When I think of all the ways I’ve spent free time in my life, three pursuits top all the others. That cycling is on the list is no surprise, so we’ll just move along. Writing, which is sometimes work, sometimes just fun, continues to be a way to spend hours by myself without ever being alone. I’ve learned a great deal about the world by tapping on a keyboard. Those revelations keep coming and keep making the time well spent.
The other pursuit is no real surprise either. My family. I don’t get as much time with my son and wife as I’d like, but the hours I spend with them are beyond value.
Were I to be called to give up cycling, I don’t know how I’d manage, but I’m confident that I’d find my way. Life without writing? If it were do or die, I’d do; it’s just that simple. However, if something happened to my family, there really wouldn’t be any point to the other two. Cycling makes my life rich, but a life without my family would have no meaning and cycling alone couldn’t buck up an empty soul. Same for writing. There’s no making sense of the senseless.
It is with that prologue that I write you to say one of our own faces exactly this life. Jon Grant is a cyclist, graphic designer, artist and illustrator. If you’ve ever perused a Rivendell catalog, you’ve seen his work. He does exquisite line illustrations of retro bike parts. He’s a talented guy and has done everything from maps and graphs to icons and stylish art.
Jon had a son, Auggie, who was fighting leukemia until this morning. A friend of Jon’s approached me just Saturday to let me know that he has been helping to sell prints of Jon’s work on his web site. Hospitals can be more expensive than political campaigns. I don’t know what sorts of bills he’s going to see, and it really doesn’t matter. He just lost his son. It’s a scenario I can’t even contemplate, and I pride myself on my imagination.
I’d hoped Jon and Auggie’s story would have a happy ending, that they would do a Pablove ride together someday. This isn’t how it was supposed to go.
You can learn more about Jon’s work and order prints here.
The carbon fiber clincher is a problem child. It shows flashes of brilliance, can be faster than a power outage and melts down under high stress or when taken out of its preferred environment. The reality is that for most riders in the U.S. they work fine under most circumstances.
But if you live on the west side of Los Angeles, or anywhere near the Santa Monica Mountains, then you know at least two riders who have melted a set of carbon clinchers. The problem has to do with the crazy, winding nature of the roads that tumble down the canyons to the ocean. They’ve got all the ordered predictability of a schizophrenic’s one-sided conversation. And they are steep as Ferrari prices. That’s not necessarily a bad combination, but what it means is when descending those roads you brake frequently and forcefully. Heat buildup is a given.
And there a bunch of cooks scattering from this kitchen.
I won’t go into whose wheels I’ve destroyed, but I can say I’ve personally seen wheels from Reynolds, Enve, Bontrager and—gasp—Lightweight, all delaminated on descents. Typically, what I see is the brake track melt at one point and air pressure push that portion of the brake track out. I’ve never seen a Zipp wheel fail there, nor have I seen a set of Easton carbon clinchers fail in that way. The issue here is entirely heat buildup. Easton’s approach is a bit different from its competitors. Based on what I’ve learned from engineers I’ve spoken to, Reynolds, Enve and Bontrager all use resins (possibly the very same one) that cures in the 300 to 325-degree range (Fahrenheit). Lighweight is using a resin that cures at a temperature slightly above 350 degrees F. Easton has gone an entirely different route. The brake track on the Easton carbon clinchers (no matter which model you talk about) receives a ThermaTec coating which insulates the brake track from heat. I’m told it insulates the rim up to temperatures of 500 degrees.
Let’s back up a second. I’ve mentioned six wheels by name. I know there are more carbon clinchers on the market than that, but these are the six I generally see on the road and, more important, the ones I’ve been able to learn something about. To their credit, I’ve heard that both Reynolds and Enve have been really terrific about warrantying their product.
