You had to figure that the Canadian manufacturer that was single-handedly responsible for the creation of the aero road bike segment would apply their ultra-high-end manufacturing technology found in their R5 to their aero design. The answer to that un-asked question is both yes and no.
Behold the S5.
The first, most apparent aspect of the bike’s appearance is that it appears to be the sloping top-tube love child of the S3 and P4. And that’s not far off the mark. Though it looks familiar, the S5 required all new molds to be cut. The folks at Cervelo say it’s their most aerodynamic road bike design so far. It’ll save 36.8 seconds over 40k, almost a second per kilometer, 92 grams of drag and 9.2 watts. They are just different ways of saying the bike is purported to give you free speed.
You want something more impressive? It weighs in at 990 grams. The “it” is the frame, fork, paint and derailleur hangers. That’s sub-kilo for frame and fork. But they say it’s not a noodle; they claim testing show it is 12 percent stiffer than the S3. They didn’t happen to mention if that was in torsion or in the vertical plane.
So what’s it handle like? The bike features the same geometry and sizing found in the R3. That’s six sizes with handling proven to work in the world’s most challenging races. Special steps were taken in the design to accommodate items like water bottles and brakes into the aerodynamics, eliminating the need for proprietary brakes or water bottles.
Naturally, this bike won’t be cheap, or widely available, but it won’t be quite as expensive as the R5. The S5 with Dura-Ace Di2 will go for $9000; with SRAM Red it’ll be $7500; with Ultegra Di2 it’ll be $6000 and with regular Ultegra it’ll be $4800. I’m looking forward to a chance to actually ride one. I’m hearing it’s not supposed to be harsh the way the SLC-SL was; I’m curious to see if they succeeded. It’ll be quite a victory if they did.
Brand identity is a funny thing. When I was a kid, Ford represented the car my dad drove. Later, it came to stand for an American car I wouldn’t own even if you gave it to me. More recently it has come to symbolize the very best in how a company can reinvent itself and survive under its own steam. At least, that’s how I see them.
Cannondale has had a similarly curious arc. There was a time when the brand made accessories, not bikes; they were a competitor to Rhode Gear, not Trek. And while large-diameter tubing aluminum bikes weren’t solely their domain, the company named for a train station achieved greater market penetration than Klein ever did. In the 1990s, I recall the company as being a repository for talent, fresh ideas and ambitious marketing. Actually, the company wasn’t just ambitious in its marketing, it was as ambitious as any bike company had ever been.
Then came motorcycles and the bankruptcy. For a while, the brand felt like damaged goods and though I was a fan, I wasn’t sure they’d survive with their full reputation intact.
Though Cannondale has stayed at the forefront of aluminum development and construction, the Connecticut company was by any standard late to the carbon fiber game. The Six13 may have used an innovative method to join carbon fiber to aluminum, but nothing could change that a bike featuring three carbon fiber main tubes joined to an aluminum head tube and rear triangle was an idea that dated to the first Bush presidency.
With the SuperSix, Cannondale got into the carbon fiber game in a serious way. It had the hallmarks found in its competitors’ bikes: It was light, stiff and reasonably lively feeling. However, it wasn’t a particularly special bike. The problem wasn’t so much Cannondale as it was the market. By 2008, there was a near glut of really good carbon fiber bikes on the market. There was a much shorter list of truly extraordinary bikes.
It wasn’t too long ago that in purchasing a carbon fiber bike you had to choose between stiff and light. The industry has essentially solved that problem. So what separates the good bikes from the great ones? Road feel. The knock against most magazines’ reviews of bikes is that the reviewer always credits the bike with being “torsionally stiff and vertically compliant.”
Even for riders who haven’t ridden a dozen different bikes, there is widespread acceptance that as bikes gain stiffness in torsion they lose flex—compliance—in every other dimension. However, the quest for torsional stiffness combined with vertical compliance isn’t quite as mythical as the unicorn.
