Specialized Epic Expert Evo review: XC speed with more sizzle

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Specialized has offered several “Evo” mountain bike models in the past, all fitted with burlier builds that aim to make things more fun on the way down, with minimal sacrifice on the way up. For the first time, the XC racing-focused Epic gets the treatment, with the new Epic Expert Evo retaining the family’s excellent pedaling efficiency, but with more versatility and trail-worthiness for riders that still want to go fast without pinning on a number.

The concept is brilliant. But the execution? So, so close to perfect.


Story Highlights

  • What it is: The standard Epic with a modified build kit for trail riding
  • Frame features: Carbon fiber construction, Brain 2.0 auto-lockout rear shock, single-pivot suspension, threaded bottom bracket, internal cable routing
  • Weight: 1,900g (claimed, frame only); 11.57kg (25.51lb), as tested, medium size, without pedals
  • Price: US$5,800 / AU$7,250 / £5,000 / €5,300
  • Highs: Brain rear shock performs as claimed, superb handling, mostly fantastic build kit
  • Lows: Brain rear shock is quirky, woeful rear hub, so-so weight

The heart of the Epic Expert Evo

Evo models differ only in component spec, meaning the heart of the Epic Expert Evo is exactly the same as the brand-new Epic platform that Specialized introduced last year — and by brand-new, I mean exactly that, not just some modest evolution.

First and foremost, Specialized has switched the Epic to a single-pivot rear suspension design from the classic Horst Link four-bar layout that has characterized every full-suspension mountain bike in the company range. While this may seem like blasphemy to some, the simple fact is that with just 100mm of rear-wheel travel on tap, there just isn’t much difference in terms of wheel path between a four-bar and a single-pivot (especially how Specialized has been doing it).

Specialized has stood fast to its FSR four-bar linkage rear suspension design for decades. But on this latest Epic, it moves to a simpler and lighter single-pivot arrangement that does without the typical pivot in front of the rear dropouts.

Ditching the dropout pivots makes for an inherently lighter and stiffer rear end, and the weight claims are especially bold. Aluminum frames supposedly lop 525g off of the previous iteration, and carbon models shave a still-substantial 345g. Claimed weight for a medium S-Works carbon frame is now just 1,900g (4.19lb), including the rear shock and requisite fittings and hardware, putting the latest Epic in truly elite company.

Further bolstering the argument for a lighter and simpler pivot arrangement is the new Brain 2.0 rear shock.

The defining feature of every Epic since its debut has been the way the rear shock automatically opens and closes its oil damper in response to the terrain, via an inertial valve that Specialized has dubbed the “Brain.” Although the precise details of the mechanism have changed over the years, the principle remains the same.

At rest, a small mass seals the damper’s compression circuit and keeps oil from flowing through it, thus preventing any unwanted suspension movement. But when a bump is encountered, the inertia valve’s greater density resists the upward motion, while the rest of the Brain unit is forced upward. As a result, the valve then opens up, and oil is allowed to flow.

The defining feature on every Epic since the inception of the model family is the “Brain” – a terrain-sensing bit of hydraulic valve trickery that keeps the suspension locked out when on smooth ground, but opens it up when it detects a bump. That theory hasn’t always translated well to reality, but it works quite well here.

In theory, the Brain keeps the rear end locked out on smooth ground, but active when things get bumpy, all in the name of ultimate pedaling efficiency. The reality of the execution hasn’t always matched the theory, but Specialized has admittedly been making steady improvements in the design over the years, and this Brain 2.0 rear shock — now made in conjunction with RockShox instead of long-time partner Fox — promises to be the best yet.

The Brain unit has always lived near the rear axle, but the latest version places the inertia valve behind the rear axle to improve how well the system reads the ground. The oil that is shared between this remote reservoir and the main shock also takes a straighter and less turbulent path directly through the machined aluminum upper shock linkage. According to Specialized, this allows the system to open and close a little faster, which should — again, in theory — provide a more seamless transition between the two modes. And as has always been the case, the rider can adjust how much force is required to activate the Brain, in this case with a simple multi-position lever.

Frame geometry follows recent industry trends in the trail and enduro segments, but with more of a XC-flavored interpretation. Head tube angle has slackened 1.25° from the previous version for more confident handling at high speeds and on steep descents, while the fork offset has been reduced by 9mm to keep the total wheelbase in check.

