There’s something about visiting the workshop of a craftsman who began honing his skills before Greg LeMond headed to Europe. If you cut Joe Bell (and I don’t mean shiv him), his blood runs with lithium grease. His shop is less a time capsule than a place where time is suspended It’s not frozen in the past but rather a place where the past and present come together in a mashup of ages, Jimi Hendrix with a techno backup. In Joe’s shop 1978 is just as valid as today and the photos, posters and stickers are a testament to that.
There was a time back in the ’90s where I think we went more than a year at Bicycle Guide where Joe had sprayed every single bike we ran in Hot Tubes. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say he is arguably the most important bicycle frame painter the U.S. has seen. Every other painter I know has cited him as an influence. The funny thing is just how modest Joe is about his own abilities. He’s far quicker to praise the work of other guys than he is to recall any of his own work.
Talking to him in person is probably the wrong thing to do if you’re not already convinced he’s the right guy to paint your bike. He’s sooner huff thinner than give you a sales pitch. But the fact that guys like Richard Sachs and Dave Kirk use him exclusively to paint all their frames is, perhaps, all the resume the guy needs.
The reason I was in San Diego was arguably business, but I made sure to carve out a couple of hours to drop by his shop to see the frame above. That’s my Bishop. And surprisingly, I’ve struggled with what this bike will look like. The only thing of which I was certain was that it would be painted by JB.
This was my first opportunity to see the frame in person. To say I was blown away doesn’t begin to convey the way I marveled at Bishop’s work. Chris Bishop, if I may be so bold, is one of a rare set of builders. His skill is truly exceptional.
The unfortunate truth about Joe Bell is that he knows enough about building that he has the ability to clean up sloppy work by a mediocre builder. He could easily have make a career in an auto body shop fixing dings and crunches in classic cars. He’s made okay bikes look amazing, but will never betray a lesser builder. That discretion is one of his more charming features. But it also means that when something exceptional comes through his shop he has no problem given full points to the builder.
I won’t repeat what he first said to me as a measure of his praise for this frame because the terminology wasn’t what we’d call politically correct, but it made me smile. It’s what my buddies into classic cars would have said. I knew what he mean and it was praise of the highest order.
I’ve learned a lot from Joe, often just from talking to him on the phone, about the subtle cues to just how good a guy is with a torch. He’s taught me how to look for signs that a builder fed more silver or brass into a joint than was necessary and what they did to try to clean that up, or signs that a joint was heated for too long.
He also taught me a few extra tricks for finding sight lines to confirm the symmetry of a frame, particularly for fillet-brazed work. So when he kept up the effusive praise not just for the cleanliness of Bishop’s brazing but the symmetry to his fillets in the lug transitions and point thinning, it came as a nice confirmation that I’d ordered my frame from the right guy.
I could probably have done all I needed to with Joe by phone and email, but there’s nothing quite like being in the room with a person you dig. Similarly, I could probably have been in and out in a half hour, but I enjoyed the phone calls and other interruptions that gave me a chance to poke around a bit and get a look at a sticker collection I hadn’t seen in 10 years.
Someday, I’m going to have a garage workshop that looks every bit as cool and lived-in (or worked-in) as this one. Forget the backyard garden, I want a workshop where I can get lost. A place like this.
And this shot kids, the frame with the man who will make it unspeakably gorgeous, this is one I’ll take to the grave. It meant a lot to have a frame—my frame—get Joe excited about the work that lay ahead. Oh hell yes.
This is my favorite shot from the show. This is Mark DiNucci, a true god of frame building giving a pat to his heir-apparent, Chris Bishop. The thrill on Bishop’s face is more than apparent and the esteem which DiNucci offered was truly sincere. Bishop didn’t just get a nod from DiNucci, Peter Johnson, the greatest frame builder you’ve never heard of, said he plans to mentor the upstart.
When I think of the many consumer events that have been organized for cyclists, I mostly think of events that failed after, at most, three years. It’s not that they weren’t good events, that they didn’t bring together interesting people. It’s that they didn’t bring together the dedicated cyclists who will make or break an event. Don Walker, I’m here to tell you, is an unheralded genius. The seventh edition of the North American Handmade Bicycle Show hosted more than 8000 attendees, a record for NAHBS and, I suspect, any U.S.-based consumer bike show. Had you seen the line out the door of people waiting to buy tickets on Saturday you could be forgiven for thinking Don Walker was selling kisses with Taylor Swift.
