Every rider has had a favorite bike. Remember yours? It was the one that felt completely effortless from the very first day, but at the same time, challenged you to push your limits. Personally, I can count on one hand the bikes I’ve connected with at such a deep level. I remember one of them as if our first ride were just yesterday. It wasn’t light, nor did it have a single top-shelf component. Yet I rode that thing as hard as I could for several years. I felt like it was custom made for me, even if its matte avocado-green paint job wasn’t. This was the original, 2011 Specialized Stumpjumper Expert Evo. This one-off, experimental variant on the fabled Stumpjumper not only became one of my all-time favorite trail bikes, it would foreshadow the trajectory of the entire trail bike category as we know it today. A bold statement, so maybe some context is necessary. Let’s briefly travel back to the beginning of this millenium for a peek inside my garage.
In the mid 2000s, the main staples of my collection were pampered, race-ready downhill and dual-slalom bikes. But at the time, I was already deep in the world of mountain bike media, so my garage served as a revolving door for bikes that were far more common; ones of the 100- to 120mm-travel cross-country-ish variety. They would see countless sun-scorched miles in the Santa Monica Mountains before I finally sat down to write about them. Then, whenever I would find a standout, I might swap out their tires for something more aggressive, install a dropper post if it could fit, and replace the fork with one offering 20, even 30 millimeters more travel. I’d reach into my parts bin for a wider handlebar and shorter stem, and I’d have my own trail-style bikes that maintained some uphill efficiency, but offered more real-world capability on the rowdy terrain my friends and I were pursuing.
And then, one day in late 2010, a remarkably unassuming bike fell into my lap for a review—the original Stumpjumper Evo. The Stumpjumper was, of course, already a household name and a serious money maker for Specialized. So, what was this Evo model all about? And why would they take the risk of disrupting an already wildly popular model?
That original, 26-inch, alloy-only, Stumpy Evo wasn’t flashy, and it was relatively affordable. Yet, it was one of the first mass-produced bikes to meld aggressive-trail intentions with cross-country efficiency. The Stumpy Evo reflected how I’d been modifying my personal bikes, so it was built precisely for how and where I wanted to ride, right out of the box. The first Stumpy Evo featured a little extra rear and front travel, more aggressive components, a longer wheelbase and a slacker head angle than the standard, inertia-valved Brain-shock-equipped Stumpjumpers. This was revolutionary at the time, which is hard to believe looking back from up here in 2021.
The current Stumpjumper Evo is one of the most versatile, capable, and fun all-around bikes I’ve ever ridden, thanks in part to its long list of progressive design and unique innovations. After spending an entire season aboard the latest iteration of the Stumpy Evo, I began reminiscing about that 2011 “Flying Avocado.” What all went down inside that Evo-driven product development program from 2010? And how did it bring us to this latest, award-winning Stumpy?
I went straight to the source, starting with Specialized’s MTB Product Team Leader, Brandon Sloan, who happened to also be product manager for that first-generation Stumpjumper Evo in 2011. “At that time, trail riding was changing super quickly and dramatically,” recalls Sloan. “The entire Evo thing basically started because that was how we were building and riding our personal bikes, and we knew riders out there were pushing their bikes a lot harder. From the geometries to the components to the ways travel was being used, we could see it seemingly change overnight.”
At the heart of the first Stumpy Evo, the goal was to make the Stumpjumper more rider-need based, rather than just fit it into a specific genre. “The initial hurdle for that bike wasn’t with dealers as much as it was with our internal subsidiaries and distributors,” explains Sloan. “We were fighting against the momentum of distributors thinking all bikes had to have triple chainrings, lockouts, and all the garbage they thought the riders needed. But in [the MTB Product Team’s] opinion, they weren’t thinking about riders of the future.”
Specialized was evolving along with the booming scene that developed around the raw and steep terrain of Santa Cruz. In response, that first Evo bike took some big risks when it came to component spec, travel, and geometry. “We had some international markets and distributors which were very conservative about what Stumpjumper meant to them, or what an Enduro is, or an Epic is, and so on, and they thought we shouldn’t deviate from those parameters,” explains Sloan. “However, in the minds of our mountain bike team, the rider is the boss. So, to give them the bikes we knew they were looking for, we first had to get through our own internal layers. Given this bike was a one-off variant of an in-line model, it started as an affordable alloy version. These bikes were basically experiments to see how the riders would react, and we could justify those risks in an all-alloy platform.” If that Evo bike failed, it wouldn’t even be a blip on the brand’s bottom line. If it succeeded, it would give merit to the mountain bike product team taking risks in pursuit of giving riders what they’re looking for, while energizing the product teams’ imaginations for where they could go next. Sloan and his team got to work.
Aside from sharing the Stumpjumper name, few things carried over to this first Evo model. “We were basically taking the Stumpjumper platform and giving it a different frame, geometry, components, and damper needs. Stumpys back then had Brain shocks, which aren’t for everybody, and especially not in the trail bike world,” said Sloan. “Back then, trail bikes across the sport definitely had more of a cross-country slant, so we really put a lot more importance on the aspects of riding that dealt with handling challenging terrain at speed, such as chain retention with Gamut chainguides as well as our in-house versions. Those first Evo bikes also had wider handlebars with sometimes different rises, and we put more emphasis on braking power and beefier tires. Everything then just escalated from there. Looking back now, that’s all very similar to how trail bikes have evolved across the sport in general.”
Specialized’s Evo line has stayed in their product offering since the original 2011 Stumpjumper model, but not always in the same form. There were a few years without a Stumpjumper Evo at all, and occasionally other bikes donned the Evo suffix, along with shoes and other accessories. Eventually, the reins were brought in on the Evo tag, and the MTB Product Team stakeholders agreed on what that designation meant to the company, where it could go, and how it could be advantageous to help give riders the bikes that would support the latest riding trends and, in some cases, drive them.
The entire Evo thing basically started because that was how we were building and riding our personal bikes
“After the success of that first Stumpy Evo, we went a bit nuts with the Evo thing,” said Sloan. “We made Epic Evos that had slightly more front travel and dropper posts, wider handlebars, thicker tires, which is kinda what people are calling down-country today. We also had an Epic Evo R, which was an ultra endurance race-oriented version of the XC race bike with one-by drivetrains before that was universally accepted in the endurance racing world. There was even a super-lightweight Epic hardtail with a rigid carbon fork under the Evo designation. Enduro is where it got even crazier. We did standalone, coil-sprung bikes, which had Enduro Evo-specific frames different from the standard Enduro frame. That was well before coil shocks were cool, or even desired, by trail riders.
“There were also a bunch of ideas we played with for the Evo lines that came close, but didn’t make it to production. For example, we had mixed wheel-size bikes, or “Biggie Smalls,” as we called them internally, that we never ended up producing, yet you see some people choosing to ride today. There were also Evo saddles, shoes, and a bunch of other products that didn’t fit the Evo ideology. So, after the initial success with the Evo bikes, that pendulum swung back the other way and we limited the Evo offerings. Maybe we overdid the Evo thing for a bit.”
“We repeatedly saw the cost-effective, first alloy version of an Evo bike eventually become the standard or mainstream version,” Sloan says. “In those instances, we’d then go back and figure out in what ways we could ‘Evo-out’ that bike again by incorporating the future trends we saw on the horizon or the qualities riders were looking for that may have been outside conventional thought for the bike’s category. When the Evo bikes became the standard model, the Evos might disappear in that line for a while. Then, we’d re-examine the category and see what needs could be met and then take the Evo to the next level on that model. That’s just the funny bike-world cycle. And, exactly what happened with the current Stumpy Evo and the results from what product manager, Steve Saletnik, has recently done with that line.”
What the line has become is pretty impressive, and maybe even a little surprising, considering the brand behind it. When compared to a behemoth like Specialized, wouldn’t a small brand with fewer distributors and a smaller market share have more speed-boat-like agility when it comes to embracing a trend and delivering it to riders? Doesn’t having worldwide subsidiaries selling bikes on the established reputations of certain models force large brands to implement new trends with aircraft-carrier-like nimbleness?
“It’s possible for us, as a brand, to get in our own way at times,” explains Sloan. “Yet, we also have the ability to make—or try—whatever we want. I guess the brand’s success can be a little bit of a burden, but way more so it gives us a great opportunity to bust out different things we want to try. Especially with things like the Evo line of bikes. It was always just a little flyer of a side project on the peripheral of the standard bikes. So, if something wasn’t well received or went wrong, that’s ok. It’s something we’ve learned from, without suffering a financial shot-in-the-foot. In fact, it’s not even a blip on the overall picture, because we have a standard line that’s paying the bills, if you will; which gives us the freedom to experiment and have fun with the Evo bikes to see what works and what doesn’t work. And, like I said, almost always some of the ideas make their way up into the standard line.”
