First Ride Review: Specialized Epic Comp Carbon 29

Blisteringly fast 29er full-suspension with effective terrain-sensing auto-lockout and brilliant spec

The Specialized Epic Comp Carbon 29 is an excellent companion for those fast, all-day cross-country trail outings when you've got a lot of ground to cover and little time to do it. The proven four-bar rear suspension design lends 100mm of smooth travel while the corresponding Brain auto-lockout shock ensures it only moves when it should, the carbon fiber front triangle saves some weight and adds handling precision over an equivalent aluminum structure, and fast-rolling 29" wheels simply devour smaller obstacles and help maintain momentum.

As has been the case for years, one of the brightest points of Specialized's 'FSR' shorter-travel full-suspension designs is the true four-bar rear end's ultra-active personality that stands in contrast to some other short-travel configurations that can have a distinctly tauter feel, particularly on smaller features. On rougher terrain the Epic setup is fantastically adept at maintaining tire contact and has a gently progressive spring rate that makes good use of its modest 100mm of movement while still lending that characteristically smooth, pillowy ride that oftentimes can literally save your ass after a long day.

Unlike even the best standalone four-bar variants, though, the auto-lockout FlowControl Mini Brain rear shock only lets the suspension do its thing when needed so that supple performance is also paired with superb pedaling efficiency - and now that Fox Racing Shox handles the shock manufacturing, these latest units actually seem to be holding up as they should. It sounds too good to be true but the Brain genuinely does work: dial in the bump threshold to your desired level of firmness and there's zero visible movement on smoother ground whether you're deftly spinning away in the saddle or mashing gears out of it.

Epic-equipped Specialized factory team riders have even racked up some notable victories in short track - a discipline rife with violent efforts and pedaling bursts that will decimate spongier setups.

Moreover, the switch from locked-out to active is effectively instant and very predictable, particularly in more technical areas where you really need to know if the suspension is going to move beneath you. In most cases the transition from open to closed is nearly imperceptible, though it can take a few rides to get used to the feel at firmer threshold settings. At that end of the range, the system still opens up at the first obstacle you encounter but the sensation - and sound, oddly enough - is eerily similar to bottoming out a tire on a rock.

Handling characteristics are well suited to the Epic Comp Carbon 29's all-day persona with a not-too-quick 70.5-degree head tube angle (remember, we're talking about 29" wheels here) and the same bottom bracket height as Specialized's 26" Epic. Coupled with the reasonably wide 680mm flat bar you can confidently toss the Epic into dicey high-speed corners, lean on that outside pedal and firmly set your line with little chance of getting bounced off. The wheelbase is just 13mm longer than the smaller-wheeled Epic, too, so the bike is still appropriately eager to switch direction.

While the wheelbase is only slightly longer than the 26" equivalent, the more substantial total end-to-end length can still make for tough going in especially tight situations where you need every bit of space to maneuver. It's a bit of a two-edged sword: the bigger wheels more easily claw their way up and over obstacles, especially at slower speeds, but you've got to be a little more aware of where everything is at the same time. This played out on one particularly tight uphill switchback on one of our regular test loops that's tricky on even longer-travel 26" bikes on account of its rocky ledge right at the apex but we consistently nailed it on the Epic Comp Carbon 29.

Specialized doesn't equip the Epic Comp Carbon 29 with a thru-axle fork but front-end rigidity is still better than one might expect even when there are a lot of lateral loads on the front wheel, making those excellent handling figures quite predictable as well. The bulbous carbon main triangle includes a tapered head tube and matching aluminum steerer while the conventional quick-release open dropouts couple with an old-yet-new trick: giant hub end caps (think back to aftermarket offerings in the early 90s) that offer better bracing against unwanted movement than conventional dimensions plus a thru-bolt skewer (the return of the Skraxle!) with a repositionable lever design borrowed from DT Swiss.

