Some years back I was in an editorial meeting for a bike magazine when two of my colleagues suggested the publication for which we toiled needed to embrace bicycle commuters and the double-century crowd. It could have been a disastrous move for the struggling media property. Imagine Bobcat Goldthwait abandoning stand-up comedy to devote his time and energy to finger puppetry and you get the idea.
Somehow (I’m still now sure quite how I managed), I was able to dodge the editorial suicide by arguing: Commuters weren’t clamoring for bike magazines filled with tips on how to get to work faster/in better style/with greater training benefit/at less expense. The double-century set, no matter how dedicated they were as cyclists, were a population fractional to the size of the century riding set. The primary expression of the roadie lifestyle were the thousands of people doing group rides week-in and week-out and those were the people our advertisers were trying to reach, whether they knew it or not.
For the entirety of my life I’ve been at the shallow end of some bell curve. Hell, just being a cyclist confirms that. The irony here is that as a roadie who lives for his local group rides, I am, for once, the middle of the bell curve. For reasons I can’t explain, I can look at a marketing plan or advertising campaign meant to reach roadies and I can tell you instantly if it will resonate or not. I can’t do that with anything else. I’m not in the middle of the curve for anything else.
A strange offshoot of that savant-like talent is that I can also look at geometry charts and tell you how a bike will handle. My recent post on the Roubaix-edition Felt F1 brought up some interesting questions both in comments and email. The most obvious and direct question is why Felt won’t be marketing that bike to the cycling public. Well, there are two reasons why not. The first is a simple one, at least, seemingly. The Roubaix F1 has a bottom bracket lower than 27cm and that violates a fundamental CPSC rule. In broad (very broad) strokes, that regulation says that a bike must be able to lean a certain amount with its inside pedal down without striking the pedal on the ground. The math ordinarily works out to a cheap rat trap pedal plus 170mm cranks equals 7cm of BB drop. A few sizes (56cm and smaller) of the Specialized Roubaix feature a BB drop of 7.2cm. I believe they manage this because of the 25mm tires spec’d with the Roubaix. Now Felt could get around the rule either by spec’ing a 25mm tire (like Specialized) or by marketing it just as a frameset; BB height rules don’t apply to framesets, which is why Serotta and Richard Sachs can build frames with a 8cm of BB drop.
I need to interject an interesting aside here: Trek’s new Domane has a surprisingly low bottom bracket. In most sizes the BB drop is 8cm. On larger frames, bikes with presumably longer cranks, the BB height decreases to 7.8cm. How they are getting this past the CPSC I don’t know, but I intend to ask. They also spec the bike with 25mm tires. Will it accept 28s? Likewise, I intend to find out.
But back to the larger point, the bell curve. When you’re a custom builder you don’t have to worry about the middle of the bell curve. If you’re going to NAHBS, you’re going to build a randonnee bike to show because it gives you a great chance to build tons of bike bling into the frameset. From trick routing of generator hub wires and Di2 cables to well-integrated racks, lights and fenders, they are a great way to show off a builder’s chops. But if you actually show up at a randonnee event here or overseas (especially overseas) the riders who want to make it into that top 20 percent of finishing times are on lightweight carbon machines.
Now, back to the real(er) world. Imagine that a product manager, say one from Cannondale, did some dirt-road ride like D2R2. And let’s say he decided to get behind a dirt-road spec for a new edition of the Synapse. And let’s, for the sake of fantasy or argument (your choice), say he managed to lay his hands on enough long-reach calipers to outfit all those bikes with brakes that didn’t conflict with the 28mm tires he spec’d for it. What happens if the market for dirt-road road bikes favors Specialized for reasons of spec, price or market affinity? Heck, it doesn’t even have to be another big company; it could be that the market simply favors custom steel builders. Let’s suppose that Cannondale runs 1000 of those bikes, just to be conservative. What happens if they don’t sell? Well, they get discounted later in the season. Depending on just how many are sitting in the warehouse, they might have to discount them a bunch, in which case they could be looking at taking a loss on the bikes. You can guess where this leads: Take too much of a loss on a bike that was a gamble to begin with and you risk more than your employer’s capital; you risk your job. And if you want to find out just how fickle the market it, just ask a rep from one of the bigger bike companies about color choice and inventory. It’s not uncommon to find that one color (such as blue) sells like Ecstasy at a rave, while the other color choice (lime green, for instance) is sitting in the warehouse, gathering dust.
