Test: Specialized Epic Expert

Specialized Bicycles produces seven models in their Epic cross-country race line. The top offering is the World Championship-winning S-Works Epic Carbon Disc at a staggering suggested retail price of $8800. While we would all love to ride the bike that Christoph Sauser races (he’s the World Champ), we’ve got to put food on the table and gas in the car. Luckily for us, Specialized understands and brings much of the S-Works technology down to the more affordable Epic Expert.

The Epic Expert is a cross-country race bike that can easily be pressed into service as an all-round trailbike, provided your trails do not require long travel for continuous rocks, ruts and bumps or slack steering for ultra-steep descending.

The Expert is one of only two bikes in the Epic line that come with aluminum frames (all the others are carbon fiber). The aluminum is Specialized’s own alloy blend, and the tubes have been formed to look identical to the flowy lines of the carbon Epics. The suspension pivots use sealed cartridge bearings, and you get a replaceable derailleur hanger.

All of them. The tiny Specialized AFR shock with the remote Brain inertia valve is refined to the point where it is hard to imagine what Specialized can do next. Specialized uses their clout to get almost every component supplier to make concessions. Brakes get carbon upgrades. Cranks come in different lengths, depending on the bike’s size. The brake rotor size is wheel-specific (larger in the front, smaller in the rear). The hubs are made for Specialized. And when Specialized couldn’t get the performance they wanted from a supplier, they made it themselves. That includes this bike’s saddle, seatpost, bar, grips, stem, headset and tires.

Finally, the spotlight has to be turned on the rear suspension’s swinglink. This little beauty is so compact and so well integrated into the bike’s design that it is easy to overlook it completely. It is beautiful and functional.

The setup: Epic riders are required to visit the Specialized website and watch the suspension tutorials. Yes, it is a little bit of a hassle (make sure you have a pad and paper for taking notes), but once you set the suspension properly, you will only need to make minor adjustments for trail conditions and you will never have to worry about throwing platform levers during a ride.
Moving out: The Expert’s frame tubes are compact, so the bike feels small between your legs. This diminutive size makes the bike feel racy from the get go. The moderately narrow handlebar and generous top-tube length position the rider in an aggressive mode, with the rider’s weight biased towards the rear. The Expert bucks the trend of early Epics that felt high in the rear. Where we used to wish for another half inch of fork travel, this bike feels more balanced.
Pedaling performance: In a word, amazing. The bike moves out like a hardtail and soaks up trail chatter like a dual-suspension bike, all at the same time. The frame allows you to throw the bike from side to side between your legs for out-of-the-saddle bursts, but the bike reacts better if you stay in the saddle. That cool little swinglink? It does a lot more than look pretty. The little powerhouse kills flex before it happens. We adjusted the shock’s Brain Fade adjustment to full platform for our hard-packed trail conditions. Riders in muddy or soft conditions can back it out a few clicks.
Cornering: The Expert is quick and nimble. Specialized settled on cross-country race geometry that allows the bike to change directions instantaneously for that quick pass or to avoid an obstacle. This geometry gives up some stability and confidence in fast corners, but Specialized throws in a low bottom bracket height to limit your losses.
Climbing: The Epic doesn’t care if your style is smooth, fluid spinning or big-ring gear mashing. It responds equally well either way. It does reward you for staying seated, though, as your seated weight keeps the rear tire from slipping during the power stroke. A lowering of your shoulders is all it takes to keep the front wheel in contact with the earth on steep climbs or tricky switchbacks.

Descending: The Expert will sail down singletrack with the best of the cross-country race bikes, but when things turn ultra-steep you won’t have the confidence that comes with the long-travel and fat tires found on a trailbike. Still, the excellent suspension components, solid chassis, superior brakes and the bike’s light weight all work together to get you down the mountain.

The shock’s Brain Fade and rebound adjustment require experimentation. What feels like the shock topping out (normally cured by increasing rebound damping) may actually require backing off the Brain Fade. We suggest your first ride on the Expert (or any Epic model) be confined to a short loop where you can log multiple laps while experimenting with the suspension settings. Once you find the ride you want, the reward is you never have to touch it during your rides or races.

If you plan to use your Epic for trail riding instead of racing, you might consider a slightly longer travel fork and a wider handlebar. This would slow down the steering and make steep descents more manageable. But don’t make any changes until you have spent some time on the bike. It is very possible that it will serve your trail riding requirements in stock form.

Forget that the Expert costs less than half the S-Works Epic’s $8800 price tag. And don’t let that guy who spent twice as much on his bike intimidate you. The Epic Expert is a competitive cross-country race bike right out of the box. If you can’t win aboard this bike, you simply can’t blame your equipment.

It is versatile, and the aluminum frame makes it strong enough to serve as your everyday trailbike for years to come. If the trails you ride are fun and flowy, why carry the extra bulk of a trailbike when the Expert will get you to ride’s end faster and more efficiently?
Finally, the Expert comes from a solid company that stands behind its products and boasts a massive dealer network. This fact should not be discounted if you plan to race, rage and ride your new bike for the next five years. The Specialized Epic Expert is an amazing combination of price, proven performance and passion. This bike earns the MBA wrecking crew’s “highly recommended” status. You won’t be disappointed.

Price         $3900
Country of origin         Taiwan
Weight         25.8 pounds
Website         Specialized
Frame tested         17.5″ (medium)
Bottom bracket height         12.75″
Chainstay length         16.75″
Top tube length         23.5″
Head angle         70ø
Seat angle         74.2ø
Standover height         28.5″
Wheelbase         43″
Suspension travel (front)        3.9″
Suspension travel (rear)        3.9″
Frame material         Aluminum
Fork         RockShox SID Race
Shock         Specialized AFR
Rims         DT Swiss X420S
Tires        S-Works Fast Trak LK  (2.0″)
Hub         Specialized Hi Lo disc (f), DT Swiss 370
Brakes         Avid Elixir R Carbon SL
Crankset         Shimano XT Hollowtech II
Shifters         SRAM X.9
Handlebar         Specialized XC low rise (25.5″) 
Front derailleur         Shimano SLX
Rear derailleur         SRAM X.9
Chainrings         Shimano (44/32/22)
Cassette         Shimano (11-34)
Pedals         None (weighed with Shimano XTR)