This article originally appeared and is the property of Bikehub: https://www.bikehub.co.za/features/_/gear/reviews/first-ride-2017-specialized-s-works-epic-29-world-cup-r6033
Words by Nick Webb. Photos by Johan Badenhorst
According to our classifieds search data, the Specialized Epic is the most sought after bike on Bike Hub. Perhaps due to this wide appeal, it has also become a symbol of endurance racing in South Africa, and all the connotations that come attached to the stereotype. Opinions aside, this was my first significant experience with this iconic race bike and I was intrigued to see what all the fuss is about.
I had the opportunity to ride the Specialized S-Works Epic FSR World Cup in its natural habitat at the Wines2Whales Ride stage race in November (read our race report here). Aside from a couple of leg stretchers to get the bike set up, it was pretty much straight into the race for the Epic and I.
At the core of the bike is the S-Works Epic World Cup frame. It is a design that Specialized have been using for a number of seasons and compared to the most recent offerings from Scott and Cannondale, the geometry might be considered (by some) a bit dated for cross-country purposes with steeper angles and a slightly shorter horizontal top tube length.
I rode the World Cup edition of the frame which is the sharper handling cross-country iteration of the Epic. With shorter chainstays, the wheelbase is condensed slightly to assist with handling on rougher and tighter courses. The shorter length, however, comes with a 0.25 degree steeper head angle than the marathon bike, and at 70.75 degrees it is considerably more aggressive than some of the latest cross-country bikes which range from 69.5 to 68.5 degrees.
Another modern development which competitors might point out as lacking, especially at this price point and with 29er wheels, is the wider Boost axle spacing standard. While the necessity of Boost can be disputed, we’re starting to expect top of the range superbikes to be bang up to date with the latest and greatest in marginal gains technology. That said, I reckon it won’t be too long until the release of an all new Epic and I’m interested to see in which direction Specialized will go.
As you would expect from an S-Works model, the frame is full carbon. The bike is also a single-ring only affair with no mounting for a front derailleur. This allows for a thicker, stiffer chainstay on the drive side. Although initially released when SRAM’s 11 speed was new and flashy, the addition of the 12 Speed Eagle drivetrain makes the 1X setup on this bike accessible and comfortable for an even wider range of riders.
While plans can be made to carry water bottles outside of the front triangle, it’s always much easier when the frame makes provision for two spots inside the bike – as the Epic does. The Epic adds further utility with Specialized’s SWAT treatment – this can include a useful box to carry spares (not fitted to my review bike), a chain breaker and quick link inside the steerer cap, and a multitool stowed in the top tube for easy access. While some might snigger at these adaptations being gimmicky, I thoroughly enjoyed the convenience of having these essential items safely stowed in the bike.
The 2017 S-Works Epic is oozing with the latest and greatest components from Fox, RockShox, SRAM, and Specialized’s own brands cover everything else.
Shock: The shock is a collaboration between Fox and Specialized incorporating the Brain system and Autosag technology. The shock is rather dainty, but don’t let that put you off, I found little to complain about. The Autosag worked reasonably well with only a minor adjustment needed to get it to my preferred feel.
Fork: The RockShox SID World Cup fork matched the shock well. The fork also incorporates the Brain system. Usually, I do not get along well with the SID but on the Specialized I luckily managed to get the setup just right in the short time I had it for. Perhaps it had something to do with the Brain damper but I would have to ride the fork for a lot longer to come to any conclusions.
Drivetrain: Probably the most eye-catching component on this Epic is the massive cassette which is part of the SRAM Eagle XX1 drivetrain. This was my first proper experience with SRAM’s new wide range 12-speed groupset and I can say that I am happily drinking the kool-aid. The extra range is immediately noticeable and, in practice, very useful. Even with the extended range, shifting was effortless. Later on, I had a chance to ride Eagle on more trail orientated bikes, the S-Works Camber and Stumpjumper, where the range was even more appreciated.
My only minor complaint was the relatively small 30 tooth chainring, which meant I only used granny gear (which on the Eagle drivetrain is a massive 50 tooth cog) once on a short steep climb during the three days of Wines2Whales. That said the Wines2Whales stages are not all that tough and on a longer, harder race (such as the bike’s namesake) the easier gears would probably be much appreciated.
Wheels: The wheels are Specialized’s own Roval branded SL 29. The stiffness of the wheels certainly helps to put the power down with alarming efficiency making climbing and accelerating out of corners inspiring. The engagement of the DT Swiss ratchet hub was seamless. More often than not, I pointed these wheels down rougher line choices and they came out unscathed. Earlier Roval rims were known to be a bit brittle but this latest iteration shows every sign of being rock solid. Credit must be given to these wheels, they played a big part in the excellent feel and responsiveness of the S-Works Epic.
Tyres: The wheels on the S-Works Epic are wrapped in Specialized’s Fast Trak tyres. Thankfully, Specialized resisted the urge to fit the paper thin race-day S-Works variety and went with the more robust Control casing. I have been riding these tyres on my own bike, and have found them to be good fast-rolling race tyres, and they seem particularly well suited to the Epic.
Brakes: In October, there were not many bikes with SRAM Level brakes, and this was my first outing with these stoppers. Of course, the S-Works specification required the range-topping Ultimate model to be fitted. I have spent a lot of time with SRAM’s Guide double piston offering which I find to be excellent. Braking was firm and predictable with a very comfortable lever. I did not have a chance to push the Level brakes to their limits but early signs are that the Levels are super capable.
