While at Copper Mountain I spent the better part of two days riding mountain bikes. For me, the point to the exercise was to ride a bunch of bikes I was unlikely to actually review, while expanding my vocabulary of bikes. I’ll also confess that with singletrack latticed across the ski area, not doing some mountain biking while there seemed like it would have been a criminal missed opportunity.
I do try not to be felonious.
The thing that surprised me as I walked by to my room following my last ride was that I never ended up riding anything with 26-inch wheels. It was both an accident and not. I’d intended to ride something with 26-inch wheels just to have the experience of riding the smaller wheels again, but every time I went to select another bike, I went with yet another 29er. I know what happened. My sense of fun trumped my interest in being thorough. It’s also why I did multiple runs (I’ll explain that in a minute) on two bikes rather than switching after each run. The sense I had was that the first run was the handshake and the second run was the conversation. I can’t say I was always faster on the second run, but I felt like I had a better feel for the bike the second time down the descent.
I need to reiterate that the altitude kicked my back 40. The base elevation for Copper Mountain is 9700 feet. That’s not so bad, except for the fact that I had to sleep at that altitude, too. The ongoing oxygen deprivation was almost comical in its effects. Even the slightest uphill effort could leave me lightheaded and gasping. So while I used to think that lift-served mountain biking was strictly for the Marlboro set, I need to admit that sometime this spring the thought occurred to me that if you weren’t pedaling up to the top of the mountain after each run you could get at least three times as many runs in. Other things this attractive include Mexican Coca-Cola, the Ferrari Daytona and a babysitter … that changes diapers. Hey, I’m a parent.
Yet another admission: Two days into our stay, had someone come to me with fast-acting EPO, like three-hours quick, I’d have gone for it. I don’t fault the folks at Specialized for picking such a lovely spot so completely devoid of oxygen; I just felt frustrated that I was so compromised in performance. I felt such a sense of desperation at my inability to pedal it gave me yet another window into what may transpire for some riders when they consider doping.
The elevation at the top of the lift was, as shown above, a whopping 10,700 feet. Following one trip up I decided to try to check out a trail that started a bit above where the lift ended. I’ll be generous in my retelling and claim that I rode 200 meters. You weren’t there, so you won’t know that I’m grossly exaggerating. When I pulled over to catch my breath, I made it look like it was a planned stop to go pee on a tree, not that anyone was watching, of course. Still, one must keep up appearances. Dignity and all, you know?
I was able to take in four lift-served runs. The first two were aboard the S-Works Camber, a 24-lb. trail bike with 110mm of travel and 29-inch wheels. While I’m unwilling to name names, I am willing to reveal that a few years ago the top engineer for one bike company known for making very fine road bikes said to me that full-suspension 29ers was just a bad idea, that they’d never ride well and that for reasons of control, you really wouldn’t want a 29er to have more than 100mm of travel. Ever.
Um. Yeah. About that. Do you think I should tell him how much I liked the Camber? No, me either. As an example of a bike that doesn’t work, the Camber fails miserably. That is, it fails at failing, which is to say it was good fun. I’ll admit that when I demoed one in spring of last year it was a heavier bike that really didn’t offer much in the way of interest. The steering was mildly quicker than the Stumpjumper FSR 29, but it weighed more and wasn’t as stiff. So when I purchased my bike, I went with the Stumpy. However, this new S-Works version of the Camber has a much more aggressive feel to it while still feeling plenty plush for my riding style.
And what is my riding style? Well let’s say I have the downhill competence of a cross-country rider who’d like to be a freerider, just without all the airtime. I know, kinda lame, but if I’m in the air, it’s usually because it’s being handled by someone with a license and a logbook. The reality is that for a great many of us who have come to an agreement with our own mortality, one in which we promise not to bait it and in return we get a chance to have some fun, if not stupid, free-fall fun, a bike like the Camber is pretty cool. It’s not a cross-country race bike; it’s a mountain bike for people who enjoy cruising single track and aren’t afraid to pedal uphill some. For roadies who want a full-suspension 29er and aren’t planning to race cross country, this is a great example of what to look for.
