This past week I and at least one journalist from every reputable cycling media outlet flew to Colorado to attend the launch of the 2014 product line for Specialized. I heard at least five languages other than English spoken, and no less than six distinct accents of English uttered. At one point at the mountain bike demo tent one of the mechanics called my name so I could go over for saddle height adjustment and suspension setup and I responded with, “C’est moi,” which I do from time to time when I’m kidding around. Well, given the population assembled at the oxygen-deprived locale of Copper Mountain, the tech turned and said, “Oh, sorry, are you from France? Are you with a French magazine?”
Me and my sense of humor.
In addition to all the journalists, many of Specialized’s top dealers were in attendance as well. I’d prefer not to contemplate the logistics (and expense) of assembling so many people at a ski resort; it’s just too overwhelming. But for a big bike company like Specialized, such a gathering makes a lot of sense. Rather than try to introduce all the new products in a noisy trade show booth, they can make a deliberate (and rehearsed) presentation in a function room, complete with projector and sound system to make sure everyone follows along.
I attended presentations on the new road line, the mountain line, the women’s line and what they are now calling the “core” line. Core refers to all those bread-and-butter items in a product line—aluminum road bikes, entry level mountain bikes, including some oddball stuff like a go-anywhere touring bike and even, yes, a fat bike.
I’ve not been invited to this event for some years. Previously, when I attended I focused exclusively on the products I was most likely to review in the coming year. This time I decided to do things in a different way. Because I tend to get to ride the S-Works and Pro level bikes, I figured I’d branch out and ride some of the bikes I’m less likely to review. Well, mostly.
My first ride after the presentations were over was on a Venge Pro Race Force, which is to say a frame one step down from S-Works equipped with SRAM Force components; it retails for $5800. I’ve been meaning to ride a Venge for ages, but circumstances just haven’t lined up. Until now. We rolled out from Copper Mountain and headed downhill to Frisco, where we did a loop on the bike path around Dillon Reservoir, a place that gave my colleague Dillon Clapp of ROAD endless opportunities for self-referential jokes. I concede, he set them up well, even when I saw them coming.
Under ordinary circumstances, I can learn 80 percent of what I’m going to find out about a bike in the first five or ten miles … provided I can make some efforts. Given my current state of fitness, which can easily be described as one in which a 12-year-old paper boy with a full load of papers and one leg tied behind his back could drop me, being at 9700 feet of elevation (the height of the village at Copper Mountain) left me with as much operating bandwidth as someone trying to watch a YouTube video over a dial-up modem. I could stand up long enough to make five or six pedal strokes (okay, maybe it was a dozen), but then I’d have to sit back down and stop pedaling and pant like a dog stranded in the Mojave.
What I can say for sure is that I’d happily do more miles on the Venge. It’s not nearly as harsh a ride as the Cervelo S5 and it was stiffer in torsion than some of the other aero bikes I’ve ridden. Specialized likes to say the Venge is more bike than aero, and I get what they are claiming. Just how aero it is when compared to other aero road bikes is what would require some research.
It was during the “Core” presentation that I was introduced to the latest iteration of the Specialized Allez. The bike has been around in its current form for a year, but it completely escaped me. I don’t have any notes or photos of it from the last Interbike, which is a shame because I was suitably impressed by the presentation to feel that riding it was warranted.
What makes the bike remarkable is the aluminum tube set. Yes, you read that last sentence correctly. Specialized’s Chris D’Aluisio invented a new process, now patented, called Smartweld that increases the strength and stiffness of the front end of the bike. The top and down tubes curl inward, like the bottom of a soda can, and meet a hydroformed (and size-specific) head tube with similar inward-curled sockets for the top and down tubes. This creates a kind of 360-degree trough for the weld bead, making it easier for a less-than-expert welder to perform the weld correctly. Afterward, there’s less grinding away of material.
The frame is anodized to keep weight down while giving the bike a stylish finish. You can see the Smartweld as a vertical stripe in the top and down tubes. While the Smartweld is ground smooth, the other welds on the frame, such as those at the bottom bracket, have the traditional look of a Dynafiled weld bead.
Specialized is offering an S-Works edition of the Allez and the frame, rather incredibly, bears a claimed weight of only 1060g for a 56cm frame. I rode both the S-Works version as well as the Comp. The Comp has a mostly 105 drivetrain with an FSA crank and retails for $1350. The S-Works version featured the 11-sp. Dura-Ace group, and while last year’s bike was $7k, there’s no word yet on what this year’s version will go for. And yes, Virginia, that is a lot of money for an aluminum bike.
What I can say about the ride quality of the two bikes is that they are impressive. The Comp was as good as anything I’ve ridden in the past, while the S-Works was easily the finest-riding aluminum frame I’ve encountered. Because there are multiple price points for this bike, the tube sets vary some as well. I’ll go as far as to say that I preferred the ride of the S-Works Allez to some carbon frames I’ve been on. What I can’t really speak to is just how stiff the bike is in torsion. While I made some efforts, they were so compromised by the altitude I doubt I generated 200 watts on any of them. It’s possible this bike won’t be quite as impressive if I take it on a sea level group ride.
