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.
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.
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.
The era of the coordinated cycling collection is only barely out of its infancy. For most of my time in the sport of cycling jerseys have had a relationship to the shorts riders wore only if the same sponsor appeared on both garments. The notion that anyone might deliberately design a non-sponsor-adorned jersey to match yet another non-sponsor-adorned pair of shorts is as new as the credit default swap.
Capo Forma came into the market while collections were still struggling to gain acceptance, before serious style had really been established. If they can be credited with nothing else, they can at least take a bow for showing competitors how to use materials and design to create a harmonious look. I mean, if companies like Lululemon can make yoga wear cool enough to wear while wandering around town (and apparently there are because one can find towers of lean Manhattan Beach housewives on the loose daily), then cycling clothing ought to at least look good while you’re on the bike. I know, it’s a bit much to expect us to look great off the bike.
But like I said, that’s where Capo comes in. If you’ve ever met Capo’s CEO Gary Vasconi, you know why. Gary is a guy who prides himself on his Italian heritage. He dresses like he was raised in Milan, which is to say he’s always the best-dressed guy at Interbike. I’m sure he has a belt to match every pair of shoes he owns. Honestly, he dresses better than the guy at Nordstrom who sold me my suit.
That he’s in apparel is fortunate. That he’s in the bike industry is a miracle.
Up until I was sent the Padrone Long-Sleeve Jersey and the Roubaix Bib Knickers, all the Capo clothing I’d worn had been of the custom variety, which is a huge chunk their business. To give you some idea just how successful their designs are, last I recall, every six weeks Helen’s Cycles, the L.A.-area retailer with eleventy locations, places a fresh order for a new custom kit. They sell ‘em like some shops sell tubes.
Back to the Padrone collection. Part of the particular genius of this collection is that the look is not based on sublimated designs; rather, it comes from using different fabrics and creative patterning. Now, I will say that the back of the long sleeve jersey looks a bit like you’re wearing your bibs on the outside, rather than beneath the jersey, but I respect that the particle material selection comes from the need to use a less-stretchy material in portions of the back. By using a material without much vertical elasticity in the jersey back you can stuff the pockets with everything from a rain cape to spare bottles and not have the pockets sag down over your butt.
Both pieces are thermal, meaning they sport a brushed Roubaix finish inside. Normal Lycra/polyester knickers and long-sleeve jerseys carry me to the low 60s. I know some riders are calibrated differently and would wear such items into the mid-50s, but the sages who taught me said to cover your arms below 70 and your knees below 65. Roubaix material will generally increase my comfort into the low 50s. With a simple base layer the Padrone long-sleeve jersey and knickers were good for comfort from the upper 40s to the mid 60s.
The Padrone knickers and jersey sport a few features that used to be thought of as sort of extravagant. Full zippers were unheard of in long-sleeve jerseys just a few years ago, but can be particularly helpful for regulating temperature on days that warm considerably. And I can say from experience that that only thermal knickers on the market in the mid-90s that completely covered your belly and required a zipper for removal and calls of nature were manufactured by Assos. The extra material gives you a bit of extra insulation in a sensitive location. I struggle to drink enough on cold days; the cold fluid chills me and as a result I tend not to drink enough; the added material helps overcome the chilling that comes with a long tug on the bottle.
The single most eye-catching feature of the pieces I reviewed, though not the most notable was the red fleece used inside the knickers and at the sides of the jersey. At first look the material appears to be an ordinary black, but from certain angles the red fleece underlying the black poly surface shows through, giving the panels a burgundy-ish hue. The material called Thermo Roubaix® Dream that features a hollow core to keep you even warmer and the look is novel enough to be eye-catching. Using the red-backed fleece helped tie the two pieces visually so that they didn’t just look like two random winter pieces. In the photo above it looks a bit like the shot of the jersey includes the top of the knickers, but that’s how the jersey is actually cut. Incidentally, it’s worth noting that Capo runs the Roubaix material all the way up the front of the bibs, a move that’s uncommon, but offers just that much more insulation.
