I’m going to start this post in a way that you’re not supposed to start a review—on a sour note. I didn’t see the need for this bike. Initially, it struck me as the inevitable result of the Specialized product machine. The template was struck some years back following the introduction of the Roubaix. The company alternates between a new Tarmac and a new Roubaix each year. In odd-numbered years Specialized introduces a new Tarmac, while there’s a new Roubaix in even-numbered years. Fall of 2011 required a new Tarmac.
When I first rode the Tarmac SL, I was not particularly enamored of the bike. I was a bigger fan of the Roubaix. I still think the Roubaix is the better bike for most non-racing riders. The issue for me was that I was accustomed to grand touring bikes; the two bikes I’d spent most of my miles on prior to first riding a Tarmac had relatively low bottom brackets and longish wheelbases. The Tarmac was a big change; the Roubaix less so.
It wasn’t until I began reviewing the Tarmac SL and the Roubaix SL back to back that I really acquired a taste for the Tarmac’s handling. I’d ridden plenty of bikes with handling as sharp as the Tarmac, and had disliked plenty of bikes with such quick handling. Well, “dislike” might be a bit harsh; they wouldn’t have been my first choice. The Tarmac showed me that with adequate stiffness (particularly in the fork and at the head tube) sharp handling needn’t make you nervous. By the end of the review I’d come to the conclusion I actually liked the Tarmac better in my favorite terrain—the canyon roads above Malibu. Here’s the post where I changed my tune.
Next, Specialized came out with the Tarmac SL2. I didn’t like that bike. It was okay on smooth roads, but anything rougher than a chick flick would rattle you like a paint shaker. It made chip-and-seal feel like the Arenberg Forest. That said, I know plenty of people who liked that bike.
Two years later Specialized came out with the S-Works Tarmac SL3. The biggest difference between those two bikes was in the rear end. The seatstays were flattened and reduced in diameter. And while I was told there were some changes in the layup of that frame, the folks I talked to didn’t go into too much detail. Broadly speaking, I was told that the layup was changed to permit more flex vertically while keeping the bike as rigid as possible torsionally.
So here’s where I have to address that trope of “vertically compliant but torsionally stiff.” It’s become a joke because some of the publications out there use it as a crutch to convince you that a Toyota Camry is a BMW M3. There’s nothing wrong with a Camry, but very few autos can provide the performance of an M3. That line about ”vertically compliant but torsionally stiff” rings hollow because at a certain point, if all bikes have that quality, then it ceases to be a way to distinguish bikes. And we know they aren’t all that way. There are real differences.
When I say I liked the SL3, I mean I loved that bike. Here’s that review: part 1 and part 2. It was one of my two or three favorite bikes I’ve ever ridden due to its particular constellation of road feel, performance, handling and weight. It didn’t need improving. When you’re putting out one of the best bikes on the market there’s a risk in trying to improve upon your work; there’s a real chance that no one will notice the difference. And the risk there is that if consumers can’t tell the difference between the old product and the new, improved one, they will begin to think what you’re selling is smoke and mirrors.
After assembling the S-Works Tarmac SL4 (and I’ll come back to the assembly in a bit), I went for a ride on the SL3. It was a short ride in my neighborhood, less than two miles. Then I jumped on the SL4, and did the same circuit again. I took care to make sure the tires were pumped up to the same pressure. The difference was not night-and-day, but the bikes were unmistakably different.
It’s common for fans of handmade steel and titanium bicycles to deride carbon fiber bikes for lacking personality, or sometimes it’s phrased as soul. When you’ve got a one-man shop, the marketing effort is pretty obvious. Land Shark begins and ends at John Slawta. As it should. But with a bike like the Tarmac, there’s quite a team involved and it’s not exactly possible to market a bike around every engineer and layup craftsperson who worked on the bike. And believe me, if you’ve ever seen someone doing layup, you begin understand that it really is a craft, just like brazing or welding.
The team responsible for the Tarmac includes some of the most knowledgeable people within their respective fields that I’ve met in the bike industry. And the resources that Specialized put into the bike are staggering. I was surprised to learn that each iteration of the Tarmac, from the original SL up to the current SL4, received its own set of molds. That’s a new set of molds every two years. That’s a lot of tooling. Consider that some Italian bike companies are still using the same frame shapes from six years ago.
So why new molds every two years? Easy. With each iteration of the Tarmac, Specialized has altered the frame shapes, slimming seatstays here, swelling the down tube and growing the bottom bracket there. Like other carbon fiber frames, the Tarmac is made from several monocoque sections that are joined after molding. With each new iteration, the locations of some of these joints have shifted based on what the engineering team has learned about the previous bike.
In talking with members of Specialized’s engineering team, they revealed that feedback from riders on the HTC-Highroad team indicated they needed to increase vertical compliance without sacrificing overall torsional stiffness. While riders said they liked the S-Works Tarmac SL3, the front end was a bit harsh for a 200k day. To that end, Specialized replaced the 1 1/2-inch lower headset bearing with a 1 3/8-inch bearing and decreased the diameter of both the fork steerer and the head tube. Another important evolution in the Tarmac is the move to Specialized’s OSBB design, which is essentially a press-fit 30. Such a large bottom bracket structure—and similar ones by other manufacturers—has eliminated bottom bracket flex that I once used to take as a given in all bikes.
Aside from the desire for a more gentle front end, one of the few criticisms sponsored pros had for the S-Works Tarmac SL3 was that the rear brake bridge wasn’t stiff enough, that the rear brake would chatter and squeal. To correct that, the brake bridge was beefed up and right at the brake bridge the seatstays were also beefed up.
I could tell you that the bike uses Specialized’s FACT IS 11r carbon—okay, I have told you that it has the FACT IS 11r carbon. But that didn’t help, did it? Information ought to answer questions, not raise them and while all that stuff signifies that the carbon fiber material and layup that Specialized is using is more sophisticated than anything they used in the past, it really doesn’t tell the consumer anything objective. Not a crime, but not nearly as helpful as they’d like us to think. The upshot—the part that matters—is that the S-Works Tarmac SL4 is the lightest frame Specialized has ever produced, that is, with the exception of the women’s Amira frame. My 58cm frame weighed in at 898 grams and likely came in a few grams heavier than the matte carbon version due to the number of coats of paint necessary to generate that bright arterial red.
