As I rounded the bend in the trail, I noticed the singletrack tilt upward at an angle that was going to require a compromise of some sort. The intersection of that grade, a 36×28 low gear and my coming-off-a-virus fitness meant that I was either going to have to find a way to stand without spinning the rear tire, or dismount. Given that my companions—a bunch of Giant employees—were a minute up the trail, standing turned out to be the only answer my pride would allow.
I was out with the boys from Giant (yes, they employee women, but none of them were on this ride) for one of their typical lunch rides. We were riding some coastal singletrack near their headquarters in Newbury Park. This bedroom community of the great metropolitan expanse of Los Angeles lies within the Conejo Valley just above Ventura offers cyclists easy access to great roads and plenty of singletrack.
When I looked up at that grade, I had a second thought: Working at Giant would either make me more fit or I’d start visiting bars on my lunch break.
The TCX SLR 1 is a race-ready cyclocross bike. In broad strokes, it features an aluminum frame, carbon fiber fork and Shimano 105 group with hydraulic disc brakes for just $2875. The folks at Giant wanted me to give this bike a try for a couple of reasons. Most obviously, riding road bikes on unpaved surfaces is good times, yo. Then there’s the fact that the TCX was the proof of concept for its new D-Fuse seatpost design that next went into the redesigned Defy. Finally was the reminder that when you make the tooling investment to hydroform and butt aluminum tubes, an aluminum frame can end up riding a lot like steel.
Beer can tech
It’s darkly comic that in 20 years aluminum has gone from being the “it” material of the high-end race bike to the castoff relic, destined almost exclusively for the low end of the market. Honestly, the industry brought this on itself. For too many years manufacturers pumped out frames made with straight-gauge 6000-series aluminum and while they were reasonably strong and light, those frames rode with the harshness of a sea captain’s tongue and the grace of a bucket loader. All those cheap frames resulted in a reputation that preceded the bikes, kind of like a felony conviction.
Was that reputation deserved? Well, because it was a reaction to actual product, not Interweb legend, it was. The problem was that butted aluminum tubes gave a very different ride, one most riders would favorably compare to steel.
It’s worth noting that if there is any application of aluminum where a rough ride really won’t be tolerated, it’s in a cyclocross bike.
If you’re going to test a new seatpost shape, one intended to offer the rider increased comfort, trying it first in a cyclocross bike makes perfect sense as nothing else is going to present as jarring a ride. D-Fuse is a D-shaped seatpost, with the flat portion of the “D” oriented to the rear of the bike. The idea is that this flattened surface will allow the post to flex backward some without also encouraging forward flex as well.
Yeah, but would you do it again?
I’ve ridden a fair number of different ‘cross bikes. Most were steel, a couple were titanium, one or two were carbon, and a few were aluminum. The TCX SLR 1 is the first aluminum ‘cross bike I willingly rode a second time. That’s as much a referendum on how bad some of those other bikes were as it is on how effective the combination of the butted aluminum and D-Fuse seatpost is. What I can’t speak to is how much of the success of this platform is the frame vs. the seatpost. I’ve no idea if it’s 50/50, 60/40 or 90/10. All I can say for certain is that this bike is comfortable in a way I wouldn’t have guessed possible.
Let me back up a sec. Years ago I reviewed a ‘cross bike from a storied Italian producer of steel frames. This one used oversize tubing and .8-.5-.8 walls on the main tubes. I took it with me to a race in Long Beach run over a very bumpy course. I figured the course would be fast; I pumped up the tires to 70 psi. And paid. I could barely control the bike. After my first race I let 20 psi out of the tires and still felt like I was in a paint shaker for the whole of the race. I mention that to help intone my concern for what sort of ride this bike might impart.
I’ve been riding the TCX with tire pressure in the 50 to 60 psi range and continue to be amazed at how well it tracks over rough terrain.
My one beef with this bike has to do with my own preference for a lower bottom bracket. While I can’t fault Giant for designing a bike that fits within an industry standard, my experience is that for tight turns, a lower BB allows for quicker passage. My experience aside, this bike was meant as a traditional ‘cross rig and that it is. However, if your interest is for more mixed surface riding, this bike won’t turn in with the same ease as many road bikes. All things considered, this is a point that is unlikely to matter to all that many people. We’re talking the difference between Genesis and Yes. They were both great bands, yes?
The TCX was designed with through-axles both front and rear. There’s been plenty of testing that shows that through-axle designs provide greater stiffness in the fork for more positive control in steering. If you sent me out on two versions of this bike, one with through-axles and one with traditional quick releases, I’m not sure I’d be able to tell the difference. That’s not to say there aren’t riders who could tell the difference; I just don’t think I’d be able to adequately push the bike in turns to differentiate between the two. That fork is burly enough you’d need to be of formidable bulk to cause those blades to twist.
Wait, don’t answer
I mostly leave a bike’s specs out of my reviews except to talk about the bike’s overall value. After all, Giant isn’t responsible for how well the 105 group on this bike performs—or doesn’t. They spec’d a group that is proven to work well for its price. But I want to discuss the 105 group on this bike because it performed so well. The shifting on this bike was flawless and the weight of the shift action was as light as I’ve experienced with Ultegra. Blindfolded, I could easily confuse the two groups. Similarly, the hydraulic brakes in this group offer the same light touch and braking power I experienced with the R785 brakes found on more expensive bikes. And let’s not forget the fact that Shimano managed to pack a hydraulic fluid reservoir and a mechanical shift mechanism into a lever body that is only slightly oversize. Indeed, this lever body is more comfortable than SRAM’s hydro lever body.
Whether your interest is a race-ready ‘cross bike or a machine that can roll out the miles on a variety of surfaces, the TCX combines a price that’s tough to argue with the solid performance of a bikes that cost thousands more.