Specialized says the updated Epic is the fastest mountain bike it’s ever produced. The Epic is swimming with features like an updated Brain platform, new carbon layup, and jam-packed with tons of tech. We got the chance to put the newest S-Works version though the paces.
But first, let’s talk a little bit about what makes this bike so different. The Epic first debuted about two decades ago when mountain bike legend Christoph Sauser won his first world cup on a 26-inch version. Specialized created the Epic platform to meet the demands of World Cup athletes and courses but it became so popular that riders around the globe demanded it.
What separated the Epic from the pack is the unique Brain feature of the suspension system. The Brain can cycle between open and locked out in a fraction of a second, offering a firm pedaling platform when needed, and plush, capable travel when necessary, all without the distraction of a crowded cockpit. The Brain allowed Specialized to blend the efficiency of a hardtail and the capability of a full-suspension bike, empowering the rider to think about one thing only; going fast.
Over the years, the Epic achieved Olympic gold, over 100 World Cup wins and podiums all over the world. The newest iteration of this race machine proves to be as fine-tuned as ever, and with the addition of the Epic EVO, this platform truly has a bike for every rider.
What’s new for 2021?
For the 2021 Epic Specialized went for a ground-up redesign, keeping the core ethos of race day fast but the ability to adapt to hyper skill-driven World Cup courses. The Epic’s essence is speed, so the team at Specialized drilled down to see what could make it quicker and where they could shave weight and add robustness to the frame. What came from nearly 1850 test hours of testing through alloy frames, carbon layups, and beyond – what they arrived at is a distilled version of the Epic, the fastest and most capable version to date.
First off, the frame underwent some weight shaving and some sculpting to maximize efficiency. The updated S-Works frameset is 100 grams lighter than the previous model and 15% stiffer. Specialized did this to optimize power transfer while keeping the ride platform stable and confident. The tube shaping is the most notable for those that are avid Epic fans. Gone is the triangle or “tube holder” near the seat post. The new framesets sculpted tubes maximize power and house the Brain unit, keeping a fluid system that works seamlessly together.
The Brain is housed inconspicuously in the non-drive side chainstay while the adjustments easily made near the rear brake. This Brain compartment is the main shaping update and is visually and mechanically impressive. While Specialized experimented with modernizing the geometry on prior Epics, none were as drastic as the updated 2021 model.
The newest Epic blasts past the current model with an updated 67.5-degree headtube angle, more than a slight variation from the current models 69.5. The Epic’s updated geometry also sees bottom bracket height lowered by 9 millimeters while reach is increased to allow for shorter stem lengths. The updated frame allows for wider tire offerings, accommodating a 2.3 rear and a 2.4 front comfortably. Adding that altogether; surpassed front-to-rear stiffness, lower bottom bracket, longer reach, slacker headtube and shorter chainstays (5mm shorter to be exact) this bike will make any cross country racer blush.
Besides the frame, the Brain system itself received a massive update. Re-engineered, the new Brain suspension platform ensures every watt is translated into forward motion while soaking up chatter. It’s still the same IFP (Internal Floating Piston) design with 5 positions of adjustment but with extra emphasis placed on the position-sensitive features and not speed.
The 100mm shock is centered around a firmer race-tuned platform, the Brain’s new Rx XC Tune, developed with close input from Specialized Racing athletes, is said to be even more responsive to pedaling input while improving damper adjustability.
Specialized also bumped up the threshold of the Brain for 2021 – nearly double from 230 newtons to 400 newtons to pop – translating to two extra firmness modes on the Brain compared with the current Epic model. What that means for the riders is a stiffer platform and get up and go of a hardtail. The new Brain also takes the nose off the threshold, making it seamless and fluid when going from locked out to open.
This adjustability allows riders to meter out travel precisely to their liking from fully locked to 30mm sag with air-spring tunability. For the updated Brain, Specialized ditched the Auto Sag feature, going with a stand air chart recommendation. The suspension team also increases the anti-squat to give the best pedaling performance and trail traction possible.
Designed hand-in-hand with the updated Epic frame, it’s also the most seamlessly integrated Brain we’ve seen. Working together, the relocation of the Brain not only allows for the repositioning of the rear brake caliper to allow for more vertical flex in the chainstay but also increases the Brain inertia valve’s sensitivity to its location behind the rear axle. In concert with the new layout, revised internals result in less turbulent oil flow for the more consistent performance hit after hit, while increasing durability race after race.
Key Geometry updates
I am very familiar with the Epic line, I’ve raced one on and off for the past seven years. The changes are notable but never that drastic. I did find myself looking for something more capable or maybe less point and shoot in recent years and felt the last version of the Epic lacking some spirit. I’m very familiar with the handling of the current Epic and putting the updated version side by side – I can confidently say the updates are critical to the steady handling and insane speed this bike can produce.