Shorter stem lengths across the board keep the total reach fairly constant from previous Epics, but some of that is still offset by the more upright seat tube, which is meant to place the rider in a more efficient position for steep climbs.

The front triangle feels like it was designed more for low weight, not high stiffness. In certain conditions, you can feel the front end loading up – and then releasing.

Other changes include a threaded bottom bracket (hoorah!), wider main pivot bearing spacing courtesy of the dedicated 1x-only drivetrain format, Boost hub spacing at both ends, and a cleaned-up internal routing design. Seatpost diameter has been increased from last year’s 27.2mm to the more common 30.9mm size for better dropper post compatibility, too.

Convenience has taken a hit on the latest Epic, though, as the ultra-handy mini-tool holder that was once built into the forward shock mount has gone away. The previous Epic’s bolt-on storage box (that has enough room for a spare tube, CO2 cartridge and inflator head, and other essentials) is also now only available as an aftermarket accessory, and no longer comes as standard equipment.

Specialized hasn’t carried the built-in down tube storage compartment from Stumpjumper and Enduro lines into the new Epic to make up for that deletion, either (likely because the smaller diameter just wouldn’t provide as much utility). But on the plus side, the unusually open front triangle is still one of the only full-suspension designs on the market that can hold two large water bottles inside the main triangle.

Functional improvements aside, the new Epic remains — at least to my eye — one of the cleanest-looking cross-country bikes available. Looks still matter, after all.

The Evo effect

Ok, so if the Epic Expert Evo uses the same frame as other carbon fiber Epics, can a few component changes really make that big of a difference?

Yep.

The 120mm-travel Fox 34 Performance fork does a good job of keeping the front wheel planted.

Up front, a longer 120mm-travel smooths out the ride more than the 100mm units on standard Epics, while a 2mm jump to 34mm-diameter stanchions improves steering precision as well. That additional axle-to-crown length relaxes the handling, too, kicking back the head tube angle a full degree, to 68.5° on my medium test sample. To better tackle rougher terrain, the 25mm internal rim width is more generous than all but the S-Works Epic, and the stock tires grow in volume with 2.3in casings specified at both ends.

In addition, the standard handlebar stretches out from 720mm on standard Epics to a more capacious 750mm, the front brake rotor grows from 160mm to 180mm for a little extra stopping power, and a 125mm-travel dropper post comes as standard equipment, complete with Specialized’s superb house-brand remote lever.

Availability for the Epic Evo varies depending on region. In the United States, Specialized offers the carbon model in just one trim: the Epic Expert Evo, which comes with a Fox 34 Step-Cast Performance fork, SRAM GX Eagle 1×12 drivetrain, SRAM Stylo solid-forged aluminum cranks, SRAM Level TL hydraulic disc brakes, Specialized’s own Roval Control Carbon wheelset and staggered Ground Control/Fast Trak tires, and an X-Fusion Manic dropper seatpost topped with a Specialized Phenom Comp saddle.

The 25mm internal width on the Roval Control Carbon tubeless-compatible rims provides good support for the 2.3in-wide tires. I weigh 70kg and generally ran between 19-21psi, depending on the trail.

Filling out the remaining spec is a bunch of Specialized house-brand bits, including a straight aluminum handlebar, a forged aluminum stem, and clamp-on grips.

Total weight is 11.57kg (25.51lb), without pedals or accessories. Retail price is US$5,800 / AU$7,250 / £5,000 / €5,300.

Epic speed

The essence of any Specialized Epic has always been its pedaling performance, and more specifically, how the Brain influences it. Just as promised, this latest Brain 2.0 is Specialized’s best system to date, but it’s not without its caveats.

For general trail riding, I found the best balance between pedaling efficiency and suspension performance at one click shy of the stiffest setting. There, the Epic Expert Evo felt truly hardtail-like under power, but with the traction and comfort benefits that only a full-suspension machine can provide when the going gets rough. Whereas hardtail riders have to carefully meter their pedaling input and weight distribution on more technically demanding climbs, you can simply maintain load on the back end of the Epic Expert Evo and claw your way up.

The Epic Expert Evo shares its frame shape with other carbon Epic models. By going to a 1x-specific design, the main swingarm pivot can be made wider and more rigid for better wheel tracking. Note the threaded bottom bracket, too.