After my runs on the Camber I took a break for lunch. It was there that at least two different Specialized staffers said I really needed to take a run on the Enduro. You’ll pardon me if at least initially I took their exhortations as a sort of ill-advised encouragement to a new driver—”Hey, you like cars? Forget that Ford Escort. Just wait until you try the Porsche 911!”
I was wary in that last-time-I-did-this-I-broke-my-arm sort of way. Not that I’ve broken my arm in more than 35 years, but still. When I expressed concern at what I’d do with more than six inches of travel, how it seemed unjust to use a Bugatti Veyron to drive to church (within the speed limit), I got assured nods that I would, indeed, know what to do with it. That nature would take its course. Seriously? I can’t tell a seven-inch-travel bike from an eight-inch-travel bike, at least not unless you tell me which is which. In as much as I have a wheelhouse, downhill bikes don’t enter my bridge; hell, they aren’t on my boat.
As it turned out, the only way to end the conversation, or at least steer it to something else as we ate lunch, was to promise that I would take at least one run on the thing. I pictured my mother astride a Ducati—any Ducati—as the rough approximation of me tearing down the singletrack on the Enduro.
To recap: The Enduro veers from the outer reaches of trail bikes into all-mountain—better known to some as freeride. It features 29-inch wheels, 165mm of travel, weighs less than a fair-size dog (25.9 lbs.) and I was told had chainstays short enough to avoid that bus-in-a-parking-lot feeling so common to the Stumpy 29er when trying to negotiate switchbacks; more objectively, they measure 41.9cm compared to the Stumpy’s 45cm stays. The Camber is right in the same territory, at 44.7cm.
At low speeds this thing doesn’t countersteer; all steering requires just that, steering. That takes a bit of getting used to. It felt a bit ungainly initially. However, once I dropped into the singletrack and got the thing up to speed (I have no idea just how fast that might have been but it was roughly between “look out!” and “oh yeah!”) it handled naturally, moving with me rather than in response to me. There were times when I could easily have cruised around some rocks and instead I just railed through them, just to see what the bike could do. What it did was roll through the stuff as if it was as unremarkable as pocket lint. Whatevs.
Sure enough, when I got to the first couple of switchbacks I noticed the Enduro carved through them in a way neither the Stumpy or Camber could. Shortly thereafter I lost time. What I recall is being aware that just after New Order’s “True Faith” started on my iPod, I began letting the bike run. I have a memory of me singing along to Peter Gabriel’s “I Have the Touch,” Thomas Dolby’s “One of Our Submarines” and Sinead O’Connor’s “Troy” but the rest of the run is a series of mental snapshots captured mostly when I needed to hit the brakes.
Terrain that had been difficult on the Camber was a good deal easier on the Enduro and stuff that was fun on the Camber became stupidly exhilarating. At one point I pulled over just to give my arms a break. After clipping out and pulling out one of my earbuds I noticed a sound. I was laughing.
It was on my second run that I gave a bit of thought to why the bike was working so well for me. Ever since I’d made the switch to suspension in the early ’90s (a whopping 80mm of travel back then), I had appreciated that while some riders saw suspension as a ticket to air time, the real benefit to suspension was improved control. The more your wheels are in contact with the trail, the more control you have over where the bike is going. The Enduro allowed me more than just control; it gave me a certain faith that everything would just work out in those dicier situations. I’d see braking bumps and ruts and think, “Problem!” to which the bike looked back with the face of Alfred E. Newman and said,
Still, I braked too much.
The Enduro is arguably the biggest surprise in a cycling experience I’ve encountered in more than 10 years. I really didn’t think the bike would work for me, and as it turns out, I was able to make enough use of it that I could appreciate the intention behind the bike. There is still room for me to develop as a rider with that bike, which is something I think is important in any mountain bike purchase. Allowing for your developing skills is an aspect of a mountain bike purchase that really doesn’t have an analog in road bikes.
