When we’re 60 and our knees are creaking like an old gate we’ll look back on the hours spent riding Specialized’s S-Works Epic World Cup in Nevada (and, previously, Colorado) and curse. Not because it’s a lethargic, sinew-straining lump of lard, but because it’s the exact opposite: a bike so focused on ultimate cross-country speed that putting less than 100 percent into every pedal stroke is a waste of its time and yours.
Frame and equipment: extreme sports machine
While there are a handful of dedicated single ring full suspension frames available now, the Epic World Cup was the first and is still one of the most extreme. With no need to worry about front derailleur clearance, the driveside chainstay is roughly the size of a cow’s jaw and will chew up climbs all day long with similar determination and efficiency. Complete bike weight is under 10kg even with pedals. The minimal tread, condom-thin carcass of the Specialized S-Works Fast Track tyres amp up acceleration from the equally ethereal carbon rimmed Roval Control SL29 wheels to create a killer holeshot punch.
Lightweight finishing kit hints at lactic acid to come
Even the unique Brain shock and fork of the Epic are taken to a sharper, more race-focused level on the WC. The inertia valve controlled automatic compression damping lockout canister by the rear wheel creates an increasingly noticeable notch to the start of the stroke in all but the lightest setting. The custom Brain damper-equipped, carbon top end RockShox SID WC fork is similarly uptight when it comes to relaxing its travel until it senses a hit worth moving for. For all intents and purposes that means you’re riding a fully rigid bike unless the hits are big enough to slow you down if it didn’t respond.
Inertia valved Brain limits shock travel to the bare minimum
Specialized’s FACT carbon cranks are stiffer than the SRAM equivalent, with a 30mm axle through the press-fit bearings maximizing muscle to motion conversion. The latest generation of the FACT crank doesn’t have the potentially fragile and definitely awkward to reach centre joining bolt of the originals either.
The rear wheel is locked in place with a 142x12mm thru-axle, and the massive down tube is matched with a shallow but very broad top tube that flares out in the centre to drape around the front of the shock like a composite manta ray.
Ride and handling: awesome acceleration
As the sun gradually strobed up through an unusually cloudy desert dawn, every climbing shot we took was an opportunity to see just how fast we could get the Epic going by the time the shutter clicked. As we dug deeper into the loose rock and sand with each run, low rev, high torque gear selection was our only hope for traction, but that was no problem for the bike.
Launching from gears two down the block, compared with other bikes on the same climb, the Epic WC would wrench itself from stationary to straining, to stomping, to spinning then a hastily crashed upshift or two to keep dust leaping from the treads and our jaws clenched as we got to the camera.
It’s great to remember how much of an adrenalin rush a steep angled, snap handling XC machine can inject into your riding
Shots done, it was time to give the Epic a chance to stretch its legs and see how much the Brain lockout, 95mm travel and tiny rear shock compromised descending control to gain on the climbs. That’s where the real shock came. The front fork is undoubtedly very linear once you blow through the inertia lock and the Brain makes setting the right pressure harder than normal because there’s no easy way to judge static sag. It takes out enough impact to survive the biggest rock sections you’re likely to find racing.
Once it’s moving even the tiny rear shock surprises with its ability to keep the rear wheel on the ground rather than up round your ears off high-speed drops or through stutter bumps and otherwise speed-killing rooty and rocky sections.
The Fox shock features Autosag for simple setup
The super simple Autosag feature makes it very easy to set up accurately, although balancing pressure for a smooth transition off the firmer Brain settings is more of a fine art. Interestingly, while there’s absolutely no suspension movement to dilute power transfer or distract you from your rhythm, Specialized has deliberately specced a skinny seat tube for seated compliance and fatigue fighting comfort on eponymously Epic rides. The only obvious downer in control terms is the Magura MT8 brakes – they’re super light but not as powerful or poised as their SRAM or Shimano counterparts.
The featherweight wheels, barely treaded boots and carbon-topped fork are a twisty, twangy combination. The aggressively steep head angle means an instant response to any deviation from the intended line, and even when we were scrubbing along broken trail edges or snowploughing into sand traps it never ended in the disaster we expected.
While it’s certainly not relaxing, that ‘think and it’s already done it’ handling character is a perfect match to the in your face acceleration and suspension feel of the Epic. It also helps – and prompts – you to keep the fragile Fast Tracks away from sharp rocks that might otherwise end your race early. And we do mean race, even if you’re on your own. There’s simply no other way to ride a bike as fast focused as the World Cup.
This article was originally published in What Mountain Bike magazine.