Last August, I lined up at the Leadville Trail 100 MTB race with a simple objective. I wasn’t aiming for an oversized belt buckle or a course record. I just wanted to finish. And I wanted to do it aboard a 1983 Specialized Stumpjumper.
My plan worked, and I had an amazing adventure on a bicycle that is the same age as me. Throughout my journey, I was surrounded by riders on technology that was light years ahead of my ancient steel bicycle. I saw, firsthand, the dramatic evolution from clunker to carbon wunderbike.
I was curious. What did it take to get where we are today? I decided to call up a few folks at Specialized to learn about the evolution of its cross-country racing bikes.
Now, the Stumpjumper line has now morphed into Specialized’s trail bike, designed for fun thrills on descents and drops. The true grandchild of my racing bike from 1983 is actually the Epic, Specialized’s dual-suspension cross-country bike, designed for long, punishing races like the Leadville 100.
There was an exotic first generation of the Epic in the early 1990s — carbon-tubed, titanium lugged harbingers of mountain biking’s freewheeling glory days. But that bike wasn’t commercially viable. Instead, the evolution of the Epic begins in the late 1990s on a transatlantic flight.
Mike McAndrews, Specialized’s director of suspension technology, was flying home from a disappointing trip to Mallorca. He was tasked with convincing the Specialized cross-country team that the new FSR XC full-suspension bike would be faster than their hardtails. The European pros didn’t buy it. They were obsessed with light weight and pedaling efficiency. McAndrews tried to show them in back-to-back testing that the momentum carried by a full-suspension bike would be faster in the long run.
“One of the riders said, ‘I know what you’re saying, but when I sprint, it’s like I’m running on a mattress. I just can’t have that,’” McAndrews said.
On that flight back from Mallorca, he struck on an idea that had been archived in his mind when he worked with Jim Turner (RockShox founder Paul Turner’s brother) on motocross suspension back in the 1970s. The concept was an inertia valve. It wasn’t necessarily new, but it had never been implemented on a bicycle.
“What we needed was a shock that felt like a hardtail out of saddle, but we needed to decouple the rider’s mass when we were hitting bumps,” said McAndrews.
So he drew up the basic sketches and the Brain suspension platform was born. It relied on a damping reservoir near the rear wheel to house the inertia valve. When it sensed bumps at the axle, it opened up the shock. When a rider stood out of the saddle to pedal hard, the shock remained locked-out.
By 1999 when the first prototypes came out, mountain bike legend Ned Overend was finished racing World Cups, but he was still heavily involved in Specialized R&D. He could tell the Epic had big potential.
“It did feel like a revelation to me with the pedaling momentum it had,” Overend said. “It was a dramatic difference. You could stay in the saddle and pedal over rough ground. It was way more efficient.”
While he was quick to adopt the Epic for the Xterra triathlons he was racing at the time, Specialized’s World Cup athletes were still slow to adopt the technology.
Partly, that was due to the suspension’s valving which was not adjustable on the first model in 2002.
“That very first one was not adjustable so it was hard to figure out where the Brain should be set so it opened when you went over a bump — how much of that first bump you felt because it would close fairly quickly,” Overend said.
McAndrews remembers how his team was fighting an uphill battle to balance efficiency and suspension performance.
“We needed it to feel like a hardtail so much so that when it did go into the active mode, we started learning that that early design objective of being hardtail-firm was creating more problems than it solved,” he said. “But there was such a strong market perception that we couldn’t have done it any other way.”
About six years later, the Epic made a big leap forward when the shock design moved away from the Sidewinder shock (a single-sided unit) to a symmetrically loaded shock under the top tube with the brain valve remotely connected via a hose on the seat stay.
Just a few weeks before 2008 UCI World Mountain Bike Championships, Specialized showed the new Epic design to its star rider Christoph Sauser. He had never won worlds, finishing second in 2005 and 2006. He also had spent very little time on this new Epic, but he decided it was the right bike for the difficult track in Val di Sole, Italy.
It worked, and he won by a staggering three minutes ahead of countryman Florian Vogel.
“You couldn’t have scripted it any better,” McAndrews said. “And then he holds it over his head at the finish — it’s like Hollywood right there.”
“It’s like a fighter jet on the climbs and a jumbo jet on the descents,” Sauser said after winning his first rainbow jersey.
The worlds win came at the right moment for McAndrews and his team. There had been some doubts about whether the XC mountain bike world would every wholeheartedly adopt the Epic — or any full-suspension mountain bike.
Now, 10 years later, it is hard to imagine that there was ever any doubt.
For the most recent iteration of the Epic, the bike Kate Courtney rode to victory at world championships in Lenzerheide this September, the geometry has developed to suit modern courses and riding styles. Along the way, Specialized also adapted the frame to fit disc brakes, 29-inch wheels, single-chainring drivetrains, and even dropper posts.
McAndrews is still at work. Intriguingly, his team’s objectives have done a 180-degree shift.
At the outset of the Epic project, they focused on the Brain and its potential to afford pure efficiency for the racers.
“The market perception back then was that these full-suspension mountain bikes were so pogo-y,” he said. “It’s all about making this full-suspension bike feel hardtail-firm until you start smacking bumps. That was such an important hurdle to get over.”
Now, McAndrews is developing the nuances of his shock technology to help it perform better in the open position.
“A lot of our effort is about that momentum carried because if we’re good about that, there’s less effort needed to stay at speed,” he says.
“In those early designs, the inertia valve was front and center. In the early days that Brain was the only member of the band, he was just up on stage banging on the drums, but nowadays I’d almost say he’s backstage.”