Our final day of riding gave us the opportunity to do a group ride, either on- or off-road. I chose the dirty ride with the hope that I wouldn’t be DFL on the climb up to Searle Pass. As it turns out, I wasn’t, but that’s only because I didn’t ride the full eight miles there. At five miles I was so hypoxic I couldn’t have spelled the word that refers to the condition. For the ride, I’d chosen the S-Works Epic World Cup. This 100mm travel beauty with 29-inch wheels carved like a paring knife but really left most of the suspension duties to the rider. Elbows and knees are the ticket. At five miles I’d reached an elevation of roughly 11,200 feet and realized that even if I could ride higher I wouldn’t be conscious to enjoy it. It was after turning around that I really wished I had selected a bike with more travel. The kicker was the realization that the Enduro was just as nimble (at least, in my hands) in the switchbacks as the Epic. Oh, and a word to the wise: This whole one-chainring-thing really only works if you’re in proper condition. It’s funny to me how roadies can never have too high a gear while mountain bikers have figured out they really won’t pedal a hugemongous gear, so they don’t bring it along.
This past week I and at least one journalist from every reputable cycling media outlet flew to Colorado to attend the launch of the 2014 product line for Specialized. I heard at least five languages other than English spoken, and no less than six distinct accents of English uttered. At one point at the mountain bike demo tent one of the mechanics called my name so I could go over for saddle height adjustment and suspension setup and I responded with, “C’est moi,” which I do from time to time when I’m kidding around. Well, given the population assembled at the oxygen-deprived locale of Copper Mountain, the tech turned and said, “Oh, sorry, are you from France? Are you with a French magazine?”
Me and my sense of humor.
In addition to all the journalists, many of Specialized’s top dealers were in attendance as well. I’d prefer not to contemplate the logistics (and expense) of assembling so many people at a ski resort; it’s just too overwhelming. But for a big bike company like Specialized, such a gathering makes a lot of sense. Rather than try to introduce all the new products in a noisy trade show booth, they can make a deliberate (and rehearsed) presentation in a function room, complete with projector and sound system to make sure everyone follows along.
I attended presentations on the new road line, the mountain line, the women’s line and what they are now calling the “core” line. Core refers to all those bread-and-butter items in a product line—aluminum road bikes, entry level mountain bikes, including some oddball stuff like a go-anywhere touring bike and even, yes, a fat bike.
I’ve not been invited to this event for some years. Previously, when I attended I focused exclusively on the products I was most likely to review in the coming year. This time I decided to do things in a different way. Because I tend to get to ride the S-Works and Pro level bikes, I figured I’d branch out and ride some of the bikes I’m less likely to review. Well, mostly.
My first ride after the presentations were over was on a Venge Pro Race Force, which is to say a frame one step down from S-Works equipped with SRAM Force components; it retails for $5800. I’ve been meaning to ride a Venge for ages, but circumstances just haven’t lined up. Until now. We rolled out from Copper Mountain and headed downhill to Frisco, where we did a loop on the bike path around Dillon Reservoir, a place that gave my colleague Dillon Clapp of ROAD endless opportunities for self-referential jokes. I concede, he set them up well, even when I saw them coming.
Under ordinary circumstances, I can learn 80 percent of what I’m going to find out about a bike in the first five or ten miles … provided I can make some efforts. Given my current state of fitness, which can easily be described as one in which a 12-year-old paper boy with a full load of papers and one leg tied behind his back could drop me, being at 9700 feet of elevation (the height of the village at Copper Mountain) left me with as much operating bandwidth as someone trying to watch a YouTube video over a dial-up modem. I could stand up long enough to make five or six pedal strokes (okay, maybe it was a dozen), but then I’d have to sit back down and stop pedaling and pant like a dog stranded in the Mojave.
What I can say for sure is that I’d happily do more miles on the Venge. It’s not nearly as harsh a ride as the Cervelo S5 and it was stiffer in torsion than some of the other aero bikes I’ve ridden. Specialized likes to say the Venge is more bike than aero, and I get what they are claiming. Just how aero it is when compared to other aero road bikes is what would require some research.
