1992 Specialized S-Works Epic Ultimate

In pursuit of the ultimate mountain bike

Words by James Huang, Bike Radar // Photos by The Pro’s Closet

specialized s-works epic ultimate

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

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).

specialized s-works epic ultimate      specialized s-works epic ultimate

“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.”

specialized s-works epic ultimate

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.”

specialized s-works epic ultimate      1992 Specialized Epic Ultimate-18

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.

1992 Specialized Epic Ultimate-2

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.

1992 Specialized Epic Ultimate-5      1992 Specialized Epic Ultimate-4

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.

1992 Specialized Epic Ultimate-20

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.

1992 Specialized Epic Ultimate-9      1992 Specialized Epic Ultimate-19

“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.”

specialized s-works epic ultimate      specialized s-works epic ultimate

“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.

1998 Cannondale Fulcrum DH

Looking back at Cannondale’s radical jackshaft-driven downhill machine

Words by James Huang, Bike Radar // Photos by The Pro’s Closet

Cannondale Fulcrum Myles Rockwell

Cannondale’s Fulcrum DH was positively radical when it was raced on the World Cup circuit 17 years ago

Before the advent of platform valving in rear shocks, bicycle frame engineers went to all sorts of efforts to build pedalling efficiency directly into the suspension design. Few bikes exemplify those efforts better than the Cannondale Fulcrum DH used on the World Cup downhill circuit in 1998.

World Cup downhill racing was a different beast 17 years ago. The tracks were nearly twice as long as today’s shorter and more intense efforts, and there was significantly more pedalling required. Rear shocks were much more primitive in their internal designs, too, offering little to no help in terms of keeping the back ends from flailing about when racers had to put the power down.

Cannondale Fulcrum Myles Rockwell-31

The wide range of courses also required a similarly broad selection of chainrings, which posed yet another set of challenges for suspension engineers.

Cannondale was at the height of its glory days in the late 1990s and the company adopted an unquestionably radical approach to the problem at hand. Unwilling to accept the kinematic compromises of multiple chainring sizes, Cannondale instead developed a complex jackshaft drive system for the team-only Fulcrum DH frame that used the same chainring no matter what.

Cannondale Fulcrum Myles Rockwell-25      Cannondale Fulcrum Myles Rockwell-28

With the chainline now a constant, the suspension engineers then designed a short dual-link rear end with roughly 6in of travel and an axle path that trended rearward toward the end of the stroke.

The jackshaft system was unquestionably complex, requiring three separate chains, four additional cogs, an army of bolts and bearings, and even an eccentric bottom bracket borrowed from a tandem. Pedal power was transferred from the left crankarm through a short section of chain to a cog on the jackshaft. From there, another short chain ran from the right side of the jackshaft to a secondary chainring that was bolted to the primary chainring, which ultimately drove the rear wheel.

And since it was the left chainring that actually transferred rider torque – not the driveside one as usual – the one on the right side merely rotated about the bottom bracket spindle on a pair of sealed cartridge bearings.

Cannondale Fulcrum Myles Rockwell-30      Cannondale Fulcrum Myles Rockwell-43

“The goal was to have suspension that was the best you could make it but still have it pedal well,” said Doug Dalton, who currently works for SRAM but was the lead team mechanic on Cannondale’s downhill programme during the late 1990s. “That’s really why we had that whole drive system. It was just to make sure the rear suspension was optimised around a single, specific gear.”

The drive system wasn’t the only area of innovation, either.

Up front, Cannondale adapted its Headshok suspension fork into the dual-crown Moto DH, which used eight sets of needle bearings and square-profile stanchions to produce far more torsional stiffness than typical inverted fork designs. The oversized front end also featured interchangeable cups that allowed for adjustable head tube angle – more than 10 years before Cane Creek introduced its AngleSet.

Cannondale Fulcrum Myles Rockwell-32      Cannondale Fulcrum Myles Rockwell-37

The Moto DH was essentially two Leftys bolted together

Although effective, all of these innovations certainly had their downsides.

For one, changing gear ratios on the jackshaft system took even the seasoned team mechanics about 25 minutes. The needle bearings in the fork had a tendency to migrate, too, so they had to be ‘reset’ up to three times a day in order to restore the full travel.

Moreover, all that additional hardware made the bikes seriously heavy. Dalton said the bikes were nearly 23kg (50lb) in total – almost 7kg (15lb) heavier than top downhill racers today. Finally, the bikes were outrageously expensive to produce. Cannondale apparently never had any intention of actually bringing the Fulcrum DH to market – which would have helped offset the costs – and Dalton estimates that each one cost Cannondale between US$20,000 and US$30,000 to make (and that was in 1998).

Cannondale Fulcrum Myles Rockwell-36

Cannondale made fewer than a dozen Fulcrum DH bikes – and each at an astronomical cost

It’s entirely possible that Cannondale might have refined the Fulcrum DH in later years. Unfortunately, the programme was cancelled after just two years.

“The next year, the World Cup went live on Eurosport so all of the tracks went down to around three-and-a- half to four-and-a-half minutes instead of the big, six-and-a-half minute Euro, big-dog shredding courses,” Dalton said. “That Fulcrum DH was designed for big, wide-open, amazing tracks. Now we were going into these shorter and faster tracks. That’s why the next year we went for similar travel but went as light as we could. That’s when Gemini was born.”

According to Dalton, Cannondale ultimately made less than a dozen Fulcrum DH machines in total, each of which is a stunning snapshot of how things used to be.

Complete bike specifications     

  • Frame: 1998 Cannondale Fulcrum DH, 6in travel
  • Fork: Cannondale Moto 150, 6in travel
  • Headset: Cane Creek Aheadset w/ custom adjustable-angle head tube inserts
  • Stem: Kalloy Uno
  • Handlebars: Azonic aluminium riser
  • Grips: ODI Rogue
  • Front brake: Hope DH
  • Rear brake: Hope DH
  • Brake levers: Hope DH
  • Chain guide: Cannondale Fulcrum DH custom
  • Rear derailleur: Shimano XTR RD-M950-SS
  • Shift lever: Shimano XTR Rapidfire Plus SL-M950 w/ custom paddle extensions
  • Cassette: Shimano Deore XT CS-M737, 11-28T
  • Chain: Sachs PC-91
  • Crankset: Cannondale CODA Magic custom
  • Bottom bracket: Cannondale CODA Magic, tandem eccentric
  • Wheels: Mavic DeeMax
  • Front tyre: IRC Kujo DH, 26 x 2.35in, custom tubeless setup
  • Rear tyre: IRC Kujo DH, 26 x 2.35in, custom tubeless setup
  • Saddle: Selle Italia Flite
  • Seatpost: Kalloy
  • Pedals: Shimano DX PD-M636
  • Other accessories: Custom stem riser, custom Cycra moulded front disc brake cover and drivetrain cover

TPC Museum Series #4: Myles Rockwell’s Cannondale Fulcrum

Myles Rockwell’s 1998 Cannondale Fulcrum

Cannondale doesn’t care what you think a mountain bike should look like, they never have. Their “do things our own way” attitude has brought many innovations to the MTB world, including this square-forked, three-chained, 1998 Cannondale Fulcrum.

Myles stopped by the museum with master bicycle restorer, Tasshi Dennis, to relive their experiences riding and restoring this complex DH machine!

TPC Museum Series #4 with Myles Rockwell and Tasshi Dennis: