It takes a powerful combination of dedication, training, and genetics to win a cross-country national championship. And of course, you also need the right bike.
Obviously, the rider is the most important part of this equation, but cycling is a sport where the gear often receives more attention than the athlete. It's been that way since the beginning, and there’s no question that a good bike can make the path to victory a bit smoother.
No XC bike has had as much racing success as the Specialized Epic. Since its introduction, the Epic has been ridden to over 100 World Cup wins and podiums, Olympic gold, several Cape Epic victories, and countless other national level wins around the world. At the U.S. National Championships last year in Snowshoe, West Virginia, Howard Grotts and Kate Courtney both successfully defended their cross country national championship titles aboard Epics.
On July 23, the 2019 Mountain Bike National Championships will take place at one of our favorite local riding venues — Winter Park, Colorado — and a large number of riders will surely be racing on the Specialized Epic.
Since U.S. National Championships is in our home state, we decided to go back 27 years to take a look at Ned Overend’s 1992 Specialized Stumpjumper M2, which is part of our Bike Museum. It is one of the earliest Specialized mountain bikes to win a national title. We couldn't resist comparing it to its modern equivalent, the Epic.
A Brief History of U.S. Mountain Bike Nationals
Currently, the National Championships are governed by USA Cycling, but many will remember its predecessor, the NORBA National series. It was the premier American series of top-level elite races. In the early ‘90s, cross country racing was experiencing a golden age. Every NORBA National race was broadcast on ESPN, top riders were featured on magazine covers, and mountain biking was receiving massive attention on the world stage. Overend was one of the scene's superstars.
He was a six-time NORBA cross country mountain bike national champion, and he became the first-ever cross country world champion when he won at the first UCI Mountain Bike World Championships in 1990. He won his final NORBA National Championship in 1992 aboard this Specialized Stumpjumper M2.
Let’s compare it to the current defending national champ, the Specialized S-Works Epic to see how much has changed over the last three decades.
FrameThe Stumpjumper came out in 1981 and it was the first mass-produced mountain bike. Over the years it’s morphed from an XC bike into a do-it-all trail bike. The Epic took over as the brand’s main XC race bike in 2002. There was an exotic first generation of the Epic in the early ‘90s that used carbon tubes and titanium lugs, but that bike wasn’t commercially viable.
Ned Overend’s 1992 Stumpjumper M2 is made from Specialized’s M2 aluminum alloy, a mix of aluminum and aluminum oxide that the company developed in conjunction with the Duralcan Corporation. The frame was relatively light and durable for its time, and the complete bike weighs 26 lbs 14 oz. By comparison, the size large 2018 S-Works Epic shown here is made from Specialized’s FACT 12m carbon fiber and weighs 22 lbs 5 oz. What’s impressive is that the modern Epic weighs over four and a half pounds less than the vintage Stumpjumper, while also having bigger wheels and rear suspension.
Beyond the material, geometry is perhaps the biggest change in frame design between 1992 and 2018. Specialized actually worked extensively with Ned Overend when developing the newest Epic frame to ensure that it would be capable downhill while retaining the sharp handling required for technical climbing. The newest Epic has a longer reach and a slacker head tube angle and it is significantly longer and slacker than the Stumpjumper M2. These changes make it more stable and confidence-inspiring at speed and when attacking technical descents encountered on many modern XC courses.
As mountain bike technology has matured, frame geometry has progressed away from its road bike origins to be more suited to off-road riding. The much shorter and steeper Stumpjumper M2 would feel downright terrifying to most modern-day riders. When we asked Overend what he thought it’d be like to ride the Stumpjumper M2 on a modern XC racecourse he laughed and said, “It would be primitive, and sketchy!”
Wheel SizeThe smaller 26” wheels on the Stumpjumper M2 were the standard for decades. When the mountain bike was invented, 26” wheels were already in use on many American-made bicycles and were thus more readily available than other wheel standards. This size also had the advantage of being stiffer and lighter than larger road bike wheels, thereby increasing power transfer and efficiency, and improving handling and durability. For a rear wheel, the Stumpjumper does have some flex from the Tension Disc rear wheel, but more on that later.
The modern Epic features 29” carbon rims, which are light, stiff, and durable. Modern wheel technology has improved enough that larger 29” wheels are commonplace, and they now dominate the world of XC racing. Larger wheels more easily roll over trail obstacles like rocks and roots and they have a proportionally larger contact patch, which provides increased traction.
Overend now appreciates the efficiency and rollover of 29” wheels and says he doesn’t miss the small wheels on his old Stumpjumper M2. “When I go back to riding a 26” wheel down a rough downhill,” he says, “Your body has to become the suspension. You have to use so much more energy to not only get up rough things when you’re climbing but to not go over the bars when you’re doing a fast downhill. You have to have a whole different body position. It took a lot more energy to go slower.”
