There’s a sequence in the great La Course en Tete, the documentary on Eddy Merckx, in which the filmmakers show a sprint unfold in a head-on view as the riders barrel toward the finish line. To a rider, their cadences are north of 120 rpm and they rock their bikes side-to-side hardly at all. In fact, each and every sprint in the film or any film of the era have something in common. The bunch sprints of the day are displays of redline agility, typified by furious pedaling in wound-out gears.
In another segment in the film the Cannibal climbs on a set of rollers in his garage. They consist of large drums, at least 15cm in diameter, and Merckx rolls them up to centrifuge speeds until his bike is bouncing on those drums. For those who watch carefully, Merckx’ frame flexes under his effort and his bottom bracket sways as if there was a wind stiff enough to torque the frame.
To my eye, these efforts feature two limiters: agility and frame stiffness. Cultivating the agility necessary to pedal 150 rpm is an incredible challenge for many riders. To hold that kind of cadence for more than a second or two is superhuman. It’s fair to ask why riders needed to pedal that fast. The fact is simple: the only way for a rider to generate his full wattage was to do so by pedaling a relatively small gear at gyroscopic speeds. Big gears caused riders to flex the frame too much, making the bike harder to handle. Rocking the bike exacerbated the flex issue.
So what has changed in 25 years? Quite a lot, when you add it all up.
First is the frame and fork. The difference between a 28.6mm-wide down tube and a down tube measuring more than 60mm in diameter is enormous, but that change didn’t happen overnight. Increases in stiffness occurred gradually and an increase in stiffness in one part of a bike showed a weakness elsewhere in the bike. It was only after frames became stiff enough that you couldn’t make the chain rub the front derailleur when in the big ring that frame twist became an issue.
But of course, the frame and fork were only the starting point. Rims were beefed up, and spoke tensions rose, decreasing the need to tie and solder them at crossings. Bars and stems got a dose of stiffening as did crank arms. And let’s not forget the changes to both pedals and shoes that increased a rider’s ability to deliver power to the bike.
All these changes can be summed up in a single part: The 11-tooth cog. Greater stiffness meant that bigger gears could be used, and while for the most part sprint speeds did inevitably rise, the bigger change was that more meat in the drivetrain brought cadences down.
It’s inaccurate to say that the riders are more agile now, but the drop in cadence has given riders a greater degree of control. While I haven’t conducted a survey of sprint finishes over the last 40 years, I wouldn’t be surprised if you found that crashes in final sprints had actually gone down.
More than anything, what changes in bicycle technology has given us is the ability for an athlete to show his full potential in the final 200 meters of a race. A sprint, after all, should not be defined by a rider’s ability to refine movement and flex the bike no more than can be controlled, rather, it should be a measure of his full power.
Cavendish Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
And so, the RKP cycloscenti have spoken and what they most want in 2010 is for 1988′s US U17 Road Race Champion to become 2010′s Paris-Roubaix winner. At 36, one might guess that the cobbles are a ride too far for Big George, but Gilbert Duclos-Lasalle won in the velodrome at Roubaix for the first time at 37 (1992). He also won the following year, at 38. So, RKP readers, light your candles. Say your prayers. Anything is possible.
We also heard a number of spoke folk (Oh, I’ve got a million of ‘em.) express an interest in seeing Tyler Farrar take some sprints off Mr. Untouchable 2009 Mark Cavendish. After a string of seconds that even made Raymond Poulidor feel sorry for him, Farrar finally seemed to break through at the end of 2009.
I could be wrong, but no one seems to have mentioned wanting to see the Lance win another Tour.
By and large though, the Americans got a lot of love. van de Velde, Horner and Phinney, oh my! Not a lot of love for Leipheimer, surprisingly.
Of the Euro favorites, Boonen and Cancellara seem to be well-loved, the former despite his dalliances of the white powdery variety, the latter despite being Swiss. I myself am maintaining neutrality as regards the future endeavors of Mr. Cancellara. I liked whoever’s suggestion it was that he take a shot at the hour record, though.
The Tour Down Under starts in 27 days.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
We at RKP count ourselves enormously fortunate to have such a thoughtful and passionate readership. In an effort to give you more of a forum for your thoughts and ideas, we have decided to institute the Friday Group Ride, an open topic/discussion that we can all participate in. No one gets dropped at RKP, and we won’t make you shave your legs!