For those of you who have followed the development of the Specialized Tarmac, it is the perfect example of how a bike that is stiff in torsion can be tuned to take some of the sting out of the rear triangle. The original Tarmac SL was a very good bike. Two years later Specialized introduced the Tarmac SL2. It was stiffer in every direction, but it was also livelier feeling. That rear end, though, was a bit brutal on long rides. Two years after its introduction the company followed up with the Tarmac SL3. The front triangle remained unchanged, but the rear triangle was redesigned with both new tube profiles and a new lay-up. Ride the two bikes over the same roads and you’ll quickly feel how the rear end doesn’t chatter as much. It feels as if you let 5 psi out of the rear tire.
Back to Cannondale.
I’ve just spent two days riding the brand-spankin’-new SuperSix EVO. This bike is to the previous SuperSix what the Bugatti Veyron is to the Chevy Camaro.
The bike boasts some impressive numbers, such as a normalized weight of 695 grams. It has scores the highest stiffness-to-weight ratio ever recorded: 142 Nm/deg/kg. That’s more than 15 percent higher than the Specialized Tarmac SL3 and more than 40 percent higher than the Trek Madone 6 SSL.
We can talk numbers all day long, but based on my experience, there seems to be a tipping point in ride quality when you near the 900g mark for a frame. I can’t claim this is true for every bike out there, but my A-list of bikes I’ve ridden, which includes the Tarmac SL3, the Felt F1, F2 and Z1 and Cervelo R3 SL, were all at or below 900g.
My sense isn’t that the weight is the issue. Weight is just the canary in the coal mine. What gives these bikes their lively ride quality is the incredible compaction achieved in their construction. Tap a tube with your fingernail and you’ll get a near-metallic-sounding “tink.”
The SuperSix EVO possesses these same qualities. And like the Felt F1, it employs hollow carbon fiber dropouts, which both reduce weight and increase the lively feel of the rear triangle without increasing stiffness. What helps to separate the SuperSix EVO from other similar bikes is the fact that the chainstays have been flattened along the horizontal plane once they clear the chainrings.
Cannondale says it didn’t set out to make the lightest bike, the stiffest bike, the most aero bike or even the smoothest-feeling bike. What they came up with is an incredible blend of those qualities. They say they wanted the most efficient bike out there. It’s hard to say they’ve created the most efficient bike on the market, but it’s easy to say it’s among the most efficient. I haven’t previously ridden a bike that offered as much torsional stiffness while feeling as smooth over rough pavement.
With the introduction of the SuperSix EVO Cannondale has effectively reinvented itself as a bike company. This is an extraordinarily sophisticated bike, the result of three years of work … and it shows.
I’m looking forward to getting one of these to review next month. In the meantime, for even more details you can check out my piece for peloton magazine.
What. A. Race. There were so many big moments in yesterday’s Tour of Flanders, it reminded me of a Fourth of July fireworks show. As soon as you think, “That must be it,” another big blast goes off and leaves you breathless.
First of all, Nick Nuyens. This guy has been an increasingly dark horse since some good showings in 2008. That he won the Dwar doors Vlaanderen a week-and-a-half ago might have been an indication of good form, but it took more than form to win yesterday’s Ronde. It took the perfect tactics, riding wheels, getting in the right moves, saving up, and then exploding in the last 200m to absolutely shock everyone.
Padraig: Nick Nuyens rode a terrific race and has given Bjarne Riis the right to walk around with a guilt-free smug grin for the rest of the week. And though he won, because he isn’t a rider I have feelings for one way or another and really did nothing to make the race exciting save for the fact that he won the final sprint (and let’s be honest, it is the most important move of the race), I must admit I feel slightly cheated by the outcome.
For some Nuyens’ win is disappointing. The Ronde is an emotional race, and it wants an emotional winner. Does anyone have any feelings for Nuyens? No. I didn’t think so.
At the finish I wondered, though, if Cancellara had had Riis in his ear, would the outcome have been different? More importantly, did Spartacus have the same thought? For fans, this win for Saxo can only intensify the rivalry with Leopard-Trek. Can there be any doubt who is winning?
Padraig: Spartacus was the man of the day. He may only have gotten third, but he was the carbonated water in my Coke, and a Coke without fizz is just pointless.
And if the Leopards were disappointed with third place, how must Quick Step have felt about 2nd and 4th. It looked as though QS put too much stock in the plan to win with Tom Boonen, completely disregarding, until it was too late, the obvious strength of Sylvain Chavanel on the day.