Okay, that said, I’m going to keep this real. Very real. Don gets criticized for a great many things. He has a very specific view of what the show ought to be. Some folks think he needs to loosen up, take a chill pill. What people need to keep in mind is that NAHBS is what it is because it wasn’t designed by committee. It’s the brainchild of one very particular guy. That’s how entrepreneurs work. They dream stuff up and make them happen. Inventions are not the products of focus groups. So Don needs to be credited with making happen a bunch of people just talked about for years.
Let’s say that again: Don actually made this happen.
Yep, there are people who want the event to be different than it is. They want it to be friendlier, have more drinking, have more riding, have clearer criteria for the awards judging, have more volunteers so the builders don’t have to leave their booths to deliver a bike to judges, and have other, non-Don-organized events be a part of the official, sanctioned buffet of events that are part of the weekend. The dissonance is because well-meaning folks want Don’s brainchild to be even better, but their suggestions sound to Don like bashing. Constructive criticism is hard to deliver. And when the intended listener isn’t accustomed to hearing it from ham-fisted delivery boys, the experience isn’t much fun. Don is like a great many sensitive artistic types, and a bit thin-skinned—not that I’ve ever rented from that suite. I’m aware that people have trashed the event from time to time, including one popular blogger. How anyone can dislike the event is beyond my ken. If you step back and look at the bigger picture, it’s easy to see that the event brings together many of the best frame builders practicing the craft. To collect that many passionate craftsmen in a single location is no small achievement and the opportunity for cycling enthusiasts to speak with some of the best out there is an opportunity rarer than a blue moon.
Following two years at less-than-exciting venues (Indiana and Virginia), Don has hit two consecutive home runs with Austin and Sacremento. It may be that his awareness of the need to draw cyclists from nearby metro areas may be contributing to the show’s increased success. Next year’s venue—Denver—would seem to reinforce that view.
The only criticism I could possibly level at the show is that he has suffered some erosion of previous top-tier exhibitors. While I did see a Vanilla, Sacha White wasn’t there, nor were Peter Weigle or Hampsten. What’s significant in this is that Sacha was one of the “original six.” Don may need to hire a salesman trained in customer retention.
Everyone’s favorite question of the show was, “Are you having a good time?” It’s a bit like asking the president of the United States if he feels powerful. He better. I had a terrific time and didn’t hesitate to tell people there was no place I’d rather be. To put my enthusiasm in perspective, I used my experience at Interbike in the mid-1990s as an example. Back then, tubing suppliers Reynolds and Nova Cycle Supply bought significantly large booths; if memory servers, they were on the order of 10×30. And beyond displays of their tubing, they would have racks displaying the work of their frame builder customers.
I spent way too much time in their booths. I mean, I was sometimes late to appointments because I spent so much time hanging out there geeking out over the frames shown by acknowledged masters like Weigle and Carl Strong.
But here’s the thing: The quality of the worst work at this year’s NAHBS was better than most of the work I saw in those displays. The overall quality of work by frame builders displaying at NAHBS is extraordinary. Don’s enduring legacy in the bike industry will not be as a frame builder; it will be for his work in uniting the community of frame builders with an event that helped to elevate their craft and make these guys rock stars, even if only for a weekend. His work to help promote the work of these guys has resulted in countless orders that would otherwise have been sales to Trek, Specialized or Giant. Those guys will be fine, but an extra 10 sales per year for one of these news guys can make or break a year. A career.
The seat cluster from a fillet-brazed frame by Dave Kirk.
I was asked to be a judge for the awards this year. It was a request I accepted with some honor and an acute sense of responsibility. The experience was challenging while ultimately leaving me feeling rewarded. That said, there were frustrations when there were simply more bikes than could be recognized. The naked, fillet-brazed frame submitted by Dave Kirk was one of those bikes that deserved even greater recognition than it received. A “naked” bike, such as this really gives you the opportunity to see just how symmetrical the brazing is; there’s no hiding bad or even mediocre work. I felt badly that this bike escaped without a nod. Similarly, there was a gorgeous mountain bike submitted by Independent Fabrication that would have been an instant winner in most other circumstances but when pitted against the hand-pinstripped work on a Vendetta track bike, it went home empty-handed. Ouch.
