Cross country race bikes. They're fantastic for winning at Strava but realistically they're not a lot of fun in many other regards, are they? And so plenty of brands are looking for ways to extract more joy out of their cross-country race bikes, tone down that brutal edge of their performance a little bit and make them better all rounders.
Now Specialized have been down this path before and here they are again with a new version of the Epic Evo. As we outlined in our first impressions piece a few weeks ago, the differences between a regular Epic and the Epic Evo a few but important.
First of all you get an extra 20 millimetres travel on the fork bumping it up to 120 mm, it's also got 34mm stanchions instead of 32 you find on the regular Epic. You get a slightly wider handlebar at 750 millimetres instead of 720 and you get a more aggressive front tyre. And then notably you get a dropper post as well. So the changes aren't huge but is it enough to really alter the character of the Epic? Well after a few good rides our answer is... sort of, but not really. You see, on one hand you have a bike that has perhaps the most XC focused suspension system out there. And then on the other hand with the Epic Evo you have a bike that handles really well as a short travel trail bike. So let us explain. You see after a bunch of rides we still found it hard to decide how we wanted to set up our Epic Evo.
We had a bit of a conundrum when it came to the Brain shock. The Brain shock is a real piece of XC brilliance, it is the secret weapon that fuels the acceleration and efficiency of the Epic. And when it comes to removing unwanted suspension movement the way that this thing lets you fly up hills is brilliant. You simply don't realise how much some bikes bob until you hop on a bike that just doesn't. But as we've noted before the Brain system is not without compromise. Now it is adjustable, there are five positions and in the softest setting it delivers quite a smooth ride that is more in keeping with the action of the Fox 34 on the front of the bike. But in our thinking if you've got the Brain on your bike you might as well use it, otherwise you may as well just be running a standard shock in the bike. But as soon as you move that adjuster towards firmer settings it starts to have an impact on how on the bike rides and you can really feel the Brain open and close. And that is incredibly pronounced if you move it into its firmer setting.
Now this is fine for cross-country racing, in those situations you're always going to be happy to compromise a little bit of comfort for more efficiency, but in a trail bike scenario this isn't really what you want in your suspension feel. Of course you could adjust the Brain for different trails - you could run it in a smoother setting for rough trails or you could put it in a firmer setting if you're riding on smooth trails. But in our thinking that is not the point of the Brain. This is really a system that you just want to set and forget. The whole idea behind the Brain is that you don't have to muck around with lockouts or making adjustments all the time, and so we wanted to be able to put it in a single setting and leave it. In the end we opted for a bit of a compromise and we put a bang in the middle setting, accepting the fact we were gonna have a slightly rougher ride as a trade off for really great climbing efficiency. To be honest it doesn't take too long to get used to the feel of the suspension system and that Brain opening and closing and if you're like me and you hate stuffing around with lockout levers on shocks, you really will appreciate the simplicity of how it works. So that's one side of... Oh sh#t! Phew.
So that's one side of this bike, with a suspension system that is really geared around cross-country racing, but on the other hand you have a bike that handles surprisingly well as a short travel trail bike. We were really happy with how this bike performed when we got into some technical trails. The combination of a relatively long reach quite slack angles a very, very stiff frame and some precise wheels gave us plenty of confidence. With the seat dropped we found ourselves getting rowdy and airborne far more often than we expected to on this bike. The whole bike from front to back feels very solid and it's nice and quiet too which always helps put you in a confident frame of mind. On a number of occasions during the test we rolled into tricky sections of trail fully expecting that we're going to take the B-Line only to find ourselves rolling cleanly through the A-Lines again and again. The overall singletrack manners of this bike are excellent and as we remarked in our review of the S-Works Epic a few months back, the way that this bike slots into a corner really calmly and confidently is superb. It's not all roses with this bike though.
The SRAM Level TL brakes for instance are a bit of a letdown - they feel quite dead and wooden and don't have a lot of power. And the plastic dropper post lever is really out of place, it should not be on the bike of this caliber. You kind of get the feeling that in order to deliver the nice and light carbon Roval wheels and quite a few compromises have been made in other areas of the components. The fork for instance just comes with the basic Grip damper which doesn't offer a lot of high-speed damping performance. So we'd be adding a couple of volume reducers to the air spring of this fork in order to increase its bottom out resistance, because the damping doesn't do a great job on saving you from those high-speed impacts. So then, final thoughts. Beautifully made, very efficient and more confident than we expected, even if the price tag does seem a little high, there is a lot to like about this bike. The Epic Evo is the race bike for when you're not racing and is a far more suitable bike for day-to-day riding than the regular Epic, in our opinion.