Can you rip the trails with a beefed-up XC bike like the Specialized Epic EVO Expert and Cannondale Scalpel SE 1? That’s the question our colleagues of our sister magazine ENDURO tried to answer with this test, all without chasing KOMs, signing up for Eliminator races or wearing tight jerseys. And there’s one thing we can tell you straight away: they had even more fun than they have had with some trail or enduro rigs!

Wait a second: XC bikes in GRAN FONDO? Our colleagues at our sister magazine ENDURO may not be savvy Lycra junkies, but when it comes to maximum off-road riding fun, they know exactly what matters. They put the Cannondale Scalpel SE 1 and the Specialized Epic EVO Expert up against each other. We don’t want to deprive you of their findings! How the two bikes perform from a mountain biker’s point of view and whether they could also be something for road bikers and gravel fans is something our colleague Felix reports to you in the finest ENDURO fashion.

Looking for the ultimate kick with three fast machines.
From 0 to 100 in…
… we don’t care about the seconds, we’re here for the fun!

Cross-country, downcountry, trail… blurring the boundaries

While both the Specialized and Cannondale are based on an XC race bike with 100 mm travel, they’re heavily beefed up. The longer 120 mm RockShox SID Select+ fork slackens the head angle by 1° and a dropper post keeps the saddle out of the way on technical descents. Overall the spec reminds us of modern trail bikes, not least because of the powerful brakes, wider handlebars and shorter stems. For the Scalpel SE, Cannondale have furnished the frame platform with an extra 20 mm travel, giving it 120 mm travel front and rear. The Epic EVO does without Specialized’s BRAIN system, which is designed to prevent the rear end from bobbing under pedalling. For this reason, Specialized have redesigned the suspension kinematics along with the increase in travel to stop the Epic from feeling more like a Beetle than a 911 when riding out of the saddle.

Same same… Both the Specialized and…
… the Cannondale rely on a 120 mm RockShox SID Select+ fork.

A Porsche with a roof box is a rolling fashion crime and riding XC with a backpack is probably worse. That’s why both bikes can accommodate two water bottles in the main triangle. The Epic comes with a multi-tool attached to the base of the bottle cage, but this doesn’t include a 2.5 mm Allen key for the rebound adjustment, so you’ll have to set and forget. Like Specialized, Cannondale attach a multitool underneath the cage and throw in a Dynaplug tire repair kit for good measure. Add an additional strap holds for either a CO2 cartridge or a small pump and wave your saddlebag, rucksack or hip pack goodbye!

While a Porsche with a roof rack is a rolling fashion crime, we made an exception for these two sexy carbon bikes.

The Specialized Epic EVO Expert in detail

The Epic EVO was designed to have fun on the trail and not to win races on an XC circuit. Of course, this is reflected in the spec of the € 6,499 bike. Whilst SRAM’s G2 RS four-piston brakes and a 150 mm dropper-post are usually reserved for conventional trail bikes, the Epic EVO seems to benefit from the extra weight. The drivetrain is a mix of SRAM GX and X01 Eagle components. Unfortunately, Specialized use a heavier GX cassette, which leaves a lot of tuning potential unused.

Specialized Epic EVO Expert | 120/110 mm (f/r) | 29” | 11.18 kg | € 6,499 | Manufacturer’s website

For the wheels, the Americans rely on their in-house components, combining a 29 x 2.3″ Ground Control tire up front with a fast-rolling, 2.3” FastTrak at the rear, fitted to Roval carbon rims. To improve puncture resistance and protect the rims from impacts, we installed a tire insert similar to the one used on the Cannondale­ – safety first. The cockpit is also made up of Specialized’s own components and includes a 60 mm stem and 750 mm, low-rise handlebars.

The Specialized Epic EVO is more than just a beefed-up XC bike. You can really smash it down the trails and even try to pull the tire off the rim.

