Sport vs. Grand Touring


This past spring, I undertook an experiment. I asked Specialized to loan me two bicycles for a review. Not a shootout, mind you, but a review concerned with differentiation. As someone who has penned more than a few shootouts, the competition always results in a winner, which also means there are a few losers as well.

In my experience there aren’t many bikes that I’d call losers.

My point was to spend some serious time with the Specialized Tarmac and Roubaix models and try, in the clearest possible terms, to review them based on what each bike is and is not. They are different bikes, but the real question is how so? Specialized wouldn’t be offering two different bikes with the same basic carbon construction and the same componentry unless they offered reasonably differentiated experiences. Sure, you can rely on their marketing copy, but they have a vested interest in convincing you that there is a difference and one of those bikes is more appropriate to you than the other.

I went to Specialized because they were the first big company to offer two road bikes of different geometries with the same componentry and carbon fiber lay up. Prior to the introduction of the Roubaix, none of the bigger bike companies had offered a high-end road bike of alternate geometry.

Specialized has framed the difference as “competition” versus “endurance.” They aren’t bad terms, but they are terms I haven’t been comfortable using because if I discuss the difference between Cannondale’s Super Six and Synapse, then I appear to be examining two Cannondale bikes through a Specialized lens. That’s bound to go over as well as cyanide in soda.

There’s a basic question floating around this discussion. What does it matter? Why care?

In my case, it stems from a concern I’ve had about most American-designed road bikes for as long as I’ve been reviewing road bikes. The product managers and engineers at most American bike companies (at least the ones I’ve met) are current or former racers. Most carried a Cat. 1 or 2 license. The geometry of those companies’ top road bikes tends to excel at the needs of the racer.

Counter to that was my experience with most bikes imported from European manufacturers. Relatively speaking, most had a longer wheelbase, lower bottom bracket and more trail. They tended to carve lazier arcs through the turns of a criterium unless you countersteered with a bit of force but their easy maneuverability gave riders a calm, confident sense on descents.

The more I rode different bikes, the more I came to prefer those bikes that came from Europe, especially the Italian ones. I often wondered to what degree the riding and racing circumstances of the bike’s designer influenced how the bike rode. It took years and there were no super-clear answers, but eventually, I heard enough for me to believe I had confirmation of my curiosity. The importers for a few of the Italian lines did report that the bikes were designed to descend well in the Dolomites. And on more than one occasion American bike designers told me how important it was that the bottom bracket be high enough to allow a racer to pedal through a corner.

But now there is a new category of road bike and the larger philosophy behind why a company might want to offer a road bike with a different take on handling than their primary offering really hasn’t been discussed much. I’ve heard them called disease ride bikes, century bikes and as Specialized calls them, endurance road bikes.

If we don’t really know what to call them, or can’t agree on what to call them, then their place in the market is as marginal as that of a Velcro water slide. And to me, there is an immense value to this emerging category.

I had to look to the automotive world to find a parallel, but once I did it was billboard obvious: Sport vs. Grand Touring. For most of us, we need no one to help with the distinction of a sedan as opposed to a sports car, four doors instead of two.

The metaphor works on almost every level. A sedan is about a more comfortable ride and more leisurely handling; it doesn’t have the sharp cornering of a sports car, handling that can leave a driver feeling exhausted after a long trip on the freeway. And the stiffer suspension of most sports cars? An apt comparison as well. Most of the bikes that fall under this Grand Touring umbrella have a longer wheelbase and slacker head tube angle to give the rider a bit more vibration damping if not actual shock absorption.

Okay, so you’re not going to put a baby seat in the back or take everyone in the office to lunch, but you get the idea.

So here’s my thesis: In the way that compact bars are a smart response for those who don’t have pro-like flexibility and compact gearing is appropriate for those who can’t ride tempo at 28 mph four hours at a time, GT-geometry bikes are appropriate to the sort of riding that most recreational riders do.

In the next week I’ll be posting my reviews of the Specialized Tarmac Pro and Roubaix Pro and will offer a wrap-up afterward with what I learned from the experience.