I had but two issues with the Padrone jersey and knickers. With the jersey I noticed that the upper arms and shoulders flapped in the wind. Unlike jerseys I’m wearing from Rapha and Road Holland right now, the Capo jersey was cut for someone who actually goes to the gym and does bench presses. If you have shoulders, biceps and/or triceps, and I don’t mean ones of the vestigial variety that make Andy Schleck look like a pink T. Rex, this is the jersey for you.
My knickers ran short. Even when the gripper elastic in the hem was positioned at the bottom of my knee cap I had trouble pulling the knickers high enough to get the chamois to follow my contours, rather than sit below my crotch. The Windtex® wind-stopper fabric used on the used on the front of the lower half of the knickers to help keep you dry on wet days contributed to this; wind-stopper fabrics, due to the membrane that keeps you dry, don’t stretch much, so simply pulling a bit more wasn’t an option. The trouble I learned, is that my knickers were pre-production and the final production knickers were cut with a 3cm-longer inseam. That increase in length will make a big difference for most, if not all riders.
Most pads I have encountered use two different thicknesses—or densities—of foam; the pad in the Padrone knickers features four different graduated thicknesses. It’s a sizable pad that—once properly situated—is truly an all-day pad, one that can easily carry you through a four- or five-hour training ride with comfort. Both pieces come in five sizes—Small through XXL. Sizing was in-line with other American lines I’ve worn; I took the small in the jersey and medium in the knickers.
The jersey comes in white or black and the bibs are available only in black. Both come with reflective tags for visibility. The jersey has three pockets; the two outer ones are cut at an angle for easy access. A fourth, water-resistant, zippered pocket has larger-than-usual capacity, making it perfect for a smart phone.
Of course, this quality comes at a price. The Padrone long-sleeve jersey carries a suggested retail of $220, while the Padrone knickers go for $230.
These are terrific pieces, but the jersey is best-suited to guys with guns.
When I was new to shaving, which is to say in high school, my skin was awfully sensitive to the cruelty of dragging a blade across my skin. My neck was seemingly perpetually red and inflamed, swatted honey bee-angry. In my senior year my mother discovered a shaving cream made by some company better known for women’s cosmetics than men’s skin care, a concept which was at that time still exceedingly novel and prone to suggestions that the user may not have been the most manly among men.
Fortunately, my shaving cream wasn’t subject to public scrutiny. It stayed in a medicine cabinet I shared only with my sister.
I’d forgotten that I ever used the stuff until recently when I opened a tin of Rapha’s Shaving Cream. The consistency was that of buttercream frosting—creamy and with a stickiness that showed an affinity for skin. The moment I dipped my finger in the tin, I was transported back to 1982. Actually, the experience was kind of eerie. I even recalled how my mom told me the stuff was expensive, but if it helped, she’d keep getting it for me.
I don’t recall how long I used it; I don’t recall the brand or when I stopped using it, but it was some time in undergraduate school. My strongest memory of the stuff, aside from its consistency, was how much happier my skin was as a result of using it. Generally speaking, I think almost all shaving creams are created equal, if inferior. Foam or gel, it’s all about the same.
The Rapha Shaving Cream, which at $20 for a 4-oz. (125ml) tin is even more precious than some Napa Cabs, takes that man-care shaving cream and goes it at least one better. Frankly, it smells more amazing than most embrocations. The aroma comes from a complex blend of ingredients but what hits you when you open it is a lovely blend of lavender and conifer.
While I don’t suffer skin irritation the way that I used to, there’s no doubt that my face is happier when I use this stuff. Same for the insides of my thighs when I shave my legs with it (which I’ve done all of twice). Shaving my face with this is plenty; my household really can’t tolerate me being that amazing.
Were I English, or at least based in Europe, I’m aware that the price on this stuff wouldn’t seem outrageous; the exchange rate skews the cost from merely expensive to ungodly.
A word to our friends in Rapha’s product management: Can you please change the color of either the Winter Embrocation or the Shaving Cream? Identical black tins, both residing on my bathroom sink, is a disaster in waiting.
Which brings me to the Rapha Post Shave Lotion. At $27, it’s even more expensive than the shaving cream, but given that the pump bottle is 5 oz. (150ml) and how little you use following each shave, it’s a good deal better value. It also can’t be mistaken for an embrocation, so there’s that, too.
