It was on a hill somewhere past the 55-mile mark of a ride that seemed both nearing its end and not nearly close enough to its finish that Carl Bird, the Director of Equipment for Specialized, turned to me and asked a question that I’d been asked at least a half dozen times that day, a question that a guy in his position riding with a member of the media has a certain professional obligation to ask.
“So, what do you think?”
“It’s nice,” or something akin to it, is what I’d said on every previous occasion. This was, however, my first hilly ride since I’d kissed the ground back in October. It was my first ride on these roads. It was my first experience with these descents, which were equal parts unknown and dicey. It was also my first ride on the new S-Works Roubaix SL4 and Specialized’s new Roval carbon clinchers. The combined effect meant I was stretched thin, that I’d spent most of the day trying to figure out how to get my descending mojo back, and the difference in brake response between the Zipps to which I’ve become accustomed and the Rovals was enough that I’d needed to focus on just the riding and forget about the clothing.
Scientific method suggests that if you want to judge the effectiveness of a solution, you control all of the variables, save one. Real life never really affords you that opportunity. The variables come at you like notes out of Jimi Hendrix’ guitar amp, in flurries, overwhelming you and either resulting in a wave of pleasure or a swirling wash of anxiety. Our loop through the hills of Palo Alto, Pescadero and more had been alternately fun and anxiety-producing, though mostly fun.
Back to that scientific method thingy. Ideally, a product intro would substitute just one item, say a pair of bibs or a jersey. Scientific method suggests you don’t grab a bunch of journalists and put them on fresh bikes with fresh clothing on a fresh course. But in the best scenarios, that’s exactly what happens.
Because it’s genius. It works. You take some riders, put them off-kilter with a bunch of unknowns and then turn up the heat. Somewhere between simmer and boil you forget about what you’re on and start focusing on just the act of riding. Look, I understand that this seems like an elaborate self-deception, like flirting with yourself via email, but I can say from some experience that while you learn a lot about a product within the first five miles of a ride, all the serious insights into whether a product works or not come dozens of miles later, after you’ve forgotten that you’re even using it.
Like I said, Carl asks me, “So what do you think?”
The miles in my legs weren’t that numerous, but they’d been plenty challenging, so my answer came from a place where I wasn’t thinking about the guarded, politic answer. It came from an honest place, an I’m-ready-to-finish-this-ride-up place. I’d had my fill of unknown bike times unknown roads.
“Well, you nailed the bibs.”
It was an honest moment, and revealed more than I intended. I try to be more reserved in my opinion after only a single ride. While I couldn’t articulate it at the time, I knew I’d ridden some bibs of similar quality in the previous year. Upon reflection after getting home, I came to the conclusion that I liked them better than the Hincapie Signature bibs I’d been wearing, and they were in the neighborhood of the Rapha Pro Team Bibs I’d reviewed last summer. The Specialized SL Pro Bibs go for $150, the Rapha, $250. I would probably still pick the Rapha bibs over the Specialized bibs, but I can’t recall the last time I wore a pair of $150 off-the-shelf bibs that were this good. “Never” isn’t an unreasonable answer.
For our ride I chose to wear the aforementioned SL Pro Bibs and Jersey, the leg warmers, the arm warmers, the base layer, the Neoprene shoe covers and the SL Jacket. As I was dressing, temperatures were in the 40s, but by the time we rolled they were in the low 50s. Compared to most of the other riders, I was more heavily dressed, but I wanted layers that would allow me to stay warm and yet peel off as the day warmed. Over the next four hours, the only change I made was to pull off the jacket for a while and then don it for the final descent off of Tunitas Creek. That jacket is one of those bantam-weight deals that weighs roughly as much as a Monarch butterfly. It’s a translucent white so that you can see the jersey beneath, a quality that makes it both more visible and something I think team sponsors tend to appreciate. The fit was just roomy enough that the sleeves flapped a bit in the wind, but the material is so light that it wasn’t noisy the way a flag in a gale is.
As a person who detests most wind breakers, this is one I’m willing to keep around.