If you’ve never attended NAHBS and have any sort of affinity for hand made frames, you owe it to yourself to go, even if just once, and see the quality of this work. And, if you have a significant other who doesn’t get your love of bicycles, take them. Really. I caught a great many scraps of conversations between bike geeks and their wives and girlfriends who appreciated the artistry of the bikes on display. Witnessing non-bikies digging bikes gave me a huge smile.
NAHBS is ON. I tell ya, these days, I get more excited for NAHBS than I do Interbike. The trouble is, it’s gotten so big that it really is hard to make it around to everyone. Above is a fillet-brazed BB on a bike by Dave Kirk. This is going to be a short post because my allegedly fast Internet connection is not. And it’s making me crazy. Also, show organizer Don Walker tapped me to join his crew of judges for the awards panel. It’s taking more time than I expected but it has made reviewing the bikes a bit easier because we stand in one spot and the bikes under consideration come to us.
This seat lug is from a randonnee bike by Steve Rex. I’m really not into the randonnee thing, but the craftsmanship on this bike, as exemplified by this half-lug was outstanding.
This Cherubim was one of the more amazing bikes I’ve seen so far. But now I have to get to the judging.Trust me, once I’m back home with a better Interweb connection, there will be a much longer post.
Some of my favorite bikes from this year’s NAHBS were items that clearly were not for sale. Don Walker has done a good job of courting companies that don’t seem the typical fit for the show, of which, most exhibitors have fewer than six people on staff. In encouraging both Serotta and Ritchey to attend Walker was able to embrace nostalgia in the show in the form of bikes that were built even before some of the builders present were born.
Ben Serotta got his start at Witcomb Cycles in England along with Richard Sachs and Peter Weigle. When Serotta first hung out his shingle he worked on his own, but he quickly followed a more traditional European model and began adding apprentices to work under him. Today, Serotta is lauded for straddling the worlds of production building with custom-fit frames.
The frame shown here is #164 and dates from the 1970s. Built before the terms “politically correct” and “female objectification” had entered the common lexicon of stuff not to do, the frame is a most unusual collaboration. Two sculptures, one adorning the head tube, the other wrapping around the bottom bracket were crafted by Serotta’s sister, Marcie. She also cut the lugs into their asymmetric feminine forms. Ben handled all the actual fabrication.
I’ve seen a great many bikes with lugs cut into unusual forms, but the combination of asymmetric designs paired with an unusual (and memorable) theme make this my single most favorite bike of the show. It shows a degree of creativity that would be fresh today, but was unheard-of for the 1970s.
I hope people can see beyond the two sculptures and into the greater celebration of the female form. I find a surprising harmony in it; I don’t really find the two sculptures titillating.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect to this bike was simply its appearance at the show. That it hasn’t been lost to the sands of time by being sold off to some collector is a great argument for why publicly funded art galleries should exist. I’d love to revisit this frame each year at NAHBS.
When I was a shop rat in the 1980s, I worked for the one and only Serotta dealer in Memphis, Tennessee. It was kinda like being the singer in the best band in Iuka, Mississippi, I suppose. Regardless, the Serotta Colorado was a bike I coveted the way a guy in a midlife crisis covets a Corvette. I couldn’t live without it, but had to. The swaged down tube that fit in a lug at top and was fillet-brazed over the lug points at the BB shell, the S-bend chainstays and the stellar paint had me dreaming about racing this bike over every road I could find. To me, the Colorado was the perfect marriage of superior design, impeccable performance and gorgeous appearance. It was Pamela Anderson in steel.
I’ve never owned one, though I’ve ridden a few and spent nearly a year riding its protege, an Atlanta, one of my all-time favorite steel bikes. Everything about the Colorado was class, right down to the sloping fork crown, pantographed with the word “Colorado” and the Serotta “S.”
I recall showing dozens of friends how the down tube grew in diameter so much that it fit over the socket for the down tube at the BB shell. It was my undeniable, irrefutable sales pitch for the superiority of the Colorado. You want stiff? This is stiffer than anything you’ve ridden.
