For Part I, click here.
Evaluating road feel
In the past year I’ve ridden roughly a dozen different bikes for 50 miles or more—enough to get pretty familiar with them. Of those bikes (some of them will be coming through in other reviews I’ve yet to write), the Roubaix proved to be among the easiest to fit to me.
I’ve heard people at Specialized as well as a number of retailers mention the “new” geometry for the Roubaix. It’s a detail I repeated a few times until I actually looked at the geometry chart. Across its six sizes, the bike hasn’t changed by a millimeter. The only significant change I can see that will affect the bike’s handling is that I’m not seeing the bike with that long, conic top cap anymore (and followed by three or four centimeters of spacers). And despite continued assertions by others, I’ve verified this with the manufacturer. No change in the head tube length.
So while the geometry of the Roubaix remains unchanged, that doesn’t mean this bike hasn’t evolved significantly. The SL4 iteration of the Roubaix introduces yet another expression of the Zertz technology. Where previously the Zertz inserts were inserted into openings molded into the fork and seatstays and were held in place by their contours, they now wrap around the fork blades and seatstays and are secured with small bolts. This change has a two-fold effect; first, it eliminates the extra material required to form those openings, making the bike lighter and, second, the new attachment method has resulted in improved vibration reduction, according to testing that Specialized performed.
Specialized added a new new seatpost, the CG-R that cantilevers the seat clamp in order to create more of a pivot action with the carbon arm that holds the clamp supported by a high-durometer Zertz damper. The combination of Zertz dampers in both the seatpost and seatstays means that even less vibration is being transmitted to the rider’s hindquarters than ever before.
While Specialized claims that the CG-R offers a whopping 18mm of suspension action, I have my doubts that I got even a full centimeter of travel. So while I quibble with that number, I’d hate for that to obscure the fact that this seatpost does cushion the ride, and I can say that because I tried the Roubaix without that seatpost and I tried that seatpost in another bike; it definitely changes what you feel at the saddle.
I can tell you that this bike was built with Specialized’s FACT 11r construction, but the simple reality is that having typed those words, they don’t really mean anything. This business of constantly coming up with arcane nomenclature mostly doesn’t serve the consumer that well because it doesn’t do anything to enable a consumer to make an apples-to-apples comparison of different bikes. What I can tell you is this: as Specialized has moved from FACT 9r to FACT 10r and now FACT 11r, those jumps have been meaningful enough that they’ve translated to bikes that were stiffer under pedaling forces, lighter and arguably stronger, given that I can report anecdotally I saw fewer riders taking their bikes back to the dealer for frame cracks.
More important are the lengths Specialized had gone to optimize the ride quality for each size. It’s not uncommon for a brand to use the same chainstays or the same wishbone seatstay and the same fork for every single model. By varying tube diameter and layup for each size bike, the Roubaix is one of a select group of bikes that offers such a tuned ride.
The S-Works Roubaix SL4 is a far cry from the original Roubaix. Honestly, all they really share is geometry. My sense is that the S-Works SL4 conveys a similar amount of vibration to the rider as the original Roubaix, though I have to grant I haven’t been able to go back and ride one of the original bikes to verify that assertion. But I’m willing to put that out there because I know that as frames see weight reductions thanks to better compaction, using superior fibers and cutting the amount of material used, those advancements cause more vibration to move through the frame. In short, the very features that cause the Roubaix to be a better bike today are the wrinkles that make shielding a rider from vibration ever more difficult. Just treading water in this game is a win.
The upshot is that this is one of the most comfortable bikes on the market, easily in my top three, when considered for vibration damping. What truly sets the Roubaix apart from other bikes in its class is that it still has the performance of a sport (or “racing”) bike. As much as I really like the live-wire feel of a bike that makes no effort to shield the rider from vibration, there is something positively welcoming to climbing on the Roubaix. As I’ve put it previously, we may dream of owning a Ferrari, but you would probably prefer to stick with a Lexus for your daily driver. Honestly, smooth sells itself.
As I mentioned in Part I of my review, the geometry on the Roubaix hasn’t changed since the model was launched, but this bike is a marked improvement over the original. Several features contribute to that evolution and improvement. Because the bike is both stiffer and lighter now, that improved feedback in handling and reduced mass means it’s easier to ride the bike aggressively. By spec’ing the bike with Roval carbon fiber clinchers and new, lighter Roubaix tires, it’s easier to dive into turns, which allowed me to compensate some for the calm handling, which is imparted by the long wheelbase and low bottom bracket. So, while Roubaix has only 5.6cm of train in the 56cm size, a bit less than its Italian predecessors, its 101cm wheelbase and 7.15cm of BB drop are what give this bike its deliberate demeanor.
