Specialized S-Works Roubaix SL4, Part I

Specialized S-Works Roubaix SL4, Part I

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.


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  1. Craig

    I test rode many ‘race’ bikes from several brands before settling on my Roubaix. I bought a 2012 SL3 frameset and built it myself with SRAM Force group set. After two years and about 5,000 miles I agree with everything you wrote. I’m not worried about hundredths of a second in races so this category of bike just makes more sense on many levels.

  2. Max

    “the head tubes on race-oriented road bikes are too short”
    Too short for you perhaps? They work for some people and I find the starting point when choosing a frame these days is headtube length, from this I can work backwards with the seattube and post length. For me many road bike have headtubes that are too long. But I race.

    It depends on the use. It’s like motorbikes, some like the Ezy-Rider armchair fit and others like to have the load spread across a superbike.

    1. Author

      Max: Too short for a majority of riders to achieve an optimal fit. I’m not suggesting people can’t ride those bikes, but I have seen too many riders on bikes with several centimeters of spacers between the stem and headset and yet they still never ride in the drops except for descents. That you race puts you at the shallow end of the bell curve, and outside that center mass of riders who might buy a given model. I think more thought should be given to that center mass of the bell curve, with tweaks to geometry that benefit those riders (me included) who can’t generate 400 watts while riding with a flat back. All that said, I’m in a similar position to you on how I examine production bike sizes. I consider head tube and top tube simultaneously, and I look at the 56 first and then go to the 58.

  3. Dave

    I agree with what you are saying about fit and about bikes being made for the majority of the people who ride them. When I was shopping for my bike , I test rode the Roubaix and the Tarmac back to back. The Tarmac felt more alive and natural to me and the Roubaix felt sluggish and slow. This was in 2007, mind you, so geometries of both bikes may have changed since then. I actually ended up buying a bike with race geometry and don’t race. I suppose I enjoy the livelier feel I get from it. I’ve never found the lively handling to be a burden on multi-hour rides. I also ended up moving the stem down and switching to a longer stem.

    P.S. I am considering an ‘endurance’ category bike for my next purchase. It just makes a lot of sense to me. Plus, I’m always older that I was yesterday…
    P.P.S. Any info on the Paso Robles ride? Thanks!

  4. Jay allflex

    Wow, nice ride but you are playing with fire. You have used the words “Ruby” and “bike” in your piece, both original words conceived and trademarked by specialized. You are elevating your blog on the work, talent and originality of this fine company and taking food from their children’s mouths. You should be ashamed. I can not believe you pander to this horrible company

  5. Dean

    Dave: I think you bring an important aspect missing from the article, fun. My SL4 Tarmac is sooo fun to ride. Like my buddy’s Porsche 911 GT3, my SWorks Tarmac is crazy fast and light. Luckily for me I find it very comfortable as well. And I can honestly say I feel it makes me a better rider. Not only does it’s light weight and stiffness allow me to climb and sprint better, but it’s super high fun index has encouraged me to ride more often and for longer durations. Simply put, I’m addicted to riding it. And that has made me faster.

  6. Touriste-Routier

    There is a difference between the stage racing bikes of the mid 80s, the Roubaix, and most other off the rack carbon frames: Seat Tube Angle. Stage race frames typically had more relaxed seat tube angles, even in smaller sizes going back to the mid 80s and beyond.

    I didn’t buy a Roubaix (though I really hoped to), because despite it’s “relaxed” geometry, the seat tube angle in my size was only 73.5 (vs 74 on most other frames in my size); I just couldn’t make it fit me the way it should, even with seat posts with set back. Compare this to my road racing frames from the past that had 73 degree seat tube angles, where I rode with my saddle slammed on the rails.

    I believe the quest for stiffness has resulted in shorter chainstays, necessitating steeper seat tube angles at the sacrifice of proper fit for most riders, but particularly at the mid – smaller range of the size spectrum. This is further exacerbated by the S, M, L frame sizing. methodology.

  7. August Cole

    The Roubaix vs. Tarmac debate is an interesting one, particularly for riders who don’t have a lot of time to get out on the bike. What bike is the most fun you can have in the small amount of time you can withdraw from the family bank each week? If my longer rides are only 3 hours, being able to cover more ground during that time on a ‘faster’ bike makes the experience more memorable. For me, that faster bike would still probably be a Roubaix, as the Boston area roads are about as well looked after as a Yankees fan in Fenway. But it’s an important point about the individual ways we draw upon our bikes. In writing, I look at time like another rule of grammar. Time also governs the way I ride now, another rule of my road.

