[my review re-posted from Specialized forum]
I finished a race in May thinking that I'd chosen the wrong weapon for the course. It was loose and had several rock gardens in it that made it seem like my hardtail was rolling backward compared to other riders. On smooth, relatively flat courses, my carbon hardtail 26er is incredibly fast, but I was totally beat down after slamming through rock gardens and being unable to retain any momentum pedaling through them. Two teammates asked, "Why aren't you riding a 29er?" My experience with 29" bikes has been limited to a Haro rigid singlespeed steel bike that I had for a year or so and then sold because I had no idea what to do with it, and a Gary Fisher Superfly demo that was disappointing due to a poorly tuned rear shock. I also rode a Specialized Epic Comp alloy demo bike for 60 miles training in April but it was pushing 30 lbs and it didn't feel magical or really anything more than "fine".
My teammates, who finished in front of me, handed their carbons Epics over to me for a quick spin. The medium Epic Expert felt a little small, but surprisingly nimble. After riding the 26" hardtail, the large Epic Evo felt a bit like a truck, but the most interesting thing was now nicely controlled the suspension was though the really rough terrain. Because of a shortage of time, I didn't get a full test ride though.
So I negotiated another ride on that large 2011 Epic Evo R 29er a couple of weeks ago to do some hammering on one of my favorite local trail systems - one that Lance is rumored to enjoy when he is in town. It's ideal because I know every inch of it and how my hardtail, 4", and 6" travel bikes respond. I also know that I can rule out a bike real quick if it doesn't feel right on that loop. Basically, it's straight up a mountain climbing singletrack for 45 minutes, a rocket ride down, and a cut over to another set of trails that are steeper and take me back to the foot of the mountain. This late in the season, the trails are covered in a fine, thick moondust that sits over hardpack and gravel. It's the sort of trail condition that makes me nervous sometimes because stuff doesn't always hook up like it should in corners and steep chutes.
I'm going to say some very good things about this bike, but I feel compelled to put in a word regarding the Epic's appearance. On a bike that is one notch below the top of the line unobtainium S-Works, you expect a certain level of elegance and craftsmanship. The carbon front triangle looks good. The downtube is straight (thankfully), without the useless bend at the bottom bracket that seems to be the industry fetish right now (regardless of shock and water bottle clearance). However, the aluminum rear triangle doesn't match the front. The joints look as if they're dipped in gunk rather than neatly welded together. It looks terrible. Is Taiwan incapable of welding metal attractively? I assume they are solid, but I'm spoiled by the SAPA weld work on my other bikes. Specialized, take a page from Turner and Intense and pay attention to the detail work in welding and machining. It's not as if boutique bikes are more expensive to buy than Specialized at this point. Plus, does anyone else find it ironic that bikes used to add carbon seatstays to alloy main triangles to enhance stiffness, save weight, and tune the ride? It's not 2005 anymore. For $5200 Specialized ought to put a carbon rear triangle on their bike. Just guessing, but I can't imagine Yeti bolting an alloy rear triangle onto a carbon SB95 or Ibis putting an aluminum back end on the Ripley.
Secondly, the SRAM crankset is one ugly beast. XT, XTR, and Middleburn's R8 are practically works of art. This thing is a merely a hunk of composite. However, the PF30 system worked fine and the cranks seem solid, so functionally I have no complaints. I'm also not a fan of the Specialized grips, but this is clearly just a rider preference issue. They are too small in diameter and feel unnecessarily hard. I'd switch them out for Ritchey WCS foam, ESI, or ODI Rogues.
I should mention that this particular Epic Evo has been upgraded with the carbon Roval SL wheelset with the DT Swiss internals. Set up tubeless with ~24psi, the wheels were clearly turbocharging the ride, making this bike feel *very* different than the 30lb Epic Comp I rode. This Evo is 23.3lbs without pedals.
Regarding fit, I felt that this bike was spot-on in nearly every way. Knee clearance and standover height is enhanced by the flying butress seattube brace in the large that I rode. The owner inverted the stem and ran it with a low rise carbon bar that felt pretty close to right, although the 105mm stem was perhaps 5mm too long for me. Either way, the cockpit felt pretty good, and I was even surprised by how comfortable the stock Specialized Phenom saddle was. Specialized is getting their saddles right, and I have a Romin Pro Ti installed on my own road bike. However, the Phenom had loosened up considerably at the interface between the rails and the shell, giving me an odd feeling of flex on climbs when riding fast on flat ground.
On the pavement, the Renegade and Fast Track tires had a rolling resistance similar to what I've experienced with a Conti Race King. This is to say, not much resistance at all. In fact, the sensation was more akin to riding my road bike than any full suspension rig I've suffered on the road with before. I felt a little more tug in a forward direction than a similar cadence would produce on my standard mountain rides. The brain was clearly doing it's part to keep the rear feeling solid, preventing excessive translation of motion into shock movement. There was a touch of bobbing (just a few mm at 6 clicks of the brain), but it took the buzz out of the chipseal somewhat and didn't feel inefficient enough to warrant cranking up the brain threshold.
I hit the fireroad and I couldn't make it up the climb on big wheels!
In reality, I did need every tooth in the 36t rear cog with only the single chainring, but the bike powered right up. The slight movement the brain allowed in the rear facilitated some active traction on the climb without succumbing to squat. Bike squat bugs me tremendously, but reaching for pro pedal for compression damping always makes the suspension perform like mush in my opinion. The brain's on/off is clearly preferable to mere increased resistance that causes the bike to kick back over real trail obstacles and interrupt my spin technique. The brain is seamless, but almost feels like a bottom out when it opens that doesn't have a harsh jolt at the end. It's as if you feel the bike hit a large exposed root, and then feel it sink into the group before it can cause the bike to buck. It's weird and different, but highly effective.
