I’m going to be candid. I think it’s fair to say that categorically the head tubes on race-oriented road bikes are too short. To be clear, I’m referring to the bikes that the big pro teams are riding, models like the Trek Madone, Specialized Tarmac, Giant TCR and Cervelo R5, what I typically refer to as “sport” bikes. That’s why when Specialized introduced the Roubaix nearly 10 years ago I concluded that it was one of the best carbon-fiber road bikes on the market designed for real people.
Designing bikes for the needs or at least the perceived needs of top level pros has proven to be a double-edged sword. Thanks to the input from some of the strongest riders in the world you and I have the good fortune to ride bikes that are stiffer under pedaling forces and in cornering. Some of them have remained remarkably comfortable; others, less so. What I continue to marvel at is the incredible diversity of experiences out there. Not only are the significantly greater differences between top-of-the-line road bikes for most brands than there were back when everyone’s top road bike was made from steel, there’s also the fact that now many brands offer a sport bike, a grand touring bike, as well as an aero road bike. The interesting detail in this is that for most brands that offer all three models or at least a race bike and a grand touring model, the race bike still is the sales leader.
There’s an interesting back story, not just to this bike, but to this category, because the simple truth is that when Specialized introduced the Roubaix, they didn’t just launch a bike, they launched a category. If we get in the Wayback Machine® and set it for 1984, the bikes we will see in the better bike shops will have a bunch of details in common. They’ll have a long wheelbase (100cm or more for a 58cm frame), a lowish bottom bracket (all the Italian stuff will be 26.5cm or lower) and a moderate amount of trail (5.9cm was common). They’ll also have a stunning amount of flex by today’s standards. The Roubaix is essentially that bike, just lighter and stiffer. In other words, the Roubaix is a bike that—from a geometry standpoint—has been around a long time.
So what changed?
Well, back then what a Roubaix is was just a road bike. However, we can say with considerable authority that the bike industry has chased stiffness ever since. A funny thing happened along the way. Stiffer tube sets allow a builder to give a bike quicker geometry. So as bikes got stiffer, we make them more nimble because that’s what racers wanted. This is evolution at its finest. Descent with modification means that by the time the Roubaix was introduced, nothing on the market handled like that anymore. Sure, there were custom builders still producing bikes like that, but there wasn’t anything on a bike shop showroom floor like the Roubaix. It took the introduction of a production model to turn this into a category. For that, Specialized in general, and Mike Sinyard in specific, deserve a lot of credit.
Even though bikes became quicker handling thanks to ever-stiffer frames, the opposite wasn’t untrue. Full points to Sinyard for being the first guy to realize that you could use top-shelf carbon fiber to build a light, stiff frame that handled like the old Italian stage-race bikes.
Since Specialized introduced the Roubaix I’ve been pretty vocal in touting it as an example of the bike that most people should be riding. I’ve often seen people on group rides overreact in situations because they’re on a quick-handling bike. While it’s impossible to say definitively, I think many dicey situations I’ve seen could have been calmed, if not averted, had at least a few of the people involved been on bikes that are slower to react.
That we even need the Roubaix and its ilk is tragicomic. Production race bikes have ultra-short head tubes because that’s what pros want. And anyone who has been to see pro racing up close knows that a great many, possibly most, pros ride bikes that don’t fit them. The bar is often too low and the reach too great, all part of that effort to get that ultra-aero flat back. To make sure that the bike will turn when you have that much weight on the front end, you have to build the bike around 5cm of trail, maybe a tad more. So what happens when you put 6cm of spacers between the headset and the stem? The bike handles wicked quick, that’s what. It’s essentially a different bike that what the pros ride just because the weight distribution is so different.
Which brings us back to the Roubaix and other bikes in the grand touring category. I’ve heard these bikes referred to as “old man bikes.” They should more properly be referred to as “bikes designed around good fit.” That would be more accurate.
Case in point: Most of the time, when I look at a bike’s geometry chart, I struggle to decide whether the 56 or 58 will be the better fit because it’s rare anyone offers a 57. The geometry of most grand touring bikes makes that choice much easier. Let me put it this way: If I remove all the spacers below the stem and run it on the top cap of the headset, that puts the bar below my preferred fit. That leads me to think that the head tube, unlike what some people have suggested, isn’t too long. The top tube on the 56 (or “large”) is 56.5cm and when paired with a 12cm stem, the result is one of the best fits for me I’ve found in production bikes.
