Incredibly light, supremely capable, surprisingly comfortable and a truly amazing XC hardtail
The latest Specialized S-Works Epic HT AXS is their top-flight XC bike that cuts weight to the bone but how tough is it on the rider?
Specialized S-Works Epic HT AXS need to know
- Ultra-light carbon XC race hardtail with a lay-up tuned for comfort and control
- Modern geometry reflects the shift to more technical XC race courses
- New higher IQ Brain Ultimate technology in the RockShox SID fork gives more sensitivity and grip
- SRAM XX1 Eagle AXS wireless electronic drivetrain delivers instant, precise shifts at the push of a button
- Prices start at £2,249 for the entry-level Epic HT
XC racing has been transformed in recent years. Courses have become more technical, and with shorter laps making the racing more dynamic and engaging, races can be won or lost on the descents, not just the climbs or finish line sprint.
Riders have evolved too. Raised on a strict diet of mountain biking, the next generation of racer demands a lot more from their XC bike than simply mirroring the riding position and fit of a road or cyclocross bike.
And brands like Specialized are delivering the bikes – the new Epic hardtail is a modern XC bike designed to reflect the current demands of racing and the modern rider.
Weight is still of upmost important to XC racers though, and at 790g for the new S-Works Epic hardtail frame, Specialized purports to deliver the lightest production XC frame on the market.
How did it achieve such impressive weight savings? By pulling apart and optimised every single strand of carbon and eliminating overlap wherever possible. In the quest for the lightest frame, even the alloy inserts in the dropouts were eliminated.
Weight saving wasn’t the only goal with the new Epic frame though. Specialized focused on increased stiffness between the head tube and BB for precision steering and power delivery, while making the rear triangle more complaint for improved comfort. It’s the holy-grail of hardtail design, and Specialized appears to have delivered.
One subtle change to the frame that makes a massive difference, at least for dropper post compatibility, is that the seat post on the latest Epic grows from a slender 27.2mm to a standard 30.9mm post. Specialized arcing the seat tube to retain the flex needed for seated comfort.
Up front, the flag-ship Epic gets a 100mm travel RockShox SID fork with Specialized’s Brain Ultimate damping. With the latest configuration the inertia valve only comes into play when you pass the sag position, which means the fork retains better small bump sensitivity and grip. Stand up to sprint however, and the fork will easily support the most powerful riders.
How it rides
I have to admit it’s been a long time since I’ve thrown a leg over and XC race hardtail. But in the past 12 months alone, I must have tested at least thirty hardtails, most costing less that £1,000 and all designed as trail bikes. So it’s safe to stay that I know what the best hardtails are capable of, even if I’ve never shaved my legs.
So imagine my surprise when I discovered that the new Epic HT wasn’t some nervy, neurotic race bike that you need all you wits about you just to navigate a straightforward trail. Sure it’s crazy light, the frame alone weighing 790g. And let’s pause to think about that for a minute. That makes the S-Works Epic frame lighter than the average thin-walled trail tyre. More impressive still, the frame used for the Expert, Pro and regular Epic is only 140g heavier.
And with Specialized’s Rider-First tunes, that use unique carbon lay-ups for all four frame sizes, each Epic HT should offer a similar ride quality regardless of frame size.
But let’s get back to the ride. With the saddle a full mast, I felt out of my depth on anything technical, probably because I’m so used to riding with a dropper post. So it wasn’t long before is use the SWAT multi-tool conveniently stashed at the base of the bottle cage to lower the saddle.
Freed from the constraints of the saddle position, I could ride the Epic exactly how I wanted. It felt remarkably compliant, in or out of the saddle, so it wasn’t anything like the organ jarring experience that I had braced myself for.
Yes, the head 68.5° head angle is steeper than your typical trail bike, but it’s slack compared to most XC race hardtails. Also, because the fork only has 100mm of travel, it maintains that composed geometry better than hardtails with longer travel forks. The shorter fork also means that the reach doesn’t grow as much when the fork sags under the rider’s weight, so given that the size L Epic HT only has a 455mm reach measurement, the 75mm stem actually didn’t feel too long.
So the focus of the latest Epic hardtail was to give riders more control – something that’s reflected in the 760mm handlebar and 2.3in tyres. The fact it is also incredibly light, supremely capable and surprisingly comfortable make it a truly amazing XC hardtail. But why would you choose it over a full suspension bike?
When I put that question to Brian Gordon, the product manage behind the new Epic hardtail, he was crystal clear in his repose; stating that it offered riders the option of a more affordable XC race bike.
Obviously, when he said that, he wasn’t referring to the S-Works bike that I rode, because a £7,999 it’s only £1,000 cheaper than the equivalent Epic full suspension bike.
That said, there are more affordable options in the new Epic HT range, including the entry-level Epic HT at £2,249. The Expert is £4,249 and the Comp comes in at £2,749 all of which represent a a substantial saving over the equivalent Epic FS bikes. Let’s hope they also retain some of the DNA that makes the S-Works Epic HT such an amazing ride.