The Epic has been in Specialized’s line-up for nearly 20 years, with its USP being its Brain suspension system. This latest 2021 model receives a whole new frame and a revised Brain, as well as some rather radical (for cross-country) geometry.
The bike’s Brain technology has been developed by Specialized and RockShox, and is effectively an inertia valve that opens and closes the suspension’s compression circuit in response to impacts through the rear (and front when fitted to forks).
This means that on rough sections of track the suspension is opened up, while on smoother sections it’s closed, and thus more efficient.
The system’s sensitivity can be adjusted, from fairly aggressive to relatively passive, and because it is actuated by sudden impacts rather than more gradual compressions, it’s fairly effective at cancelling out pedal bob.
The Epic Pro is the second-tier Epic, and the highest-spec frame to use Specialized’s FACT 11m carbon. The top-line S-Works gets the new FACT 12m carbon fibres.
Specialized’s Epic XC race bike sees a complete refresh.Felix Smith / Immediate Media
2021 Specialized Epic Pro frame and suspension details
The Epic Pro might not be the top of the range model, but it’s still ripe for life between the tapes.
Specialized’s FACT 11m carbon fibre is the same stuff that was used to construct the previous generation S-Works bike. Specialized says that this new frameset is the same weight as the previous S-Works, but given the bike’s new overall shape, implies some decent weight saving has gone on.
The Brain suspension has moved and is now located behind the rear axle.Felix Smith / Immediate Media
The frame has 100mm of travel, controlled by the custom RockShox Brain shock. The Brain itself is located just behind the rear axle, which has allowed Specialized to move the brake caliper on to the chainstays.
The rear triangle doesn’t have any pivots, but relies on its inherent flex. This vertical flexibility is said to be improved by the relocation of the caliper, while the triangle is also 15 per cent stiffer under pedalling (lateral) loads.
The Brain circuit is completed by an hydraulic hose running up the non-driveside seatstay and in to the shock’s alloy yoke, which connects straight to the base of the shock.
The Brain’s hydraulic hose runs along the non-driveside seatstay to meet with the shock’s yoke.Felix Smith / Immediate Media
At the front, there’s a 100mm travel RockShox SID SL fork, which is customised using the fork-based Brain system.
Both fork and shock get a fairly aggressive compression tune, matching the bike’s intentions on the race course. They also both feature a five-position dial to allow you to tune the sensitivity of the Brain.
On the fork, this is mounted at the top of the right-hand leg and can be adjusted as you ride. The dial for the rear Brain is located on the unit by the axle, so you’ll have to jump off to adjust it mid-ride.
2021 Specialized Epic Pro geometry
‘Normal’ XC race bikes are fairly traditional when it comes to geometry, however this generation Epic is one of the most progressive we’ve seen – certainly from a major brand.
The 100mm travel SID SL fork also uses Specialized and RockShox’ Brain technology and can be adjusted as you ride using the five-position dial mounted at the top of the right-hand leg.Felix Smith / Immediate Media
2021 Specialized Epic Pro geometry (size large)
Seat tube length: 470mm
Seat angle: 75.5 degrees
Head angle: 67.5 degrees
Bottom bracket height: 324mm
Head tube length: 115mm
Sizes (*tested): XS, S, M, L*, XL
2021 Specialized Epic Pro specifications
The wireless AXS X01 Eagle groupset from SRAM.Felix Smith / Immediate Media
Outside of the frame and suspension, the Pro gets a fairly high-end build kit.
Driving the bike is SRAM’s wireless AXS X01 Eagle drivetrain, with a pair of X1 Carbon cranks. The shifters match with SRAM’s Level TLM brakes, its two-pot, lightweight XC brake set.
With Specialized’s strong line of componentry, it’s no surprise to see a large selection of its kit finishing the build.
Its Roval Control Carbon rims, with a 25mm internal width, are built on to DT Swiss 350 hubs, which are shod in a pair of 2.3in width Fast Trak tyres.
Specialized’s Fast Trak with its Control casing and Gripton compound is a fast-rolling, flyweight tyre.Felix Smith / Immediate Media
Finishing kit is all Specialized, with an S-Works level carbon post and bar, an XC stem and its Power Expert saddle finishing things off.
2021 Specialized Epic Pro first ride impressions
The Epic is pretty handy on the climbs with its lightweight wheels, low-treaded tyres and firmed up suspension.Felix Smith / Immediate Media
This initial review is based on a day’s riding on familiar tracks where we often test XC bikes. As yet, I’ve not had a chance to back-to-back test the Epic with bikes such as the Scalpel or Anthem, but will update the review once I have.
Setting up the bike is a touch more involved than some, and to properly set the sag you need to get through the Brain’s compression platform. Setting the Brain to its softest option helps and, on the fork, the guide pressures are fairly accurate.
2021 Specialized Epic Pro climbing performance
With light wheels, low-treaded tyres and suspension that firms itself up, the Epic is pretty pro at climbing.
The tyres are deliciously supple, which really helps them mold forgivingly around rocks and roots on more technical climbs, and offer a ton of grip.
This really helps if you have the Brain in its firmer settings because, when the shock isn’t moving, the Epic feels more hardtail-like, so you’re relying on just the tyres to provide grip.
With the Brain in a firm setting, the Epic can spit gravel out from the back wheel.Felix Smith / Immediate Media
There are limitations to its grip, though, and with the Brain set fairly firm, the Epic doesn’t seem to generate quite as much grip on loose, gravelly climbs as it would if the suspension was more open.