It was during the “Core” presentation that I was introduced to the latest iteration of the Specialized Allez. The bike has been around in its current form for a year, but it completely escaped me. I don’t have any notes or photos of it from the last Interbike, which is a shame because I was suitably impressed by the presentation to feel that riding it was warranted.
What makes the bike remarkable is the aluminum tube set. Yes, you read that last sentence correctly. Specialized’s Chris D’Aluisio invented a new process, now patented, called Smartweld that increases the strength and stiffness of the front end of the bike. The top and down tubes curl inward, like the bottom of a soda can, and meet a hydroformed (and size-specific) head tube with similar inward-curled sockets for the top and down tubes. This creates a kind of 360-degree trough for the weld bead, making it easier for a less-than-expert welder to perform the weld correctly. Afterward, there’s less grinding away of material.
The frame is anodized to keep weight down while giving the bike a stylish finish. You can see the Smartweld as a vertical stripe in the top and down tubes. While the Smartweld is ground smooth, the other welds on the frame, such as those at the bottom bracket, have the traditional look of a Dynafiled weld bead.
Specialized is offering an S-Works edition of the Allez and the frame, rather incredibly, bears a claimed weight of only 1060g for a 56cm frame. I rode both the S-Works version as well as the Comp. The Comp has a mostly 105 drivetrain with an FSA crank and retails for $1350. The S-Works version featured the 11-sp. Dura-Ace group, and while last year’s bike was $7k, there’s no word yet on what this year’s version will go for. And yes, Virginia, that is a lot of money for an aluminum bike.
What I can say about the ride quality of the two bikes is that they are impressive. The Comp was as good as anything I’ve ridden in the past, while the S-Works was easily the finest-riding aluminum frame I’ve encountered. Because there are multiple price points for this bike, the tube sets vary some as well. I’ll go as far as to say that I preferred the ride of the S-Works Allez to some carbon frames I’ve been on. What I can’t really speak to is just how stiff the bike is in torsion. While I made some efforts, they were so compromised by the altitude I doubt I generated 200 watts on any of them. It’s possible this bike won’t be quite as impressive if I take it on a sea level group ride.
My first day-and-a-half of riding left me with the desire to spend more time on the Venge and the Allez. I’ll be honest and say that I find S-Works stuff far more interesting (and satisfying) to ride. The pricier bikes simple feel better as I ride them and that has nothing to do with how much better a Dura-Ace shifter functions as compared to a 105 (and the difference is dramatic).
That said, I’m aware that not everyone has enjoyed the benefits of President Reagan’s trickle-down economics (maybe because it didn’t work), meaning not everyone is going to spend $5k (or more) on a bicycle. Most folks have the good sense to own a home and have a college fund for their kids, which means a $14,000 bike is a recipe for nothing so much as a divorce. I anticipate I’m going to revisit both the Venge and the Allez in a longer review, even though the rides I did at the press intro were supposed to cure me of that urge. Go figure. My sense is that if I was still racing, rather than risk killing an expensive carbon frame in a crash during a crit, I’d purchase something like an Allez or a Cannondale CAAD10.
Specialized, in conjunction with McLaren has introduced a new ultra-aero time trial helmet. So new, so special is this helmet that only two of them exist—so far. As you read this, those helmets are in the possession of Tony Martin and Levi Leipheimer. Their particular combinations of badass time trialist, über-fast bike, none-faster-than helmet and all the ensuing confidence one derives from carrying the biggest gun in the shootout could make the coming Tour de France prologue a little extra satisfying for the folks in Morgan Hill.
Last week I attended the introduction of this new helmet at the McLaren Technology Center in Surrey, outside London. Both Specialized and McLaren are reluctant to share too many details of their working relationship. They could teach a graduate workshop on discretion. And I freaking hate that. I’ve often described myself as the eternal Discovery Channel watcher. I love to learn and I’m full of questions, even at this point in my life. My visit to McLaren was both one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever visited and one of my least satisfying experiences in writing about the bike industry. At a certain point I just stopped asking questions because they couldn’t/wouldn’t/shouldn’t answer.
