For Part I, click here.
Evaluating road feel
In the past year I’ve ridden roughly a dozen different bikes for 50 miles or more—enough to get pretty familiar with them. Of those bikes (some of them will be coming through in other reviews I’ve yet to write), the Roubaix proved to be among the easiest to fit to me.
I’ve heard people at Specialized as well as a number of retailers mention the “new” geometry for the Roubaix. It’s a detail I repeated a few times until I actually looked at the geometry chart. Across its six sizes, the bike hasn’t changed by a millimeter. The only significant change I can see that will affect the bike’s handling is that I’m not seeing the bike with that long, conic top cap anymore (and followed by three or four centimeters of spacers). And despite continued assertions by others, I’ve verified this with the manufacturer. No change in the head tube length.
So while the geometry of the Roubaix remains unchanged, that doesn’t mean this bike hasn’t evolved significantly. The SL4 iteration of the Roubaix introduces yet another expression of the Zertz technology. Where previously the Zertz inserts were inserted into openings molded into the fork and seatstays and were held in place by their contours, they now wrap around the fork blades and seatstays and are secured with small bolts. This change has a two-fold effect; first, it eliminates the extra material required to form those openings, making the bike lighter and, second, the new attachment method has resulted in improved vibration reduction, according to testing that Specialized performed.
Specialized added a new new seatpost, the CG-R that cantilevers the seat clamp in order to create more of a pivot action with the carbon arm that holds the clamp supported by a high-durometer Zertz damper. The combination of Zertz dampers in both the seatpost and seatstays means that even less vibration is being transmitted to the rider’s hindquarters than ever before.
While Specialized claims that the CG-R offers a whopping 18mm of suspension action, I have my doubts that I got even a full centimeter of travel. So while I quibble with that number, I’d hate for that to obscure the fact that this seatpost does cushion the ride, and I can say that because I tried the Roubaix without that seatpost and I tried that seatpost in another bike; it definitely changes what you feel at the saddle.
I can tell you that this bike was built with Specialized’s FACT 11r construction, but the simple reality is that having typed those words, they don’t really mean anything. This business of constantly coming up with arcane nomenclature mostly doesn’t serve the consumer that well because it doesn’t do anything to enable a consumer to make an apples-to-apples comparison of different bikes. What I can tell you is this: as Specialized has moved from FACT 9r to FACT 10r and now FACT 11r, those jumps have been meaningful enough that they’ve translated to bikes that were stiffer under pedaling forces, lighter and arguably stronger, given that I can report anecdotally I saw fewer riders taking their bikes back to the dealer for frame cracks.
More important are the lengths Specialized had gone to optimize the ride quality for each size. It’s not uncommon for a brand to use the same chainstays or the same wishbone seatstay and the same fork for every single model. By varying tube diameter and layup for each size bike, the Roubaix is one of a select group of bikes that offers such a tuned ride.
The S-Works Roubaix SL4 is a far cry from the original Roubaix. Honestly, all they really share is geometry. My sense is that the S-Works SL4 conveys a similar amount of vibration to the rider as the original Roubaix, though I have to grant I haven’t been able to go back and ride one of the original bikes to verify that assertion. But I’m willing to put that out there because I know that as frames see weight reductions thanks to better compaction, using superior fibers and cutting the amount of material used, those advancements cause more vibration to move through the frame. In short, the very features that cause the Roubaix to be a better bike today are the wrinkles that make shielding a rider from vibration ever more difficult. Just treading water in this game is a win.
The upshot is that this is one of the most comfortable bikes on the market, easily in my top three, when considered for vibration damping. What truly sets the Roubaix apart from other bikes in its class is that it still has the performance of a sport (or “racing”) bike. As much as I really like the live-wire feel of a bike that makes no effort to shield the rider from vibration, there is something positively welcoming to climbing on the Roubaix. As I’ve put it previously, we may dream of owning a Ferrari, but you would probably prefer to stick with a Lexus for your daily driver. Honestly, smooth sells itself.
As I mentioned in Part I of my review, the geometry on the Roubaix hasn’t changed since the model was launched, but this bike is a marked improvement over the original. Several features contribute to that evolution and improvement. Because the bike is both stiffer and lighter now, that improved feedback in handling and reduced mass means it’s easier to ride the bike aggressively. By spec’ing the bike with Roval carbon fiber clinchers and new, lighter Roubaix tires, it’s easier to dive into turns, which allowed me to compensate some for the calm handling, which is imparted by the long wheelbase and low bottom bracket. So, while Roubaix has only 5.6cm of train in the 56cm size, a bit less than its Italian predecessors, its 101cm wheelbase and 7.15cm of BB drop are what give this bike its deliberate demeanor.
When you combine the Roubaix’s ability to smooth out roads and impart confidence to a rider, what you get is a bike that is my preferred ride for rough descents. That’s a quality that is particularly useful in the Sierra where many of the descents feature wide-open turns on surfaces that are sometimes—well, let’s just say I’ve been on smoother fire roads.
Because the Zertz are dead weight in the frame, in order to present a 14.3-lb. bike, Specialized had to pull out essentially all the stops. Details like hollow dropouts, longer fiber runs, and more size-specific features, such as 1 1/8″ steerers in the smallest frames, 1 1/4″ in the mid-sized frames and 1 3/8″ in the largest sizes; this also aids rider comfort.
