One of my favorite features of the bike industry is its low threshold to entry. If you want to manufacture something in the bike industry, depending on just what you want produce, the fixed costs to launch your company can be relatively low. On the downside, it means we get some undercapitalized operations that wink out of existence even before most people are aware of their existence, crushed by the weight of their own promise. Asphalt, anyone? On the upside, surprising talents can launch reputations from a garage, Witness Chris Bishop.
For those with more industry savvy, relationships that span the globe and an actual credit line, you can launch a brand-new bike company. Volagi has been around for three years now and if the name of the company seems more familiar than the bike itself, it probably has to do with the lawsuit the fledgling brand found itself embroiled in with Specialized. Our man Charles Pelkey covered it in one of his Explainer columns. Technically, Specialized won one piece of the case and lost a few others, while the pricipals at Volagi claimed victory because they won the PR verdict with the public. Given all the money that went to “guys in pinstriped Italian suits,” as Charles put it, he was right in assessing there were no winners for the case.
Had Specialized limited their suit to the alleged Volagi owners Robert Choi’s and Barley Forsman’s alleged breach of their employment contracts—the jury did find that Choi violated the therms of his contract—this might have played out differently and less expensively for everyone involved. However, Specialized chose to sue Choi and Forsman for the Liscio’s patented “longbow” design. This might also have played differently had Choi and Forsman not chosen to patent their design; you have to figure that really got the attention of some folks in Morgan Hill. Specialized’s contention was that Volagi’s decision to join the seatstays to the top tube, rather than at the more typical location of the seat cluster, was an idea they’d lifted from the Roubaix. On this point, Specialized lost.
I don’t wish to retry the case here, but I knew there was a need to address the event that has resulted in the majority of the media coverage Volagi has received since its launch. Having ridden both bikes, including every iteration of the Roubaix, I can report that while the two bikes both belong to that class of grand touring bikes, they ride quite differently. I’ll get into the specifics of the ride of the Liscio a bit later in this review.
Animal or vegetable?
So just what is the Liscio? it deserves to be defined on its own merits, on the designers’ intent, rather than in relation to another bicycle. The company’s tag line reveals some of the bike’s purpose: “By endurance, we discover.” It’s an elegant line, one that I wouldn’t mind seeing in Latin on the seat tube or head tube. It also lays out a purpose too broad to be just another racing bike. And I’ll admit, the line contains enough regard for wonder that I felt an immediate soft spot for it when I read it.
If the lines of the longbow frame didn’t immediately betray the bike’s aim, then two other features about the bike should help establish the objectives open to the rider. First is the immediately apparent use of disc brakes. I can’t think of another component that can be spec’d on a road bike that will more immediately announce that you’re looking at a bike of a different feather than disc brakes. The appearance of two discs says nothing so much as, “This ain’t your buddy’s racing bike.” In addition to the disc brakes are the 25mm-wide tires. Now, a cynical product manager can use a wide tire to cover for a harsh-riding bike, but to do that with a frame design you’re trying to convince people is more comfortable—not less so—would really undercut the bike’s sales pitch unless your larger statement is that the Liscio is a go-anywhere road bike.
It is, and I really put that aspect of its design to the test. I’ll get to that in a bit.
For all the talk that gravel-grinder rides have been getting in the last year, there’s been surprisingly little talk of bikes designed specifically for those with an adventurous spirit. Some of that lack of talk is due to lots of riders just using ‘cross bikes, while others have used it as a chance to advocate for custom steel. Nothing wrong with either of those options, right? But what of producing a top-shelf road bike from carbon fiber just for the go-anywhere-with-drop-bars set?
This bike was, if I may, ahead of its time by just a couple of years. Volagi launched with this bike in 2010, but the idea of gravel grinders didn’t really start to catch on until 2012. Now, before any of you go to the comments section to tell us just how long you’ve been doing these rides, my purpose isn’t to argue about how far back any of you were cool. I’m simply talking about when enough of us were doing this sort of thing that it began to get the industry’s attention in a serious way. It’s fair to suggest that Volagi had their ear to the ground far sooner than most of the industry. The downside to this is that this bike might have enoyed greater acclaim had it been introduced last year.
