Twelve years ago the Sea Otter Classic was a collection of bike races with some industry friendliness thrown in. It is an unusual event in that it embraces nearly every discipline of bike racing going. Back then, people hung out to watch the racing and during the road events, Laguna Seca’s famed corkscrew would host dozens of spectators. Mountain bike teams would set up their rigs in the infield and a handful of companies would set up small expo booths.
There’s road racing, cross-country, downhill, dual slalom and more. Throw in a 24-hour event, an alley cat and some track racing and all that would be missing would be the West Coast’s first spring ‘cross race. Yes, Virginia, there is a pump track if air time is more important to you than speed.
Today, the Sea Otter boasts an enormous expo, larger than Mammoth Mountain’s was back in the late ‘90s. Every company that has a serious presence in racing has a rig there to support their race programs and generally provide limited support to their customers. Bike shops sell everything from tires and tubes to helmets and cassettes. Frame builders show off their latest creations.
There’s stuff for kids to do, right down to races of their own. And they can meet the Sea Otter mascot.
Periodically, attendees will see a cordoned-off area with a bunch of (mostly male) journalists taking notes and pictures with impossibly small cameras. The fact is, Sea Otter has becoming the go-to locale for product introductions that weren’t ready for the prime time of Interbike. Truly, unveiling a product at Sea Otter can be advantageous to a company. How many story lines can you really hope for the press to cover at Interbike? For those companies constantly on the move, Sea Otter gives you a way to space out product intros so that a company can get press on a more year-round basis.
SRAM took the opportunity to announce another road group, Apex. So what’s the big deal? Gearing. With Apex, SRAM has slain the triple. Apex does a good deal more, though.
With a possible low gear of 34×32, Apex can get any cyclist up any hill. It carries a suggested retail price of $749, which is impressive given that Apex enjoys a 10-speed cassette and can be used to build up a 16-lb. bike. Theoretically, it will appear on bikes as inexpensive as $1500.
Some years ago I wrote that Shimano’s 9-speed Ultegra group was the best value in road groups ever produced. It was available in both double and triple versions, could easily build a 17-lb. bike and could be purchased at retail for $600. All in all, a fantastic value. I stood by that analysis until Friday. Last Friday.
Apex has the ability to make road cycling friendly to a great many people. I’ve seen plenty of new roadies ride around in a 39×23 and ask me what to do if they encounter a hill. Those days are—once and for all—over.
Apex comes in four
cassette sizes: 11-23, 11-26, 11-28 and 11-32. Walk into any shop in America and you can talk to a salesman who has sold mountain bikes just because the customer was overweight and was concerned about having gears low enough to get up a hill near home. Apex solves that issue—even for San Francisco. SRAM refers to the new system as WiFLi—Wider, Faster and Lighter.
Two different rear derailleurs were designed for Apex. The 11-23 and 11-26 cassettes work with a traditional short-cage derailleur while the 11-28 and 11-32 work with a longer cage version. Price and gearing are the only details that make Apex noteworthy. Everything else about the group is just very … SRAM. By that I mean the levers feel like every other SRAM lever I’ve ever used.
One of my issues with Shimano’s more affordable groups has been the degradation of shifting performance and lever feedback as price drops. In the Sora and Tiagra groups it’s been bad enough that I always steer people away from bikes equipped with those groups. By contrast, the Apex levers feature very firm spring response. There’s no mistaking when or how far you’ve shifted.
I refuse to discuss Campy’s “affordable” groups in this post. I haven’t seen anything less expensive than Chorus on the road in years. For reasons I can’t explain, I’m suddenly reminded of the scene in American Beauty—“It’s all I smoke … It’s $1000 an ounce.”
Similarly, the brakes feel like every other set of SRAM brakes I’ve used. In short, they stop. The constantly shifting sand underlying Shimano brake performance can be a colossal frustration. And since when did a less expensive bike have a reduced need to stop? Does it really make sense than Dura-Ace, Shimano’s most expensive group, would have the greatest stopping power? I’m thinking new riders want to be convinced they’ll stop in plenty of time. After all, a good deal of getting a new rider into roadiedom is reassuring them that they will have sufficient control over their bike.
The cranks come in three versions: 53/39, 50/36 and what is likely to be the most popular, the 50/34. And because we’re talking SRAM, they are available in lengths from 165mm to 180mm.
So after sitting through the dog and pony show, I headed back to the booth the next day for a test ride of the group. We’d do a 1.5-hr. loop culminating in the climb back into Laguna Seca. For those who have never visited the race track, the access road is a roughly 1-mile climb that reaches grades of 16 percent. Armed with a 34×32 low gear, we were assured we could remain seated for the whole of the climb.
Our guide for the ride was Michael Zellman (above), the PR manager for road products at SRAM. One of the features of Apex is its compatibility with other SRAM groups. To prove the point, Michael substituted the rear derailleur on his Red group for Apex and replaced his Red cassette with an Apex 11-32 cassette (probably added a longer chain, too). Boom. Mountain climbing machine.
Of course, the big question regarding the cassette is the spacing. Little known secret: You are most apt to notice a problem with spacing when you’re at or above threshold. If the jump is too big, you’re heart rate will go up just out of sheer frustration. I tend to notice this when I’m upshifting to find a bit more meat and my concern was that jump from 32 to 28. It wasn’t a problem. The biggest jumps come elsewhere in the cassette.
While I’d like to have a chance to get 1000 or so miles on the group, what I can say for now is this: In a pinch, you could easily do a fast group ride with the 11-32 cassette. It’s true that a triple would offer smaller jumps between gears; however, most triples will replicate roughly six gears and weigh an extra 10-15 percent more than the Apex solution. And Apex gives you more low-end and more high-end gearing than the average triple would.
This is, in all likelihood, the best value in road groups we’ll see for years to come.
Cutting the chase: the image above, which I snapped on the way back into Laguna Seca and right about where you’re certain that a 16-percent grade can only be attributed to engineering compromised by methamphetamine is, I believe, the lasting image that SRAM would like to convey. On the right, the past. On the left, the present.
Stay tuned for a more in-depth review.
The wheel market has exploded with the vengeance of the mosquito population at a stagnant pond in the Deep South during a drought-plagued summer. We’ve been overrun with wheels, much the way I just overran my good sense and your patience in that last sentence.
Doubt that? Nearly every company that used to offer wheel components—DT, Campagnolo, Mavic, Shimano, American Classic, Chris King and Ambrosio for starters—now offers complete wheels. There are some notable exceptions, such as Wheelsmith and Sapim, who have elected to stick with spokes and nipples, and Phil Wood (hubs), but the vast majority of companies that produced components that I used to build wheels from now offer complete wheelsets.
