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Retro tech: 1992 Specialized S-Works Epic Ultimate

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Specialized produced around 1,500 S-Works Epic Ultimate flagships in the early 1990s. The prized machines featured TIG-welded titanium lugs made by Merlin Metalworks and carbon fiber tubes that were bonded in by hand at Specialized's headquarters in Morgan Hill, California

Specialized produced around 1,500 S-Works Epic Ultimate flagships in the early 1990s. The prized machines featured TIG-welded titanium lugs made by Merlin Metalworks and carbon fiber tubes that were bonded in by hand at Specialized's headquarters in Morgan Hill, California (Image credit: Jonny Irick)
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Specialized founder and CEO Mike Sinyard credits Jim Merz with the creation of the S-Works Epic Ultimate

Specialized founder and CEO Mike Sinyard credits Jim Merz with the creation of the S-Works Epic Ultimate (Image credit: Specialized)
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Whereas all-steel cassettes were the standard of the day, this bike made use of a machined titanium cogset from Tioga

Whereas all-steel cassettes were the standard of the day, this bike made use of a machined titanium cogset from Tioga (Image credit: Jonny Irick)
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Note the hand-etched identification code on the back of the upper rear derailleur knuckle

Note the hand-etched identification code on the back of the upper rear derailleur knuckle (Image credit: Jonny Irick)
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This rear derailleur was an early prototype of Shimano's XTR M900 model. While production versions were made of forged aluminum with a dark grey anodized finish, this one is mostly CNC machined

This rear derailleur was an early prototype of Shimano's XTR M900 model. While production versions were made of forged aluminum with a dark grey anodized finish, this one is mostly CNC machined (Image credit: Jonny Irick)
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Specialized was at the time experimenting with different ways of marking its tires

Specialized was at the time experimenting with different ways of marking its tires (Image credit: Jonny Irick)
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Incredibly, each of the chainring spider arms are individually welded to the arm

Incredibly, each of the chainring spider arms are individually welded to the arm (Image credit: Jonny Irick)
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Interestingly, the crankset is nearly 100 percent titanium, including the TIG-welded hollow arms, Boone titanium chainrings, SRP titanium chainring and crank bolts, and a titanium bottom bracket spindle

Interestingly, the crankset is nearly 100 percent titanium, including the TIG-welded hollow arms, Boone titanium chainrings, SRP titanium chainring and crank bolts, and a titanium bottom bracket spindle (Image credit: Jonny Irick)
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Weight reduction was the defining theme of the time with companies resorting to all sorts of strategies to do so. These TIG-welded Le Créme hollow titanium crankarms supposedly weigh just 297g for the pair. They're also horrifically flexy

Weight reduction was the defining theme of the time with companies resorting to all sorts of strategies to do so. These TIG-welded Le Créme hollow titanium crankarms supposedly weigh just 297g for the pair. They're also horrifically flexy (Image credit: Jonny Irick)
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The Specialized Direct Drive pedals are ultralight thanks to molded fiber composite bodies, titanium spindles, and aluminum cages. They roll remarkably well, too, thanks to high-precision cartridge bearings

The Specialized Direct Drive pedals are ultralight thanks to molded fiber composite bodies, titanium spindles, and aluminum cages. They roll remarkably well, too, thanks to high-precision cartridge bearings (Image credit: Jonny Irick)
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Shift gates were machined into each cog

Shift gates were machined into each cog (Image credit: Jonny Irick)
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The Dean titanium seatpost was lightweight and remarkably flexy - well in keeping with the rest of the bike

The Dean titanium seatpost was lightweight and remarkably flexy - well in keeping with the rest of the bike (Image credit: Jonny Irick)
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This 1992 Specialized S-Works Epic Ultimate may have seen its glory days pass it by, but it's still a beautiful machine to behold. Few bikes built today will be as coveted in the future like this one

This 1992 Specialized S-Works Epic Ultimate may have seen its glory days pass it by, but it's still a beautiful machine to behold. Few bikes built today will be as coveted in the future like this one (Image credit: Jonny Irick)
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Specialized head Mike Sinyard credits Jim Merz for the creation of the S-Works Epic Ultimate frame. A former framebuilder out of Portland, Oregon, Merz would move over to Specialized in 1982