Okay, let’s give Debbie Downer a chance to take a bow. The reality is a good bit brighter than that. The bike market is a good bit larger than it used to be. This is the legacy of the Lance Effect. Bunches of people who bought bikes because of Lance had the good fortune to join clubs, get a decent introduction to the sport and stayed with it. That bigger market has had a curious effect on what’s offered. (Okay, Debbie, we’re not quite finished; could you come back out a sec?) Factories making high-end product struggle to produce all of the frames, forks and components necessary to deliver bikes to bike shops each spring. You may think that consumer choice is the primary driver behind Cannondale offering the SuperSix EVO in Di2, 7900 and Red is to give consumers choices at different price points. That would be only partly true. Even Cannondale can’t get enough 7900 to equip all of those bikes with Shimano’s top mechanical group. Of course, these choices create another layer of risk for both the bike companies and retailers. What if consumers just don’t want to spend $8k on a carbon bike with Dura-Ace, but they’re fine with spending $9k on one with Red?
Let’s hope that shop has a crystal ball.
So that’s the minefield. But consider that we have bikes like the Specialized Roubaix, the Volagi Liscio, the Synapse (Cannondale) and now the Trek Domane (which is a replacement for the failed Pilot, oops). Our choices are increasing and the quality of what we ride has leapt. That’s a lot to celebrate. And it’s easier than ever before to find a custom builder thanks to the Interwebs. Here’s the thing about the bell curve: If the population grows, it grows. As events like D2R2 gain in popularity, more products that make those events more enjoyable will hit the market.
The efforts to tame the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix have included everything from running lower tire pressure in 28mm tires to wrapping the handlebar with foam pipe insulation and even using cyclocross bikes. The cyclocross bikes have been a less than stellar option for a few reasons. First, they’ve been chosen because the standard race bikes from the teams’ sponsors have allowed clearance for 28mm tires; in some cases they won’t even allow 25mm tires. Second, they feature geometries that include high bottom brackets (for pedal clearance) when the average Roubaix rider wants a lower BB to make the bike easier to handle over the bumps.
Felt has taken a novel approach to meeting the needs of their sponsored riders. For this year’s Paris-Roubaix, the Argos-Shimano team rode on a special run of the company’s F1 frames. How these frames differ from a standard F1 might surprise you. Unchanged is the bike’s layup and stiffness, which many might guess would be the first concession made to the cobbles. In fact, the changes are deeper in the DNA of the machine.
Felt’s engineering team changed the geometry of the F1—giving it handling and tire clearance perfect for the cobbles—without cutting new molds. Seems like an impossible trick, huh? Let’s cover the changes to the geometry and the rationale for it and then we’ll get into just how they did it.
The F1 seen above features head and seat tube angles a full degree slacker than the stock bikes. They also have a 10mm longer front center and 13mm longer chain stays to keep the weight distribution virtually unchanged. Felt’s engineers also managed to drop the bikes’ BB height by 3mm even after the addition of 28mm tires. And of course, the modified the fork and the rear triangle to create clearance for those bigger tires.
Again, the amazing thing here is that they managed all these changes without cutting new molds for bikes that will essentially be raced once a year. So how’d they do it?
They designed new dropouts that moved the rear wheel back and up (relative to the old position) which dropped the rear end of the bike and increased the wheelbase of the bike. Up front, new dropouts raised the fork crown and increased the rake, compensating for the decrease in head tube angle to keep trail consistent. The slacker seat tube angle allows riders to sit back a bit more, shifting some weight off their upper bodies to give their hands, arms and shoulders a bit of a break.
And to compensate for the changes to the fork and rear triangle, non-series Shimano long-reach calipers handle the stopping duties.
This isn’t the first time Felt has done this. In 2008 when they were sponsoring Garmin-Chipotle, which included Magnus Backstedt pictured above, Felt produced a run of F frames for the team. Those frames also featured Felt’s “Superstiff” layup, a feature that wasn’t required this time around as the new F1 is both lighter than the previous F1 (standard layup) and stiffer than the Superstiff layup.
