In Issue #116 of Singletrack Magazine, Wil and the crew tested three new generation full suspension XC race bikes. Read on for the full review of the 2018 Specialized Epic Expert.
As one of the most decorated full suspension race bikes on the market, the Epic has been a mainstay of the cross-country racing scene since it blew things wide-open in 2003 with the Brain. That original bike featured 90mm of travel and utilised a custom shock that was the result of a four-year development project between Fox and Specialized dubbed the ‘Holy Grail’. The concept behind the Brain’s patented inertia valve was to keep the shock locked out by way of a weighted brass mass that closed off oil flow. When you encountered a bump, the mass would dislodge, allowing oil to flow through the damper, so the shock could absorb the impact. Or at least in theory anyway.
With the shock tucked in under the seatstay, it was a radical looking – and performing – bike of its time. Fifteen whole years separates that first Epic and this one, and as you can appreciate, a whole lot has changed. Thankfully the V-brakes, 80mm travel fork and 71° head angle are long gone.
The Epic features a brand new frame for 2018, with 29in wheels and 100mm of travel. New-school geometry sees a custom fork offset and 1.25° lopped off the head angle over the 2017 model. The frame is 525g lighter, which is partially achieved by the use of a one-piece carbon swingarm that – for the first time in the Epic’s history – ditches the classic FSR pivot in favour of a flex-stay arrangement like the Spark.
Unlike the other two, the Epic is only available in the UK with a carbon frame, starting at £3,500 for the Comp Carbon, and going up to a cool £8,500 for the S-Works model. The Epic Expert slots in between, and comes in four sizes from Small through to X-Large.
Whether you’re into the Tequila Sunrise paint job or not, you can’t argue that this is one elegant piece of industrial design. The subtle curves in the downtube, the razor-thin top tube brace, and the uninterrupted line that connects the upper shock mount to the rear dropout gives the Epic an air of class. And with just three cables coming off the handlebar, it’s all very tidy.
Underneath the sparkly paint job, the Epic is brimming with details. The tapered headtube features an uber-thin headset to keep the cockpit low, and the top tube mounted shock means there’s clearance for two bottles inside the main frame – a big perk for marathon racers. The cables spend most of their time inside the frame, with a neat alloy bolt-on port on the downtube feeding each towards the rear wheel
In a strange turn of events, the Epic is the only bike on test with a threaded bottom bracket shell. Specialized has spun 180° on press-fit bottom brackets lately, and now views thread-in cups as the more reliable and easier to service solution. As expected, the new Epic has updated to Boost hub spacing front and rear, and each wheel is secured by tooled alloy axles. Symmetric rear stays and a 1x specific design continue the sleek and minimalist theme. Unlike the Anthem that has shrunk its seatpost down to 27.2mm, Specialized has increased the Epic’s to 30.9mm, specifically to improve compatibility with dropper posts.
Although there are loads of tweaks to the frame and geometry, the new suspension design is the biggest visual change over the old Epic. The Brain 2.0 damper has been relocated to sit just behind the rear axle, where its weighted inertia valve is more sensitive to the terrain. It’s all in the name of increasing the response rate, so that the shock can unlock faster and with less hesitation. Oil flow has been improved between the shock and the Brain, and fluid now runs directly through a bore that’s machined into the shock clevis. Also improving damping response is the move from an IFP to an expandable bladder for the Brain’s oil reservoir, which Specialized says improves shock reactivity with less sticking and damper flutter at high speeds.
On the front, Specialized has spec’d a 100mm travel, Brain-equipped RockShox SID fork. This fork uses a proprietary 42mm crown offset, rather than the usual 51mm offset like most other 29er forks. By reducing offset, Specialized has increased the trail figure on the front of the Epic with the goal of increasing stability in the front end.
Parts are mostly from Specialized, including the Roval wheelset that’s built with slightly narrow hookless carbon rims. The rims came taped and ready to go tubeless, and unlike higher end Roval wheels, these OEM hoops use regular J-bend spokes, which we like. Though at 1957g, it is the heaviest wheelset out of the three bikes.
Positioned aboard the cockpit it’s immediately apparent that the Epic is not the furious bike of old. It feels lean, but not overtly aggressive. It does have the longest stem on test, and combined with the flat bars and the steep 74.75° seat angle, the Epic helps to bias your weight forward and onto the front wheel. The grips were unanimously disliked amongst testers for being too thin and because the fork is quite firm, my palms were forced to soak up more trail chatter than the other bikes. The Phenom saddle on the other hand (or buttock?), was lovely as always.
Compared to the 2017 Epic, the new frame features a slacker head angle (69.5°) and a longer reach (433mm) to help increase front centre length for more stability. Combined with the shorter fork offset, the steering on the Epic is peculiarly calm – a word I never thought I’d associate with an Epic. The risk was that the added stability could detract from the bike’s nimbleness, but once on meandering singletrack any concerns soon evaporated.