And so, this week’s inaugural group ride topic:
A Christmas present: Who is the rider you’d most like to see win which event next year? Explain.
It seems that dumpster diving isn’t just for TMZ and freegans anymore. Da Robot happened to be passing by a locked recycling bin contained within a password protected-room in a building surrounded by razor wire on the grounds of the heavily guarded Radio Shack corporate offices when he ran across this little memo. Funny what turns up when you least expect it.—Padraig
Download the full PDF here: livestrong1
There are a great many of us who have something to say to the cars that pass us as we ride. “Come a little closer, would ya?” or “Not like I’m a person or anything,” are two of my personal favorites. Muttering under our breath or even a little above it can help let off some steam and isn’t likely to cause problems, that is, unless your muttering happens to occur at a stop light and the passenger window of the car you are muttering about is down.
Let it be said that many of us would do well to say less. Certainly, I’m among them. I could say a lot less.
A dozen years ago I wrote about a jersey that a guy was selling that said simply, “Pass.” The word was contained within an illustration of a yellow diamond caution sign and featured an arrow that pointed to the left. Effective really only if you are riding where all the cars have left-hand drive.
A friend forwarded me a link to a new site that sells jerseys that communicate in very concrete terms a variety of messages to passing cars. This has the added charm of a bit of attitude. It might make some drivers laugh; one can hope.
And in case you think you can think of something funnier to put on the back of the jersey, they have a contest. I suggested “Don’t hit me bro!” and “Not a speed bump.”
You can check out jerseys from Share the Damn Road here.
In the last year the MBAs on Wall Street have fed us a number of interesting stories followed by dire predictions for increased disaster should we insist on continuing our wayward course. They have also stuck to the old hymnbook with the chorus that goes:
Competition begets innovation
Innovation begets revelation …
That might not have been a direct quote. Don’t hold me to that. Regardless, the MBAs are right that free-market competition is good for innovation. Witness the X Games.
Or consider Giro and Oakley. You’ve seen Lance Armstrong in his Jawbones and probably a fair chunk of your local peloton as well. The Jawbones made big noise for being the first Oakleys to use a unique lock and hinge system to make lens replacement a, um, snap.
But Giro actually beat them to the punch. The Filter debuted nearly nine months earlier and uses an even simpler lens changing system called Pop Top™ (not to be confused with an antique soda can) to allow the user to change lens without risk of breaking the frame thanks to too firm an effort. I’ve switched lenses on a number of occasions and I can attest to making the switch and being fear-free while doing it. The switch takes all of two minutes including putting away the recently removed lenses. If you’re a race mechanic, you’ll still have time to change a wheel and make a martini.
The Filter uses a half-entrapped frame so that the lower portion of the lens is frame-free for minimally interrupted vision. A lever at the temple unlocks a cam that holds the lens in place; a simple twist releases the lens, making tint choice on the morning of a ride a realistic option.
While I’ve tried the Filter with only one helmet so far (Specialized) I did find them to fit nicely in the vent holes on the few occasions I decided to take them off. The nose bridge and ear pieces are sufficiently grippy to keep the glasses in place even when you look straight down. However, I do have one minor issue with the ear pieces; as you can see from the photo above, they angle inward slightly. While I don’t have an issue on shorter rides, if I’m out for four or five hours, they do pinch me just a bit behind the ears, and I’ll notice a bit of irritation.
On fast descents the Filter does a great job of directing wind down my face without eddying up under the lens to make my eyes tear. In my experience, that is a rare quality for a lens this small.
The Filter I tried included two different sets of lenses, rose silver as well as orange selector. The orange selector was excellent for early mornings when the sun was not sufficiently up to require the rose silver lens. Under changeable and brighter conditions I found the rose silver to be one of the single most versatile lens colors I’ve ever used. I wore the Filter when I did Levi’s King Ridge Gran Fondo this fall and several people told me that my lenses were much too dark to be able to ride from sunlight into the forest-shaded areas. They were convinced I wouldn’t be able to see and would wind up some unfortunate statistic of the ride. On the contrary, I was able to see sufficiently in lower light situations and didn’t have to squint in mid-day sunlight. It’s too dark for rolling out at dawn, but once the sun is any kind of up, the tint is terrific.