So why a carbon fiber gravel grinder bike? For all the frustrations that carbon fiber has presented us—let’s see, there’s easily broken frames, expensive repairs, even more expensive frames and components and the general anxiety caused by the threat of damage any time you want to travel with your carbon fiber bike—the material has also given us some irrefutable advances. Road bikes have never been more diverse in appearance, fit range and ride quality. Those are all selling points. Quite simply, if you want to build the ideal gravel grinder, you’d do it from carbon fiber for the simple reason that you have the opportunity to start with the broadest palette.
Having just made the case that this is a gravel grinder par excellence, I want to put the brakes on that perception and say that this bike is a plain-old, straight-up road bike. I’ve done a fair number of group rides on this bike. There’s nothing in its handling, fit or layup that handicaps it for everyday use. This is a road bike that simply isn’t limited by road surface. That’s an important distinction. Where I live, I have to ride for at least a half hour to get to any dirt roads, and to get to the interesting ones I have to ride for more than an hour. For the groups I ride with, just what bike you choose for our dirtier excursions becomes a real point of conversation. It may not be of the order of conversation of whether you choose a ‘cross bike or a mountain bike for The Crushar in the Tushar, but rolling a knobby 32mm tire pumped to 60psi while other guys are pushing the pace on 23mm slicks pumped to 110psi (and destined to get flats later) can leave you suffering all the way to the start of the dirt.
I rode the Liscio on several asphalt/dirt combo rides this winter and it was the perfect bike for those days. Due to, uh, personal limitations, I wasn’t the first to the top of any of the climbs, but I was able to descend every bit as well as anyone on a ‘cross bike.
What I’m noticing in moving between different bikes is that some of them simply don’t impart as much shock when I hit bumps. I’ve had engineers talk to me about just how little movement is taking place when the frame is loaded. The numbers are so small any reasonable person would conclude that frame flex is a figment of our collective imagination. However, in the last month I’ve ridden five different road bikes and even when I’ve made an effort to minimize variables I’ve come to an inescapable conclusion. Those tiny amounts of flex matter. The Volagi Liscio, courtesy of its patented longbow design, simply doesn’t jar me as much when I hit bumps.
I tell my kids, on the rare occasion that we pass an accident on the highway, not to crane their necks and press their small noses against the window to gawk at the mayhem. You’ll blind yourselves staring into the flashing lights of the emergency vehicles, I tell them, and your attention won’t help the injured. Be grateful that the road still hums under our tires, and that we are still, mercifully, on our way.
When I parted the blinds this morning, the sun was just splitting the clouds on the east side of Boston, the Hancock and Prudential Towers silhouetted beneath a purple and white cloud line. It reflected off the crust of still-white snow in the front yard and bathed the kitchen in brightness. The radio said it was cold out, but this is one of those sunny, crisp winter days that hints at Spring’s rebirth.
I stood on the shop floor yesterday and talked with Mike about the rides to come this year. Registration is open for a couple of the big gravel rides that cash in on end-of-summer fitness, and we talked about riding them together. He clued me into another private ride over some of that same terrain, 60 miles of New Hampshire hill climbing, and we made the kind of plans you make when it’s cold out and the summer is just an approaching dot on the horizon. It felt good.
This week’s Group Ride is about the good days to come. What events do you plan to ride? What trips are you going to take (with your bike)? Who will you ride with this year that you didn’t ride with last?
I sincerely hope to meet more of YOU this year. Padraig and I have spoken about connecting for any number of the larger fondos and off-road rides that have become highlights of the casual, US cycling season. When we know where we’ll be, we have every intention to connect with readers who will also be there.
Image: Matt O’Keefe