On the parts side, my bike was equipped SRAM Red as well as an S-Works bar and stem, plus the aforementioned CG-R seatpost. An S-Works crank is substituted for the Red unit. The Roval Rapide CLX 40s with Ceramicspeed bearings follow the example of Zipp’s Firecrest and Enve’s SES wheels which are designed around the idea using the spoke bed as a second leading edge. The way these wheels handled in the wind only served to confirm my previous experience that this rim shape makes a big difference, sending markedly less steering input to the rider than traditional deep-V designs. That said, braking performance was decidedly lacking. It was better than an aluminum rim in wet conditions, but it was far less than I’ve come to (reasonably) expect from a set of carbon clinchers.
My review bike, which included mechanical calipers carried a retail of $8000. Specialized supplanted this version with models sporting either SRAM’s hydro road rim brake or the hydro road disc, which run $500 more. Unfortunately, due to SRAM’s recall of those brakes, those bikes aren’t available in exactly those configurations currently. You may find them on the shop floor; SRAM is providing mechanical disks (cable-actuated) for all those who really can’t wait to have a disc version.
An $8k bike is more than many of us can afford, but here again, Specialized sets itself apart from many of its competitors by offering a stunning 15 different versions of this bike, from the $10,500 Dura-Ace Di2-equipped bike all the way down to an $1800-version. Very few companies come anywhere near this level of selection.
Specialized has taken some hits to its reputation in the last few years, first with the lawsuit against Volagi, then with the C&D letter to Cafe Roubaix. In both situations both parties claimed victory; whether that was true was really a matter of perspective. What was certain for all to see was the hit Specialized’s public image took. It’s a shame that ill-handled actions on the part of Specialized’s legal team should obscure the achievement on the part of the company’s product team. This is one fantastic bike.
I’m going to be candid. I think it’s fair to say that categorically the head tubes on race-oriented road bikes are too short. To be clear, I’m referring to the bikes that the big pro teams are riding, models like the Trek Madone, Specialized Tarmac, Giant TCR and Cervelo R5, what I typically refer to as “sport” bikes. That’s why when Specialized introduced the Roubaix nearly 10 years ago I concluded that it was one of the best carbon-fiber road bikes on the market designed for real people.
Designing bikes for the needs or at least the perceived needs of top level pros has proven to be a double-edged sword. Thanks to the input from some of the strongest riders in the world you and I have the good fortune to ride bikes that are stiffer under pedaling forces and in cornering. Some of them have remained remarkably comfortable; others, less so. What I continue to marvel at is the incredible diversity of experiences out there. Not only are the significantly greater differences between top-of-the-line road bikes for most brands than there were back when everyone’s top road bike was made from steel, there’s also the fact that now many brands offer a sport bike, a grand touring bike, as well as an aero road bike. The interesting detail in this is that for most brands that offer all three models or at least a race bike and a grand touring model, the race bike still is the sales leader.
There’s an interesting back story, not just to this bike, but to this category, because the simple truth is that when Specialized introduced the Roubaix, they didn’t just launch a bike, they launched a category. If we get in the Wayback Machine® and set it for 1984, the bikes we will see in the better bike shops will have a bunch of details in common. They’ll have a long wheelbase (100cm or more for a 58cm frame), a lowish bottom bracket (all the Italian stuff will be 26.5cm or lower) and a moderate amount of trail (5.9cm was common). They’ll also have a stunning amount of flex by today’s standards. The Roubaix is essentially that bike, just lighter and stiffer. In other words, the Roubaix is a bike that—from a geometry standpoint—has been around a long time.
So what changed?
Well, back then what a Roubaix is was just a road bike. However, we can say with considerable authority that the bike industry has chased stiffness ever since. A funny thing happened along the way. Stiffer tube sets allow a builder to give a bike quicker geometry. So as bikes got stiffer, we make them more nimble because that’s what racers wanted. This is evolution at its finest. Descent with modification means that by the time the Roubaix was introduced, nothing on the market handled like that anymore. Sure, there were custom builders still producing bikes like that, but there wasn’t anything on a bike shop showroom floor like the Roubaix. It took the introduction of a production model to turn this into a category. For that, Specialized in general, and Mike Sinyard in specific, deserve a lot of credit.
Even though bikes became quicker handling thanks to ever-stiffer frames, the opposite wasn’t untrue. Full points to Sinyard for being the first guy to realize that you could use top-shelf carbon fiber to build a light, stiff frame that handled like the old Italian stage-race bikes.
Since Specialized introduced the Roubaix I’ve been pretty vocal in touting it as an example of the bike that most people should be riding. I’ve often seen people on group rides overreact in situations because they’re on a quick-handling bike. While it’s impossible to say definitively, I think many dicey situations I’ve seen could have been calmed, if not averted, had at least a few of the people involved been on bikes that are slower to react.
That we even need the Roubaix and its ilk is tragicomic. Production race bikes have ultra-short head tubes because that’s what pros want. And anyone who has been to see pro racing up close knows that a great many, possibly most, pros ride bikes that don’t fit them. The bar is often too low and the reach too great, all part of that effort to get that ultra-aero flat back. To make sure that the bike will turn when you have that much weight on the front end, you have to build the bike around 5cm of trail, maybe a tad more. So what happens when you put 6cm of spacers between the headset and the stem? The bike handles wicked quick, that’s what. It’s essentially a different bike that what the pros ride just because the weight distribution is so different.