While Trek and Specialized realize excellent marketing benefits from putting their sponsored teams on the new Domane and established Roubaix, Felt’s approach yields a bike more purpose built to the racers’ requirements. Both the Roubaix and Domane feature more trail than their racier counterparts. What’s most surprising here is that more companies haven’t had the insight to create a second set of dropouts to give their top-flight race bikes more versatility. Maybe this will help illustrate just how bright Felt’s head of engineering, Jeff Soucek, and his team are.
The world changed when the bike industry moved to carbon fiber for fabricating most high-end bicycle frames. The shifts were myriad. Many of the bigger companies began employing engineers for the first time ever. Most of the bigger companies either started producing what was effectively their own tubing for the first time or had someone else produce tubing for them, to their spec. The way marketing materials were written changed as they sought to attempt to both hide what materials they used even as they tried to pitch the objective advantage their materials offered the buyer.
It was a helluva change.
Think back. For those of you who went through a steel frame or three before buying a first carbon fiber frame, you’ll recall that bike companies, as well as small framebuilders, all touted just whose tubing they used. So much so, they put a sticker on the seat tube announcing just what they used. It was anything other than a secret.
How companies like Trek, Specialized, Felt, Zipp and others deal with their materials is very different. They effectively create their own alloy by buying carbon fiber from different mills and blending it within their frames as they see fit. To make matters worse, when you try to talk to the folks charged with media relations, one will talk about sourcing from Toray (one of the big mills), while another will talk about modulus and tell you the source doesn’t matter, while another will say modulus doesn’t matter, compaction and resin are the issues. It’s maddening.
Without the benefit of that tubing sticker, bike companies go to great lengths to check out the work of their competitors. They have two primary tools at their disposal. The first is the saw. They will cut frames apart to see what’s inside. They can get a look at exactly what fibers are being used. The other method involves baking. A frame can be put in an oven and baked apart; all you have to do is exceed the resin’s cure temperature. What it yields is a bunch of sheets of carbon fiber. You can see the exact shape and position of ever sheet used. Unfortunately, this method of investigation comes with a downside. You can’t tell what any of the sheets of fiber were; there’s no telling if they were intermediate modulus, high modulus or ultra-high modulus.
I’ve long admired Cervelo’s work, even if I have found some of their designs less than attractive, or comfortable. The SLC-SL remains one of the most unpleasant to ride bikes I’ve ever swung a leg over. But with a pair of Zipps, it was a very fast bike. I found myself constantly scrubbing speed inside the group. What was more impressive about the bike was its torsional stiffness. The bike, despite its aerodynamic-profile tubes, didn’t twist to any appreciable degree. I’ve been on many similarly shaped frames that would twist under a hard acceleration even while firmly ensconced in the saddle.
What elevated my regard for Cervelo’s work a few years ago came not from anything their PR people told me, not from a big win aboard one of their bikes and certainly not from some bike magazine review. An engineer for one of their competitors had baked apart a frame and told me of the sophisticated layup they were using. That there were places where he’d have loved to know what fiber they were using to achieve the stiffness and strength they managed at the bottom bracket. The frame was too light, too stiff and too strong to make the answer easy or obvious.
This guy was unimpressed with some of the work he was seeing from the big three. He talked about how you’d see stacks of fiber maybe five or 10 sheets thick grabbed and placed. Maybe with decent care, maybe not. In his view it was the downside of having to achieve the production numbers they needed. He said with Cervelo you could tell that each sheet was placed individually. You can’t make frames as quickly that way, he told me. But they break less often and usually offer the rider better quality and improved stiffness because the sheets are perfectly oriented for their intended role.
The conversation (actually, I’ve had a similar conversation with two other engineers not employed by the Canadians) made me sit up and take note of Cervelo in a fresh way. It also gave me a new perspective on my previous experience with the SLC-SL. Maybe some of that incredible stiffness was due to great care. Huh.
Since then, I’ve ridden every Cervelo I can get my hands on. I’ve had a day on the S5 (I wrote about that here) and a couple of days on the old R3 SL. This spring Cervelo sent me the new R3. I rode it through the spring, summer and into the fall.
I didn’t want to send it back.
Tomorrow: Part II
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.
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.
In the 21st Century the call of the Sirens has been replaced by the opportunity to ride almost any bike you might desire. How else can we explain what could get so many non-desert dwellers to congregate at a park where it was 104 degrees in the shade?