By a certain sort of math, you could make an argument that expansion brought about a tripling of the wheel market. The result has changed what it means to purchase a high-end wheelset. Given the incredible number of poorly built handmade wheels I saw over the years (How many racers did I see not finish a race because their wheels didn’t hold up?), this isn’t a bad thing … on one level. On another, it can be terrible at times.
Gone is the conversation between the budding racer and the sage mechanic. I’ve been on both sides of that conversation and the chance to learn about or to teach lacing patterns or the value of equal spoke tension is a chance for someone to become a more knowledgeable, more engaged cyclist. Those conversations and choices were substantive. Clydesdales need to be steered away from alloy nipples just as bantam weight climbers ought to be steered to butted spokes. On group rides these days, so often I hear guys discussing wheel choices based on color.
Recently overheard: “I went with the American Classics because the white matched my frame.”
I’ve tried a number of aftermarket wheelsets with Campy freehubs. In both 10- and 11-speed configurations a great many of them have a problem that I consider colossal, but I rarely hear anyone complain.
That problem? Rear derailleur spoke clearance.
If I hear the rear derailleur cage tick, tick, ticking against the spokes when I’m climbing, I’m concerned. It is the bicycle equivalent of driving to Dubuque with the idiot light on. And the people who do complain about this? They are the ones who had exactly this problem—undiagnosed by their shop mechanic—stood up and flexed the wheel enough to catch the cage, sheer the carbon fiber scissors through wrapping paper and destroy the rear derailleur, the wheel and the derailleur hanger, if not the frame along the way.
I’ve encountered this problem on more wheels than I ought. A healthy supply of 1mm spacers hasn’t corrected the problem for most of the wheels, either. One can ask the question of whether the problem is with the wheels or the derailleur, but because Campagnolo and Fulcrum wheels never have this problem—proving that it is possible to make wheels that don’t suffer this incompatibility—I lay the blame with the wheel makers.
A good review of a set of wheels really ought to be based on qualities of superior distinction, such as multiplying your power output or a freehub that dispenses cash when you hit 500 watts. Congratulating a set of wheels for competency is a bit like giving a kid AP credit for reading Harry Potter.
Regardless, the starting point for this review is the fact that the spokes of the Torelli Bormio Ceramic Ultra-Lites don’t rub on a Campy rear derailleur cage. This one feature makes them worth considering if you’re looking for a set of Campy-compatible wheels. Is that enough to warrant purchasing them? Not by a long shot.
In fact, my biggest single wheel pet peeve is trueness—actually lack thereof. I monitor wheels as I review them to see how they are holding up. Within the first 200 miles of riding these wheels I had to perform a slight truing of the rear wheel, tightening two spokes that had de-tensioned slightly. I’ve done nothing since.
Last fall I rode Levi Leipheimer’s King Ridge Gran Fondo. For those of you who recall my ride report of the event, you may recall some grumbling about a record number of flats I experienced that day. These were the wheels I was using. The reason for the trouble was a rim strip issue.
When I returned from the ride I e-mailed Todd, the owner at Torelli, and told him about the trouble. He was on the phone to me within the minute I hit the ‘send’ button. When I saw the “Torelli” on the caller ID, I thought it was just a weird coincidence.
He asked me what color the rim strips were. When I told him they were yellow, he told me to throw them in the trash, that those were early production and had caused problems and had been since replaced with different rim strips that wouldn’t move. I’d have some new ones the next day. And I did.
Every dealer that received wheels with the yellow rim strips have been shipped the red rim strips I received.
Since receiving the new rim strips, I haven’t had a single flat and that’s even while running the paper-thin Specialized open tubulars (whose ride continues to grow on me). I remain deeply suspicious of mylar, plastic and all manner of rim strips that are anything other than Velox for one simple reason: Velox rim strips have adhesive on the bottom. Granted, it doesn’t have the sticky factor of Chinese rice, but it really doesn’t need much to just not move.
Okay, so lets move on to the bullet points featured in the marketing literature. The rims have a claimed weight of 380 grams. The front wheel has 20 spokes, the rear 24 spokes. The front is radially laced, the rear features radial lacing on the non-drive side and two-cross on the drive side. The stainless steel J-bend Sandvik spokes are bladed (0.9mm x 2.2mm) for increased aerodynamic efficiency and easy replacement.
Torelli claims they weigh 1380g for the pair—that’s with rim strips and a Shimano freehub. I have yet to review a set of wheels that weighs within 10g of the advertised weight, but these were pretty close; they came in at 1412g. I attribute the difference to the Campy freehub, but that’s just a wild assertion of the same general vicinity as most stories in the National Enquirer. I haven’t weighed the two freehub bodies. I really don’t know. At all.
The rear wheel contains six ceramic bearings and inside the freehub is a needle bearing to reduce freehub drag while descending, of which, it does an admirable job. Spin the rear wheel up with the bike in the stand and once you let go of the pedal it moves no further. It’s also remarkably quiet when freewheeling, which is a quality I associate with low drag and stealthy approaches, both of which I find handy.
Compared to many wheels in this weight range the Bormio Ceramic Ultra-Lites are surprisingly stiff laterally. Certainly there are stiffer wheels out there, but stiff isn’t really the selling point on these wheels. Their weight, incredibly low rolling resistance due to the ceramic bearings and machined aluminum braking surfaces, all for a suggested retail of $650 is why you buy these wheels.
Who doesn’t want raceable weight and low-drag bearings in an everyday wheelset?
Torelli does suggest a 180-lb. weight limit for users, but I suspect that at that weight (or more) you would be inclined to seek out a stiffer wheel regardless.
A great set of wheels really isn’t about the graphics (which on these aren’t exactly going to win any design awards—but can’t anyone get graphics right on a set of wheels anymore without sacrificing function?); it ought to be about bringing the various elements together to make a wheel set perfectly suited to its intended purpose.
In the last year I’ve tried six different aftermarket (non-Campy/Fulcrum) wheel sets meant to work with Campy. Considering functionality, weight and price, these are the best of the bunch.
My first experience with Sampson products came back in 1987 when a coworker at the bike shop I worked at bought a Centurion Ironman spec’d with Sampson pedals. For those of you who don’t recall these pedals, they featured an unusual L-shaped cleat that wrapped around the back of the pedal. They featured a unique clutch that held the pedal in place after you clipped out so that upon clipping in again it was in (hopefully) exactly the right position to clip in without fumbling around with your shoes.