The Neoprene shoe covers are meant to fit over Specialized shoes. No surprise there, right? Well reaching back into my past, I can tell you I’ve never used a pair of shoe covers or booties that I didn’t have to fight to get over the toe and cleat and then around the heel. Again, I’m aware these things were designed for Specialized shoes, but they slipped past all the usual obstacles with more grace than a bank heist flick. I was also impressed with the Velcro flap that pulls open to allow you to adjust the Boa dials mid-ride. On a ride where the temperature fluctuated over a good 20 degrees, my feet were never too cold nor too warm. Goldilocks would approve.
Plain black arm warmers are to cycling clothing what the microwave is to the kitchen. They’re a commodity, yet of such ubiquitous utility, you really can’t do without them. The only way to impress me at this point is by improving fit, warmth or stretch, if not all three. The patterning on these warmers gives them some slight articulation at the elbows making them ever-so-slightly a more natural fit. Once positioned, they didn’t budge, but I consider that a basic requirement along the lines of windows in a car. The leg warmers were plenty long (I’m surprised by how many leg warmers are barely long enough to reach my hamstrings), featured ankle zips so you can pull your socks up (or yank them off mid-ride) and silicone grippers on the outside so they don’t tug at the sensitive skin high on the inside of your thighs. And they’re thick, thicker than any of the last few brands of leg warmers I’ve tried.
A pro-fit jersey, like those that are becoming more common, isn’t an easy thing to do. Ideally, it’s not simply a regular jersey just cut a half-size smaller. It features forward-swept shoulders to eliminate unneeded material in the chest and reflect the outstretched arm position you adopt while riding. It’s a garment so specific in fit that when not on the body it looks more like a short-sleeve straightjacket, like it should be just as comfortable as confinement. Most of the panels reject polyester for something stretchier, like Lycra. It’s a retrograde move; we gave up Lycra in jerseys some time in the 1980s, right? It was just a transition material meant to get us from Merino wool to polyester. All that’s true, but what is also true is that a pro-fit jersey is meant to fit much like the top of a skin suit and skin suits are made of—yeah, you remember—Lycra. The better pro-fit jerseys I’ve encountered are cut shorter than traditional jerseys, but also place the pockets lower on the jersey and feature smaller side panels to wrap the pockets around the back better, making access to said pockets easy, rather than a yoga move.
For all its efficiency, at a certain point a skin suit just doesn’t make much sense, or at least not as much sense as a jersey and a pair of bibs that fit like one. They are easier to size properly, easier to get on and take off, easier to answer the call of nature and more comfortable—when was the last time a skin suit felt as good as your best bibs? Let’s not forget the fact that a full-zip jersey allows better ventilation on hot days.
Of all pieces of cycling clothing, though, bib shorts are easiest to get wrong, hardest to get right, hardest to forget about when they aren’t right. I’ve lost count of the different brands and models of bibs I’ve worn and have been amazed by the ways you can get them wrong. The most crucial details are pad quality and placement, the cut of shorts themselves and the sizing of the bibs. It’s still possible for the train to leave the rails, but far less likely if you get that much right. In the last year I’ve ridden a bunch of bibs in the $150 range. I can get through two hours in any of them, but I wouldn’t dare wear any of them on a ride I suspected would last as much as three hours or more, save these.
Final thoughts: I’ve been to a fair number of product intros over the years. At some, we’d stand around and look at the parts. Unimpressive. At a few we went out for hammerfests where we were too busy chasing the company’s staff to give a lick of thought to what we were on. Less than stellar. But the best ones roll out for a nice ride, not so long to kill you, but long enough to both think about and forget about what you’re riding. It’s a weird balance, but as my reaction to Carl illustrated, done right it can result in some honest opinions.
I don’t ride with PROs too often. And when I do they are usually of the genus domesticus; they are rarely of the genus vincere. So when I got the invitation from Specialized asking if I wanted to go for a ride with Alberto Contador, the answer was an immediate yes.
I’ve not been Contador’s biggest fan. Truth be told, there have been plenty of occasions where his demeanor in the press has turned me off. But I saw something in this year’s Tour de France that opened my eyes to another side of him, reserves that gave me new respect for the six-time Grand Tour winner. Put plain, I liked that even when he realized he couldn’t win this year’s Tour, he took the race to the others, making himself one of the factors of selection. It was a courageous ride and one that—to me—spoke volumes about self-respect.