I also got to try the clear silver lens which has a flash mirror coating which adds a hint of yellow mirror. They were good on really overcast days or on the occasional ride that started much too early and ended before the sun was fully up. They are fairly limited in their use but their ability to increase contrast in low-light situations can be very helpful.
Giro sells the Filter in several configurations. Glasses start at $160. As reviewed with the rose silver and orange selector lenses plus a cotton bag and hard travel case, the ensemble goes for $220. Additional lenses run from $30 to $50; those lenses with the flash mirror coatings are at the upper end of that pricing.
After months of riding on both the Roubaix and the Tarmac SL I was dismayed. I had yet to determine a preference relative to my own riding and that was killing me. Mind you, I wasn’t trying to determine the better bike, because I didn’t actually think one was superior to the other, but I believed that because the two bikes were different I must, as some point, arrive at a conclusion about which better suited my taste. Simply put, I should get down a technical descent on one faster than the other. Which would it be?
Malibu contains more than a dozen roads that run from the ridgeline of the Santa Monica Mountains down to Pacific Coast Highway. The roads can drop nearly 2500 vertical feet at grades of up to 18 percent. The descents generally range between 4.6 and 9.2 miles. Most of them feature more than a dozen turns per mile. At 40 mph, that’s a turn about every six seconds … and many of the turns can last for three or four seconds.
Of these descents, three offer grades steep enough to sustain speeds above 45 mph over road surfaces that don’t make the experience seem like fodder for an episode of Jackass.
Kanan Dume Road recalls the sweeping turns and consistent grades of the Rocky Mountains. It features far fewer turns than the other descents and a good deal more traffic.
Tuna Canyon Road is where the ill-fated Red Bull Road Rage was held. It features more than 70 turns in 4.2 miles and drops some 1800 feet at an average gradient of 8.1 percent. On the descent’s one significant straight (which was used for the speed trap in the Red Bull event), it is possible to clock 60 mph just before a sharp left turn will cause you to rethink your actions or alter your future. I know plenty of riders afraid to descend this road and it’s one of a handful of roads I descend where I’m unwilling to let the bike run. The looming wall of dirt has whispered things to me about deceleration trauma that I’m unable to repeat.
Decker Canyon Road is a bit like Tuna Canyon light. It is almost a half mile longer, drops 150 fewer feet, culminating in a 6.8 percent average gradient, as compared to Tuna Canyon’s deceptive 8.1 percent average. It also features nearly roughly ten fewer turns, meaning the road bends don’t come quite so frequently.
Decker Canyon is my road of choice for challenging myself on a descent or when testing the limits of a bike’s cornering. The descent is fairly steep, but not super-steep, the turns come in rapid succession and nerves of steel are tested in the turns, not in the chutzpah of straight-line speed.
I came up with a crucible. I’d take both bikes up to Malibu. I would ascend Encinal Canyon Road six times—three times on the Tarmac and three times on the Roubaix—and following each five mile, 6.3 percent average gradient ascent of Encinal Canyon I would plummet down Decker Canyon.
My first two ascents of Encinal were aboard the Tarmac. The second two were aboard the Roubaix. Trip number five was back on the Tarmac and the final trip was made aboard the Roubaix. The six circuits only added up to 57 miles, but the climbing totaled more than 9000 feet ascended.
My position was very similar on both bikes; saddle height and setback was the same and reach to the bar was within a centimeter, though the bar on the Roubaix was almost a centimeter higher. Switching between the two was unremarkable from a position standpoint. However, as soon as I did switch from the Tarmac to the Roubaix the increased vibration damping was immediately apparent.
According to my GPS data my fourth and fifth ascents (Roubaix and Tarmac, respectively) were my two fastest; my average speeds were within a tenth of a mile per hour of each other. Interestingly, I burned fewer calories on the Roubaix, lending further credence to the idea that cutting vibration can decrease fatigue.
My three fastest descents were aboard the Tarmac. On those descents (first, second and fifth) my max speed was 46, 46 and 46.5 mph, respectively. My slowest descent, surprisingly, was my first trip down on the Roubaix.