The cleats were very difficult to walk in and broke. A lot. I wasn’t exactly impressed.
A few years went by and I received a test bike from Sampson. It was made from Reynolds 853 steel. For construction, Eric Sampson sought out Reynolds’ famous frame shop in Nottingham, England. This was the frame shop where all the Ti-Raleigh frames were built, a shop with as much history as there is to be found in the bike industry. The bike included a few different Sampson components, including cranks.
The bike was one of my favorites of the quartet that I reviewed. My opinion of Sampson changed dramatically.
Since then, I’ve reviewed two more Sampson bikes. Each time, he has done something essentially unknown among his competitors: He calls me and asks me what could be better. Invariably, I get another call a few months later in which he tells me about what changes he was able to make to respond to my suggestions.
I confess, during these calls I rock back in forth in my chair, grinning at my obscene power. Weekly calls of this sort could give me an ego transportable only by 18-wheeler.
So a couple of weeks ago I received a pair of the new s5 pedals. They feature steel spindles, a lightweight alloy body, a 62mm-wide cleat platform, three cartridge bearings and a cam-graduated hinge to make entry easier. The s6 pedals feature a titanium spindle.
Sampson claims a weight of 121g per pedal. My test pedals weighed exactly 121g each (the titanium model has a claimed weight of only 99g per pedal). I was so dumbfounded, I weighed them a second time. I can’t recall the last time a weight was accurate to the gram. Eric says he weighed at least eight pairs himself just to make sure the weight was dead-on.
Eric says that unlike most competitors’ pedals the contact plate on the s5 is replaceable to allow you to keep the look of the pedals new. The spring tension is also very adjustable thanks to a 20-position indexed Allen bolt. The cleats mount via a standard three-hole mounting pattern.
I’ve been a Speedplay X user for more than 10 years. While I have some other pedals at my disposal, Speedplays have been my pedals of choice. Non-Speedplay users tend to be critical of the system, pointing out how shoes will rock side-to-side when the cleats are worn. I tend to replace my cleats pretty frequently and never have any complaints about rocking or the amount of float when using them. It feels perfectly natural.
Okay, so that said, the Sampson’s are striking for their secure feeling. My cleats featured no float, which added to the ultra-positive power transfer. Entry and release is easy enough. I’ve set the release tension pretty low; thrashers afraid of unwanted release can increase tension dramatically.
Suggested retail for the s5 is $139, while the s6 goes for $239. Initially, they will be available in red and white. My test pedals are pre-production; they should be available in black in June.
I’m not sure there’s much more to say about a pair of pedals other than they are light, easy to get into and release and, best of all, provide a secure platform. By comparison both the Dura-Ace 7800 and 7810 pedals—while good pedals—they are heavier than the Sampsons, don’t feel quite as secure and are more expensive. Same for the Look Keo Sprint.
For years I wrote that Sampson products were a terrific value because they typically offered 85 percent of the performance of the top-drawer stuff for 50 percent of the cost. Those days are gone. He said he wants to compete head-to-head with companies like Shimano. After riding these pedals, there’s no denying that they are a great alternative to Shimano and Look.
There are lots of designs out there that claim to offer compliance. You’ve done some research on the subject, haven’t you? Do any of those swept seatstay designs really off any sort of suspension effect?
I may be one of the only people on the planet that feels this way but I think road bike suspension is the Holy Grail of road bike design. I’ve done years of work on this and was awarded a patent for the Serotta DKS design. It’s patent number 6,109,637 and was awarded on August 29, 2000. It’s fun to look up and you can easily Google it.
Road bicycles are the only high-speed device raced in the world that I can think of that doesn’t employ some sort of device to improve traction. Everything from skis to cars to skateboards all employ suspension to great effect. Please note that I didn’t list comfort as being the primary reason for suspension even though one could make a very good argument for how added comfort will reduce rider fatigue and make them more competitive in longer events. I see road bike suspension as being a means to keep the rear tire pressed against the road with the most constant force possible, full stop. I think the rear wheel travel need be no more than 10mm max and that as little as 5mm can be extremely effective.
A traditional road bike has near perfect front suspension in the form of a cantilevered beam. The fork is allowed to flex a lot. Just clamp your front brake on firmly and rock the bike back and forth and watch how much the fork moves. Even super stiff forks move a good bit and this acts as a form of trailing arm suspension. The front wheel encounters a bump and slows as it tries to go over the bump yet the rider’s mass keeps the whole thing moving. The fork flexes rearward (and in the case of a properly designed curved blade fork compresses vertically) and then it rolls over the bump with very little interruption of the rider’s momentum or with the tire’s contact with the road.
The rear wheel is another matter entirely. With a traditional double diamond road frame the rear end of the frame forms a triangle and this triangle cannot move or at least cannot move in any meaningful way. So when the rear wheel encounters the same bump that the front wheel just sailed over it loads up the frame and that in turn loads up the rider and the rider then bounces off the saddle. This little bump redirected the entire mass and momentum of the bike and rider upward for just a moment and that has two effects. The first one is that there is a loss of forward momentum or speed and this obviously slows the rider down. Not a lot but we are constantly hitting small bumps in the road that do this and the cumulative effect is large. The second thing it does is lessen the pressure of the rear tire on the road. In many cases it loses contact altogether. Either way traction is compromised. If you are just rolling straight down the road without a need to turn or brake or accelerate traction is not a real issue. The rider doesn’t need the to use the full limit of the traction of the tire. But if the rider is cornering, braking, or accelerating then it’s a different matter. We’ve all gone around a fast downhill corner and had the bike all loaded up with the force of the turn and then hit a bump mid-turn and had to do some serious correcting to keep it all in line and on the road. Similarly we’ve all been sprinting at our limit for a townline sign at our local Tuesday night World Championships and had the rear wheel skip and bounce causing us to back off and/or correct to hold our line.
Well it takes very little rear wheel suspension travel to minimize or even completely eliminate the issue and I’ve spent more time working on this issue than I care to admit. The amount of time I’ve spent lying on the road with my face pressed against the cold hard ground so that I could see the rear wheel of the racers going by bounce is embarrassing. But that said it’s a real eye opener when you do this. There is daylight under the rear wheel all the time. The front is stuck like glue and the rear spends a surprising amount of time skipping and bouncing along.
Tell us about your involvement in the Serotta DKS suspension system.
Way back in the day when I was the R&D department at Serotta, Ben was very cool and gave me lots of leeway to work on what I wanted to work on. I’d seen some of the bikes like Ritcheys and Litespeeds with a long graceful bend in the seat stays and wondered if it could be a benefit. Ben and I were walking around the Interbike show one year and every other bike had this same curved stay and they all claimed it made the bike more comfortable. I didn’t give a damn about the comfort thing at all but I did care about the traction issue. Standing outside the hotel that night I suddenly had an idea of how to do it better.
