The Specialized Epic is due a relaunch for the 2017 model year. How will the legendary cross country and marathon machine evolve? Will the redesigned Epic follow the trend in trail bikes and become slacker and longer?
Recently, pictures leaked that are claimed to show the upcoming 2017 model year Specialized Epic. If the information is valid, it seems the frame will remain unchanged for another year. This would come as a surprise, since the Olympics would be an ideal event to introduce a new model – and both Cannondale and Scott have recently presented substantially revamped frames for their cross country models. Whether it will be a mid-summer release this year or maybe an early release in spring next year – a new Specialized Epic is on the way, and it is exciting to speculate about possible changes.
I have to say I’m not really a cross country type of rider, and the idea of a head angle steeper than 67°-68° is downright scary to me. With their steep angles and short wheelbases, I find most cross country bikes a twitchy, nervous ride, akin to a skittish horse. If riders race it in marathon and cross country, chances are, the bike is not for me. But I’m curious to see how this segment will evolve – if the current trend continues, maybe we’ll have short-travel machines that are actually able to descend alongside modern trail bikes in the near future. Certainly, recent designs have moved towards increased stability, by becoming slacker and longer. If you compare the 2017 Scott Spark to its predecessor, the RC version is a full degree slacker and sports a longer wheelbase, even though the chain stays have been cut by 13mm. The non-RC Spark version wants to dip its toes into trail bike territory, with a 67.2° head angle and an 1182.8 wheelbase (size L) that dwarfs a few of the shorter bikes in the all mountain category. Trek’s Superfly FS is succeeded by the Top Fuel, which is 1.5° slacker and has the chain stays shortened by almost 20mm, to a hardtail-like 433.
|Model||Head Angle||Wheelbase||Rear Center||Reach||Travel|
|2015 Trek Superfly FS||70°||1151||452||444||100|
|2016 Trek Top Fuel||68.5°||1144||433||457||100|
|2015 Scott Spark||69.5°||1142.5||448||442||100|
|2017 Scott Spark RC||68.5°||1158.6||435||456.8||100|
|2017 Scott Spark||67.2°||1182.8||438||460||120|
|2016 Specialized Epic WC||71°||1131||439||446||95|
|2016 Specialized Epic||70.5°||1140||448||441||100|
While I appreciate the changes in head angle to improve descending prowess, I am not so sure about the chain stay length – 433 seem really short on a long-reach full suspension 29er. Short chain stay bikes seem to be outselling long chain stay bikes by a mile, so maybe from a marketing point of view, it is a path manufacturers have to follow after the short chain stays have been deeply set in the consumers’ mindset. I am certainly no XC racer, and uphill switchbacks are far from my favorite pastime – but I can tell a well-balanced bike from an unbalanced one (read about my view on rear center length: How do you like your chain stays?). To say a long chain stay bike is a better climber, and short chain stays equal a faster cornering bike is a gross simplification and possibly misleading, in my opinion. You have to really look into the details, and a bike is more than the sum of its parts. You have to consider wheelbase, head angle, bottom bracket height and drop, as well. But I can certainly confirm that rear centers can both be too long and too short on a specific bike. And if they are too short, you lose stability and front-wheel traction in the descents, and your bike will require more body English to keep the front down on challenging climbs. Given the relatively short wheelbase of even the more progressive cross-country bikes, I’d say the issue might be small, and of course more competent riders have thoroughly tested the new bikes – so it may nonexistent.
For the 2014 model year, Specialized introduced two Epic variants: The more marathon-focused standard Epic and an even more aggressive cross country World Cup model with a steeper head angle and shorter chain stays. The 439mm short stays required Specialized to drop the front derailleur mount, so the World Cup model was one-by drivetrain only (apparently, the Taco blade design used on the Enduro 29 and the 2016 Stumpjumper FSR was not an option). Even though many racers faced the challenge of selecting the right chainring for the course, the one-by world cup model was a success not only with them, but with weekend warriors, as well. With the advent of SRAM Eagle 1×12 drivetrains, the reasons to run a two-by setups have further diminished.
Speaking of the Stumpjumper FSR: Specialized’s all purpose trail bike now shares the frame (“trail chassis”) with the Camber, and both essentially got “Evofied” – their head angles and travel now match the former Stumpy Evo and Camber Evo models. With the Camber sitting at 68.5° and 120mm travel, there is a potential spot for another model or at least a variant to complement the lineup between the pure-XC-bred Epic and the Camber. I’d see two options for Specialized:
(1) Introduce a dedicated marathon and light trail bike with a stand-alone frame design
Let’s face it, Camber and Stumpy FSR are really close, and in my opinion, there is little reason to ride a Camber over a Stumpy. A significant part of the weight difference is in the tires, which I’d change anyway. A progressive marathon bike that could also serve as a light duty trail bike might offer what the previous Camber was to the Stumpy: A valid alternative that significantly shines on the climbs. While this would be interesting for many riders, I’m not sure even a big player like Specialized will want to invest into the carbon molds if they can achieve a similar result in an easier way.
(2) Use the space in the lineup to further differentiate Epic and Epic World Cup
As even world cup XC courses feature ever more demanding descents, there’s no doubt the Epic World Cup’s next iteration will become more progressive. But for the tight and twisty tracks, riders will want to keep the snappy handling. In order to preserve its XC race capabilities, designers may opt to slacken the World Cup version only moderately, while introducing a true all-round marathon machine based on the same frame design. The marathon version would be a little slacker and feature a bit more travel than the XC race bike, which would probably be kept at 100mm.
