Can a Cross-Country Bike Double as a Downhiller? This One Sure as Hell Sends It

The new Specialized Epic EVO is longer, slacker and has more travel, putting it in the nascent down-country hybrid category. Is that enough to tackle all kinds of trails? We put it to the test.

man riding specialized s works epic evo bike

Over the past few years, bikes have been growing more, ahem, specialized at an exponential rate. From tire size and tread, to front and rear suspension, to droppers and geometry, many are designed to do just one thing well– and if you’re lucky, be passable at the rest.

There's a good reason for it: with new brands flooding the market and new builds popping up almost weekly, it’s tough to stand out from the crowd. This is especially true in the mountain bike world, which has exploded in the past decade. And I’m not talking about minor differences in form and function, like road and gravel bikes. A casual window shopper won’t have much trouble differentiating a modern downhill rig and a cross country bike. Despite technically both being mountain bikes, they are wildly dissimilar.

But what if (heaven forbid), you only have the budget, space, or spousal permission to own one mountain bike? What if you want a light, fast, and fun bike that can do it all — cruise over flowy tracks and long backcountry tours, yet still hold its own on gnarly downhill trails? Is that really too much to ask? Specialized's Epic EVO certainly doesn't think so.

A longer fork, dropper post, and revised geometry — all of which may be overkill purely for cross country riding — add up a surprisingly versatile bike. It's fast off the start line, well suited for masochistically long rides, and it offers more control on descents. For average riders (myself included), the Epic Evo just might be the unicorn bike that can do more than one thing really well. After a week of testing, here are the big takeaways.

What We Like

The standard Epic race bike has 100mm (nearly four inches) of travel in front and rear. The EVO version adds 10mm (0.4 inches) to the rear suspension and 20mm (0.8 inches) to the front fork, which may not sound like a lot but makes a huge difference. Sure, it’s not a 160/160 downhill ripper, yet I was surprised by how much this seemingly minor upgrade opened things up.

specialized s works epic evo suspension

The updated rear suspension has a more progressive leverage ratio with a SIDLuxe Ultimate shock that feels smooth on chunky trails and stable enough when it bottoms out on big obstacles. I wouldn't necessarily bring to the lift-access downhill park, but for pedal laps with the crew it provides more than enough margin of error for most technical, rocky and steep descents.

When the Epic EVO really excels is during long days that include a mix of everything. On steep climbs it feels as efficient as a XC bike, while providing the control I'm accustomed to with long travel bikes on descents. The EVO uses the same front triangle as the Epic, swaps a slacker rear triangle, and trades the Brain (a "smart shock" present in the Epic that adjusts suspension based on the type of terrain) for an Rx-tuned metric shock that soaks up rough trails without sacrificing speed. It’s one of just a few short travel "down-country" hybrids — others include the Transition Spur X01, Nukeproof Reactor Carbon 290 ST and Cannondale Scalpel SE LTD Lefty — that are pushing the limits of what the category can and should do.

If the EVO just holds its own on the descents, it really makes a name for itself with the other major aspects of trail riding — rolling flats and climbing. The bike I tested, the high-end S-Works edition, weighs in at 22 pounds — shockingly light for how it performed. That weight, paired with moderate width bars, a longer stem and longer seat post, adds up to a bike that will leave almost everything else in the dust on long climbs. It may not be a watts-obsessed race bike, but in a blind test you might have trouble telling them apart.

specialized s works epic evo pedaling

Last but far from least, on undulating trails that require constant pedaling and steady effort, the EVO is a godsend. It’s far faster than any enduro and many XC bikes, which makes it especially fun and frisky on berms and corners. The low weight and flying speed allowed me to go for longer rides and enjoy them even more.

What To Watch Out For

The biggest potential pitfall with the Epic EVO is getting carried away with the speed and dropping into unexplored trails too fast. While the bike can feel like an enduro at times, calculated line choices are still crucial. Suffice it to say, when I let my stoke take over on rough and demanding descents, trouble found me. When I was able to tamper the excitement and negotiate such trails, smiles followed.

The stock Ground Control tires are fairly middle of the road, so if you’re riding mostly technical terrain, you'll probably want to consider something more aggressive. That’ll help with climbing and descending, providing a bit more forgiveness when braking and more traction while crawling. Also, the long seat tube and average 150mm dropper post can be a hindrance — you’ll feel it now and then if you lean all the way back.

Is the Price Worth It?

The biggest knock on the S-Works Epic EVO is the price tag. At $13,000, it costs almost as much as a Chevy Spark. That said, there are 4 other tiers of the bike with different components and a slightly heavier carbon-fiber build, including the $3,800 base model. That still isn’t cheap, but it's much more manageable. We’ll leave it up to you if your bank account can handle the hit, but we will say this: you’re not going to find another XC bike that feels like a trail bike without giving up its roots as just damn fast.

a group of bike riders descending a hill


Is the Epic EVO a true unicorn in the mountain bike world? Well, it is the only down-country bike that weighs less than it’s cross-country counterpart; it’s 200 grams (just under half a pound) lighter than the Epic due to the front fork. It’s also the only bike I’ve tested that redefines what an XC bike can do. An incredibly smooth feel and balanced front and rear suspension make steep and technical trails more comfortable than previous iterations of the EVO. With a higher progression, it's poppy and fun — exactly what all trail bikes should be.

A perfect mountain bike should feel like it is working with you on climbs, open up a wide variety of trails to ride, and put a huge smile on your face. The EVO does just that — and as part of the small cadre of bikes blazing trails in the burgeoning down-country category, it provides a peek at the future of the sport.

Specialized S-Works Epic EVO
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