A much-refined version of the clever Brain shock takes the £3,200 Specialized Epic Comp Carbon 29 from pure race weapon to super-capable trail bike. If you want a fast, light and capable cross-country bike suitable for everything from short track races to 24-hour solo epics, or just for blasting local trails without a number on your bike, the Specialized Epic Comp Carbon 29 is close to perfect. Just swap the tyres for something wet-trail-friendly.
Specialized’s Epic full-suspension bikes have been some of the most successful cross-country and marathon racing bikes of the last decade. In this latest big-wheeled incarnation, the Epic Comp Carbon offers everything a seasoned racer or long distance endurance rider needs. It’s light and stiff thanks to a carbon fibre frame; has 100mm of suspension, controlled by the ingenious Brain valving; and a good parts list.
A revolutionary design
Back at the turn of the century, mountain bike designers were locked in a desperate battle to overcome the nemesis of full suspension bikes: pedal bob. Pedal bob is the impact of a rider and their weight shifts activating the suspension in a way that causes an undesirable bobbing motion.
Designers came up with many ways to overcome the influence of pedalling on the suspension. Most sank without trace.
Specialized, with its desire to solve the issue with its new cross-country full-susser platform, came up with a genuinely new and innovative approach.
The ground-breaking Epic used an inertia valve placed close to the rear axle. Connected to the rear shock, it managed to separate the two forces acting on the rear wheel; rider and trail. It effectively cancelled out pedal bob by ensuring only forces coming through the wheel from the trail, and not the rider, would activate the suspension.
It was a huge step forward, but it wasn’t without its flaws. Very early examples had an ‘on:off’ feeling, with a noticeable transition between the inertia valve locking out the rear suspension and opening, allowing the suspension to work. Despite this it began winning races, and has gone on to become one of the most successful cross-country race bikes since its launch.
Specialized, to their credit, stuck with the design and over the years Specialized engineers have tuned, fettled and tweaked it, until they ironed out those early issues. And, as I found out riding the latest Epic, it is now a well matured design that now delivers. Today it’s the bike it wanted to be when it first launched.
In the most recent development, the Epic has grown a pair of 29in wheels. Specialized was not an early adopter of the 29er format, but they got on board in 2011 and have made up for lost time with a wide selection of big wheelers right across their price range.
The Epic we have here is the most affordable of the carbon Epic range. At £3,200 it’s still a serious investment even for seasoned racers. Like the top-of-the-range S-Works Epic Carbon 29, it has a FACT IS 9m carbon fibre frame. The rear triangle is downgraded to M5 aluminium at this price, pushing the weight up but only marginally.
It offers good upgrade potential; replace stuff as it wears out, make weight savings here and there. The Epic carbon Comp is a good place to start. Privateer racers will love it.
Suspension travel is 100mm front and rear. At the rear is a Fox developed FlowControl Mini Brain shock connected to the Brain Fade inertia valve. The Brain Fade dial lets you adjust from firm to soft. The range gives a good spread of adjustment. We ran it firm for cross-country racing and for more playful riding we turned it to soft, where the platform is noticeably less intrusive. It’s a much more usable system than it ever has been before, and suits a wider spread of riders too. Everyone from racers to trail riders are catered for with the available adjustment.
The RockShox Reba RL fork offers 100mm of well controlled suspension travel that does well to match the rear suspension in performance. It’s not the stiffest fork though; there’s a noticeable degree of flex under heavy braking over roots and rocks. A lockout lever and adjustable rebound damping gives some adjustment to an otherwise excellent fork.
The build kit ticks the boxes, with a SRAM 2×10 drivetrain featuring a 11-36 cassette and 38/24 double ring chainset, to give a good spread of gears. Avid’s Elixir 7 SL brakes with 160mm rotors brought the Epic easily to a halt and the use of MatchMaker clamps (the shifters attach to the same clamp as the brake levers) gave the Epic one of the cleanest cockpits I’ve tested in a long time. It’s so nice to look down and see such an uncluttered handlebar.
As you’d expect from Specialized there’s a fair amount of their own finishing kit. Fortunately their in-house component range is up to scratch and as good as any other branded kit, so no problems there then. The saddle was a highlight, using their well-proven Body Geometry principles to give a firm yet comfortable perch.
If I were buying the Epic, the wheels would be a potential upgrade. Functionally the Roval wheels, with 32-hole Hi Lo hubs, sealed cartridge bearings and 142mm rear axle worked wonderfully. But they’re neither the lightest or the stiffest, and damped the speedy enthusiasm of the Epic somewhat.
While we’re talking upgrades, the Fast Trak and Renegade Control tyres had to come straight off. They might be okay in California where it barely rains, but here in the UK they just don’t cut it; they offer all the grip of a well greased raccoon. A pair of Continental’s excellent Mountain Kings are much more suited to the varied conditions any British mountain biker can expect to encounter, and went straight on.
What’s really important of course is how it rides. Fortunately, Specialized recognise that getting the suspension correctly set up is key, and the ‘sagometer’ marker on the seat stay makes shock set-up a doddle. Less time fiddling means you get can straight out on the trail.
Once out on the trail the Epic immediately feels racy. It’s reasonably low at the front and the stretch on this medium is good. Up a few climbs, blasting some fire roads, into the singletrack, the Epic just screams fast. I expected the bike to be fast on the pedalling sections and the climbs, and it doesn’t disappoint.
The auto-lockout FlowControl Mini Brain rear shock really does just let the suspension work when it has to. There’s no noticeable transition from locked out to fully open. This has the effect of making the suspension feel invisible, you really don’t notice it working, aside from the fact you’re going blistering fast. You might not feel like the suspension is working, but we always finished rides with the rubber band being pushed off the shock shaft completely.
Specialized have got the Epic’s geometry sorted on this 29er too, with a 70.5 degree head angle and 13in bottom bracket height and a wheel base only 13mm longer than the 26in-wheeled version. They’re numbers that make for a fast and very direct ride, it’s no laid back coaster.
In all the places you expect a 29er to be fast, the Epic was mind-blowing; ripping through vast swathes of open track and up climbs like there was a motor attached to the rear wheel. Traction from the four-bar FSR suspension makes it one of the most capable climbers we’ve ever ridden, especially handy on some of the fiddly steep climbs on my local trails, where other bikes can struggle.
And even with its big wheels, it handles all the twisty stuff with assured confidence. Clearly the Epic is a properly capable mile muncher, but it’s also a lot of fun to ride. If riding fast is your thing, and you have no interest in sticking a number on, the Epic is thrilling.
The Epic has always been a bike loved by racers and adored by endurance riders. With the spectacularly efficient suspension and decent handling of this version, it’s now a bike well suited to any rider looking for a light, fast and comfortable bike for trail riding as well as racing.