Easton’s approach with the ThermaTec coating is a novel approach in the bike biz. I haven’t run across another wheel taking quite this approach. Practically speaking, the braking experience is a bit different. The surface is banana peel slick. The first time I hit the brakes on my way downhill I immediately noticed slightly reduced braking power. It’s something I got used to pretty quickly though. The other thing you notice when riding these wheels is that the pulsing feel you get under braking with most carbon fiber wheels because one section of the brake track is just a little grabby, like the one sticky spot on a counter as you wipe it off, well that feeling doesn’t happen with the EC90 SLs. These wheels offer the most consistent brake response of any carbon wheels I’ve ridden, but they do require just a bit more braking force than with an aluminum rim.
I’ve taken these wheels down the two most notorious descents in the Santa Monicas, Tuna and Las Flores. Not a single issue. That said, because this is a coating and not a different resin used throughout the wheel, I suspect it is very important that you make sure the brake pads contact only the ThermaTec surface. An improperly adjusted brake pad might result in an expensive headache.
The EC90 SLs feature a 38mm-deep rim. This is the shallowest carbon rim Easton currently offers. It’s enough to offer some aerodynamic advantage once your speed is above about 28 mph, but it is still shallow enough that it doesn’t get pushed around a lot in crosswinds. The rim width is 20.5mm, the same as many other existing Easton rims. I’ve become enamored of some of the winder rims out there that give tires a bigger footprint and would be willing to accept a slight weight penalty to get that. Speaking of weight, Easton says these run 1530g. My scale agreed—1528g. To get there they use 18 spokes front and 24 spokes rear. The front are laced radially while the rear are 2-cross on the drive side and radial on the non-drive side. All the nipples are alloy.
I’m told that impact resistance was one of Easton’s big issues in building these wheels, that they wanted unassailable impact resistance. I’m told these carbon rims are more impact resistant than their aluminum rims. These are no wilting lilies. The rear wheel is available with either a Campagnolo or Shimano freehub body. And if, like me, you have a bit of everything, changing out the freehub body from one type to another, the operation is easier than pumping gas.
In my previous review of the EA90 SLX wheels, several readers wrote in to report their troubles with the bearings in Easton wheels. My EC90 SLs came with ceramic bearings; I’ve not had a bit of trouble with them and these, in theory, should be a bit more finicky than the steel bearings found in my previous wheels. They’ve been flawless in operation and they turn as fast as tables at a McDonald’s.
One thing you’ll notice in Easton’s product description is the phrase “acoustically tuned.” What that means in bike speak is that Easton trues their wheels with the aid of transducers. A transducer is a kind of microphone. The wheel builder—yes, all of Easton’s carbon wheels are built by hand—will pluck each spoke as he tensions and trues the wheel. Think guitar string. Once plucked, the tension on the spoke will determine what pitch the spoke vibrates. If all the spokes have equal tension, a true rim will run straight.
Easton sells the wheels alone or in pairs. The front goes for $850—the cost of many high-zoot wheelsets, while the rear goes for $1250. Given what some of their competitors’ wheels go for, this seems reasonable. I won’t call it a great deal, but I believe the value is there because of the level of confidence I have that I’ll get home with both wheels intact following a big descent. Riding home with your rear brake opened up to keep the pads from rubbing the bulging brake track and worrying with each bump that the bead will blow off the rim makes for a really stressful 20-mile return trip. “Blows” would be the technical term.
My general feeling has been that if you can’t ride a product anywhere you would ride your traditional equipment, it’s not ready for prime time. I’m not talking putting a 100g road stem on a downhill bike. I mean that a product intended for the road should work anywhere road bikes are expected to be ridden. Some of the companies offering carbon fiber clincher wheels (and honestly, this applies to some of the tubular wheels as well) are playing fast and loose with people’s safety in my opinion. It’s not many people as I expect there are only a thousand or so cyclists who regularly ride in the Santa Monica Mountains. But everyone I know who owns a set of carbon clinchers has a story of melting one or more wheels. On the other side, I’ve got a buddy, a big guy who likes German technology, who has stopped as many as three times on the way down a descent just to make sure he didn’t kill his wheels. I have to ask, what’s the point?
I can’t help but wonder what circumstances could bring riders problems elsewhere. There are some twisty, steep descents in New England. And I’ve raced some short, tight crit courses that required lots of braking. If there’s a chance that a wheel won’t survive under reasonable use, should it really be on the market?