So what are we left with? Well, let’s have a look at this helmet. They’ve been working on it for … a while. We really don’t know how long. What we know is that according to their wind tunnel data they’ve devised the absolute fastest helmet on the planet. They spent twice the amount of time in the wind tunnel as they did when designing the Venge, which suggests they would have spent a similar increase in time using Computational Fluid Dynamic (CFD) software to evaluate design changes even before getting to the wind tunnel. These days, most companies doing advanced aerodynamic work do all the heavy lifting with CFD and use the wind tunnel for proof-of-concept.
So what is CFD?
Do you remember the scene in Yellow Submarine where you see the music flowing out of the musical instruments as if it was a fog of beauty settling over the landscape? As a kid, I loved that visual—truth be told, that hasn’t changed; I still love the image of music settling over people as if beauty itself was washing over them. Visualizing the invisible isn’t strictly the domain of hippies on halucinogens, though they rightfully believe they hold a special ownership of that space.
CFD or Computational Fluid Dynamics does much the same thing (not as LSD, but making the invisible visible). Workstations running CFD software take an imaginary wind and blow it over a theoretical shape and then show you in a kind of lines-and-arrows diagram just how the air moves over that surface. Better yet, it can generate short movies to show you just what happens in areas of turbulence.
It’s amazingly cool to see; bong within easy reach, my college roommate could have watched this for whole Saturdays.
I have the sense that Specialized and McLaren looked at the TT helmet market and thought that they might be able to knock that problem off just to show how effective their partnership is. After all, a new TT bike can be years in the making. They just introduced the Venge last year. The wheel market is glutted with new ideas (some of which are working very well). I’m betting that the TT helmet is an interim project while they work on something bigger—a bike—on a longer development timeline.
So what really makes this helmet different? If you’re going to reduce this helmet to its two most important achievements, the first would be its drag numbers for when the rider looks down. Many TT helmets have great head-on drag. The problem is that they turn into sails if you pull a little red kite prayer. While this helmet doesn’t manage to maintain the same drag numbers head-on as head-down, its head-down numbers are so good that it is still faster than some companies’ helmets head-on. The chart below is a small sampling of the many helmets the big red S tested; I saw a chart that was hard to read because it listed so many helmets. This one is a good deal easier to follow.
This chart is also notable for an unintended reason: I had no idea the Spiuk Kronos was so damn fast. Go figure.
The second significant development introduced with this helmet are its gill vents. At the rear of the helmet there are slits along the top and sides that help channel air by and through the helmet to speed its flow. Not only do they make the helmet faster, they move more air over the rider’s head, we’re told, helping to keep him cooler as he rides.
There have been a great many TT helmets that were little more than fairings with a pad or two. They were as protective as a perforated condom, though entirely more popular. The S-Works helmet offers real protection and even uses dual-density foam to keep head trauma to an absolute minimum should you go down.
It’s hard to know just what McLaren provides Specialized in their partnership. Both companies are—quite understandably—pretty tight-lipped about the work they do together, that is, beyond revealing a new product. During the presentation I attended they talked about some of their work being strictly about technology. It was veiled and cryptic enough to be worthy of a Jedi master. Just what they meant I really don’t understand.
But let’s back up a second. McLaren’s Advanced Technology Division exists to bring McLaren’s considerable technological prowess to less fortunate companies. What I learned during our visit is that they spend a lot of time evaluating companies before they make an approach. And yes, so far as I understand, they reach out to you after deciding you’re cool enough. You’ve got to have the horsepower to be able to spend copiously on development. You’ve also got to have a reputation for predation, identity-wise and an ability to convey brainy gnar in your marketing.
Our tour of McLaren was exceedingly entertaining, what with the wheel-change competition on one of the Vodafone Formula One cars (and wherein our protagonist nearly peeled the skin from his thumb in an ill-timed activation of the air wrench), but probably encompassed less than 10 percent of the building. We saw cars driven by Ayrton Senna, Lewis Hamilton and Emerson Fittipaldi and had the ability to take pictures of nary an item we saw outside of the area where the intro was conducted.