    1. Author

      Everyone: Thanks for you comments; keep ’em coming. In case anyone’s getting the idea that I don’t like the Tarmac, let me clarify that I love that bike. You can find Part I of that review here.

      Jay Allflex: I was okay with the satiric tone of your comment until you attempted to shame me and called Specialized a horrible company. This is your mulligan. They may be up for a lot of criticism due to the antics of their outside counsel, but as this is RKP, we keep the conversation hear civil and intelligent. Shaming me or calling Specialized are out of bounds.

      Touriste-Routier: Production sizing won’t work for everyone all the time; I do accept that. I submit that the change in seat tube angle isn’t a big deal as it doesn’t really affect handling and what we’ve learned about fit suggests that many of those Italian bikes had too slack a seat angle relative to the way we fit people today. It is, after all, pretty easy to pick apart most bike shop fits from the ’80s and before. However, your belief that the quest for stiffness was aided by specific changes in geometry isn’t supported by what their engineers have told me about their development process and the simple fact that the geometry for the Roubaix hasn’t changed since it was introduced. The bike’s geo came first and increased stiffness came second.

  8. M Hottie

    I have owned the Original S-Works Roubaix, an SL2 S-Works Roubaix, Tarmac SL2 S-Works and a Tarmac SL3 S-Works. My favorite of the bunch was the Original Roubaix. It was my race bike at the time and carried me to some nice finishes. Unfortunately it cracked and I was sent the SL2 Roubaix. That thing was a noodle compared to the original. Thank god I had also acquired an SL2 Tarmac which reminded me more of my original Roubaix. When my second Roubaix also cracked, I put the replacement frame on ebay and ended my run with that model. My Tarmacs fit the bill because of the fit. Back then, Specialized spec’d them with longish head tubes for a race bike. My 58 had a 205 HT length. They have since shortened the HT on the Tarmac but those bikes fit great. I agree with Padraig, HT lengths in general are too short. My current race bike (name omitted to not piss off the sponsor) has what my Specialized bikes did not, spacers. In addition it has an annoying over sized steer tube making for a harsh ride with unpredictable handling. I have my problems with Specialized too but the fact that they created (or should we say re-created) a class of bikes is something we should all be happy about.

  9. Pingback: Chainlinks: Best of the Bike Web, February 12, 2014 - Trail & Tarmac

  10. John H

    After quite a bit of back and forth on a frame set for a new bike, I settled on the Wilier GTR(available in only Europe for some reason). I guess I will get to see how something in this “class” stacks up to some of the more racier frames out there. Given I actually live in Flanders and regularly ride the kinderkopjes, I am hoping it will help ease things a touch.

  11. Darwin

    The Roubaix head tube has been lowered a bit for 2014. I have a 2014 Expert and enjoy it a lot. I also have a Giant Defy Advanced that is their relaxed geometry and its odd sizing means I can never get quite the right fit as I do on my Roubaix. But it corners better and is stiffer and more fun to ride. Which doesn’t help much after an hour or so of riding and my hands fall asleep because I can’t get the right fit with Giant’s goofy S, M, L, XL sizing..
    I also have to setup my turns in the Roubaix in advance more because the steering is not as quick. But it feels great on long distance rides and I can get quite a good fit on it.
    I’m 54 and have owned and ridden just about everything by the way. I think a lot of the slam the stem mentality is machoism by people who don’t ride very far. Not all but a lot.
    I can’t ride my Moots VaMoots anymore, the flex is too much and affects handling now that I am used to stiffer bikes.

  12. Darwin

    I should add that my brother, who is quite a bit younger than me, has a Tarmac and a Roubaix and he finds the Tarmac to be “twitchy”.

  13. Tim Wilson

    In the mid 90s, I couldn’t find a bike that fit me well until I stumbled upon a then 10-year-old Ciocc SLX. Its shorter top tube and steeper seat tube allowed me to go one size up to get a little more height at the bars, without a funky stem. Perfect fit. Several years later I replicated that geometry in a custom Waterford, and then did it again last year with one of the new “endurance geometry” bikes, several of which I test rode, including the S-Works SL4, before settling on a BMC GF01 (the SL4 a close runner up). I now have three great bikes that fit me well, spanning a 30 year heritage.

