The Epic is a race bike built with few compromises in mind as it aims to be the fastest endurance bike it can. It’s sold to the public pretty much as the professional team would race it. The Epic EVO goes a bit off-piste, throwing on a sturdier trail fork, a grippier front tyre, and applying a dropper seatpost. All these parts are traditionally seen as heavy and slow but the Epic EVO looks to challenge that thinking for the non-professional rider.
In 2016, I rode the previous generation S-Works Epic at Wines2Whales where I was supremely impressed with the bikes racing abilities and our impressions of the current Epic are much the same. My view of the Epic as a pure race bike was somewhat fixed. While I have fitted 120mm forks and burlier tyres to my own bikes, I had never considered the Epic as a suitable candidate for such treatment. But when reading about the launch of the Epic EVO, it suddenly dawned on me that it could actually be an excellent fit.
Yes, slapping a longer fork, bigger tyres, wider handlebars, and a dropper seatpost on a bike is nothing new. And Specialized are not claiming to have reinvented the mountain bike here. They previously released an Epic EVO with similar thinking back in 2011, although I do not think this bike reached South Africa shores.
But as obvious as it may seem, and considering the number of similar modifications you see out on the trails, it is not a formula that has seen widespread adoption across the mountain bike industry. Most brands tend to offer a light duty trail bike instead. But in South Africa, where many mountain bikers seem to aspire to endurance rides and races, this type of cross-country bike sub-genre is bound to serve a sizeable market.
The Epic EVO and current Epic range share the same frame. Specialized has made no changes to the frame for the Epic EVO with the only difference being a change in component choice. The Epic Expert EVO is constructed using Specialized’s Fact 11m carbon layup. The Epic Expert EVO is available in two colourways: Gloss East Sierras/Tarmac Black (pictured) and Satin Carbon/Storm Grey (which is a black frame with blue detailing).
Along with some changes to the geometry, one of the bigger developments to the new Epic was replacing the FSR suspension with a single pivot design, removing the rear pivot. The new design engineered compliance into the chain- and seatstays to assist the suspension as it moves through the travel. Specialized say that by removing the pivots in the chainstays, they reduced weight, improved stiffness, and pedalling efficiency.
The new Epic geometry had a moderate touch of the long, low, and slack influence but the 120mm fork on the Epic EVO pushes the geometry further in that direction. Compared to the Epic, the Epic EVO has a 1-degree slacker head angle at 68.5 degrees, a slightly longer wheelbase, a higher handlebar, and an ever so slightly raised bottom bracket. These changes, in theory, should lead to a more comfortable and confidently handling bike at speed and on rough sections while keeping the Epic EVO firmly within range of the geometry seen on a number of modern endurance race bikes.
Specialized’s Rider First Engineering design approach means that the frame tubes are specifically constructed to best match stiffness and compliance across the size curve. The result is a bike that behaves in the same manner across the size range. As a taller rider who typically rides at the far end of the size spectrum, it’s something I’m glad is being addressed, as I often wonder just how much thought has gone into the largest and even smallest bikes in a range.
The Epic EVO uses exactly the same Brain system used on the Epic. The newer Brain 2.0 design moved the location of the brain unit to behind the rear axle with Specialized having worked on the internals to improve oil flow, which they say leads to a more responsive, sensitive system. The forks used on the two currently available Epic EVO models do not make use of the Brain technology.
The frame has space for two water bottles within the front triangle. This becomes even more of a consideration when the bike arrives fitted with a dropper seatpost, making it trickier to apply a seatpost mount. The Epic EVO includes a Specialized side entry bottle cage and accompanying multi-tool attached. There is also the additional mount to fit the Specialized SWAT box which can carry a tube, bomb and adaptor, tyre lever, and multitool. Other frame features include internal cable routing, for everything but the Brain hose, and an integrated chainstay protector.
The Build: Expert EVO
There are just two Epic EVO models currently available. The Epic Expert EVO with a carbon frame and the lower specced Epic Comp EVO with an aluminium frame. There is no word yet on whether we will see more Epic EVO models appearing in the future.
Shock: The shock is a custom collaboration between RockShox and Specialized. The shock is connected to the Brain system via hosing that travels down the seat stay to the non-drive side rear axle. The shock features Specialized's AutoSag which assists in getting the air pressure within range quickly.
Fork: The 120mm fork is a defining characteristic of the Epic EVO and on the Expert model it is a Fox 34 Step-Cast. The Fox 34 a trail fork with a slightly beefier build than lightweight cross-country fork. It provides a sturdy platform to charge through technical trails.
Considering the pricing and specification level of the Expert, I was initially a bit underwhelmed to see the GRIP damper used over the premium FIT4 option. But after spending some time with the fork, I struggled to find any significant shortcomings in the forks performance.
Drivetrain: The drive system is a SRAM GX Eagle groupset, apart from the Truvativ crankset. The GX Eagle drivetrain arguably performs as well as the pricier X01 and XX1 levels but at the cost of a few hundred grams. The GX components are also much more affordable to replace when they wear out or get damaged.