While the Brain can be set to be more sensitive, if the climb is smooth yet loose you may still lose out a touch here, unless you want to run lower tyre pressures to compensate, because the shock will still likely be closed.
The suspension does open up on climbs, of course, when it’s bumped into a step, root or rock, and the reactions of the Brain feel improved over the previous version of the system.
The opening of the system is almost instant and never delayed enough to particularly cause an issue (within its sensitivity boundaries). It’s also smoother in feel than previous Brain systems, with less of a noticeable knock as it opens, both in noise and feel through the pedals.
When the shock is allowed to circulate through its travel, the anti-squat and compression tune of the shock seem to work well together to give a really assertive platform through which to push. It helps drive the bike forward over chattery climbs.
The Brain system automatically locks the rear suspension, until it detects a bump.Felix Smith / Immediate Media
Over very pronounced rooty flat sections that same feeling does seem to lead the bike to hang up a little on said roots.
The suspension feels like it’s held very stable by the anti-squat and compression tune, unlike, say, the much more active Maestro suspension on an Anthem, which feels like it has suspension very separate from pedal inputs.
Further back-to-back testing is really needed here, though, to find out the true differences, but it feels like Specialized has given the bike a fairly aggressive feel through the pedals, which many will like.
When stomping on the pedals, the frame and wheelset feel stiff, giving very little in the way of side-to-side flex. This helps generate speed, but also helps the bike feel precise and accurate when sprinting up hills or out of turns.
2021 Specialized Epic Pro descending performance
The Epic gives you the confidence to loft the front wheel over rock gardens.Felix Smith / Immediate Media
The big news is the shape of the new Epic. With a 470mm reach, low 324mm bottom bracket and a 67.5-degree head angle, it’s effectively a 100mm trail bike on some rather potent XC steroids.
The shape, along with the short offset fork, make it an absolute pleasure to carve through corners and give the Epic almost unrivalled stability on steeper and faster tracks.
You can really hoik the bike into a catch berm or pop the front wheel over the start of a rock garden and then hang on as the bike seems to float through the chunder with minimal fuss.
The confidence lets you lean the bike over, making the most of the Fast Trak’s fairly sparse tread, maximising the grip available from the rubber.
On smooth, flowy trails, the speeds the Epic seems to gain are impressive. It corners well, while giving you the confidence to pedal harder and brake later.
With the shape encouraging acts of bravery, it’s handy that the rest of the component package seems to be able to keep pace, for the most part.
Trail bike geometry means there’s none of the traditional XC-bike nervousness going on.Felix Smith / Immediate Media
The fork opens nicely and cycles smoothly through its limited travel. While the new 35mm chassis SID, found on the burlier Epic EVO, is a stiffer prospect, the SID SL fitted here still hangs on and delivers a confident feel on all but the chunkiest of track sections.
The rear suspension, once open, gets on well with the job, being smooth and amply progressive. There’s a little pedal feedback as you hit bigger bumps – a function of its pedalling prowess – but I reckon that’s a price worth paying on a race bike.
The biggest compromise I’ve found so far is the structure of the tyres. Lightweight rubber does feel great on climbs, and the thin sidewalls only accentuate the smoothness possible from the bike, but, with a stiff carbon rim, it only took one errant rock on my first run to put a hole in it.
While it’s entirely possible to puncture any bike on pretty much any run, the sidewalls here are very thin, so I ended up running a touch more pressure than normal to ward off future problems.
The other point of note is that on smoother flow trails, with the Brain set fairly firm, it’s hard to pre-compress the suspension in the approach to a jump.
If jumping from bike to bike, you’ll notice the difference because you have to break through the platform to pre-load the suspension.
Stiff wheels can get pinged off line, occasionally.Felix Smith / Immediate Media
The carbon wheels feel great on the climbs, with their light weight aiding reaction to accelerations. I found they inflated tubeless very easily, too.
They’re fairly stiff, on first impressions, though, and don’t have any rim protection from rocks. Their stiff build yet again helps with climb feel, but as with any fly-weight, stiff wheelset, can be prone to a little bit of pinging when really pushed over rocks.
2021 Specialized Epic Pro bottom line
The Epic has won many races in its near two-decade lifespan, and it’s not hard to see why. The Brain suspension system gives it some of the advantages of a hardtail and lots of a full-suspension bike. There are compromises, but they do little to detract from the bike’s performance (on initial impressions, anyway).
Outside an XC context I don’t think the Brain system would garner many fans. You can feel it working away at the back of the bike and there are situations where it gets it ‘wrong’, however the advantage of never having to worry about lockout levers, or soggy suspension, is ideal when you’re in Zone 5 and can barely see through the grit in your eyes.
With five levels of sensitivity on offer, it’s definitely worth working out which setting works for you and where you’re riding. Loose, technical climbs and chunky descents definitely want the softer of the settings (which is still fairly aggressive, anyway), while smooth, graded loops where there’s an emphasis on watts per kilo would certainly favour a firmer setting.
XS, S, M, L, XL
SRAM X01 Eagle AXS
Fast Trak, Control casing, GRIPTON® compound, 60 TPI, 2Bliss
Riding since the age of 13, Technical Editor Tom has ridden hundreds of bikes over the past few years, from aero race bikes to EWS-ready enduro rigs, with a fair few others in between. Most likely found in the woods practicing his scandi-flicks.