Up next: the build, the ride, the bottom line.
My wheels traced black ribbons in the snow and my breath was a great billowing gust and the flakes swirled in my headlight like a million darting, cold mosquitoes. All up and down the road, lights blazed in living rooms and kitchens, people arriving home to get dinner started, to be safe and warm and whole and well. And I felt my place in the world, in the saddle, keenly, the weather shutting out thoughts of anything other than my work at the pedals and the promise of the embracing warmth of my own home.
I labored up the hill and wondered at the heaviness of my legs in their winter form, but was glad for the struggle, heat rising in my chest and pushing out at my temples. The world seemed ordered and perfect, as it often does when I’m on my bike and the traffic hasn’t followed me up some obscure back road. Somewhere near the crest, I glanced to my left and saw a squirrel laying dead in the middle of the road, his lifeless form a silhouette in the white dusting.
For some reason I pulled up and stopped.
The neighborhood was winter quiet, darkness heavy as a stone, and my breath quickly fogged my glasses, turning the street lights to Van Gogh haze. I pulled them off and felt the cold in the moisture at the corners of my eyes. I stood there in the road peering down at my small dead friend and thought about what had brought him there. The poor guy, grown to fatness but unlucky on an out-of-the-way lane, beyond saving, beyond comfort. There but for the grace…
I stayed with him for another minute, thought to take a picture to remember how perfect and still he seemed, but my double-gloved hands wouldn’t find my phone and a moment’s reflection told me it was a creepy idea. And then a snow flake snuck in at my collar, landed on my neck, and reminded me that I was still among the living, standing tragi-comically on the centerline with a deceased rodent.
Is this the feeling Frost was trying to capture in Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening? My 8-year-old had recited it to me just a few nights earlier. I remember memorizing it when I was his age, or just a bit older, another assignment I didn’t understand in a long string of rote efforts, not unlike riding a bicycle, that would later yield inspiration.
I get it now, even if the horse is a bike and the woods are a catacomb of neighborhood streets, a recent roadkill the thing that brings me up short. It’s about savoring these transcendent moments of twinkling beauty, the brief pauses that crowd out life’s persistent pestering. And they can only be brief, cold creeping into your bones, time grinding its way forward, the Earth and its never ceasing rotation/revolution/hurtling through space.
Frost knew in his winter reverie that he had miles still to go. His poems are always tinged with melancholia. There is a nearly audible sigh at the end of Stopping by Woods. I pushed off and clicked back into my pedals, steadied myself against the slight slipperiness of the new fallen snow and made for the warm place where I had promises to keep. They are, after all, good promises.
Image: Matt O’Keefe
When I attempted to remove my lower lip last fall as a failed comic alternative to riding my bike like a normal adolescent boy—not that I’ve been an adolescent boy in recent history, I became the surprised beneficiary of a still cascading collection of kindnesses that changed my definition of reality. The outcome, to be honest, has been pleasant, but the road to get there was one I’d rather not ride down again. Something about that whole scar tissue in the lips thing.
Not a selling point. Trust me.
I was fortunate that my plastic surgeon, a guy more accustomed to making normal people look fantastic, was adroit at taking the disaster of my mandible and rebuilding it into something that could execute a smile. In his instructions to me before I left the emergency room, he instructed me to get as much protein as possible as part of my liquid diet. That’s harder than you think. My dad and stepmother sent me a $50 gift card to Jamba Juice and I bought any number of protein shake mixes, not to mention bottled varieties in my quest to get both protein and variety.
It was, bar none, the two worst culinary weeks of my entire life, no disrespect to Jamba Juice and, the product that occasioned this post, Gu’s Recovery Brew. Gu Ambassador Yuri Hauswald reached out, and asked if he could send along a package that might speed my recovery. It was an easy yes.
From the first bottle I mixed up of the Chocolate Smoothie, I was sold. After drinking Ensure, Muscle Milk, Pure Protein and a few other notables, I pushed them all aside in favor of the Gu Brew. While some of them were higher in protein, none tasted as good, mixed up as easily or imparted as few side effects. Admittedly, Gu Brew is a bit lower in protein than some of the other options out there. Mixed with water (not what you want to do), you get 52 grams of carbohydrate and 8 grams of protein in 25o calories. Other than that, there’s a bit of sodium and potassium to help prevent post-workout cramping.
Mixed with almond milk (which is what we keep in our household instead of real milk, because it turns me into a mucus dispensary), it’s the closest thing I’ve experienced to the beloved Ovaltine of my childhood. That’s no small feat, either. Muscle Milk has a rather metallic edge to it. Get through 8 ounces of that and you’ll feel like you have accomplished something major. Pure Protein had an ability to resist mixing with the almond milk that struck me as a miracle of chemistry, giving me a newfound respect for the way the aforementioned Ovaltine dissolved in milk like teenage girls into giggles. And after a few days of Ensure, I think the hospital directors who select that as meal replacement for the critically ill ought to be force-fed 7-Eleven Big Gulps of the stuff six times a day.
One of my favorite features of the Gu Brew was something they’ll never, ever include in a marketing campaign. But first, a digression. Years ago I was a devotee of SmartFuel’s collection of products. Their recovery shake came in two flavors I adored—peach-mango and raspberry-lemon. If memory serves, a 16 oz. serving contained about 20 grams of protein and 30 grams of carbohydrate and tasted like heaven.
It also turned me into despicable methane dispenser. I would off-gas like I’d just been given a colonoscopy, which is the polite equivalent of saying I had a hot air balloon in my intestine. And when all that air came out it was silent … and you know what that means.