So we went back to New York and I was excited to work on the idea. It turns out I was the only one that was excited but Ben let me do my thing as long as other stuff didn’t slide too much. So the first thing I did was to make a frame like everyone else was doing (simple long radius curve from end to end) and put it on my testing table and load it up (like the rider was hitting a bump) to see where and how much it moved. Most of the current designs had no more wheel movement than a traditional straight stayed frame, or less than 1 mm. So I started playing with different radii and duration of bends and while I could do better than what was being offered it still wasn’t worth the trouble in my opinion. I knew something else needed to be done to free up some movement. At the same time I was worried about fatigue issues where the stay attached to the seat tube and the dropouts. It was then that I flashed on the idea of putting a pivot at the bottom of the stay where is attaches to the dropout and then have most of the bend of the stay low so that most of the flex would take place there and not where the stay was welded to the seat tube. This not only took care of the fatigue issue but also allowed the stay to compress more allowing more rear wheel travel.
A this point I built a frame that had bolt on seat stays so I could make any configuration of stay I wanted and lab and road test them. Some stuff worked pretty well and some stuff really sucked. I ended up with the “J” curve design and it worked very well but I was concerned with it having too much travel and with it being bouncy. The stay was now acting as a spring but it had no damper to control its movement.
The next task was to figure out a way to damp the movement. What I originally wanted was rebound damping only and it proved very difficult to do in a simple and super light way. I then realized that if I gave it compression damping that it would have nearly the same effect because it would just interrupt the bouncing cycle. It was at this point that I developed the “strap on” which was a stainless steel strap with some special silicone made by GE to be an ‘ultra damper’, bonded to it. It was then bolted to the stay and acted as both a travel limiter and a damper. I ended up picking three different hardness’s to give more or less travel based on rider preference and/or weight. The funny thing was that I gave this damper part the nickname “strap-on” knowing it’s other meaning and we used the term inhouse and snickered about it the way boys do…… especially when one of the girls from the office would come out and ask if we had a strap-on or how a strap-on worked. Good fun. At some point the product was released and I couldn’t believe that the Serotta catalog listed that part as a “strap-on.” Somehow it got through editing.
In the end I think the design was successful. I wanted to continue to develop and refine it but at some point one needs to draw a line in the sand and call it good and sell some of the things. The design allowed for about 12mm of rear wheel travel for most riders, which I now think, was more than we needed. But it was a good first step and I would have liked to make the design more race oriented, more aero and lighter. But I had worked on the design for about 14 months and other stuff needed to be done so I moved on. I left Serotta shortly thereafter to move to Montana and to be in the big mountains and in the snow.
Serotta continued to produce and sell the bike for a few years after I left but it was never a big seller. I think that the sales and marketing folks there didn’t like the time it took to explain what it did and how it did it when they could just push the normal offerings and make the same money. The DKS (Dave Kirk Suspension) now has a cult following of sorts and I get a few emails a week about it with questions about how it works and about finding a used one somewhere. They seem to command a hefty price on eBay at this point. I think over the years I’ve had all of the big three bike companies contact me as ask about the design. One engineer even pretended to be a customer interested in buying one when in reality they were looking for a way around the patent. I think the Specialized Zerts inserts deal is a good example of the design being tweaked and using different materials to get around the patent. I’ve never ridden one but hear some folks like them.
Do you ever build with it today?
No I don’t. Even though I am listed as the inventor on the patent Serotta is the holder of the patent and it is their design. Some have told me they think this is unfair and I firmly disagree. Ben Serotta gave me a place to work and paid me well to develop the idea in the first place and without his backing it would have never been more than a napkin sketch in a bar at a tradeshow. He paid for it and he owns it. It was Ben that decided it should be called the DKS. I only found out it was named after me when the decals showed up and I was given one. I was honored then as I still am. Ben is a good man and treated me very well.
When I started my company I knew I’d revisit the idea at some point but also knew that there were changes I wanted to make if I could. The fact that I chose to work only in steel also required a major design change since the original DKS was titanium. I knew I wanted it to be firmer and to have less travel. I knew I wanted it to be less complex and cheaper to make and I knew I wanted it to look cooler. It was then that I developed the “Terraplane” design (Terraplane meaning “flies over the land”). I experimented with different tubing, bend radii as well and bend duration and then did a lot of road miles on prototypes to get the final design nailed down. Most riders will see 5mm or less of wheel movement with a Terraplane and one can’t not feel the difference from a straight stayed bike while climbing or sprinting. It takes a sudden and large load to get the wheel to move and the rider cannot move that fast so it will not react to rider movement. So there is no mushy or ‘MTB on the road’ feeling that some expect. The Terraplane just gives a more hunkered down and calm feeling than a traditional bike. Some folks will get their new Terraplane and ride it for a few weeks and then get back on the bike they rode before and only then feel the marked difference in cornering and descending. It can be a real eye opener for some.
I’ve extremely proud of the Terraplane and how it performs. Some love the look of it and some hate it and I know I can’t please everyone that way but I’ve never put someone on a Terraplane and had them not like the performance.
In your view, what are the pros, cons and challenges with regard to the development of suspension for road bikes? Do you think it would help that much?
I think that there are large gains to be had with a proper road bike suspension for the reasons I’ve listed above. I think the down side could be complexity and cost if the design isn’t properly elegant. There were some suspension road bikes years ago that were really short travel versions of MTB designs and they sucked for road racing use. It has just too much travel, weight and complexity to work as it should for the road.
I think the big thing that will prevent a good design from being adopted by the masses, and therefore be used in the pro race ranks, is that the marketplace is just too traditional. I think the marketplace pats itself on the back a bit too much for how innovative and forward thinking it is when in reality it hates anything truly new. A change in material from steel to aluminum to titanium to carbon to whatever is just fine but to do something truly different and better has historically not been rewarded in the performance road bike market. Look at all the crap being thrown at the new Shimano electric stuff. It work and works well and my hat is off to them for even going there but it’s not like it’s gotten a very warm reception. I’ll bet if they stick by their guns the marketplace will adapt and we will see the other two major players scrambling to catch up and we’ll see little kids riding around our neighborhoods pushing buttons to shift.
