Words: Sebastian Jayne
Photos: Matt Rousu

Specialized Epic = XC racing. For a long time, the Epic platform has been a workhorse for racers. Taking them through the back country on training sessions during the week before the dust is cleaned off for race day on Sunday. The Epic is synonymous with cross-country and marathon racing along with short course and any other endurance event that has a start and finish line.

Kate Courtney aboard her Specialized Epic, racing towards a World Championship XCO win in 2018. Photo: Phil Gale

The latest Specialized Epic retains its race-inspired features that have been progressively tweaked over the years, while the latest edition of the Epic Evo brings changes to the Epic platform to make it more trail friendly. While both models are still very much ‘Epics’, they both have their preferred trails to shred and race courses to tackle. So, we’re sending them both out into the wild and finding out where they want to head!

The Epic and Evo have been designed to go fast. Really fast. The Epic is designed wholly for full gas pedalling around an XC racetrack, while the Evo has adapted the Epic platform to smash XC trails. The Evo and Epic share the same front triangle while the Evo sports a different rear triangle among other tweaks to handle the increased travel and make it a more stable ride. As we go on, we’ll be looking at aspects of both bikes that make them unique to each other to see which one might be right for you.



All about the Bounce

The Epic has long been at the forefront of XC races with multiple championships and race wins to its name. A large part of that story has been the Brain. Some people love it and for some people it’s a deal breaker, but whatever your thoughts are it’s hard to deny that Specialized are innovators for bringing the Brain system to life.

For those not familiar, the Brain in the fork and rear unit has an inertia valve that allows or blocks the oil in the shock from flowing freely depending whether or not bumps are being registered. The magic of the brain is determining the difference between rider input and an actual bump coming from the trail. Essentially, if you're riding over a bump the system will be open and allow oil to flow and your suspension to be active, and if you’re out of the saddle sprinting up a smooth hill it will remain closed and locked out.

On the surface this sounds great for XC racing. Instead of worrying about locking or unlocking your suspension you can focus on the trail and the race. For me personally, I’ve never been a fan of something taking control over my lockout which is so critical in XC racing. This is especially so if I’m pre-empting a hit or looking to pump my suspension to get some sort of response like increased traction or pre-loading before a jump or drop.

As much as I’m not a fan of the idea, the new Brain efficiently handles the 100mm of suspension on the Epic. There are still issues inherent to the design like ‘the knock’, which is a slight knocking feel when you’re in the firmer settings and hit a bump that opens the system. But, in general, the new Brain does what it’s designed to do. And it does it really well.

The efficiency that the system brings to the Epic is the biggest plus. The efficiency in an XC context comes from maintaining speed. The Brain reacts to bumps in more than enough time to smooth out the bump, maintain traction, and get back to a locked-out platform for you to push against for the next one or two pedal strokes before the next bump comes along. It’s not the smoothest ride out there as the bump threshold determines which bumps it will register which means some bumps aren’t and you will hit them locked out. I had the Brain set a few clicks off mid towards the firmer side to get the most out of the system and while it was very efficient it was also a harsh ride. The softer settings made the ride smoother but seemed a little redundant. If you’re buying an Epic, it’s for the Brain and the ‘automatic’ lockout. Riding with it ‘open’ feels like a waste.

That brings us to the Evo. Ditching the Brain, the Evo looks to offer up a more traditional set-up that focuses on comfort and stability in rough terrain with 120mm Rockshox SID Ultimate up front and a SID LUXE Ultimate 110mm shock out back. On paper this mix sounds perfect for smashing XC trails or marathon races where a bit more comfort is needed. Instead of simply slapping on a beefier fork to give more capability, the Evo has been built to handle that added size. While the front triangle remains the same as the Epic, the Evo sports an adapted rear triangle that better handles the extra suspension while also aiding in a more stable ride by lengthening the overall bike.

Out on the trail the Evo delivers with a smooth and very capable ride. It still is an XC bike at heart but the extra beef means the Evo does away with some of the twitchiness of the Epic which makes technical, fast and rough descents a bit easier to handle, exactly what you want if you’re spending all day racing a marathon or heading out on a back-country adventure. The efficiency of the Epic is still there underneath with a great pedalling platform, but the Evo offers more room for error and therefore a more comfortable ride.


All the Angles

The two biggest concerns on an XC track for me are efficiency and agility. Combined, these equal speed on a race course. Looking at the suspension of the Epic and Evo gives us a glimpse at what’s on offer with the Epic showing itself as a very efficient platform. The geometry of the Epic plays up to this by offering an extremely agile ride that when combined with efficiency delivers a very capable XC ride. Shocking! But in equal doses the Evo’s suspension does away with a little bit of efficiency for stability and this carries over to its geometry. It foregoes outright agility for more stable ride characteristics.

