I don’t mean to start this review off with a spoiler alert, but hey, here’s a spoiler alert: at just 8.32kg, this top-of-the-line Specialized S-Works Epic hardtail is the lightest mountain bike I have ever ridden. Hell, it’s one of the lightest bikes I’ve ridden full stop.
But let’s back things up a little before we get too carried away.
The Epic hardtail was first introduced in 2016, when it replaced the outgoing Stumpjumper hardtail that had sat at the pointy end of Specialized’s mountain bike lineup for, well, pretty much forever. Compared to the Stumpy it replaced, the Epic came forth with a slimmer, lighter and more refined carbon fibre frame equipped with Boost hub spacing and slacker geometry.
It was the first new Specialized model to be born from the mind of Peter Denk – the infamous composites guru who had previously worked at Cannondale (where he helped develop the latest FSi, Scalpel and SuperSix Evo), and Scott before that (he was responsible for the likes of the Scale, Spark and Addict). With a reputation for breaking weight records, Denk didn’t hold back on the Epic. The new frame arrived with an impressive 890g claimed weight – a stunning reduction of nearly 30% over the last Stumpy S-Works frame.
Yeah you read that right. Eight. Hundred. Grams.
But while many XC racers were ogling over the release of the new Epic last year, it seems Denk wasn’t quite finished there. Setting out to develop the lightest mountain bike ever produced by the Californian brand, the latest S-Works Epic Hardtail was unveiled in April of this year, along with a headline frame weight of just 800g. Yeah you read that right. Eight. Hundred. Grams. To put that into perspective, that’s about the same weight as a full bottle of Bishop’s Finger. Or half the weight of the pillow you’ll be resting your head on tonight after drinking too many Bishop’s Fingers.
At the time of its release, the Epic wasn’t just the lightest mountain bike frame that Specialized had ever produced, it was the lightest frame full stop – road, cross or otherwise. (That mantel has since shifted after Denk dropped more jaws with the new 733g Tarmac road frame, but we’ll just ignore that for the time being).
The 2018 Epic Hardtail is available in four different spec levels in the UK, including a women’s model. In terms of sizing, the women’s model is available down to an X-Small frame size, while the men’s versions come in Small, Medium, Large and X-Large. All Epic models are built with carbon fibre frames that feature the same geometry, 29in wheels and a 100mm travel fork (90mm on the Small and X-Small sizes). Pricing starts at £2500 for the Epic Hardtail Comp, then clicks up to £3800 Epic Hardtail Expert, before soaring up to £7500 for this one; the S-Works Epic Hardtail XX1 Eagle.
While the impeccable parts selection plays a role in the *ahem* generous price tag of the S-Works model, it’s underneath that stunning ‘blurple’ paint job where some of the more subtle differences lie.
Unlike the frames used on the cheaper Epic models, the S-Works is upgraded with Specialized’s Fact 12m carbon fibre, which is what gets this frame down to that unbelievable 800g weight figure. According to Specialized, Fact 12m carbon fibre delivers an unrivaled strength-to-weight ratio, which basically allows them to use less material throughout, while delivering the same strength as the Fact 11m frames.
Further weight reduction over the ol’ Stumpy hardtail has been achieved by thinning out the seat stays and by using straighter tubes. The oversized downtube now takes a much more direct route from the tapered headtube to the PF30 bottom bracket shell. To avoid the fork crown from whacking the downtube, a rubberised bump-stop has been built into the frame to prevent over rotation of the bars. Although it looks a little delicate, Specialized claims this is a structural member of the frame that would require a very large impact to be compromised – and by that point you’ll probably have a few more pressing issues to worry about.
The frame gets mostly internal cable routing, with a short external run along the chainstay for the rear mech. And while the 27.2mm seatpost diameter severely limits your dropper choice, there’s still stealth routing should you wish to fit one. Both hub axles are of the lighter bolt-up variety, which keeps things clean and low-profile, while a stealthy multi-tool is housed inside the SWAT bottle cage that Specialized includes with the bike. A nice touch is the discreet 2-position bottle cage mount along the downtube, and there’s room to fit a second bottle on the seat tube.
As is typical of a Specialized model with S-WORKS emblazoned on the downtube, the blurple Epic hardtail is fitted with a high-zoot parts kit that leaves very little to be desired. There’s a SRAM XX1 Eagle groupset with carbon fibre cranks and a lightweight alloy BB30 spindle. SRAM Level Ultimate brakes do the stopping, and a MatchMaker X clamp joins the right brake lever and shifter pod to the one clamp.
Wheels are Roval’s latest Control SL carbon hoops, which feature new 25mm wide carbon rims. This being our first encounter with Roval’s new high-end XC race wheels, I stripped them down to put them on the scales of doom. Including tubeless valves and rim tape, you’re looking at 1427g for the set. They’re wrapped with Specialized Fast Trak tyres with the 2Bliss casing and Gripton compound – a 2.3in on the front (759g) and a 2.1in on the back (692g). On the note of tyres, Specialized states there’s room for up to a 2.3in Ground Control tyre in the back, so you could add a little more squish if you needed.
Cockpit items also come from Specialized, including the carbon fibre handlebar and seatpost, lightweight stem, and the excellent Phenom saddle. The latter of which is enhanced with carbon rails. Of course.
Speaking of carbon, the fork has some too. It’s World Cup SID from RockShox, and so it uses a chiseled 32mm chassis with a Solo Air spring and a one-piece carbon steerer tube and crown. Where it differs from the regular SID though is in its use of the Brain damper. Using a weighted mass to close off the compression circuit, the Brain damper’s primary purpose is to give you a near-locked platform that only unlocks when you encounter a bump. The technology has been around since 2004 when the first full suspension Epic arrived, though it’s been thoroughly refined since then, and the platform firmness can be adjusted via the blue dial at the top of the right fork leg.
So, what’s it like to ride a mountain bike that’s lighter than most road bikes out there? In a word, it’s fast. In two words, it’s bloody fast.
I’ve grown accustomed to riding long-reach trail bikes with 780mm wide bars and 45mm long stems lately, so jumping on the Epic was a bit of a jolt to the system. Thanks to the neat integrated headset with it’s ‘plop-in’ bearings, the cockpit sits very low. The medium-sized Epic also comes with a much longer stem than I’ve seen in a while (90mm), but when it’s partnered with the 720mm flat bars and thin lock-on grips, the Epic establishes a purposeful, stretched-out riding position that commands your internal CPU to switch from ‘cruise’ mode, to ‘let the bastard fly off the handle’ mode.
So, what’s it like to ride a mountain bike that’s lighter than most road bikes out there? In a word, it’s fast. In two words, it’s bloody fast.
Without feeling skittish, the handling is sharp and involving. Direct is another word that comes to mind. Compared to the Canyon Exceed hardtail I recently tested, the Epic feels significantly more responsive through tight corners, which is interesting because the reach measurement is within a rice bubble of each other (418mm on the Epic vs 425mm on the Exceed), and the head angle is only ever so slightly tighter (69.8 on the Epic vs 69.5 on the Exceed). Looking into the specs further, the only other key difference that stood out is the fork offset (51mm on the Epic vs 44mm on the Exceed). Originally pioneered by Gary Fisher, the 51mm offset is pretty standard nowadays for 29er mountain bikes, and it serves to reduce the trail figure to speed up steering for a given head angle. This shorter trail figure is quite noticeable on the Epic compared to the Exceed, and it provides a more aggressive and sharper feel to the steering.
Combined with that stiff carbon frame, the Epic is super responsive – this is a bike that does not hang around when you step on the pedals. It helps having such lightweight wheels to turn leg power into projecting you up and away on the trail like a firecracker, though much credit goes towards the stiff PF30 bottom bracket junction and carbon cranks that laugh in the face of your puny power output. The solid back end and responsive wheels help the bike to carve turns with authority, often sending the front wheel past the apex before the rest of me had realised we were even approaching a turn.
Traction from the Fast Trak tyres is spot on for railing hardpack and slightly loose-over-hard conditions. They’re a quick-rolling tyre combo without having to resort to a more anaemic and superficial tread pattern. Although the test bike came to us setup with inner tubes, I pulled the tubes out and added tubeless valves and some sealant. That allowed me to lower air pressures significantly, and I ended up settling on around 23psi for the front, and 27psi for the rear. As well as reducing rotational mass, the lower pressures afforded by the tubeless setup helped to smoothen out smaller vibrations while increasing grip by putting more rubber on the ground.
Compliance is also excellent through the slender carbon seatpost, and I’ve been thoroughly impressed by how comfortable the Phenom saddle is. Both allowed me to remain seated more of the time to keep the pedals ticking over, even as small rubble threatened to dislodge me off my perch. Overall comfort isn’t on the same level as the BMC Team Elite or the Trek Procaliber, but then the Epic S-Works does have a much lighter and simpler frame.