Later, Dave Kirk, now of Kirk Frameworks, invented a rear suspension system. The DKS suspension was the only rear suspension for a road bike to go into serious production. Where the seatstays met the chainstays they were bolted together with the aid of a bearing. The curvature of the seatstays was designed to allow for a bit of vertical compliance. Kirk told me that for most riders, vertical travel was only about 1mm, but that single thumbnail was enough for most riders to sense and to recognize improved tracking on rough roads. To provide damping, two silicon bumpers ran along the seatstays. The bumpers were available in three densities and while folks at Serotta thought most riders would opt for the stiffest of the three bumpers, most riders who tried the system (including Davis Phinney and Ron Kiefel) preferred the light grey bumpers shown here, the softest bumpers, which allowed the greatest travel.
Though it’s no longer in production, the DKS suspension was a remarkable step forward. I’ll be interested to see what comes next.
This bike had to be the other real rock star of the show. Tom Ritchey built this frame in the 1970s for his father. Yes, his father. Sitting behind three other frames Ritchey built just for the show (a Swiss Cross and two mountain bikes), this one was rather easy to overlook. Despite its position at the back of the booth, it was, in my estimation the most interesting bike in Ritchey’s booth because it showcased Ritchey’s abilities in creative thought, mechanical wizardry and artistry.
You’ve already seen this shot and the incredibly filed and shaped lug. Be sure to notice the cap-less fork blades. The weep holes are situated at the very bottom of the fork blades to make sure water will drain should the rider (Dad) get caught in the rain.
Thanks to Ritchey’s way-before-its-time seat mast design the brake cable is perfectly centered as it enters the top tube just ahead of the seat lug and then exits what would otherwise be the bottom of the seat lug. It makes for a very stealthy look.
This has to be the single smallest cable guide I’ve ever seen.
The integration of the seat post into the seat is very cool looking and was no doubt really light for its day, but perhaps what is most surprising is that Ritchey had to have the fit absolutely dialed for while the saddle could be raised and lowered, fore and aft adjustment was not possible, nor was tilt. You got one shot to get it right.
These are the elusive Cinelli clipless pedals. They required sliding the cleat into the pedal and then locking the cleat into place by sliding the lever at the front of the pedal. All the sets I’ve ever seen were in display cases of one form or another. Even if they had been ridden, the fact that they were so hard to use without near constant crashing meant that after what were often fairly expensive (for those days) efforts to secure the pedals, no one wanted to get rid of them. They remained cool even in the face of near suicidally poor operation.
I shot more than 200 images
today yesterday and there’s no way to both upload all of them now AND sleep tonight. So I’ve selected a group of portraits I shot. They were fun and the subjects delightful. Or maybe they are delightful and the subjects were fun. Regardless, as tired as I was when the show ended today, I didn’t really want to walk out.
Leading off the set is Sacha White of Vanilla, who I caught while he was making a small adjustment to my favorite booth of the show.
Jay SyCip, who manages Chris King’s Cielo program.
Jeremy SyCip, these days the one-man show behind Santa Rosa’s SyCip Cycles.Mike DeSalvo of DeSalvo Cycles relaxing during a calm moment.The ever practical Carl Strong; Carl’s aesthetic looks for function long before it seeks beauty. As a result, his frames are austere, but warm to the business end of the peloton.
Even if we never remembered Don Walker’s famous fillet-brazed frames, as the organizer of NAHBS, his place in the frame building world would be assured. If he wasn’t doing NAHBS, he’d be doing more frames.
David Wages of Ellis (it’s a family name) hangs out and talks to fans.
Frame building’s favorite iconoclast, Richard Sachs.Nick Crumpton gets excited.
RKP: Where are you based?
DK: I work from my home shop in Bozeman Montana. Bozeman is a small university and ski town of about 30,000 people located in southwest Montana about 90 miles north of Yellowstone Park. Bozeman is in a valley surrounded by mountains on every side and it’s the ‘big city’ in the area. When you leave town you have really left town and you can ride for miles and see no one at all. I like my solitude and I love Bozeman.
RKP: Is that where you grew up?
DK: No. I grew up in a wonderful small town in central New York State – Rome NY. The riding in the area is world class and for the most part no one knows about it. Every other road is called “farm to market’ road and they are all 1½ lanes wide and just meander through the countryside and farmland up and over 20% super steep climbs……… It’s like Belgium but with out cobbles and I speak the language. I lived in Rome until a few days after high school graduation and then a good friend and I took a road trip to Florida to meet girls. I ended up moving to Florida and went to school half-heartedly but raced BMX with gusto. The southeast was the place to be in the early 80’s for BMX.
