In pursuit of the ultimate mountain bike
Words by James Huang, Bike Radar // Photos by The Pro’s Closet
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.