There’s the sensation of riding with a loose headset, as you can feel the Brain damper opening and closing on these choppier trails.
On rockier trails with fast, repeated hits, I wasn’t thrilled with the Brain-equipped fork, which was stuttery and too firm. There’s the sensation of riding with a loose headset, as you can feel the Brain damper opening and closing on these choppier trails. Being a rider that appreciates usable suspension, I spent most of my time aboard the Epic with the blue compression dial wound as far open as it would go. Even in this setting the Brain is still operative though, and that means there’s enough oil restriction that it kind of felt like I had a regular SID with the low-speed compression wound all the way on. I still used most of the travel, and the fork feels pretty good once you’ve broken through the platform threshold. But compared to the uber-smooth Fox 32 SC fork, the Brain’d SID is nowhere near as supple in its action.
On smoother trails though, it’s a different story. The fork sits up high in its travel, resisting dive under braking and out-of-the-saddle efforts. It’s got just enough give to soak up the medium to large sized hits, and the SID chassis and oversized Torque Cap hub keeps the front wheel pointing exactly where you want it. For sprinting around an XC race course, the automatic-damping provided by the Brain gives you a nice solid platform so you don’t have to think about constantly turning a lockout on and off. Plus, it means there’s one less cable and remote to clutter up the cockpit.
While I’ve predominantly been testing the Epic hardtail on our local trails and bridleway networks, both Chipps and Hannah have spent some time in the saddle at two different endurance events; the Singletrack 7, and the Mountain Mayhem. To help round out the test, I asked them for some feedback from their racing experiences on the Blurple Beauty.
Chipps And The Singletrack 7
“The Epic rode quietly and efficiently, without any of the creaks and groans you’d associate with a featherweight machine. The only exception was the big end of the cassette, where it clicked and graunched on steep climbs for the first couple of hours of racing. After that, it was silent. I reckon that was just the cassette settling in.
The 720mm bar width felt spot-on. Grips were narrow and grippy. I got numb hands after a couple of hours, but I’m sure racers’d put up with that. The wheels were solid! No sense of flex in corners and the bike was fine to let go on descents. Given that it had tubes in, I ran high 30s pressures and only had tyre slip on a couple of out the saddle efforts on the steep pitch in the still-greasy woods. Surprisingly grippy in the dry.
Didn’t touch the forks at all throughout the race. Again, these were pretty solid, and I nearly got full travel after seven hours. I’d be tempted to lower the pressures and up the Brain threshold. On seated climbs, the bike felt like you were going further for every pedal stroke than was allowed. On slightly steeper climbs it encouraged you to hop out the saddle and keep momentum – I rode away from so many people doing that.
Even after 7.5 hours of rock hard ruts, surprisingly my back still worked. The saddle was comfy and the skinny post must have been doing some good stuff. I did have the saddle angle slip a couple of times, which is a downside of a single bolt attachment I reckon. Gears were fine. Brakes worked fine, even for an oaf like me. I did want to move the shifter to the inner Matchmaker mount, but the SWAT tool didn’t have a 2mm key on it. This also meant I couldn’t adjust the brake lever reach either. The bottle cage is very good! Even on the descent that ejected bottles, it kept medium and big bottles solidly and it was easy to use on the course.
I reckon this would be a pretty awesome day to day trail bike if you lived somewhere reasonably rock-less.”
Hannah And Mountain Mayhem
“A few Mayhem veterans felt that the hardtail was going to be a decision I’d regret, but the prospect of being able to dedicate what watts I could offer into forward motion of a very lightweight object had got my attention. Not wanting to risk by tender under carriage on an unfamiliar saddle, I did swap out the Phenom for something tried and tested by my posterior. Since the single-bolt seatpost is suited to oval-shaped carbon rails, this meant I also had to swap the post out too – so I didn’t get to benefit from either the seatpost or saddle, which others have found so comfortable. Nonetheless, back and bum pain were no worse than I’d have expected for a race of this type.
It’s testament to the confident handling of the bike that not only did I make it round the course clipped in (I normally run flats), but that I actually found myself enjoying the technical sections and looking forward to them. I even continued to ride clipped in during the night laps when I had thought I might sneak the flat pedals on under cover of darkness.
