New is always better?
It’s always a good day when it’s new bike day. This came to me later last summer in the form of the 2017 Specialized Epic FSR Comp Carbon Torch Edition. Before I continue, no it isn’t the version that changes colour in the heat! That was the SWorks version, yes it’s very cool and worked well on the Tarmac at the Olympic Games in Rio. Little miss positivity in me says I got the best of both worlds having both the yellow and the orange. It’s certainly eye catching and is my little ray of sunshine whatever the weather, but of course the paint job really doesn’t affect the performance of the bike, but it certainly got my attention! Yes shiny new bikes are great, but it’s worth taking a look at what you want to be using it predominantly for, what kit is on it, where they may have skimped, which could change the feel and performance of the whole bike.
This bike is a whole lot of new to me and I jumped in without trying it, so I really was hoping the reviews of previous models and my appreciation of the research, technology and design that Specialized put into there bikes was going to meet my expectations. I was after a cross country race machine, but also something that would be comfortable to ride in 12 and 24 hour solo races, to be honest I think that’s a big ask of any bike and in fact my body! I was going to go for the Epic HT, but this one got released and I just couldn’t resist a little bit of suspension to soften the blow and too be honest I’m already pleased I did and I’ve not done the 24 hour races yet!
So here’s the low-down
- FRAME: Specialized FACT 9m carbon, World Cup XC 29 Geometry, M5 rear triangle, carbon PF30 BB, carbon headset cups, 142mm dropouts, internal cable routing, PM 160 rear brake, SWAT tool cradle
- FORK: Custom RockShox Reba RL, rebound adjust, Solo Air spring, tapered alloy crown/steerer, 15x100mm Maxle Stealth thru-axle, 100mm of travel, 51mm offset (THESE HAVE ALREADY BEEN REPLACED!)
- REAR SHOCK: Fox/SBC Epic remote Mini Brain with Autosag, brain fade adjust i-valve
- STEM: Specialized, 3D-forged alloy 75mm, 4-bolt, 6-degree rise (Switched to a 45mm)
- HANDLEBARS: Specialized Mini-rise, 6000 alloy, 8-backsweep, 6-upsweep, 10mm rise, 720mm width, 31.8mm clamp
- BRAKES: Shimano M506, hydraulic disc, resin pad, 180/160mm rotor
- DRIVETRAIN: SRAM NX/GX 11spd with 11-42 Cassette and 30T chainring
- WHEELS: Specialized disc, alloy, sealed cartridge bearings,15x100mm thru-axle Front, 32h. 12×142 Rear
- TYRES: Specialized Fast Trak, Control casing, 29×2.2″, 60TPI, clincher, Aramid folding bead, 2Bliss Ready
- SADDLE: Specialized Body Geometry Phenom Comp, hollow Cr-Mo rails, 143mm (CHANGED)
- SEATPOST: Specialized, alloy, single bolt, 30.9mm (TO BE CHANGED TO A DROPPER!)
To some of you this will be a list of numbers in a table. In fairness it still is a bit of a minefield as I’ve not had it explained in a way I’d remember, but I mainly look at the head-tube angle, where the steeper the angle the more agile the steering, the epic being to the steeper side making it quick and responsive. Stand over is becoming less important as the frame design is giving away to generally lower stand over. If you want to get a better understanding of some of these numbers check these articles out
- The complete guide to mountain bike geometry
- Geometry: an in depth explanation
- GMBN – Head Angle & BB Height Explained
It’s got big wheels!
I have only tried out a couple of 29ers in quite different circumstances. Firstly was on the 2016 Enduro and stumpy 29er and simply found them underwhelming because they could just plough though everything (no technique required), plus I struggled to turn them into corners, but I think that is my issue not the bikes! The other one I tried out was the Canyon Exceed CF SLX 29, which was a fast, racey hardtail with the Rock shot RS1 forks, so the other extreme and after a couple of days on it, got used to the ride and loved pretty much everything about it, apart from having to give it back!
The 29er is now pretty well established as a common wheel size particularly for cross country, though lately they are trying out the big wheel and long travel bikes, which seems to be working as well (there are no limits!). There are questions that go with height of the rider in relation to what size wheeled bike would perform best for the rider, but this is just an ongoing debate that has no black and white answer, just guidance to get the perfect fit. This is however where it falls short, those wheels are pretty naff to be honest. They are what brings up the weight and loses in stiffness especially as the spokes are already required some more tension and I’ve not ridden it hard really.