The tread pattern of the Specialized Ground Control tire generates good traction, both in corners and under braking.
As you’ve probably guessed, we rode the Epic EVO exclusively with the flip-chip in the LOW setting – after all, we’re ENDURO Magazine.
Out of the way that’s what you’ll end up shouting every 100 meters when riding the Epic EVO downhill. The 150 mm dropper allows for great freedom of movement and makes you want to ride faster.
In theory, we ride short-travel bikes so that we can forget about locking out the shock. Unfortunately, with the Specialized, this is still necessary on long climbs.
With its four pistons, the SRAM G2 brakes pack a punch and provide reliable deceleration. However, the rear wheel could do with a 180 mm rotor – not for more power but for better heat dissipation.
Unfortunately, Specialized combine the expensive X01 derailleur with a heavy GX cassette.
Size XS S M L XL
Seat tube 375 mm 400 mm 430 mm 470 mm 520 mm
Top tube 536 mm 567 mm 602 mm 629 mm 659 mm
Head tube 95 mm 95 mm 100 mm 115 mm 135 mm
Head angle 66.5° 66.5° 66.5° 66.5° 66.5°
Seat angle 74.5° 74.5° 74.5° 74.5° 74.5°
Chainstay 438 mm 438 mm 438 mm 438 mm 438 mm
BB Drop 46 mm 36 mm 36 mm 36 mm 36 mm
Wheelbase 1,106 mm 1,132 mm 1,164 mm 1,194 mm 1,227 mm
Reach 380 mm 406 mm 436 mm 460 mm 485 mm
Stack 603 mm 593 mm 597 mm 611 mm 629 mm

Tuning tips: 180 mm rotor for the rear brake | Upgrade to an X01 cassette when the standard GX cassette is worn out

The Cannondale Scalpel SE 1 in detail

While the Scalpel SE 1 is exactly € 1,500 cheaper than the Epic EVO, the spec doesn’t reflect the huge price gap. Both bikes share the same suspension and, just like Specialized, Cannondale rely on their own carbon rims. These are laced to DT Swiss hubs and shod in Maxxis tires with EXO casings, as is typical for trail bikes. While the carcass suits the character and purpose of the Scalpel, the low profile of the Ardent Race (front) and Rekon Race (rear) fails to generate enough traction, especially in fast corners and under braking.

Cannondale Scalpel SE1 | 120/120 mm (f/r) | 29” | 11.58 kg | € 4,999 | Manufacturer’s website

The Scalpel SE relies on a Shimano XT drivetrain combined with Cannondale’s own lightweight Hollowgram alloy cranks. Two-piston XT brakes with 180 mm and 160 mm rotors provide reliable deceleration. However, we would recommend a bigger 180 mm rotor on the rear wheel to prevent the disc from overheating on long descents. Medium and large frames come with Cannondale’s own DownLow dropper with just 125 mm travel, while the small size comes with an even more meagre 100 mm. Typically cross-country but still very cool, are the ESI Chunky grips, which are glued directly onto the Cannondale carbon bars and offer an outstanding level of damping. The Scalpel SE comes as standard with a Cannondale Wheel Sensor on the front wheel, which collects all your ride data and is compatible with most GPS devices like a Garmin or Wahoo.

The Cannondale Stash Kit includes all the tools we would take with us on a ride.

The bottle cage of the Scalpel SE comes with a multitool, tire-plug, CO2 canister and accommodates a large water bottle.
Compared with the front tire on the Specialized, the Ardent Race of the Scalpel generates little grip, especially in fast corners and under braking.
The pivotless stays of the Scalpel mimic a Horst-link design with flattened chainstays that are designed to flex where a heavier pivot would usually be.
Cannondale combine a long seat tube with a short-travel 125 mm dropper (size L). Unfortunately, this restricts freedom of movement on technical descentes.
The Shimano XT drivetrain runs on Cannondale’s own lightweight HollowGram alloy cranks.
Cannondale delivered our Scalpel test bike with a tire insert in the rear wheel. This doesn’t come as standard with the bike but makes perfect sense, especially when riding rocky trails.
Size S M L XL
Seat tube 430 mm 440 mm 480 mm 520 mm
Top tube 580 mm 602 mm 625 mm 648 mm
Head tube 95 mm 105 mm 115 mm 125 mm
Head angle 67.0° 67.0° 67.0° 67.0°
Seat angle 74.0° 74.0° 74.0° 74.0°
Chainstay 436 mm 436 mm 436 mm 436 mm
BB Drop 32 mm 32 mm 33 mm 33 mm
Wheelbase 1,125 mm 1,148 mm 1,172 mm 1,196 mm
Reach 410 mm 430 mm 450 mm 470 mm
Stack 592 mm 602 mm 611 mm 621 mm

Tuning tips: Put the front tire on the back wheel and get a grippier tire for the front | Seat post with more drop | 180mm rotor on the rear

Can you rip the trails on a beefed-up 120 mm XC rig? The answer is YES but not with every bike. One of the bikes in this test proved to be up for the task and we almost managed to pull the tire off the rim when tearing through a berm! Turn to the next page to find out which one it is.