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  1. Doug

    My experience with American vs Italian bikes parallels yours. I had a Cannondale, and while in Europe found a great deal on a Pinarello Galileo. When I rode the Pinarello down Luneman road, a steep switchbacked descent, I found myself going 15 MPH faster than with the Cannondale, and used the brakes almost not at all. The two bikes were almost identical when measured, except the bottom bracket on the Pinarello was over 10MM lower. My statement to American manufacturers is this, I don’t give a flying F*** about pedaling through a corner! I would be willing to bet most of your customers don’t either! Why not sell crit bikes to the crit folks, and let the rest of us enjoy the descents?

  2. MJR

    I like your idea in concept, but you also need to think about how many people out there who *should* be buying the Roubaix/Synapse/etc. are enticed into a bike shop because of the racing they see on TV and in the media. They don’t want to be sold the “watered down” version of anything, whether you call it Grand Tour, Endurance, or something else. Maybe, in a nod to the recent re-infatuation with all things Belgian, this sub-category of bikes should be termed as having Spring Classics geometry, whilst the Tarmac/Madone/SuperSix are the Stage Race geo. This might allow your slightly less flexible weekend warrior to stomach the idea of buying something less than the twitchiest bike, fancying himself in the mold of a Fabian/Magnus/Boonen/Hincapie versus the stick figured Contador/Schleck/Lance, and not have to resign themselves to being labeled as plodders or Sunday drivers.

    1. Author

      Doug: Your experience I think is fairly universal among those who have ridden a variety of bikes. Often, when someone tells me they can’t descend I can’t help but look at the bike and think, “If you were on a different bike you’d be faster.”

      MJR: Your point is exactly why I wrote this post and was interested in the review. I would like to begin moving the conversation away from the idea of “watered down” geometry, which is why I chose to frame the conversation as sport vs. GT. It used to be that some companies talked about Grand Tour geometry as opposed to criterium geometry. Torelli was especially clear in talking about how their bikes were all built around Grand Tour geometry. I do draw the distinction differently than you suggested, though. I think of Grand Tour geometry as being the same as what I’ve proposed as Grand Touring—longer wheelbase, lower BB, more trail. The Classics geometry is as aggressive as the racing is, simply put. The conversation can just as easily be framed as the bike for one super-aggressive hour of riding (whether a group ride or race) versus the bike that will leave you feeling fresh at the end of a century.

  3. Dan

    I’ve been riding Eddy Merckx frames for years, due largely to the reasons you’ve outlined above. Eddy took his inspiration from his framebuilders, DeRosa and Colnago, when he formed his company. Prior to getting into Merckx frames, I rode a SLX Paramount, which was more of a crit bike. The Merckx is much more comfortable for hours in the saddle. One other reason I prefer them is the laid-back seat tube angle puts me in a better position for going uphill, too, as the knee is further back relative to the bottom bracket.

  4. Larry T.

    Excellent idea Padraig! I share your affection for Italian bicycles as you well know but remember that “stage racing” geometry used to be what they called bikes for well, stage racing — the do it all, do it every day, day after day bikes the Euro pros rode. There were not razor edged bikes that would respond instantly to the slightest move but stable and responsive machines you could race on plus remove your jacket while riding with no hands on a descent, whether it was training or racing. The “other” bikes, almost universally US-made, were “crit” bikes, those fast handling, high BB things optimised for racing around square city block crit courses for an hour or so like most races in the US. Remember the early 7/Eleven bikes poor Ben Serotta made for Murray? Someone told him they had to be like what the riders were used to — crit bikes, but once they got over to Europe they quickly found these bikes lacking and Ben had to quickly make some Euro-style machines. This was all covered very well in Don Alexander’s book “American Invasion Tour de France ’86”. I’ve said many times most riders would be better served riding something optimized for Paris-Roubaix rather than Alpe d’Huez but the bike industry marketing mavens (at least up ’till now, perhaps Specialized is spearheading a switch?) tell Joe Crankarm he should have nothing less than the bike that “won” the Tour, despite the fact Joe rarely rides huge climbs in the Alps with a fully-equipped follow car at his disposal. What works and what sells are not the same…too often in my opinion.

  5. Da Robot

    I have thought for a long time that what the bicycle industry is trying to sell me is more and more not what I need. I feel as though, often, they want to sell me a battle axe to cut my toast with.

    As a side issue, I find it disturbing the way the low end of the road bike market has steadily climbed away from the casual cyclist. Just in the last ten years, bike makers have pushed their entry level rides closer and closer to a thousand bucks, which serves, I think, to keep people out of the sport.