Which brings us back to the Roubaix and other bikes in the grand touring category. I’ve heard these bikes referred to as “old man bikes.” They should more properly be referred to as “bikes designed around good fit.” That would be more accurate.
Case in point: Most of the time, when I look at a bike’s geometry chart, I struggle to decide whether the 56 or 58 will be the better fit because it’s rare anyone offers a 57. The geometry of most grand touring bikes makes that choice much easier. Let me put it this way: If I remove all the spacers below the stem and run it on the top cap of the headset, that puts the bar below my preferred fit. That leads me to think that the head tube, unlike what some people have suggested, isn’t too long. The top tube on the 56 (or “large”) is 56.5cm and when paired with a 12cm stem, the result is one of the best fits for me I’ve found in production bikes.
One aspect of the Roubaix that I think gets overlooked is the fact that while the Roubaix itself comes in six sizes, the Ruby—the women’s model—comes in another five sizes, from 44cm to 57cm. Considering the fact that the Ruby does come in a gender neutral finish each year (this year, it’s white), this gives a fitter the chance to pick a bike not just for its size, but also for the rider’s weight. Were I shopping for a skinny adolescent boy, the Ruby would be near the top of my list because it features a bit more vertical flex (thanks to less carbon) in order to yield the same comfortable ride for someone who weighs 120 lbs. as the Roubaix will yield for a 160-lb. man. The upshot is that the Roubaix has the ability to fit someone as short as 4’11″ and someone as tall as 6’3″, not to mention offering some choices based on weight.
If it seems I’ve gone overly deep into the why of the Roubaix and just what this category means to both consumers and the bike industry, there’s a reason, if not a method behind this. I’m going to be reviewing a number of bikes from this category this year and I want to frame some of my larger observations now. This review will be a reference point later this year.
Shoes have a new fastening system taking over. Dials, be they from Boa or imitators, are now gracing the pro-level shoe offerings from just about everybody. Specialized and Lake and Scott have been on this for years, but now they’ve been joined by Diadora, DMT, Gaerne, Louis Garneau, Northwave, Sidi, Vittoria and Pearl Izumi. Izumi was, amazingly, one of the first to bring the Boa dial system to market, dropped it, and is now back.
Shimano, owner of Pearl Izumi, is sticking to the two straps and buckle system. The ranks of holdouts include Fizik, Giro, and Mavic. Strikingly, all claim high technology to be their calling card. Giro, for one, is still standing firm with their retro-cool lace-up Empire shoes.
Orange is the New Black
Last year, fluo green was the hot color. This year, it’s orange. Mostly fluo orange, but not entirely. Poc totally rocked the orange; the color is tied to their brand identity. But there was plenty of orange to go around, particularly for shoes and helmets. Shoes, preferably in shiny, perforated microfiber, are going orange at Giro, Northwave, Lake, and others. In helmets, Giro is joining the orange crew that Lazer and Rudy Project already started.
Wide Rims are the New Black
At first, it was a trickle. Now it’s a flood. Starting with Hed’s C2 and moving to Zipp and far beyond. Wide rims are just about everywhere. Easton has the Fantom rim, on their EC90 Aero 55 clincher and tubular. The new EC90 is really wide, 28mm, and, a more blunt nose, and the clincher is tubeless compatible. Easton has also redesigned their EA90 SLX into a wider, tubeless-compatible aluminum rim. And the new Easton wheels sport new hubs, the Echo, which relies on standard straight-pull spokes. Ritchey is debuting a wide, shallow-section aluminum clincher, the Zeta II and is tubeless-compatible. The roll on Phantom hubs, which look flangeless but have internal flanges so that the wheels are built with J-bend spokes.
For the people who long for wide rims to build into their favorite hubs, American Classic is now selling a wide, shallow, tubeless compatible rim. The AC RD 2218. Being American Classic, the rim is light, 375g, and currently available in 24 and 28 drilling.
Classic Bars are the New Black
Classic-bend drop handlebars are coming back. The long loopy drops of old are being updated with short reach and shallow bends. Zipp and Ritchey have newly-designed classic bends, taking a similar route to Shimano’s classic bend bars. On the other hand, FSA’s, and 3T’s, and Deda’s longstanding classic drops are plying the older, longer and lower bends. Also of note is that cable grooves seem to be disappearing from aluminum bars. A Ritchey rep told us it was what the pro’s requested because it adds more to grip on the tops. A Zipp rep told us it allowed them to make the bars lighter and stiffer.
Massive Data Integration is the New Black
SRM came to the show with their new PowerControl 8 head unit, set to be released in 2014. A slick touch screen that has sensors rather than relying on warm fingertips is just the beginning. The unit is also working with GPS where you can tune the accuracy by selecting the number of satellites, or turn it off to increase battery life. And they’re adding the metrics popularized by Allen/Coggan—normalized power, IF and TSS. And more. It will work with all ANT+ power meters and connect to both Bluetooth and WiFi. It will be waterproof, and even have a small speaker.
Wahoo Fitness is also expanding its offerings. Their smartphone-based software company is going in a zillion directions—using your smartphone to record and push data to social media, to training programs, and integrating it with a trainer. At the Wahoo booth, they had a Wahoo-based trainer, the Kickr, hooked up to a software partner, Kinomap, where you can watch a geolocated video (quick, get a Virb) that has the elevation data interpreted to resistance and sent to a trainer so you can ride what you’re watching—and even try to keep up or exceed the pace that the person filming it did. You can also use the trainer to ride or race Strava segments.