We’ve got a ways to go, I think. Easton, at least, has given this some thought and devoted some of its considerable technology to addressing the problem. These are terrific wheels.
If you’re picking a venue, opt for an American court if you can.
Last week I was really excited to learn that I will be spending at least the next year living and racing in Italy. For me, it’s a dream come true, since not only will I be competing in Europe — which has always been a fantasy for me — I will actually be getting paid to do so.
Since getting the offer, however, I have started to think about the potential problems I might encounter along the way.
For one thing, I would really appreciate it if you could review my contract before I sign it. I was a biology major in college and, frankly, all of that legal mumbo-jumbo makes my eyes glaze over. What’s worse, the original is in Italian, although there is an attached version in English. The weird thing is that the attachment looks like a version of your old machine-translation poem, “We were fought by men, very fast.” Can you have a look at it and suggest what I can do?
What if the team flakes out, the job doesn’t work out or they just don’t live up to the contract? Do I have legal options? I sure don’t want to be stranded over there.
Also, do I need a special work permit or visa to work as a bike racer in a foreign country?
What about taxes? Do I have to pay U.S. taxes on income earned overseas?
Because this is not a done deal, I would prefer not to use my real name, so I will just sign off as …
Unfortunately, no, I should probably not review your contract and offer specific legal advice regarding the deal. If you have specific concerns, you are going to have to check in with an attorney. I can’t really help you, beyond just offering general observations.
For one thing, when it comes to legal questions, The Explainer is really just intended to serve as a jumping-off point, rather than as legal advice specifically relating to your question. I can’t really be your attorney in this matter (unless, of course, you happen to live here in Wyoming and want to visit my office and sign a representation agreement).
As my old friend, Bob Mionske, regularly notes in his column: “Understand that reading the information contained here does not mean you have established an attorney-client relationship with attorney Bob Mionske.”
(Note to self: I really do need to steal that line from Bob’s column and add it here, too.)
That said, I would really enjoy looking at the machine translation of said contract, which could provide us all another chance to produce a terrific new poem.
The choice of law provision
I am a little concerned about the fact that the contract is drafted in Italian and then reproduced with an apparently machine-generated translation. Obviously, if you try to enforce it, the terms and conditions outlined in the original Italian contract would be what the court has to consider.
I can only imagine that a machine translation of specific sections would trigger a host of problems, particularly if the original contains what lawyers refer to as legal “terms of art,” specific terms that are so established in a legal system that everyone knows what they mean. Assuming that Italy, too, has its own terms of art, it may cause a great deal of confusion when those are reproduced in machine translation.
One thing you might want to look for in the proposed contract is whether it contains a “choice of law” provision, which will note where and how any potential dispute is to be resolved. If it doesn’t — or if the dispute is to be resolved in Italian courts — I would suggest asking for the inclusion of language that allows you to apply U.S. law for interpretation of the provisions of the contract and an American venue for resolving those disputes.
Standard boilerplate language would read something like this: “This contract shall be governed by the laws of the State of (Anita’s state). Any disputes arising under or related to this agreement shall be submitted exclusively to the State or Federal courts in the (county in which Anita resides), State of (Anita’s state), and both parties agree to submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of such courts.”
For one thing, the inclusion of such a provision will save you the hassle and expense of trying to resolve a legal dispute in Italy. Assuming the arrangement falls apart — and it’s been known to happen — and you come back home, the last thing you want to do is get tied up in Italian courts, trying to resolve a dispute, when you can deal with it here at home.
Assuming that you can reach an agreement on that front, you — or a lawyer you hire — should draft an English version of the contract and make that the copy everyone signs. I can only imagine a local judge in your state might have a bear of a time issuing a decision based on a contract drafted in Italian.
Now, I am not sure how much money is involved, but unfortunately I can guess that a racing contract with a women’s team is probably not going to involve six or more figures. Even if you do win a contract dispute, particularly with a foreign entity with no U.S.-based assets to seize, you will face a problem enforcing any judgment against your now-former team.
