A demo van recently showed up to our Wednesday night race series. The Howarth Park Dirt Crits are put on by Bike Monkey and ladle out silly amounts of fun. The only reason I miss them is when I’m out of town. I’m usually on a bike that isn’t exactly what you’d recommend for a cross country mountain bike race, but then cross country mountain bike racing isn’t really my raison d’être for riding bikes.
The presence of the demo van chock full o’ Specialized mountain bikes gave me a chance to ride an Epic in an actual race-type situation. This may seem no great leap, but every ride I’ve ever done on an Epic was anything other than race. Invariably, the rides were more what I’d call trail rides—recreational poundings that left me wishing for more suspension.
The Dirt Crit loop goes for a single mile, contains a fire road climb followed by a loose, rocky singletrack descent that sweeps into a wider hardback dirt trail followed by a turn back onto singletrack with a few fun turns and one narrow choke of dog-sized boulders.
I’ll just go ahead and say that the only mountain bike in Specialized’s lineup that I disliked more than the Epic was the Epic Hardtail. Right now, at least a few of you are groaning. Unlike my Paceline cohosts Fatty and Hottie, events like Leadville hold zero attraction for me, so generally when I’m thinking about going as fast as possible on a dirt road I’m thinking about a gravel bike.
I’ve ridden the Dirt Crits on a gravel bike before. It would be a great tool for the job were it not for two of the sections of single track where suspension clearly makes a difference. So I was curious to see if the Epic would finally bridge the difference between the speedier climbing on the gravel bike and the quicker, more controlled drop of a full-suspension trail bike. It was at least five pounds lighter than the MTB, but it was probably still five pounds heavier than some of the gravel bikes I’ve ridden.
Of course, one of the features of the 100mm-travel Epic that I hadn’t cared for previously was just how stiff the suspension was. There were times when it seemed to me that a fat bike would offer a gentler ride. My general feeling is that the Specialized Brain was just too slow to open and so it really only took the edge off the biggest bumps. For 2018, the Epic gets Specialized’s Micro Brain with Spike Valve, the next generation in Specialized’s effort to provide the efficient pedaling of a hard tail while still offering a bike with the tracking of a 100mm travel rig. This is a big improvement.
Because I’ve ridden the Dirt Crits course on everything from a 160mm-travel monster to a gravel bike with 40mm-wide tires, I know where and when a bike is taking the edge off and I know when the suspension is robbing me of acceleration, if not top speed.
I was on the $5200 Epic Expert, half the cost of the S-Works edition, but a bike of such low weight and smooth function it’s hard to claim that the S-Works is anything other than extravagance. The Expert is a better bike than it’s S-Works predecessor from 2011. The SRAM Eagle group may have had 12 gears, but I only used five of them over the course of the race. Sure, it’s a course of limited challenge, but if there’s one thing that will turn me off to a bike it is running out of gears.
A quick consultation of Strava will show that I recorded my fastest lap ever on the Dirt Crits course on the Epic. As it should be, right? But here’s what surprised me: After the race was over, I wanted to go try it on the rocky terrain of Annadel and that urge surprised me, much the way our current new cycle does.
I’ve become accustomed to the feeling of a bike’s rear suspension loading up as I accelerate. I don’t dig it, but for most of the riding I do it isn’t a big drawback. What impressed me about the Epic was how it didn’t wind up and yet it still provided enough float over rocks and stutter bumps that I maintained all the control I’ve come to expect on other bikes.
Final thought: A rocket sled with versatility.