RKP: What’s the riding like there (where you live now)?
DK: The riding around Bozeman is much different from Rome where I grew up. Instead of short uber-steep climbs Bozeman has very long alpine type climbs that go up to about 8000’. It’s easy to find climbs of 10 miles or more and it takes a much different mindset. You certainly don’t just stand up and hammer over them. Many of the roads here leave town and get narrow and rough and then turn to dirt. These are my favorite roads to ride. I like the feeling of being way out there and away from everything and slogging over the rough loose surface. I could do that all day. I ride alone most of the time. No wonder why I guess.
RKP: How long have you been building?
DK: I started working as a full time professional framebuilder in 1989 at Serotta in Saratoga Springs, NY. With the exception of one summer working as a water well driller and a few winters working as a snowboard school supervisor it’s all I’ve done since 1989.
RKP: How did you get your start?
DK: I was living in Rome NY and working at a bike shop in the area called “Dick Sonne’s Ski, Hike and Bike” when I got a call from a guy at Serotta. They knew of me through my racing and wrenching and needed more warm bodies in the building. I went and interviewed and Serotta at that time was in a barn with the paint booth being in the chicken coop. It wasn’t very impressive but I really wanted to work there. They offered me a job as a mechanic and I took it. About a week before I was to start I got a call from the same guy and he told me there was going to be a delay and could I start in two weeks. Sure, no problem. Two weeks turned into 6, which turned into 12, and I finally gave up. I started working at a small bike shop close to my home called Schuss Ski and Bike and about 2 years after that first call from Serotta I got another call. This time it was Ben Serotta himself and he told me he had just found out how I was treated first time around and apologized. He then told me they were looking for help in the frame shop and asked if I wanted to interview. The night before the interview I was out riding in the woods and stumbled on a bee’s nest and my hands were badly stung. They got so huge that I could barely drive. I went to the interview and kept my hands out of sight and it was all going well. I was then asked to go into the shop and use a few tools to they could judge my hand skills. I flopped my hands onto the desk and told them I didn’t think I could do that today. Everyone moved back a steep when they saw my freakish hands. They ended up offering me the job anyway and I started work as a framebuilder on October 2nd, 1989.
RKP: Is building your day job? If not, what else do you do?
DK: I am a full time professional framebuilder and it is all I do.
RKP: Have you held other positions in the industry?
DK: I started working as a kid in bike retail and as a mechanic. I’ve raced professional BMX and mountain bike and some road. I worked at Serotta for 10 years and ended up being the one man R&D department and was responsible for all new products, the tooling to produce them, as well and personally building the bulk of the bikes to be used by the professional teams Serotta sponsored at the time. I then moved to Montana and worked with Carl Strong as general shop help and he and I eventually formed a production company to produce Strong Frames as well and all the steel Ibis’. I then struck out on my own and formed Kirk Frameworks in June of 2003.
RKP: Do you ever work in a material other than steel?
DK: Over the past 21 years I’ve worked with most every popular frame material (and a few not so popular) but I now work exclusively in steel. I like working with and riding steel better than any other material. It speaks to me in everyway.
RKP: Who makes the tubing and lugs you like to use?
DK: I work with mostly Reynolds tubes but also use a bit of True Temper. The good folks at Reynolds make proprietary tubes just for me and they are vital to my getting the ride just the way I think it should be. For lugs I like Sachs and Llewellyn. I’m just introducing some dropouts of my own design and have plans in the works to expand my offerings. My job at Serotta was product design intensive and I missed the challenge. That combined with being unsatisfied by the parts available to the professional builder I decided I needed to design and make my own.
RKP: Tell us about the jig you use.
DK: I use Anvil frame and fork jigs. All my other tooling (bending, braze-ons, lug holders, etc.) I’ve designed and made myself. I love designing and making tools. It’s a lost art.
RKP: What sort of cutting and shaping of lugs do you like to perform? Does it vary from bike to bike or are there stylistic elements people can find running through all your bikes?
DK: I favor simple, purposeful and straightforward designs. While I like and admire frilly and baroque designs they aren’t what I like to do. My bikes are all a bit different but there is a common theme to the look. While I offer lugged bikes I also offer and love building fillet brazed bikes. I think the beauty of a properly proportioned fillet joint has few rivals.