Off the bike, Alberto Contador was calm, quiet, polite and patient. Not a rock star. But he wasn’t a withering lily either; he carried himself with low-key confidence. Even though his spoke in low volume, when he spoke he never felt a need to raise his voice to be heard; he trusted others would lean in to hear, and we did.
The first of the three rides I did with him was meant to be a press-only event. The idea was to give Michael Robertson of VeloDramatic a chance to get images of him riding with the likes of Brian Holcomb of Velo, Laura Weislo of Cyclingnews, Jen See of Bicycling, Neil Shirley of Road Bike Action and Dillon Clapp of Road. Et moi, aussi. But because if you tell someone’s fans that a big star will arrive at noon, they will begin arriving at 10:30, when we rolled out, despite a couple of requests from Specialized for folks to stay behind, a dozen or so riders rolled out with us.
As we pedaled through Sausalito, riders coming over from San Francisco frequently saw us and simply made a U-turn to join the group. I spent some time near the front getting shots of Alberto and then knowing others wanted the chance to say hi, I slid back. Once we began the climb up the Marin Headlands Neil Shirley (an actual PRO until very recently) put in an acceleration that dispatched most of us, including me. Ah, to climb well.
The descent went well; riders stayed single file and picked reasonable lines on our way back down. Good thing; it was ever-so-slightly damp. As we rolled back through Sausalito, I found myself next to Alberto’s brother and agent, Fran. He told me it was his first time visiting California and he was very excited to see San Francisco. All of his favorite movies featured either New York or San Francisco as their setting. I was about to ask if that meant he was a fan of Hitchcock, but we rolled up to Mike’s Bikes just then. Mike’s is a huge Specialized dealer, with nine locations in the Bay Area. They are a first-rate retailer, and I’ve given them some of my business when I’ve been in the area.
We pulled up to an enormous throng of people. Estimates from a few people present were that we had 200 to 250 riders. Counting heads isn’t my strong suit, so I don’t have an estimate of my own, but what I can tell you is that I’ve started races with 120 guys, and this group was way larger. Way. Riders filled the parking lot and encircled the entire building. Some were already waiting on the bike path on which we’d roll out.
The bike path was eight or ten feet wide with fine, hard-pack gravel on either side. Almost immediately we had riders sprinting up the gravel and bunny hopping back onto the bike path so they could take photos of Alberto. As we headed into Tiburon, I’d like to say we had a great time with riders rotating through to give everyone a chance to ride alongside one of cycling’s biggest stars.
The reality is that things got sketchy. Riders were taking crazy risks just to get close to Alberto for a picture. I saw riders going into oncoming traffic to move up and more iPhones in hands than you’d see at an Apple store. Compounding the problem was that once close to Alberto, several Spanish-speaking riders simply stayed put. One rider commented to me about the perceived sense of entitlement of the native Spanish speakers. I cared less about that than just keeping everyone upright.
To his credit, Alberto stayed calm and didn’t allow himself to slip out of the front dozen riders. Once we rolled around to Paradise Cove and the road got twisty, several riders put in a huge acceleration to break the group up. Once into Corte Madera we took in the climb up Camino Alto, a tree-shrouded, serpentine climb with some surprisingly steep ramps. It was only once we were back on the bike path into Sausalito that I had the sense we were truly safe.
The next day Alberto and Fran joined the Specialized lunch ride, which is the fastest group ride I’ve ever encountered other than the old Boulder Bus Stop ride. Before rolling out, Specialized founder Mike Sinyard said with a wink, “Anyone who crashes Alberto is fired.”
This ride was both faster and better behaved than the other rides we did. Out on the rolling country roads west of Morgan Hill there was very little traffic and Alberto took some time to slide back through the group and say hi to people. Shortly before we reached one of the longer hills, Mike told Alberto we were approaching a climb he’d want to be on the front for. Next thing I knew, Sinyard was sprinting up the left side of the pack with a Saxo Bank jersey on his wheel.
I can’t report on what happened at the top nor in the final sprint; my legs were just too tired from the previous efforts going back to last weekend’s gran fondo. After rolling back to the Specialized HQ, we caught showers and lunch before a final interview.