The Post Shave Lotion benefits from the same minty-lavender aromatics and can calm anything from the angriest razor burns to crazed meth heads. I would even nominate this stuff as a possible hostage negotiator.
Using these two skin care products reminded me what a peasant I am at heart. I absolutely love both of them, but my sense is that together they make me more terrific than I deserve to be. Of course, if I needed to charm the wallets out of a Wall Street board room, this stuff would rate as a daily necessity.
I’m being silly here, but that’s truly the point. I can’t explain it, but I get a bit giddy when I open the tin and prepare to shave. And that’s why I’m writing; I hadn’t planned to review these products and ought to be embarrassed to reveal that, but I really don’t care. These products are my new definition for luxurious.
Pardon me, I haven’t shaved yet today.
I get a lot of questions from readers about purchasing dilemmas, and I do my best to answer them all. The questions range from what saddle is best (I have a favorite, but unless your pelvis is a clone of mine, you might not like it), to clothing sizing issues (hard to do without being in the same room with samples in hand), to the typical frame selection and sizing questions.
The single most recurring question that I get from friends and readers is what wheel to choose. For someone purchasing a single set of high-zoot wheels, what would I recommend? And because I’ve reviewed more wheels from Zipp than Enve, Easton or other manufacturers, the question is often framed as, would I recommend the 202, 303 or 404?
It’s not a tough question for most riders, at least in my opinion.
For the purpose of this piece, I’m going to use Zipp wheels, but I think a number of wheels, such as those by Enve or HED, could be substituted for Zipp in this comparison. The point isn’t the brand, it’s the category. And frankly, getting a handle on the competing aerodynamic claims from one manufacturer to the next isn’t something I care to undertake—the marketing claims prove each brand is faster than their competition.
Before I get into the considerations that lead to the choices I would make, I want to lay out a few assumptions that guide my thinking. The first is that because I’m aware that a set of Zipp wheels are more expensive than some bikes, I don’t really see them as something I’d routinely take to a race, even if I was still racing. Sure, I’d use them in a time trial, and I might have been willing to use them in some road races, but the average crit isn’t a place I’d be willing to risk a $10,000 bike, unless, of course, I was sponsored to ride it—and even then I’d have a fair amount of trepidation. So while a great many people think you ought to save your most expensive equipment for race day, I think if you’ve got good stuff you ought to go ahead and ride it.
The second assumption is that fast is fun, and faster is more fun. So while I may be riding long training rides with a select group of friends or the occasional gran fondo, I want to ride as fast as I’m able. To that end, I want aerodynamic wheels for all the free speed I can get. Third, if I’m going to be on aero wheels, I don’t see any point in being frightened when riding in a crosswind; I want wheels that offer handling as close to that of a box rim as possible.
So now for a bit of objective data. The images that follow I got from Zipp. They offer a fairly objective comparison of several different wheels against the 202, 303 and 404.
For me, there a few takeaways from these images. The most striking is how a traditional box rim is aerodynamic equivalent of an elephant. The improvement of the 202 offer over a box rim is significant, but considered against the 404, I can’t help but wonder why a greater effort hasn’t been made to make a relatively lightweight aluminum rim that offers better aerodynamics (and handling) than the box rim. To my eye, the industry has given up. The best offerings I can see in the sub-$1500 range are HED’s Jet series wheels which mate an aluminum rim with a carbon-fiber fairing. What else is noticeable is how much more crosswinds affect the box rim and traditional V rims, and while I’ve seen how Firecrest (and other similarly rounded rims) handle better in the wind than V rims, it is interesting to see that phenomenon illustrated.
The basic wisdom on rim depth is that the flatter the course, the deeper the rim, and vice-versa. It’s the single easiest way to choose, but it leaves out all the nuance that causes lunatic cyclists like me to actually fret over these decisions. The discussion that follows isn’t about the obvious choices, it concerns the nuances that make you second guess.
The big knife
For riders across most of the world, where flat land dominates, the wheel that makes the most sense is the Zipp 404. That’s the simple truth. The weight penalty is more than overcome by the aerodynamic gains. Why deny yourself that aerodynamic advantage? Now, that said, there is a caveat to that selection. If you’re a light rider and you live in a place where the wind is a frequent training partner and if gusts are an issue, you may want to consider selecting a different front wheel, such as a 303 or 202.