While you might be in possession of a judgment from a U.S. court, you may have to try to enforce that judgment in Italy. That’s never easy. Enforcement could involve more expense and hassle and may require you to enlist the services of an attorney in Italy.
Obviously, if the amount in dispute is not huge, then it may not be worth the trouble. You’re much better off just getting paid and having a good year over there than you are getting involved in litigation with the folks who are now offering you a deal to ride.
Nonetheless, you do need that contract and it needs to be specific. As long as we’re translating the thing, go ahead and rewrite it … or have your lawyer rewrite it.
Do make an effort to include in the redrafted contract all of the promises and representations the team is making now, whether they are already included in the Italian version of the contract, mentioned in an email or told to you over the phone or in person. Include things like salary, housing, equipment, transportation and health care.
Carefully read the doping provisions, too. These days, most rider contracts include a provision that allows you to be fired if you violate UCI doping rules or the WADA Code. Fair enough. If you’re a doper, you should be canned. Of course, you’re probably not the sort to engage in that behavior, but you do need to be prepared for the possibility of a bad test, a screwup somewhere or just bad luck. Check the contract to see what level of help you might get from your team. Odds are pretty good that it won’t be much, so be ready for that. By being ready, I mean have a list of attorneys, well versed in the intricacies of the WADA Code, who can help you through the mess. There are a few of us out there.
It may also be worth including language that covers your ass if you find the team to be engaged in a systematic doping program. I would talk to my lawyer about making the entire amount of your annual salary due upon presentation of evidence that you’ve been approached by team management to engage in doping practices. I largely suggest that to see how they react to the inclusion of such language. If they freak out, try to find out why. It may save you hassles.
Finally, if it were me, I would request an open-ended return flight ticket already paid for, in your name and in your possession. That might be your best—and only—real protection against a bad situation and a contract breach, since at least you won’t find yourself stranded without an income or a roof over your head.
Ultimately, you really need to gauge your comfort level with the people with whom you are making this deal. Sure, a contract is necessary, since it serves to spell out the rights and obligations of both parties, but you really never want to see this stuff end up in court. That’s a sign of failure at some point in the relationship, isn’t it?
The visa question
Regarding your visa question, I have to assume that since the aforementioned contract was originally presented to you in Italian, that you will, indeed, be racing for an Italian team. Since it’s an Italian employer, you will need to get a work permit to race over there for a salary, particularly if you plan to stay in excess of 90 days.
Yes, I know that there have been a lot of riders who go over on a tourist or business visa and happily compete with few problems, but why risk it? It shouldn’t be too difficult and if your team has any experience working with riders based outside of the European Union, your contact person should be able to get the ball rolling on that front.
If you are the first non-Euro’ to race on the team and they are not willing to make those arrangements on your behalf, contact the nearest Italian consulate to see what requirements you need to satisfy.
One important thing to remember is you need to double-check the current status of your passport. Even if you plan on traveling on a tourist visa — which is automatically granted to U.S. citizens visiting the EU — you can’t even get on the plane if your passport is slated to expire within the 90-day visa window. Check it and renew it now if necessary.
Taxes on overseas income
The tax question comes up a lot. Yes, according to the IRS, you are responsible for reporting income earned overseas and you are responsible for paying taxes on it.
That said, there are a number of things to keep in mind when you do. First off, you need to decide where you really want to claim as your “tax home.” In other words, will you remain a resident of the U.S. or will you be permanently based in Italy?
You also need to keep close track of taxes you end up paying to the Italian government — which is far more attentive to taxation these days. If Italy ends up being your place of residence, then you might be eligible to exclude up around $92,000 of your foreign income from U.S. taxation.
Nonetheless, you will still need to report that on a U.S. tax return. There are a number of rules that the IRS has regarding foreign-earned income, residency requirements, exclusions, credits, yada, yada, yada … in other words, you should probably meet with a tax professional both before you leave for Italy and when you file your 2012 taxes.