It’s going to take a bit of letting go of the traditional fashion of this industry to allow it to make any real jumps forward. Hell there are still interweb forums full of people arguing about which is better – sloping top tubes vs, horizontal tube tubes. It’s all fashion and that is just the way it works. I am for the most part OK with that but it can be frustrating at times. What did that Billy Crystal character on SNL say years ago? “It’s better to look good than it is to feel good”?
Thanks for the opportunity to address some of this stuff and thanks for reading.
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
It’s only natural that a bike meant for longer days would be designed to eat vibration the way a whale sucks down krill. Specialized includes its Bar Phat bar tape with gel inserts to further cut vibration at the handlebar, before lawnmower hand has a chance to become a problem. This tape, of course, is wrapped around a wing bar, easing the degree to which your hands have to wrap around the bar.
The wheels are Roval’s Roubaix, a modern answer to the 32-spoke, 3-cross wheel that remains the favorite of pros racing the event that gave rise to this bike’s name—Paris-Roubaix. The wheels feature 24 spokes front, 30 spokes rear, two-cross, bladed spokes with machined aluminum hubs featuring a Swiss-made freehub rolling on a Specialized 25mm-wide Roubaix tire.
So what else can you do to reduce vibration transmission? How about a Specialized Body Geometry Toupé gel saddle?
Zertz inserts, Bar Phat, wing bar, old-school wheels (sorta), big tires and gel-filled saddle, it all adds up to as many different responses to vibration as I can think of. You might say a no-stone-unturned approach to reducing vibration.
Reducing vibration does more than just increase comfort, though. It reduces muscle fatigue and has the power to make five hours feel like four, leaving you fresher at the end of a long ride. This probably isn’t as big a deal for young riders, but for riders who have celebrated their 50th birthday, nerve pinches and back and neck issues become very real obstacles to comfort if not outright completing long rides.
I don’t want to go too far into the parts spec for this bike; it would be unfair to Specialized to judge the bike relative to my like or dislike of Shimano componentry. There are, however, some important points to touch on.
The Roubaix is spec’d with a compact drivetrain. The crank is Specialized’s carbon fiber S-Works model with 50/34t rings. It is mated to a Shimano Ultegra 12/27t cassette. When one considers that this bike’s most likely consumer is a non-racer, the choice of a compact crank and widely spaced cassette is an entirely logical pairing. Why not give the bike gearing meant for mortals?
The shifters and derailleurs come from the 7900 Dura-Ace lineup, while the brake calipers are Ultegra. The only real fault I can find with the bike is in the Ultegra calipers; they simply don’t offer the same stopping power and modulation as the Dura-Ace grabbers, but that’s something I’m aware of due to riding different bikes. Someone without the same frame of reference won’t have any issue with the Ultegra brakes as they do an adequate, if not pro-worthy performance. On the other hand, the mix of Dura-Ace and Ultegra parts helps bring the cost of the Roubaix Pro in at $5000, as opposed to the cost of the Roubaix SL2, which runs $2200 more. Heck, that’s another bike!
So what’s the Roubaix like out on the road? I think it’s simply one of the most comfortable bikes on the market. People often confuse vibration damping with road shock. The Roubaix won’t fill potholes, hide rocks or smooth driveway ramps, but it has a very real ability to hit everything you ride over with 300 grit sandpaper. It won’t make every road glassy smooth, but it will definitely take the edge off any rough road.
Vertical compliance is an elusive quality to track. I don’t often believe I’ve found it in today’s carbon fiber bikes due to their incredible stiffness. Consider that Dave Kirk, the builder who invented the Serotta DKS suspension, said that suspension system, even when equipped with the softest of the three silicone dampers included with the bike, only saw 1-2 millimeters of vertical travel in the chainstays. I’m sure you experience more vertical compliance with an old Vitus or Alan than any of the current crop of carbon wonders. However, I’ve identified occasions when there was too little vertical compliance and found a bike to be chattery on rougher roads. Yes, a bike can be too stiff. That said, this bike doesn’t have nearly as much vertical compliance as an old Alan or Vitus. I wish that were enough to put the conversation about vertical compliance to rest, but it won’t.
The debate still rages on about whether energy is lost when a bike flexes, particularly when it flexes at the bottom bracket. I’ve got my answer, and had it long ago. For new riders, the answer is much simpler, though. A stiff bike allows someone still developing their skills to apply more force to the pedals with fewer hazardous overtones. On the Roubaix, any power you put into the bike will cause it to continue in the direction it is pointed with nothing so much as increased haste.
Torsional flex is yet another dimension of frame response that can be problematic. In the extreme, torsional flex can make a bike really hard to handle. Anyone who ever rode a Schwinn Twin tandem will tell you it handled like al dente pasta. Early carbon fiber forks from Europe (I’m specifically excepting the Kestrel fork) flexed enough in hard cornering to alter my line. I experienced no torsional flex that I could comment on with this bike. With its enormous-diameter tubes (I could fit a Navel Orange in the down tube) this thing tracked as straight and true as a sheet of drywall, even in aggressive cornering.
The bigger deal with the Roubaix is its handling. When I began building my vocabulary of bikes through ongoing shootouts and reviews, I quickly picked up on a theme of preference. I liked bikes that had really calm manners. They didn’t tend to feel too exciting when I first got on them, but after four hours you appreciated the way they held a line and when on a descent they made 45 mph feel like 35. And because your perception of speed is often the great decider for when you hit the brakes, any bike that makes you feel more in control and less like you’re doing something reckless is going to inspire confidence and a feeling of safety. Heck, you’re likely to go even faster.
The Roubaix seems a first cousin in its handling attributes to some of my old favorites. When I look back on the best descending bikes I’ve ever ridden, many of them have been Italian. CPSC rules prevent American bike manufacturers that deliver complete bikes (as opposed to framesets) from designing with a bottom bracket drop of more than about 7cm; you’ve got to calculate pedal-down lean-angle clearance very carefully to get any more BB drop than that. As I mentioned, Specialized squeezed another 1.5mm of BB drop into the design; it may not seem like much, but even that tiny amount makes the bike easier to lean into turns.
Out on long rides, the easy handling of the Roubaix is a pleasant departure from the twitchy reflexes of many bikes. You can sit up and look around, enjoy yourself, see the sights—and not worry that you’ll soon run off the road. Is there a more appropriate bike to take on a century traversing back roads of questionable maintenance? Maybe not.
The issue of weight must be addressed or it will seem like I left out the be-all, end-all number. It’s not, but that number is 16.06. Given the pavé-capable wheels and tires spec’d on this bike, that’s a very impressive number.