The tightest turns on the descent, the ones on which there was no question of braking, just how hard would be necessary, were all right-handers except for the final switchback less than a mile from the bottom. I was able to carve very consistent lines through these turns and found myself consistently shaving the yellow lines on the Roubaix and six inches to the right on the Tarmac. That minute difference made a big difference at speed.
What I noticed was that the more I felt like I was really having to manage the bike—push it—to negotiate a turn, the more inclined I was to brake before the next turn. I did almost no braking during turns on the Tarmac but did scrub speed with some regularity during turns while aboard the Roubaix.
A brief word on my descending: Fast. I like it. Roller coasters were always my favorite at amusement parks when I was a kid but today, compared to mountain roads, they lack a critical interactivity component. That said, I don’t take what I believe to be are risks. While I find the foregone conclusion of a roller coaster lacking, I enter every turn with the belief that my safe exit from it is deal-done. As soon as I feel like I’m really pushing a bike, I back off. My empiricism ends at the point of wondering just how fast I can enter a turn and exit it without a yard sale. Aided by downhill pads and a Kevlar suit I might play my hand differently and bluff my way straight to call, but in Lycra I do little more than ante up.
What I learned was I preferred the Tarmac for descending. I’m unafraid to declare my surprise at this. I really thought that the Roubaix would see me brake less and roll up to higher speeds, but it just didn’t happen that way and I can say that I did my best to make each of those drops an E-ticket ride.
But how many people buy a bike for how it descends?
In my estimation, more bikes ought to be purchased that way. I think it indicates a great deal about a bike’s character. A downhill turn is the ultimate litmus paper for any bike. If the bike won’t turn, you should ask yourself what that bike is meant to do and what you plan to use it for.
But here’s the asterisk: My preference for the Tarmac was revealed under fairly extreme circumstances. Most riders won’t ever ride down a road as challenging as Decker. There just aren’t that many of them in the world and unless such a road is part of one’s regular vocabulary of roads, the reasonable response is to back off. So what about the downhills more regularly encountered? What if, say, you rode in the Rockies or the Alps?
If I factor Malibu out of the equation and consider the other roads I took the bikes over, the many other roads I’ve ridden around the world, the answer is easy.
The Roubaix is easily one of the best all-around bikes I’ve ever ridden. I’ll venture to say it is one of the best thought-out bikes on the market. For most riders under most circumstances the Roubaix is an easy correct answer. It’s lighter than elfin armor, handles with the relaxed control of a Bond villain and cuts vibration like a power outage.
The Roubaix should be the default answer for anyone considering a Specialized road bike (or perhaps many other road bikes).
So where does that leave the Tarmac? It is, without marginalizing it, a bike for the margins. The Tarmac is the Navy SEAL to the Roubaix’s sailor, the surgical scalpel to the butcher knife, the truing stand to the Y Allen wrench. It is the accept-no-substitute for criterium racing, intestinal descents and the most aggressive group rides.
They are both spectacular bikes and well-enough differentiated to have earned their place in the Specialized product line.
After doing some group rides in which I knew the roads well, I ventured out to do some of the longer rides that take in some climbing and descending. I started with gentler roads with sweeping turns. The bike had a complete and utter lack of the nervousness I feared would characterize this bike’s handling above 30 mph. It was stable at 40 mph and turned in easily.
Next, I took it north to Malibu’s challenging canyon roads. If ever there was a place where a bike will demonstrate a weakness in how it handles in turns, Malibu is it. Turns come in rapid succession and very few of the roads can be descended safely without touching your brakes. Toss in a little off-camber action here and there plus the odd decreasing-radius turn and you have a veritable buffet of cornering challenges.
It was in Malibu that the Tarmac surprised me. What I expected isn’t what I’ve encountered with so many crit bikes: You get them above 40 mph and the front end starts to get loose. I’ve never understood the phenomenon, especially considering on paper it shouldn’t be happening. However, just what that phenomenon is will be addressed in a different post devoted just to trail.
Here’s the important part: At speeds above 40 mph the Tarmac was rock solid. What’s more, it remained easy to turn in. I have experienced the opposite of some crit bikes, bikes that were so rock solid in a straight line they resisted turning in—at all. The experience was a little like trying to drive a Greyhound bus through a parking garage at 50 mph. Showing Kim Jong Il the value of civil liberties would be both easier—and safer.