When you combine the Roubaix’s ability to smooth out roads and impart confidence to a rider, what you get is a bike that is my preferred ride for rough descents. That’s a quality that is particularly useful in the Sierra where many of the descents feature wide-open turns on surfaces that are sometimes—well, let’s just say I’ve been on smoother fire roads.
Because the Zertz are dead weight in the frame, in order to present a 14.3-lb. bike, Specialized had to pull out essentially all the stops. Details like hollow dropouts, longer fiber runs, and more size-specific features, such as 1 1/8″ steerers in the smallest frames, 1 1/4″ in the mid-sized frames and 1 3/8″ in the largest sizes; this also aids rider comfort.
On the parts side, my bike was equipped SRAM Red as well as an S-Works bar and stem, plus the aforementioned CG-R seatpost. An S-Works crank is substituted for the Red unit. The Roval Rapide CLX 40s with Ceramicspeed bearings follow the example of Zipp’s Firecrest and Enve’s SES wheels which are designed around the idea using the spoke bed as a second leading edge. The way these wheels handled in the wind only served to confirm my previous experience that this rim shape makes a big difference, sending markedly less steering input to the rider than traditional deep-V designs. That said, braking performance was decidedly lacking. It was better than an aluminum rim in wet conditions, but it was far less than I’ve come to (reasonably) expect from a set of carbon clinchers.
My review bike, which included mechanical calipers carried a retail of $8000. Specialized supplanted this version with models sporting either SRAM’s hydro road rim brake or the hydro road disc, which run $500 more. Unfortunately, due to SRAM’s recall of those brakes, those bikes aren’t available in exactly those configurations currently. You may find them on the shop floor; SRAM is providing mechanical disks (cable-actuated) for all those who really can’t wait to have a disc version.
An $8k bike is more than many of us can afford, but here again, Specialized sets itself apart from many of its competitors by offering a stunning 15 different versions of this bike, from the $10,500 Dura-Ace Di2-equipped bike all the way down to an $1800-version. Very few companies come anywhere near this level of selection.
Specialized has taken some hits to its reputation in the last few years, first with the lawsuit against Volagi, then with the C&D letter to Cafe Roubaix. In both situations both parties claimed victory; whether that was true was really a matter of perspective. What was certain for all to see was the hit Specialized’s public image took. It’s a shame that ill-handled actions on the part of Specialized’s legal team should obscure the achievement on the part of the company’s product team. This is one fantastic bike.
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.
I’m with my family in Hawaii, theoretically on vacation. I say theoretically because I’ve been at my keyboard and on the phone far more than I promised my wife I would be. And the reason why is Charles Pelkey’s Explainer piece on the tussle going on between Specialized and Café Roubaix.
Because of the number of emails, phone calls and other messages I’ve received, as publisher, I suppose I have to weigh in a bit.
First off, Charles didn’t go rogue. I asked him to address the story. I fully endorse what he wrote and am willing to stand by it even if Specialized decides to pull their advertising. Neither Wayne Thompson, my ad sales director, nor I have heard anything from their marketing department (and believe me, they have our numbers), so I’ll take this, so far, as their endorsement of the freedom of the press. Let me add that if they were to pull their advertising, this would be a colossal hit to me personally. I’d have to take Mini-Shred out of preschool and the Deuce out of daycare. It wouldn’t end there, either. My wife would have me sleeping in my car until I made up the shortfall. I shit you not. This would turn my life upside down.
Charles isn’t insensitive to these issues, either. After hitting “Publish” on his piece he had the inconvenient experience of noticing the Specialized ad for, of all things, the Roubaix. He called me and offered to pull the piece. I wouldn’t allow it. I stand by him and I stand by the work we publish. If I don’t stand up for the things I believe, I don’t know how I’ll be able to tell my sons that integrity matters.
Specialized is a big, complicated company. I don’t like all of their business practices, but they have a remarkable history of making great bikes. I’ve bought three (including two for Mini-Shred) in the last two years.
I flat-out think the Canadian Patent and Trademark office fucked up when they issued Specialized a trademark on the name Roubaix. Note that the U.S. office didn’t grant that trademark; that should tell us all something. However, I’m troubled by a couple of things contained (or not) in the Calgary Herald piece. Richter doesn’t mention that he’s selling wheels and tires branded Café Roubaix. The story suggests that the cease and desist letter concerns the bike shop name. While the folks at Specialized won’t talk right now, I have to imagine they were far more concerned with this guy selling parts bearing that mark.
