps and to fund his custom tandem habit, he’s also penned a handful of bike-related books and talks to a GoPro for YouTube, too.

Current rides: Cervelo ZFS-5, Specialized Chisel, custom Nicolai enduro tandem, Landescape/Swallow custom gravel tandem

Height: 180cm

Weight: 69kg