Next spring this helmet will begin appearing at select Specialized retailers at a retail price that I suspect will fit somewhere between emergency room visit and college tuition. It’s fair to surmise that those retailers will all be Specialized Concept Stores.
Every now and then I run across a product that seems to have weaknesses equal to its strengths. As a reviewer, that leaves me in a quandary. Because I write about more than product, and really don’t want the mind-numbing job of trying to write about every single road-oriented product on the market (a task so large that it simply isn’t achievable), I’ve chosen to focus on products that excite and I believe are worthy of some attention and market share. The upshot is that I tend to get steered into higher-end products and don’t do a lot on more budget-oriented items even when there are great ones out there. Well, that and I use it as an opportunity, generally speaking, to avoid having a go at a product that I consider inferior. As my review of the Colnago CLX 2.0 last year showed, even after lambasting that bike (no matter how reluctantly) a couple of readers took the opportunity to write in to say they purchased the bike and loved it.
There’s no point in dragging this out in some overly dramatic build-up. I have a serious degree of ambivalence for the Specialized ’74 Road Shoes. I’ll do what I can to keep this simple and direct. Okay, genuine selling point: The FACT carbon sole is both stiff and light. My sense is that it’s not quite as stiff as the Easton carbon sole, but it’s stiffer than everything else I’ve ridden so far. Another genuine selling point: double Boa closures. There’s not another system on the planet that results in a more precise fit for cycling shoes. No matter how much I might like some other systems, Boa is simply better. Another selling point: Kangaroo leather. Try these shoes on and you’ll be reminded of just how soft and supple a cycling shoe can be. I couldn’t tell you the last time I wore a cycling shoe that featured leather this soft. It might be a pair of Sidis I had back in the 1980s. I can certainly list a dozen pairs of shoes I’ve worn that aren’t anywhere as soft as these.
Then there’s the look. The simple black leather with the red/orange/yellow tag and yellow stitching, not to mention the single Specialized “S” logo on the toe and the “74″ on the outside of the heel, makes these shoes as agreeable to look at as Grace Kelly in Rear Window—classic and classy. They are a serious departure from the typical S-Works product even though they are built on a decidedly S-Works platform.
So there’s plenty to recommend these shoes. That said, I haven’t had the shoes long enough to find out if the kangaroo leather will stretch with repeated riding. My circa 1980s Sidis stretched terribly when I switched from clips and straps to clipless pedals; the eyelets almost pulled through. But a bit of stretch could serve these shoes well for any number of people, especially those who, like me, have a high-volume foot. So that’s only a maybe problem.
What troubles me about this shoe is the last two inches of it. If you’ve seen any of the display ads for the 74 shoe, it is placed alongside an original Specialized cycling shoe from that era. If you look closely, you’ll notice that the heel cup curls down around the ankle and then rises high in back to keep the foot secure, even under the force of a sprint. The 74 shoe is cut less on a curve; it looks a lot like those other cycling shoes that were on the market in the ’70s and ’80s. While the heel rises nearly as high as the comparable S-Works shoe, it doesn’t rise as high and the difference in feel is noticeable … and disconcerting.
Look, I haven’t done a full-on sprint in these shoes and pulled out a la Tom Schuler at the US Pro Championships back in ’86. And I don’t even have the right to say I could. It might never happen. However, the feeling that my heel is not as secure as it is in a shoe that runs $40 less (more on that in a sec), is distinct and has caused me to throttle back efforts because I don’t feel secure enough. And because the S-Works shoe runs $360, that $40 premium means these retail for a not insignificant $400.
As I said, there’s a lot to like about these shoes, but my issues with the heel cup and the fact that I simply don’t feel as secure when wearing this shoe as I do when pedaling away in its sibling has the bummer factor of finding out your favorite beer is made using child labor. Really? What gives? Can’t they fix that?
But damn, they look cool.