There’s a lot of new technology that addresses the wind’s input on steering. Zipp’s Firecrest, Enve’s SES and HED’s Jet rim shapes have all used a rounded spoke bed that has fundamentally changed how the wind affects the wheel. Not only are the aerodynamics better, but the handling, as I’ve written previously, is much better than the previous generation of V rims. My first experience with Firecrest was on a pair of 808s and the on-shore breeze in the afternoons here can push me around as easily as a pro defensive lineman. The 808s were so easy to deal with in crosswinds I wondered if I was on Punk’d. It’s worth noting that Tom Boonen told me he starts every race, except for cobbled ones, with a 404 front and an 808 rear.
Where the 404 becomes an issue is on climbs. Its aero advantage disappears at speeds below 20 mph and then there’s the extra rotational mass of the deep rim to consider. But the issue the 404 faces is less going uphill than dealing with changes in terrain. When I’m on climbs that change grade the liability I encounter is in trying to accelerate the bike when the grade lessens. It’s not a huge issue, but the 404 flat-out doesn’t accelerate as easily as the 202. I think if I were riding in the Rocky Mountains consistently, where downhill speeds can easily eclipse 50 mph and the grades on climbs can often hover around 5 percent, I’d still go for the 404, but in the undulating grades of California’s coastal mountain ranges, there’s another wheel I prefer.
The 202 Firecrest is a wheel I was excited about even while it was still on the drawing board. It features the same 16.25mm clincher bead width as the 404, giving the tire a bigger footprint for superior traction in corners (handy when descending), but at only 1343g for a set, as opposed to 1562g for the 404s. That’s not a huge difference in weight, but as all of the difference can be found at the rim; you notice it any time you start winding up the wheels. The combination of aerodynamics and low weight make it a climber’s dream, but only if your heart is set on clinchers.
The 202 does feel faster than a traditional box-rim wheel, but I can’t say that I sense the difference between it and the 303. However, on the flats and on descents, I hit higher speeds with the 404. I also notice a difference on descents between the 202 and the 404: The shallower 202 is more maneuverable in turns. By contrast, the 404 feels more stable and gives me confidence at speed.
I can’t stress enough how impressed I was with this wheel’s strength when I went down back in October. I went from 30 to zero in about the amount of time it takes to sneeze. The front wheel, which is what did the stopping, didn’t even come out of true. While Zipp wheels do flex some side-to-side, the incident did a lot to confirm for me how much stronger their rims are than they once were.
The wheel of all trades
And so what of that in-between depth of 40 to 50mm? If your home terrain has got a few sustained climbs of at least 5k, hills like politics has liars or roads bumpy as a bipolar’s emotional life, then the 303 may be your ideal choice. It’s a wheel that is light enough to climb well and yet still packs a powerful punch on the flats. It has gotten great play as a stout wheel for cyclocross and races involving pavé. Featuring the widest rim in the Zipp stable, the 303 yields the broadest tire footprint if any Zipp wheel, making it preferable for anyone concerned about tire adhesion in corners.
At 1478g, the 303 isn’t much lighter than the 404, but I’ve experienced them as being much easier to accelerate, or at least what passes for me accelerating. It makes them more cooperative on climbs while still lending a powerful aerodynamic edge on the flats and descents.
It’s worth noting that Enve has taken a slightly different approach to their SES-series wheels. Rather than using the same rim front and rear, Enve uses a shallower rim in the front. The 3.4 wheels use a 35mm-deep rim front and a 45mm-deep rim in the rear. Practically speaking, it’s like running a front 202 and rear 303. The 6.7 wheels use a 60mm-deep rim in the front and a 70mm-deep rim in the rear. The front is effectively a 404 while the rear splits the difference between a 404 and an 808.
If you’re only going to buy one set of Zipp wheels, chances are the 202 won’t be the best choice. I can only see buying the 202 if you live in a place that is binary—either up or down. I know there are people out there who think about purchasing high-zoot wheels for race day and saving them for special occasions. I’m not down with that thinking. Any day you put a great set of wheels on your bike is a special occasion. They, after all, are not like a bottle of wine which is destined to last but a single night. You don’t have to work very hard to take care of any of these wheels, so you can do consistent miles on them without fear that each ride is death by yet another paper cut.