I’ve seen a natural link between 29er wheels and faster rolling pace, so that’s got to be a good thing right? Well, the part that I have had to come to grips with, is actually getting it up to speed. When it’s there, yes it flies, but I am all too aware that I’m having to put more effort in to get it there. It’s amazing on the long climbs, it’s fantastic at skipping over roots and rocks, in a straight line it goes. It’s just those flipping corners, It’s a big wheel to guide around sometimes narrow and twisty trails that sometimes I tend to take a wider line than I would prefer. All in all though, the pro’s definitely outweigh the cons on this bike anyway!
It’s got a Brain
“Brain suspension technology was developed to deliver the utmost in efficiency on the trail. Whether it’s at the front or rear of a bike’s suspension, it’s able to differentiate between rider input and trail bumps, ensuring that your pedaling forces aren’t being wasted in compressing the suspension.” https://www.specialized.com/us/en/brain-technology
It’s firm over smooth terrain to maximize efficiency and active over the rougher stuff. Simply put this means more speed and control, now that’s never a bad thing. I’ve played about with it as it has soft to firm settings. Now on the shorter XC rides I have been popping it onto firm, to gain the maximum speed as the terrain isn’t that rough. On the trail centre rides, mtb marathons and the latter stages of a long endurance ride I put it to the soft side for a bit more comfort where comfort as well efficiency is appreciated.
The only draw back to it is in the middle setting closer to soft is the delay in reaction. You go into a bomb hole or some rougher terrain and it doesn’t feel as though it’s quite in sync with you. Fair enough it can’t see what’s coming up, so naturally there will be slower reactions, but it does create some interesting feedback and noise just after going over the rougher obstacle. I think I still need to get to grips with it to gain the maximum usage out of it, just like my own brain!
There is so much on a bike these days that you can waffle on about, but the majority of the time all we care about it how it performs at the prescribed style of biking it’s designed for. In this case it was chucked straight into the fire as it’s first outing was a 12 hour at Torq in you Sleep, last year! Nothing like 12 hours in the saddle to really get to know it, right! I had managed to go for a quick hour spin up and down the local trails near me, just to get a handle on things and twerking it a bit, such as seat post height (not used to a static post), saddle position and getting to grips with the bigger wheels, really hoping I would like them!
It was up to the task, more than me! It was comfortable, efficient and could have been fast if it wasn’t for me slowing it down. The first few laps was definitely an adjustment to the bigger wheels in the close and tight single track, struggling a little to turn them properly. This improved as I got to know the course and get to grips with the bike. By the end of the race, not only did we take the win (again not much competition here), but I was loving the bike apart from the grips, my hands were at the verge of cramping. It was smooth on the undulations, climbed with ease and on the flats it munched up the terrain. I did find it a bit more effort to get up to speed, but once it was there it didn’t want to stop. These sections were short lived unfortunately, and then I had to build the speed and maintain it through the trees. I was noticing that I was going slower because of the wheel size that I have done on previous bikes on this same course. Is this telling me I am better off on a 650b wheel or that I need to change my riding style to adapt to the bigger wheels. Overall I would say this is built for the short XC races as well as the marathon style rides and it’s down to a few tweeks and rider handling whether or not you can ride to what it is capable of.
It would be better if…
SADDLE – There’s always thing we would like to change and upgrade on bikes just to make them the best possible. There were a few things for my comfort that needed changing, the saddle (a key contact point), with the amount of time I was spending in the saddle this was important, so I have gone with the Specialized Oura expert saddle, which for me is so comfortable even though it’s highlighted to be for the road.
FORKS – A massive upgrade and unexpected treat for myself courtesy of Mojo Suspension setting it off with Fox 32 step-cast forks. These not only finish of the bike beautifully in the bold orange, but they are a whole lot lighter, great adjustability, stable and capable. These were a massive step up from the Rockshox Reba RL’s that come as standard. If there were 2 things that could be upgraded it would be the forks and then the wheel set. The wheels are the massive let down, they are heavy, basic and even for myself being a lighter rider I notice that they are not very strong, but unless a new lightweight XC wheel set falls in my lap that’s what I will use!