Carbon-plus-aluminum helps keep the weight down without breaking the bank

The Epic Carbon Comp 29 is Specialized's least expensive model in the family to come equipped with a composite frame but lesser fiber blends are used relative to the top-end versions to help keep costs down and there's also a welded aluminum rear triangle instead of a full-carbon setup but still with cartridge bearing pivots throughout. As a result, the 2.63kg (5.80lb) frame weight is good but not great considering the short travel and US$4300 price tag - that the bike rides and pedals so well is further testament to the Brain's effectiveness and the refined suspension design.

Included features are well in keeping with the times so you can at least be reasonably confident that your purchase won't be outdated too quickly. In addition to the aforementioned tapered front end, Specialized also equips the Epic Comp Carbon 29 frame with a PressFit 30 bottom bracket shell - though in this case, it's filled with an adapter for threaded cups. There are also extra guides to run a remote telescoping seatpost if so desired, too.

Specialized may have downgraded to aluminum stays but the designers have thankfully retained the clever 142 Plus rear hub system. Similar to the X-142 system originally developed by Syntace, 142 uses thru-axle rear dropouts and a wider 142mm outside-to-outside hub dimension for a stiffer rear end. Specialized goes one step further, however, by also pushing the business ends of the hub a few millimeters further apart for better spoke bracing angles and improved wheel stiffness (other 142mm hubs generally use the same shells as conventional 135mm OLD models).

Guided dropouts make for speedier rear wheel changes relative to many other thru-axle designs, too, while the clever replaceable rear derailleur hanger design means you only have to carry spare aluminum bolts (one extra is included), not complete hangers. The post mount rear brake tabs are even compatible with 140mm rear rotors should you decide to go all weight weenie with upgrades later on.

Wider rear hub spacing notwithstanding, there's still one Achilles' heel in terms of rear-end flex: the diminutive seat tube-mounted swing link. True, it's light and tidy but also only minimally braced where the seat stays attach, resulting in a hint of lateral flex when you're really leaning hard through a corner.

Awesome spec - give that product manager a raise

One might be forgiven for describing the parts package on the Epic Comp Carbon 29 'eclectic' but in reality, the somewhat hodgepodge selection of bits is carefully tweaked to extract the most benefit from the 29" wheels while also generally helping the bike feel faster than its 12.02kg (26.50lb) actual complete weight without pedals might otherwise suggest.

Wheels are fairly conventional with tubeless-compatible alloy rims made by DT Swiss and sealed cartridge bearing hubs front and rear. They're light enough and adequately rigid, plus they held up well during testing with the exception of one small dent (that was easily repaired later) after an especially nasty rock hit. Specialized has wisely wrapped those with its top-end S-Works Renegade and Captain tires, though.

The low-knob Renegade rolls ridiculously quickly, grabs surprisingly well on bare rock, and floats through deep sand, yet still offers decent drive traction even on looser terrain if you get your pressures right (just stay away from mud). At the other end, the knobbier Captain delivers a more confident purchase to pull you through a wider range of conditions. Cornering grip up front is good on loose or soft dirt but still sketchy on loose-over-hardpack or hardpack, though - and overall performance on exposed rock could definitely be better.

Both tires are truly feathery at well under 500g apiece to help mask the 29" wheels' greater mass, too. Bear in mind that they come equipped with tubes from the factory but are readily convertible to tubeless - lopping 130g of rotating weight off in the process as a bonus. Just be mindful on jagged rocks as the paper-thin casings sacrifice some durability to shed those grams.

SRAM handles the lion's share of the spec with its RockShox Reba RLT 29 fork, Avid Elixir R SL brakes (custom tuned for Specialized with alloy-backed pads), an X9 rear derailleur, and an X7 direct-mount front derailleur and trigger shifters. The lone exceptions are a KMC chain and smooth-shifting Shimano 12-36T cassette.