The Epic sways from left to right with wonderful predictability, and at higher racing speeds, it swoops through the corners with incredible flow and momentum. The steering feels planted and once I came to appreciate how much traction there was through the tyre contact patch, I could point and shoot with confidence.
To begin with, I ran the Brain damping in its minimum setting to get a feel for the travel. Rear shock set-up is made simple via the Autosag valve, which put me at 155 psi and 25% sag. Rebound was set five clicks from full slow and 100 psi got me to where I needed with the fork, though I did add a Bottomless Token to give the SID a little more end-stroke support. Bizarrely, the fork offers a ridiculous 56 clicks of rebound damping. I ran it with about 20 clicks, though the fine detent points make it unnecessarily difficult to adjust.
With the Brain damper set to full open, the Epic felt more sluggish than I was expecting. The rear suspension action isn’t nearly as supple as the Anthem or Spark, though there’s enough movement that the Epic feels a little boggy at lower climbing speeds. To pep things up, I set the fork’s Brain damping just over halfway, and set the shock at three of four clicks (four being the firmest setting).
Once assisted by the Brain, the Epic clicks into place. It’s firm, supported and it sits higher in the travel. Both the fork and shock still move – they aren’t completely locked out and will absorb smaller chatter, but it isn’t exactly what you’d call plush. Hit something hard and fast enough though, and you’re met with a ‘clunk’ that’s felt throughout the frame as the inertia valve opens.
Coming from a trail bike, this sensation is bothersome to begin with, and it can be tiring on rockier trails. However, the knocking does smooth out as the suspension beds in over the first few rides, and compared to previous Brain shocks, this one is noticeably faster to react. The valve also remains open until the shock extends back to the sag point, so once you’re in the travel, the damping stays responsive and smooth. On rougher terrain, a trick here is to run the rebound on the slower side to keep the shock sitting into its travel.
Ultimately though, the faster you ride it, the less you’ll notice the Brain damper working. And that’s exactly the point. You set it for your riding style and terrain, and simply concentrate on the trail ahead without having to worry about flicking levers or remote buttons.
Specialized has certainly achieved its goal of adding stability to the new Epic, and the biggest surprise for me was just how good the Epic’s handling is – it’s the best of the three bikes here.
Because of the unique Brain damper though, the Epic is always going to be a tale of two personalities. The Brain 2.0 shock is a vast improvement over previous versions, and it does exactly what it’s meant to. But that does mean you’ll either love its firm platform, or detest its clunky inertia valve. If you can ride it hard and fast enough though, you’ll be rewarded with impressive efficiency.
2018 Specialized Epic Expert Specifications
- Frame // FACT 11m Carbon Fibre
- Fork // Custom RockShox SID w/Brain Damper, 42mm Offset, 100mm Travel
- Shock // RockShox/Specialized Micro Brain w/Spike Valve, Autosag
- Hubs // Roval Control, 110x15mm Front & 148x12mm Rear
- Rims // Roval Control, Hookless, 22mm Internal Rim Width, Tubeless Ready
- Tyres // Hutchinson Taipan Hardskin RR 2.25in (Specialized Fast Trak Gripton 2.3in Front & 2.1in Rear as stock)
- Chainset // SRAM Stylo 6K Alloy, 24mm GXP Spindle, 32t X-Sync 2 Eagle Chainring
- Front Mech // N/A
- Rear Mech // SRAM GX Eagle, 12-Speed
- Shifters // SRAM GX Eagle, 12-Speed
- Cassette // SRAM GX Eagle, 10-50t, 12-Speed
- Brakes // SRAM Level TL, 180mm Front & 160mm Rear
- Stem // Specialized XC, 6° Rise, Length: 75mm (Small), 90mm (Medium), 100mm (Large), 110mm (X-Large)
- Bars // Specialized Mini-Rise, 7050 Alloy, 720mm Wide, 10mm Rise
- Grips // Specialized Sip Grip Half-Waffle, Lock-On, Regular (Small & Medium), Thicker (Large & X-Large)
- Seatpost // Specialized Alloy, 30.9mm,
- Saddle // Specialized Body Geometry Phenom Comp, Hollow Cr-Mo Rails, 143mm
- Size Tested // Medium
- Sizes available // Small, Medium, Large, X-Large
- Actual Weight // 11.27kg / 24.79lb (as tested)
- RRP // £4800
Want to check out more reviews, interviews and features from Issue #116 of Singletrack Magazine? Then head on through to the Singletrack Shop to browse through our library of magazines and to see what other limited edition goodies we have on offer.
|Tested:||by Wil Barrett for 3 months|