Both models feature modern geometry that slackens and lengthens all the good parts to deliver more agility and stability. The Evo takes this to the extreme for ‘XC bikes’ with a 66.5-degree head angle in the medium tested paired with a 729mm front centre and 438mm chain stays. This is slacker and longer than the Epic that comes with a 67.5-degree head angle, 719mm front centre and 433mm chain stays, which are all well clear of the Epic’s predecessor and most other bikes in the category.

Out on the trail the Epic is a winner in terms of agility. The ease it flicks around corners and can be picked up over trail furniture is astounding. The ridiculously light weight does help but it comes down to the geometry. The tight rear end mixed with the lengthy front centre, which is around 33mm longer than the old Epic, and super slack head angle means while it is very agile it still remains stable enough for racing. Specialized should be commended for hitting the sweet spot between agility and stability, which isn’t easy to do.

The big thing to come out of testing was that each bike does what it was intended to do really well. The Epic is agile in XC terrain and can be thrown around tight awkward corners and easily picked up over roots or rocks. Technical climbs that feature ledges and rough terrain are easily managed. Stability is good enough to handle most XC descents which is what you want when racing XC. Any more stability and you’ll lose agility which happens with the Evo.

The Evo’s longer features means it is more capable than the Epic at remaining stable during longer, faster and rougher descents. It also tackles XC descents easier, which can help in a race situation to keep your heart rate down. While it can’t suddenly tackle black diamond trails with the ease that a 140-160mm trail bike could, the Evo does a great job at barrelling into the unknown and being there for you on the other end which is a common occurrence during a back-country exploration.

This stability does come at a cost of agility with the longer lengths meaning it’s a bit tougher than the Epic at handling super tight XC terrain but not by much. It still is a lightweight XC bike which means that agility isn’t all gone it just means the pendulum has been swung slightly more to the stability end of the spectrum. On the trail you can still easily pick the Evo up over trees or rocks and the added stability means that when you land back on earth the bike is a bit more sure-footed. This sure-footedness is also found when the trail gets slippery with more room for error on offer.




Sum of its parts

On test were the S-Works models so no compromises were made when putting the specs together for each. Overall, the finishings are what you’d expect, great. Lots of carbon everywhere but what I liked was nothing felt flimsy. It’s all solid kit that someone looking to roll up to a XC World Cup and be competitive would use.

SRAM AXS and a Quarq power meter grace the S Works Epic

The Roval Control SL carbon wheel set with 29mm internals proved themselves throughout the test with a great balanced feel. While being lightweight they still maintained their strength through the corners and awkward landings. The same wheel set features on both models with the Epic covering them in Specialized’s own Fast Track 2.3” tyre front and back while the Evo bumped up the front tyre to a 2.3” Ground Control. Both sets played to the strengths of each ride. The 2.3” sizing of the tyres mixed with the 29mm internals of the rims are a great combo that offers up so much grip and stability while not feeling like your lugging around such a large tyre.

One of the biggest differences in terms of spec between the models was the inclusion of a Rockshox Reverb AXS dropper post on the Evo and a Quarq power meter on the Epic. The power meter is an interesting but cool addition to the Epic that means you could pick this bike up and be close to race ready. While it might not be for everyone, if you’re paying $19,000 for an XC bike, it’s probably for you. The dropper on the Evo is also a great touch as it unlocks a bit more capability when descending and if you’re buying the Evo, that’s what you want.

Both models come with the Sram XX1 Eagle AXS group set that features wireless shifting and makes for an incredibly clean frame and cockpit. Regarding the group set, I would have preferred a 34t chainring come stock on the Epic, but this is a personal preference as I usually have a 34/36/38 on hand for XC racing and swap them around. The Epic features the Sram Level Ultimate 2-piston brakes with 160/160mm rotors while the Evo gets the 4-Piston G2 Ultimate brakes with 180/160mm rotors.

Another preference change I would make is to the cockpit. The stock 70mm stem with 6-degree angle on the Epic felt good, though I would still experiment, but the 760mm handlebars felt too wide for me. You can cut them down but it was a big jump for me coming off 690mm bars and it also slowed the steering down too much and didn’t really match the agility I was getting from the rest of the bike. The 760mm bars on the Evo felt a little more at home, but I still would cut them down for my body. Wide is good, but you also need to make sure you have the fit you need.

Stock bar widths aren't for everyone. But when they start wide you can trim them - the other way doesn't work.

