Best Bike Shootout: Must Santa Bring The Epic Or The Scalpel?

Which bike would you choose: Cannondale's ultimate Scalpel, or Specialized's top-end Epic? Bobby Lea rode both, and almost decided...

By Bobby Lea |

The Cannondale Scalpel and Specialized Epic have been on the short list of the best cross-country bikes for over a decade. Both are built around proprietary suspension systems and both lay claim to the title of lightest and most efficient XC racing bike. Each one is a frequent flyer on World Cup and World Championship podiums and got full makeovers this year. Both take different approaches to the same problem, but which method is more effective, and for whom? I decided to stage a head to head battle to find out.

Meet The Contestants

At 22.6 pounds, this size XL Scalpel Ultimate is the lighter of the pair.

Cannondale Scalpel Ultimate

Weight: 10.25kg (XL)
Price: R194 900

The all-new Scalpel retains the Lefty Ocho fork Cannondale is well known for and boasts an updated frame and rear suspension. But the brand ditched the single-pivot design and flex stays from the previous edition (and common on modern XC bikes)—the new Scalpel has a four-bar linkage instead. But that’s a heavy system atypical on this category of bikes, which are made to be as light as possible, despite superior kinematics. To solve that problem, Cannondale placed carbon plates in the spot on the chainstays normally reserved for rear pivots. According to the brand, that let them design a rear suspension with the efficiency of a four-bar Horst-link system without the weight penalty.

5 Things I Love About The Cannondale Scalpel Ultimate

Geometry Updates

The Scalpel got the longer, lower, slacker treatment. Reach on our XL test bike was stretched out to 475mm, the bottom bracket height dropped 3mm to 331mm, and the stack dropped 5mm to 610mm. The 68-degree head angle and 55mm fork offset gives the Scalpel 90mm of trail, its chainstays are 436mm long, and the wheelbase measures 1,199mm.

Component Highlights

This bike is hung with a SRAM XX1 AXS Eagle drivetrain and rolls on ENVE M525 hoops. You’d be hard-pressed to find an XC racer who would be sad about toeing the starting line on this lust-worthy machine that tips the scales at a scant 10.25 kilograms.

The copper chain and cassette look really sharp paired with the Cannondale logos on the frame.

Performance Notes

Compared to the previous edition, the lower bottom bracket was noticeable both on descents as well as on rocky trails near Bicycling HQ. My weight felt more balanced between the wheels both descending and climbing, but I also found I had to be more judicious with pedal placement to avoid rock strikes. But after one or two rides I forgot all about it. What stood out most was how much better the bike felt on steep descents, and how well it handled technical climbs. Rear wheel traction was much improved, which made line choice far easier on our root-strewn, rock-infested trails. Equally impressive is the anti-squat. I was in the habit of making liberal use of the lockout lever when racing the previous version of the Scalpel. On the new version, I still found it useful but had to use it far less because the anti-squat was vastly improved.

The updated Brain suspension platform is firmer when closed, for more efficient pedaling, and transitions to open more quickly than the previous version.

Specialized S-Works Epic

Weight: 10.4kg (XL)
R190 000

The Epic, and its proprietary suspension called Brain, also underwent a total makeover. The idea behind Brain is it eliminates the need for a lockout because the suspension can differentiate between downforce (pedalling input from the rider) and upward force (impact on the trail). It remains closed (stiff) when presented with downforce yet opens near instantaneously when it needs to absorb bumps. Specialized claims the new Brain is far more efficient than previous versions—stiffer when closed and quicker and smoother to open, with better mid-stroke and bottom out support.

5 Things I Love About The Specialized S-Works Epic

Geometry Updates

At 495mm, our XL test bike had a super long reach, bottom bracket height was only 324mm, and the head angle was kicked out to 67.5 degrees. The SID Ultimate Brain fork has 44mm of offset, giving the bike 106mm of trail. Stack height is 623mm—13mm higher than the Scalpel. Chainstays are 433mm long, and the wheelbase is 1 211mm.