Gu Brew has yet to elicit a single awkward bottom burp. I can’t recall causing a single spider to bark in the making of this review. This would be where I add that I’m married, and love my wife enough that I wish to stay married, so the Gu Brew has a decided competitive edge over the other options, at least in terms of matrimonial harmony.
This stuff is not cheap. A box of 12 packets goes for $40, while the more environmentally sound 14-serving canister goes for $36. While it’s easy for me to claim that I think it’s been handy following some hard-ish workouts recently, my view of its success as a recovery aid comes from my plastic surgeon. During my recovery from my crash, I drank Gu Brew more than any other single product. With each follow-up visit to my plastic surgeon he remarked on the speed of my recovery, at how quick my tissue was to heal. Now it would be irresponsible to assign all the credit to the Gu Brew. I was in far better shape than most of my doc’s patients, so my recovery was going to be quicker than most, no matter what. But my doctor eventually noted that the speed of my recovery was so great that he was surprised and said that the amount and quality of the protein I was getting was paying off.
I’ll continue to experiment with other recovery drinks, in part just because it’s fun to try new drinks, but it’s nice to have a new go-to after not having a satisfactory solution for a good 10 years. Like all the other Gu products I’ve used consistently, Gu Brew delivers results I’m happy with.
My first New England winter was an ordeal of such profound and biting discomfort that it served as not just an education, but an expansion of the possible, both in terms of conditions man could live in, and a larger indication of just how inhospitable the universe can be. I nailed a blanket over my drafty bedroom window, dressed in four layers and gave up all cold foods for the season, thus depriving myself of peanut butter and jelly, a staple of such reliable presence in my life I never once considered giving it up for Lent, good Catholic that I was.
In February, when I got my courage up enough to attempt road rides that passed the wind-scarred potato fields of the Hadley farmers, I struggled to find the exact mix of wardrobe necessary to prevent the wind’s blade from penetrating straight to my marrow. I had neither the knowledge nor the patience to understand how riding easy would allow me to generate enough heat to keep me warm. Instead, I would charge out my door and sprint past sensibility and straight to ill-advised, drippy perspiration. I’d return home sooner than anticipated, but long after I’d started to go hypothermic, too destroyed to reflect on my mistakes, thus doomed to repeat them a day or two later.
I took note of what the local Cat. Is and IIs were wearing. We had a half dozen of them and I did my best to do whatever they were willing to suggest. I pestered them with questions, and while I use the plural, “questions,” the fact is, I kept asking a single question over and over: “What’s that?” Coming from well below the Mason-Dixon Line, I was familiar with shorts, jerseys, thin Lycra tights and windbreakers, but nothing more sophisticated or specialized than that. I’d yet to even learn what bib shorts were.
I couldn’t help but notice that all the cool team kits that I had eyed with envy the previous fall had been interrupted by garments awash in sponsor names new to me. Guys were pulling out their very heaviest pieces, thermal jerseys, Roubaix tights and bibs, insulated and windproof arm warmers and booties, lobster gloves not to mention secret-weapon base layers we never saw.
The combined effect was a garish mish-mash of earth tones and neons, pastels offset by saturated vibrant hues. In short, it was a kaleidoscope disaster as offensive to the eye as static is to the ear. Of course, at a certain point, wearing the most retinal-scorching combination became a kind of competition, evolving beyond one’s need for insulation on those coldest rides to the worst possible combination on merely cold days. These were the occasions to pull out those Roubaix bibs, no matter what they said on the side. Extra points went to those who could make a pair of team tights or leg warmers peak from beneath a pair of another team’s bibs. Ditto for combining a thermal vest with mismatched jersey and arm warmers. Double points if that short-sleeve jersey was thermal. The nod always seemed to go to the riders with the greatest history, the Cat Is and IIs who through dint of their experience could turn a pile of Lycra into an abstract expressionist’s canvas, slashing the air with more light than the optic nerve was designed to carry.
At its heart, the anti-kit is about comfort rather than looks, even if the look cultivated is deliberately contrary. It’s an acknowledgement that mother nature trumps all other loyalties, and beating the elements is survival itself. It embodies the message that form doesn’t always follow function, that suffering isn’t in the gear but in the effort, that a body wrapped to face the elements is the body that meets the winter willingly, able to find a reason—after all these years—to stay out, rather than turn home.
I think you will be happy to get a question that doesn’t deal with the “big” story in cycling these days, so I want to offer you a chance to do that.
Sadly, my question involves an SOB of another sort, namely the airline I recently used.
I don’t do a lot of competitions outside of driving distance and I was excited to get a chance to compete in Europe this year. I packed my Cervélo P5 in the box it came in and then got a specially made plastic container for my wheels, including a Ghibli Ultra rear disk and a HED Tri-Spoke up front (yeah, I admit it, I am a geek). I had a great time and packed everything the same way I did for the trip over.
Anyway, when I got back to JFK airport, I picked up my luggage and my bike and then waited for the wheels. I waited and waited and then went to the baggage office to check. They had them there, but the box with the wheels was completely trashed. I’m sure you can imagine my reaction when I saw it and when I opened it, I freaked. The wheel box trashed. The top was open and there was a four-inch horizontal hole on both sides of the disc and my front wheel had one of its blades shattered. I have no idea what happened. Looking at my receipts, I have more than $5000 in damaged wheels.
I immediately notified the attendant and asked for a claim form. The baggage “service” guy said 1) that none of their equipment could have caused that particular damage, 2) that part of the problem is that I didn’t pack them well enough and 3) their “contract” limits damages to $3300.
They offered to refund my baggage charges, but are still “investigating” the rest of my claim.
It’s been two weeks and I haven’t heard a word. WTF do I do now?
In the words of a former president, “I feel your pain.” Actually, I can’t, since I would still be hard-pressed to put together an amazing time trial machine like that … so I guess I can only imagine your pain.
But I digress.
Let’s start with the damages limit. The agent was referring to the airline’s “contract of carriage,” which is essentially the air transport industry’s version of the End User License Agreement (EULA) that comes with every piece of software you’ve ever bought. Why the comparison? Well, because nobody reads those either.