Coming off a long period of 160mm travel riding, I had feared that the Epic would feel skittery and terrifying, but actually it felt responsive but stable. With none of the big lumpy rock sections that my local riding offers, the Epic was perfectly at home on the Mayhem course. Dust (lots of it), roots (lots of them too), loam (ever deeper trenches of it), and even the odd spot of mud – the Epic was fun through all of it. Yes, even during 24 hours of unexpected hot weather and 16 hours of laps (at 6:30am as the day hotted up again I decided there was more to life than getting heatstroke in pursuit of 5th place) I was still having fun on the descents and looking for new lines to try out.
Quite honestly, for that course, with its many tricky climbs, I can’t think of a better tool than the Epic with the Eagle gearing. The bike performed perfectly for the entire race. No punctures, no mechanicals – so no excuses for giving up.
And so I can see the Epic’s purpose in life: it’s to race. If you want to go a long way for a long time, or go very fast for a short time, I think you’d be hard pushed to find a better tool for the job. As a bonus, it’s actually fun to ride, even if you’re a slow coach like me.”
Three Things That Could Be Improved
- Although the skinny seatpost is remarkably comfortable, it does limit the choice of dropper post options. And I think we’ll be seeing a lot more XC racers choose to run droppers in the future.
- The Brain damper is highly efficient, and riders that mash will love it. But a genuine off/open setting would be welcome for rougher trails.
- A duller paint job so you’re not constantly stopped by other riders all the goddamn time.
Three Things We Loved
- Forget e-bikes – the Epic’s ridiculously low weight and efficient frame will turn you into a climbing hero.
- Sharp handling encourages you to slice up tight singletrack like Jamie Oliver slays onions.
- Trail buzz-killing carbon seatpost and Phenom saddle are highly comfortable.
Straight up, the S-Works Epic Hardtail is one of the fastest bikes I have ever ridden. It also takes the title of being the lightest mountain bike to have ever come through Singletrack Towers, while also being one of (if not the?) most expensive hardtails we’ve ever tested too.
For riding smoother trails and tackling XCO events, the Epic is an absolute weapon. The sharp handling helps it to cut through twisty trails with ease, while the responsive acceleration means it absolutely flies up the climbs. It is no doubt a pricey machine, though when you think about it, you’re basically looking at the Formula 1 of the mountain bike world. If I was a car enthusiast, there’s no way I could afford to buy the multi-million dollar F1 car. Granted, I still can’t afford a £7500 mountain bike, but it is within much closer reach for us mere mortals.
If you’re after similar performance at a fraction of the price, consider the two cheaper Epic models. But if you’re only interested in having the best that’s ridden at the absolute highest level of our sport, then this right here is as close as it gets to XC racing perfection.
2018 Specialized S-WORKS Epic Hardtail World Cup Specifications
- Frame // FACT 12m Carbon Fibre
- Fork // Custom RockShox SID World Cup w/Brain Damper, 90mm Travel (Small frames) – 100mm Travel (Medium, Large, X-Large)
- Shock // N/A
- Hubs // Roval Control SL, 110x15mm Front & 148x12mm Rear
- Rims // Roval Control SL, Hookless, 25mm Internal Rim Width, Tubeless Ready
- Tyres // Specialized Fast Trak GRIPTON 2.3in Front & 2.1in Rear
- Chainset // SRAM Eagle XX1, 30mm Spindle, 32t Direct Mount Chainring
- Front Mech // N/A
- Rear Mech // SRAM XX1 Eagle, 12-Speed
- Shifters // SRAM XX1 Eagle, 12-Speed
- Cassette // SRAM XX1 Eagle, XG-1295, 10-50t, 12-Speed
- Brakes // SRAM Level Ultimate, 160mm Front & Rear
- Stem // Specialized S-Works SL, 6° Rise, Length: 75mm (Small), 90mm (Medium), 100mm (Large), 110mm (X-Large)
- Bars // Specialized Mini-Rise, FACT Carbon, 720mm Wide, 10mm Rise
- Grips // Specialized Sip Grip Half-Waffle, Lock-On, Regular (Small & Medium), Thicker (Large & X-Large)
- Seatpost // Specialized FACT Carbon, 27.2mm,
- Saddle // Specialized Body Geometry S-Works Phenom, Carbon Rails, 143mm
- Size Tested // Medium
- Sizes available // Small, Medium, Large, X-Large
- RRP // £7500
|Product:||S-Works Epic Hardtail World Cup XX1 Eagle|
|Tested:||by Chipps, Hannah & Wil for 4 months|