Padraig: For my part it was a race of surprises. I was surprised to learn that Quick Step director Patrick Lefevre was all-in on Boonen. You’ve got Sylvain Chavanel and you won’t let him do anything more than mark Spartacus? Really? That Philippe Gilbert couldn’t stay away showed how stunningly strong the top riders were. But I think my biggest shock was when Cancellara originally attacked how easily Tomeke seemed to give up when he got caught up in traffic.
The turning point for the Quick Steps seemed to come with about 2k to go with Chavanel off the front with Spartacus and Nuyens. The Frenchman shook hands with the Swiss as if to say, “I’ve been released. We can work together now,” which is just what they did, holding off Boonen, Gilbert, Flecha, Leukemans, et. al. Where Riis got it just right, QS chief Lefevre got it just wrong.
Was anyone else screaming at the TV for Gilbert when he made his own move with 3k left? It was textbook Gilbert, but just as Cancellara’s textbook escape with 40ks left failed to break the chasers’ will, so too was Gilbert reeled in.
Special mention should go to three domestiques. First, Chavanel, who was clearly Boonen’s up the road decoy, continued to follow the plan long after Boonen was able to hold up his end of the bargain. Second, Geraint Thomas buried himself over and over to keep Flecha in amongst the leaders, and finally Big George Hincapie performed yeoman’s work towing Alessandro Ballan over cobble and dale. Even if their leaders didn’t come through, they did their jobs to perfection. Hats off.
The only item left on my agenda is a quick assessment of Garmin-Cervelo. They sucked. I suppose Farrar did well to take the bunch sprint from the peloton, but did anyone hear Haussler’s name mentioned all day? And what did Hushovd do in the rainbow jersey? He was there or thereabouts for two-thirds of the race and then faded like a pair of Levis on permanent spin cycle.
I watched the race twice. Once on the Eurosport feed (while tuned in to the Feed Zone on Pavé, and that was excellent) and then again in the afternoon on Versus. It struck me how completely different were the stories the two networks told.
What did you think of this year’s Ronde? What surprised you? And what does it all mean for next week’s tilt in the North of France?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
A great many people I talk to about NAHBS speak almost exclusively of steel bikes built with lugs. To the degree that lugged steel bikes dominate what is displayed at the show, it’s not a particularly unfair impression. However, show organizer Don Walker should get credit for having welcomed builders working in any medium to the event. Ineed, one-third of the original bunch to show at NAHBS work in carbon.
Those two, Nick Crumpton and Craig Calfee, have been joined by a great many other builders working in carbon, such as Parlee and Alchemy. The perception that NAHBS is a show all about steel sells the event short for surely one of its best aspects is the sheer diversity of designs presented to attendees.
The simple fact that carbon bikes are being shone isn’t enough to get excited. What gets me excited is how far they have come in the last five, six years. Roll the clock back to 2005 and most all carbon fiber bikes were being built either as two or three-piece monocoque designs or as tube, lug and glue constructions. Things have come a long way.
The shot above is of a Parlee custom head tube. The cutaway view shows how the tubes are mitered and then wrapped with carbon fiber before going into a mold to cure. The knock against traditional tube-and-lug designs was the redundancy of material and the risk of stress risers at the transition points. The amount of extra material here is minimal and the transitions, all things considered, are terrifically smooth.
Next up is an example of a Parlee Z5 made overseas. You’ll notice the incredible compaction and the lack of unnecessary material. The quality of the molding is as good as I’ve seen. All this lacks is the ability to provide the custom sizing you find in their domestically produced frames.
Nick Crumpton’s work has always impressed me, but I have to say that this bike achieved a level of quality I really didn’t think possible from a one-man operation. Crumpton miters tubes and then wraps them with additional fiber and molds the frame into its final form. The smooth transitions, internal cable routing and features like seat masts redefine what I thought was possible from a small builder.
Nick positioned the battery pack for this Di2 bike under the down tube, but that’s not what’s most impressive about this bike. Even though you can see where he begins wrapping the down tube above the bottom bracket, there is no sudden material bulge. That conservation of material results in a lighter frame that will last longer.