STEM – The next thing was the stem, it came with a 75mm length and just found this to stretched out and I was on the lower limit of the medium, so initially reduced it to a 60mm and that was better, but now I have brought it in 15mm more with a 45mm stem that has made the position slightly more uprights and the handling thankfully not twitchy, but just a bit more manoeuvrable for me which is ideal.
GRIPS – Following the stem were the grips, I’ve not got on with basic Specialized ones at all, just feel horrible. These changed initially to some ODI Elite grips, with a bit of waffle for better grip. These are so comfortable and ‘grippy’ but I popped them onto my Orange P7, so I then got some Ergon Marathon grips that have a bit more palm support for the longer rides. I’m still in 2 minds about these as I get slight discomfort down the sides after a couple of hours, but I think it will be down to moving the position slightly.
PEDALS – I did over the winter months pop on some Crank Brother Candy 1 pedals. I was told that particularly in muddy conditions they were one of the easiest to clip in and out of and able to shed mud quickly. I can confirm that they are very easy to clip out of and get rid of the mud well, but to get into them, not so much. I spent more time faffing and struggling to clip into these on a couple of races that I wished I was on flat pedals! It was good to try them, but I’ll stick to my Shimano XT pedals, which just work for me. Speaking of mud, which we see a lot of here in the UK, this bike over the winter races has struggled with mud clearance around particularly the rear tyre. A couple of times I have had to stop to clear it up as the mud has just built up too much. Apart from that it’s handled the delightful conditions of particularly wet Wales (the sun does shine, honest!).
It stands for ‘Storage, Water, Air, Tools’ and all the little tricks work really well. It’s really neat that a bike can carry most of the repair stuff that it may need. It’s all tucked in little crevasses that you don’t see straight off and with minimal noise when pedalling. For one you can have to water bottle cages, that can comfortably hold 600ml bottle, not much more or it will hit the frame or shock. There is a multi tool just above the shock underneath the top tube, You could get one that screws onto the bottom of the SWAT bottle cages, but this is slightly rattly, but convenient.
Next up is the Chain tool tapped into the headset, with the power link sitting neatly on top and all you need to get it out is the 4mm from the multi tool!
Lastly there is the SWAT XC Storage, that works because of the extra bottle cage screw hole to raise the bottle cage, attach the box to the cage and away you go. It really is pretty much self sufficient.
Dropper versus Static…
The latest purchase that could be seen as a topic off debate is a KS E30i 100mm dropper post. It’s one of only a few that have been made for the narrower seat post diameter of 27.2mm. The reason I have gone for this is because I already know that a dropper when descending allows me to let the bike move under me more freely and I can get my weight back therefore increasing my confidence on the bike and in turn hopefully impact positively on my speed too. I just know I have had several occasions where I feel having the seat post up (as high as I need it) means I have caught my shorts and bashed my legs trying to avoid it. The gain in a slight bit of weight will most definitely be over ridden by the comfort, confidence and speed on descents. The Battle on the Beach is going to be the last time for the static post as it looks pretty flat and fast, XC through and through!
Having now used the bike with the dropper on a couple of trail centre rides including Glentress trail centre and the Tweedlove Glentress 7. The dropper for me is a must. It gives me the ability to get further back on the bike on some of the steeper sections allowing me to go through with a bit more speed and control. It definitely outweighs any disadvantages. There would have been a couple of moments where with a static post I may have opted for the easier line, which meant longer, so in fact having the dropper was to a great advantage.
It would be easy to say, this is the best bike I’ve ridden because it’s probably one of the only XC bikes I’ve had the pleasure to ride that has been realistic to what I could afford. As mentioned before I’ve ridden the top spec Canyon Exceed CF SLX and the Cannondale Scalpel Si both being £6k plus and ridiculously light, stupidly stiff and just rapid straight out of the box, but there’s no way that I could afford one, only sponsorship would make this happen. The Epic is great for where I’m at, I’m not the fastest out of the blocks, but I don’t give up and neither does this bike. It is not the most playful on the local trails, but once getting used to the 29er wheels it is just more capable than myself. I know this because I met someone else with one and he was flying on it. It’s a shame that certain speeds don’t come with the bike, not dependent on the rider! If I could I would go for the S Works version, but for what I use it for this is great.