One aspect of the Roubaix that I think gets overlooked is the fact that while the Roubaix itself comes in six sizes, the Ruby—the women’s model—comes in another five sizes, from 44cm to 57cm. Considering the fact that the Ruby does come in a gender neutral finish each year (this year, it’s white), this gives a fitter the chance to pick a bike not just for its size, but also for the rider’s weight. Were I shopping for a skinny adolescent boy, the Ruby would be near the top of my list because it features a bit more vertical flex (thanks to less carbon) in order to yield the same comfortable ride for someone who weighs 120 lbs. as the Roubaix will yield for a 160-lb. man. The upshot is that the Roubaix has the ability to fit someone as short as 4’11″ and someone as tall as 6’3″, not to mention offering some choices based on weight.
If it seems I’ve gone overly deep into the why of the Roubaix and just what this category means to both consumers and the bike industry, there’s a reason, if not a method behind this. I’m going to be reviewing a number of bikes from this category this year and I want to frame some of my larger observations now. This review will be a reference point later this year.
If you ever doubted that grand touring bikes were destined to become a sub-category of road bikes taken seriously by the industry, it’s time to stop. With the introduction of the Trek Domane and now the new BMC GF01, basically every one of the cool kids has one. Some of the early efforts weren’t particularly successful (no names mentioned) because the designs contained one or more flaws that either compromised the feel or the handling of the bike.
BMC has spent the last 18 months developing the new GF01. The GF stands for gran fondo. This is BMC’s first not to a bike meant to embrace the needs of the more recreational rider. Grand touring bikes such as the Specialized Roubaix (and the women’s Ruby) have had an easy time gaining traction with the disease-ride set, but they have lagged a bit with more serious riders. For the most part, I think the problem has been one of marketing. In defining the bike as one appropriate to the needs of the less avid cyclist, avid cyclists frequently come to the conclusion that the bike won’t meet their high-performance needs.
So how do you overcome that misperception? Easy. Put your sponsored pros on it at Paris-Roubaix. The tactic has worked well for Specialized. It was serving Trek well with Fabian Cancellara this spring with his win at l’Eroica, but his crash at Flanders will make the rest of his spring campaign a what-might-have-been and the Domane won’t get all the attention it could have. What you may not have noticed was that Team BMC rode the new GF01 at Paris-Roubaix. Had Thor Hushovd turned in the kind of performance he was shooting for, you would certainly have heard more about the bike by now.
Last night I attended a technical presentation on the bike, followed by a Q&A before riding the bike this morning. For those who’d like me to cut to the chase, I’ll tell you this: This is a seriously great bike. I’d put the GF01 up against the best bikes in this category.
So how come?
To make a good grand touring bike, a company must deliver three things. Miss any of these and the bike deserves to be an also-ran. The first thing the bike needs to do is accommodate a less aggressive fit. Whether the issue is one of spare tonnage or lack of flexibility, or even just being new to the sport, these bikes should accommodate a higher bar position relative to the saddle. For stack/reach types, that’s more stack and sometimes a bit less reach. The second thing one of these bikes needs to do is offer greater comfort than a similar road bike. Comfort that isn’t tied to fit is managed by reducing vibration and increasing compliance. Finally, these bikes must remain stable when riding on the bar top, but also offer crisp handling in turns and on descents.
The GF01 comes in six sizes, 48, 51, 54, 56, 58 and 61cm. Sizing geometry was based on reach and stack and the corresponding increase in top tube length and head tube length results in a very linear progression through the sizes. My 56cm review bike had a 55.6cm top tube paired with a 17.6cm head tube. I’d have liked a 12cm stem with this combination, but the fit wasn’t bad. Compare that to the 55cm frame in the Race Machine (that’s the most comparable size) and the GF01 features a 4mm shorter top tube and an 8mm longer head tube. Definitely a less aggressive fit. Like previous BMC models, this bike uses the same 73.5-degree seat tube angle found in the Team Machine and the Race Machine. What’s different with the GF01 is that this model is available with three different seatpost setbacks: 3mm, 18mm and 30mm. In the 56cm frame that range gives a fit tech effectively 2.5 degrees of adjustable seat tube angle (that’ll be less in the 61 and more in the 48), and that doesn’t even figure in the fore-aft adjustment of the saddle rails, so if nothing else, the GF01 will be easier to fit more different riders correctly than previous BMC bikes.