The meeting prior to your departure is really helpful when it comes to the record-keeping you should plan for in the coming year. That will make the filing of your 2012 return much easier. Indeed, if you have a knack for that kind of thing and your income picture isn’t particularly complicated you may be able to file your tax return on your own and forgo that second meeting with the tax pro. I would, however, strongly encourage you to check in with one before you leave, just to make sure that you have at least a basic understanding of the rules that do and do not apply to your case.
Finally, I want to wish you the best, “Anita.” I can only imagine how exciting the prospect of living and racing overseas has to be for you. Best of luck and let us know how the season works out. I, for one, hope most of that contract, lawsuit and enforcement advice proves to be totally unnecessary.
The Explainer is now a regular feature on Red Kite Prayer. If you have a question related to the sport of cycling, doping or the legal issues faced by cyclists of all stripes, feel free to send it directly to The Explainer at Charles@Pelkey.com. PLEASE NOTE: Understand that reading the information contained here does not mean you have established an attorney-client relationship with attorney Bob Mionske … err … I mean Charles Pelkey. Readers of this column should not act upon any information contained therein without first seeking the advice of qualified legal counsel licensed to practice in your jurisdiction.
We’re getting into that season of gift giving. Every now and then our minds turn toward the things we’d like to add to our arsenal. And with the weather getting colder, we’re probably spending as much time thinking about bikes as actually being on them. ‘Tis a pity.
Ah, but to a cyclist, thinking about a bike may not be as good as riding a bike, but it’s clearly better than not thinking about a bike.
We obsess over our training, often our diets as well. We obsess over great riders, people we’ve never even met. So why shouldn’t we obsess about a bicycle, or any of its parts?
Equipment has been on my mind more than usual. I’ve got a bunch of equipment and bike reviews that got backed up for a host of reasons, stuff I meant to post as far back as August in some cases. But with holidays here, maybe running some of these can inspire a wife or husband to act and add something special to your quiver.
So the question is simple enough this week: If someone gave you one piece of cycling gear—a bike, a set of wheels, a pair of bibs, you name it—what would it be? To what have you been devoting your lusty thoughts?
Before I jump too far into the second half of this review, I need to mention that the bike as shown here was shot after I’d put a good 2000 miles on it. Normally, I shoot bikes as soon as I get them, but somehow, my excitement to get on this machine saw me flame out on that mission. As a result, you’re seeing it with some non-standard parts, including a replaced rear tire, a compact crankset and a compact bar. I swapped the cranks and bar out for my personal preferences. Had I been purchasing the bike off the showroom floor, I’d have put those parts on eBay before ever riding a single kilometer. Okay, on with the real subject.
I had an interesting conversation this past fall with one of Specialized’s engineers. We were discussing how stiffness isn’t an absolute, how a bike needs to flex in certain directions to track well, as well as provide some comfort to the rider.
What he told me was that stiffness, as a concept, required a lot of flexibility, that when they use the word “stiffness” they say it with a wink. To understand this, let’s begin with a simple example: a fork.
A fork, generally speaking, can flex in a few different ways. The blades can flex fore and aft. They can flex side-to-side. They can twist. And the steerer can flex based on twisting forces exerted by the rider. Of these, one—fore/aft—is useful. The other three are not helpful in making a bike track well when under power, cornering or descending. So the trick is to vary the sheets of fiber so that you’re minimizing twist, sideways and steerer flex while allowing the blades to respond to bumps and vibration.
When you get to a frame, how and where you want stiffness and how and where you want flex gets a good deal more complicated. In the late 1990s, the challenge was to eliminate bottom bracket flex. Once that was conquered we started noticing how frames would twist when we were out of the saddle.
One way a manufacturer can address stiffness while keeping an eye on weight is through the addition of ribs. There are a number of companies using ribbed construction these days, though it’s still a technology in the minority. To picture it, imagine looking at a round frame tube from one end. Now, imagine a wall of carbon fiber running vertically from the 12 o’clock position to the 6 o’clock position. That’s how it’s used in the down tube. Other tubes orient the rib 90 degrees from that. Pretty straightforward, but it can be difficult to picture if no one bothers to explain it.