Alchemy’s name isn’t as well known as Calfee’s, Parlee’s or even Crumpton’s, but they showed some very impressive bikes. This TT bike features tubes drawn to Alchemy’s spec; the down tube is shaped according to NACA profiles for real-world aerodynamic properties. They also offer a road version of this bike, a la the Cervelo Soloist or Felt AR. Only this one is available in custom sizing.
Final thought: It wasn’t long ago that I thought that a custom-sized, strong, 900-gram frame with great ride quality just wasn’t possible. Not without spending $15 grand. Times are changing and What is possible in custom work can truly rival the best work out there by manufacturers like Cervelo and Felt.
Enough, enough, enough of all this doping-related blather. Just because the Tour of Qatar is as entertaining as watching someone do their taxes, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be spending this time chatting anxiously about the coming season, rather than sticking pins in our Pat McQuaid voodoo dolls or trying to understand how the body takes in and stores dime store stimulants.
There is actually a racing season coming.
And, as it does every year, the landscape has shifted. Whether it’s the renaming of Team SaxoBank to Team Leopard – Trek (What? They’re not the same team?), or the merger of Cervelo with Garmin, the talent has been thrown up in the air like a deck of cards and then quickly reshuffled. How will it all play out?
Will Taylor Phinney’s move to BMC put them on more podiums? Will Tejay VanGarderen improve on last season’s promise? What of Jack Bobridge, the new owner of the world individual pursuit record? Will Radio Shack, the de facto retirement home for aging racers, have more to offer than they did last year, in Lance’s swan (dive) song?
Can Tyler Farrar help Thor Hushovd pour glory on the rainbow stripes, and can Hushovd help Farrar best Mark Cavendish? Can they even coexist? Will Andrei Greipel rise up to compete at the very top of the sprint pile? Can Phillipe Gilbert win big in the Spring? What does Fabian Cancellara do for an encore after complete lighting up 2010? Will Tom Boonen come back to the form from his early career?
So many questions. This week’s Group Ride tries to keep it simple: What is the most interesting unanswered question for the 2011 season?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Day two of the Outdoor Demo began—for some, at least—with a ride to Lake Mead that began at 8:00. I borrowed one of Felt’s AR1s, which is the company’s aerodynamic road bike. I had hoped to spend more time on the F2, but the previous afternoon one of the two demo bikes in a 58 got slaughtered in a hot corner by a staffer … d’oh!
The ride begins downhill and I had the distinct impression that some of the riders present weren’t accustomed to such a fast descent in a pack. There were times when even moving to the front of the group remained interesting. Nonetheless, it was a fun bunch. I turned back a bit early because I promised the folks at Felt I’d have the bike back in time for 9:00 demos.
I’ve spent some time watching wind tunnel testing and I’ve noticed a few things about the very fastest bikes. First, the top tube is parallel to the ground. Also, there are no hard edges out where they can catch the wind. I haven’t seen the AR in the wind tunnel, but I have my suspicions that it is a very clean bike to the wind.
BMC has been making inroads and I wanted to find out if the bikes are really that good. The Team Machine is part of a select group of bikes I rode that had superb handling, definitely in the class of the F and Tarmac. It does more to dampen vibration than some bikes I rode.
There simply aren’t many bikes on the market that combine the degree of stiffness that the Giant TCR Advanced SL possesses with precise, balanced handling and genuine road sensitivity. Where this differs from the F and Tarmac is with a stiffer rear triangle. It’s a crit meister’s dream.
I’d never ridden a Moots before yesterday and the Vamoots was a revelation. They should all come with a boarding pass for Europe. This bike is no race machine, but that doesn’t mean it’s not high performance. It was plenty stiff and the handling crisp, but what I most wanted to do on the bike was just pedal into the sunset. The Vamoots wasn’t typical of the bikes at the Outdoor Demo, but it really was one of my favorites.
Next up was the Moots RSL. This sub-15 lb. bike is an indestructible race machine. I’m going to recommend it to a Cat. 2 friend of mine who has terrible luck with crashes. Very stiff with sharp handling. I wish I had more time to write more about it.
The Focus line has been interesting to me and I can say they are doing excellent work. The stiffness was on a par with the other top-end bikes I rode and the handling was exceptional; it reminded me of the BMC. It damps vibration more than some bikes and if you prefer a bike that really mutes vibration without making the bike feel dead, you should have a look at the Izalco.