On a brighter note, the gloves are wonderful, full stop. While many Pittards-leather gloves can go for $60 or more, the 74 glove is a long-finger glove that is only $55. Pairing the gloves and shoes with an understated kit will make for stylish appearance, there’s no doubt. It’s worth noting that the back of the hand features four Lycra gussets to improve fit and flexibility. And while they look good on my hands as i ride, they’d be an even better accessory were I driving a Porsche. On a more technical note, I tend to wear gloves like this in cool but not cold conditions; I prefer them from the low 50s to the low to mid 60s. They also have the advantage of coming in a whopping five sizes. Those of you with big hands who have had trouble finding gloves big enough to accommodate your mits might appreciate the XL and XXL sizes.
I suspect that after I return to wearing the S-Works shoes, each time I pull these gloves on I’ll continue to wish the 74 shoe fit better than it did. Of course, I can keep them around for recovery rides and those breezy jaunts when you don’t want to feel anything more than the wind in your face. For that, these shoes may be perfect.
I’m partial to any occasion that gets people into a bike shop for a reason other than pure commerce. Bike shops have always been a part of my sense of community, even if that shop is 100 miles away. The best shops find ways to make themselves part of the social fabric of the cycling community and when it does happen, the benefits can be profound and unexpected.
Cynergy Cycles, the flagship among Specialized‘s Concept Stores, held a charity event to benefit Right To Play. The organization targets children in areas ravaged by war and disease, using the transcendent power of play and sport to heal those children and help them chart a better future for themselves. The tie-in to Cynergy came through Specialized which sponsors Team HTC-High Road, one of Right To Play’s Global Corporate Partners.
The shop sold 100 tickets to the event at $100 each. For that, attendees got a dinner catered by Wolfgang Puck (it was quite good), wine, beer or coffee (perhaps all three?), a gift bag and $25 gift card to Cynergy. Better yet, they got to meet the HTC-High Road squad for the Tour of California and were entered in a drawing to win a Specialized S-Works HTC-High Road team frame set.
Another 10 folks got their picture taken with the team for their $250 donation.
Emcee for the event was Phil Keoghan of The Amazing Race and NOW: No Opportunity Wasted.
And while I was pretty jazzed to see Mike Sinyard and meet Allan Peiper, it may be that the biggest stars of the evening had neither the last name Goss or Van Garderen. Specialized was showing off one of a handful of the McLaren edition Venges and the local McLaren dealer was on-hand with both a chassis and working MP4-12C. You’ll pardon me if I tell you it was the sexiest thing in Santa Monica that night.
I’m keen to learn more about the McLaren edition of the Venge. I’m aware that it enjoys its own layup room, its own (much lengthier) layup schedule, not to mention its own blend of carbon fiber. That’s probably as close as I’ll come to the bike though; at $20k, I doubt they’ll be loaning any out for bike reviews. So far, they seem to be most popular with McLaren customers, who are picking them up as the ultimate fashion accessory.
Stuff like this just doesn’t happen often enough. A few PROs, a cool new bike, an amazing car and more than $12k raised for charity. Not bad.
After doing some group rides in which I knew the roads well, I ventured out to do some of the longer rides that take in some climbing and descending. I started with gentler roads with sweeping turns. The bike had a complete and utter lack of the nervousness I feared would characterize this bike’s handling above 30 mph. It was stable at 40 mph and turned in easily.
Next, I took it north to Malibu’s challenging canyon roads. If ever there was a place where a bike will demonstrate a weakness in how it handles in turns, Malibu is it. Turns come in rapid succession and very few of the roads can be descended safely without touching your brakes. Toss in a little off-camber action here and there plus the odd decreasing-radius turn and you have a veritable buffet of cornering challenges.
It was in Malibu that the Tarmac surprised me. What I expected isn’t what I’ve encountered with so many crit bikes: You get them above 40 mph and the front end starts to get loose. I’ve never understood the phenomenon, especially considering on paper it shouldn’t be happening. However, just what that phenomenon is will be addressed in a different post devoted just to trail.
Here’s the important part: At speeds above 40 mph the Tarmac was rock solid. What’s more, it remained easy to turn in. I have experienced the opposite of some crit bikes, bikes that were so rock solid in a straight line they resisted turning in—at all. The experience was a little like trying to drive a Greyhound bus through a parking garage at 50 mph. Showing Kim Jong Il the value of civil liberties would be both easier—and safer.