  14. Scott G.

    Padraig, if the old folks are going to put lots of spacers on their racy
    bikes, they could put old time deep drops on them. When
    they go down hill in the drops the handling will be less exciting.

    What I don’t get about the Roubaix is why it can’t take 30mm
    tires, cobbles are no fun on 25mm tires.
    Grand Bois Cyprè 700C x 32 mm is the official old guy cobble tire.

  15. Darwin

    “the simple fact that the geometry for the Roubaix hasn’t changed since it was introduced.”

    I would check that. Pretty sure the head tube is lower this year. Seen it multiple places.

    1. Author

      Darwin: Okay, so you have twice commented that the Roubaix head tube has been either lowered or shortened (the more correct term). I’ve checked this on both published geo charts and with the company. The frame dimensions have not changed. What has changed is that the spacers used have changed. The long, conic spacer above the top cap is no longer spec’d on that bike, so that straight out of the box, with all the spacers included, the bike builds up with the bar 1-2cm lower (haven’t gotten an exact figure). But to reiterate, the frame dimensions have not changed, so sayeth Specialized. Now, that said, your note regarding your brother is something I was really familiar with back in the ’90s when I was working at Bicycle Guide. I learned that I really hated moving from that grand touring geo to a sport geo. If I wasn’t switching back and forth, the sport geo was fine, I’d settle in. If your brother were to ride his Tarmac for a month straight, by the second week it wouldn’t be twitchy and at the end of the month when he went back to the Roubaix, I swear it would feel sluggish.

      Tim Wilson: You sir, are a perfect example of someone who knows what he likes. The BMC GF01 is a dynamite bike and truly inherits what your previous bikes were about. Good job on the shopping. God, how I love reading stuff like that.

      Scott G: You are wildly correct except for one really frustrating detail: finding a great deep-drop bar. As to the issue of not taking 30mm tires, that’s just a bell-curve issue. It’s a tire at a width very few people are asking for. The outside limit most are asking for seems to be 27 or 28mm, but that could change. But remember, that’s based on who is shopping for that bike, not who is chasing the 30 or 32mm tire. It seems like those are two different customers, currently, though they seem to be identical on paper.

  16. Pingback: Specialized S-Works Roubaix SL4, Part II : Red Kite Prayer

  17. Jay allflex

    Sorry Padraig, missed the fact that the S-word is a sponsor. Should have tread more lightly. I am confused why pointing out that a company who seeks to eliminate innovation and access to quality kit by investing in retainers instead of innovation is beyond reproach. It is well below your standards to imply that the initial, widespread filing of trademarks for iconic and common cycling names was not initiated in-house. I don’t believe there is much support for the “some dude outside the team bus fed me tainted beef” defense. I appreciate anything that forwards the sport and I will not grovel and thank you for your gratuitous mully. A spade is a spade.

    1. Author

      Jay allflex: Look, you’re new here, which is why I’m trying to inform you of just how we play. We’ve taken Specialized to the woodshed when they had it coming. I get the impression that you never saw our piece on the Cafe Roubaix debacle. My point is that if all you have to contribute is sarcasm and negativity, we’re not really a good fit for you or your attitude. This isn’t a space for trolling. Do it again and you become the third person blacklisted from the comments. Honestly, most people don’t have that much trouble understanding this space is meant to be a space for conversation not ongoing snark.

    2. Rob Rybacki

      Jay, Specialized has done as much innovating or more than any company out there. In addition to pouring tons of money into sponsoring some of the biggest teams out there. In addition to as much grass roots stuff as anyone out there. The list goes on.

  18. Thirdwigg

    This context is important when looking at the Roubaix and other bikes in this category, and frankly helps us better understand the “sport” category. Thanks for starting here before the review. This context is missing from other reviews of these kind of bikes which perpetuates the notion that a these kind of bikes are “other.”

  19. kurti_sc

    Hi. Great posting. I’ll forward a link along to a friend that is in the market for this type of bike (not the ueber race version).
    Could you possibly provide another article on the effects of geometry – like changing the trail, lowering your stem, using a deeper drop, etc. There are plenty of falicies out there and some outdated advice. I know for sure, I would benefit.

  20. lqdedison

    I find it a bit odd that you list the Cervelo R5 as a race bike with a short headtube. Weren’t they one of the first in the bike biz to be publicly touting the advantages of taller headtubes and better fit?

