Specialized Epic S-works £4500

Far more than just a superlight cross-country racer

BikeRadar score 4.5/5

The production version of Christope Sauser’s world championship bike, the Specialized S-Works Epic is far more than a pure race bike. The Epic also makes a great local woods or all-day trail bike. Its acceleration and climbing are a real joy and, while you might need to pick your lines a little more carefully than you would on a 30lb all mountain bike, we suspect that no one will be moaning about that.

Except for a few minor personal tweaks, the new Specialized S-Works Epic is the bike that Switzerland’s Christoph Sauser won the World Championships on. What made his feat more remarkable is the fact that the World Champs in Italy was the first time Specialized had let him ride the bike.

Not many people would choose to race a championship on a bike they’d spent no real time on. But after riding early production versions, we can see why this bike gave Sauser the edge. Sure, it’s a thoroughbred race machine, but it also has a hell of a lot to offer to any committed trail rider.

Ride & handling: unusually forgiving for a race rig

Despite its fairly aggressive geometry, the Epic has a much more relaxed and balanced feel than previous Brain-equipped Epics, which will add appeal for trail riders as well as racers.

The race-tuned Brain configuration means that you still feel a little more harshness on initial square-edge impacts than you do, for example, on the plusher longer-travel Stumpjumper, but this is a far more versatile bike than before.

It’ll cost you a lot of cash, but it looks like the Epic S-Works might be the highlight of the Specialized 2009 range. There’s no doubting its race credentials, but the question we wanted to answer at the press launch was whether it was still a purist race bike, or had it become the trail bike that we want to ride? In 2008 we thought the Stumpjumper S-Works felt a little bit better.

The good news is that Specialized has managed to maintain the solid, reliably fast and taut ride character that pleases most racers, at the same time as losing weight, adding stiffness and making their unique Brain inertia valve shock systems work just the way we’d always hoped they would.

With carefully retuned Brain set-ups in the fork as well as in the rear shock, first impressions are that the new Epic will now appeal to almost anyone searching for a temptingly light, undoubtedly fast and well controlled trail bike.

You may think that any 22lb bike is going to feel a little bit fragile on a challenging trail. Think again.

We were surprised and impressed by how sturdy and stable the Epic felt. Specialized’s claim of substantial boosts to front end and drivetrain stiffness rings true.

The new Epic is noticeably sharper than its predecessor on the trail. It exhibits none of the nervousness or Bambi handling vagueness that often afflicts bikes of this weight. 

While racers obviously have a lot to gain from a bike like the Epic, the surprise is that it feels less like a pure race thoroughbred than other 100mm travel superlights we’ve ridden.

It’s not exactly sofa-plush, but it’s forgiving over rough terrain to a point where you know it’s helping you to maintain forward momentum and make the sort of line choices you’d be loath to make on a hardtail, and you never end up feeling that you’re losing speed elsewhere.

Perhaps stating the obvious, the key here is to spend time setting up the Brain shock and fork. Experiment and you’ll find ways of making it do just what you want it to. A wider range of ‘Brain Fade’ options than on previous models means there are now more opportunities to get it wrong as well as right.

And of course, it still takes a bit of nerve to hammer into rocky sections of trail on what essentially feels more like a hardtail until the fork and shock Brains sense that they need to kick in.

Frame: light, stiff & superbly detailed

Claimed weight for the frame is 2040g, including the shock and FlowControl Mini Brain. Our test bike weighed just over 22lb.

The top tube, head tube and down tube of the Az1 frame form effectively a one-piece structure, layered with suitably woven sections of carbon composite cloth to create the required strength, stiffness and ride feel.

Az1 means ‘as one’ – see what they’ve done there? Increasing the overall carbon content of the frame meant creating new dropouts, a new lighter oversized bottom bracket shell and a head tube to take the tapered steerer tube of Specialized’s own superlight (3.1lb) E100 fork. Both the fork and the back end offer 100mm of travel.

The steerer is 1.125in at the top and 1.5in at the integrated crown, with the lower headset bearing recessed well into the base of the tube so that it’s braced against the down tube structure. Specialized claims a 14 percent lateral stiffness boost over the front end of the 2008 bike, although the frame is lighter.

The one-piece front end reduces loads on potential stress point, such as the shock mounting, and the centre-of-bike and in-line shock position both improves plushness and looks tidier.

Fine detailing is superb, and we especially like the way the front gear mech mounts on the swing arm. A focus on own-brand finishing components allows for unique 84.5mm press-fit bottom bracket bearings – while there’s a converter kit if you ever want to run ‘standard’ cranks and bearings.

Equipment: headlined by new own-brand fork

The new Future Shock E100 fork is both tremendously light and noticeably stiff – a carbon crown and steerer help. All the internal workings are in one leg and Specialized claims the oversized hub/dropout interface is stiffer in tracking than forks with a 15mm through-axle. The FlowControl Brain setup enables you to match the ride feel to the back end if you feel the need, from almost locked out to much plusher than the older Brains used to allow.

Specialized’s carbon cranks have been around on their team bikes for a while – the axle has a toothed centre-join. Shimano XTR fills the drivetrain gaps, Avid fulfils brake duties and Specialized top-end Roval wheels roll strong, tight, light and fast.

We suspect most riders will opt for the excellent Captain treads rather than pure race offerings, but all the other finishing kit is simply top-quality, sensibly light stuff.

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