In addressing comfort, BMC likes to point to their Tuned Compliance Concept (TCC). The idea is that tube shapes and strategic layup will allow the seat tube and seat and chain stays plus the fork to flex vertically. We’re talking minute distances here, but every little bit can help. Those angles in the chainstays, seatstays and fork are designed to increase flex ever-so slightly. While I didn’t get exact numbers, BMC reports that the GF01 has 40 percent more vertical compliance than the SLR01 Team Machine. I need to be honest and say I was expecting something more like 100 or 150 percent more. How much movement is there, really? A 1000Nm load will move the axle 4mm vertically. What they ultimately settled on was no accident, though. After considerable modeling, four rideable prototypes were produced, and ridden by the BMC Team before settling on a final design. The comfort story doesn’t end there, though. There are, fortunately, two other components that come into play in the bike’s comfort. First is the seatpost. Each of the posts is designed to include some vertical compliance. BMC produced roughly a dozen different rideable prototypes; the first ones that went to the team were, reportedly, too soft. And because of the different offsets, the flex is adjusted accordingly so that they each offer the same flex pattern whether you’re using the 3mm offset or the 30mm offset. Last, but not by any means least, The GF01 has clearance for 28mm tires. After my recent post The Bell Curve, this is a pleasant piece of news.
To make a bike handle predictably, the designers must build in enough stiffness that the bike’s behavior in turns doesn’t change as speed increases. That was a far bigger problem with bikes in the 1990s than was stiffness at the bottom bracket. Those early aluminum and carbon fiber forks flexed sideways more than the average steel fork and often left you feeling like you were sliding around on a mover’s dolly. Whereas bottom bracket flex was a nuisance, fork flex had the ability to turn even the most confident bike handler into a timid kitten. To make sure the GF01 would provide performance up to the standards required for racing by the BMC team, the bike was built around a massive down tube, head tube and chainstays. The idea was build the compliance into the top tube, seat tube and seatstays, while making the spine of the bike—the head tube, down tube and chainstays—stiff enough for pro racing. It seems to work as advertised; on short climbs it responded well to input while I was out of the saddle.
In my size, the bike handled well on the twisting roads around Monterey. But here, I do have a bone to pick with BMC. In six sizes, the bike gets four different head tube angles and only one fork rake—50mm. As a result, the trail is all over the place. Here’s a rundown of each size with its head tube angle and resulting trail:
- 48cm: 71˚, 6.42cm
- 51cm: 71.5˚, 6.1cm
- 54cm: 72˚, 5.79cm
- 56cm: 72˚, 5.79cm
- 58cm: 72.5˚, 5.48cm
- 61cm: 72.5˚, 5.48cm
Four of these sizes are going to handle very well. The 54 through 61cm frames will all handle with great response, though the experience of someone on the 61 will vary some from someone on the 54. Moving on, the 51 is going to be a slightly sluggish handling bike. I have my doubts that its handling will be particularly confidence inspiring. Unfortunately, from what I see on paper, the 48 is a school bus. That thing will have all the inclination to turn that a flying cannon ball does. That’s really my only serious knock against this bike, though.
A note on weight: This is roughly a 1kg frame. The 54 is said to come in at 995g. Most of the bikes in this category come in a bit heavy due to efforts to make them more comfortable. What’s interesting to note from BMC’s numbers is that this frame is 11 percent heavier than the Team Machine, yet it possesses a third more torsional stiffness and almost 20 percent more stiffness at the BB, all while offering a 40 percent increase in vertical compliance.
The bikes we rode were well-spec’d. They used a full Ultegra Ui2 group with an Easton EA70 cockpit and Easton EA90 tubeless-ready wheels. The drivetrain included a 50/34 compact crank with an 11-28 cassette. While this may not be entirely necessary in Florida, newer riders who live near any sort of hills will find this gearing to alleviate the humiliation that comes with many race-spec’d bikes. I was surprised to learn that BMC’s engineers were able to position the brake mounts carefully enough to avoid long-reach calipers while spec’ing that 28mm tire. That’s a neat piece of work.
As built, the bike will retail for $6599. Not cheap, but not crazy expensive, either. I’m told stores will begin receiving demo units following Sea Otter and the bikes will be available in June.
After my experiences riding the Race Machine and (albeit more briefly) the Team Machine, I’m inclined to say that this is, so far, my favorite BMC bike. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to spend some more time on one in the near future.