The problem is that the contract of carriage usually includes a liability cap when it comes to lost or damaged luggage. A quick survey of three such contracts – United, Southwest and American – shows they all top out at the aforementioned $3300. The airlines do offer you the opportunity to purchase additional coverage (generally up to $5000) for each item, but it’s something you have to ask for. I do not believe – even when you check a clearly pricey item like a Cervélo P5 or wheels like yours – that the duty to offer additional coverage falls to the airline.
One other common theme that emerges from these contracts of carriage is that all of the airlines make a point of saying something along these lines:
United is not liable for property that has been lost or damaged due to security screening requirements. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) assumes responsibility for security at airports. TSA is responsible for reviewing all claims relating to the screening of passengers and their baggage and, with limited exceptions, will determine whether claims should be paid and in what amount. In order to protect your rights, you must file a written claim with TSA and you should call the TSA Consumer Hotline at 1-866-289-9673 for assistance.
That’s important largely in that if the airline successfully argues that the damage to those wheels occurred while they – and other passengers’ luggage – were being screened by the TSA, they can avoid any liability. Just to make sure, go ahead and contact the TSA at that number and file the same claim with them. In other words, cover all of your bases.
I am a little concerned about the baggage agent’s claim that you didn’t pack your items well enough. I’ve seen bike-wheel-specific carriers and those are generally pretty secure. Indeed, from the sounds of it, someone would almost have had to ram a forklift fork through the thing to do the damage you described.
If you haven’t already done so, take pictures of everything and zoom in on the damaged portions so that you can offer detailed evidence of the damage and of the way you packed it.
The two-week wait you mentioned is annoying, to be sure, but it’s still a reasonable amount of time. I would make a pain of myself and maintain regular and polite (you know, keep it classy) contact with the airline’s claims department.
If they reject your claim or if they offer to pay less than the maximum, check to see if they have a built-in appeals process. If they do, use it. If they offer to pay you up to their liability cap, you have to make a decision. Do you accept the check and, therefore, waive any further claims, or do you take them on in court.
To start, do a bit of research and see if there are other suits pending out there. Several airlines have had to fend off individual and class action suits for poorly handled luggage and badly handled customer “service.”
I smiled when you mentioned that the airline offered to refund your baggage fee before doing a review of your claim. I’m not entirely sure, but that may stem from a 2010 lawsuit against American Airlines, which was sued for $5 million by a passenger whose luggage was lost and the airline took its sweet time in compensating her for her loss. To add insult to injury, the airline also refused to refund her a $25 “checked baggage fee,” even though the fee is purportedly to ensure the timely delivery of that baggage. No, I don’t think she won, but it may have left an impression on that and other airlines.
By the way, that particular suit noted that upwards of 2400 pieces of luggage handled by American are lost or damaged every single day.
It’s that level of mishandling that triggered a 2007 class action lawsuit against British Airways, when 13 plaintiffs sued the airline on behalf of themselves and any other passenger who flew an international BA flight between September 2005 and September 2007 and whose luggage was either “lost, damaged or delayed.”
The plaintiffs were able to offer evidence that the airline had been “inexcusably reckless” with their luggage. The airline took the claims seriously and moved quickly to settle, but with only the 13 original plaintiffs, heading off a class action suit that one can only imagine would have included tens or even hundreds of thousands of potential claimants. The details of the settlement are confidential, but you have to bet it was pretty hefty to stave off that potential disaster.
I raise those largely to encourage you to look around and see if there are other, similar suits brewing against the airline you used. If so, do your best to get in on it and get your damaged wheels fully covered in the process. Yes, it will take time, but it could be worth the trouble.
Keep in mind that a suit like that will probably be contested on a contingency basis, meaning that you will have to pay a significant portion (between 30 and 40 percent) of the settlement to the attorney handling the case, as well as your share of expenses.
If you find that your only option is to file suit on your own, it’s likely that you will have to hire an attorney with money up front and that ain’t cheap. If you end up fighting over the difference in value between your wheels ($5000) and the liability cap ($3300), it’s probably not worth enlisting a pricey attorney to do battle over the $1700 difference.
Still, before you accept any settlement offer, check in with an attorney to go over your options. Often, that initial consultation is free and the lawyer may offer suggestions to boost your settlement. (I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that a guy with a $6000 bike and $5000 wheels is not going to qualify for your local legal aid society, but the rest of you can always consider that option.)
It may be that if you are able to show the airline was – as in the British Airways case – inexcusably reckless, you might be able to sue for punitive damages in addition to your underlying economic damages claim. It would be a tough case to make, but as the BA case showed, it is doable. No matter what, though, it will take time.
The bottom line, though, is that you should think about any offer they make before accepting it. Don’t just take the money and run, without realizing that you’re waiving your right to any further claims regarding these damaged wheels.
Good luck and let me know how things turn out.
The Explainer is a weekly 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 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.
This week we have learned that Brad Wiggins won’t lead Team Sky at the 2013 Tour de France, that he’ll focus his energy on a Giro course more suited to his skills. Instead, Team Sky will give Chris Froome the leash his talents scream for, empowering him to power up the Grand Boucle’s litany of climbs.
Last year, this intra-squad conflict looked a bit different. Froome was so strong he had to be made to wait for Wiggins on one occasion, lest he strip the jersey from his captain’s shoulders. There was a real feeling he might have won the race himself, instead of finishing second. That he only managed fourth place at the Vuelta was surprising, but it’s hard to say how the miles pile up closer to the end of a season, and Sky didn’t give him anything like their best grand tour team for that race.
Now we get to see what the Kenyan/South African/Brit can do with all the prettiest horses harnessed to his ambitions at the Tour. Given the return of Alberto Contador, there are no foregone conclusions, as would be the case even if Wiggins were returning to defend his title.