My first day-and-a-half of riding left me with the desire to spend more time on the Venge and the Allez. I’ll be honest and say that I find S-Works stuff far more interesting (and satisfying) to ride. The pricier bikes simple feel better as I ride them and that has nothing to do with how much better a Dura-Ace shifter functions as compared to a 105 (and the difference is dramatic).
That said, I’m aware that not everyone has enjoyed the benefits of President Reagan’s trickle-down economics (maybe because it didn’t work), meaning not everyone is going to spend $5k (or more) on a bicycle. Most folks have the good sense to own a home and have a college fund for their kids, which means a $14,000 bike is a recipe for nothing so much as a divorce. I anticipate I’m going to revisit both the Venge and the Allez in a longer review, even though the rides I did at the press intro were supposed to cure me of that urge. Go figure. My sense is that if I was still racing, rather than risk killing an expensive carbon frame in a crash during a crit, I’d purchase something like an Allez or a Cannondale CAAD10.
I’ve worked in the bike industry for more than 20 years. In that time, I’ve had more exposure to Specialized than any other brand. It began even before I entered the industry; the first bike I purchased as an adult was the Expedition, a serious touring bike by any standard. The first shop I worked in was a Specialized dealer and I assembled scads of Allez, Sirrus, Stumpjumper and Rock Hopper bikes. I had the opportunity to ride a carbon Allez for a weekend and considered larceny one Sunday evening. When I joined the staff of Bicycle Guide I spent some time on a few different Specialized models, most of which were made with M2 metal matrix. I’ve logged as many miles as possible on the Roubaix since it was released.
All the while, I’ve watched a gradual, though subtle, shift in the geometry of Specialized’s sport bikes (what they term “competition”) from the old Allez to the current Tarmac.
Compared to the early bikes I built and occasionally rode (not counting my Expedition), Specialized’s sport bikes build today have a slightly shorter wheelbase, slightly higher bottom bracket and slightly less trail.
Once a 58cm top tube bike’s wheelbase drops below 100cm, its trail below 57mm, and its BB drop below 7cm, I have traditionally filed it under “crit bike.” That is, I’ve seen it as a somewhat more extreme expression of the standard sport bike, something skewed toward a style of racing peculiar to the U.S.
I’ll be honest and say I’ve shied away from riding bikes with this sort of geometry. In years past I found other bikes with this flavor of geometry to be all-out sketchy on descents. They made 35 mph feel like 55. To the degree that I could select bikes that comported with my taste for Italian stage race geometry, what I’ve chosen to call grand touring geometry, I did so.
I suggested doing the back-to-back comparison (call it a shootout if you must) to Specialized because I was curious to see how different the two riding experiences would be. I assumed that I’d like the Roubaix better and was honest with them about that. To them, that presented no problem.
The question on my mind when I first climbed aboard the Tarmac was whether it was a bike really suited to about 50 percent or just 10 percent of the population. I was curious to know just how some of the best bike riders on the planet were getting down Pyrenean descents on a bike that seemed, on paper, to be less well-suited to the task than its stable mate.
The first few rides I did on the Tarmac were with a morning group ride here in South Bay called the Pier Ride. It’s a jaunty little 30 mile spin over what is for my neck of the woods a very flat course (just shy of 700 feet gained) and in season will average a little more than 20 mph with warm up and cool down. Done properly, I arrive home wishing it were the end of my day, not the beginning.
The first thing I noticed about the bike was that in turns, because I was on a bike more similar in geometry to what other riders were on, I followed the line of other riders more naturally; I didn’t find myself swinging a touch wide and then correcting. After a week or two of this I noticed that I was focusing less on the turns and more on how hard I could pedal through them because I wasn’t thinking about actually following another rider’s line.
The next thing I noticed was how colossally stiff the bike was at the BB and in torsion. On the hoods, out of the saddle and delivering each and every glimmering watt I could muster was delivered unabridged to the drivetrain. A frame that flexes under hard pedaling or out of the saddle efforts has an organic feel to it for me; a little bit of detectable give conjures the feel of older wooden furniture and how it may flex a bit despite a sturdy construction. The Tarmac was so rigid and efficient as to summon thoughts of health club Nautilus machines.
You can only get flowing lines like this with monocoque construction.
Here’s what you need to know about Specialized’s carbon fiber bikes. Specialized uses a system of partial monocoque sections to build its bikes. All of the bigger guys do this. The IS in FACT IS means integrated system and Az1 (pronounced “as one”) is Specialized’s particular method of reducing the number of joints in a frame.
In Specialized’s case one piece includes the top tube, the head tube and all but a few inches of the down tube. The next piece is the rest of the down tube, the bottom bracket and all of the seat tube. The seatstays and chainstays are formed separately. Ultimately the Tarmac and Roubaix frames are made from six discrete sections, not counting dropouts. These joints are epoxied and then wrapped with additional carbon fiber to increase joint strength.
The 12k weave that you see in the finish of the Tarmac Pro and Roubaix Pro is essentially cosmetic; it provides a small amount of impact resistance, but it provides no structural support to the frame. It is, in short, an impediment to breaking the kilo barrier. You may have noticed the unidirectional carbon fiber finish in the SL2s and the new Tarmac SL3. That top layer is structural. Think of it as the bike equivalent of the “Visible Man” kit from when many of us were kids.
Next week: Part II