For part I, click here.
One of my favorite features about the Volagi Liscio was its handling. On descents and in corners the bike was predictable and left me relaxed and confident. In the especially tight twists of the canyon roads of Malibu I needed to give the bike a bit more English than some others, but I didn’t mind that because at higher speeds the bike kept that relaxed manner.
For a bike so calm in handling, it didn’t really have a lot of trail. Thanks to my 57cm review bike’s 72.75-degree head tube angle and 48mm of fork rake, the trail plotted out at 5.53cm, which was somewhat surprising given how calm the bike was. The actual, effective, top tube length of my review bike was 56.7cm. The bottom bracket was a rather surprising 68mm; that’s 2mm less drop than I would have guessed. Those numbers tell why the bike doesn’t turn like a school bus, but it still doesn’t help tell why it can inspire such confidence. The wheelbase is where that aspect of its personality comes through, which is especially long at 100.8cm—that’s longer than found on most bikes a centimeter or more larger. Similarly, because this isn’t meant to be a race bike, the head tube was refreshingly long at 19.2cm.
Volagi deserves some credit for cutting molds for six different sizes. It’s not uncommon to see new companies cut only four or five molds and then try to use a single rear triangle across the set. Each main triangle got its own mold and then the there are three sets of chainstays and seatstays (one set for every two sizes). The approach speaks of the company’s commitment to quality, and standing behind its design. The seat tube angle for my bike was 73.25 degrees which was a hair steeper than I expect to see on a bike of this size, and for me and my fit, it was a welcome switch. In absolute terms, the bike’s stack and reach were 59.8cm and 38.7cm respectively.
The sizing run starts on the small end with a 48cm frame with a 50.5cm top tube. The 53 has a 51.6cm top tube. The 55 has a 54.9cm top tube. Then, on to the 56.7cm top tube of my 57 and ending with the 59.6cm top tube found on the 60cm frame. They manage to cover a pretty broad range for only six sizes. As a result, there are two notable holes in the sizing run, between the 53 and the 55 and then between the 57 and the 60. Anyone looking for a top tube in the 53 to 54cm range will have some trouble, as will anyone looking for a top tube in the 58 to 59cm range.
Honestly, while this bike fully qualifies as a grand touring design, I need to be clear that the handling on this bike, due to its modest amount of trail and higher-than-usual BB for this variety of bike, is a flavor of its own. Anyone seeking something slightly different than a Roubaix or a Cannondale Synapse, without going for a sport bike like the Tarmac or SuperSix EVO, would do well to at least try riding a Liscio.
In trading email with Robert Choi, I’ve learned that Volagi set its sights incredibly high for this bike, almost unreasonably so. Choi said they wanted a comfortable bike, hence the longbow stays, but they also wanted something that had the neutral handling of a race bike, even despite the long wheelbase, which explains the trail figures. What surprised me is how they also wanted to give the bike an aerodynamic edge; the top tube, down tube, seat tube and seatpost all carry an airfoil shape. The quickest way to reduce a bike’s comfort is to make it more aerodynamic. I don’t know of another bike on the market that tried to tackle the comfort issue and aerodynamics while simultaneously making a bike that offered responsive handling on unpaved surfaces. Ambitious much?
Volagi offers but one version of the Liscio frame. That means anyone who plunks down their cash for a Liscio gets the same high-modulus carbon fiber frame as the next guy, no matter what build you select. I stripped the bike down as much as I dared (internal cable routing) and concluded my 57cm frame weighed in the neighborhood of 1150g, which is pretty heavy by today’s standards; I can name a half dozen companies producing frames around that size that weigh 300g less. Volagi claims a frame weight of roughly 1100 grams (+/- 100g) for the frame and another 400g for the fork. I’ve noticed a fair amount of consumer confusion out there about carbon fiber bikes from some manufacturers. A lack of clarity in marketing materials can lead people to think that, for instance, all Madone frames are the same. (I’m not saying Trek does this; that’s merely an example.) While I doubt that this misperception is prevalent, there’s no doubt it happens, and on some occasions I think it could be more readily clarified by some marketing departments. But with Volagi, you can go for the least expensive of all the builds and you still get a very nice frame.