Team Sky got off to a slow start in the pro peloton in 2010, Juan Antonio Flecha’s win at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad highlighting their 22 wins, but they have risen to the top in the intervening seasons, and, especially now that Mark Cavendish has moved on to a team (OPQS) more inclined to stage wins than overalls, must be seen as the pre-eminent grand tour squad in the world.
This weeks’ Group Ride asks: Can they do the double? Can Wiggins win the Giro while Froome sweeps the Tour? Is the blueprint that worked last summer, the one that saw Sky sitting on the front of the peloton day after day to grind down the pure climbers with a brazen outpouring of watts, still a winning strategy? Or is six weeks of high intensity racing too much for a team, even of Sky’s clever construction? Bonus question, now wearing Rapha, will there be any team more handsomely turned out? If so, who?
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
It was on a hill somewhere past the 55-mile mark of a ride that seemed both nearing its end and not nearly close enough to its finish that Carl Bird, the Director of Equipment for Specialized, turned to me and asked a question that I’d been asked at least a half dozen times that day, a question that a guy in his position riding with a member of the media has a certain professional obligation to ask.
“So, what do you think?”
“It’s nice,” or something akin to it, is what I’d said on every previous occasion. This was, however, my first hilly ride since I’d kissed the ground back in October. It was my first ride on these roads. It was my first experience with these descents, which were equal parts unknown and dicey. It was also my first ride on the new S-Works Roubaix SL4 and Specialized’s new Roval carbon clinchers. The combined effect meant I was stretched thin, that I’d spent most of the day trying to figure out how to get my descending mojo back, and the difference in brake response between the Zipps to which I’ve become accustomed and the Rovals was enough that I’d needed to focus on just the riding and forget about the clothing.
Scientific method suggests that if you want to judge the effectiveness of a solution, you control all of the variables, save one. Real life never really affords you that opportunity. The variables come at you like notes out of Jimi Hendrix’ guitar amp, in flurries, overwhelming you and either resulting in a wave of pleasure or a swirling wash of anxiety. Our loop through the hills of Palo Alto, Pescadero and more had been alternately fun and anxiety-producing, though mostly fun.
Back to that scientific method thingy. Ideally, a product intro would substitute just one item, say a pair of bibs or a jersey. Scientific method suggests you don’t grab a bunch of journalists and put them on fresh bikes with fresh clothing on a fresh course. But in the best scenarios, that’s exactly what happens.
Because it’s genius. It works. You take some riders, put them off-kilter with a bunch of unknowns and then turn up the heat. Somewhere between simmer and boil you forget about what you’re on and start focusing on just the act of riding. Look, I understand that this seems like an elaborate self-deception, like flirting with yourself via email, but I can say from some experience that while you learn a lot about a product within the first five miles of a ride, all the serious insights into whether a product works or not come dozens of miles later, after you’ve forgotten that you’re even using it.
Like I said, Carl asks me, “So what do you think?”
The miles in my legs weren’t that numerous, but they’d been plenty challenging, so my answer came from a place where I wasn’t thinking about the guarded, politic answer. It came from an honest place, an I’m-ready-to-finish-this-ride-up place. I’d had my fill of unknown bike times unknown roads.
“Well, you nailed the bibs.”
It was an honest moment, and revealed more than I intended. I try to be more reserved in my opinion after only a single ride. While I couldn’t articulate it at the time, I knew I’d ridden some bibs of similar quality in the previous year. Upon reflection after getting home, I came to the conclusion that I liked them better than the Hincapie Signature bibs I’d been wearing, and they were in the neighborhood of the Rapha Pro Team Bibs I’d reviewed last summer. The Specialized SL Pro Bibs go for $150, the Rapha, $250. I would probably still pick the Rapha bibs over the Specialized bibs, but I can’t recall the last time I wore a pair of $150 off-the-shelf bibs that were this good. “Never” isn’t an unreasonable answer.
For our ride I chose to wear the aforementioned SL Pro Bibs and Jersey, the leg warmers, the arm warmers, the base layer, the Neoprene shoe covers and the SL Jacket. As I was dressing, temperatures were in the 40s, but by the time we rolled they were in the low 50s. Compared to most of the other riders, I was more heavily dressed, but I wanted layers that would allow me to stay warm and yet peel off as the day warmed. Over the next four hours, the only change I made was to pull off the jacket for a while and then don it for the final descent off of Tunitas Creek. That jacket is one of those bantam-weight deals that weighs roughly as much as a Monarch butterfly. It’s a translucent white so that you can see the jersey beneath, a quality that makes it both more visible and something I think team sponsors tend to appreciate. The fit was just roomy enough that the sleeves flapped a bit in the wind, but the material is so light that it wasn’t noisy the way a flag in a gale is.
As a person who detests most wind breakers, this is one I’m willing to keep around.
The Neoprene shoe covers are meant to fit over Specialized shoes. No surprise there, right? Well reaching back into my past, I can tell you I’ve never used a pair of shoe covers or booties that I didn’t have to fight to get over the toe and cleat and then around the heel. Again, I’m aware these things were designed for Specialized shoes, but they slipped past all the usual obstacles with more grace than a bank heist flick. I was also impressed with the Velcro flap that pulls open to allow you to adjust the Boa dials mid-ride. On a ride where the temperature fluctuated over a good 20 degrees, my feet were never too cold nor too warm. Goldilocks would approve.
Plain black arm warmers are to cycling clothing what the microwave is to the kitchen. They’re a commodity, yet of such ubiquitous utility, you really can’t do without them. The only way to impress me at this point is by improving fit, warmth or stretch, if not all three. The patterning on these warmers gives them some slight articulation at the elbows making them ever-so-slightly a more natural fit. Once positioned, they didn’t budge, but I consider that a basic requirement along the lines of windows in a car. The leg warmers were plenty long (I’m surprised by how many leg warmers are barely long enough to reach my hamstrings), featured ankle zips so you can pull your socks up (or yank them off mid-ride) and silicone grippers on the outside so they don’t tug at the sensitive skin high on the inside of your thighs. And they’re thick, thicker than any of the last few brands of leg warmers I’ve tried.