Specialized head Mike Sinyard credits Jim Merz for the creation of the S-Works Epic Ultimate frame. A former framebuilder out of Portland, Oregon, Merz would move over to Specialized in 1982 (Image credit: Jonny Irick)
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Each cassette cog was machined from solid titanium plate

Each cassette cog was machined from solid titanium plate (Image credit: Jonny Irick)
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Incredibly, the right crankarm bears serial number 0002. What's even more incredible, however, is that '0001' is stamped on to the left arm

Incredibly, the right crankarm bears serial number 0002. What's even more incredible, however, is that '0001' is stamped on to the left arm (Image credit: Jonny Irick)
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The aluminum-handled Mavic skewers are period-correct

The aluminum-handled Mavic skewers are period-correct (Image credit: Jonny Irick)
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The Specialized S-Works Futureshock FSX's scant 50mm of travel may as well have been a meter as compared to rigid forks in its day

The Specialized S-Works Futureshock FSX's scant 50mm of travel may as well have been a meter as compared to rigid forks in its day (Image credit: Jonny Irick)
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Heel clearance was not the strong suit of these exotic Le Créme titanium crankarms. Note that the bottom bracket spindle used here is just 107mm long

Heel clearance was not the strong suit of these exotic Le Créme titanium crankarms. Note that the bottom bracket spindle used here is just 107mm long (Image credit: Jonny Irick)
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The Iscaselle saddle uses titanium rails that were riveted to the stamped titanium shell

The Iscaselle saddle uses titanium rails that were riveted to the stamped titanium shell (Image credit: Jonny Irick)
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Shimano effectively killed the CNC market with its then-groundbreaking XTR M900 group

Shimano effectively killed the CNC market with its then-groundbreaking XTR M900 group (Image credit: Jonny Irick)
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Mavic essentially started the pre-built mountain bike wheel market with the introduction of the Crossmax in the early 1990s. The huge box-section aluminum rims were exceptionally lightweight with grippy ceramic braking surfaces. However, they were also known for cracking around the eyelets

Mavic essentially started the pre-built mountain bike wheel market with the introduction of the Crossmax in the early 1990s. The huge box-section aluminum rims were exceptionally lightweight with grippy ceramic braking surfaces. However, they were also known for cracking around the eyelets (Image credit: Jonny Irick)
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These custom titanium handlebars would seem outrageously narrow by modern standards. Since the bar ends were directly welded on to the handlebar, there's a split center section to alloy components to be installed

These custom titanium handlebars would seem outrageously narrow by modern standards. Since the bar ends were directly welded on to the handlebar, there's a split center section to alloy components to be installed (Image credit: Jonny Irick)
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While most other stems in its day were made of aluminum or steel, Specialized was making these stems from cast titanium. They were light and pretty but also frighteningly flexy

While most other stems in its day were made of aluminum or steel, Specialized was making these stems from cast titanium. They were light and pretty but also frighteningly flexy (Image credit: Jonny Irick)
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S-Works continue to be Specialized's no-holds-barred race machines

S-Works continue to be Specialized's no-holds-barred race machines (Image credit: Jonny Irick)
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Such radical bends would have been nearly impossible to execute in titanium but it was no problem for molded carbon fiber

Such radical bends would have been nearly impossible to execute in titanium but it was no problem for molded carbon fiber (Image credit: Jonny Irick)
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Check out the impossibly tiny contact area between the seatstays and seat tube

Check out the impossibly tiny contact area between the seatstays and seat tube (Image credit: Jonny Irick)
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Such bonded titanium-and-carbon fiber construction would seem antiquated today, but it was cutting-edge stuff two decades ago

Such bonded titanium-and-carbon fiber construction would seem antiquated today, but it was cutting-edge stuff two decades ago (Image credit: Jonny Irick)
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If you look closely, you can see how the lugs are externally machined to give the ends an elegant taper

If you look closely, you can see how the lugs are externally machined to give the ends an elegant taper (Image credit: Jonny Irick)
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The Specialized S-Works Epic Ultimate was a remarkably ambitious project for such a mainstream manufacturer and they're still coveted by collectors today

The Specialized S-Works Epic Ultimate was a remarkably ambitious project for such a mainstream manufacturer and they're still coveted by collectors today (Image credit: Jonny Irick)
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The exotic-for-its-time build included lightweight foam grips, Grip Shift X-Ray shifters, and Altek CNC-machined brake levers

The exotic-for-its-time build included lightweight foam grips, Grip Shift X-Ray shifters, and Altek CNC-machined brake levers (Image credit: Jonny Irick)
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Altek produced these brake levers at the height of the CNC machining craze. Check out the lightening holes in the lever blade and barrel adjuster locknut. Hidden from view is the lever's trademark 'shark fin' that maintained a constant-length lever arm for the cable

Altek produced these brake levers at the height of the CNC machining craze. Check out the lightening holes in the lever blade and barrel adjuster locknut. Hidden from view is the lever's trademark 'shark fin' that maintained a constant-length lever arm for the cable (Image credit: Jonny Irick)
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In many ways, Mavic's front road bike hubs differ little from this Crossmax model. In fact, the company still uses the same tool to adjust the bearing preload

In many ways, Mavic's front road bike hubs differ little from this Crossmax model. In fact, the company still uses the same tool to adjust the bearing preload (Image credit: Jonny Irick)
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These prototype tires still bear handwritten test notes

These prototype tires still bear handwritten test notes (Image credit: Jonny Irick)
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Machined titanium hardware secures the spindly 26mm-diameter aluminum legs

Machined titanium hardware secures the spindly 26mm-diameter aluminum legs (Image credit: Jonny Irick)
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This particular fork uses an especially lightweight steerer tube that was supposedly spliced from a RockShox Paris-Roubaix fork

This particular fork uses an especially lightweight steerer tube that was supposedly spliced from a RockShox Paris-Roubaix fork (Image credit: Jonny Irick)
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Despite its limited travel, the Specialized S-Works Futureshock FSX was highly adjustable for its time. The air preload was adjustable with a low-pressure pump and special needle inserted through a rubber valve, damping was tuned via the external adjuster knobs or oil viscosity, and even spring rate could be tuned by raising or lowering the oil height inside

Despite its limited travel, the Specialized S-Works Futureshock FSX was highly adjustable for its time. The air preload was adjustable with a low-pressure pump and special needle inserted through a rubber valve, damping was tuned via the external adjuster knobs or oil viscosity, and even spring rate could be tuned by raising or lowering the oil height inside (Image credit: Jonny Irick)
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The one-off machined brace was made by then-Avid head Wayne Lumpkin. It was a gift to then-S-Works division head Mark Norris for speccing Avid's Tri-Align cantilevers, which essentially launched the company into stardom

The one-off machined brace was made by then-Avid head Wayne Lumpkin. It was a gift to then-S-Works division head Mark Norris for speccing Avid's Tri-Align cantilevers, which essentially launched the company into stardom (Image credit: Jonny Irick)
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The Specialized S-Works Futureshock FSX fork was a joint collaboration with RockShox. Externally, it was a masterpiece of CNC-machined and forged aluminum, titanium, and carbon fiber. Inside, however, it was essentially a previous-generation Mag 21

The Specialized S-Works Futureshock FSX fork was a joint collaboration with RockShox. Externally, it was a masterpiece of CNC-machined and forged aluminum, titanium, and carbon fiber. Inside, however, it was essentially a previous-generation Mag 21 (Image credit: Jonny Irick)
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While it's always important to keep stem faceplate bolts tight, it was even more so for this setup. The custom titanium handlebar is split in the middle and is held together solely by the stem clamp and aluminum shim

While it's always important to keep stem faceplate bolts tight, it was even more so for this setup. The custom titanium handlebar is split in the middle and is held together solely by the stem clamp and aluminum shim (Image credit: Jonny Irick)

This article originally published on BikeRadar

Welcome to a new monthly feature on BikeRadar called 'Throwback Thursday'. We won't showcase the latest technology here; instead we'll highlight vintage machines that left an indelible mark in the pages of cycling's history. Some of you may even remember these bikes when they were contemporary, but we hope all of you will enjoy this look at the bikes of yesteryear.

The Specialized S-Works Epic Ultimate is perhaps the quintessential example of a true factory 'works' machine. Although the company built approximately 1,500 samples between 1990 and 1995, each one supposedly put the balance sheet into the red. No matter, though – it was indisputably cool, undeniably cutting-edge in terms of technology for its time, and highly sought-after by racers and enthusiasts alike.