My bike was built up with a Shimano Ultegra 6700 10-speed group, TRP Spyre mechanical disc brakes, FSA SL-K carbon fiber BB30 compact crank, an FSA Energy bar and FSA Gossamer stem. The seatpost and wheels both come from Volagi. The Volagi E7 Ignite wheels are proprietary in that they use a rim with no brake track. Unfortunately, that doesn’t result in a lighter wheel, due to the disc-brake hubs, though at 1850g, they aren’t total pigs. For reasons that I simply can’t fathom, the seatpost is made with an aero cross section. Marketing materials for the Liscio mention its aero design, but I have my doubts about just how aero this frame is and don’t really understand why a designer attempting to make a bike more comfortable would saddle it with the extra challenge of giving aero benefits. Were the seatpost round, I think this bike would probably offer even greater comfort.
I’m not going to go into any great depth on the disc-brake question. My personal feeling is the mechanical discs aren’t a great way to advocate for disc brakes. It’s like trying to use the example of the Hummer as a model of vehicular efficiency. It may be against a Packard, but in an absolute sense, not a chance. What I can say is that the TRP Spyre brakes offered an incredible degree of modulation. However, initially, many riders interpret the longer lever travel as reduced braking force. My sense was that I didn’t need to pull the lever any harder to reach brake lock-up, I just needed to pull the lever further.
As built, my bike was 17.5 lbs. and retailed for $3500. As they no longer offer the 6700 I rode, the build using Ultegra 6800 adds another $100. Were you to build it up with a SRAM Red 22 group, carbon bar and stem and some high-zoot wheels, like a set of the disc-ready Enve 3.4s, I expect you could shave close to three pounds off this bike—and add another $4000 to the price tag. While it’s true that we’re reaching a point of diminishing returns on weight, moving from a 14-lb. bike to a 17.5-lb. one, you can’t help but notice the difference in acceleration. Jumping off a light is, for both better and worse, the place where a difference in weight is most apparent. The question becomes, how important is acceleration from a standing start? Were you racing this bike, it wouldn’t really be a big deal, but for a rider in more urban conditions, every bit of help making starts easier is going to be welcome. I speak from some familiarity on this. There is, however, another side to the weight issue. Sure, an 1100g frame isn’t exactly marketing gold, but in producing a bike meant to offer comfort while balancing the rigors of post-mount disc brakes, Choi takes some pride in reporting that Volagi has yet to see a single frame (out of more than 1000 on the market) that has cracked at the fork or stays due to braking forces. Surely, reliability is a selling point to a skeptical
Years ago, when I was working in a bike shop, any time I opened a bike box and pulled out the machine within, one of the first things I would do, aside from locating the seatpost so I could insert it and then clamp it into the Park workstand, was to look at the rear dropouts. The shops I worked at sold a fair number of road bikes in the $200 to $1500 range. In looking at the rear dropouts I could identify whether the bike was meant as a more casual ride thanks to eyelets, or if it was a true racing bike because it possessed no eyelets. Any time I didn’t see eyelets I got excited. However, every now and then I’d find myself building a true touring rig and then I’d find myself intrigued by the thought that went into all the various braze-ons.
The Liscio is one of a very few carbon fiber bikes I’ve seen that sports eyelets on the rear dropouts. It’s possible that they could support a rack, but I suspect their real intention is to help mount fenders, which brings up another curious detail about this bike. It has a surprising amount of tire clearance, enough to allow a rider to run 25mm tires and fenders. I managed to slip one of my ‘cross wheels in the dropouts just to see if a knobby 32mm tire would fit. It did, but I’d be wary of trying anything larger than a 35mm tire—knobby or smooth.
