Monday, January 3, 2011

One year on the Epic

I've had my 2010 Specialized S-Works Epic for just over a year, and figured I'd do a fairly in-depth review.  I decided to buy the bike after a test ride at the 2009 Burnin' at the Bluff race.  It was a relay style race and I was able to take the demo bike out for a lap.  I fell in love.  After demoing a few other brands I decided to get the Epic because nothing else made me feel as good.

I did 27 races this year on the epic, from short track distances to 60+ mile marathons.  I've also put slicks on it and did a fair amount of training on the road.  So I've got a pretty good feel for this bike.

I made very few equipment changes to the bike right off the bat.  I put Crank Bros Eggbeater 4ti pedals on it and ESI "Racer's Edge" black grips.  After cutting the sidewall of the rear tire on my first ride, I switched the tires to Schwalbe.  I went with a a 2.4 Rocket Ron on the front and 2.25 Racing Ralph (with Snakeskin) on the back.  I set them up tubeless with Bontrager stems (for the removable core), the Specialized rim tape and Stans sealant, a very fast and reliable setup.  I also got a set of SRAM Matchmaker-X clamps for the shifters and brakes for the cleaner look and adjustability.  Even though they weigh a few grams more than separate clamps, I like it better.

Early in the year I would experience lower back pain and a burning sensationafter about 3 hours of racing.  It would hurt so bad that I'd have to either ride with one hand so I could sit up or if there was a gravel or paved section, ride without my hands on the bars.  After a few seconds of sitting up, the pain would go away for awhile.  I think it was a combination of the more extended riding position than I was used to and lack of core training on my part, so I spent some time doing exercises on a medicine ball and lots of riding.  The pain disappeared in mid-April and hasn't been an issue since.

The best feature of the bike is the brain suspension setup.  It provides a stiff and stable pedal platform on smooth ground but goes fully active in the rough stuff.  I've been on road rides and had several people say they couldn't believe the bike doesn't bob when standing for a hill climb.  I keep the brain set to full firm on both the fork and shock and love it.  At high speeds I can feel a little vibration on the front when going over small rocks, but I've gotten used to it and don't notice it any more.  I've taken the bike to the shop for service of the suspension 3 times, according to its maintenance schedule.  I think it was $50 for the in-shop services, and I don't know what the third one is since I haven't gotten it back yet.  In my last ride before the Castlewood Adventure Race, I blew out the platform on the rear shock.  It still functioned fine, but was fully active like a normal shock.  I went ahead and rode it in the race on December 4th and took it to the shop on the 6th.  They sent the parts to Specialized and are supposed to get them back today.

The bike came with a SRAM XX 2x10 drivetrain which is really nice; great, crisp shifting, even under load.  But over time, I realized that I never used the small chain ring in front so decided to switch to a 1x10 setup.  Dropping the front shifter, cable, housing, derailleur and inner chain ring took over half a pound off the bike. 
But I couldn't find a chain-guide that would fit the bike.  The seat-post mounted type wouldn't work because it has a curved oval seat-tube and the bottom bracket mounted type wouldn't work because it has a press-in bottom bracket.  So I got creative and crafted several home-made chain guides out of steel, Plexiglas and aluminum but none of them worked very well.  I would drop my chain on the rough downhills.  I took the bike to the shop where I bought it to get some opinions on why the chain kept coming off and they noticed that my front chain ring was pretty worn, and that there was a bit of a grinding in the bottom bracket.  They replaced them both (under warranty) but I kept dropping the chain during races.  In August I was talking to Travis Donn from KC who rides the same bike and he said it was my rear derailleur.  He said he was dropping his chain (with the stock XX setup) and his shop replaced his rear derailleur with a new one and that fixed it.  He said it keeps more tension on the chain.  I ended up buying an XX mid-cage derailleur and an MRP 1.x chain guide that I built a DMD (the spot the front derailleur bolts to) mount for out of aluminum.  The combination of those have solved the problem and I haven't dropped the chain since.

At my last cross-country race of the year, the Slaughter Pen Jam in Bentonville Arkansas, about an hour and a half into the race, I broke one of the rails on my seat.  It was a Specialized Phenom SL with hollow titanium rails and the right side snapped behind the seatpost mount.  The trails there are really fun with lots of short climbs and dips and it broke at the bottom of one of the dips.  I usually try to come off of the seat and hover when riding through those, but there were so many of them I was just staying seated.  Even though I still had about forty minutes of riding left, I was winning the race so I just kept going.  It made my rear-end a little sore because I was riding on my left cheek, but it wasn't painful.  The next day (a Monday), I took the seat into the shop and I had a warranty replacement in my hands on Friday.

About a week after getting my new seat I was riding in St. Louis on the flood-plain section of the Chubb trail.  It's a twisty trail with banked turns and lots of dips through drainage ditches. On one of the banked turns I felt and heard a sound like I'd hit something, then felt my rear tire rubbing the frame.  When I looked down I saw that I'd snapped non-drive side chain stay.  It was a clean break right in the middle.  Luckily there were some hikers walking by that were parked less than a mile away and they offered to drive me to my car.  It saved me a several mile hike.  The next day (Monday) I took the bike to the shop and they had already heard about my problem and had contacted Specialized about it.  I picked up my bike up with the replacement chainstay on Friday, and the shop had also replaced the suspension pivot bushings because they noticed they had some stiction.

One place the bike really shines is on long gradual climbs.  With just a little extra effort you can fly up a hill without downshifting.  But something that still makes me nervous is the feeling of descending rough trails on such a light bike; it doesn't have that confidence inspiring solid feel of a heavier bike.

Over the course of the year I've tried several different tire combinations, and I think my three favorite are:
  • Race setup: Rocket Ron front and Racing Ralph rear
  • Dry hardpack: Specialized Renegade front and rear
  • Muddy: Continental Mountain King
 There's a lot more I could say about my year on the bike but figured I'd just break it down to strengths and weaknesses:
  • Strengths:  lightweight, climbing, comfort (after getting used to it), quick acceleration, awesome warranty
  • Weaknesses:  high price, minor rear flex on high-speed turns, stuff breaking after an admittedly hard year of use
Overall I'm really happy with the bike.  I'd like to test ride the new 2011 S-Works Epic 29er to see what the difference is, but I've ordered a Specialized Roval carbon wheelset that I'll hopefully get next month.  I also plan on switching to a singlespeed front chain ring, maybe a Rotor, so I plan on getting another year of racing out of it.  

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