XC braap… Epic EVO vs Scalpel SE showdown

From the moment you swing your leg over the saddle, it’s clear that both the Specialized and the Cannondale are beefed-up XC racers and not short-travel trail bikes. Despite the shorter stems, both have a stretched and sporty riding position which puts plenty of weight over the front wheel. With its raised handlebars and a big stack of spacers under the stem, the riding position of the Scalpel is more relaxed and thus easier on the lower back – the ideal position for long days in the saddle. On flat trails, both the Scalpel and the Epic accelerate willingly and also maintain their speed extremely well, not least due to the fast-rolling rear tires. Only when the trail gets steeper, can the Scalpel SE take advantage of its livelier character and jump ahead of the Epic. When pedalling out of the saddle, the rear-end of the Cannondale tends to bob but is still a lot more efficient than the Specialized. Here you can really tell that the Epic was designed to work with the BRAIN system, which uses an automatic lock-out system. Despite its modified kinematics, with every pedal stroke, the shock bobs up and down. There’s only one thing that helps: reaching for the lockout. As a result, on technical climbs, the Epic EVO generates less traction than the Scalpel SE, which negotiates with any sort of climb incredibly well.

Freshly-picked trail snacks are better than any energy gel.
Unlike most racers, we allow ourselves a break before hitting the trails again – and then, of course, we’ll drop our saddles.

Once you start descending, it becomes clear how different the riding position is between the two bikes. Despite the high front end, the Scalpel positions you on top of the bike rather than integrating you between the wheels, not least because the short-travel dropper doesn’t give you enough freedom of movement. Unfortunately, the more compact Scalpel also restricts your movements towards the front end. On the other hand, the Epic EVO integrates the rider deeper into the frame and offers plenty of freedom of movement – almost like a trail bike. In terms of suspension, both behave in a similar way, offering lots of support rather than a plush ride. As a result, both pull into the air easily and generate speed when pumping through flowy trails. However, we all know that stiff suspension also translates into vibrations, which both the Cannondale and Specialized pass onto the rider when riding nasty root carpets and sketchy braking bumps. In fast corners and under braking, you’ll notice a massive difference in grip: while the Epic EVO literally begs you to fly into berms and push your tires into a loud braaaaap, the Scalpel SE requires greater caution. Particularly on the front wheel, a more aggressive tire would provide more control and make for a safer (and more fun) ride. On top of this, the Scalpel feels somewhat unbalanced, because the short reach combined with the long 80 mm stem pull your upper body far over the front wheel. With the Epic EVO you’ll be faster downhill and have more fun in the process. That being said, both bikes were designed for flatter flowy trails, where they’ll leave any trail bike in a big cloud of dust.

While both the Specialized and the Cannondale love some quality air time, the Specialized is the rowdier option.


Even without a stopwatch, the Cannondale Scalpel SE is clearly faster, more comfortable and way more fun to ride uphill. However, turn it downhill and the Epic EVO makes up for it and puts a massive grin on your face. We have never before tried an XC bike that can be pushed this hard on the trail – this thing can really take a beating! In conclusion, the Specialized Epic EVO convinced us as the rowdier trail/downcountry bike while the Scalpel SE 1 is the ideal choice for long days in the saddle.

Whether you ride the Cannondale or Specialized, there’s always a beer waiting at the bottom of the hill.

What does this mean for all the road bikers and gravel fans among us? A look at the results of our 2020 readers’ survey quickly reveals that a mountain bike without a motor was rated by 53.5% of participants, pushing the gravel bike (46.5%) and the race bike (43%) into second and third place. If you already own a gravel bike or a road bike, you are best off with a mountain bike that expands the range of use of your own fleet in the most effective way. As with this comparison, it all depends on your preferences. You want to push hard uphill and collect altitude meter points? Then the Cannondale Scalpel SE is your favourite. For those for whom climbing is only a means to an end and who really want to let it rip in the downhills, the Specialized Epic EVO should be taken a close look at. You want to see more mountain bikes on GRAN FONDO? You do not like mountain bikes at all? What do you think? Feel free to send us a message on our Instagram account!

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Words: Photos: Robin Schmitt