The Epic Ultimate was the brainchild of Jim Merz, a former frame builder in the Portland, Oregon, area who eventually landed a role as a designer at Specialized in the early 1980s. For its time, the Epic Ultimate was truly revolutionary with titanium lugs TIG welded and externally machined by Merlin Metalworks, and carbon fiber tubes that were then bonded in right at Specialized's headquarters in Morgan Hill, California. Claimed weight for the frame was just 1.2kg (2.6lb).

"Jim is really such a prolific, capable fabricator of not only bikes but chainrings, equipment, anything," Specialized founder and chairman Mike Sinyard told BikeRadar. "This guy was amazing and he was the original DNA of the Specialized brand. He never made it into the Hall of Fame because he wasn't a high-profile guy but he was the guy. He's a real guy, a real innovator, and he's the exact opposite of a retro grouch. He is an advanced grouch."

Building frames in such a manner was a painstaking and expensive process. According to Sinyard, the company was only able to produce at most two frames per day – a wholly unacceptable output by modern standards for a mass manufacturer. Moreover, they were all assembled by one Specialized employee, Brian Lucas.

"Back in the day, it's not like we sat around in meetings and really thought about things too much," Sinyard said. "We'd just go, 'Hey, that'd be great. That'd make a difference. That'd be the best of the best. That'd be a bike that we'd want.' We didn't think about image a lot but looking back, it was a great innovation at the time to make something really light like that. We never made money on the bike. It was a very small thing and we made it right there in Morgan Hill."

Whatever it actually cost, one could argue that it was merely an early example of how winning on Sunday could yield sales on Monday. Mountain bike racing legend Ned Overend would capture the first mountain bike world championship on an S-Works Epic Ultimate in 1990 and the iconic image of a mustachioed Overend speeding down the trail in Durango, Colorado, is one that many fans of the time will never forget.

This particular Epic Ultimate isn't actually the machine that won that day, but it's no less significant. This one was originally owned by Mark Norris, who headed up the S-Works program at the time and used it as a test bed for various parts. Aside from Overend's personal rig, Norris's Epic Ultimate is apparently the only other fully custom sample to be built – at great expense – using the height of the 16.5" size but the length of the 18" variant.

And test it he did.

Norris's Epic Ultimate was no showroom machine that was babied and coddled. Instead, he raced it on a regular basis and the frame shows the scars of that heavy use. It was only in this manner that he could evaluate the parts that would potentially be used in either the racing program or the production machine.

Not surprisingly then, there were plenty of component makers who were itching to get their foot into that door and Norris's bike was constantly awash in exotica. Some of those period-correct bits aren't on the bike today but there are still plenty of fascinating one-off bits to be seen.

Highlights include an ultra-rare Le Créme welded titanium crankset (with serial numbers 0001 and 0002), a slick custom-made titanium handlebar with welded-on bar ends, a set of prototype Mavic Crossmax wheels that were picked up in person at Mavic's headquarters in France, a prototype CNC-machined Shimano XTR rear derailleur, a Tioga machined titanium cogset, Boone titanium chainrings, a Specialized Futureshock FSX fork with a one-off brace machined by then-Avid head Wayne Lumpkin, and prototype Specialized tires with handwritten test notes that are still on the sidewalls.

At one time, the bike also had a set of prototype magnesium Specialized S-Works brake levers and an ultralight beryllium bottom bracket spindle that supposedly cost a thousand dollars to produce – back in 1992. Virtually every bolt on the bike is titanium. 

As shown here, the bike weighs just 8.80kg (19.40lb) – an impressive number even by modern standards although things have obviously changed since then.

"You have to put it in context of the time," said Overend, who is still immensely fit and regularly trounces racers half his age. "Then it was state of the art: the RockShox forks with their hydraulic damping worked better then the bumper forks from Manitou and Scott, but it was not much travel and the whole front end was pretty flexible, especially with that 'lost wax' Ti stem. When the fork was compressed, like under hard braking going into a turn, the front end got pretty steep."

"It was super light for the time and the frame was pretty stiff, so climbing was probably its best attribute," Overend added. "After getting used to a full-sus 29er with modern suspension, riding that bike down a fast rough trail would be downright frightening today."

That may be, but few modern bikes are likely to have as big an impact as the S-Works Epic Ultimate did back in the day.

Special thanks go to the folks at Vintage MTB Workshop. For more incredible samples of mountain bike history – and a preview of what you'll see here in coming months – visit their web site at www.vintagemtbworkshop.com.