Consider for a moment if this guy was selling wheels branded “Firecrest.” I can imagine SRAM would go after him with some verve. Whether he’s a vet or not isn’t an issue. You could be a one-armed, Nobel-Peace-Prize recipient but if you steal my car, I’m calling the cops.
Café Roubaix owner Dan Richter told the paper that Specialized, “made it clear on no uncertain terms, they are going to sue.” I have to wonder why you would tell a newspaper someone is going to sue you if they haven’t actually sued you. Specialized is on lockdown and won’t talk; that suggests that even if they are playing the heavy they are at least talking and not actually suing. Could it be that Richter wanted to head off a possible suit by igniting a fire storm of public opinion? Seems a genius strategy, but will it really be that helpful when they get back to the negotiating table?
A subsequent opinion piece in the Herald by staff writer David Marsden faults Richter for not doing a trademark search on the word Roubaix, but really, who saw that coming?
This is going to be a PR black eye for Specialized that will resonate for years. If they’d handled this more quietly (and maybe they were trying; after all, they didn’t contact the Calgary Herald) then this wouldn’t have played so poorly for them. However, their screw-up, in my opinion, wasn’t sending the C&D letter to Richter, it was filing for the trademark on the word Roubaix.
It doesn’t matter that Specialized only applied for the Roubaix mark in cycling. Cycling is the only forum in which it has value. Roubaix is one of those words that carries the weight of tradition; it telegraphs more than endurance, it is the bar by which we measure a fortitude that is more of the mind than body. It’s a word that carries mythic weight, imperial meaning. It’s part of an international trust. No one, in my opinion, should have an exclusive right to use that word in a cycling context, and that, really, is the root of the outrage being directed at Specialized.
I know a great many fine people at Specialized. I like and respect Mike Sinyard. When I think of the CEOs in the bike biz who most embody the life of a dedicated cyclist, I think of him. I use him as an example not just of someone who I believe is authentically a cyclist, but how I’d like to be living my life in another 15 years. Yes, he works a lot, but he also rides a lot, and in cool places, to boot.
But his legal team is another matter. Seeking to trademark a term whose value you haven’t personally built is a kind of greed at best, a kind of theft at worst. Had Specialized called that bike the turnbuckle or the outrigger—names that have no meaning in cycling—and then Café Whatever came out with Outrigger wheels or Turnbuckle tires, they could have sued straight away and everyone would have wondered what the hell Dan Richter was thinking. Public sentiment wouldn’t have been an issue.
I don’t believe shunning Specialized for this breach of community etiquette serves anyone, though consumers are entitled to vote with their dollars. And big companies are entitled to vote with theirs as well, which means the big red S may yet pull their ad from us. Whether they do or not, I’ll continue to do my job as I see fit, and that means if they are willing to continue to send me their product, I’ll continue to review it conscientiously. I think it’s better for the community if we remain engaged. After all, who cares what your enemy thinks of you? It’s when a friend says, “Please, don’t drive drunk; that’s dumb, I’ll call you a cab,” that you know you’ve got someone looking out for you—and everyone else.
Now, with that off my chest, I’m going back to my vacation, which is already in progress.
Late last week I received a rather last-minute invitation from the PR machine at Specialized. They were wondering if I might be able to carve out a day to spend with Tom Boonen, Levi Leipheimer and the members of Omega Pharma-Quickstep’s Tour of California squad. After a quick consult with Mrs. Padraig, I started packing. I mean, who says no?
Now, I’m not going to try to snow you. We all know that this was a visit that didn’t carry the journalistic weight of a post-race press conference. Like I care. I am, at my core, a fan of all things cycling (okay, most things cycling; I’m still unwilling to ride a recumbent). And even though I have at times been critical of Tom Boonen for losing his focus as a professional athlete, I’ve been an admirer of his since his U.S. Postal days.
So I took a brief tour of OPQ’s makeshift service course before heading to the big, red S for our ride. I learned a few things while checking out their set up. First, almost the entire team is still on SRAM’s original Red group. Yes, Boonen won Roubaix on 2012 Red, but all the bikes I saw other than his featured Black Red. I also asked a bit about what bikes the riders receive and how much steering they receive about what bike should be ridden when. Specialized is pretty proud of the fact that Tommeke won Ghent-Wevelgem on a Venge, Flanders on a Tarmac and Roubaix on a Roubaix. So I’ve been curious to know how much of this was rider preference vs. sponsor input. I was surprised to learn that it’s 100 percent up to the rider. Getting this answer once from a team liaison was good, but not good enough. So I asked around a bit more, finally asking Boonen himself about his bike choice. Each time I got the same answer.