Topeak is also working the Bluetooth/smartphone angle with their PanoBike App and system, which also includes handlebar- and stem-mounted cases, Bluetooth transmitters, and an app that not only serves as the computer, but a diary and can work with a bike computer.
Bluetooth-transmitting heart rate, speed, cadence sensors, is also a path PowerTap is starting to follow. They’ll have the same, including a PowerTap hub that transmits a Bluetooth signal. This way your smartphone and other Bluetooth-enabled devices, like laptops and tablets, can pick up the signals. CycleOps (part of the same company as PowerTap, but spun into its own division) is also debuting Virtual Training software. Theirs combines both indoors and outdoors, with a heavy social media component and even video. For the indoor, you need one of their PowerBeam or Indoor Cycle units or Wahoo’s Kickr hooked up to a smartphone, tablet, or computer, and logged into their Virtual Training site.
CycleOps’ system combines a training dairy with your trainer and social media. Ride routes you’ve done, ride routes others have done and shared, race people on created routes, compete with others on time, mileage, whatever metric you want. And if the one site isn’t enough, your data can easily be shared with social media sites and other training software.
Taking integration in another diretion is BikeSpike. It’s a GPS transmitter that currently is housed in a water bottle cage. The transmitter turns on and sends out signals telling its location. Mate it with your smartphone and it’s a bike computer, it sends the ride BikeSpike’s social media platform, an anti-theft device, and a crash-alert system. If you like keeping tabs on loved one’s riding, you can set a perimeter, and get alerts when the device goes beyond. The device can also tell how the bike is oriented to the ground, and that can work into their platform to a visual that shows how the bike is leaning.
Road Tubeless Tires are not the New Black
Despite the rapidly-increasing number of road tubeless rims on offer, the same cannot be written of road tubeless tires. The choices for tires are not expanding, nor did it seem that the companies selling road tubeless tires are dramatically expanding their offerings.
Road Rotor Disc Brakes are not the New Black
Here, too, there is lots of talk, but little action. Shimano was touting theirs, but it was hard to find a road racing bike equipped with them, other than a Colnago that Shimano was carting around. SRAM seemed a bit more measured, coming with a fleet of Specializeds, but focusing on their Hydro-R, hydraulic rim brakes, rather than their Hydro-D, hydraulic disc brakes. Most of the road bikes that were equipped with discs were of the “gravel grinder” variety, save the BMC GF01, which is kind of a racing version of a gravel grinder, carbon-fiber but with a beefy fork and massive chain stays.
When I was a boy, I had a thing for Porsche. I thought their cars were sexy in ways almost nothing other than lingerie models can achieve. I loved their engineering, their racing success, their emphasis on driver experience. At some point in high school I was confronted with a documentary that went into genetic detail on how companies like Porsche, BMW and Mercedes enriched themselves through their contracts with the Third Reich.
I found myself struggling with how I could admire a company that had prospered as a supplier to an empire that killed more than 10 million people. It had been my dream to one day buy a Porsche of some variety—a desire that has never left me—but that desire was upended with the moral dilemma that they had (perhaps unwittingly) aided and abetted the Third Reich as they did their best to exterminate all the Jews in Europe. How could I support that?
Fortunately, I’ve never had the cash at hand to force the question. I’ve told myself that more than 50 years have passed, that whatever punishment was theirs has been meted. Still, I’ve contemplated buying a used BMW wagon and the question bumped elbows with my conscience. It wasn’t comfortable.
I offer that as a prelude to the nuclear winter we are now entering following the release of USADA’s “reasoned decision.” The initial casualties were all the riders whose doping activity was detailed in the voluminous files released by USADA. They are tantamount to the initial deaths caused by a nuclear blast. Now, the fallout.
Already I’m seeing people bringing up the issue of boycotts of brands. Nike, because of their ongoing support of Lance Armstrong in the face of the allegations was coming off worst. Then, the news this morning that Nike has dumped Armstrong, at least publicly. Still, there’s the allegation reported by the NY Daily News that Kathy LeMond was told by ex-Postal mechanic Julien Devries that he heard that Nike paid $500,000 to hush up Armstrong’s 1999 positive for corticosteroids, that the money was wired not to the UCI, but to Hein Verbruggen himself.
It is the most damning allegation against Verbruggen ever, a charge that weighs like murder on the long rap sheet of an otherwise petty criminal. However, even though Mrs. LeMond testified to this under oath, she was not an eyewitness to the allegation, the way Tyler Hamilton was an eyewitness to Armstrong receiving transfusions. Put another way, her testimony qualifies as hearsay, something that is routinely stricken from testimony in court rooms. It’s not an allegation that appears to have been investigated by Novitzky or Tygart, at least, not based on the released documents.
The trouble for Nike is that the allegation comes sliding down a pile of so many other proven charges that many are willing to believe almost any bad deed claimed to have been perpetrated by Armstrong or his backers. Led by ex-pro and one-time Armstrong teammate Paul Willerton, people are mobilizing for a boycott of Nike; it remains to be seen if it will still go forward now that they’ve severed ties with the former seven-time Tour victor. Whether or not they’ve tossed Armstrong overboard, this could turn out to be the biggest PR black eye they have suffered in decades.
