Specialized’s $9,500 S-Works Epic vs. Viathon’s $6,500 M1
Words by Daniel Sapp, Video by Michael McQueen
Two SRAM AXS Equipped Hardtails
Last year, we received a press kit for a new bike brand, Viathon. Now, we don’t really spend a ton of time reviewing cross-country hardtails here at Pinkbike, but when we realized that Viathon was owned by Walmart Stores, Inc., our interest in this particular bike grew.
This past winter, we had the opportunity to get one of Viathon’s XX1 AXS equipped M1 XC bikes in for testing. It just so happened that I already had Specialized’s brand new S-Works Epic hardtail, also sporting SRAM’s XX1 AXS drivetrain hanging out in my garage. That meant it was time for some back to back riding and comparisons between the two bikes. Because when else can you compare a bike “from Walmart” to what is arguably one of the most high-performance production XC race bikes in the world?
Big Box Store vs Big Bike Brand
Specialized holds a ton of power in the world of cycling. It’s one of the biggest brands, with the ability to manage every aspect of that brand from R&D, prototyping, testing, manufacturing, developing one-off parts for anything, to the sales floor, bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue each year. While that’s no doubt impressive, Walmart is the world’s largest company, with over $514.405 billion dollars in revenue and 2.2 million employees. Both brands have their roots in being family-owned businesses. Specialized was founded in 1974 by Mike Sinyard who is still at the helm of the red ship today, and Walmart was founded by Sam Walton in 1962 with family members still very much involved with the brand.
The connection Walmart has with bikes is not necessarily what you see when you walk into one of their stores. As any serious mountain biker would tell you, buying a bike from Walmart is likely not the best idea. However, their Viathon brand of bikes throws that notion aside, although you won’t see a Viathon anywhere in a store as they’re sold exclusively online through Walmart.com.
Walmart’s interest in mountain bikes stems from a personal connection. Brothers Tom and Steuart Walton are both avid mountain bikers and have invested heavily in the trail infrastructure surrounding Walmart’s global headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas. Their investment company also recently purchased the high-end cycling clothing brand Rapha.
So is Walmart about to disrupt the bike industry? Their massive reach, purchasing power, and supply chain are forces that few other major companies in the world, much less bike brands, can even start to compete with. Just looking at the two bikes here, there’s a $3,000 difference for nearly the same spec.
However, for Walmart to make an impact in the bike industry their bikes have to not only rival the top players at the cash register but also on the trail.
The S-Works Epic and Viathon’s top-of-the-line M1 are both very similar when it comes to kit. They both sport SRAM’s XX1 Eagle AXS wireless drivetrain, a RockShox SID Ultimate fork, and fancy carbon wheels. The Epic does have Specialized’s BRAIN cartridge in the fork and a power meter while the M1 has a RockShox Reverb AXS dropper post. The Epic also has 100mm of travel vs the M1’s 120mm.
When it comes to geometry, things are somewhat similar at first glance but there are some notable differences. The M.1 is designed and engineered by Kevin Quan, who’s worked for brands like Cervelo, Diamondback, BH, and more in the past decade. Viathon claim they are not just targeting racers with the M.1, but the numbers are comparable to many of the carbon hardtails that we see in XC racing, despite its slightly longer travel 120mm fork.
The wheelbases are within a couple of millimeters and a lot of other numbers are close. But, the Epic has slightly longer reach, a degree slacker 68.5° head tube angle and a slightly steeper seat tube. All about what you’d expect from a more cutting-edge bike at the forefront of World Cup racing. At least on paper, the Specialized has the edge in the geometry department.
Both frames feature a threaded BB and internal cable routing. They have multiple bottle mounts and everything else you’d expect on a modern, high-performance XC bike. The Epic HT frame is an eye-popping light 790 grams, while the Viathon is a more typical 1,035 grams. Specialized achieves this by doing a lot of fancy work with their carbon fiber and utilizing their near-infinite R&D budget to cut weight absolutely anywhere possible, without sacrificing durability or ride quality, while Viathon uses the more standard Toray carbon found in most high-end XC race bikes. That said, the Viathon is still pretty damn light and in the realm of most production race hardtails, so a 245g (½ lb) difference in frame weight is pretty astounding.
As complete bikes, there are a few differences with our test bikes—the Viathon has a slightly longer fork and a wireless dropper post, but the Specialized has a power meter. Still, even with that, the Epic comes out well over a pound lighter as a complete bike.
If you’re going to buy the Epic HT, it’s coming from a certified Specialized bike shop and will be built by a mechanic that’s likely trained by Specialized and certified to work on that bike. You’ll roll out of the bike shop with the bike sized to fit you, pedals installed, tires set up tubeless, and everything ready to pedal to the trails. All you have to do is swipe a credit card and go riding. If there’s ever a warranty issue or another problem, your shop should have your back.
With the Viathon, you press purchase online, the bike is built up by a PBMA certified mechanic at Viathon, and then slightly disassembled, packaged, and delivered to your home or your local Walmart. Re-assembly requires a few basic Allen keys, a Torx, and pump. All of the necessary tools, including a torque wrench, are provided (minus a pump), and the bike can be built up at a trailhead or in a parking lot following the provided instructions if you need them. I did run into the issue of the batteries for the AXS not being fully charged and the tires weren’t set up tubeless, so that’s something worth considering.
Comparing price, the Viathon is way ahead in this field. At $3,000 less than the Epic, you can take a week or two off work, fly somewhere warm, have your own training camp, a vacation, whatever.
How does all of this stack up? Both bikes have their strong suits in spec. Some riders will appreciate the dropper post, while others will certainly want a power meter. Specialized has some of their proprietary technology in the Epic with the BRAIN fork and the Epic certainly takes the win in geometry and weight.
On the trail, even without the dropper post, the Epic outperforms the M1. The bike has a more modern geometry and while both bikes are undoubtedly at the top of their class, the Epic has a noticeably better ride quality and is less harsh than the M1. The geometry makes it easier to ride and it has a lower weight which is key in accelerating out of turns and when the bike is pointed uphill.
At the end of the day, a lot of riders will find great value in Viathon’s bikes, especially their lower-end offerings which come in at one of the best component-for-component values there is…similar bikes from Specialized or other brands cost much more. There is, however, a lot to be said for the ride quality of the Epic. For someone wanting one of the best riding bikes in this category, that $3,000 may not be a big deal but for many others, it’ll be better spent on something else.
If you were choosing between the two, which one would be for you? Let us know in the comments below.