Each rider is given two Venges and two Tarmacs at the beginning of the season. They also receive a Roubaix for Roubaix. Boonen indicated that his bike of preference is the Venge and he goes for the Tarmac when the course is a bit rougher.
As one of the largest bike companies in the world, Specialized is a complicated entity. They’ve engaged in some business practices that have soured some people, notably the lawsuits with Volagi and Giro. And it’s not too hard to find former employees who can’t quite rinse the bitter taste from their mouths. Even among the happy, current employees, there’s widespread acknowledgement that Sinyard demands a lot from his workforce. In the same breath people add that he isn’t shy with the praise, though, and they do feel valued. I hate the phrase “work hard and play hard” because it has become such a cliché, but if ever there was an organization where the saying is applicable, Specialized is arguably it.
It’s a pretty rare day that any of the stars that Specialized sponsors actually visits the HQ. To my knowledge, this was the first time Boonen had visited; same for teammates like former world champion Bert Grabsch. The marketing team laid siege to the building, putting up posters, making up personalized stickers to put on the shower lockers each of the riders would use (alas, Leipheimer didn’t make it due to his ongoing recovery), embroidering towels and wash cloths, catering lunch and plenty more.
Is this sort of red-carpet treatment something that means much to the riders? I kinda doubt it. Sure, it must be fun for them, but this particular lot seemed on the introverted side and happy just to keep to themselves. I think it means a great deal more to the employees of Specialized. It’s easy for most of them to spend months or a year (or more) on a project and not necessarily see that translate to a big pro win. So events like these are a great way for them to connect to their work in a bigger-picture way. And let’s be honest, going out for your company’s lunch ride accompanied by some of the world’s finest pros has got be pretty stinkin’ cool.
The shot above is one of my favorites from the Specialized lunch ride that day. Unlike other occasions when the big boys join a group ride, these guys sifted through the group and spent some time chatting with the staffers. The pace stayed pretty mellow so that moving through the group wasn’t exactly risky among this unknown quantity.
At one point one of the members of the marketing team rode up to me and asked if I wanted to get my picture with any of the riders. I’m rather camera shy these days, even though I used to spend more time in front of the camera than behind it, so I initially said no. Part of my motivation was thinking that this is really about the Specialized employees and the event was really meant to give them a chance to interact with these athletes.
Then I came to my senses.
“Well, if someone was to accidentally on purpose get a photo of me next to Tom Boonen, I wouldn’t object.”
A few ks later, “Hey Patrick, look what I brought you!”
I turn and it’s Tom Boonen. After a brief reintroduction I admitted that I was among that army of journalists who had been rough on him in the past. So it was with some delight that I was able to tell him that in rediscovering his old form and having the spring he did, I was pleased for him. He was as gracious as one might hope. We talked a bit about what he changed for this season and while the details were plenty interesting, what captivated me was hearing him talk about going back to old-school training and just logging thousands of kilometers. I nearly fell of my saddle when he said, “I told the guys, let’s do this old school, like back when we were juniors.”
He was so relaxed about his training and yet there was an animation to him as he talked about riding. Say what you want, Tom Boonen really loves to ride his bike.
The Spring Classics season is over. Shit. And true to form it offered up some legend-burnishing performances (Boonen’s Flanders/Roubaix double) and some jaw-slackening surprises (Gasparotto at Amstel Gold).
The big winner, Tommeke Boonen, just put the cherry(s) on top of what has already been a peach of a season for Omega Pharma-QuickStep (OPQS). They’ve gotten wins on the road from Francesco Chicchi, Levi Leipheimer, Gerald Ciolek, Peter Velits, Michal Kwiatkowski, Julien Vermote, Niki Terpstra and Sylvain Chavanel as well; 2011 Time Trial World Champion Tony Martin hasn’t even pitched in yet, quite possibly because he had an altogether too close encounter with a car while training earlier this month.
Other big winners must include Green Edge, who put Simon Gerrans on the top step of the podium at Milan-San Remo, and Astana who took the final prize of the spring at Liege-Bastogne-Liege with Maxim Iglinskiy.
BMC showed well with Alessandro Ballan on podiums at both Flanders and Roubaix, but for a team of this caliber (and payroll) a pair of third places and a lot of anonymous rides from last year’s rider-of-the-season, Philipe Gilbert, has to be seen as an abject failure.
