I’m going to be candid. I think it’s fair to say that categorically the head tubes on race-oriented road bikes are too short. To be clear, I’m referring to the bikes that the big pro teams are riding, models like the Trek Madone, Specialized Tarmac, Giant TCR and Cervelo R5, what I typically refer to as “sport” bikes. That’s why when Specialized introduced the Roubaix nearly 10 years ago I concluded that it was one of the best carbon-fiber road bikes on the market designed for real people.
Designing bikes for the needs or at least the perceived needs of top level pros has proven to be a double-edged sword. Thanks to the input from some of the strongest riders in the world you and I have the good fortune to ride bikes that are stiffer under pedaling forces and in cornering. Some of them have remained remarkably comfortable; others, less so. What I continue to marvel at is the incredible diversity of experiences out there. Not only are the significantly greater differences between top-of-the-line road bikes for most brands than there were back when everyone’s top road bike was made from steel, there’s also the fact that now many brands offer a sport bike, a grand touring bike, as well as an aero road bike. The interesting detail in this is that for most brands that offer all three models or at least a race bike and a grand touring model, the race bike still is the sales leader.
There’s an interesting back story, not just to this bike, but to this category, because the simple truth is that when Specialized introduced the Roubaix, they didn’t just launch a bike, they launched a category. If we get in the Wayback Machine® and set it for 1984, the bikes we will see in the better bike shops will have a bunch of details in common. They’ll have a long wheelbase (100cm or more for a 58cm frame), a lowish bottom bracket (all the Italian stuff will be 26.5cm or lower) and a moderate amount of trail (5.9cm was common). They’ll also have a stunning amount of flex by today’s standards. The Roubaix is essentially that bike, just lighter and stiffer. In other words, the Roubaix is a bike that—from a geometry standpoint—has been around a long time.
So what changed?
Well, back then what a Roubaix is was just a road bike. However, we can say with considerable authority that the bike industry has chased stiffness ever since. A funny thing happened along the way. Stiffer tube sets allow a builder to give a bike quicker geometry. So as bikes got stiffer, we make them more nimble because that’s what racers wanted. This is evolution at its finest. Descent with modification means that by the time the Roubaix was introduced, nothing on the market handled like that anymore. Sure, there were custom builders still producing bikes like that, but there wasn’t anything on a bike shop showroom floor like the Roubaix. It took the introduction of a production model to turn this into a category. For that, Specialized in general, and Mike Sinyard in specific, deserve a lot of credit.
Even though bikes became quicker handling thanks to ever-stiffer frames, the opposite wasn’t untrue. Full points to Sinyard for being the first guy to realize that you could use top-shelf carbon fiber to build a light, stiff frame that handled like the old Italian stage-race bikes.
Since Specialized introduced the Roubaix I’ve been pretty vocal in touting it as an example of the bike that most people should be riding. I’ve often seen people on group rides overreact in situations because they’re on a quick-handling bike. While it’s impossible to say definitively, I think many dicey situations I’ve seen could have been calmed, if not averted, had at least a few of the people involved been on bikes that are slower to react.
That we even need the Roubaix and its ilk is tragicomic. Production race bikes have ultra-short head tubes because that’s what pros want. And anyone who has been to see pro racing up close knows that a great many, possibly most, pros ride bikes that don’t fit them. The bar is often too low and the reach too great, all part of that effort to get that ultra-aero flat back. To make sure that the bike will turn when you have that much weight on the front end, you have to build the bike around 5cm of trail, maybe a tad more. So what happens when you put 6cm of spacers between the headset and the stem? The bike handles wicked quick, that’s what. It’s essentially a different bike that what the pros ride just because the weight distribution is so different.
Which brings us back to the Roubaix and other bikes in the grand touring category. I’ve heard these bikes referred to as “old man bikes.” They should more properly be referred to as “bikes designed around good fit.” That would be more accurate.
Case in point: Most of the time, when I look at a bike’s geometry chart, I struggle to decide whether the 56 or 58 will be the better fit because it’s rare anyone offers a 57. The geometry of most grand touring bikes makes that choice much easier. Let me put it this way: If I remove all the spacers below the stem and run it on the top cap of the headset, that puts the bar below my preferred fit. That leads me to think that the head tube, unlike what some people have suggested, isn’t too long. The top tube on the 56 (or “large”) is 56.5cm and when paired with a 12cm stem, the result is one of the best fits for me I’ve found in production bikes.
One aspect of the Roubaix that I think gets overlooked is the fact that while the Roubaix itself comes in six sizes, the Ruby—the women’s model—comes in another five sizes, from 44cm to 57cm. Considering the fact that the Ruby does come in a gender neutral finish each year (this year, it’s white), this gives a fitter the chance to pick a bike not just for its size, but also for the rider’s weight. Were I shopping for a skinny adolescent boy, the Ruby would be near the top of my list because it features a bit more vertical flex (thanks to less carbon) in order to yield the same comfortable ride for someone who weighs 120 lbs. as the Roubaix will yield for a 160-lb. man. The upshot is that the Roubaix has the ability to fit someone as short as 4’11″ and someone as tall as 6’3″, not to mention offering some choices based on weight.
If it seems I’ve gone overly deep into the why of the Roubaix and just what this category means to both consumers and the bike industry, there’s a reason, if not a method behind this. I’m going to be reviewing a number of bikes from this category this year and I want to frame some of my larger observations now. This review will be a reference point later this year.