This new glove from Giro is ultra-thin and super form fitting. It was like wearing a skinsuit for your hand. Pretty fun stuff. Just takes a bit to get it back off.
I ended the day with a ride with the folks at Cervelo. Above is Roger Hammond on the right. We rode the R3 featuring the company’s new BBRight crank and bottom bracket design. Phil White gave us a little presentation and then we took (thank God) a very leisurely spin through a nearby neighborhood. The R3 is fast becoming one of my favorite bikes.
I’ve got to give some thought to my three faves of the two days of riding. I’ll do a short post on that soon.
Interbike, the annual peek inside Santa’s workshop, has arrived. Even though the bike industry has moved to a year-round product development and introduction cycle, thanks, in part, to events like the Sea Otter Classic and the Amgen Tour of California, Interbike is the place to wow cycling’s devoted with the latest and greatest.
The question of whether Interbike or Eurobike is bigger is a distraction. Go to Eurobike and a fair chunk of what you’ll see—say trekking bikes, for instance—will never enter an American port. If you want the pulse of the American market, Las Vegas is the place, at least one last time.
Going into this year’s show, I’ve been more focused on the names of the companies I won’t be seeing there rather than thinking about the new stuff I’m convinced I can’t live without. The number of companies displaying only at the Outdoor Demo is growing as is the list of companies that won’t even be there this year. I’m hoping that Airborne’s new head honch Rick Vosper’s prognostication is correct, that part of the move to Anaheim included negotiating a large-scale return to the show floor for everyone from Trek to Giant, Cannondale, Cervelo and Felt.
Their absences, and the absences of plenty of others, made the show floor a little less interesting last year, if easier to get through. Still, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
The question we put to you this week: What have you heard about in the run-up to the show that you are most excited about? New wheels from Easton? New bars, stems and more from Zipp? Puncture-proof Hutchinson tubulars? Whose new bike would you most like to ride?
As the transfer season churns and boils, riders lining up new teams and new plans for 2011, the landscape and traditional power centers seem to be shifting. Omega Pharma – Lotto’s paltry four wins in 2010 will surely be bolstered by the addition of German sprinter Andrei Greipel. The merger of Garmin – Transitions with Cervelo Test Team gives the already opportunistic boys in argyle even more strong horses in more races, the only piece missing a real grand tour GC threat. Movistar’s take over and cash infusion with the current Caisse d’Epargne team promises a bright new day for Spanish cycling, not to mention Geox’s takeover of Footon-Servetto.
Along with the advent of the Schleck’s new Luxembourg-based team and Bjarne Riis’ capture of Alberto Contador to replace Schleck, this may be the most active off-season in recent memory.
The question for this week’s Group Ride is: Who will come out of this battle royale with the strongest team? Who is on the rise, and who is on the wane?
You don’t get any points for predicting the slow demise of Team Radio Shack, but I am curious to hear what we think of the moves made by the Belgian teams, Quick Step and Omega Pharma – Lotto. The rain in Spain is also mainly on the plain with a group of teams, once looking on the verge of collapse, blundering into new pots of money. Which team will emerge as the new Iberian powerhouse? And is there any hope for the French?
No. Probably not.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
After doing some group rides in which I knew the roads well, I ventured out to do some of the longer rides that take in some climbing and descending. I started with gentler roads with sweeping turns. The bike had a complete and utter lack of the nervousness I feared would characterize this bike’s handling above 30 mph. It was stable at 40 mph and turned in easily.
Next, I took it north to Malibu’s challenging canyon roads. If ever there was a place where a bike will demonstrate a weakness in how it handles in turns, Malibu is it. Turns come in rapid succession and very few of the roads can be descended safely without touching your brakes. Toss in a little off-camber action here and there plus the odd decreasing-radius turn and you have a veritable buffet of cornering challenges.
It was in Malibu that the Tarmac surprised me. What I expected isn’t what I’ve encountered with so many crit bikes: You get them above 40 mph and the front end starts to get loose. I’ve never understood the phenomenon, especially considering on paper it shouldn’t be happening. However, just what that phenomenon is will be addressed in a different post devoted just to trail.