With so many choices, it’s tough to decide just where to start. For me, I knew I needed to check out Felt’s redesigned F-series. While the new flagship F1 was not yet available, I did ride the F2. In a 56, frame weight is reported to be about 850g, which is roughly 50g less than last year’s F1. It’s also stiffer than last year’s F1 and while they have the numbers to back that claim up, I’ve spent some time on the F1 and can tell you, the changes due to the new design and new construction methods make the improvements more than apparent.
This was my first opportunity to ride the Specialized Roubaix SL3. Many bikes achieve vibration damping through the use of lots of intermediate modulus carbon fiber. Ultimately, those bikes feel rather dead. Thanks to the Zertz dampers, long wheelbase and carbon layup, the Roubaix SL3 didn’t feel dead so much as muted. It was extraordinarily stiff, must stiffer than could be achieved were the bike built from intermediate modulus carbon fiber exclusively.
Last year, the Tarmac SL3 was my pick of the litter. I really thought it has the best combination of road feel, stiffness and handling of any bike I rode. I took a short spin on it for comparison purposes, just to make drawing a comparison to a known benchmark easier.
In 1978, long before sealed bearing headsets bearing his name became the headset of choice, Chris King was building steel frames in his Santa Barbara shop. Today, frames bearing his Cielo Cycles monicker are once again being sold to shops. Jay Sycip (yes, of the Sycip brothers fame) oversees production on the bikes and worked with Chris on the geometry.
This Cielo is a great example of why people buy steel bikes. It had terrific stiffness; it was absolutely stiffer than I thought it would be. It also featured crisp, precise handling and Jay revealed each frame features its own fork in order to keep trail constant. The upshot is that everyone gets the same riding experience, which is really special. This is one of the very best steel frames I’ve ridden in the last eight years, if not the outright best.
The head tube and seatstays featured some lovely polished stainless steel touches.
Cervelo’s R3SL is one of a handful of bikes that seemingly everyone asks about. Any time I talk to someone interested in compliance and ride quality, the R3SL is one of the first bikes they ask about. People have good reason to be curious. While my test-ride bike was a little small for me, I was impressed with the combination of stiffness and ride quality.
Trek has come a long way since the days of the OCLV series bikes. The new Madone 6.0 uses carbon fiber superior to anything the company has used before. On the road, it definitely had the best ride quality of any Trek I’d ever ridden, not to mention stiffness that can rival many bikes. But while the other bikes I rode had handling that was quick but predictable, the Madone 6.0 felt a touch nervous, as if there wasn’t enough weight on the front wheel. That said, the longer I rode the bike, the more accustomed to the handling I became, but my preference is for bikes with fewer nerves.
Overall, the big surprise of the day was the Cielo, but the most impressive bike of the bunch was the Felt F2. Its combination of rarely achieved stiffness, kid-glove sensitivity and masterful handling led me to the conclusion that most riders could easily be fooled into thinking this was Felt’s top-of-the-line bike if they never saw the decals.
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?
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
This past spring, I undertook an experiment. I asked Specialized to loan me two bicycles for a review. Not a shootout, mind you, but a review concerned with differentiation. As someone who has penned more than a few shootouts, the competition always results in a winner, which also means there are a few losers as well.
In my experience there aren’t many bikes that I’d call losers.
My point was to spend some serious time with the Specialized Tarmac and Roubaix models and try, in the clearest possible terms, to review them based on what each bike is and is not. They are different bikes, but the real question is how so? Specialized wouldn’t be offering two different bikes with the same basic carbon construction and the same componentry unless they offered reasonably differentiated experiences. Sure, you can rely on their marketing copy, but they have a vested interest in convincing you that there is a difference and one of those bikes is more appropriate to you than the other.
I went to Specialized because they were the first big company to offer two road bikes of different geometries with the same componentry and carbon fiber lay up. Prior to the introduction of the Roubaix, none of the bigger bike companies had offered a high-end road bike of alternate geometry.
Specialized has framed the difference as “competition” versus “endurance.” They aren’t bad terms, but they are terms I haven’t been comfortable using because if I discuss the difference between Cannondale’s Super Six and Synapse, then I appear to be examining two Cannondale bikes through a Specialized lens. That’s bound to go over as well as cyanide in soda.
There’s a basic question floating around this discussion. What does it matter? Why care?