    I realize it’s harder to wring margin out of those low end bikes, that you have to do volume business with them, and that’s a challenge. BUT, if you can’t get people on road bikes to begin with, you can’t sell them a $3-5k carbon fiber battle axe ever.

    Currently my favorite ride is an ’80s Moser, a steel frame set up for classics riding. I live in Boston, whose roads come closer to pavé than velodrome smooth. Stiffness can be liability here. I already have carpal tunnel syndrome from the shock and vibration of riding here every day. The last thing I need is a Grand Tour speed bullet to shake the last nuts and bolts out of my joints.

  6. jeremy

    I totally agree with your effort to change the discourse here. I would, however, point out that this isn’t a “new category” of road bikes- rewind to the 1970’s and before and you’ll find high end (as defined by the components and frame materials, for the time) road bikes with the geometry you describe and clearance for larger-than-the-current-norm tires that were/are great for long days in the saddle. Small builders like Bridgestone/Rivendell and Hampsten (among others) are responsible for keeping the flame alive on this type of bike and are now, rightly, poised to do well with its re-emergence.

    1. Author

      Jeremy: The issue here isn’t whether or not the geometry used in the Grand Touring bikes is new; it isn’t. However, it is a category of bike that is definitely new for the bigger manufacturers and the way they function in the market is very different from Rivendell, Hampsten and others. Also, I should point out that there is a marked difference between what Bridgestone geometry was and what Rivendell geometry is.

      Back to the point: the Roubaix is an opportunity for new riders to purchase a bike that harkens back to stage race geometry without having to go the boutique route for a first bike. The Grand Touring bike is definitely a newer development.

  7. Larry T.

    While the terms, “sport” or “grand touring” are descriptive, I doubt the labels will put any more riders on the right machine than calling them “racing bikes” or “riding bikes”. How many will admit they want a “riding bike” vs “racing bike” even though they’ve rarely if ever pinned a number on and gotten out there? Especially when the industry spends zillions convincing the average guy he/she couldn’t possibly race or even ride fast without their top-end “racing bike”. While some of ’em actually make “riding bikes” the implications go very far towards pointing the customer to “the bike that won the Tour” rather than anything else in the product lineup. The post just above makes this clear with the reference to the Roubaix bike being (only) for new riders.
    Chairman Bill of Torelli has an interesting essay here pointing out the differences between the two bicycle types and how they evolved.
    Bicycles are becoming over specialized and the marketing mavens are hawking the equivalent of F1 cars – they may be the perfect thing for a fast lap around Monza but the “Tour de France Specials” are not very practical for the average person on any type of normal road. I look forward to your comparison of the two Specialized bikes.

  8. Chris R.

    I think the new-since-2008 Madone concepts have been an excellent parallel to what the market asks for (which can be different from what it really *needs*). “Pro Fit” Madone bikes give you the same geometry as Lance’s Tour-winning steeds, while the “Performance Fit” gives you exactly the same geo chart, but with a 30mm taller head tube. The less-flexible or short-armed among us have a choice with the Performance Fit, while the long-armed and/or flexible can get the Pro fit. I rode a Performance Fit Madone 5.2 for a week while following the Giro into the Dolomites this year with the Trek Travel people. Talk about convincing! Nigh-infinite color choices, SRAM options, American-made craftsmanship (something that Cannondale and Specialized can’t say anymore) & even a ride quality that keeps my carpal tunnel at bay, too. Nice. Oh, and the Trek Travel people ROCK!!

    On a side note, the German DTM racecar series has so-called “sports sedans” doing terrifying performance numbers. Hyper-fast sedans (Honda, MG, Vauxhall, BMW) compete door-handle-to-door-handle on road courses in the British Touring Car Championship. Kinda like a 13.5 lb. Madone Performance Fit 6-series. With PowerTap Zipp 202’s.

    1. Author

      Chris: While I think the new Madone is easily the best bike Trek has ever produced, I have a serious issue with the company’s “Pro fit” versus “Performance fit.” What I’ve been working to address in this and other posts is the fact—not opinion, but fact—that when you raise the handlebar, you change a rider’s weight distribution. That change in weight distribution changes the way a bike handles. Once Trek increased the head tube length of the Madone by 3cm, the fact that all the rest of the geometry was the same as Lance’s bike ceased to matter. The change in weight distribution makes the bike handle differently. If you want to give riders a fit appropriate to their flexibility while giving them the best possible handling bike, you can’t just increase the length of the head tube, something needs to be done to shift more weight back onto the front wheel.

      Oh, and given that you’re in Madison, Wisconsin, it would be nice if you actually identified yourself as a Trek employee, rather than pass yourself off as a reader who just happens to be a really, really big fan of Trek. I do, as a matter of fact, sell advertising and have the ability to sell it to Trek as well.

  9. Sophrosune

    Interesting article and thoughts. I have noticed a new segment which seems to be called the “Sportive” bike. It is aimed at older riders with less flexibility that want the performance of the other bikes in the company’s stable. I am thinking of Cervelo’s RS, for example. Higher head tube seems to be the distinctive quality of these bikes. Even my Colnago E1 was an early manifestation of this trend. I think that this segment just makes sense when you look at the market. Twenty somethings who are moving up the Cat 1, 2, 3 ladder want a bike that they can afford to crash in a crit like an aluminum-framed bike. Guys like me in their mid-forties want the ultimate bike they can get for doing long centuries or supported rides, or the occasional sportive. Not many twenty year olds are going to fork over $3-10K on a bike that they might crash at next week’s industrial park crit. It seems to me it’s just knowing who your customers are.

    1. Author

      Sophrosune: Bingo. Whether we call it the “Sportive” bike or Grand Touring or what have you, it is an appropriate response for the demographic that can pay upwards of $5000 for a bike. I’ve chosen to call these bikes Grand Touring so that the conversation isn’t dominated by a single company’s rhetoric. I don’t want to confuse the issue with talk of drinking the Kool-Aid.

  10. max

    nothing beats aspen where the disposable income + stylish tendencies outweighed any common sense. Prior to the Sirrus and the Roubaix there was an amazing number of top end Tarmacs sold that came back relativley quickly to get the UP!! Stem extender, tall stem and carbon riser bars with campy flat bar brake/shifters/ glorious! And Specialized figured out that putting road bars up where the rich old people could get at ’em worked out just fine for the bottom line..

  11. Larry T.

    BRAVO to you Padraig on the “let’s design a new bike category by jacking up the bars via a longer headtube” school of thought. This is the same marketing mojo used to sell “women’s” bicycles. How many serious women riders actually buy/ride these things? The position ends up being screwed up just as you wrote. Dave Moulton made a good case on his (missed, but not forgotten) blog about getting older and less flexible. He advocated using a bit shorter stem but not messing around with handlebar heights for the reasons discussed here. Perhaps you were a bit harsh on the Trek Travel fellow but he should have identified himself as required by FTC rules nowadays, no? Just in case anyone wonders about ME, I own and operate CycleItalia along with my partner/wife Heather. Opinions expressed here are MINE alone and some may be undisguised, blatant plugs for our cycling vacations. If anyone has a problem with that they can email me —

    1. Author

      Max: I don’t suppose anything can be done to prevent a consumer from a rendezvous with style. At least there are remedies to help keep them on their bikes. More cyclists is a win for the sport.

      Larry, you and other bike industry people have been good enough to identify yourselves not just to me but to the readership as well. It’s a basic form of honesty that I expect from industry players. That Chris R. not only wrote an ad, but tried to disguise his motivation as just an enthusiastic consumer went beyond anonymity to an outright lie on behalf of the biggest bike company out there, one I have worked to try to cultivate a relationship with. I take great umbrage co-opting the comments section for advertising and really don’t think I was harsh on the Trek guy at all. If someone lies to me and lies to my readership I will do all I can to out them. Next time I send an invoice for advertising as well.

  12. The D

    Can’t believe how accurately this discussion reflects the fit troubles I had on my 54cm Madone 5.5 Performance. (I am 5’10”). Quit reading my mind, you @&^$#s!

    I too was struggling with an unweighted front (close to lifting on climbs/sprints). Put a longer stem on, which then rotated too much of my weight on my hands. Raised the stem, which created unforeseen thoracic back pain.

    A lot of experimentation and tweaking later, I’ve finally figured it out:

    1) stem is nearly at its lowest setting and slightly longer (110) than stock

    2) Frame is sized such that longest seat mast is nearly maxed out.