The most important update for me is the slacker headtube angle – Specialized has been slacking the head tube on each Epic; from 71.0 (Epic World Cup) to 69.5 (Current Epic) to 67.5 (2021 Epic). The feeling is barely notable from a static fit, especially with the longer top tube, but on the trails, the new Epic has a more energetic side – not just aim and pedal. It took some tweaking with the fit to get my position right and to feel confident with the new Epic setup. After some stop and swaps – I found a combo that worked great for my XC style. The Epic arrives with a stock 75mm stem and 760mm bars. I swapped the 75mm stem out for a 90mm after a few long days in the saddle. The 75mm stem felt cramped even with the wide (to me) S-Works bars. The longer stem didn’t affect the lively nature of the bike, and I found myself settling into the sweet spot, riding long and longer.
On my first rides, I set up my suspension to the tune of the weight charts and rolled out with my shock pump in my pack. My first rides I noticed I was nowhere near full travel on the fork or rear, so I dumped about ten psi and hit the same section of trail. The change in the air pressure set off how fluid the updated Brain suspension is. My first impressions were that I couldn’t feel the Brain “knock on/off.” Older models of the Epic had a distinct sensation when the threshold hit and inertia valve would open. This sensation has progressed every year, but some click still was present until this version. The on/off is so fluid that I found myself riding in the firmest Brain Fade setting thinking I was somewhere in the middle. The feeling is akin to the explosive ride of a hardtail and the plush nature of a full suspension – truly the best of both worlds. I would change the fork and shock pressure recommendations across the board. The prescribed air pressure from the chart was way too high and does not represent how plush and active the Brain can be. I found myself going at least 10-15 psi lower than the chart with much better results and a different experience.
The point and shoot nature of the Epic is still there, but the handling is much more grounded. The slacker headtube lets the rider invite more spirit into their ride in exchange for all-out line-drive racing. Riding a bike on the pointy edge of performance, you can forget all the small building blocks that create such a machine. The S-Works version of the Epic cuts no corners when it comes to race preparedness. What I imagine would be close to the setup for some of the 2021s cross country Olympic hopefuls, the S-Works Epic is meticulously spec’d to let you go as fast as your body allows. The bike sports a full SRAM XX1 12 speed Eagle AXS groupset with Guide Ultimate brakes and a Quarq power meter. As a racer, I fully appreciate the build. There were not many pieces I would have changed on this bike for race day. The Quarg easily synced to my head unit, and I was off watching watts. One part that I would have swapped is the 32T stock chainring. The S-Works version is such a race-bred machine that I would have imagined it would support a 34T like more bikes of its caliber.
Another piece that helps the Epic perform is the new Roval Control SL wheels. These are a relatively recent addition to the Roval family and are the lightest mountain bike wheel the company has produced. The rims are asymmetrical, wide, hookless, and the wheelset weighs a scant 1240 grams. The new wheels are 50% more compliant than the previous Control SLs, yet they offer 29% more impact strength. The wheels are a notable advantage when the trail goes uphill, but they aren’t too shabby in the roots or rocks either. The 29mm internal width offers a premium channel for the supplied 2.3 tires to roll. The new Epic embraces the wide tires, arriving with 2.3 Fast Track Controls over the 2.3/2.1 S-Works version of years past. I was happy to see a sensible tire on a race bike. You can’t win if you’re on the trailside plugging a side wall.
That said – I didn’t experience a single flat or cut during my review, which includes many 5-6 hour rocky vision quests. Though if I did, I would have been ok, as the S-Works and other models of the Epic arrive with Specialized SWAT tools, including the new conceal carry tool. The tool stays hidden in the steer tube, concealing a chain breaker, a quick link, and the SWAT tool that hides under the water bottle cage.
2021 Specialized Epic confirmed weights
- S-Works Epic Bike alone: 21.5 (Medium tested)
Epic Frame weights – including shock, hanger, axle, and bolts
- S-Works Epic: 1869g
- Epic Pro: 1947g
- S-Works Epic EVO: 1659g
- Epic EVO Pro: 1759g
The Specialized S-Works Epic is a bike built to go fast, and it is not shy about it. What surprised me is how comfortable and capable of varying terrain the platform is. On rides that would have cracked my backside, the Epic was comfortable and agile. The front end was never cumbersome, and I always felt spry on the bike. The performance is a premium, and for that, the price matches. The paint job is stunning and looks more like a one-off frameset than a production bike. At $11,250, the 2021 S-Works Epic is a niche purchase, even for the most committed of racer. Yet fear not, the Specialized Epic will be available in various combinations of performance and utility, with matching Brain attributes and the same ride that the S-Works model delivers. So if you’re looking for a bike to set PRs and become the KOM of your local trail system – the S-Works Epic is a must ride. The platform is adaptable to many different riding styles and terrain plus, it’s not too shabby on the eyes either.