The number of people who enjoy road riding has has increased by multiplicatives in the last 10 years thanks to charity rides, Lance Armstrong and a host of other factors. When you consider how many of them joined the USCF (their numbers are up, but they haven’t doubled) you realize a very small percentage of newer roadies have moved into what many folks think is a much more aggressive expression of the sport. The Roubaix is an appropriate response for tens of thousands of riders who don’t need the agility of a bike like the Tarmac.
The 2010 Roubaix does feature some different parts spec from the 2009. That it has taken me so long to write this review is something of a disservice to Specialized. I’m sure you’ll be able to find this bike on the floor at many bike shops, but I’ll note the differences in spec for the new season. The big changes are as follows: a Dura-Ace 50/34t crank is substituted for the Specialized carbon fiber model. An Ultegra front derailleur replaces the Dura-Ace model. An even wider-spaced 11-26t cassette is exchanged for the 12-27t one. A narrower, 23mm tire replaces the 25mm one; both feature 120 tpi casings with Flak Jacket protection that seem impervious to all but land mines. Finally and most significantly, the Roval wheels on the ’09 bike are replaced with Roval Fusee SL wheels, a noticeably lighter set. The 2010 bike will weigh closer to 15.5 lbs. out of the box.
As a reflection of the population, grand touring bikes ought to be dominating road bike sales. Specialized did much to remove the stigma from these bikes by offering the Roubaix in carbon fiber and giving it top quality parts spec. In a world dominated by bikes made for American crit racing, the Roubaix is one of the most intelligently designed bikes I’ve ever ridden. Easily one of my all-time favorite bikes.
As I did with bikes I reviewed at BKW, I’ll be scoring bikes on a 100-point system. It will take into account every facet of the bike: price, design, effectiveness for given consumer, parts spec, fit considerations, handling, weight, stiffness, road feel and even availability, the idea being a $2000 bike has the same chance of scoring 100 points as a $10,000 bike if it accomplishes its consumer-oriented goals.
Specialized Roubaix Pro: 94 points
But Doesn’t Interbike Need Trek and Specialized (and Now Cannondale and Felt) to Survive? The Critical Mass Theory.
A lot of industry observers, including me, have despaired for the future of Interbike without some of the industry’s most powerful players on hand. (To be fair, Specialized has maintained a good-faith presence at the show for a number of years, and used that presence to their advantage this year to showcase their Globe line).
Well, those observers, including me, were wrong. For the first time in awhile, retailer numbers at Interbike ’09 were up.
So, Short Answer: No.
There’s plenty of retailers and retailer dollars left over, even after the big companies have taken their slice of the pie, something on the order of half the total industry budget for bikes alone and far more than that for equipment; not to mention plenty of suppliers who want those dollars. As long as those numbers maintain a kind of critical financial mass, Interbike will do just fine, thank you very much. In fact, a number of distributors prefer Interbike without the Big Guns there, because it means that much more retailer attention for themselves.
The Longer Answer to this question involves a complex set of dynamics I call Bike 2.0 and discuss in more detail here. This bit may be a little, ah, statistically dense for most folks, so enter at your own risk. Basically, Bike 2.0 as of 2010 is a lot like how the bike industry would have developed over the past 30 years had the Schwinn leviathan not swum onto the sandy shores of the mountain bike era and promptly collapsed, crushed under its own bone-breaking weight like a freshly beached whale.
Meanwhile, Trek and Specialized (and Giant and Felt and Cervélo and Cannondale and other companies who go the dealer show route) have reached their own equilibrium in the one-upmanship earlier-than-thou (also known as the “get-to-the-retailers’-checkbook-first”) game. Presumably they might want to show new product even earlier than late July, but they’re prevented from doing so by three reasons:
- Shimano’s next-year prototypes aren’t available in sufficient quantities yet. And Shimano (not to mention frame factories) can’t have production protos available much sooner than late July because their own production backs up against the Asian Lunar (Chinese) New Year, a two-or-more-week rout celebrated sometime between late January and mid-February, depending. (For 2009, it started Jan 26th; for next year, not until Valentine’s Day). The holiday leaves not just factories but entire towns deserted, rather like the nations of France and Italy in the first two weeks of August each summer.
- They can barely get retailers to show up in July by offering free airline tickets (for the high rollers, anyway) and free beer. Besides,
- I think there’s some of big bike race scheduled that month anyway. Hard to get those expensive A-List athletes to show up much before August, anyway.
And the punchline to the early dealer presentations is this: retailers aren’t stupid. After just a couple of years being trotted around the block, they know to hold off their orders until they’ve seen everything their Alpha suppliers have to offer. And then they hold off another big chunk until Interbike anyway, just in case something better shows up.
So what’s the big driver for Trek and Specialized (and now other companies besides) to spend literal millions of collective dollars schlepping bikes, retailers, and their own overworked staffs all over the country in a frenzied rush to accomplish nothing concrete, sales-wise? The answer is simple: retailer attention. By putting on their own show, the big guns can get hours and even days of buyers’ undivided attention, present their products in the very best light, and do a little beer-drinking together while they’re at it.
The late July/early August part is mostly because it’s the earliest they can possibly do so.
The Bottom Line. Barring another Bio-style power grab (which you won’t even find references to on the Interwebs anymore), Interbike is doing just fine where (and when) it is.
Why Las Vegas? The Black Hole Theory.
Nielsen (the company that wons Interbike and a whole bunch of other shows besides) loves Las Vegas because it’s close enough for dealers from SoCal to drive in, and enticing (and cheap) enough to get less-local retailers to fly in. Plus from the show management’s point of view, it’s easy to work with: centralized services, a very effective infrastructure, and—given the fact that Nielsen hosts a half-dozen other shows there each year—god only knows what kind of illicit perks, kickbacks, comps, showgirls, drugs, leather-clad teenage boys, free show tix, in-room massuesses, and deposits into secret bank accounts in the Lesser Dutch Antilles are going on in the back room.
The Short Answer: It’s one of the few places big enough that retailers will actually go to. At least that’s what Interbike thinks. Plus there’s a huge inertial pull—sort of a reality-distorting black hole—surrounding Las Vegas that sucks all other thinking past its Event Horizon.
The Longer Answer. Interest in moving Interbike to someplace, anyplace, other than Vegas comes up every couple of years. And Interbike does a survey.
Suppliers, for the record, uniformly hate Vegas—the heat, the dust, the unions, the prices, the sheer budget-numbing cost of moving all their people and stuff halfway across the country for five days. Retailers tend to hate it for most of the same reasons, plus it’s a crappy venue for bikes and a crappy excuse for a vacation besides.