RKP: When fitting a customer for a bike, how do you usually work? How often is it in person?
DK: Being in the middle of nowhere I get only about 3 people a year visiting for fittings. I welcome all to visit but understand that isn’t very often possible. I design the bike based on the customer’s body dimensions, and how the bike is to be used. I double check the design by getting the contact points of their current bikes as well as feedback on how they feel these bikes fit, ride and handle. I will sometimes ask for photos of the rider on the bike just to see how they tend to hold themselves. All of this info, along with the answers to an extensive questionnaire I send out, gives me a very full image of the rider and their needs.
RKP: Let’s talk about geometry: Would you say your all your bikes have a consistent ride that is your signature, or do you vary your geometry based on the customer’s preferences and needs?
DK: Some of both. I think all of my bikes ride like a ‘Kirk’ regardless of what the intended end use is. They all have that same Kirk DNA. I feel the most important thing is to be sure that the bike will fit and handle well considering how and where it is to be used. From there the numbers are picked to give a certain ride in those conditions. I like my bikes to have enough stability to give confidence and at the same time have a lot of ‘snap’ and jump’ to give the bike spring and life. This is done by not only getting the geometry right but also picking the proper tubes for the rider.
I feel very strongly about forks and every Kirk frame goes out the door with it’s made to match Kirk fork. I do not offer off the shelf forks. Each one is designed and built to match the frame’s geometry and the desired ride qualities. It’s next to impossible to get the handling and alignment just right when ½ of the design was done by someone else who knows nothing about the needs to the rider. The frame and fork need to be designed together to work properly together and to give the proper handling and ride.
RKP: Who does your paint?
DK: The one and only Joe Bell paints everything I build.
RKP: How long is the wait for new customers?
As of January 2010 my wait is about 11 months from receipt of deposit to delivery.
RKP: What’s your pricing like?
DK: I offer two different levels of build. My standard lugged frameset sells for $2900 and a fillet brazed frameset is $3000. I also offer the JK Series names after my father John Kirk. They differ from my standard frames in that they use a bespoke blend of lightweight tubes (953, S3 and special tubes Reynolds makes for the JK series). I offer the JK Special road frameset for $3600 and the JK Cross frameset for $3700. All these prices include a single color Joe Bell Signature paint job. If the client wants more elaborate paint that is done at an upcharge.
RKP: What keeps the work fresh for you, gets you up in the morning (or out in the evening) and excited to build?
DK: I work a pretty standard work schedule and I do my best to never work too late or start too early and I never ever work weekends. I do my best work when I am fresh and rested and wanting more. This is hard to do sometimes because I really like the work itself. I love going over the tube bin and selecting the tubes to be used in a given bike and laying them all out for inspection and letting the process happen. It’s this process that keeps me excited and motivated. I’ve built thousands of bikes over the past 21 years and it’s always been the process that motivates me.
RKP: You’re part of the Framebuilder’s Collective. What was the motivation to get involved in an association devoted to what can be a pretty solitary craft?
DK: Can you say “herding cats?” I am one of the eight founding members of TFC and I originally became interested in forming a group after spending so many hours in the shop talking with Carl Strong. We were frustrated by the lack of resources for the new builder and by seeing so many talented and skilled builders hang their shingle, build some very nice bikes and then go out of business because they didn’t know how the whole business thing worked. And at the same time we saw plenty of other hobby builders hang their shingle when they were not at all ready to build bikes for paying customers. There is just no professional standard for building or business practices in this industry and each bad business transaction a customer has, and every poorly constructed handbuilt frame out there reflects poorly on the whole group of us professional builders. We want to do what we can to promote professional building and business practices and to further promote the image of the handbuilt frame.
RKP: What’s your life away from building like? Are you racing or do you have outside interests?
DK: I love to be outside and moving quickly. I ride my bike as much as possible in the mountains surrounding Bozeman, I snowboard and cross country ski and I race autocross. The autocross (also known as SCCA Solo) gives me that competitive rush I seem to need in a big way. I’m proud to say that I‘m two time state champion racing a Birkin S3 in the modified class and this year I’ll be moving into a 2005 Lotus Elise and trying to up my game. I like the process of learning to set up and drive the car at it’s limits. It’s always the process. I also love spending time with my wife Karin hanging out in the greenhouse or the garden, watching the plants grow. There’s not much better in life than getting back from a dirt road ride, cracking open a good dark beer and hanging out in the garden watching our four cats play and chase each other around. A good thing in every way.