By the time I reached the bottom of Tuna Canyon Road the first time I descended it on the Tarmac, all of my assumptions about the Tarmac’s handling had been tossed aside like an unfinished energy bar. I concluded that the Tarmac was the heir to the handling I’ve always believed to be part of Specialized’s brand identity. I have yet to ride a touring bike that handled half as well as my Expedition and if you want to know how elegantly a lightweight cross country bike can handle, just climb on a Stumpjumper. The Tarmac redefined what I think a sport bike can be expected to deliver.
One aspect of the Tarmac’s handling that really can’t be overly emphasized is its stiffness. There are stiffer bikes out there, but I think the Tarmac offers spectacular stiffness for those of us who don’t generate 1000 watts (let alone more) in a sprint. Steering is particularly crisp with this bike, in part due to the tapered steerer which uses a 1.5-inch bearing at the bottom race and a standard 1.125-inch bearing at the top. This also increases stiffness in torsion by allowing the engineers to design a larger diameter down tube to mate to the rather enormous head tube.
My one and only quibble with this bike is its road sensitivity. The Tarmac SL is meant to be different from the Roubaix in two ways: comfort and handling. While the handling is sufficiently differentiated, I do have an issue (a small one) with one component of the Tarmac SL’s comfort. It doesn’t seem to me that the Tarmac SL should damp as much vibration it does. My basis for comparison in this regard are some other bikes in this price range that offer more road feel; they are few, but they are there. Getting this particular balance right is a colossal challenge, though; I think the SL2 delivers great road feel but is too stiff. The SL gets the stiffness right, but would benefit from a touch more sensitivity. My limited time on the SL3 says they got the whole package right.
With the introduction of the new Amira model—the women’s version of the Tarmac, which is built with women’s proportions in mind—Specialized can lay claim to producing the Tarmac in more sizes than any other bike company offers for a production road bike—11. The Tarmac is produced in six sizes, while the Amira is offered in five. And despite the crazy assertion by Giant CFO Bonnie Tu that no other company is designing bikes for women, Specialized’s commitment to women is arguably deeper than any other bike company going, with four road models and five off-road models.
Like the Roubaix Pro, the Tarmac Pro is equipped with a Dura-Ace drivtrain save for the S-Works carbon fiber crank. Unlike the Roubaix, the Tarmac’s S-Works crank is equipped with 53t and 39t chainrings. Ultegra brakes do the stopping.
The Tarmac Pro rolls on Fulcrum Racing 1 wheels. The wheels are fairly light, boasting a claimed weight of 1485g for the pair, but what most surprised me is that in more than 2000 miles of riding at this writing, they are as true as the words from a Boy Scouts lips. It is reasonable, in my opinion to conclude that Fulcrum’s 2:1 ratio of drive spokes to non-drive spokes does substantially aid the wheel by equalizing spoke tension. This is even more impressive when you consider that the front wheel has but 16 spokes and the rear has 21. I’ve had whisky that wasn’t this stiff.
The tires deserve some mention as well. The 700×23 S-Works Mondos feature a Kevlar bead and Flak Jacket protection combined with a 127 tpi casing. This tire ought to be unremarkable, and surprisingly, it corners like an architect’s T-square and I have yet to get a single flat. That’s as unlikely as a zero-calorie beer that tastes like a fine IPA.
Changes from 2009 to 2010 for the Tarmac SL include swapping the S-Works crank for a Dura-Ace one, subbing the Dura-Ace front derailleur for an Ultegra model and swapping the Fulcrums for Ksyrium Elites. My test bike weighed in at 15.5 lbs. before pedals and cages.
I’ll admit that I was infatuated enough by the Roubaix and wary enough of the Tarmac’s geometry that I really didn’t think I’d enjoy it much or put that many miles on it. Of all the bikes I’ve reviewed over the years, this may be the biggest surprise I’ve ever experienced. I love this bike.
Specialized Tarmac Pro: 94 points
Still to come: The Roubaix and Tarmac, head-to-head
There is a covenant between us. The pros suffer. We watch. They will not suffer if we do not watch. We will not watch if they do not suffer. Some of us take this a step further. We suffer too. We suffer to understand ourselves, but also to understand their suffering. It puts their exploits in perspective and bonds us to them.