I’ve seen enough snarky comments about “torsionally stiff and vertically compliant” to know that most readers are at best highly suspicious of this claim and at worst think its as achievable as domesticating a unicorn. I’ve had the chance to ride enough different bikes at this point that I know some are more comfortable than others. There’s no mistaking a frame with a small amount of vertical flex. Similarly, there’s no mistaking a frame that doesn’t have enough of it. What a few different engineers have told me is that if you vary the orientation of sheets of unidirectional carbon fiber so that some are at 45 degrees to the primary orientation, that will soften the feel of the frame some. It can make a big difference in how harsh the chainstays are, I’m told.
Here’s the thing about the Tarmac SL3: I didn’t really like the SL2. I loved the SL and thought it was a terrifically stiff and precise bike. The SL2 squared the function and to me it was overkill. Specifically, I thought the rear end was harsh. Riding one on a rough road left me with the concern that maybe I should have worn a kidney belt like the motorcyclists who ride hardtails do.
On the SL3, the seatstays were slimmed up and flattened in a manner similar to the Cervelo R3, though not to the same degree. That and other changes to the rear end took the edge of the bike’s harsh feel at the saddle. Meanwhile, the front end remained crisp feeling. The original SL seems like a pig by comparison. The frame has also lost somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 grams. I haven’t weighed the stripped down frame, but I’ve seen several sources report that a 56cm frame weighs around 850g. There are a lot of claims about sub-900g frames. Very few are true. That the SL3 has been independently confirmed to weigh around 850 should impress you.
Part of the Tarmac’s crisp feel comes from the fact that it doesn’t suffer the weight of several glossy coats of paint. Paint, as I’ve mentioned previously, can add 100 to 120 grams of non-structural weight to a bike. All it does is deaden the feel of the bike. On a descent I want maximum feedback, which is why I’ve found I prefer matte-finish bikes.
This bike was equipped with a number of Specialized products. The traditional-bend bar I removed was light, the lightest handlebar I’ve encountered other than the Zipp. It seemed plenty stiff, but I just couldn’t force my hands into those bends, no matter how many Euro PROs run them. The Roval SL45 Rapides are wheels I didn’t expect to like. While they weren’t super-easy to wind up (that has more to do with my lack of a sprint than any inherent problem with the wheels) they were more stable in wind than I expected, though not Firecrest stable. The combination of carbon fiber aerodynamics and an aluminum brake track offers day-to-day reliability and performance that are hard to argue with.
I’ve heard the carbon crank criticized for flex. I’m not sure why. It was terrifically stiff for me and because I’ve ridden carbon cranks that flexed—a lot—I can say these were quite different. The best feature about the cranks is how once a lockring is removed you can simply pull the spider and chainrings off and replace them with something different. So while mine came with 53/39 rings, in a matter of minutes, one of Specialized’s most experienced techs had a compact setup installed. That change saved my beans later that week when we climbed above 9000 feet.
I’ve ridden a lot of great bikes. Many bikes I really didn’t want to send back. I’m in love with this thing. It’s easily in my top three favorites of all time, though that may change next week when I get on the Tarmac SL4. I’ve done a few miles on one already and I can say there is definitely a difference, but that difference is really only apparent if you’ve ridden both bikes within a day or two of each other. Had they not come out with the SL4 there would be no reason to think that Specialized was off the back in some way. Indeed, before I got on the SL4, I couldn’t help wondering if they weren’t solving a model-year problem as opposed an actual performance issue.
Here’s the thing to think about: There are Specialized dealers all over doing what they can to get this model out their door. And the new Pro-level bike is the SL3, so while my review bike retailed for $8100, the new Tarmac SL3 Expert Mid-Compact gives you this frame and fork for only $3900.
Like I said, one of my favorite bikes of all time. It’ll be a long time before I find this level of performance inadequate.