SuspensionSuspension may be the area of mountain bike technology that has made the greatest leap forward in the last 30 years. In the early ‘90s, suspension forks were only just becoming popular and the hardtail reigned supreme. The Stumpjumper M2 has a Specialized Future Shock fork (manufactured by RockShox) with an air spring and 50mm of travel.
This design is the predecessor to the amazing air-sprung forks we have now, but by today’s standards, the Future Shock is far from supportive or plush, and the travel numbers feel somewhat minuscule. The 1992 version of the fork was also recalled years later as the crown bolts tended to loosen, which led to a number of instances where the crown separated from the stanchions.
The new Epic is light-years ahead. Before the Epic’s inception in 2002, Specialized engineers did back-to-back testing and found that the momentum carried over rough terrain by a full-suspension bike would help riders be faster in the long run, compared to a hardtail. But old-school XC racers demanded maximum efficiency while pedaling. Specialized needed a shock that felt like a hardtail out of the saddle but could move freely when hitting bumps.
Thus the Brain suspension platform was born. It relies on a damping reservoir near the rear wheel equipped with an inertia valve. It opens up the shock when it senses bumps, but if a rider stands out of the saddle to pedal hard, the shock will remain locked-out. This combination of efficiency and compliance is part of what has made the Epic such a successful XC race weapon. Overend admits that he's now a happy full-suspension convert.
Though the Stumpjumper M2 is a hardtail, it does have a component that provides additional compliance in the rear: a Sugino Tension Disc wheel. Designed by Tadashi Yoshiro, the Tension Disc didn’t use spokes. It relied on Kevlar strands running between the hub and rim to provide tension. “There’s a little bit of give to it,” Overend says, “So it acted a little bit like suspension.”
The added compliance of the Tension Disc made it popular with several top racers in the early ‘90s. It was also legendary for the distinct drum-like sound it made, which could often be heard long before a racer came into view. They weren’t without flaws though. “The wheel was a little too flexible,” Overend says. He often had issues adjusting his brakes to work with it. And if part of the wheel failed, it would often fail spectacularly and become unrideable.
DrivetrainThe 1992 Stumpjumper M2 uses a 7-speed Suntour XC Pro MD drivetrain with a 12-28t cassette in the rear. It has three chainrings that originally came stock in a 42/34/20t configuration, but on Overend’s bike, the big ring has been switched to a 44t to increase the top-end speed. By 1992, trigger shifters had been on the market for a few seasons, but the Overend still used the older top-mounted thumb shifters.
Overend is not a huge fan of the vintage group. “The chainring technology [was lacking],” he says. “You don’t see any ramps or anything in the chainrings. To me still, the front derailleur is one of the most primitive mechanisms on the bike. They never really totally figured it out.” Pointing out some significant wear on the chainstay Overend says, “A major factor in racing in those days was chainsuck.”
SRAM introduced the first 12-speed mountain bike drivetrain in 2016 with XX1 Eagle. The current S-Works Epic comes equipped with this drivetrain which provides a 500% gear range thanks to a 10-50t cassette. It is a 1x drivetrain, which is now the standard. “[It’s] a huge benefit to go to one chainring,” Overend says. Eliminating the front derailleur has made shifting simpler and more reliable, and the risk of dropping chains or experiencing chainsuck is now almost non-existent.
The brakes on the Stumpjumper M2 are a set of Suntour XC cantilever rim brakes. The stopping power they provided was limited and it took a few fingers on the brake levers and strong forearms to slow down. Overend noted that he often had issues with the brakes. “They were trying to design them with larger lever arms,” he says, “Or more leverage in the brake lever because these definitely did not slow you down very quickly.” V-Brakes were still a few years away, and the powerful hydraulic disc brakes we see on the Epic are another 10-15 years away.
Overend also had issues with the rim brakes and how they interacted with the flexy Tension Disc wheel in the back.
“If you didn’t set the brakes up properly,” he says, “And you were in a corner, and it was a rough corner, the wheel could flex, and the brakes could fold under the rim. So I always had to make sure I set the brakes so that they contacted pretty high on the rim so there was a little margin of error there.”
The Stumpjumper M2's fork uses a threaded steerer with a quill stem. It has bar ends, which provide additional hand positions and some climbing leverage. They were still prevalent in the ‘90s and Overend ran a set made by Profile for most of the season. Over the next decade, however, bar ends became somewhat unfashionable. They’re now a rare sight on modern XC bikes.
With the riders being equal, a current Specialized Epic will likely always win over the 1992 Stumpjumper M2 here. Obviously, the championship-winning bikes of today are faster and more advanced. But in their day, the winning bikes of yesteryear were the pinnacle of bike technology.
Do you remember Tension Discs or bar ends fondly? Would you ride Ned Overend’s Stumpjumper M2 today? What’s your XC bike of choice? Let us know in the comments!
Watch our TPC Museum video featuring Ned Overend talking about his Stumpjumper M2 and his Epic: