- Specialized Epic Pro
- 01372 840800
After a brief respite, 2003 is looking like the year of suspension innovation. And it’s all combating the old pedal-induced bob chestnut. To read the marketing blurb over the last few years you’d think that the problem had been solved over and over again, but apparently not. Meanwhile loads of people have been happily riding suspension bikes that move around a bit without worrying too much about it.
Still, it’d be hard to resist a bike that actually sprinted and climbed smooth surfaces like a hardtail and dealt with bumpy stuff like a full suspension. That’s what Specialized’s Epic promises, and rather than all sorts of tricksy suspension geometry it’s all in the shock…
The front half of the Epic frame is pretty much the same as the front of the Stumpjumper hardtail range. It’s M4 tubing, with the same funky curved downtube going into the headtube. The back half is where the fun really starts. Rather than put the shock in the front triangle, Specialized have stuck it in the back between the seat cluster and rear dropout. The main reason for this is that the Brain (about which more later) needs to be near the back axle so it makes sense to put the shock there too. A handy side benefit is that the front triangle stays open and there’s space for two bottles in there, just like hardtails. The seat tube bottle mount is a little short on space for a 750ml bottle, but there’s a third mount under the down tube and a fourth one behind the seatpost (one of the bosses is on an extra bolt-on collar that goes around the post).
You may have seen a design similar to this before. Halfords’ Carrera range last year featured the Bugaboo featuring a shock placement just like the Epic (no cunning shock gubbinses, though). There is a tenuous connection – the Bugaboo was a Merida design, and Merida own a chunk of Specialized. Despite the initial similarity, though, there are some key differences between the two designs.
For a start, the Bugaboo had an adjustable upper link with three travel options which the Specialized does without – it’s fixed at 90mm. Specialized have also gone to the trouble of mounting the shock on spherical bearings at each end. These allow the rear end of the bike to deflect sideways or twist or not travel exactly in a vertical plane without transferring any undue loads to the shock. All of the suspension pivots have sealed cartridge bearings.
Mud room is adequate if not massive, and you’re getting the common full sus “shelf” behind the bottom bracket to collect gunge. The shock also receives more than its fair share of muck – it didn’t seem to mind during our test period (we just had to excavate a bit to find the rebound adjuster) but we can’t help thinking that it’s not the best place for a shock from a cleanliness point of view.
And then of course there’s the Brain. This is another of those Fox/Specialized developments like last year’s Itch switch travel adjust gizmo. The Brain is pretty cunning. It’s essentially an automatic lockout for the rear shock. Inside the sticky-up canister is a valve, a weighted piston and a spring. The spring holds the valve closed, locking out the rear suspension. But hit something sufficiently hard with the back wheel and the weighted piston accelerates upwards, popping the valve open and allowing the suspension to compress. The valve will stay open until the suspension stops moving at which point it closes and locks out the suspension again. The Brain is right down near the rear axle and angled backwards to line up with the axle path in the first part of the travel. Only a bump hitting the back wheel will trigger it – you can bounce on the seat as much as you like and nothing will happen.
The idea is that the Epic is effectively a hardtail until the ground reaches a certain level of bumpiness at which point it becomes a short travel full suspension bike. Although not actually all that short – 90mm is quite respectable.
You can’t help but be impressed by the amount of work that’s gone into the Epic frame. Everything’s butted and shaped and we were most taken by the laser-engraved annotations on all the bits of the rear suspension saying things like “This side out” so if you take the thing apart you can get it all back together again the right way up…
The Epic Pro is the second most expensive in the range (third if you count the super-spendy S-Works model). The models either side sport disc brakes and Fox forks, but the Pro goes for a more traditional XC race feel with a RockShox SID Team fork and Avid Single Digit Ti brakes. It’s even got a radial front wheel for maximum XC raceness. The front hub uses Specialized’s Skraxle combined skewer and axle which is claimed to be stiffer than the usual setup. They’re shod with Roll-X tyres which we’re growing quite fond of – they’re knobbly enough to grip well but the centre tread is quite closely spaced so they feel quite quick.
Finishing kit is mostly Specialized own brand stuff. It works, no complaints. The bars are quite interesting, being nominally a wide riser bar but with so little rise that it’s almost flat. No shortage of width, though – we’d imagine most people would want to cut them down a bit. Easier than having to add bits on, mind…
The transmission is an XT/XTR mix using Shimano’s new brake lever/shifter units. We’ve been gradually getting used to these, but Specialized have nudged the goalposts a bit by teaming the shifters with last year’s XTR mech. The old mech is conventionally-sprung, which means that the right hand shifter works in the opposite direction to the other 2003 XTR bikes we’ve ridden. Pushing down gives you lower gears, flicking up gives you higher. We found this a lot more natural than Shimano’s preferred way – it’s more akin to the way road STI works and means that you can drop a bunch of gears at once. The shifters are growing on us, but they still look a bit clumpy and we’re still worried about crashing on them…
Oh, and you get a pair of pukka Shimano SPDs too. Which is nice.