I think it is more likely that Specialized will pursue the second strategy. It would make sense from a marketing, manufacturing and purchasing perspective. With that in mind, let’s look at the two model variants:
|Model||Head Angle||Wheelbase||Rear Center||Reach||Travel|
|2016 Epic World Cup||71°||1131||439||446||95|
|2018 Epic World Cup||~69.5°||~1140||~437||~445||100|
|2018 Epic Marathon||~69°||~1145||~437||~440||110|
I think that Specialized will resist the temptation to go significantly slacker in head angle. Even though the Trek Top Fuel and the Scott Spark RC sport 68.5°, this is what Specialized just recently designed the Camber to be. In terms of their overall lineup, it would make sense for the Epic to be slightly less slack than the Camber – so I’m expecting a head angle in the 69° range. Both the Camber and Stumpjumper FSR top models have 437mm carbon chain stays, and it is likely Specialized will want to reuse these across multiple product lines (in fact, the chain stay looks suspiciously similar to the Epic World Cup’s 439mm carbon stays). They’d not have the shortest chain stays in the XC segment, but that would only require a small change in marketing messaging (i.e. “short, but not too short”). Of course, a slacker head angle with nearly unchanged rear centers would result in a slightly longer wheelbase. I doubt Specialized will want to add a lot of wheelbase in addition to that, as cross country race tracks are still a tight and twisty affair. I expect reach numbers to stay roughly the same, maybe increase a little.
Traditionally, Specialized hasn’t been early to the party when it comes to new standards, but I think it is safe to say they’ll include Boost rear ends and a Boost forks in their full 2017 lineup. Several major manufacturers had Boost in their 2016 models, so it would be a surprise if Specialized would lag more than one model year. Even though Boost may be a pain for everybody who has invested in a high end wheel set, I fear it is here to stay – until it is replaced by the next standard.
RockShox and several other suspension manufacturers seem to be committed to going metric on their shocks, and this will obviously impact all frames we’re going to see from 2017 model year onwards. It could be one of the reasons why we’ve been seeing late product launches and are still waiting for the Enduro and Epic. Fox has been a bit silent regarding their plans, but they may just hold their cards and introduce their metric offerings a bit later. It seems standards have a will of their own, almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Introducing the SWAT door has been a major development in the carbon frames, and Specialized would also want to use the technology on as many frame designs as possible. But Brandon Sloan said in an interview with Italian website mtbcult.it “You know how we do it. We develop a technology and we apply it wherever it makes sense. And it does make sense for an Enduro rider or a trail rider for sure.” – note he’s referring to Enduro and trail riders, not XC and marathon racers. While the former mostly welcomed the SWAT door with the occasional stiffness complaint, the latter are a bit more concerned, not to say weenie-ish, about the ~200g added weight. Although Specialized has never tried to produce the lightest XC frame at all cost, 200g seem a lot of excess baggage in an arena where people buy titan screws for their water bottle mounts and post the screws’ weight on an Internet forum – a dilemma. One solution might be to offer the World Cup version with an external, demountable SWAT system, while the marathon machine gets the full SWAT door, which would also help to further differentiate both models.
The new Fox 32 Step-Cast would be an obvious choice. With its 2.98 lbs, it saves a bit less than the equivalent of the SWAT door compared to RockShox SID World Cup at 3.3 lbs. The Rockshox RS-1 fork currently specced on the S-Works models offers excellent performance, but is comparably heavy at 3.67 lbs.
Specialized’s alliance with Öhlins has been expanded step by step, with the Swedish suspension specialist now producing air forks and shocks for several Specialized models, the Enduro in particular. It is likely that Specialized will want to introduce the premium brand’s products on more models in their lineup. The recently RXF 36 fork and STX air shock would make an ideal complement to the new Enduro, and the RXF 34 could appear on next year’s trail bikes (Stumpy FSR and Camber). With Specialized shifting a part of its purchasing from SRAM and Fox to Öhlins, it is not unreasonable to expect them to pursue a long-term strategy and develop a light 32 stanchion fork for cross-country and marathon applications. Developing a new benchmark cross-country fork and shock is a major project, especially if you add a BRAIN function – and could be a reason for delaying the Epic’s redesign.
Drivetrain-wise, SRAM Eagle XX1 is the gold standard. The new group set’s gear range is enough to make a Shimano front derailleur designer cringe, and even with its slightly larger gear spacing, the range alone will have many XC riders forgo their trusted two-by setup. We’ll certainly see this on the S-Works and probably Expert models.
On a marathon version, it would be hard to eschew the front derailleur though. Until 1×12 technology has trickled down to the lower groups, running 1×12 is still pretty expensive, especially if you run through cassettes quickly. And for for long distance epics with changing terrain, a two-by setup option would be a good solution, also serving to differentiate the models. On a top end marathon offering, an electronic Shimano Di2 with its reliability and precision would be a sensible choice.
In the past, Specialized has delayed product launches several times when new standards shook the bicycle industry. For instance, when 650B took over, Specialized postponed the Stumpjumper FSR redesign, and initially used the existing frame with a new rear triangle. I think the same may be happening because of Boost and metric shocks.
Designer Peter Denk has joined Specialized end of 2014. At that time, the current Epic frame had just been introduced, and a revision was expected for the 2017 model year. Considering the time a new frame takes from initial design to production ramp-up, I think the new Epic could be the first bike he is involved in as a designer, especially if Specialized decides to introduce the new model in an early release next year. In that case, this summer would bring only color changes and Boost, but after that, fasten your seat belts, because Denk engineering is known for its rather creative solutions. I’m quite convinced we won’t see any pull shocks on the new Epic, and Specialized already has its share of proprietary parts, but it would still be a major redesign with Peter Denk’s signature.
We’ll know in a few weeks whether the 2017 Epic is a redesign or just a few new colors and Boost. In the latter case, a 2018 launch would probably bring an even more comprehensive redesign. I’ll update this post as more information comes in.