RadioShack-Nissan-Trek-Jingleheimer-Schmidt will also feel about as happy as kid who’s dropped his ice cream after watching Fabian Cancellara face plant in the feed zone at Flanders, shattering his collarbone and a potential rematch with Boonen over the the cobbles of le Nord. In the Ardennes, where the Schleck brothers made most favorites lists, the team fired nothing but blanks.
More could have been expected from Team Sky and perhaps Katusha also, but the Spring seldom runs to script.
This week’s Group Ride looks back wistfully at the just-done spate of races and asks: Who were your winners and losers? What did you love? And what did you hate?
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
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.
Bernard Hinault hated Paris-Roubaix. He called it “nonsense.” He raced it until he won, and then he quit showing up each year. Fabian Cancellara and Thor Hushovd and Tom Boonen all get paid to race it. They say they love it, but if they weren’t being paid, do you think they’d subject themselves to that torture. Of course, if you want to ride the route, you can sign up for the Paris-Roubaix Cyclo, which takes place every other year, and shell out your hard earned cash for a perineum pulverizing promenade over the pavé.
Such is our love for cyclo-suffering that we will actually pay for the privilege of experiencing the same pain as our heroes.
You can ride the Êtape du Tour, l’Eroica or the Flanders sportive. Each ride gives you a chance to challenge yourself over difficult terrain in a legendary locale. People are already doing these by the thousand, sometimes on vintage bicycles. Our sport is anything if not perpetually nostalgic, right?
Or, you can ride Paris-Brest-Paris, Boston-Montreal-Boston or even the Race Across America (RAAM). Go big and then go home. Why not?
Just the other day I met some gentlemen who are racing RAAM this year, and what struck me about them, beyond the passion for cycling they exuded, was just how like ordinary cyclists they looked. Any of them could be on your next group ride, and you’d never know what they were capable of. But they’re daring to do something extraordinary.
This week’s Group Ride asks: If you could ride one of the big events in cycling, not as a pro, but as an amateur, which would it be? This is not fantasy time. This is time to think about a challenge you might actually take on and ride. Tell us what you’d do, why you’d do it, and when you think it’ll happen.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
It’s still winter. It’s still cold. There’s snow down. Ice. Sand and grit. The wind is a flying dagger and the pavement is a black hole. Every night as I ride home in the dark, pedaling in and out of the glare of a million hostile headlights, I feel as though I’m on the moon. The wintertime road is a lonely place, a seeming light year from spring.
They say that discretion is the better part of valor, and that truism has been echoing in my head for the last month. Some weeks ago, I rode home with the air temperature at 9 and the wind gusting to 45mph. It was, as the kids say, epic. And perhaps stupid. My doctor friends warned me of the possible consequences of “exercising” in extreme temperatures. My wife looked at me askance and shook her head. Her eyes said, “Would it have killed you to take the bus?”
Of course, I’ve been reading a lot of my fellow sufferers lately. They talk about the form they’ll have in the spring, the misery of couchtime, the boredom of the trainer.
But I come back to discretion. Perhaps it would be better to take this time off, rest my body and hit the spring fresh. I could scale the mountain of books by my bedside with two full hours of reading on the train each day. The trainer is boring, but I can do laundry while I spin in place. To everything turn, turn, turn.
This winter is taking its toll on me. I am physically exhausted from riding into the wind every day. I have a chest cold that is moving into its third week of residency in my thorax. My skin appears to be sagging like the legs of a fat man’s bike shorts. I am slow. I am worn smooth, like a river stone. I am a winter shadow of my summer self.
Is this what the last section of pavé in Roubaix feels like? Is this what the third week of a Grand Tour comes down to? Is this my Mont Ventoux?
The word ‘toll’ denotes a price paid for some privilege, usually passage over a road. In that regard, I’ve certainly thrown the metaphoric coins in the metaphoric basket by continuing to scale the snow bank in front of my house with my bicycle slung over my shoulder.
In a tertiary definition, Webster’s also talks of that price being “grievous or ruinous.” In this connotation of the word, the toll is seen to be excessive, and maybe this is how I resolve my enduring ambivalence about this daily struggle. On the one hand, I’m paying for a privilege. I’m gaining access to something others aren’t allowed. And if that toll isn’t, in the final analysis, either grievous or ruinous, then perhaps the strictest discretion, those bits of reason that would put me on the couch in front of winter reruns or on the trainer, in the basement, next to the dryer, that discretion is not the better part of valor.
The better part of valor is softening your knees as you roll through a patch of slushy ice, keeping your weight back slightly to keep the front wheel from sliding out from underneath you. And, upon arrival, telling whomever asks that no, it’s not really that cold out.
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.