The Specialized Epic is the world’s most popular cross-country race bike. When we tested the 26-inch-wheeled Specialized S-Works Carbon Epic Disc (MBA, November 2010), it was impossible to imagine that Specialized, or anyone else for that matter, could top the competitive performance of that bike. Well, meet the Specialized S-Works Epic 29er. It not only tops the performance of the 26-inch version, it broadens the bike’s appeal and leaves product managers everywhere with one thought in their heads: “How are we going to compete with this bike?”
WHO IS IT MADE FOR?
The Specialized S-Works Epic 29er is made for rich people. We might as well get that out of the way right now. This bike is loaded with technology and components you won’t find anywhere else, and that’ll cost you. As far as its application, it is intended for cross-country racing. And while Specialized never intended it, it can serve as an astonishingly great trailbike.
WHAT IS IT MADE FROM?
Carbon fiber. Lots of it. More specifically, the S-Works Epic 29er gets a carbon front triangle, seat stays and chainstays. The bike uses a tapered head tube, a press-fit 30 bottom bracket, sealed-cartridge-bearing pivots and a replaceable derailleur hanger. Specialized relocated the rear suspension pivots and S-link to optimize the pedaling efficiency while using a lighter Brain Fade setting. Brain what?
The Fox Racing Shox/Specialized Mini Brain mounted on the left chainstay, just in front of the rear brake rotor, uses an inertia valve to sense when the rear wheel is taking a hit from the trail (as opposed to the rider’s pedaling) and opens the shock’s damping circuit. This keeps the suspension firm for pedaling and supple for soaking up bumps. A Brain Fade adjustment allows riders to dial in the point where the shock becomes fully active. Complementing the Mini Brain Shock is a Specialized/RockShox Reba S29 fork with the same Brain technology and similar adjustability.
The rear wheel is held in place with a 15-millimeter thru-axle through Specialized’s 142 Plus system. This design allows fine-tuning of the cassette location and pushing the rear wheel’s driveside spokes out 2 millimeters. Specialized feels the thru-axle and new wheel dish add the stiffness a 29-inch-wheeled bike needs.
WHICH COMPONENTS STAND OUT?
Specialized pulled out all the stops and slapped their own carbon fiber Roval Control wheels on the S-Works. These rims shave almost a pound off each end of the already-lightweight aluminum versions. Our front carbon wheel (with tire and tube but no brake rotor) weighed 2.3 pounds, compared with 3.3 pounds for the aluminum, and the rear was 2.7 pounds, compared with 3.5 pounds for the aluminum.
But what makes this bike so attractive is its smooth lines. We have to wonder if the bike wasn’t handed over to an industrial designer, after it was built, with instructions to smooth every last detail. The rear suspension’s swing link tucks into a bend in the seat tube. Every tube junction, pivot, and nut and bolt has been smoothed and shaped to convey a sense of urgency and speed. There is no need to test mountain bikes in a wind tunnel, but if you did, this bike might trick the tunnel into thinking it was a time trial bike.
Personal best: The S-Works Epic 29er devours the hills. The lightweight wheels and rigid frame will have you setting your personal best up the toughest climbs on your loop. Actually, you’ll set your personal best everywhere on your ride.
HOW DOES IT PERFORM?
The setup: Specialized has simplified the suspension setup over previous versions of their Brain technology, and the pivot locations have reduced the burden once placed solely on the Brain shock. Still, you need to invest some R&D time to find your suspension sweet spot by dialing in the Brain setting, rebound and air pressure.
Moving out: Have you ever ridden an electric motorcycle? This is the closest a human-powered vehicle has ever felt to that sensation of instant acceleration. There is none of that “building up to speed” stuff we so often mention when evaluating a 29er. This thing rocks from a stop. Light wheels that roll over everything, a frame that dips low and stays out of the way, the 142 Plus system in the rear, and an absolutely dialed drivetrain make the S-Works Epic 29er the fastest bike we have tested. Once you get into a comfortable cadence, you won’t believe how fast you are rolling.