Here’s the important part: At speeds above 40 mph the Tarmac was rock solid. What’s more, it remained easy to turn in. I have experienced the opposite of some crit bikes, bikes that were so rock solid in a straight line they resisted turning in—at all. The experience was a little like trying to drive a Greyhound bus through a parking garage at 50 mph. Showing Kim Jong Il the value of civil liberties would be both easier—and safer.
By the time I reached the bottom of Tuna Canyon Road the first time I descended it on the Tarmac, all of my assumptions about the Tarmac’s handling had been tossed aside like an unfinished energy bar. I concluded that the Tarmac was the heir to the handling I’ve always believed to be part of Specialized’s brand identity. I have yet to ride a touring bike that handled half as well as my Expedition and if you want to know how elegantly a lightweight cross country bike can handle, just climb on a Stumpjumper. The Tarmac redefined what I think a sport bike can be expected to deliver.
One aspect of the Tarmac’s handling that really can’t be overly emphasized is its stiffness. There are stiffer bikes out there, but I think the Tarmac offers spectacular stiffness for those of us who don’t generate 1000 watts (let alone more) in a sprint. Steering is particularly crisp with this bike, in part due to the tapered steerer which uses a 1.5-inch bearing at the bottom race and a standard 1.125-inch bearing at the top. This also increases stiffness in torsion by allowing the engineers to design a larger diameter down tube to mate to the rather enormous head tube.
My one and only quibble with this bike is its road sensitivity. The Tarmac SL is meant to be different from the Roubaix in two ways: comfort and handling. While the handling is sufficiently differentiated, I do have an issue (a small one) with one component of the Tarmac SL’s comfort. It doesn’t seem to me that the Tarmac SL should damp as much vibration it does. My basis for comparison in this regard are some other bikes in this price range that offer more road feel; they are few, but they are there. Getting this particular balance right is a colossal challenge, though; I think the SL2 delivers great road feel but is too stiff. The SL gets the stiffness right, but would benefit from a touch more sensitivity. My limited time on the SL3 says they got the whole package right.
With the introduction of the new Amira model—the women’s version of the Tarmac, which is built with women’s proportions in mind—Specialized can lay claim to producing the Tarmac in more sizes than any other bike company offers for a production road bike—11. The Tarmac is produced in six sizes, while the Amira is offered in five. And despite the crazy assertion by Giant CFO Bonnie Tu that no other company is designing bikes for women, Specialized’s commitment to women is arguably deeper than any other bike company going, with four road models and five off-road models.
Like the Roubaix Pro, the Tarmac Pro is equipped with a Dura-Ace drivtrain save for the S-Works carbon fiber crank. Unlike the Roubaix, the Tarmac’s S-Works crank is equipped with 53t and 39t chainrings. Ultegra brakes do the stopping.
The Tarmac Pro rolls on Fulcrum Racing 1 wheels. The wheels are fairly light, boasting a claimed weight of 1485g for the pair, but what most surprised me is that in more than 2000 miles of riding at this writing, they are as true as the words from a Boy Scouts lips. It is reasonable, in my opinion to conclude that Fulcrum’s 2:1 ratio of drive spokes to non-drive spokes does substantially aid the wheel by equalizing spoke tension. This is even more impressive when you consider that the front wheel has but 16 spokes and the rear has 21. I’ve had whisky that wasn’t this stiff.
The tires deserve some mention as well. The 700×23 S-Works Mondos feature a Kevlar bead and Flak Jacket protection combined with a 127 tpi casing. This tire ought to be unremarkable, and surprisingly, it corners like an architect’s T-square and I have yet to get a single flat. That’s as unlikely as a zero-calorie beer that tastes like a fine IPA.
Changes from 2009 to 2010 for the Tarmac SL include swapping the S-Works crank for a Dura-Ace one, subbing the Dura-Ace front derailleur for an Ultegra model and swapping the Fulcrums for Ksyrium Elites. My test bike weighed in at 15.5 lbs. before pedals and cages.
I’ll admit that I was infatuated enough by the Roubaix and wary enough of the Tarmac’s geometry that I really didn’t think I’d enjoy it much or put that many miles on it. Of all the bikes I’ve reviewed over the years, this may be the biggest surprise I’ve ever experienced. I love this bike.
Specialized Tarmac Pro: 94 points
Still to come: The Roubaix and Tarmac, head-to-head
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