The geometry of the frame is only one part that has been refined. The latest 12m FACT Carbon frame of the Epic saves 100g over the previous model while bumping up rear triangle stiffness by 15%. How does this feel on the trail? Ridiculously light and ridiculously stiff. The stiffness is a big factor when combined with the efficiency of the Brain at delivering speed on the racetrack. The Evo’s unique frame feature comes in the flip-chip that can steepen the head angle to 67 degrees and raise the BB up 6mm to get a snappier geometry. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the Evo features a lighter frame than the Epic given it has ditched the Brain hardware.



Time to send it… but where?

These bikes do what they’re supposed to do, really well. I’ve said it before but it’s worth mentioning again. The Epic is an out and out racehorse with maximum efficiency chosen over comfort and stability. The Evo is an XC trail smasher with the bones of an XC racehorse but a more playful build. With a few preference changes, there’s no reason you couldn’t take the Epic off the shelf and go win an XC World Cup – if you have what it takes. The efficiency offered by the Brain and agility provided by the updated geometry equals speed on the racetrack. It’s not the most comfortable ride, even for XC bikes, but in sections where power output over rough terrain or nimbleness through corners is needed, there’s not many bikes out there that can match the Epic.

On the other side, the Evo smashes XC trails with ease. Offering up stability and confidence that the Epic lacks while losing agility and efficiency. It’s still mightily efficient for a trail rig owing to its light weight and great pedalling platform. Hitting blind XC trails relaxed with the seat down and 120mm suspension soaking up awkward landings is where the Evo excels. It can definitely still race and while it won’t be winning XC World Cups off the shelf, it will be competitive in marathons that feature a lot of rough terrain especially long descents. Being able to sit back and relax a bit more than the Epic means you can save energy on the Evo which will help in longer races or all-day riding adventures. For riders looking to roll up to the odd local XC race for a burn and then back up the next day for a trail ride and session trails or a jump line, the Evo would be perfect. The Evo would also be a good choice for longer stage races and the Epic Series events in our area.




My final thoughts

My final thoughts on these two bikes is a bit odd. I feel Specialized did an amazing job at building two bikes that ‘do what they do’ extremely well. But I do think there’s a missed opportunity here to have built one bike that could do both. It’s been known that Nino Schurter often runs his SID Ultimate forks at 110mm on his Scott Spark for World Cup XC racing to pretty good effect. Having ridden both the Epic and Evo back-to-back I can definitely see how the middle ground might be great for XC racing and riding.

On the Epic I sometimes wished I had the stability and increased capability of the Evo, and vice versa on the Evo I wished I had the efficiency of the Epic in some sections. The Evo lacks a remote lockout and the angles are slightly too slack for aggressive XC riding while the Epic obviously only has 100mm of travel, which comes with its own limitations. I do think hitting the middle ground was possible for Specialized and still might be in the future.

The Evo already comes with a feature that offers to close the gap between the two rides, the flip-chip. Out of interest, I flipped the chip in the Evo to steepen the head angle (HA) to 67-degree (Evo 66.5, Epic 67.5 for reference) and raise the BB by 6mm to 342mm (Evo 336mm, Epic 324mm for reference). Out on the trail I did feel I gained a bit of that aggressiveness I felt I was lacking from the Evo when it was at 66.5-degree HA. It’s only half a degree but it seemed to let me drive the front of the bike into things which is better for racing as opposed to being too slack and making you a passenger. A more negative stem can also help do this but making changes at the frame level is often the better choice than ghetto modding after the fact. The trade-off being I had to work a touch more to stay on track, but it did show that the Evo isn’t far off from being a full-on XC rig.

A hybrid XC superbike of the two that features a 110mm suspension platform to offer increased capability with the Brain integrated to offer that efficiency (or ditch it completely in favour of a traditional lockout) and slight tweaks to the geometry to better balance the platform is definitely possible. Having ridden both the Epic and Evo side by side, I think the middle ground might be a massive winner. As it stands, the latest Epic and Evo will make two groups of people very happy. The Epic will put smiles on racers’ faces and probably a bunch of medals around their necks, while the Evo will let XC trail riders rip their local and back up with a few races on the weekends.

There's a whole range of models below these top spec models, and geometry, ride feel and spec style remains the same between between the Epic and Epic Evo throughout the price points. Pirce points start at $6500 and run up to the $19000 (yes, 19k) models tested here.

Find the whole range on the Specialized website.

A big thank you to Sebastian Jayne for doing this back to back test. Seb race draced XCO World Cups since around 2012-2019, along with representing Australia at numerous XCO and Marathon World Championships. As such, he knows a few things about bikes designed for going fast on the world stage.