A pro-fit jersey, like those that are becoming more common, isn’t an easy thing to do. Ideally, it’s not simply a regular jersey just cut a half-size smaller. It features forward-swept shoulders to eliminate unneeded material in the chest and reflect the outstretched arm position you adopt while riding. It’s a garment so specific in fit that when not on the body it looks more like a short-sleeve straightjacket, like it should be just as comfortable as confinement. Most of the panels reject polyester for something stretchier, like Lycra. It’s a retrograde move; we gave up Lycra in jerseys some time in the 1980s, right? It was just a transition material meant to get us from Merino wool to polyester. All that’s true, but what is also true is that a pro-fit jersey is meant to fit much like the top of a skin suit and skin suits are made of—yeah, you remember—Lycra. The better pro-fit jerseys I’ve encountered are cut shorter than traditional jerseys, but also place the pockets lower on the jersey and feature smaller side panels to wrap the pockets around the back better, making access to said pockets easy, rather than a yoga move.
For all its efficiency, at a certain point a skin suit just doesn’t make much sense, or at least not as much sense as a jersey and a pair of bibs that fit like one. They are easier to size properly, easier to get on and take off, easier to answer the call of nature and more comfortable—when was the last time a skin suit felt as good as your best bibs? Let’s not forget the fact that a full-zip jersey allows better ventilation on hot days.
Of all pieces of cycling clothing, though, bib shorts are easiest to get wrong, hardest to get right, hardest to forget about when they aren’t right. I’ve lost count of the different brands and models of bibs I’ve worn and have been amazed by the ways you can get them wrong. The most crucial details are pad quality and placement, the cut of shorts themselves and the sizing of the bibs. It’s still possible for the train to leave the rails, but far less likely if you get that much right. In the last year I’ve ridden a bunch of bibs in the $150 range. I can get through two hours in any of them, but I wouldn’t dare wear any of them on a ride I suspected would last as much as three hours or more, save these.
Final thoughts: I’ve been to a fair number of product intros over the years. At some, we’d stand around and look at the parts. Unimpressive. At a few we went out for hammerfests where we were too busy chasing the company’s staff to give a lick of thought to what we were on. Less than stellar. But the best ones roll out for a nice ride, not so long to kill you, but long enough to both think about and forget about what you’re riding. It’s a weird balance, but as my reaction to Carl illustrated, done right it can result in some honest opinions.
The big, red S up in Morgan Hill, California, has introduced a new clothing line for the spring and summer 2013 season. To be fair, lots of companies have new clothing lines for the coming, but not-yet-here, good weather. So why bother to report on it? Well, as it happens, it’s not new in the “here’s our line for this year” new; it’s new as in wholly new, as in they practically skipped a year’s production while setting up a new prototyping studio in-house. Had this been more of the same, clothing-wise from Specialized, I can’t say I’d have bothered to write about it. It’s not that it was bad clothing previously; it was just unremarkable. If, perhaps, it had been priced like a movie ticket, that would have been a different story.
This new line, I’m impressed to write, is just as thoroughly a Specialized product line as their bicycles and components. In broad strokes on the road side, it’s divided into two sub-categories: SL (performance) and RBX (endurance) to mirror the bikes and saddles. The idea is that the SL is more aggressive in fit and more cutting edge in materials, which makes it aimed more specifically at Tarmac and Venge riders. The RBX line (as in Roubaix) is meant for a less race-oriented rider.
The clothing may be made in China, but thanks to that aforementioned in-house design studio, the entire development process is controlled by Specialized staff. The initial CAD patterns are created by staff, printed out on a plotter in the studio and then used to cut fabric for prototypes. In the case of the SL bibs they made seven prototypes in multiple copies of each of the five sizes offered. Once Apparel Product Manager Peter Curran was satisfied they had the design right, it went overseas for production samples. You’d think this part would be simple enough, but as it happens, virtually no apparel factories specialize in cycling apparel, and that can lead to some comic, if ironic circumstances. From time to time their overseas counterparts would come to the conclusion that the forward-swept shoulders of a race-cut jersey didn’t reflect proper human anatomy, so they would “correct” them, by bringing them back, like those of a dress shirt. Had it not been for samples made in Specialized’s in-house prototyping, they might not have caught the issue.
The SL apparel features a pro-style skin-tight fit for the jersey while the bibs have a longish inseam with a folded fabric cuff and no gripper elastic. The Cytech-made pad which is manufactured to Specialized spec is designed for a rider who rolls his hips forward to flatten his back. The densest foam is also shaped to be matched to the shape of Specialized’s saddle. The SL apparel is available in five sizes, small through XXL.
By contrast, the RBX apparel sports a slightly more relaxed fit in the jersey. It’s not as loose as the untapered “club cut” offered by some companies, though. Compared to the SL jersey it’s also slightly longer and the appearance more subdued for those who’d like to draw as few stares as possible while standing in line for that post-ride coffee. While I haven’t had a chance to ride in the RBX pieces yet, in trying both the bibs and the jersey on, I was impressed with the fit. The difference between the fit of the SL and RBX jerseys was distinct, the way skim milk doesn’t taste like two percent, but it’s not so disparate that you wouldn’t still call it milk.
The RBX bibs feature a different pad, one that’s designed for riders sitting more upright and therefore using denser foam directly beneath the sit bones. Unlike many bibs I’ve encountered that were intended for less avid or experienced riders, the RBX bibs don’t condescend by using inferior materials. Now, these aren’t Assos, but in terms of fit and finish, they appear to be some of the best-made bibs intended for those who sit more upright. Grant Peterson should buy a set.
Both the SL and RBX lines are available in in Pro and Expert levels, while the RBX also comes in an even more affordable Sport level. If the Pro stuff seems a bit spendy, the Expert level good will provide many of the same features and design philosophy, while the Sport line will allow someone on a budget tighter than a rubber glove to get in the game. At $175, the Pro level bib shorts (available in both SL and RBX) are the most expensive items in the entire line; the Sport bibs are only $65 and the shorts are $50.