When I think about the bell curve of the roadie population, how most of us aren’t actually racing and if the surveys have anything right, most of us have had our 35th birthday and are now in a battle against Kronos to lose as little fitness, balance, flexibility and mental acuity as possible with each passing year, I keep concluding that the bike most people need isn’t the sport bike with 15cm of drop from the saddle to the bar. A bike like the Liscio recognizes the real gains that carbon fiber construction provides. Compared to most steel bikes I’ve ever ridden, the Liscio provides more torsional stiffness, greater steering precision and a higher degree of comfort on rough surfaces. Once you do away with the part of the ego that tells you your position on the bike should reflect what we see in the pages of Cycle Sport, we can get on with the business of providing people a fit based on their flexibility, not some arbitrary angle based on our ideas of what cool is. And why not make a bike with geometry for people who aren’t in the saddle for 30 hours each week? Volagi is a company with something worthwhile to contribute to the evolution of road bikes.
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.
Before I left for Interbike my wife said something to me she says before I depart for any industry function.
“Have fun,” she called to me as I walked out the door.
I’m kinda past the point of trying to explain to her that at events like Interbike my days are long and rather intense. That I enjoy myself there is without doubt, but I define fun as something that is carefree in a way that these events just aren’t.
So I haven’t told her much about the ride I did with some folks from Blackburn as well as a few other journalists. The agenda was simple. We climbed on a bunch of bikes suitable to dirt roads and headed out from the Outdoor Demo on bike paths, both paved and unpaved. Our destination was Hoover Dam.
I’ve been going to Las Vegas for Interbike for 15 years. To the degree that I’ve ever enjoyed myself, it was because I’ve spent time with people I know and admire. And while I’ve done some enjoyable rides, none of them ever had as pleasant a feel. It felt—it felt like I wasn’t working.
The point of the ride was to introduce us to Blackburn’s revamped line. What they’ll tell you is that Blackburn has gone back to its roots. They are focusing on racks, bags and lights, stuff you’d use in touring. And while that’s an easy elevator pitch, the reality is that the product line is far superior to the touring products I was using in the early 1990s, which is the last time I bought a bag or rack from Blackburn.
So we rode a bunch of gravel on an old railroad bed that took us to the Hoover Dam. The lights of Las Vegas disappeared. The rush of traffic on the highway disappeared. The noise, rush and force of the city disappeared. Views of Lake Mead spread to our left and the novelty of the old railroad tunnels promised new views at each exit.
Honestly, it was the first time I’d encountered this part of Nevada in a way that gave me a chance to appreciate its natural beauty. It’s the first time I’d had an experience I’d actually recommend to others.
And then we arrived at Hoover Dam.
This was my first visit ever to one of the great engineering marvels of the 20th Century. Built under that socialist debacle known as the Works Progress Administration (WPA) that puts many thousands of Americans to work building the country’s infrastructure when no other jobs were available, the Hoover Dam isn’t just a fine piece of engineering—the actual value of dams and the environmental impact can be debated in another forum—it’s a testament to the vision of the Roosevelt administration.
Beyond the dizzying presentation of the dam itself, the other structures are a reminder that our infrastructure projects once rose as more than just feats of engineering but as testaments to the power of our democracy. The experience recalled the impression that visiting the National Mall in Washington, D.C. made on me when I was in high school.
Robin Sansom, above, is the product manager for Blackburn and the person responsible for the responsible for seeing through the overhaul of Blackburn’s line. While Robin was riding a Volagi Liscio, several riders and I rode the Volagi Viaje, the company’s steel bike. I have to admit that at first I wondered how well the bike would handle because the bar was nearly as high as the saddle. I was concerned that I didn’t have enough weight on the front wheel. As it turns out, it helped prevent the front wheel from shoveling in the looser gravel. It was easily the most comfortable steel bike I’d ridden on conditions this rough.
The bike was also equipped with SRAM’s new hydraulic road disc brakes, and this was the first occasion when I began to gain an appreciation that disc brakes may offer a notable improvement in braking modulation.
Of course, it could be that we were having fun just because most of us had Tecates in our bikes’ bottle cages.
Blackburn sponsored a group of riders, called the Blackburn Rangers, to take their products on some long-distance tours. While I don’t think you need proof that the stuff works, the videos they produced make for compelling watching. I can’t help but want to pack up and hit the road when I see them.