When I got my first staff gig with a magazine part of my mission was to write all manner of how-to stuff for newbies. It was a good fit for me; previously I’d taught everything from Nordic skiing to bicycle maintenance. I really relished the ability to help flatten the learning curve for new cyclists. In addition to giving a step-by-step approach to skills like how to start and clip-in on an uphill, I’d often try to give a little background on why things were the way they were, such as what might lead you to find yourself needing to start on said hill.
Fast forward nine months and I realized that the articles I was writing were vanishing after the issue went off the newsstand. There needed to be a book that collected all this stuff. Well, it took 10 years to get the opportunity, but I did and the book was released this year.
I’ve been getting some requests from folks to purchase a signed copy, enough that I decided to put a page up in the store. As we’re getting into the holiday and gift-giving season, this could be a great gift for another cyclist in your life. Or you can forward the link to the store page to your sweetie. Either way.
And if you tell me a little something about the recipient, I’ll personalize the inscription.
Check it out here.
First, a brief note on why this review is hitting as the new Tarmac SL4 is being released. I began riding this bike in July for a review that ran on Map My Ride’s site. The reviews I penned for them were, shall we say, necessarily brief. I so fell in love with this bike that I wanted to make sure I reviewed it for RKP; unfortunately, other posts kept back-burnering it, but now the Christmas is almost here and these things are being closed out, it’s worth noting that it’s a good deal better than day-old bread.
When I first began reviewing bikes I didn’t have much in the way of preconceived notions. If I’m honest, some of those early reviews lacked a little something because my criteria for judgment revolved around execution. I was looking for things like sloppy detail work, no clear coat over decals, signs of poor alignment, crappy (cheap) spec and ugly colors.
It took a couple dozen bikes before I realized that my favorite bikes were those with a bit more trail and a low bottom bracket. In fact, the lower the better. On the mountain roads near my home I found that the bikes with the low BBs were easier to control on the descents. They turned in easily and I equated that—incorrectly—with stability.
Eventually, that preference became calcified. I so preferred bikes with a lower BB that I became a bit prejudiced against bikes with a normal to high BB. In concrete terms, my preference was for bikes with 7.5cm of drop, or more. As 7cm of drop is traditional due to CPSC regulations, that resulted in a few rather automatic determinations. First, it put every production bike sold in the United States on the wrong side of the tracks, so-to-speak. All my favorite bikes were at the shallow end of the bell curve because only custom bikes could be built with a BB with more than 7cm of drop.
Not that I cared.
As the industry shifted to carbon fiber, I was faced with choosing between a stiffer, lighter bike, and a bike that sacrificed some performance aspects in exchange for that lower center of gravity.
Almost two years ago I undertook a review of the Specialized Tarmac SL and the Roubaix SL. The two Specialized models helped redeem the company after a spate of crap bikes in the 1990s that caused me to despair that the company had lost its way. When the boys in Morgan Hill made the move to full carbon-fiber models, they did it in a big way and their work was impressive.
There was no escaping my old preferences, though. Faced with the chance to ride a bike with a longer wheelbase, lower BB and a touch more trail and I chose the Roubaix twice a day and three times on Sunday. So accustomed was I to the long and low geometry of the Roubaix I concluded that the Tarmac was a bit skittish, too F1 when luxury sedan was the right response.
I kept riding the Tarmac and my appreciation for it increased, but it wasn’t until I spent a day descending Decker Canyon Road north of Malibu that I figured out just how good the Tarmac is. I did six loops on canyon roads, climbing Encinal (because it was longer and shallower) and then descending Decker (because it was more fun). The first two were on the Roubaix, the second two on the Tarmac then a final loop on each the Roubaix and the Tarmac. I called that post “The Crucible” and while you can read it here, I can sum it up by telling you that by the end of the day I learned that I preferred the Tarmac to the Roubaix on technical descents.
To me, that was tantamount to keeping kosher and then deciding one night that all you’re ever going to eat is pork barbecue. What the?