But Interbike and the NBDA claim that a huge number of retailers prefer Las Vegas to the other locations big enough to hold the whole extravaganza under one roof (currently Denver and the new facility in Anaheim). So back to Vegas we go, year after year.
Interestingly, I’ve been trying literally for years to find out who these retailers are who demand Las Vegas as their destination of choice, just to see what kind of creature could like both bikes and that curious tumbleweed-infested patch of desert called Sin City. I’m sure they exist, these retailers, but in thirty years in this business I have yet to meet a single one.
The folks I see drinking and gambling far into the night (and sometimes when I get up early to make a 7:00 meeting, into the next morning, too) tend to be low-level employees on both the wholesale and retail sides of the business who treat a once-a-year trip to Vegas as a sort of combination paid vacation and five-day drunk. Store owners and senior distributor types have too much work going on to mess much with stuff like that. For them, Interbike is the toughest work week of the year, and one that comes after thirty or even forty days of show prep (or, in the case of retailers, summer sales frenzy) without a day off.
No wonder half the industry is sick the week after Interbike. It’s not the germs as much as it is sheer exhaustion.
The Bottom Line. Yeah, it sucks, and everyone knows it. But we’re going there again next year, and the next, and every year for the foreseeable future. And some people seem to like it. Besides, what do you think Interbike is about, anyway—selling bikes?
As much as I love going to Interbike to see new bikes and parts each year, I need to be honest and say I’m far more excited to see friends both old and new. One of the things that has kept me in the bike industry for more than 20 years is friendship. I’ve had the good fortune to make friends with a great many people in the bike industry and each year my trip to the show is often my one guaranteed annual chance to see these great people.
Above is Brad Devaney, an engineer with Litespeed. Brad and I met in 1989 while working for the Peddler Bike Shop in Memphis, Tennessee. The Peddler crew was a tight-knit, collegial bunch and we frequently rode together. Of the mechanics I worked with, Brad was clearly the most resourceful and mechanically adept. A few years ago I bumped into Brad and asked him about one of our old coworkers, a triathlete named Corey; Brad and Corey were tight. It was there on the show floor that Brad told me Corey had been hit by a car while on a ride and killed. The show floor was a rotten place to hear the news, but there was no one I’d rather have delivered it.
I ment Alan Coté when I joined the UMASS cycling team in the fall of 1989. Alan was very fast and one of the only guys on the team who knew how to wrench on a bike. We spent a portion of one summer working at Bicycle World Too in Amherst before he moved to Boulder to be with his girlfriend (now wife) Megan. Today, Alan is a contributing editor to Bicycling and has been writing about cycling for longer than I have. He got his start freelancing for VeloNews and worked his way up to Bicycle Guide. It was as a result of Alan’s help that I got my foot in the door at Bicycle Guide. He questioned my sanity when I expressed my willingness to leave Northampton for Los Angeles—”Pat, isn’t Los Angeles the on-ramp to the apocalypse?”—to which I responded, “Dude, I’ve been to Mississippi.”
Jeff Winnick is an independent sales rep in New England. His lines have changed over the years, but he’s the same warm, straightforward and honest guy I met while working at Northampton Bicycle in 1990. I took Jeff to lunch one day to ask his advice on how to move from retailing into the industry side of the biz. He was generous with his time and knowledge, still is.
If you’ve ever raced a bike in New England, chances are Merlyn Townley wrenched on your bike in a neutral pit at some point. Merlyn and I met at the Olympic Training Center in 1992 when we were there to get our mechanics’ licenses. He was a delight to share a room with then and we worked together at many events over the next few years. Merlyn always impressed me with his utterly tireless enthusiasm for working on bikes. He is one of the only mechanics I can say reminds me of the great Bill Woodul. Today Merlyn has an upstart OEM wheel building business based in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Devin Walton called me up in May of 1994 to work neutral support for Shimano at the 1994 World Cup mountain bike event at Mt. Snow, Vermont. Over the weekend I worked on more bikes than I typically saw during a week at a shop. Devin’s professionalism filled me with a new respect for Shimano and the talent they assembled. Today, Devin is still with Shimano and has one of the company’s most coveted posts: media relations guy. He handles all media relations as well as some pretty heavy lifting on the PR side.
One of the other mechanics on hand for that June 1994 weekend was this guy, Mike Conlan. Mike was the first bike mechanic I ever saw don latex gloves for grimy work. A real pro and a very nice guy. Today, Mike is the manager of Outdoor Sports Center in Wilton, Conn. His instincts are as sharp as ever and he is a guy whose opinion I always ask when it comes to retailing trends.
I met Larry Theobald in Greenfield, Massachusetts in 1991. He was working for Breaking Away Tours in the summer and riding with us in the spring and fall. His wife, Heather, was finishing her doctorate at UMASS and I rode with her from time to time. In the winters, I’d frequently see him at one of the cross-country ski areas up in the Berkshires. These days Larry and Heather have a tour company called Cycle Italia that is known for excellent rides, great accommodations and even better food.
Butch Balzano may be the only mechanic in New England who is even better known than Merlyn Townley. I worked a few races with Butch in the early ’90s and thought him so competent as to make me superfluous. He has been providing race support through Campagnolo, Shimano and now SRAM for more than 20 years. He’s as easy going a guy as there is, and one of the few guys I can say for whom a 12-second wheel change is routine.
Richard Fries became known to me as a Cat. 1 who started a magazine called The Ride. I began freelancing for The Ride with its second issue and gradually became more involved in the magazine, eventually writing a column called Shop Talk. It was funny to write for a magazine whose publisher would frequently feature in headlines (I recall many along the lines of “Fries Wins Again in Marlborough”). Richard and his wife, Deb, published The Ride for more than 10 years; it was easily the best regional I ever saw published. Along the way a funny thing happened: Richard’s son, Grant was born and became old enough to ride his own bicycle, and Richard got concerned about where Grant could ride. Today, Richard is one of the nation’s most ardent and effective voices for bicycle advocacy, working with a variety of organizations, including Bikes Belong. Oh, and if you ever need to know anything about the Civil War, he’s faster with the facts than Wikipedia.
The man in the Reynolds booth is another former Northamptonite, Jonathan Geran. Jonathan’s easy way has seen him in sales for Merlin, Parlee, McLean Quality Composites and now Reynolds. The one thing we try not to do when we see each other is to discuss the mountain biking we used to enjoy in western Mass.
Chris Carmichael called on me to help the Junior National Team with several races in 1993. He was easy to work for and had the ability to tell each rider exactly what they needed to hear right before a race. I remember thinking it was no wonder he was head coach for the U.S. National Team. In the years since, Chris has been generous in giving me quotes for many articles and a book.