What is this transaction? Is it fan and competitor? Is it sadist and masochist? Entertainer and audience? All of those and more?
To be sure, there is art in cycling. Some riders have the tactical nous to achieve victories without being the strongest in the race. I’m thinking of Sylvain Chavanel, Phillipe Gilbert and perhaps Heinrich Haussler from the current peleton. Other riders find ways to turn their pure strength into spectacle. Now I’ve got Thor Hushovd, Fabian Cancellara and Mark Cavendish in mind. Finally, there are the sufferers, those who push themselves out into the red. These are the riders who win the Grand Tours, Contador, Armstrong, even Cadel Evans, on some level. There is no rider offering a red kite prayer who is not creating something from his or her capacity to suffer.
There is an audacity to suffering. Who dares go beyond the red?
There is a Kafka short story titled, “A Hunger Artist.” The main character is a once popular performer of fasts, a hunger artist, who falls out of favor with the public. Fasting is no longer appreciated. His straw strewn cage moves slowly from the center of proceedings out to the periphery of the circus. Eventually, the crowds walk by without so much as noticing his shrunken form. He pushes on regardless, starving himself to death, only to be buried in a hastily dug grave, along with the straw from his cage. He is replaced in the cage by a sleek panther.
This is, I believe, Kafka’s view of the artist in general, that he is made to suffer to earn his bread, but at some point the bread and the art get separated. The true artist goes on. He suffers to the end of the performance, regardless.
And so, looking back at the peleton, we can understand the popularity of a rider like Jens Voigt or Kurt Asle Arvesen or even Franco Pellizotti. These are riders who put it out on the line, that push at the edges of what’s possible, but do it for the sake of the thing. They aim less at winning races than they do at creating a story about themselves, a story of noble struggle, or purifying suffering.
I read an interview once with Jens Voigt (the King of Suffering), and the interviewer asked, “What sort of conditions are good for you to win a race?” I’m paraphrasing here, because I can’t find the original. And Voigt responded, “When it’s rainy, windy and cold, it’s good for me. Basically, when things are bad for everyone else, they’re good for me.”
On another occasion Voigt described his strategy as basically throwing everyone into a blender of suffering, including himself, and seeing what comes out the other side.
As this winter descends on the colder climes (I’m exempting SoCal from that category, Padraig!), and the suffering ratchets up a notch or ten, I will think of what I’m doing, of what other riders are doing, as art. And as surely as no one hands me a bouquet when I walk through the door of the office, much less kisses me on each cheek, I will be satisfied with what I’ve done and know it’s more than simple hobby or transport.
I’m telling a story with my suffering. I tell it every day with the succinctness of a nickname. Robot. Robots don’t get cold. Robots don’t suffer. I’ve forged an identity from the way I ride, often alone, in the dark, into the wind. This is New England, after all.
Writing those words is much, much easier than riding them. Believe me. In my writing, I share my experiences, and you evaluate the truth of what I write, and you accept my suffering (maybe), and it bonds us (I hope).
We create this thing together.
How many saddle sores do we need to reach this point, and how much lactic acid do we need to be carrying? Is it uphill all the way? Is there a headwind? Will someone pace us? Will the echelons string across road like accordions of mercy and deliver us, just as a hole develops in the heel of our old wool socks?
Will the Earth spin under our wheels, and will all the trees blur into one, tall green spire? Will our chains run dry and our cables stretch thin on our way to this place?
In my mind, I can see it. The sweat soaks all the way out the brim of my cap and the lycra lets hold its grip. The road turns up and disappears, asymptotic in the distance. There’s a rasp in my chest and a creaking in my bars, and I used my last spare tube hours ago. It doesn’t matter, because the side walls of these thins tires are nearly gone. I’ve gone sallow in the cheeks, almost gray. I blend into the winter-bleached asphalt, pebbly and rough. And cars swish by, oblivious, the radio on too loud.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
I’ve worked in the bike industry for more than 20 years. In that time, I’ve had more exposure to Specialized than any other brand. It began even before I entered the industry; the first bike I purchased as an adult was the Expedition, a serious touring bike by any standard. The first shop I worked in was a Specialized dealer and I assembled scads of Allez, Sirrus, Stumpjumper and Rock Hopper bikes. I had the opportunity to ride a carbon Allez for a weekend and considered larceny one Sunday evening. When I joined the staff of Bicycle Guide I spent some time on a few different Specialized models, most of which were made with M2 metal matrix. I’ve logged as many miles as possible on the Roubaix since it was released.