There was no mistaking that on the tight, technical, twisting descents of the Santa Monica Mountains I prefer the Tarmac. It’s true that I could carve smaller radiused turns, but that didn’t—couldn’t—define the whole of my preference. The biggest piece of the puzzle had to do with how the bike behaved when leaned over. From time to time you’ll hear a reviewer talk about how a bike felt as if it was on rails. That sensation, in my experience develops when you lean a bike into a turn and once you set the lean, the bike continues on that course until you turn the wheel into the turn to stand the bike back up. I have ridden plenty of bikes that once leaned over never settle into a particular line. That’s a problem because if you’re not sure what a bike will do next, you’re apt to hit the brakes and the brakes, we know, are a fun antidote. On the other side, I’ve ridden bikes that just flat-out didn’t want to lean over. I can say the latter is way more problematic than the former.
In terms of pure numbers, my experience is that a BB drop of 7cm combined with a head tube angle (HTA) slacker than 73 degrees and more than 45mm of fork rake will do this noodly line thing. I’ve ridden bikes with an HTA of 73 degrees and 50mm of fork rake, but had 7.5cm of BB drop and they were rock solid in corners. But I’ve ridden others with only 7cm of drop and they were all over the place in corners—just wouldn’t hold a line. Stand them up straight and they tracked true. And the bikes that wouldn’t turn? It was always a BB with less than 7cm of drop combined with a 73-degree HTA and 40mm of rake.
By comparison, the Tarmac in my size (58cm) has a 73.5-degree HTA, 43mm of fork rake and 6.75cm of BB drop. To get a bike with a BB that high to lean over it needs to have fairly aggressive trail; the Tarmac is 5.59cm.
The Tarmac has become my favorite-handling bike on the market. For me, the bottom line of this bike is more objective than subjective: When you need it to change course, it responds with precision, but unless you tell it to do something, it’s going to stay on its present course. I can’t think of a reason you’d want a bike to do anything different.
While we’re covering geometry, I want to shine a little spotlight on the size run for the Tarmac. The bike comes in six sizes: 49, 52, 54, 56, 58 and 60cm. When you consider those six sizes are meant to cover men and that the women’s version of the Tarmac—the Amira—is available in another five sizes, that adds up to 11 sizes in total, a pretty impressive size run. The Tarmac features some significant jumps in sizing that could pose an issue for some in finding the right size bike. The top-tube lengths are, respectively: 51.8, 53,7, 54.8, 56,5, 58.2 and 60.0cm. For the most part, the size jumps are between 17 and 19mm. It means that some riders will need to consider two sizes when looking at the Tarmac. What is encouraging, though, are the number of Specialized dealers that staff someone who has gone through at least the first fitting course (there are several) at Specialized Bicycle Component University.
I’ve shrunk a bit over the years and while I used to commonly ride a 58.5cm top tube, I tend to ride shorter stuff these days. My personal preference would be for a bike with a top tube in the 57.5cm range. With the Tarmac, the 56.5 top tube works great with a 12cm stem, but the head tube length is really short for me and causes shoulder issues. No bueno. So I went with the 58.2 and an 11cm stem. It looked odd, seeing that stubby stem on there at first, but rather than pull a bonehead move and put a longer stem on just ‘cuz it looks better, I rode it and found the bike to be incredibly well balanced. It lost none of the nimble feel that I’d experienced with riding a 56.5 previously.
On steering geometry, the 52 and 54 both feature a 73-degree HTA and a 45mm-rake fork for 5.69cm of trail. That’s not much different than the 56 and 58 which use a 73.5-degree HTA and a 43mm-rake fork for 5.59cm of trail. Where things get a little weird is with the 49 and 60cm sizes. The 49 has a 72.25-degree HTA and a 45mm-rake fork for a sluggish 6.15cm of trail. The 60 has a 74-degree HTA and a 43mm-rake fork for a quick 5.27cm of trail. Some of the slow steering in the 49 will be offset by the fact that it has a short wheelbase. The opposite is true for the 60; its quick handling will be partially offset by a rather long wheelbase; even so, neither bike will feel quite like those middle sizes. Ah to be part of the 99 percent.
Tomorrow: frame stiffness and ride quality.