While I'm mostly a sit and spin rider, when I stood up (primarily due to the single chainring) the bike powered over all sorts of stair step chunk that can (and does) stop my standard mountain bikes dead. Part of it was clearly the lower tire pressure, but these tires do not have the tread aggressiveness to account for all of this ability. Several times, as I was negotiating a short, steep section, the bike carried its speed through the crest and over where my other bikes stall out. I even pedaled straight up a rock formation that I normally go around on a better line, and the bike shockingly plowed right up and through. The bike also held onto the edge of some of the off-camber sections of trail that had been turned into moguls by motorcycle throttles without sliding back down into the rut. Additionally, there were no drawbacks to the bike around some switchbacks that I negotiated well on the Epic, but give me some problems on other bikes (sometimes, I believe, due to squat and dive in the suspension). I didn't have to put a foot down, and the relatively short wheelbase of the Epic (for a 29er) worked in my favor here.
On flatter sections, the Epic stood out in its ability to flow smoothly through rock gardens that an knock me off my line or cause a kick through the saddle on repeated hits. This trait is fairly remarkable given the relatively short amount of travel coupled with an auto-lockout feature in the Brain. As an endurance racer, being able to stay seated and spinning when things get not so smooth on the ground is a big advantage in energy savings. A propedal lever to prevent rider-induced movement isn't helpful in this type of terrain because the compression slows down the ability of the shock to react. Just opening to swallow rocks is much preferable, in my opinion.
Descending, the bike continued to shine. I can describe it best as being connected to a slot in a track. The Evo just had this oddly solid and planted feel through some really loose dust, gravel, and occasional loose babyhead rocks. My guess is that the contact patch was making a difference here, but in my opinion, the Fisher Superfly 100 did not exhibit this same trait. The rear travel didn't feel like any more than 100mm on the Epic, but the bike was certainly using it well and not getting bogged down as speed increased. If I can descend mostly seated, I'm happier overall, and the bike let me do that. While the carbon front end and carbon Rovals seemed solid, the bike has a slight "twang" (for lack of a better term) out of the apex of corners. It provides a little extra burst of speed into the next section and actually helped me recover from an error at one point. I took the bike too sharply into an off-camber turn and started to lose the rear wheel in a slide. The bike sort of "snapped to" and shot off in my original intended direction. A demo bike merits huge points bike when it saves you from a yardsale.
I used the brakes quite a bit less on the Evo than I do on my 26ers. With the bike allowing me to reset after choosing a bad line, I got more and more comfortable just carving through 90 degree turns without brake feather for control. The Avids felt very on/off to me without much modulation but didn't warble like a dying turkey like other Avid brakes I've had the misfortune to come across. I'm glad the 2012 Experts are getting Formula R1s. Strangely, I got sketched out on an 8" drop to transition that needs to be rolled given it's orientation. I have no explanation for this, but I had to step off. I'll just put this one in the "that's odd" category, because the bike did fine on other small drops and stair rollers.
The Reba fork was acting pretty sticky and gave me some forearm tightness on the ride down. It's possible that it didn't have enough negative air pressure or that it needed an oil change to get things loosened up. I didn't mess around with the brain setting, but it wasn't a full lock out when compression the fork hard while on the bike. With the brain engaged, the fork felt a little gooshy. There was no brake dive, which was good for descending, but the fork quality of travel was not the same as my SID or Revelation 150. My guess is that it wasn't coming anywhere near full travel. I'll be interested to see what the SID 29er Brain fork acts like on the 2012 bikes. It's hard to fault the bike here for what might have been a maintenance or tuning issue, and the bike was great overall in spite of it.
The Evo's single 34t chainring was perfect for all kinds of climbing. I never wanted a granny gear to get myself up and over something. However, as an endurance racer, I'd prefer a double up front to avoid blowing up my legs on climbs over a 12 or 24 hour period. Otherwise, as an all around bike, there's no way I'd need a front derailleur.
Lastly, there was a continual popping sound throughout the ride that resonated through the carbon. I don't know if it was the bottom bracket, chainring, the saddle that was separating from its rails, the seatpost, or a sticky pivot. The sound was not something I'd be able to tolerate for very long without tearing the bike down to find out what the source was. I'm pretty sure it wasn't the mini-brain out back, but I can't rule anything out.
I returned the Evo to it's owner and said "You didn't tell me you've been on a cheater bike all season." I'll bet the Epic is cheaper than EPO and HGH. The verdict is that the Epic Expert Carbon 29 will be my race rig for all sorts of events next year, along with the carbon Roval wheelset. I was sufficiently impressed that I'm picking this bike over some other good boutique options such as the Turner Flux, Ibis Mojo, Santa Cruz Blur carbon, and the Yeti ASR-5. The SB95 carbon and Ibis Ripley aren't available yet, but it would be neat to compare back to back. My main concern is long-term durability, but I have several bikes to split the miles and I'm not overly hard on them. I think some 3M helicopter tape for protection and regular maintenance will keep it running nicely. The carbon rear triangle of the S-Works Epic, different modulus carbon, and a couple of component updates aren't enough to offset the additional $3700 in cost after adding the carbon Roval SLs to the Expert. Seriously Specialized, include a carbon rear triangle for $5800.
It's a great bike, though - very impressive.
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