Braking power and modulation was ample and predictable - though we definitely missed the bite point adjustment to balance the two sides - and there was little to fault with the shifting performance aside from the disappointing lack of tactile feedback in the X7 triggers. The SRAM S-1250 crankset isn't especially light with its solid-forged arms but on the plus side, Specialized has fitted 24/38T chainrings that are better suited to the Epic's 29" wheels than SRAM's stock two-ring offerings and the latest GXP external-bearing bottom bracket spins with far less friction than earlier units that don't feature the latest Gutter seal design.

The rest of the bike is finished off with Specialized-branded bits including the aforementioned flat alloy bar, the handy adjustable-angle aluminum stem, competent alloy seatpost with its easily adjusted and secure one-bolt head, and well shaped (if perhaps a tad firm) Phenom Comp saddle.

More detailed thought can be found in the disc rotors and lock-on grips, both of which vary in diameter with frame size. Heck, even the down tube comes with thick protective tape pre-applied to the underside to guard against rock strikes. Some might lament the brake and derailleur lines dangling below the bottom bracket shell but we had no problems during testing.

Hardly cheap but wants for little

US$4,300 is far from pocket change but in all fairness, Specialized's Epic Comp Carbon 29 is well appointed straight out of the box and offers a stellar suspension package with sorted handling. Hardcore racers will likely still want something a bit lighter but it wouldn't be terribly difficult to cleave some significant mass later on as parts wear out and the frame is well worth additional upgrades.

For general cross-country use and especially marathon-type events, though, this thing is just about dialed. Just be sure to bring enough food and drink for the day.

Full Specifications

Price: US$4,300
Available sizes: small, medium (tested), large, extra-large
Weight: 12.02kg (26.50lb) complete, without pedals; 11.89kg (26.21lb) when set up tubeless; 2.63kg (5.80lb) bare frame with shock, rear derailleur hanger, seatpost collar, bottom bracket adapter sleeve
Pros: Brilliant Brain auto-lockout, stiff carbon front triangle, reasonable weight, excellent manners in rocky terrain, highly thought-out spec, feels faster than you'd expect
Cons: Vague SRAM X7 shifters, somewhat fragile tire casings, wish it were lighter for the price
Cyclingnews verdict: 4 stars
More information:

Full specifications

Frame: Specialized Epic Comp Carbon 29, FACT 9m carbon fiber front triangle, M5 aluminum chain stays and seat stays, 100mm travel
Available sizes: S, M (tested), L, XL
Rear shock: Fox/Specialized remote Mini-Brain with inertia valve and Brain Fade adjust
Fork: RockShox Reba RLT 29, tapered alloy steerer, 100mm travel, standard dropouts
Headset: FSA Orbit tapered
Stem: Specialized XC
Handlebars: Specialized XC Flat, 680mm
Tape/grips: Specialized lock-on, size-specific
Front brake: Avid Elixir R SL w/ alloy-backed pads, 160mm or 185mm rotor depending on size
Rear brake: Avid Elixir R SL w/ alloy-backed pads, 160mm rotor
Brake levers: Avid Elixir R SL w/ tool-free reach adjust
Front derailleur: SRAM X7
Rear derailleur: SRAM X9
Shift levers: SRAM X7
Cassette: Shimano HG-81, 11-36
Chain: KMC X10
Crankset: SRAM S-1250, 38/24T
Bottom bracket: SRAM GXP with PressFit-86 adapter
Pedals: Resin test ride pedals
Rims: DT Swiss X450SL
Front hub: Specialized Hi Lo disc, 32h w/ oversized end caps and RWS thru-bolt
Rear hub: Specialized Hi Lo 142+ Disc
Spokes: DT Swiss Champion 15g
Front tire: Specialized S-Works The Captain, 29x2.0"
Rear tire: Specialized S-Works Renegade, 29x1.95"
Saddle: Specialized Body Geometry Phenom Comp
Seat post: Specialized 2014 alloy

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