Component Highlights

Like the Scalpel, the Epic touts the same great SRAM XX1 AXS Eagle groupset. But it ups the ante with the new and silly light (1 240 grams for the set!) Roval Control SL wheels packed with ceramic bearings. A Quarq power meter is icing on the cake.

The new Epic is stiff and lively when climbing, and very stable and capable on rowdy descents.

Performance Notes

At 10.8kg (including a power meter), the Epic is ridiculously light and has remarkable pedalling efficiency. It’s stiff and responsive on smooth trails, and the suspension transitions seamlessly when presented with rough terrain. As I mentioned earlier with the Scalpel, I typically rely heavily on lockout levers when racing, but found the new Brain eliminates the need for that. And as you might expect from the geometry update, the bike feels far more stable and capable on steep and gnarly descents.

The Challenges

I selected four tests for the head-to-head matchup that, based on my years of regional elite-level cross country racing and experience on both bikes (as well as their predecessors), would tease out the biggest differences between the two. I didn’t set Strava segments, nor did I break out the stopwatch. There’s too much human error, such as line choice and putting out consistent power on each test run, involved in timing laps and segments to make any official determination. I rode both bikes multiple times, back to back, and in alternating orders on each challenge, gauging how I felt on each test, to determine the top performer.

The Hole Shot

The first test aimed to assess raw efficiency: a 100-meter sprint from a standing start on a dirt farm field access road.

Fast Double Track

In the second test, I wanted to see if one bike felt noticeably different than the other at high speed over small, choppy bumps. I used a half-mile-long section of high-speed grassy trail around the perimeter of a field, with one small rock garden thrown in for good measure.

Gravel Climb

Fire road climbs are common features on race courses, so I used a five-minute stair-step climb on a gravel road punctuated by potholes and erosion bars to see how each fared.

Technical Singletrack Climb

Last but not least, I hit the singletrack and tested each bike on a three-minute undulating climb that consisted of short, steep grades and tight turns, with both up and downhill rock gardens—classic East Coast singletrack.

And The Winner Is…

This is the part where you’re expecting me to state, in no uncertain terms, which bike is the best, right? You aren’t alone. I, too, was expecting to find a clear winner. But both bikes were remarkably similar throughout the course of the challenges. However, when considering that both are intended for the sole purpose of succeeding in the somewhat homogenised land of World Cup XC racing, that’s less of a surprise.

On three of the four tests—the Holeshot, Fast Double Track, and the Gravel Climb—there was minimal discernible difference between the Scalpel and the Epic. The Brain suspension system is, as claimed, much firmer when closed, with smoother transitions to open. The Epic was stiff and responsive off the line on the Hole Shot, fast and smooth on the light bumps of the Fast Double Track, and efficient on the Gravel Climb, with no noticeable power loss when I was out of the saddle.

Similarly, the Scalpel surprised me with how quick it was off the line on the Hole Shot, even without using the lockout. I expected it to excel on the Fast Double Track because of the superb small bump compliance of the Lefty Ocho fork and the Fox Factory Evol shock, and it didn’t disappoint. Unsurprisingly, the Scalpel also felt great on the Gravel Climb. I smashed the lockout lever on the smooth segments and was treated to the raw efficiency of a rigid bike. A quick flip of that lever sufficiently smoothed out the potholes and water bars.

However, when we got to the Technical Singletrack Climb, one bike edged out a victory. On this challenge the Epic proved superior. Steering through tight turns and charging over rocks, neither bike had a noticeable edge. The difference was made on short sections of trail that were smooth enough for me to stand up on the pedals and really give it some stick, where the benefits of a smart suspension system like the Brain showed its true advantages. On those segments that were too brief to make use of the Scalpel’s lockout, the stiff pedalling platform of the Epic felt faster. It was a small difference, but throughout the course of testing it stood out as the one place where the two weren’t practically indistinguishable.