    3) KEY: Saddle (Arione) is longer and slightly further back than typical, and ever-so-slightly up-tilted, so the rear of the seat is nearly level. This keeps me balanced perfectly, and gives that impression of the bike getting more stable with speed.

    I probably could have dialed in using a shorter stem on a pro fit Madone. However, with the performance fit, the stem sits closer to the head tube bearings, which I have to assume creates a more positively connected feel. With it all carefully dialed in, the bike rides phenomenally well.

    All that said, I just wanted to clarify something from Padraig’s post above – the Performance isn’t just higher on the head tube, the effective top tube is also slightly shorter. Bottom line: plan for a longer stem and possible more saddle setback than on an equivalent pro fit.

    1. Author

      The D: I’m glad to know my analysis fits with your experience, even if it is a frustrating one. You’re right that the top tube is longer, but only on three sizes and only a single millimeter longer at that; I figured it was pretty negligible. What Trek should get credit for is keep trail much more consistent through most of the frame sizes, usually between 5.6 and 5.8cm of trail. The only exceptions are the smallest frame (6.1cm) and the largest (5.5cm). It’s much better than I’ve seen the company deliver in the past.

  13. Natextr

    Interesting point. I manage a bike shop that sells a ton of Specialized road bikes. As someone who likes driving cars fast almost as much as riding bikes, I have often used the sport car vs. GT car theory in my sales discussions. Most of my customers are aware of the differences between a 911 and a BMW M5. Both go balls-out fast. One likes to be thrown around in corners and requires that the driver know exactly what he is doing (911 or Tarmac). The other goes plenty fast, is more stable and easier for the average driver to control (M5 or Roubaix). Great post, I am glad I found it.
    I’ll be back!

  14. Chris R.

    For clarification: No, I am not an employee of Trek Bicycles, but I am an IBD in Wisconsin. I sell several bike brands, and each brand produces their bicycles according to a different “fit philosophy”. Some customers ask for comfort, while others ask for performance. Some ask for both in different quantities, resulting in a bike that might be a Trek, or it might not be. Some customers have favored classic-geometry bicycles (short head tubes, long-ish head tubes) and will stick with them because they fit a classic aesthetic, yet tell me to “make it fit” when back/neck/hands complain. These customers have little concern for top-speed, crit-bike handling, and will (eventually) move to a “sportive” bike with a taller head tube.

    Padraig is correct: The difference between the Pro and Performance fit top tube “effective lengths” is just 1mm. The “reach” dimension is increased by 8mm, and easily adjusted with stem length. A shorter front end “stack” on any bike can produce quick handling, but -for some riders- an uncomfortable position. Finding that happy medium between fit and handling, as well as other aspects of a bicycles, is easier with different manufacturers and models with different “fit philosophies”. And a knowledge of bike fit by the staff.

    Additional clarification: My own enthusiasm for Madones came from that Trek trip, and not out of outright commercialism. The best way to tell if a bike will “work” (handling, ride quality, stability on descents, etc.) is to *ride* one. Test rides should always take longer than just a ride around a parking lot. For me, a week’s ride in Italy convinced to purchase one, not the sales reps at Trek. The fact that it happens to be made here is icing on the cake. My old road bike is also carbon, handles well, and has great road feel. But is just too short at the head tube to make easy adjustments with a different stem.

    1. Author

      Chris: Do you work for one of the Trek Stores or a true IBD? When someone has an affiliation with something they are pumping, there is an ethical obligation to be honest about their bias.

      Be straight with me and my readership and there won’t be a problem.

  15. Stanley

    Why aren’t the Classics ridden on standard road bikes? Because they aren’t durable enough and far too uncomfortable for the rider. I think it is fair to say that the Specialized Roubaix have proven itself over the last two years. And should be good enough for anybody not doing alot of climbing. My sole recollection of Trek in the Classics is that of a mournful Hincapie sitting in a French ditch, lying next to him is a Trek with a broken stem.

    And for the record: I ride a Felt F4, paid for it myself and like it a lot, but commute by MTB since it is far more comfortable.

  16. Adam

    “In the next week I’ll be posting my reviews of the Specialized Tarmac Pro and Roubaix Pro and will offer a wrap-up afterward with what I learned from the experience.”

    Are you so sidetracked with the Lemdond Trek saga that this has been put on the back burner? Looking forward to reading it.

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