Wheels: The Epic Expert EVO rolls on Roval carbon rims with a well-suited 25mm internal diameter. It is a tricky task balancing the right level of parts with the bikes final price tag. In this case, the additional stiffness, acceleration, and control through rough trails that carbon rims offer are well worth the upgrade over aluminium hoops. Even if it comes at the cost of a fitting a ‘cheaper’ GX Eagle drivetrain.
Tyres: The Epic EVO sticks with the light, more efficient rolling Fast Trak tyre (although the tougher GRID version) on the rear while bulking up on traction with a Ground Control on the front tyre. A logical choice for a bike with the EVO’s intentions. The newer Ground Control is an excellent tyre for the EVO, providing a surprising amount of grip without feeling heavy or clumsy on the flats and climbs. It’s a tyre that happily keeps up with the versatility of the Fox 34 fork.
Brakes: The SRAM Level brakes are good, providing sufficient braking in most conditions, but a set of hardier Guide brakes would probably be a better match for riders seeking out the steeper, longer trails.
Controls: In the cockpit, the most obvious deviation from the typical Epic formula is the dropper seatpost. The dropper seat post can help keep us amateurs out of the hospital and smiling on the single track. Use it!
Interestingly, Specialized has shied away from their own Command Post dropper posts on the Epic EVO. Instead, equipping an X-Fusion post with 125mm travel on the larger sizes. While I do prefer more travel on a dropper post for trail riding, on a cross-country bike I find 125mm to be more than adequate.
The Epic EVO also sports a longer aluminium handlebar than the racier Epic, growing from 720mm to 750mm. Easily shortened should you not appreciate the added width. The stem length on the extra large bike was a suitable 80mm. My butt thoroughly enjoys Specialized saddles, so the stock Phenom saddle needed no changing. I found the Specialized grips a bit hard for my desk jockey hands, with the raised bits causing some irritation on longer rides.
Specialized Epic Expert EVO specification list:
- FRAMESpecialized FACT 11m, XC Geometry, Rider-First Engineered, threaded BB, 12x148mm rear spacing, internal cable routing, 100mm of travel
- FORKFOX Step-Cast 34 Performance series, GRIP damper, 44mm offset, 15x110mm Kabolt thru-axle, 120mm of travel
- REAR SHOCKCustom RockShox Micro Brain shock w/ Spike Valve, AUTOSAG, 51x257mm
- CHAINSRAM GX Eagle, 12-speed
- BOTTOM BRACKETSRAM DUB, threaded BB
- CRANKSETTruvativ STYLO, DUB
- SHIFT LEVERSSRAM GX Eagle, trigger, 12-speed
- CASSETTESRAM GX Eagle, 12-speed, 10-50t
- CHAINRINGSSRAM Eagle, 32T
- REAR DERAILLEURSRAM GX Eagle, 12-speed
- SEAT BINDERAlloy, 34.9mm
- SADDLEBody Geometry Phenom Comp, hollow Cr-Mo rails, 143mm
- SEATPOSTX-Fusion manic, 30.9mm, (S: 100mm, M-XL: 125mm)
- STEMSpecialized XC, 3D-forged alloy, 4-bolt, 6-degree rise
- HANDLEBARSSpecialized Alloy Minirise, 10mm rise, 750mm, 31.8mm clamp
- GRIPSSpecialized Sip Grip, half-waffle, S/M: regular thickness, L/XL: XL thickness
- FRONT HUBSpecialized, sealed cartridge bearings, 15x110mm spacing, 28h
- REAR HUBSpecialized, sealed cartridge bearings, 12x148mm thru-axle, 28h
- SPOKESDT Swiss Industry
- RIMSRoval Control Carbon, 25mm internal width, tubeless-ready
- FRONT TIREGround Control, GRIPTON compound, 60 TPI, 2Bliss Ready, 29x2.3"
- REAR TIREFast Trak, GRID casing, GRIPTON compound, 60 TPI, 2Bliss Ready, 29x2.3"
- BRAKESSRAM Level TL, hydraulic disc
- ACTUAL WEIGHT11.97 kg (size large)
- RETAIL PRICINGR 93,000
On the trails
The Epic EVO’s geometry is right in the sweet spot of most modern cross-country bikes which meant that I immediately felt composed on the bike. Previous generations of the Epic’s extra large frame have fitted me well and the new Epic frame continues to hit the right buttons for my 193cm length proportions.
Jumping on the Epic EVO for the first time, the only changes I made to suit my preferences were flipping the stem to angle downward instead of up as well as dropping the stem down a spacer or two to get the handlebar a bit lower. The Autosag shock does a good job of getting the shock pressure to a rideable state with some minor tuning required to get it just right.
The Epic EVO climbs as economically as the racier Epic, which climbs with the utmost mechanical efficiency. The Epic EVO is rewarding to pedal, urging the rider to dig deep and push harder. Despite the enthusiastic climbing characteristics, there is no escaping physics and the slightly heavier components of the Epic EVO will require slightly more watts to move up a hill than a similarly kitted Epic.