I can’t claim that can always feel the improvement in aerodynamics of the 4o4 over the 303 or the 303 over the 202. On long, fast flats, my sense is that I’m just faster. I’m usually going too hard to reason my way through it at the time. But I seem to have a lot of good days with the 404s. What I can say for sure is that the 404 is noticeably faster than the 202; I’ve swapped the two out and been able to note the improved speed, even when the switch was one day to the next.
Coastal California isn’t like most of the rest of the world, though. The world is, for cycling purposes anyway, flat. Most places I’ve ever visited merit the 404. And that’s a handy thing. Whether you consider the 404, Enve’s SES 6.7, HED’s Stinger 5 or any of a host of other options, the real point is that once you have a chance to ride with your friends over known roads, you’ll be amazed at the advantage the wheels give you. Granted, some of these flat places experience a lot of wind. Even with the rounded profile of a rim like Firecrest, there can still be some steering input. For lighter riders who want some aero advantage with as little steering input as possible, I’d suggest a front 202 with a rear 404 or a set of wheels like the Enve 3.4.
There are a great many products that might increase your enjoyment on the bike, but very few I can swear will make you faster. For purely selfish reasons I should probably shut up so that the guys I ride with don’t all start buying aero wheels, but that would really violate the spirit of this site. We want you to have fun out there, and there’s no denying that more speed is more fun.
I know people who don’t wear T-shirts. They don’t make sense to me in the way that vegans don’t make sense to me. I get that they stand for something, that they have set high standards for themselves, but cool T-shirts are fun, full stop. Not wearing T-shirts, ever, is missing out on good-natured, low-key fun. Veganism is the same thing to me. Life without cheese—real cheese, not that imitation stuff—is something approaching pointless.
Me? I love a great T-shirt. And because I have a job that really never requires a suit or tie, let alone both, I can wear T-shirts just about every day. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve got plenty of stylish button-down shirts, stuff that makes me look entirely more presentable (not to mention professional) than any T-shirt ever will. But I live in California, which is laid-back the way George Clooney is cool. It’s as if laid-back hadn’t been invented until there was California; same thing for cool.
I’ve mentioned previously that the T-shirts we sell here on RKP were driven by entirely selfish concerns. They are shirts I wanted to wear, plain and simple. That a few hundred other people like them enough to buy one and (hopefully) wear it is what happens when luck collides with fun. Bam.
Reviewing T-shirts is reality-show lame, but with it being Christmas and all, I thought it would be fun to give a nod to some designs out there that have caught my eye of late. First up are a couple of designs from Stomach of Anger. As you have probably noticed, they are advertisers here on RKP. And judging from the out-clicks the ad has gotten, a great many of you have at least checked out their web site. I have to admit I was completely unfamiliar with them prior to them reaching out to advertise. I went and looked through their offerings and nearly laughed out loud when I saw the design above.
I like this Wiggins design because it riffs on another darling of England, The Who. It’s got a lot of my favorite qualities in a T-shirt: It is carried by an eye-catching design, depends on a certain amount of insider knowledge to make sense and most of all, it’s playful. And, of course, it’s a chance to make a statement about your views on your loves, or life in general. What’s not to like?
Of course, some shirts are less playful than just out-and-out irreverent, such as this shirt featuring Floyd Landis in a Santa Claus hat accompanied by his now-famous quote: “At some point people have to tell their kids that Santa Claus isn’t real.” It is perhaps one of the few ways I’ve seen to laugh at the fallout subsequent to the USADA Reasoned Decision.
Speaking of irreverent, the design above is being offered by Gage+Desoto. It was designed by the game studio Pajamahouse and takes a swipe at global warming. After all, if there’s no sea ice, the best option that polar bears, penguins and seals may have is the bicycle. I wish they had this in kids’ sizes; I’d get one for my son.
No one takes irreverence more seriously than the artists at Kukuxumusu (say Koo-koo-choo-moo-soo). They’re a Basque company I first ran across close to 10 years ago when riding through the Pyrenees. Many of their shirts use recurring themes; some play (prey?) on the longstanding tensions between the French and the Spanish, with the French portrayed as frogs with bulging eyes and the Spanish characterized as bulls. Others take swipes at the Catholic church for the sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the church worldwide.