Also announced this morning, Armstrong has stepped down from Livestrong as its chairman. This is an obvious and understandable effort to save the charity; who knows if it will work?
As it turns out, Armstrong himself is proving to be radioactive. For better or worse, he’s poisoning everything he touched.
But the fallout doesn’t end with Livestrong. It extends to Trek. Riders are contemplating a boycott of Trek as a result of their unwavering support for Armstrong. I doubt that a boycott would be particularly visible, but I can see the possibility that some people simply won’t buy a Trek when they go to buy a bike. It might be enough to allow Specialized to finally retake that spot as the #1-selling bike brand.
The fallout also extends to George Hincapie and his company Hincapie Sportswear. People are wondering how they feel about doing business with his company, a company that wouldn’t be as big or popular without his success riding alongside Armstrong.
Then there’s Allen Lim, who Floyd Landis outed as having aided his and Levi Leipheimer’s doping efforts. Back when Landis was believed to be a lunatic running through the streets complaining that he was being chased by a purple unicorn, he was easy to dismiss, at least for those who wanted to dismiss him. Some of us didn’t dismiss him.
Lim denied Landis’ charges at the time and at that time, the weight of innocence was on his side. But USADA’s report has demonstrated that essentially everything contained in Landis’ confession was true; we have learned there were purple unicorns aplenty. It may not have proven every statement he has made was true, but I’m unaware that any of his assertions has been proven demonstrably false. And that’s the gray netherworld in which Lim’s denial resides. Nothing in the USADA documents addresses this and the affidavits by Landis and Leipheimer make not mention of Lim, so his ongoing denials are not rebutted by sworn testimony.
Conversely, people are asking questions about Chris Carmichael’s coaching company, Carmichael Training Systems, and whether or not they should support a company that was really only a cover for Armstrong. The charge is that Carmichael didn’t actually coach him. The objection here is that CTS’ greatest testimonial is built on a lie, even if it’s a lie of a different sort.
Of course, we need to consider bicycle racing’s retailer: USA Cycling. The sport’s governing body here in the U.S. has had a long and cozy history with Thom Weisel and his Champions’ Club, not to mention Tailwind Sports, the owners of the US Postal team. Indeed, two of Weisel’s cronies continue to sit on the USA Cycling board, David Helfrich and Matt Barger, who are both Development Foundation Representatives. Should they be immune?
It is likely that no company benefitted more from Armstrong’s meteoric rise to the top of the cycling heap than Trek, not Nike, not Oakley, not Powerbar, FRS or (more recently) Honey Stinger. They have the most to lose now. In a world where people vote with their dollars, they may well see a falloff in sales that registers in the fourth quarter of 2012.
But what of companies like Hincapie Sportswear and Skratch Labs? Should they take a hit? Their growth, their popularity, their products have hinged less on endorsement by Armstrong than their founders’ association with him. Should not those companies fair the storm better than Trek?
What each of these companies has in common—other than an association with Armstrong—is a product that is good by any objective measure. From good reviews to races won while using these products, not to mention the voluminous testimonials from Carmichael’s thousands of clients, each of these companies sells something that has been borne out in the market. However, there is a fundamental difference between the culpability of companies like CTS, Hincapie Sportswear and Skratch Labs (which didn’t even exist until well after Armstrong’s comeback began) and that of Nike and Trek.
In helping to build the Armstrong brand and support the US Postal team, Nike and Trek exerted considerable might. Without them, without their support, the Postal machine would have had fewer resources and may not have attained the level of success they did. In a way, what they did was help build a nuclear weapon. The more direct a participant’s knowledge of the situation, the closer they were to the blast. Those who worked for companies that benefited from Armstrong’s success are going to be in for a rough ride. And what of the riders who walked away from US Postal rather than cheat? They simply found the minimum safe distance. There are no winners in nuclear war, only losers.
We’ve had a number of tangents in our comments following posts that concerned tire clearance and bigger tires. Partly because they were already in the works and partly as a response to those conversations, I’ve been meaning to post two different tire reviews. The first of these is the Specialized Roubaix tire. This is a relatively newish tire, introduced around the time of the re-introduced Turbos.
The PR machine at Specialized (my God, they are effective—other companies would do well to emulate them) brought these to my attention following a little field trip to Finland they made with a few of my colleagues including peloton‘s Ben Edwards and Bike Radar’s James Huang. So why Finland? That’s where one of the only neutral—as in not brand-affiliated—bicycle-tire testing facilities in the world is based. James produced a really interesting piece based on his visit, which is worth checking out here. So what did Specialized have to crow about? Well, they got a little surprise when they visited Wheel Energy. Long before they took any journos there, they’d conducted loads of tests and concluded that their new Turbos were a good bit faster than their old tires. They also discovered something a little surprising. Of all the tires they tested, the tire with the lowest rolling resistance, i.e. the fastest, was the Roubaix.
This was a surprise to all involved, I’m told. The Roubaix Armadillo Elite is, by virtue of its containing an Armadillo Elite puncture-resistant belt, a tire that should theoretically be a bit slower. Okay so what’s the key to the Roubaix? Well, it’s a pretty fresh take on what a wide(r) tire can be. You see, the Roubaix features a 25mm casing but only a 23mm tread. The way it was put to me is that you get the benefits of a larger casing, which means less resistance-causing deformation at the footprint while getting the smaller footprint of a smaller tread. I suspect the answer is a bit more complicated than that, though.