Similarly, all-out sprints are rewarded with instant speed without a hint of mushiness, and that 100mm of travel is at the ready any time it’s needed. Transitions between the two modes are remarkably quick, too, and unlike earlier Brain rear shocks, the Epic Expert Evo even reacts predictably when preloading the rear end for bunnyhops and jumps.

But that said, Specialized hasn’t exorcised all of the Brain’s demons — and to be honest, I’m not sure that’s even possible given the system’s design.

That transition between the closed and open modes do strike me as the most seamless ever provided by an Epic. However, as has been the case with every Brain-equipped Specialized mountain bike I’ve ever ridden, it still isn’t entirely unnoticeable.

Bump impacts don’t transmit up to the rider in a way that adversely affects performance, but it still feels a little like you’re bottoming out the rear rim every time the system activates. It’s just ever-so-slightly clunky, in a literal sense, and while I eventually got used to it, I can’t say that I ever grew to completely ignore it, either.

The kinked seat tube helps keep chainstay length to a relatively tidy 438mm.

As good as this latest Brain is, there’s also no escaping the fact that the suspension absolutely relies on that shock technology to work well. With the Brain in one of the more open settings, for example, the ride gets a little more plush and buttery, but it also feels more vague and squishier when you put down the power.

And then there are the serviceability ramifications: Even if you’re perfectly ok with this necessary pairing, you’re forever stuck with the Brain rear shock if something goes awry, along with however long it takes for a Specialized dealer to either repair or replace one that’s no longer working properly. Don’t forget, either, that that steady path of improvement goes both ways: If Specialized comes out with a Brain 3.0, you probably won’t be able to use it (although in fairness, I’m not sure how many Epic buyers would have that expectation, anyway).

I have zero qualms about the geometry, however, as the handling is simply fantastic. Even with the build kit modifications, the Epic Expert Evo is still a race bike at its core, and it’s appropriately quick as a result, eagerly snaking through circuitous trails and weaving around rocks and trees as needed (or desired). But the longer front-center and slacker head tube angle provide a measure of stability at high speeds and on steep descents that no Epic that came before ever had.

The X-Fusion Manic dropper seatpost most certainly adds weight relative to even a budget aluminum fixed post, but there’s no arguing with how much faster it lets you descend. It’s weight very well spent, in my opinion.

Simplified design and all, the rear end’s impressive rigidity keeps the wheel tracking true, and the well-controlled suspension does an excellent job of keeping that contact patch planted through tricky corners. Specialized obviously prioritized low weight on the Epic chassis more so than with the Stumpjumper or Enduro families, though, and as a result, there’s just enough wiggle up front in hard riding to remind you that you’re still on a whippet-like XC bike, not a big-and-brawny trail or enduro rig.

Give that product manager a raise

No doubt, there are flashes of brilliance in the spec; so much so that I wouldn’t be surprised to see Specialized expand the Epic Evo range further in the future. Save for diehard racers who pin on a number every weekend, I’m not sure why any speed-minded trail rider would prefer one of the standard versions.

The 20mm of extra fork travel obviously boosts the bike’s capabilities, but it’s also the generous rim width and tire volume that further enhance the Epic Expert Evo’s ability to tackle rough ground. Although the higher-volume tires are a tad heavier than the standard Epic spec, they come with no discernible increase in rolling resistance — and in fact, they’re likely faster on all but the smoothest trails.

Those dimensions allowed this 70kg rider to regularly dabble with around just 18-20psi of tire pressure, and the bigger contact patch that resulted made the most of the fairly modest tread.

SRAM’s GX Eagle is a fair bit heavier than the XO1 or XX1 variants, but it’s also way cheaper and offers the same gearing range.

Extra money was obviously invested in the Epic Expert Evo’s carbon fiber rims, while pennies were pinched elsewhere. The aluminum handlebar and crank are comparatively average bits, and some might find it curious that SRAM’s second-cheapest 1×12 transmission is featured on a bike that costs nearly US$6,000. But from a performance standpoint, it’s a wise move given how much more performance you get from those lighter and stiffer hoops as compared to saving a few grams in the cockpit or drivetrain. Kudos to Specialized’s product manager for taking the risk.

Specialized claims those tubeless-compatible Roval Control Carbon rims are more durable than aluminum rims, too, and while I only have anecdotal evidence to add, I can at least say that the set on my test bike took a few hard bottom-outs on sharp Colorado rocks without suffering any visible damage.