Controls: The cockpit sparkles with the black sheen of the S-Works carbon handlebar and seatpost. The 143mm wide S-Works Phenom was exceptionally comfortable for me, making me doubt my preference for the Specialized Power saddle. This is usually where I’d insert my rant about the 720-millimetre handlebar length being pathetically small for an extra large sized bicycle, however, for reasons I cannot explain, it felt perfectly normal on this bike. Even the 110-millimetre stem length felt right.
One of the major selling points of the Epic over other bikes is the Brain suspension system. Just to keep everyone in the know: the Brain system is supposed to differentiate rider input (i.e. heavy pedalling) from trail forces, remaining stiff and allowing efficient power transfer from pedal strokes, but becoming active when riding over rough terrain. The system delivers to a degree, but there are some downsides to consider.
Being at a race, I had the Brain set in the middle to upper fade settings. Although the marketing blurbs promise that only pedalling forces are lock out the suspension system, small bump sensitivity is not as supple as a fully open system. The platform is stiff under smaller forces but gives way under hard impacts leaving you to guess when this might occur. Obviously, it is something you get used to quickly, but the suspension never feels quite as smooth or predictable as an open system.
When the Brain system was fitted across the Specialized range right up to the Stumpjumper, this was certainly a problem for those just looking for a silky smooth suspension feel. But now with it limited to just the Epic, the Brain makes perfect sense. If you can accept the slightly jerky initial travel, as a no fuss pedalling platform, the Brain is superb. There is no need to have platform adjustment or lockout switches on the suspension and handlebars, making for an incredibly clean cockpit. The Epic allows you to simply put your head down and get on with the business of pedalling your heart out.
Another consideration is that the Brain system requires servicing along with the other suspension components. This adds an additional service cost – if you can afford the S-Works model, you’re probably not going to be too concerned but it’s something to consider if you’re looking further down the price range.
I am a big fan of modern longer, slacker, lower geometry and I have had problems jumping back on more traditional racing bikes, especially cross-country racing bikes. The S-Works World Cup was the most aggressive bike I had ridden since the BMC Teamelite and the combination of a long stem, steep head angle and short bars worried me. I had my reservations about getting comfortable on the Epic in time for riding Wines2Whales.These worries were unfounded: I acclimatised to the S-Works Epic like a duck to water.
Heading off at the start of Stage 1. Credit: Nicolé Dale Kuys.
Dust and sweaty on stage 3 of Wines2Whales Ride. Credit: Jetline Action Photo
Being 6’4” I’m usually an extra large frame size. Often extra large bikes sit on the fringe of the design size scale and this can make them feel a bit odd, but the Epic was spot on. It is rare that I jump on a bike and have no niggles with fit or the desire to change cockpit components. Specialized have excelled in making the Epic a bike you can jump on and ride.
The inevitable Camber comparison
The Camber is the closest bike in the Specialized range to the Epic and likely a bike that many would consider alongside the Epic. This question is bound to be asked, so allow me to digress from the main review.
Initially, I had asked to ride a Camber at Wines2Whales, as usually I am more comfortable on more relaxed bikes, but one was not available. As it turned out, I did not have to wait long to try out the Camber. I rode the S-Works edition over two days during Origin of Trails. While I wasn’t pushing as hard, the Camber was a highly impressive pedaler, even without the Brain suspension. It inspired a bit more confidence and fun on the downhills than the Epic.
Compared to the Camber, the Epic definitely has an edge when it comes to out and out speed on the flats and climbs but more concentration is required on the descents. For this reason, I feel that the Epic is spot on for more skilled riders and competitive racers, for everyone else the Camber would be my first recommendation and, for many riders, the boost in confidence will likely produce faster race results.
After being surprised by the effortless fit, my first rides on the S-Works Epic were all about figuring out the suspension and the Brain system. I did not have much time to tinker but I got it pretty close without much hassle. I set up the fork and shock using the Autosag feature which is supposed to set your sag at the correct level. In my case, it got impressively close. After the initial ride, I fine tuned the pressures by a few PSI here and there. I did find the process a bit trickier with the Brain technology, as it does not have the initial movement most other forks have, but I learnt to put some faith in the Autosag.
Feeling confident about the fit and suspension, it was time to race. Actually, there was no plan to race: it was the relaxed mid-week Ride edition of Wines2Whales after all, but once over the first climb it was obvious the Epic and I were gelling well. It did not take my partner long to notice (she is quite competitive) and my fate was sealed, the race was on.
The more bikes I ride, and the way modern geometry is heading, it is becoming easier to predict how a bike will feel just by looking at the numbers. The Epic World Cup, however, completely fooled me. I was expecting to delicately tip-toe the bike through the technical stuff, but I never felt out of my depth on the Epic. It cornered predictably, not once threatened to throw me over the bars, and really enjoyed hopping off trail features. I had a lot of fun riding this bike in racing conditions.
While the handling was surprisingly pleasant, the real shock to the system was the pedalling platform. The stiffness of the frame, wheels, and the Brain system all work together to create one of the most efficient pedalers in the business. When you ride a bike that feels like it is turning every watt into forward movement, you cannot help but give it your all. I’m usually satisfied to flounder around in the mid pack but the Epic transformed me into a proper race snake.
I thoroughly enjoyed my short time with the S-Works Epic 29 World Cup. In the right hands, the Epic is a super capable bike for cross-country or marathon racing. The Epic’s success lies in its attention to detail – the frame, geometry, fit, and components all complement each other to create a bike that excels at pushing you forward with the greatest ease. If you’ve got the cash to spare and you want to go faster, call your local Specialized dealer to arrange a test ride of the S-Works Epic 29 World Cup.
Pros and Cons
Surprisingly capable over technical terrain
Riding the same bike as the top professionals does not come cheap