Hammering: Although the Brain shock can be adjusted to soften the inertia valve’s transition, the wrecking crew figures if you are going to pay for the Brain, you should use it. We ran it in the firmest position—or close to it—so the rear end feels like a hardtail when hammering in or out of the saddle. We backed off the Brain Fade a bit on the fork—more for comfort than performance reasons. The low-slung top tube allows you to throw the bike during hard efforts without making body contact. This bike always felt small and compact when jammin’ along. You had to remind yourself that you were riding a 29er.
Cornering: The larger wheels add stability and help the racy tires bite. Add this to dialed geometry and a laterally rigid frame and you have a bike that is responsive and stable at the same time—no small trick for a cross-country race bike. The bike allows you to stick lines that would strike fear into the heart of a 26-inch-wheeled cross-country bike. Off camber? The S-Works Epic 29er doesn’t even notice.
The special touches: The swing link tucks into the frame and is the envy of any industrial designer—the Brain of the rear suspension. Specialized partnered with RockShox for the fork. Carbon fiber rims are the bike’s secret weapon.
Climbing: Got a 20-minute, 30-minute or one-hour climb you want to set your personal best on? Climb aboard. The S-Works Epic 29er will take you there with a compromise-free drivetrain, hooked-up tires and chassis rigidity that doesn’t seem possible from a package this light. It doesn’t matter if you sit and spin, or stand and torque, this bike will deliver.
Descending: By far the biggest surprise was how the S-Works Epic 29er blasted the downhills. This bike will leave the S-Works Carbon Epic 26er in the dust, and that bike is no slouch. The large wheels add confidence in any descending situation, from fast, flowy trails to nasty, slippery, rock and root-infested trails.
Braking: The biggest advantage of the shock’s Brain Fade adjustment comes not while hammering but while braking. The Epics have traditionally run high in the rear, but the S-Works Epic 29er breaks that tradition. The bike’s rear end remains active and falls into its travel better, making one very confident descender and allowing you to dive deep into a corner before getting on the binders. When you go to scrub speed, the bike delivers with traction to spare—even on our slippery, hardpacked SoCal trails.
TRICKS, UPGRADES OR TIPS?
Don’t let the Brain adjustments on the fork and shock intimidate you. Once you find your custom settings, you never have to throw a switch, reach for a lever or twist a dial during your ride. We needed pliers to turn the rebound dial on the fork, but all the other adjustments could be made by hand.
The rear quick release isn’t really quick. It needs to be twirled and slipped out of the hub to release the wheel. If you are a racer, you’ll need to practice this to get your tire-changing time down.
We snapped the brake caliper assembly off the handlebar during a fall (look closely at the photos and you’ll see our quickie replacement). When you use lightweight parts, the price you pay for a mistake is a bit higher.
We pulled the tubes out and replaced them with Stan’s Sealant. By the way, our bike weight was with the sealant, pedals and water bottle cage installed. And remember, this is a size large bike.
Let’s cut to the chase. This is the best mountain bike we have ever ridden. An S-Works Epic 29er racer will never get beat because the other rider has a better bike. But the truly amazing aspect of this bike is how well it will serve as most riders’ do-it-all trailbike. Forget about what appears to be the frame’s short travel. The large wheels tame trail obstacles that 26ers hang up on, and you are not paying a weight tax with these wheels.
It takes nerve for a bike company to offer a bike that sells for over 10 grand after taxes, but we are glad Specialized did it. Raising the bar means we will all be riding better mountain bikes in the future. If you are a rider who can drop 10 grand on a bike, Specialized doesn’t think you should wait for the future. The S-Works Epic 29er is here now.
SPECIALIZED S-WORKS EPIC 29ER SPECS:
Country of origin
Bottom bracket height
Top tube length
Head tube angle
Seat tube angle
RockShox Reba S29 w/ Brain
Fox/Specialized remote Mini-Brain
Roval Control SL 29, carbon (29")
Specialized S-Works Renegade
Custom Avid XX World Cup R
S-Works OS carbon crank
S-Works XC Carbon flat bar (27")
Custom SRAM XX (38/24)
SRAM XX, 10-cog (11-36)
26.2 feet (per crank revolution)
5.1 feet (per crank revolution)
None (weighed with Shimano XTR)