In my case, it stems from a concern I’ve had about most American-designed road bikes for as long as I’ve been reviewing road bikes. The product managers and engineers at most American bike companies (at least the ones I’ve met) are current or former racers. Most carried a Cat. 1 or 2 license. The geometry of those companies’ top road bikes tends to excel at the needs of the racer.
Counter to that was my experience with most bikes imported from European manufacturers. Relatively speaking, most had a longer wheelbase, lower bottom bracket and more trail. They tended to carve lazier arcs through the turns of a criterium unless you countersteered with a bit of force but their easy maneuverability gave riders a calm, confident sense on descents.
The more I rode different bikes, the more I came to prefer those bikes that came from Europe, especially the Italian ones. I often wondered to what degree the riding and racing circumstances of the bike’s designer influenced how the bike rode. It took years and there were no super-clear answers, but eventually, I heard enough for me to believe I had confirmation of my curiosity. The importers for a few of the Italian lines did report that the bikes were designed to descend well in the Dolomites. And on more than one occasion American bike designers told me how important it was that the bottom bracket be high enough to allow a racer to pedal through a corner.
But now there is a new category of road bike and the larger philosophy behind why a company might want to offer a road bike with a different take on handling than their primary offering really hasn’t been discussed much. I’ve heard them called disease ride bikes, century bikes and as Specialized calls them, endurance road bikes.
If we don’t really know what to call them, or can’t agree on what to call them, then their place in the market is as marginal as that of a Velcro water slide. And to me, there is an immense value to this emerging category.
I had to look to the automotive world to find a parallel, but once I did it was billboard obvious: Sport vs. Grand Touring. For most of us, we need no one to help with the distinction of a sedan as opposed to a sports car, four doors instead of two.
The metaphor works on almost every level. A sedan is about a more comfortable ride and more leisurely handling; it doesn’t have the sharp cornering of a sports car, handling that can leave a driver feeling exhausted after a long trip on the freeway. And the stiffer suspension of most sports cars? An apt comparison as well. Most of the bikes that fall under this Grand Touring umbrella have a longer wheelbase and slacker head tube angle to give the rider a bit more vibration damping if not actual shock absorption.
Okay, so you’re not going to put a baby seat in the back or take everyone in the office to lunch, but you get the idea.
So here’s my thesis: In the way that compact bars are a smart response for those who don’t have pro-like flexibility and compact gearing is appropriate for those who can’t ride tempo at 28 mph four hours at a time, GT-geometry bikes are appropriate to the sort of riding that most recreational riders do.
In the next week I’ll be posting my reviews of the Specialized Tarmac Pro and Roubaix Pro and will offer a wrap-up afterward with what I learned from the experience.
But Doesn’t Interbike Need Trek and Specialized (and Now Cannondale and Felt) to Survive? The Critical Mass Theory.
A lot of industry observers, including me, have despaired for the future of Interbike without some of the industry’s most powerful players on hand. (To be fair, Specialized has maintained a good-faith presence at the show for a number of years, and used that presence to their advantage this year to showcase their Globe line).
Well, those observers, including me, were wrong. For the first time in awhile, retailer numbers at Interbike ’09 were up.
So, Short Answer: No.
There’s plenty of retailers and retailer dollars left over, even after the big companies have taken their slice of the pie, something on the order of half the total industry budget for bikes alone and far more than that for equipment; not to mention plenty of suppliers who want those dollars. As long as those numbers maintain a kind of critical financial mass, Interbike will do just fine, thank you very much. In fact, a number of distributors prefer Interbike without the Big Guns there, because it means that much more retailer attention for themselves.
The Longer Answer to this question involves a complex set of dynamics I call Bike 2.0 and discuss in more detail here. This bit may be a little, ah, statistically dense for most folks, so enter at your own risk. Basically, Bike 2.0 as of 2010 is a lot like how the bike industry would have developed over the past 30 years had the Schwinn leviathan not swum onto the sandy shores of the mountain bike era and promptly collapsed, crushed under its own bone-breaking weight like a freshly beached whale.