The first hurdle with the Epic is setting the shock up. Usual techniques don’t apply here – you can’t set sag because at first there isn’t any. It does settle slowly into its travel as you ride, but it’s nothing like hopping on to a regular FS and having it immediately sink beneath you. Fortunately Specialized include a rider weight chart with recommended pressures which will be near enough to ideal to get you riding. Once you’ve got some miles in you’ll be in a position to tweak things to your preference.
The riding position is quite racy, with a low front end and long cockpit. Unlike most suspension bikes the Epic doesn’t settle back on its haunches when you sit on it, which makes it feel like you’re sat quite forward on the bike. The long cockpit and low bars definitely emphasise high-speed intentions. Handling is sharp, possibly too sharp for some – it’s very keen to change direction which can be a good or a bad thing depending on your trails and riding style.
The aggressive handling is emphasised by the forks. It’s no secret that SIDs aren’t the stiffest forks out there. They’re more than respectable bump absorbers and they’re very light, which is why they appear here. If light weight is your priority then they’re a great choice and they’re entirely at home on this race-oriented bike.
So does it work? Yes, in the sense that it does what Specialized claim it does. Ride along the road or smooth trails, pedal like a gibbon, bounce off the seat… It doesn’t move. At all. This is great for sprinters or anyone who just doesn’t get on with suspension bikes moving about all the time. Point the Epic down a bumpy descent and if feels like a well-sorted middling travel suspension bike. Thanks to the low leverage ratio and big shock, the Epic runs pretty low shock pressures. This makes it pretty plush once the Brain’s done its valvey magic.
Where we’re not totally convinced is in the grey areas between smooth and bumpy. The Brain’s threshold is fixed at the factory, and we feel that it’s just a little high – on a number of occasions we were tackling bumpy climbs that on a regular full sus bike would be sit-down-and-spin affairs. But they weren’t quite bumpy enough to make the Epic think it was worth its while to absorb them. There’s a workaround – go faster and hit things harder – but it’s costly in energy terms.
We’d love to have an adjustable threshold, or possibly a sort of reverse lock-out lever that disengages the Brain so the suspension’s working all the time. Specialized won’t comment on what they’re planning for future models, but we wouldn’t bet against one of those options appearing…
There are a couple of other quirks to the design. Because it takes time to settle to a sagged position, often the back wheel won’t drop into hollows. The whole bike drops and the shock activates when the back wheel lands in the bottom. If you’re used to full suspension this’ll be an equilibrium-troubling experience. Similarly, if you’ve got used to FS bikes that settle themselves into corners the Epic’ll feel a bit odd. For a suspension bike anyway – in both situations it just feels like a hardtail.
The more miles we put in on the Epic Pro the more we liked it. But it’s not for everyone. If you’re a full suspension fan, untroubled by things moving beneath you all the time, the Epic will offer few benefits. If you’re a died-in-the-wool hardtailer you may be converted by the Epic’s part-time suspension but if you like hardtails for simplicity, well, maybe not. It does look like a hardtail, though, which is a factor not to be underestimated.
There are plenty of riders out there, though, who ride full suspension but run hard springs and use lockouts a lot. And for them the Epic is quite possibly exactly the bike they’ve been looking for. With no FSR-XC in the range this year, Specialized are pinning their XC race hopes on the Epic. It’s a bit heavier than the FSR-XC, and four bottle mounts looks a bit more Transalp than XC race. We’re not sure that most XC courses are varied enough for the Epic to shine – if you’ve got long, smooth climbs and bumpy descents then flicking a lockout lever a couple of times a lap is no big deal – but if you’re racing (or riding) XC and using the lockout lots (or wishing you had one…) then this’ll suit you down to the ground. We think it’s best suited to the sort of rides its name suggests – long, mixed terrain rides, perhaps with odd bits of road. The Epic would be a great Trailquest/Polaris bike, for instance.
We like the Epic design. And as we’ve got used to it we’ve started to like it more. The spec on the Pro is a bit overtly racy for us – we feel that the cheaper Epic Disc, with a Fox fork and Deore discs, is a better fit with the frame’s strengths. And we’d like it more if we could persuade the shock to activate over slightly smaller bumps. When it comes down to it, we’re not too troubled by suspension moving about all the time and we’re not generally in much of a hurry, so the Epic probably wouldn’t be our choice. But we’re not everyone – if you’re a full sus fan who loves their lockouts, you’d be a fool not to give the Epic a try.