My own experience in riding this tire is that it does feel fast. Get it up to speed and it just rolls well, especially on rough surfaces, and you can feel free to extrapolate that all the way to dirt roads because I’ve taken this thing off-road. Now what Specialized’s machine didn’t mention is that while this thing rolls like a ball bearing on glass, it’s 50 percent heavier than the lightest open tubulars I’ve ridden. I weighed one at 308g, which means these things are somewhat porcine. So there’s the whole “getting it up to speed” bit. And no, I didn’t have the sense that I was receiving a flywheel-type benefit once they were at speed.
I don’t think I’ve ridden a more versatile tire. They were perfectly acceptable on group rides, were impervious to every surface and bit of debris I rode over and handled enough like a racing tire on descents that I didn’t have to do any extra braking while on the drop.
Maybe the truest measure of how much I like these tires—despite their weight—is the fact that I’ve mounted them on three different wheel sets. That’s got to be a first for me. And at $60, anyone serious about their cycling can afford to run these. But don’t get the wrong idea; I’d still run the Turbo or a similar racing tire for most of my riding, but any time I needed rubber with wider margins, I wouldn’t hesitate to mount these up. Paired with a set of Zipp 303 clinchers and I’d give these a try on some cobbles, maybe even the Wallers-Arenberg Forest?
On the day of stage two of the Amgen Tour of California I took part in a charity event benefitting the organization Right To Play. The organization was started by four-time Olympic gold medalist Johan Olav Koss, the long-track speed skater. In broad strokes, Right To Play exists to bring opportunities for sport—and all the lessons that lie therein—to children living in impoverished and war-torn countries. They have programs running in roughly two dozen countries around the world, places like Ethiopia, Rwanda and the Palestinian territories. They’ve built facilities so kids can play sports like football (soccer) and volleyball. And yes, some of their programs involve cycling.
So what’s this really got to do with cycling? Well, people often need a little incentive to do good deeds—think the coffee mug you get when you make a pledge to your local public radio station. Right To Play does a lot of fundraising and they called upon the bike industry to pull together something special that a great many people missed out on.
Thanks to their relationship with Specialized, Right To Play was able to offer fundraisers a breakfast with Phil and Paul, a ride out of Aptos that took in part of stage 2′s race course, a VIP pass at the finish that got you one of the best spots to view the final sprint (won as you can easily recall by Peter Sagan, if only because he won nearly every stage … dang) and, finally, a dinner with the Omega Pharma-Quick Step team. Just which of these events folks took part in was determined by just how much they raised, but if you went all in and donated $17,000, you got each of those experience plus a Tarmac SL4 and a BG Fit at your nearby dealer. Of course, it was possible to get in on some of the festivities for as little as $1500.
Whether you like their products or not, Specialized comes in for some criticism from time to time for their business practices. Here’s an occasion that is worth considering. Specialized, due to their size, does more on the advocacy front than most companies in the bike industry. Indeed, they have a person on staff dedicated to advocacy efforts; heck, for a while Specialized even funded the salary of the director for the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, the group that is bringing mountain bike racing to high schools around the country.
The ride was fun; no two ways about it. We climbed out of Aptos and up to Corralitos through dense Redwood forest. Following a brief descent we hooked up with the race course for the fast descent into Aptos and the run through town to the finish at the college. Western Spirit Cycling Adventures provided support; not that we needed a bunch of support for a 37-mile ride, but a snack or two at the top of the climb was hard to say no to.
Of course, the highlight of this thing was the dinner with Omega Pharma-Quick Step. And here’s where Specialized really made the difference. Anyone willing to lay out the greenbacks can buy a tent and VIP experience for a bunch of friends. But very few bike sponsors have the kind of pull with a pro team to hold a dinner for eight or ten people who donated money to a charity a bunch of pro riders have never heard of. Indeed, to kick the dinner off, one of Right To Play’s staffers got up to tell the team about what it is they do and how they do it. Some of the European riders seemed not to listen at all, but I looked over and noticed that Levi Leipheimer was paying close attention.
I need to stress, this sort of thing is just not done. Meal time has always been a sacrosanct event for riders. They sit together, you don’t bug them and when they finish they head back to their rooms to rest. They don’t sign autographs and they don’t hang out and talk with a bunch of bike geeks. But that they did. While the riders did sit together for dinner, the staff spread out and joined the VIPs at tables throughout our dining room. As fate/luck would have it, I was seated across from Patrick Lefevre and he spoke freely, entertaining questions from everyone at the table. What was most entertaining was hearing him address the issue of television revenue. His frustration at the lack of a unified front between the teams was readily apparent.
Generally speaking, teams can refuse any sort of PR request during a big race. That they did this speaks to the value Specialized sees in the team and how they view their investment. It’s one thing to sponsor a fast guy. It’s quite another to sponsor someone who can be personable with complete strangers. And honestly, every team at the Tour of California could have offered this, but very few teams could match OPQ for star power with both Levi and Tom Boonen at this dinner.
Beyond that, I was really impressed with how friendly and funny Phil and Paul were at the breakfast; who knows how many requests of this sort they get each time they come stateside. They even did a short promo video for Right To Play and showed what pros they are by nailing it on the first take.