I live in Southern California, and the cycling scene here is unlike any I’ve encountered anywhere else. When I go back home to Memphis, I run across guys on bikes with 9-speed Dura-Ace, which, except for the brakes, is arguably one of the hardiest workhorse groups for the money that was ever produced. Mounted on a Serotta, it’s an assemblage that simply won’t need replacing unless it’s stolen or crashed.
But here in the land of—hell, just what is this place? It’s the ultimate buffet of what America has to offer. From fabulous wealth to poverty that would make even Leona Helmsley weep, Los Angeles is all things to all people, the ultimate dream maker and crusher to 10 million people in 4000 square miles. But the cycling community is bred from an educated, successful lot. Nine-speed drivetrains? That’s the stuff of rain bikes and spare cyclocross bikes. Steel? Definitely not the A-bike. Ultegra? That’s what folks recommend to the first-time AIDS riders.
People turn over their bikes on a pretty regular basis, but it has a curious effect on the riders. I’ll roll up to someone on a group ride and ask, “Hey, how do you like your new Gonkulator?”
“How’s it compare to your old Trek/Specialized/Giant?”
“Well, I’m not sure how to describe the difference, but I know one thing: It made me more excited about riding. I’ve increased my mileage by a third this month, just because I’m not skipping rides.”
That’s the funny thing about bikes; you can keep all the company the same, ride the same roads, probably even go the very same speeds, but a new bike is a new, fresh experience and has the power to reinvigorate your riding. It’s why I fundamentally believe:
Better bike = better experience = better life.
With the flash and fashion of all the carbon fiber creations out there it’s easy to lose a whole material like, say, titanium. I’ve spent the last couple of weeks riding a Moots Vamoots around and found myself wondering why the hell I’m not seeing more of these on the road.
The Vamoots is the cheeseburger of the Moots line. Now, they work with grass-fed, ground Kobe, but the Vamoots is a bike with no surprises except for its quality. It’s the sort of bike you look at whose beauty is so obvious, its function so implicit, that your reaction is to think, “Well, of course.”
The Vamoots is constructed from 3/2.5 titanium; this is the sunny day of titanium tubing: beyond reproach. The 7/8-inch chainstays are as much a signature of the bike’s appearance as its ride quality. You know a Moots by its socks, but more on that in a minute.
While the glowing luster of the titanium recalls days of government surplus and grunge metal, the geometry hails from days hard men with names like Merckx and De Vlaeminck. That’s because the Vamoots is built around old-school grand touring geometry.
This is a bike aimed squarely at those who are unconcerned with what anyone else is riding. Neither the material used to create this bike nor the geometry it is designed around are the least bit trendy.
The Vamoots is available in nine production sizes, from 48cm to 60cm in 2cm increments. And if none of those work for you, custom remains an option. Speaking of options, it’s refreshing to see a bike that offers choices. In addition to a custom fit, you can request S&S Couplers, track dropouts, a pump peg, chain hanger, rack eyelets, fender mount in the chainstay bridge, a third set of water bottle bosses (now that’s a long day!), decal choices, Di2 internal and other cable routing options. Whew.
My Vamoots was a 58cm frame. The top tube was 57cm; that’s 5mm shorter than that found on the ever-popular Vamoots CR. It had a lowish bottom bracket: 7.3cm; that’s 2mm lower than on the Vamoots CR with its decidedly racier geometry. The chainstays were 42cm long; that’s 5mm longer than on the Vamoots CR. And the head tube is 17cm long, a full centimeter longer than on the Vamoots CR. The head tube angle, at 72.75 was a full degree slacker than on the Vamoots CR. Both share an identical seat tube angle of 73. Finally, the fork had a rake of 40mm, yielding a trail of 6.37cm.
Put simply, confusing this bike with a race bike would suggest a need for cataract surgery. Years ago, with chainstays that are longish but not so long as to offer heel clearance for big panniers, a bike like this would have been termed light touring. It recalls the Specialized Sequoia and the Raleigh Alyeska. They were bikes you could ride from here to Mars and not regret the experience. Specialized boss-man Mike Sinyard so loved the Sequoia that the Roubaix is just a 21st-century version of that bike.
Now, that’s not to say you couldn’t get this bike around a crit course. I did some very fast group rides on this and was able to follow the line of riders in front of me, but to do so is to misuse the bike to a degree, like slicing apples with a bread knife.
Tomorrow: Part II.