Images pilfered liberally from Kirk Frameowrks
It’s only natural that a bike meant for longer days would be designed to eat vibration the way a whale sucks down krill. Specialized includes its Bar Phat bar tape with gel inserts to further cut vibration at the handlebar, before lawnmower hand has a chance to become a problem. This tape, of course, is wrapped around a wing bar, easing the degree to which your hands have to wrap around the bar.
The wheels are Roval’s Roubaix, a modern answer to the 32-spoke, 3-cross wheel that remains the favorite of pros racing the event that gave rise to this bike’s name—Paris-Roubaix. The wheels feature 24 spokes front, 30 spokes rear, two-cross, bladed spokes with machined aluminum hubs featuring a Swiss-made freehub rolling on a Specialized 25mm-wide Roubaix tire.
So what else can you do to reduce vibration transmission? How about a Specialized Body Geometry Toupé gel saddle?
Zertz inserts, Bar Phat, wing bar, old-school wheels (sorta), big tires and gel-filled saddle, it all adds up to as many different responses to vibration as I can think of. You might say a no-stone-unturned approach to reducing vibration.
Reducing vibration does more than just increase comfort, though. It reduces muscle fatigue and has the power to make five hours feel like four, leaving you fresher at the end of a long ride. This probably isn’t as big a deal for young riders, but for riders who have celebrated their 50th birthday, nerve pinches and back and neck issues become very real obstacles to comfort if not outright completing long rides.
I don’t want to go too far into the parts spec for this bike; it would be unfair to Specialized to judge the bike relative to my like or dislike of Shimano componentry. There are, however, some important points to touch on.
The Roubaix is spec’d with a compact drivetrain. The crank is Specialized’s carbon fiber S-Works model with 50/34t rings. It is mated to a Shimano Ultegra 12/27t cassette. When one considers that this bike’s most likely consumer is a non-racer, the choice of a compact crank and widely spaced cassette is an entirely logical pairing. Why not give the bike gearing meant for mortals?
The shifters and derailleurs come from the 7900 Dura-Ace lineup, while the brake calipers are Ultegra. The only real fault I can find with the bike is in the Ultegra calipers; they simply don’t offer the same stopping power and modulation as the Dura-Ace grabbers, but that’s something I’m aware of due to riding different bikes. Someone without the same frame of reference won’t have any issue with the Ultegra brakes as they do an adequate, if not pro-worthy performance. On the other hand, the mix of Dura-Ace and Ultegra parts helps bring the cost of the Roubaix Pro in at $5000, as opposed to the cost of the Roubaix SL2, which runs $2200 more. Heck, that’s another bike!
So what’s the Roubaix like out on the road? I think it’s simply one of the most comfortable bikes on the market. People often confuse vibration damping with road shock. The Roubaix won’t fill potholes, hide rocks or smooth driveway ramps, but it has a very real ability to hit everything you ride over with 300 grit sandpaper. It won’t make every road glassy smooth, but it will definitely take the edge off any rough road.
Vertical compliance is an elusive quality to track. I don’t often believe I’ve found it in today’s carbon fiber bikes due to their incredible stiffness. Consider that Dave Kirk, the builder who invented the Serotta DKS suspension, said that suspension system, even when equipped with the softest of the three silicone dampers included with the bike, only saw 1-2 millimeters of vertical travel in the chainstays. I’m sure you experience more vertical compliance with an old Vitus or Alan than any of the current crop of carbon wonders. However, I’ve identified occasions when there was too little vertical compliance and found a bike to be chattery on rougher roads. Yes, a bike can be too stiff. That said, this bike doesn’t have nearly as much vertical compliance as an old Alan or Vitus. I wish that were enough to put the conversation about vertical compliance to rest, but it won’t.
The debate still rages on about whether energy is lost when a bike flexes, particularly when it flexes at the bottom bracket. I’ve got my answer, and had it long ago. For new riders, the answer is much simpler, though. A stiff bike allows someone still developing their skills to apply more force to the pedals with fewer hazardous overtones. On the Roubaix, any power you put into the bike will cause it to continue in the direction it is pointed with nothing so much as increased haste.