A large part of the Epic EVO's climbing ability is down to the Brain system. It works supremely well to keep the bike stiff under pedalling power while opening up for most bumps, even working to hold traction well on technical ascents. It is hard to gauge on the rough mountain side climbs but smashing the pedals on the tar shows no sign of suspension movement. It may sound trivial but I appreciate freeing up my own brain without the need to consider a lockout. Hit a climb, it’s already locked out. Drop down single track, it opens up when needed. It’s a similar sense of relief that you feel when making the switch from two-by to a single chainring drivetrain. It also makes the Specialized cockpit one of the cleanest looking in the business.
Of course, there’s the infamous knocking sound and feel as the Brain opens to allow the shock to absorb the bumps and jolts. It’s still there with the newer Brain design and I can understand how the feeling might grate your nerves. I found that after a few rides I quickly tuned it out. I’ve always taken the knock as a reminder that the system works.
While the Epic EVO climbs like its race-focussed sibling, the descents are where the EVO sets itself apart. The racier Epic is not all that bad on the technical sections and, in skilful hands, can handle some seriously treacherous terrain. But we’re not all Alan Hatherly racing for the rainbow jersey, so thankfully there is the Epic EVO to help the average rider feel a bit like him.
Although the changes to the Epic EVO are simply component choices, these modifications make a material difference to the way the bike handles on the descents.
The Fox 34 fork proved to be reliably sturdy, even through fast-paced repetitive beatings. The carbon rims paired with the Ground Control tyre hold a line well, staying true even in the messiest of situations. The lifted front end positions the rider slightly backwards, and with the slackened head angle, lessening the feel of an impending over the bars episode. All the while having the seatpost dropped, safely tucking the saddle out of the way providing the rider room to move around and balance on the bike. It’s a recipe for confident, fun, and fast descending.
The latest Ground Control design adds an additional knob offering reliable and predictable grip which urges the rider to push the front wheel into the bends. The previous tyre had problems with a vague feel when leaning over in a turn, making it susceptible to a scary washed out feel while transitioning to the outer tread.
The combination of all these changes makes for a remarkable transformation. The Epic EVO had me seeking out the roughest and toughest race lines and encouraging me to attempt some outlandish overtaking manoeuvres through hazardous terrain. One positive side effect is an immensely huge grin after each piece of singletrack. I was without a doubt faster and more comfortable on the downs, opening up some significant gaps on race day. Riders often seem to ignore the time you can make up on the technical (and even non-technical) descents, the Epic EVO does not.
I came into the test thinking that the Epic’s rear end might struggle to match the ability of 120mm Fox 34 paired with the beefier front tyre but my pre-judgement was pleasantly proved to be false. Although the rear end feels nothing like a trail bike, with a linear cross-country bike feel, it manages to soak up the bigger punches with aplomb. The bike feels remarkably balanced as if it had always been designed to be dressed this way.
Sidebar: Is the Epic Evo the replacement for the Camber?
Short answer: It will depend on your riding style but, from a bike design perspective, the Camber was a modified Stumpjumper and the new Stumpjumper ST (short travel) is adapted in the same way the Camber was. The Stumpjumper ST is the Camber replacement.
In South Africa, I felt riders were drawn to the Camber for two different reasons. Some wanted a short travel trail bike with good versatility while others were looking for a marathon race bike that did not have the knife-edge handling of the Epic. The Epic EVO comfortably covers the requirements of the later group looking for a more confidence-inspiring bike while maintaining the efficient pedalling platform of the Epic.
If you are going on design DNA, then new Stumpjumper ST is the direct replacement for the Camber. The outgoing Stumpjumper and Camber shared largely the same frame design with minor changes for the shortened suspension travel. The new Stumpjumper and Stumpjumper ST share much the same formula. The Stumpjumper ST should appeal to those riders who want a more trail bike riding experience with greater versatility than the 100mm single pivot Epic rear suspension offers. I have yet to ride the Stumpjumper ST but all signs point to a bike also capable of being called upon for the occasional marathon race.
Who is the Epic EVO for?
The selfish answer, me. But also probably you. Unless you are racing for the top positions at events, the weight penalty of the Epic EVO is unlikely to make any material difference. On the flipside, the added confidence provided by the longer fork, larger front tyre, and adjustable seatpost will likely make you enjoy your riding more and, invariably, make you go faster. Outside of racing, when you want to have fun on the trails, the Epic EVO can make do as an adequate trail bike.
The Epic EVO is still very much an Epic at heart. The EVO is a stellar race bike but without the unforgiving razor edge of the racier Epic. Yes, compared to a similar priced Epic, the EVO models are a little bit heavier. But the EVO will likely help most riders to achieve better results and have more fun through a more comfortable and confidence inspiring ride. The Epic EVO offers the best of two worlds in one neatly executed package without unreasonable compromises. It's a superb bike and one of the best in the growing genre of practical race bikes.