Final Thoughts

The Epic is very raw and unfiltered, clearly belonging on a race track. The steering felt a tad sharper than the Scalpel on tight and technical trails, although I didn’t feel as though one was faster than the other through hard turns. The longer reach on the Epic makes it a good choice for riders who have a proportionally longer torso or like a more stretched out riding position. The lower stack on the Scalpel lends itself to riders who need a large handlebar drop.

The Scalpel has a slightly more refined feel to it. Most of that comes from the nature of the suspension. Unlike the Brain system on the Epic, the suspension on the Scalpel is open unless you manually shut it down with the lockout lever. This bike is just as capable of carrying the top professional riders in the world to victory, as evidenced by Henrique Avancini’s performance in Novo Maestro this year, but it also has a softer side that can be more pleasant on long rides than the Epic.

The lower bottom brackets on both bikes demand the rider pay more attention to pedal placement than their predecessors, and both felt comparable on chunky, rocky descents. Both the Epic and Scalpel feel superb when climbing. But you’d expect nothing less from bikes that frighten 10 kilos out of the box with very efficient suspension.

The visual differences are stark, but performance is remarkably similar.

So Which One to Chose?

The one that’s best for you (if you’re in the market) comes down to preference. Some riders can’t get past the unusual Lefty Ocho fork of the Cannondale, while others may not like the lack of a full lockout on the Epic. Some have a strong dislike for proprietary parts altogether and won’t consider either bike. The good news for the first two groups is you aren’t going to win or lose a race because you chose one brand over the other. The fastest bike for you will be the one you’re most comfortable riding.

If you’re still stuck, wheel choice can be a deciding factor. The Epic has Boost spacing and any third party wheel with that axle length will work. The Scalpel uses Cannondale’s Ai offset on the rear wheel, meaning the rim is centred over the hub instead of offset to the drive side. And of course, the front wheel has the proprietary Lefty hub. So you’re roped into using the wheels that come with the bike. With the exception of the R73 000 Cannondale Scalpel Carbon 3, all models of both bikes roll on comparable high quality carbon hoops-Roval for the Epics and Hollowgram or ENVE for the Scalpels.

But two hundred K!

The elephant in the room is that we’re talking about bikes that cost as much as a compact car. For that price, they should be amazing, and given they were both designed explicitly for the unique demands of World Cup-level XC racing, it’s not surprising the differences are negligible.

The question becomes: Where is the best value? Cannondale has five bikes in the Scalpel family, the cheapest of which is the Scalpel Carbon 3 R73k. Specialized only has three, the cheapest being the Epic Expert. But R110 000 still doesn’t really count as cheap.

The best value Scalpel is the Carbon 2. Costing R96 990, it’s still a hefty chunk of change, but it’s the cheapest one that still has a full complement of elite-level components: Shimano XT drivetrain, carbon Hollowgram 25 wheels, and a Fox Float DPS Performance Elite Evol shock. It’s a close call between the Carbon 2 and the Carbon 3. But when it comes to racing, the alloy rims and Shimano SLX shifters on the latter give the nod to the former.

With Specialized, the selection is easier because there are fewer bikes from which to choose. The Epic Expert, with a Fact11m carbon frame, SRAM X01 Eagle drivetrain, and Roval Control Carbon hoops, is the clear winner in the value department.

Both the Epic Expert and Scalpel Carbon 2 have virtually identical builds: second-tier carbon frames, second-tier drivetrains, second-tier suspension, and race-worthy carbon wheels. And as if to emphasise the similarity between the two, the price is almost identical.

Does the raw efficiency of the Epic, and its Brain suspension appeal to you? Or do you find the more refined and supple ride of the Scalpel more enticing? That is up to you, the buyer.

READ MORE ON: Cannondale epic scalpel shootout Specialized what bike?

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