Torsional flex is yet another dimension of frame response that can be problematic. In the extreme, torsional flex can make a bike really hard to handle. Anyone who ever rode a Schwinn Twin tandem will tell you it handled like al dente pasta. Early carbon fiber forks from Europe (I’m specifically excepting the Kestrel fork) flexed enough in hard cornering to alter my line. I experienced no torsional flex that I could comment on with this bike. With its enormous-diameter tubes (I could fit a Navel Orange in the down tube) this thing tracked as straight and true as a sheet of drywall, even in aggressive cornering.
The bigger deal with the Roubaix is its handling. When I began building my vocabulary of bikes through ongoing shootouts and reviews, I quickly picked up on a theme of preference. I liked bikes that had really calm manners. They didn’t tend to feel too exciting when I first got on them, but after four hours you appreciated the way they held a line and when on a descent they made 45 mph feel like 35. And because your perception of speed is often the great decider for when you hit the brakes, any bike that makes you feel more in control and less like you’re doing something reckless is going to inspire confidence and a feeling of safety. Heck, you’re likely to go even faster.
The Roubaix seems a first cousin in its handling attributes to some of my old favorites. When I look back on the best descending bikes I’ve ever ridden, many of them have been Italian. CPSC rules prevent American bike manufacturers that deliver complete bikes (as opposed to framesets) from designing with a bottom bracket drop of more than about 7cm; you’ve got to calculate pedal-down lean-angle clearance very carefully to get any more BB drop than that. As I mentioned, Specialized squeezed another 1.5mm of BB drop into the design; it may not seem like much, but even that tiny amount makes the bike easier to lean into turns.
Out on long rides, the easy handling of the Roubaix is a pleasant departure from the twitchy reflexes of many bikes. You can sit up and look around, enjoy yourself, see the sights—and not worry that you’ll soon run off the road. Is there a more appropriate bike to take on a century traversing back roads of questionable maintenance? Maybe not.
The issue of weight must be addressed or it will seem like I left out the be-all, end-all number. It’s not, but that number is 16.06. Given the pavé-capable wheels and tires spec’d on this bike, that’s a very impressive number.
The number of people who enjoy road riding has has increased by multiplicatives in the last 10 years thanks to charity rides, Lance Armstrong and a host of other factors. When you consider how many of them joined the USCF (their numbers are up, but they haven’t doubled) you realize a very small percentage of newer roadies have moved into what many folks think is a much more aggressive expression of the sport. The Roubaix is an appropriate response for tens of thousands of riders who don’t need the agility of a bike like the Tarmac.
The 2010 Roubaix does feature some different parts spec from the 2009. That it has taken me so long to write this review is something of a disservice to Specialized. I’m sure you’ll be able to find this bike on the floor at many bike shops, but I’ll note the differences in spec for the new season. The big changes are as follows: a Dura-Ace 50/34t crank is substituted for the Specialized carbon fiber model. An Ultegra front derailleur replaces the Dura-Ace model. An even wider-spaced 11-26t cassette is exchanged for the 12-27t one. A narrower, 23mm tire replaces the 25mm one; both feature 120 tpi casings with Flak Jacket protection that seem impervious to all but land mines. Finally and most significantly, the Roval wheels on the ’09 bike are replaced with Roval Fusee SL wheels, a noticeably lighter set. The 2010 bike will weigh closer to 15.5 lbs. out of the box.
As a reflection of the population, grand touring bikes ought to be dominating road bike sales. Specialized did much to remove the stigma from these bikes by offering the Roubaix in carbon fiber and giving it top quality parts spec. In a world dominated by bikes made for American crit racing, the Roubaix is one of the most intelligently designed bikes I’ve ever ridden. Easily one of my all-time favorite bikes.
As I did with bikes I reviewed at BKW, I’ll be scoring bikes on a 100-point system. It will take into account every facet of the bike: price, design, effectiveness for given consumer, parts spec, fit considerations, handling, weight, stiffness, road feel and even availability, the idea being a $2000 bike has the same chance of scoring 100 points as a $10,000 bike if it accomplishes its consumer-oriented goals.
Specialized Roubaix Pro: 94 points