Speaking of components, that GX Eagle transmission works just as well as SRAM’s upper-end X01 and XX1 versions, anyway. There’s plenty of range for everyday riding, and smooth and reliable gear changes, just with a little more weight (and lower replacement costs when and if things go awry). Did I really miss the carbon fiber pulley cage or the cartridge bearings in the shift lever? Not a bit.

The 750mm-wide aluminum bar is notably stiff and suitably spacious.

It’s the same story for the SRAM Level TL disc brakes, which forego the titanium hardware, carbon fiber lever blades, and extra adjustments of upper-end versions in favor of more basic aluminum blades, steel hardware, and basic reach adjustment. But they offer identical function, with very good power (especially with that bigger front rotor), excellent control, and great ergonomics and feel.

I even prefer the aluminum bar in this context; it feels more solid than a comparable carbon bar, and encourages you to ride a little harder. The grips have just a hint of squishiness so as not to beat up your hands too much (even without gloves), the KS Manic dropper post gets the job done without too much fuss or rotational play, and even the saddle is comfy (the Phenom has long been one of my favorites off-road, in fact).

In total, some of those compromises obviously contribute to the bike’s somewhat unimpressive weight on paper. But like the best bikes, the Epic Expert Evo rides lighter than it is in reality — a trick that’s far harder to pull off than one might think.

Er, on second thought…

There may be flashes of brilliance in the spec, but there’s some spit in the soup, too.

For starters, I have a love-hate relationship with the tires. I’ve always felt that a more aggressive front tire should be paired with a faster-rolling rear one. The front one does the lion’s share of the work, after all, and if any tire breaks traction first, I sure as hell want it to be the rear.

And for the record, the Ground Control/Fast Trak combo Specialized specs here is one that I’ve used extensively (I even raced these exact tires at the six-day Breck Epic a few years ago). They roll fast, they’re fairly light, and I found them to be surprisingly durable on my rocky home trails.

I would have loved this rounded profile when I was still living in Michigan, where the ground is loamier and softer, and where there’s more grip to be had. But in Colorado? Not so much.

But Specialized resorts to a pretty hard rubber compound to help speed things up, which doesn’t work as well on hardpacked or rocky surfaces (or on wet rocks and roots, for that matter) as whatever juju Maxxis bakes into its trail-oriented rubber, for example. Likewise, the very round profile lends a natural and fluid feel when flicking through series of corners on tacky ground, but is prone to sliding out if you’re not prepared to temper the inevitable slide (as was the case when I slid out rather spectacularly on a fast descent in Winter Park, Colorado).

In fairness, tires are always region-dependent, and the Ground Control/Fast Trak pair might be perfect for your local dirt. That said, good tires are never cheap, and while I’ve never found them to be a poor investment when it comes to extracting the most out of a bike, it’s always something to keep in mind.

Unfortunately, correcting the Epic Expert Evo’s more substantial flaw isn’t as easy as swapping tires.

This rear hub has go to go.

I’m sorry, Specialized, but the rear hub on this bike just plain sucks. The conventional pawl-type driver seems acceptable enough, but the ratchet ring has just 21 teeth, which makes for a pitifully slow 17° engagement speed — the exact opposite of what you want on the more demanding terrain the Evo was purpose-built to handle. Making matters worse is the fact that the rear hub developed bearing play after just a couple of months.

I almost wish the rest of the bike wasn’t so good, because it only highlights how out-of-step that rear hub is. It has no place on a bike of this calibre whatsoever.

A hub away from greatness

I so want to love this bike as the philosophy behind it is totally in keeping with what I want out of a shorter-travel machine. It’s nearly as fast as a purebred XC racer on less-demanding trails, but yet far more capable and fun on terrain that one might usually think to be out of an XC bike’s element. The modifications Specialized has built into the Epic Expert Evo are what I would have done to a standard Epic myself if I owned one, and given how quick the bike is under power, I could even eventually accept the quirky clunkiness of the Brain.

But riders that shy away from proprietary technology will obviously be concerned about that rear shock nonetheless, and that rear hub totally holds the rest of the bike back.

Let’s all hope for a mid-season spec upgrade. Pretty please, Specialized?

www.specialized.com

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