Recently, Kukuxumusu released its first cycling-themed shirt. In celebration of this year’s Vuelta start in Pamplona, the company teamed up with Miguel Indurain to offer a shirt that celebrated cycling. Some of their designs (particularly the ones celebrating the Festival of San Fermin) are like something straight out of Richard Scarry’s children’s books, with a cast of dozens and a great many ridiculous things worth noticing, if only you slow down enough to really look.
One of these days I’m going to talk them into doing a design for RKP. I have no idea how I’ll do this, or what subject might be used as it’s starting point, but I love what they do too much to give up.
Bell and Giro are two of the biggest names in bicycle helmets, and have been for the better part of 20 years. But in 1996 when Bell—which was #1 in sales—purchased Giro—which was #2 in sales—there were concerns that Bell would swallow Giro, that the two lines would become indistinguishable. Some 16 years’ worth of helmets by the two companies has shown that didn’t happen and isn’t going to happen. That the two manufacturers didn’t get homogenized into one behemoth that put out one helmet with two names is less a miracle than a demonstration that the two companies have remained not just distinct, but consistent in their differences over the years.
For as far back as I can remember, Bell bicycle helmets have been designed around heads that are more round than oval, circumferentially. As far back as my days as a shop wrench, I’ve known that to be true. Further, I also knew Giro helmets to be better suited to those with more oval heads. Despite that he was often called a blockhead, I’m a lot like Charlie Brown in that I’ve got a pretty round head. As a result, in the late ’80s and early- to mid-’90s, I wore Bell helmets. Somewhere around ’97 or ’98 Bell released the Evo Pro and it marked what was a departure from the old Bell fit. As compared to Giro, Specialized and most other manufacturers, the Evo Pro had a deeper fit. By that I mean that the helmet covered more of my head. I might not have noticed had it not been for two colliding facts. First, there was no way to stash sunglasses in the helmet. Second, the helmet came down so far over my head that it came in contact with my glasses. With every bump I encountered on the road there was a corresponding “thunk” of the helmet against my glasses.
No creak was every half this annoying.
So it went with each Bell helmet I tried for more than 10 years. Some even pressed against my eyewear; to mention this was uncomfortable is to commit a crime against the obvious.
Enter the Gage. I’m pleased to report that the Gage improves upon Bell’s too-deep-for-me fit. I respect that some folks never had the problem I did, but my head is not anomalous. I can’t have been the only person to experience this phenomenon. The fit does still feel deep-ish, but I’ve been able to wear this helmet with eyewear from Spy, Smith and Shimano without the helmet banging against the frames. However, the helmet still clunks against Oakley’s Racing Jackets and Assos’ too-cool-for-Beverly-Hills Zeghos are utterly incompatible with this helmet. And forget about trying to stash glasses in the vents. The temple vents are simply too far apart to accommodate any eyewear meant for the human head.
This $190 bucket continues with the design cues for which Bell has become known, in particular the symmetrically flared points at the back of the helmet that recall space-age looking tail fins of cars from the late 1950s and early 1960s.
This is the helmet Billy Blastoff’s grandson would wear.
Fortunately, somewhere around the time helmets’ vents numbered in the range of two dozen we marketing teams came to their senses and stopped counting them. I’ve stopped entertaining discussions of which helmet is best-ventilated. The last time a helmet left my head too hot, too sweaty on a summer day, hair was still big. To the degree that I still think about how well a helmet is ventilated, what I consider is that the helmets I’m wearing require a cycling cap beneath them once the temperature drops below 60 degrees (F).
Bell remains differentiated against its competitors in another significant way: Their sizing runs smaller. A small from Bell is not the same thing as a small from Specialized, Giro or Lazer. When my boy hits his teenage years, his first leap into adult helmets will almost certainly be to a small Bell. I wear a small in the aforementioned brands, but with Bell I have to wear a medium, and I think this gets to the root of the deep fit for me. My head is just a bit too large for their small. While this is an issue for me, it means that a small Bell is a great option for others—particularly for women, who frequently have smaller heads than men.