Derreck Bernard was one of the first people I met when I joined the staff of Bicycle Guide. He was part of the ad sales staff and was as nice and easy going a guy as you’d want to work with. He helped change my perception of the high-pressure ad sales guy. Since Petersen’s sale and re-sale, Derreck joined the staff of Hi-Torque Publications, where he sells ads for Mountain Bike Action, Road Bike Action and BMX Plus! Thanks to my freelance work for Road Bike Action, even though we don’t work together directly, its fun to think of him as a coworker again.
Carol and Bill McGann are the former owners of Torelli Imports. Bill and Carol are an incredible team and really collaborate on everything; their affection and respect for each other is something to envy. Bill still works for the company some, so I still get to see them in the Torelli booth each year. He is one of the rare guys on the manufacturing side of the business who really taught me a lot about the industry, rather than just his line. He’s got an incredibly expansive view (he’s an armchair historian which may help explain his ability to see the bigger picture) of the bike industry and has helped me see trends as they develop. He’s also one helluva travel companion and the week I spent with him in Italy will go down as one of the finest weeks of my whole life.
Day two of the Interbike show was a mad dash from one appointment to the next. Unfortunately, some of the coolest things I saw, including a new power meter that measures torque at the pedals, were in display cases that didn’t permit acceptable photography. There were plenty of autograph signings, lots of beer being served and wrenches trying to score schwag, but the one thing retailers told me over and over was that they weren’t placing orders. They had already placed their preseason orders or they were waiting to see how things would shake out with the economy in general and their business in specific.
Day 1 of Interbike’s Dirt Demo at Bootleg Canyon is upon us. Normally Bootleg Canyon is a pretty dusty affair, but this year it is a dusty, windy affair and left the road bikes looking less impressive than the deserved. Seeing all the new chains, lever hoods, top tubes and tires poofed with a fine mist of reddish smoke made me squirm in anguish, both for the bikes but also the mechanics who would need to clean them at some point.
By the end of the day everyone present had rose-rimmed eyes and I did many a double-take wondering if someone just had an S.O. spat. No, it was just the wind pushing talc-fine spindrift into everything with a nook and/or cranny. BB30 is making big inroads on road bikes, and why not? It allows engineers to design around a much wider bottom bracket shell, in turn allowing the down tube and seat tube to have a much greater circumference for increased stiffness and more efficient power transfer.
Bike 1 for the day was Giant’s TCR Advanced SL. This is the non-seatmast version of what Rabobank rides. Compared to the older TCR this thing is a wonder. The original TCR suffered from lots of lash; it was easy to twist the head tube during out of the saddle efforts and that softness also resulted in a bit of oversteer in hard corners, something most riders felt as just a bit of squirrellyness (yes, that’s a technical term). This new bike is plenty stiff and with increased use of high-modulus carbon fiber the bike offers a great deal more road sensitivity, not to mention instantaneous power transfer.
I look forward to doing a full test on this bike.
The second bike of the day I rode (worth mentioning) was the Look 566. The ride quality wasn’t crisp the way I’ve come to expect from many high-end road bikes. It was comfortable enough and damped vibration fairly well but the bike’s overall feel made more sense when I found out a complete bike retails for just $2495. Oh. At that price point, it’s rare that any bike feels this good.
The 566 has the tube shapes of a bike you’d see on the ProTour and the graphic treatment of a bike that might cost thousands more.
Look’s engineers have yet to take the leap and embrace BB30 but the wide downtube and wishbone chainstay offer considerable stiffness.
The changes are subtle, but Felt’s flagship TT/Tri bike received some new aerodynamic sculpting over the winter. The Irvine-based company’s engineers have worked hard to make sure the bike conforms to the UCI’s 3:1 ratio while increasing its aerodynamic efficiency. Dave Koesel, Felt’s road product manager (and a Campy guy from way back) enthused about the Dura-Ace Di2 being spec’d on several of their bikes.
Imagine a TT bike that allows you to shift from any hand position without needing to so much as shift your wrist.
Derailleur performance on Di2 is so quick and flawless it must be experienced to be believed. Front derailleur shifting is so fast it seems to defy the laws of physics and rear shifting is as quiet as it is smooth, and it’s quieter than a hybrid at a stoplight.
Both the Z and F series bikes are available in a Di2 version for less than $6000, thanks to a very careful component selection.
Because the Di2 has no internal mechanism other than the brake lever, the levers are very light and the hoods smaller than anything else on the market. For folks with smaller hands they are exceedingly comfortable to grip. One odd experience Koesel mentioned and I experienced in my riding of Di2 as well is that under hard efforts, old brain wiring takes over and we have both experienced trying to move the brake lever to execute a shift. That thing is stiff.
Koesel says in the company’s test rides of Di2, they have gotten more than 3000 miles on a single battery charge.
This was my first chance to actually ride a Parlee. The bike above is the company’s first production sized bike, the Z4. It had all the hallmarks of the most sophisticated carbon creations I’ve ridden: great torsional stiffness, good road sensitivity, great power transfer and low weight. It was rather hard to get a strong feel for the handling geometry due to the deep-section Edge wheels and the high winds we were dealing with; nonetheless, I liked the bike a lot.
Many components used on the Z4 are borrowed directly from the bike’s custom predecessor, the Z3. This seat lug is used on both bikes.
Parlee pushed the envelope on down tube diameter and BB shell thickness relative to the traditional 68mm BB.
The Z5 is Parlee’s newest road creation and is a culmination of the lessons learned in building both custom and production bikes. The unidirection carbon fiber that gives this bike (and all Parlees for that matter) its signature look tells you it’s all business. Of all the bikes at the show, this one was the one I was most looking forward to seeing and it was easily the most impressive in ride quality from a standpoint of stiffness and road sensitivity. The handling geometry was tough to judge again due to the presence of deep-section Edge wheels, but it seemed to track with great confidence.
Round tubes are king here; the look is simple, seamless, direct.
The Z5 uses a BB30 design which results in a BB as massive as a ’55 Chevy. The combination of the Z5 and SRAM Red had me contemplating felony larceny. Or at least a scenic (and unauthorized) tour of Hoover Dam.
Parlee has a close relationship with Edge and this was my first chance to ride their bar and stem. The curve of the drop was nice and the gently rounded shape combined with a fairly deep drop reminded me of a carbon fiber version of the old Cinelli Merckx bend.
As nice as Parlee’s Z4 is, the Z5 is a noticeably better bike. If I ride a better bike at Interbike, I’ll be surprised. This may turn out to be my favorite product introduction for the year.