After the inaugural 2011 Stumpjumper Evo, the model ranged from mid-priced, alloy-framed Comp builds escalating to a full-carbon S-Works version in 2014. That said, the Stumpy Evos of that era generally featured only subtle spec, component, and geometry changes. Then, the Stumpjumper line was without an Evo option until model year 2019 when the Evo line once again painted outside the lines by incorporating much more significant changes. Steve Saletnik oversaw the latest two iterations of the Stumpjumper, including the noticeably redesigned 2019 line. That’s when there was a standard Stumpjumper model, an ST version with 20 millimeters less of front and rear travel, and that drastically different Evo version.
“While doing research and development for that 2019 Stumpjumper model year, we were seeing people riding bikes with radically different geometries,” explains Saletnik. “So, in the same way we utilized the original alloy Stumpy Evo in 2011 to test an experimental geometry and components, we implemented that same Evo concept into that alloy 2019 version, which had drastically different geometry from the standard models of that year.”
After the success of that first Stumpy Evo, we went a bit nuts with the Evo thing.
As with nearly every iteration of the first-run, all-alloy Evo bikes over the years, many of the aspects eventually carried over to newer models down the line. “That super-slack, and long, alloy-only, 2019 Stumpy Evo was a cool experiment,” says Saletnik. “ We were able to do a pretty drastic geometry on that bike, and then learn a lot from how people were riding that chassis. It was really cool to see how people took that bike and built it up in different ways and how they were using it. That feedback all dovetailed into the refinements people are now riding on the current Stumpy Evos.”
In many instances, the Specialized mountain bike product team’s crystal ball was right on target, and often those one-off Evo models eventually became that bike’s only version. The once Evo-defining features, over time, would become standard characteristics riders were looking for across the trail category.
Although the original Evo bikes began as experiments developed internally from the mountain bike product team, the current Stumpy Evo is the culmination of years of research and experimentation. “Rider feedback is super valuable,” says Saletnik. “That style of feedback is basically what the whole new Stumpy Evo was designed from. For two years, I ran around to events talking to people, having meetings with riders in different areas, and talking to them about what they’re looking for in a bike. Regardless of where I was riding or who I was riding with, frame geometry always was a major topic of discussion. Riders around the world would tell me their bike had to have a certain geo or angles. Everyone has a really strong point of view on geo; but, it really depends on where and how you ride. So, I began thinking of how we could meet the needs of all of those riders in one bike, but also take it to the next level by going beyond those needs. The result of that feedback ultimately led to features like the integrated headtube cups for an adjustable headtube angle, and the Horst-link adjustment to raise or lower the bottom bracket.”
Over a decade after that first Evo bike was released, Specialized’s Stumpjumper Evo line has morphed into much more than a one-off garage modification. The Stumpy Evo is clearly now its own category of bike, and according to Saletnik, it’s because the bike meets the demands of those trail riders. “When it all began, the Evo was just a variant of a standard model, but now it’s its own family because there are so many riders who it fits perfectly. It reveals where the trail bike category is moving in general.”
Evo. The word is rather ubiquitous in the cycling world. Dozens of brands have products with the word in their name, not unlike how many car manufacturers use GT, LS, or Spider. Despite the term Evo being employed by many other companies aside from Specialized, to the Mountain Bike Team, the meaning runs deeper than just a three-letter suffix.
“The whole Evo thing, whether or not in the future it sticks around by that name, is irrelevant,” says Brandon Sloan. “What’s important is the practice of approaching our trail bike development through the Evo lens, because under that name we have the ability to do something totally different, or off the wall of conventional thought, and that is important.”
“Evo will always be more of an approach or mindset, rather than just a word,” says Saletnik. “We are always rethinking how we could go about designing a bike, or a slant for going at a certain model in a different way. Whether or not the Evo line stays as is or becomes something completely different, it’s the spirit of Evo that’s super important to our team. It always has us thinking “what if” when it comes to bike design and our pursuit of giving riders the bikes they’re looking for.”