There’s more to the line than just bibs and jerseys. They offer a complete set of arm, knee and leg warmers, a base layer, multiple wind breakers, vests, gloves and tights. There’s a complete women’s line as well.
Curran said that a significant priority for the line was to make sure that the clothing offered significant sun protection. He noted that the U.S. is notably behind other countries in terms of addressing skin damage caused by exposure to the sun. Not only is the U.S. behind in awareness, it’s behind in products that protect against sun damage. Every product in the line has been given the designation of DeflectUV. Every product has been certified as possessing at least an SPF of 30, though some are rated 50. In addition to all that, they have introduced of sun protection layers—arm and leg covers, gloves and caps.
Given the way Specialized encourages people to ride more and longer, Curran said they’d come to the conclusion that they really had a responsibility to create a product line that considered the ramifications of increased sun exposure.
It’s rare that you see a product line so thoroughly overhauled and while it’s premature to call the new line an unqualified success, I’m impressed, based on my experience in the post to follow.
Action images: Robertson/Velodramatic
In certain latitudes, if you mean to ride through the winter, you need to put some time into clothing strategy. One approach is simply to wear more stuff. Long sleeve baselayer, wool jersey, windproof jacket. Sometimes two jerseys. Sometimes with a vest. Two pairs of gloves. Etc. Etc. This can be an effective, if scatter shot, strategy that almost always means you are wearing or carrying more clothing than you actually need. It also takes a lot of laundry cycles to maintain.
The Pearl Izumi P.R.O. 3×1 takes a different tack, an integrated garment that is very serious about riding in very cold weather. It combines a top-of-the-line windproof soft-shell with a snap-in quilted Primaloft mid-layer and balaclava. When it arrived at my home, I took about half-an-hour to pick through it, understand its various connections, evaluate its fabrics and to appreciate the amount of design that went into its creation. I slipped it on in front of the mirror and was impressed. Immediately, I could tell it would be the single warmest thing I had every worn on the bike, and I was anxious (and a little fearful) to test it in some difficult conditions.
Over time, I wore all three components, both together and on their own, in a variety of cold weather riding conditions to get a sense for each piece, as well as the whole. It is important to note that this is not a commuter piece. It’s designed for long rides in tough conditions, and I found that it served that purpose well.
My first ride was winter warm, 39F degrees, so I donned just the outer soft-shell with a long sleeve base layer, and it was impressively warm, all on its own, too warm, in fact, for my relatively short commute. I should mention, at this point, that I run pretty warm, probably 10F degrees warmer than the average rider, so warmth is almost never my problem, heat transfer is.
Heat transfer is actually the whole ballgame for winter riding apparel in my estimation. If simply staying warm were the challenge, there are any number of thin, light, insulated jackets that would do the job. The problem with those garments is that, though they hold warmth extremely well, they don’t dissipate it when it becomes too much. The great challenge for any winter riding gear is to build and store the right amount of heat without becoming a mobile steam bath.
My second ride in the PI 3×1 was at 32F, and again I used only the outer shell. Over the same short distance, I was still too warm, and I began to think that I was going to have to pan the whole jacket as poor at its job, but in reality, I only needed to find the right conditions to make the 3×1 shine.
The next day the mercury settled in at a more wintry 23F, and I donned the complete system to test its mettle in what I imagined was its more natural climate. If you can push out from the driveway on a day like that and not feel a whiff of cold, you are wearing a formidable garment. The balaclava is nice in that it is designed to come up over your nose, but the way the nose section is cut allows it to nestle securely on your chin as well. There are vents at the ears, so you still get enough sound from your surroundings to keep from being flattened by approaching trucks. I warmed quickly, was briefly too warm, and then settled in at a comfortable temperature for the rest of my trip.
The 3×1 doesn’t transfer heat quickly. It doesn’t just cool down with a zipper adjustment or a loosening of vents, but it does settle to a nice, comfortable temp over time. This is probably the right strategy for riding in more extreme temperatures, when you don’t want to worry about dumping too much heat too quickly and going hypothermic.
In succeeding rides I had the opportunity to test the shell in a frosty rain/snow mix, and found that I stayed warm and dry in a way that made what is perhaps my least favorite weather, fairly comfortable. I can’t tell you the point at which the shell no longer tolerates moisture and leaks, because I didn’t find it.
It’s windproofness is also excellent. 27F with a 20mph wind? No problem. Even in that scenario familiar to anyone who rides in these conditions, whipping down a hill with the wind in your face, the bridge of your nose stinging from the cold, the jacket and balaclava insulated me completely from suffering.
Initially, I had a hard time envisioning the market for this product. Minneapolis, Green Bay, Alaska? But over time I could see that the ability to mix and match the three pieces, on top of being able to use the whole system for the worst winter days, make it an exceptional value (at $375 MSRP), to anyone who rides through a real winter.
The fit is true to size and what I’d call race cut, slim, longer in back, long in the arms, meant to be stretched out over a top tube. I am normally a solid medium, but was able to squeeze into a small. If you are on the small side of medium, I would consider sizing down to maintain close body fit.
The sleeves are articulated. It has a nice single rear pocket that is subdivided internally to keep your stuff organize as well as two easy-access chest pockets for phone and/or small foods.
What I return to, over and over, when I talk about this jacket, is its seriousness. I have owned jackets and liners and mid-layers and balaclavas and ear warmers and any number of winter accessories all of which was meant to be cobbled together to achieve some level of winter riding comfort. I have not, in my time on the bike, ever encountered as integrated and thoughtful a winter riding piece as this. If you want to do long miles while the rest of the world is having their winter off-season, the Pearl Izumi P.R.O. 3×1 is a worthy piece of equipement, the difference between cobbling it together and dialing it in.
Let me begin by saying that I bear you no malice. I am not someone who’d like to see you dragged through the streets of Paris so that crowds can do to you what crowds are wont to do. I am not someone who has forgotten that you have done real good in the world and am well aware that in guys like Mike Ward and Jeff Castelaz, there continue to be genuine acolytes to the north star you provided those navigating the perils of cancer. I’m okay with that.