Meanwhile, Trek and Specialized (and Giant and Felt and Cervélo and Cannondale and other companies who go the dealer show route) have reached their own equilibrium in the one-upmanship earlier-than-thou (also known as the “get-to-the-retailers’-checkbook-first”) game. Presumably they might want to show new product even earlier than late July, but they’re prevented from doing so by three reasons:
- Shimano’s next-year prototypes aren’t available in sufficient quantities yet. And Shimano (not to mention frame factories) can’t have production protos available much sooner than late July because their own production backs up against the Asian Lunar (Chinese) New Year, a two-or-more-week rout celebrated sometime between late January and mid-February, depending. (For 2009, it started Jan 26th; for next year, not until Valentine’s Day). The holiday leaves not just factories but entire towns deserted, rather like the nations of France and Italy in the first two weeks of August each summer.
- They can barely get retailers to show up in July by offering free airline tickets (for the high rollers, anyway) and free beer. Besides,
- I think there’s some of big bike race scheduled that month anyway. Hard to get those expensive A-List athletes to show up much before August, anyway.
And the punchline to the early dealer presentations is this: retailers aren’t stupid. After just a couple of years being trotted around the block, they know to hold off their orders until they’ve seen everything their Alpha suppliers have to offer. And then they hold off another big chunk until Interbike anyway, just in case something better shows up.
So what’s the big driver for Trek and Specialized (and now other companies besides) to spend literal millions of collective dollars schlepping bikes, retailers, and their own overworked staffs all over the country in a frenzied rush to accomplish nothing concrete, sales-wise? The answer is simple: retailer attention. By putting on their own show, the big guns can get hours and even days of buyers’ undivided attention, present their products in the very best light, and do a little beer-drinking together while they’re at it.
The late July/early August part is mostly because it’s the earliest they can possibly do so.
The Bottom Line. Barring another Bio-style power grab (which you won’t even find references to on the Interwebs anymore), Interbike is doing just fine where (and when) it is.
Why Las Vegas? The Black Hole Theory.
Nielsen (the company that wons Interbike and a whole bunch of other shows besides) loves Las Vegas because it’s close enough for dealers from SoCal to drive in, and enticing (and cheap) enough to get less-local retailers to fly in. Plus from the show management’s point of view, it’s easy to work with: centralized services, a very effective infrastructure, and—given the fact that Nielsen hosts a half-dozen other shows there each year—god only knows what kind of illicit perks, kickbacks, comps, showgirls, drugs, leather-clad teenage boys, free show tix, in-room massuesses, and deposits into secret bank accounts in the Lesser Dutch Antilles are going on in the back room.
The Short Answer: It’s one of the few places big enough that retailers will actually go to. At least that’s what Interbike thinks. Plus there’s a huge inertial pull—sort of a reality-distorting black hole—surrounding Las Vegas that sucks all other thinking past its Event Horizon.
The Longer Answer. Interest in moving Interbike to someplace, anyplace, other than Vegas comes up every couple of years. And Interbike does a survey.
Suppliers, for the record, uniformly hate Vegas—the heat, the dust, the unions, the prices, the sheer budget-numbing cost of moving all their people and stuff halfway across the country for five days. Retailers tend to hate it for most of the same reasons, plus it’s a crappy venue for bikes and a crappy excuse for a vacation besides.
But Interbike and the NBDA claim that a huge number of retailers prefer Las Vegas to the other locations big enough to hold the whole extravaganza under one roof (currently Denver and the new facility in Anaheim). So back to Vegas we go, year after year.
Interestingly, I’ve been trying literally for years to find out who these retailers are who demand Las Vegas as their destination of choice, just to see what kind of creature could like both bikes and that curious tumbleweed-infested patch of desert called Sin City. I’m sure they exist, these retailers, but in thirty years in this business I have yet to meet a single one.
The folks I see drinking and gambling far into the night (and sometimes when I get up early to make a 7:00 meeting, into the next morning, too) tend to be low-level employees on both the wholesale and retail sides of the business who treat a once-a-year trip to Vegas as a sort of combination paid vacation and five-day drunk. Store owners and senior distributor types have too much work going on to mess much with stuff like that. For them, Interbike is the toughest work week of the year, and one that comes after thirty or even forty days of show prep (or, in the case of retailers, summer sales frenzy) without a day off.
No wonder half the industry is sick the week after Interbike. It’s not the germs as much as it is sheer exhaustion.
The Bottom Line. Yeah, it sucks, and everyone knows it. But we’re going there again next year, and the next, and every year for the foreseeable future. And some people seem to like it. Besides, what do you think Interbike is about, anyway—selling bikes?