    1. Author

      Lqdedison: It’s all relative. Sure, the R5 has a longer than the Specialized Tarmac, but it’s closer in length to the Tarmac’s than it is to the Roubaix. Compare (for the 56cm size) 17.3cm (R5) to 16cm (Tarmac) to 19cm (Roubaix).

  21. Tim Wilson

    I have to side with lqdedison here, and propose that stack and reach are better numbers to be looking at:

    Roubaix stack=590, reach=387
    R5 stack=580, reach=387
    Tarmac stack=564, reach=395

    all size 56.

    1. Author

      Tim Wilson: I have to admit (yet again) I still don’t think in stack and reach and I need to work on that. Yes, based on stack, the R5 is clearly closer in size to the Roubaix than it is to the Tarmac. Cervelo deserves more credit than I’ve given them. Honestly, this is a relief; I’ve got an R3 in the garage I’m about to start riding.

  22. Tim Wilson

    Padraig: Stack and reach were instrumental in my being able last year to filter the market for bikes that would fit me. Here is an image from a tool I devised for figuring out what stem/spacer configuration would get me to a target bar position, for any frame for which I had stack and reach numbers: http://timandmarcia.com/stemstudy/stemstudy.png. You’ll note that the Cervelo and the BMC GF01 are right there next to each other. I added in the Tarmac mark today to illustrate the discussion here.

  23. Winky

    The thing that most annoys me about the Roubaix is the “Zertz”. I’m not doubting the ride of the Roubaix is nice, but due to the shaping and layup of the carbon tubes and to the geometry. But there is simply no way a few grams of elastomer is going to make any material difference to a light carbon bike ridden by 160lb+ of energy-absorbing homo-sapien. They’re just a marketing gimmick. Spesh know this and should be ashamed.

    1. Author

      Winky: Easy there on the shaming. Let me frame the Zertz this way: Have you ever clamped your knees to the top tube of a bike to cut down on vibration while descending a rough road? it’s remarkably effective. Zertz isn’t quite so thorough as that, but it does make a difference. Honestly, to think that any company’s marketing team can drive product development is cynical to the point of insulting. It might happen in other industries, but in more than 20 years in the bike industry I’ve yet to encounter a product dreamt up by the marketing department.

  24. winky

    Clamping one’s legs to the tt works because you are coupling a big mass to the light frame. The Zertz by comarison are just a few grams. Cynical? Yes. Show me the engineering reports that compare the frame with and without these little pieces of elastomer.

  25. Sophrosune

    Just now getting to this. Your gear writing is unequaled in the business. It’s so good you have to wonder why no one took this approach before.

  26. Hoser

    I have a new sl4 s-works roubaix. I had a sl3 Tarmac pro which was way harsher. The set up on both bikes were practically identical including the components. I find that the roubaix is just as stiff as the Tarmac, if not stiffer, yet more comfortable. Is it because of the 11r carbon of the Roubaix vs the 10r carbon of the Tarmac?

    1. Author

      Hoser: When we really start to get into these fine distinctions between different iterations of a model, the differences tend to be more a matter of layup schedule than the material used. Put another way, it is, from what I’ve been able to find out (and companies tend to closely guard this stuff), it tends to be more a matter how how, not what. Think of 11r as shorthand for more than just material, but also how it is used. Layup schedules change more than any other aspect of a frame as it evolves.

    2. Dave

      Terrific site, Padraig – I came across it while researching the S-Works Roubaix. Where I live in NZ the road surfaces are horrendous; a mix of chip seal with a lot of loose chips in many places and a good number of gravel-ish roads too. We are also constantly wind blasted. My current road bike, a 2009 Fuji Team Pro, is starting to show her age and she’s also a very racy, heads down and go type of bike. I’m giving very serious though to something that’ll soak up the road a lot better, with the Roubaix and Domane near the top of the list. The S-Works would be a stretch to get by the wife, but it really does carry the air of a Bentley or Rolls in terms of quality. Good to see a site with snark being heavily discouraged. Nga mihi nui!

  27. Will Benton

    I own two SL4 Roubaix’s one is a 2014 SL4 the other is a 2015 S-Works Roubaix. My commuter is the 2014 with 28mm tires. It is a dream to ride. I can tell a difference in the two but I’m guessing that’s more because of the Roval CLX40’s on the S-Works than differences in the frame if there are any.

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