I am not someone who has forgotten the hope you represented to cycling here in the U.S. back in 1996, that you began to fill the void left by the retirement of Greg LeMond. I’ll never forget hearing Jim Ochowicz say at the final press conference for the Tour DuPont that it was time to start grooming you to win the Tour de France. I wrote this as you began your comeback, and when you did win the Tour in ’99 I thought myself prescient, rather than duped.
And while I doubt you even remember me, yours remain the most entertaining interview I ever conducted. It was a truly fun afternoon.
In previously writing about cycling and you, I struck a pragmatic tone, differing with the likes of David Walsh and Paul Kimmage. Walsh classified dopers as either draggers or the dragged; I reasoned that fundamentally, every cyclist of your generation was either dragged into doping, or quit. I’ve learned the truth is otherwise, that Walsh was right, that the lengths you went to exert influence over not just your team, but the whole of the peloton included wire taps and private investigators—tactics too coarse for sport. It’s easier to understand now why you accused Greg LeMond of using EPO—you simply thought that everyone did.
What you don’t seem to understand is that your interview with Oprah was never going to serve the purpose you desired. It was both too soon and too late. It was too late in that the horse hasn’t been in the barn for ages. The collective weight of the documents released in USADA’s Reasoned Decision dethroned your myth as the prevailing world view. It’s often said that history is told by the victors. Your story proves exactly that. Your version of events stood for a decade, but game, set and match have gone to Travis Tygart. By giving an interview to Oprah that fell short of what we learned from the Reasoned Decision, you failed to meet the minimum level of confession required to help your image. We didn’t need a body language expert to tell us your pursed lips meant you were holding back. And the interview also came too soon in that the public remains outraged over the revelation that the Cancer Jesus was something more akin to Machiavelli. They simply aren’t ready to forgive a lie that great.
As my colleague Charles Pelkey noted (and yeah, I know you think of him as “clueless”), your use of the passive voice—“got bullied”—suggests you really haven’t taken responsibility for your actions.
You dodged both the “deathbed confession” at the heart of your fight with the Andreus and the 2001 positive at the Tour of Switzerland. We no longer believe what you’re telling us. Why you won’t simply confirm that Betsy and Frankie have been telling the truth mystifies me. It’s not like you can hope to win the coming suit by SCA Promotions, so why hide? Why you won’t admit the Tour of Switzerland positive took place is less surprising. At this point, you have no reason to protect Hein Verbruggen and Pat McQuaid, as they are no longer protecting you. But it’s obvious that Nike, alleged to have helped pay off Verbruggen to make the positive go Jimmy Hoffa, would suffer a PR black eye far worse than sweat-shopping every child in Southeast Asia, and if you out them, your dream of rehabilitating your image so that you can once again “Just Do It” for them will go bye-bye.
That you would sit down with a Truth and Reconciliation Commission may have been the biggest lie you told Oprah. Dude, come on, if you won’t level with her—and she’s as sympathetic a listener as anyone ever gets—there’s little chance you’ll tell the whole truth to people who really know the sport, people who will ask hard questions.
I like to imagine that there’s an alternate universe, one where you delete the Strava account and go underground, where you drop by cancer wards unannounced, where you sit with people at death’s door and do what you do best: Give people hope. While I think Sally Jenkins’ quip that you beat cancer fair and square is asinine, I know that you can’t fake hope. There’s another narrative in you, room to say, “Yeah, I did some really stupid things to my body and my sport, but I still managed to beat this disease, and you can too.” And when you aren’t visiting cancer patients, you would be quietly showing up on doorsteps. First the Andreus. There’d be an apology and then you’d whip out your calculator to help figure the value of all that lost income.
And then you’d write a check.
Next, you’d fly to the U.K. and do the same for Emma O’Reilly. Then on to New Zealand where you’d present six figures to Mike Anderson. You’d take Floyd Landis out for beers, but not until you gave him a check, one with two commas. The toughest one would be the LeMonds. Done right, you’d find a bike company with the horsepower and credibility to revive LeMond’s bike line, probably Specialized or Giant, because I doubt John Burke, the head of Trek, and Greg LeMond will ever shake hands again … thanks to you, of course. In my mind’s eye you’d apologize to the LeMonds and tell them of the new deal, one that required no lawyers, and then the biggest check of the bunch, one that measured in tens—of millions. Yeah, that one would hurt. It’s the one that would make you think, over and over, about what you have done.
Without any press in tow, without any of your minions to insulate you, and no lawyers to get in the way, you’d come face to face with your actions and deal with the fallout. But word would spread and nothing could rehabilitate your image like having Betsy Andreu say, “Lance Armstrong sat down with Frankie and me, apologized, and then asked, ‘What can I do to make you whole?’”
Writing checks can’t fix the harm you did, but it would be a way to reconcile their earnings to yours, a way to right-size what your and their careers should have been. Despite all the good you’ve done for millions of cancer patients, the way you damaged the lives of those who got in your way stands as a symbol for the damage you caused cycling as a whole. With Oprah you rued the $75 million hit you took in a single day. Well guess what? Cycling as a sport has taken a much bigger hit. You are our Hurricane Katrina. Selling cycling to potential sponsors is tougher than selling real estate in the Ninth Ward. We’ll be cleaning up this mess for years to come.
I used to smile and wave when people at the side of the road called out, “Hey Lance Armstrong!” My God man, you single-handedly transformed cycling from the non-sport of geeky outcasts into a triumph of healthy living. Your downfall took us with you; now cycling is the sport of cheaters. Today, I hear people yell, “Doper!”
Look, I’m the first to argue against the lifetime ban for cyclists. We profess to be a society where anyone can apologize and be forgiven, but Lance, we don’t yet believe you’re contrite. When I look at how much harm, shame and ridicule you’ve brought to cycling, I realize if anyone has earned a lifetime ban, it’s you.
Red Kite Prayer