There’s a reason Specialized brought me along. They want more people to know about Right To Play and a pretty killer event you can attend if you donate to them. So why mention it now? They plan to do something similar next year.
Late last week I received a rather last-minute invitation from the PR machine at Specialized. They were wondering if I might be able to carve out a day to spend with Tom Boonen, Levi Leipheimer and the members of Omega Pharma-Quickstep’s Tour of California squad. After a quick consult with Mrs. Padraig, I started packing. I mean, who says no?
Now, I’m not going to try to snow you. We all know that this was a visit that didn’t carry the journalistic weight of a post-race press conference. Like I care. I am, at my core, a fan of all things cycling (okay, most things cycling; I’m still unwilling to ride a recumbent). And even though I have at times been critical of Tom Boonen for losing his focus as a professional athlete, I’ve been an admirer of his since his U.S. Postal days.
So I took a brief tour of OPQ’s makeshift service course before heading to the big, red S for our ride. I learned a few things while checking out their set up. First, almost the entire team is still on SRAM’s original Red group. Yes, Boonen won Roubaix on 2012 Red, but all the bikes I saw other than his featured Black Red. I also asked a bit about what bikes the riders receive and how much steering they receive about what bike should be ridden when. Specialized is pretty proud of the fact that Tommeke won Ghent-Wevelgem on a Venge, Flanders on a Tarmac and Roubaix on a Roubaix. So I’ve been curious to know how much of this was rider preference vs. sponsor input. I was surprised to learn that it’s 100 percent up to the rider. Getting this answer once from a team liaison was good, but not good enough. So I asked around a bit more, finally asking Boonen himself about his bike choice. Each time I got the same answer.
Each rider is given two Venges and two Tarmacs at the beginning of the season. They also receive a Roubaix for Roubaix. Boonen indicated that his bike of preference is the Venge and he goes for the Tarmac when the course is a bit rougher.
As one of the largest bike companies in the world, Specialized is a complicated entity. They’ve engaged in some business practices that have soured some people, notably the lawsuits with Volagi and Giro. And it’s not too hard to find former employees who can’t quite rinse the bitter taste from their mouths. Even among the happy, current employees, there’s widespread acknowledgement that Sinyard demands a lot from his workforce. In the same breath people add that he isn’t shy with the praise, though, and they do feel valued. I hate the phrase “work hard and play hard” because it has become such a cliché, but if ever there was an organization where the saying is applicable, Specialized is arguably it.
It’s a pretty rare day that any of the stars that Specialized sponsors actually visits the HQ. To my knowledge, this was the first time Boonen had visited; same for teammates like former world champion Bert Grabsch. The marketing team laid siege to the building, putting up posters, making up personalized stickers to put on the shower lockers each of the riders would use (alas, Leipheimer didn’t make it due to his ongoing recovery), embroidering towels and wash cloths, catering lunch and plenty more.
Is this sort of red-carpet treatment something that means much to the riders? I kinda doubt it. Sure, it must be fun for them, but this particular lot seemed on the introverted side and happy just to keep to themselves. I think it means a great deal more to the employees of Specialized. It’s easy for most of them to spend months or a year (or more) on a project and not necessarily see that translate to a big pro win. So events like these are a great way for them to connect to their work in a bigger-picture way. And let’s be honest, going out for your company’s lunch ride accompanied by some of the world’s finest pros has got be pretty stinkin’ cool.
The shot above is one of my favorites from the Specialized lunch ride that day. Unlike other occasions when the big boys join a group ride, these guys sifted through the group and spent some time chatting with the staffers. The pace stayed pretty mellow so that moving through the group wasn’t exactly risky among this unknown quantity.
At one point one of the members of the marketing team rode up to me and asked if I wanted to get my picture with any of the riders. I’m rather camera shy these days, even though I used to spend more time in front of the camera than behind it, so I initially said no. Part of my motivation was thinking that this is really about the Specialized employees and the event was really meant to give them a chance to interact with these athletes.
Then I came to my senses.
“Well, if someone was to accidentally on purpose get a photo of me next to Tom Boonen, I wouldn’t object.”
A few ks later, “Hey Patrick, look what I brought you!”
I turn and it’s Tom Boonen. After a brief reintroduction I admitted that I was among that army of journalists who had been rough on him in the past. So it was with some delight that I was able to tell him that in rediscovering his old form and having the spring he did, I was pleased for him. He was as gracious as one might hope. We talked a bit about what he changed for this season and while the details were plenty interesting, what captivated me was hearing him talk about going back to old-school training and just logging thousands of kilometers. I nearly fell of my saddle when he said, “I told the guys, let’s do this old school, like back when we were juniors.”
He was so relaxed about his training and yet there was an animation to him as he talked about riding. Say what you want, Tom Boonen really loves to ride his bike.
Some thoughts from Sunday’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege:
1. Maxim Iglinskiy capped a terrific week for Astana, winning Liege-Bastogne-Liege after overtaking a fading Vincenzo Nibali with a little more than one kilometer left to race. While certainly an outsider, Iglinskiy’s win wasn’t a total shock. In fact, in looking over the Kazakh’s resume, he appears to be a poor man’s Philippe Gilbert. Consistent spring contenders, (Iglinskiy is better than you might think) both riders have won the Strade Bianche and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. They also both won stages at the Dauphiné earlier in their careers. Of course, Gilbert’s resume is much longer and contains many more major victories, but considering Iglinsky came millions of Euros cheaper than his Belgian counterpart, Astana is doubtlessly happy with the return on its investment.