There’s much to like about the Gage. Like its competitors, the Aeon and Prevail, the Gage uses lightweight webbing for the straps. Sure, the thinner straps help the helmet lose some weight, but that’s not the reason to like the material; less material means less sweat absorption. The thinner material is also more supple, making it more comfortable against your skin. It tends to get less funky, post-ride, as well. Which brings us to the X-Static pads; X-Static is a material that incorporates silver fibers to inhibit the growth of bacteria that make your helmet smell like skunk roadkill. This stuff works so well and has been so widely adopted in helmet spec it’s becoming industry standard. Cam-lock levers make strap adjustment both Cavendish-quick and magic-marker permanent.
Another practice that has become industry standard are the fusion-molded microshells that simultaneously increase a helmet’s durability and good looks. Speaking of which, even at this price, you get a choice of eight different finishes.
Bell’s occipital retention device is called the TAG, for Twin-Axis Gear, which is to say as the user tightens the device, it not only decreases the effective circumference of the helmet, it also moves upward to better cradle the occipital bump on smaller heads. It yields a fit that is eight-character-password secure.
The reality for me is that as much as I like this helmet, the fit issues will prevent it from being in my regular rotation of helmets. The good news is that it means there are a great many people out there who will find this helmet to be an ideal fit. Thank heaven for diversity in manufacturing.
It’s nice that Bell’s top-of-the-line helmet is a good $60 less than Giro’s. When the cost of so many things just continues to escalate, Bell deserves some praise for making a pro-worthy product without engaging in the price arms race.
I doubt very much the team that dreamt up the Ziploc snack-size baggy ever considered that it might be used to protect a device worth hundreds of dollars, rather than dispensing munchies. The fact remains: The #1 protector of iPhones that I see in use by cyclists is the Ziploc bag. At least, that’s what I see here in Southern California, where protecting a smart phone is an afterthought of less importance than, say, zipping your fly after a trip to the bathroom. During my recent trip to Memphis, however, I saw nary an iPhone in anything other than a water-resistant Otter Box. The combined effect caused me to wonder if I was in a city populated by nothing but ex-Navy SEALs.
I’ve wanted something that could offer my phone a bit of protection while also allowing me to keep track of a credit card and some cash. Something that made me look, well, look less homeless than using a plastic bag did.
I ran across the Lezyne Phone Wallet at Interbike and it was one of those revelations that is just what makes the show such a great adventure. I’ve been using one on rides where there’s a chance that I’ll stop for coffee. It’s got pockets for three cards (enough for a hotel room key plus two credit cards), a pleated pocket to hold some cash (and keep any change separated from the glass of your smart phone) and a zippered compartment for your smart phone. The zipper is water resistant and the seams around it are welded; add to that the water-resistant nylon material the wallet is cut from and you have something that offers at least as much protection from water as a baggy, not to mention it’s a good deal more functional.
The zippered cash compartment and the card pockets are contained in a flap that closes (thanks to Velcro) over a clear panel in the case so that you can actually use the phone a bit without removing it from the wallet. Not that you can place a call that way (trust me, I tried), but you can read a text message or email; hell, you can update your status on Facebook if you’re so motivated.
I try not to be. Motivated in that way, I mean.
The wallet is big enough to hold an iPhone 4 or 5 or any of the other myriad devices that you typically see. That flexibility of use is, unfortunately, the device’s only downfall. It measures roughly 5.5 inches by 3.5 inches—big enough that you are unlikely to get anything other than this into a jersey pocket. That said, the wallet features a zipper pull with a large loop that makes it easy to yank the wallet from your pocket should you hear your phone ringing.
I’m hesitant to be too critical of an item that goes for $19.99 that is also a clear improvement over anything I’ve previously used. Picking on this would be like complaining about a $2 slice of pizza—how bad can it be? It’s $2 and it’s pizza!
I like the Phone Wallet. I have to be honest though and say I’d like it a bit more if it were a bit smaller and more specifically adapted to my model of phone. Given the ubiquity of iPhones, it seems like it wouldn’t be a bad investment to offer iPhone 4- and 5-specific models alongside this more generic version. A snugger fit would make it easier to use the phone inside the wallet and leave a bit of room in that jersey pocket so you can stash a bit more food.
Thank heaven someone is thinking creatively about how to organize your stuff.