By the time I reached the bottom of Tuna Canyon Road the first time I descended it on the Tarmac, all of my assumptions about the Tarmac’s handling had been tossed aside like an unfinished energy bar. I concluded that the Tarmac was the heir to the handling I’ve always believed to be part of Specialized’s brand identity. I have yet to ride a touring bike that handled half as well as my Expedition and if you want to know how elegantly a lightweight cross country bike can handle, just climb on a Stumpjumper. The Tarmac redefined what I think a sport bike can be expected to deliver.
One aspect of the Tarmac’s handling that really can’t be overly emphasized is its stiffness. There are stiffer bikes out there, but I think the Tarmac offers spectacular stiffness for those of us who don’t generate 1000 watts (let alone more) in a sprint. Steering is particularly crisp with this bike, in part due to the tapered steerer which uses a 1.5-inch bearing at the bottom race and a standard 1.125-inch bearing at the top. This also increases stiffness in torsion by allowing the engineers to design a larger diameter down tube to mate to the rather enormous head tube.
My one and only quibble with this bike is its road sensitivity. The Tarmac SL is meant to be different from the Roubaix in two ways: comfort and handling. While the handling is sufficiently differentiated, I do have an issue (a small one) with one component of the Tarmac SL’s comfort. It doesn’t seem to me that the Tarmac SL should damp as much vibration it does. My basis for comparison in this regard are some other bikes in this price range that offer more road feel; they are few, but they are there. Getting this particular balance right is a colossal challenge, though; I think the SL2 delivers great road feel but is too stiff. The SL gets the stiffness right, but would benefit from a touch more sensitivity. My limited time on the SL3 says they got the whole package right.
With the introduction of the new Amira model—the women’s version of the Tarmac, which is built with women’s proportions in mind—Specialized can lay claim to producing the Tarmac in more sizes than any other bike company offers for a production road bike—11. The Tarmac is produced in six sizes, while the Amira is offered in five. And despite the crazy assertion by Giant CFO Bonnie Tu that no other company is designing bikes for women, Specialized’s commitment to women is arguably deeper than any other bike company going, with four road models and five off-road models.
Like the Roubaix Pro, the Tarmac Pro is equipped with a Dura-Ace drivtrain save for the S-Works carbon fiber crank. Unlike the Roubaix, the Tarmac’s S-Works crank is equipped with 53t and 39t chainrings. Ultegra brakes do the stopping.
The Tarmac Pro rolls on Fulcrum Racing 1 wheels. The wheels are fairly light, boasting a claimed weight of 1485g for the pair, but what most surprised me is that in more than 2000 miles of riding at this writing, they are as true as the words from a Boy Scouts lips. It is reasonable, in my opinion to conclude that Fulcrum’s 2:1 ratio of drive spokes to non-drive spokes does substantially aid the wheel by equalizing spoke tension. This is even more impressive when you consider that the front wheel has but 16 spokes and the rear has 21. I’ve had whisky that wasn’t this stiff.
The tires deserve some mention as well. The 700×23 S-Works Mondos feature a Kevlar bead and Flak Jacket protection combined with a 127 tpi casing. This tire ought to be unremarkable, and surprisingly, it corners like an architect’s T-square and I have yet to get a single flat. That’s as unlikely as a zero-calorie beer that tastes like a fine IPA.
Changes from 2009 to 2010 for the Tarmac SL include swapping the S-Works crank for a Dura-Ace one, subbing the Dura-Ace front derailleur for an Ultegra model and swapping the Fulcrums for Ksyrium Elites. My test bike weighed in at 15.5 lbs. before pedals and cages.
I’ll admit that I was infatuated enough by the Roubaix and wary enough of the Tarmac’s geometry that I really didn’t think I’d enjoy it much or put that many miles on it. Of all the bikes I’ve reviewed over the years, this may be the biggest surprise I’ve ever experienced. I love this bike.
Specialized Tarmac Pro: 94 points
Still to come: The Roubaix and Tarmac, head-to-head