All the while, I’ve watched a gradual, though subtle, shift in the geometry of Specialized’s sport bikes (what they term “competition”) from the old Allez to the current Tarmac.
Compared to the early bikes I built and occasionally rode (not counting my Expedition), Specialized’s sport bikes build today have a slightly shorter wheelbase, slightly higher bottom bracket and slightly less trail.
Once a 58cm top tube bike’s wheelbase drops below 100cm, its trail below 57mm, and its BB drop below 7cm, I have traditionally filed it under “crit bike.” That is, I’ve seen it as a somewhat more extreme expression of the standard sport bike, something skewed toward a style of racing peculiar to the U.S.
I’ll be honest and say I’ve shied away from riding bikes with this sort of geometry. In years past I found other bikes with this flavor of geometry to be all-out sketchy on descents. They made 35 mph feel like 55. To the degree that I could select bikes that comported with my taste for Italian stage race geometry, what I’ve chosen to call grand touring geometry, I did so.
I suggested doing the back-to-back comparison (call it a shootout if you must) to Specialized because I was curious to see how different the two riding experiences would be. I assumed that I’d like the Roubaix better and was honest with them about that. To them, that presented no problem.
The question on my mind when I first climbed aboard the Tarmac was whether it was a bike really suited to about 50 percent or just 10 percent of the population. I was curious to know just how some of the best bike riders on the planet were getting down Pyrenean descents on a bike that seemed, on paper, to be less well-suited to the task than its stable mate.
The first few rides I did on the Tarmac were with a morning group ride here in South Bay called the Pier Ride. It’s a jaunty little 30 mile spin over what is for my neck of the woods a very flat course (just shy of 700 feet gained) and in season will average a little more than 20 mph with warm up and cool down. Done properly, I arrive home wishing it were the end of my day, not the beginning.
The first thing I noticed about the bike was that in turns, because I was on a bike more similar in geometry to what other riders were on, I followed the line of other riders more naturally; I didn’t find myself swinging a touch wide and then correcting. After a week or two of this I noticed that I was focusing less on the turns and more on how hard I could pedal through them because I wasn’t thinking about actually following another rider’s line.
The next thing I noticed was how colossally stiff the bike was at the BB and in torsion. On the hoods, out of the saddle and delivering each and every glimmering watt I could muster was delivered unabridged to the drivetrain. A frame that flexes under hard pedaling or out of the saddle efforts has an organic feel to it for me; a little bit of detectable give conjures the feel of older wooden furniture and how it may flex a bit despite a sturdy construction. The Tarmac was so rigid and efficient as to summon thoughts of health club Nautilus machines.
You can only get flowing lines like this with monocoque construction.
Here’s what you need to know about Specialized’s carbon fiber bikes. Specialized uses a system of partial monocoque sections to build its bikes. All of the bigger guys do this. The IS in FACT IS means integrated system and Az1 (pronounced “as one”) is Specialized’s particular method of reducing the number of joints in a frame.
In Specialized’s case one piece includes the top tube, the head tube and all but a few inches of the down tube. The next piece is the rest of the down tube, the bottom bracket and all of the seat tube. The seatstays and chainstays are formed separately. Ultimately the Tarmac and Roubaix frames are made from six discrete sections, not counting dropouts. These joints are epoxied and then wrapped with additional carbon fiber to increase joint strength.
The 12k weave that you see in the finish of the Tarmac Pro and Roubaix Pro is essentially cosmetic; it provides a small amount of impact resistance, but it provides no structural support to the frame. It is, in short, an impediment to breaking the kilo barrier. You may have noticed the unidirectional carbon fiber finish in the SL2s and the new Tarmac SL3. That top layer is structural. Think of it as the bike equivalent of the “Visible Man” kit from when many of us were kids.
Next week: Part II