2. Iglinskiy’s win underscored a terrific team effort from Astana. Well-represented all day (their jerseys are hard to miss), the team placed two riders in the first group chasing Nibali. Enrico Gasparotto’s third-place finish put an exclamation mark on a successful day for the squad while confirming that his win in last weekend’s Amstel Gold Race was no fluke. The squad has now won two of the last three editions of Liege. (I wonder if Alexandre Vinokourov had some pre-race advice for his teammates.)
3. As for Nibali, his ride yesterday bookended his performance at Milan-San Remo, the season’s first Monument. In both races, the Liquigas rider initiated the final selection, but succumbed to a rider that few had predicted to play a dominant role in the event’s outcome. It’s been a while since we’ve had a grand tour champion prove himself to be a legitimate contender in the spring classics—let’s hope Nibali returns next year ready to contend again. Now the Italian must decide whether or not to compete in his home grand tour. While the Giro is a tempting option, he’s better suited for this year’s Tour de France.
4. Speaking of this year’s Tour de France, RadioShack’s Schleck brothers played little role in Sunday’s race. Perhaps they were tired from their efforts to have Kim Anderson reinstated in the squad’s management team for July’s Tour de France. A win Sunday would have spoken a lot louder if you ask me.
5. Back to the race: Twitter was buzzing Sunday with people complaining of boredom during the race’s final hour. At first, I felt compelled to defend the riders. The weather was horrible and the course was difficult—one must remember that these men are indeed human. But in hindsight, it seems to me that several teams with top contenders could and should have done more to make the race difficult, thereby eliminating “outsiders” like Iglinsky before they had a chance to play a role in the finale.
For example, Gilbert’s BMC squad was clearly focused on controlling the race in preparation for what it hoped would be a decisive attack by Gilbert (or someone else). Unfortunately, this kept too many riders and teams in contention after La Redoute. Without a major selection at this point in the race, there were too many men left to settle things over the remaining 30 kilometers.
7. The same can be said of Katusha. With Joaquim Rodriguez and Daniel Moreno they had a reason and the manpower to make the race more selective sooner—but they chose to sit-on. Some might say that Oscar Freire’s surprising resiliency gave the team an extra card to play should the race have stayed together all the way to Liege. (But that was an unlikely result—Freire’s performance was more a product of controlled racing than anything else.)
BMC can at least say they were racing to protect the chances of the defending chapion—they technically didn’t have to make the race (although that’s a slippery slope). Katusha made a mistake by basing this year’s tactics on last year’s favorite (Gilbert). Sometimes bringing the race to your competition is more effective than waiting for it to come to you.
8. Speaking of Gilbert, this spring was a minor catastrophe for the Belgian Champion. Last week I said that a win yesterday would have appeased his fans and softened his critics. Now it appears only a world championship will do the trick. Gilbert’s performance illustrates the importance of good health and good luck, while also reminding us that winning brings even loftier expectations the next time around. Hopefully Gilbert—who’s only 29, by the way—learned some valuable lessons from his experiences over the past two months. Look for him to be at his best once again next spring.
9. And if Gilbert didn’t already miss Jelle Vanendert, he certainly does now. I still can’t believe he didn’t make more of an effort to bring him along to BMC. That said, Tejay Van Garderen rode one heck of a race yesterday on behalf of Gilbert. The American now heads to Romandie before taking another crack at winning the Tour of California.
10. What a spring for Specialized and SRAM, huh?
That’s it for me—what’s on your mind?
Follow me on Twitter: @whityost
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
When I first interviewed for a position at Bicycle Guide part of my screening hinged on my interest in writing how-to articles aimed at beginners. The powers-that-be had determined that the magazine needed to do more to embrace entry level riders, though there was no move afoot to turn the magazine entirely mainstream, a la Bicycling.
Some months later Joe Lindsey (these days of Bicycling and “The Boulder Report”) and I commented to each other that those article should be collected in a book. After all, once each issue went off the newsstand, there was no way for a new rider to find that material. It was gone. Imagine text books that self-destructed like those tapes on Mission Impossible.
It was then that I began concocting the idea of a reference text to roadies. It’s obvious purpose would be to educate new riders, but done right, I thought it could have the ability to offer rich background material that would interest even the dedicated roadie.
Creating an outline for a book isn’t that hard. Putting together a proposal that will interest a publisher is another matter entirely. Because my idea fell outside of the traditional how-to manuals that teach riders either how to be fast or how to fix a bike many people I talked to didn’t see the need for it. Of course, none of those people I talked to had ever joined in a group ride. Fortunately for me, the people at Menasha Ridge Press saw the value in taking a total newbie through what is essentially Road Cycling 101.
Between writing the proposal, then the text, and, later, the editing, I’ve devoted a fair chunk of the last five years of my life to this book. Greg Page, the photographer responsible for most of the photos illustrating the text is the only man I know with the knowledge of the sport, the skill as a shooter and the patience necessary to work with me to have made the book as visually instructive as it is. His contribution cannot be overstated. Greg and I spent the better part of a year just on the photo shoots the book required. Honestly, writing this book was tougher than finishing graduate school.
For dedicated readers of RKP, there is, admittedly, a fair amount of information that will be rudimentary to the point of obvious. It’s likely that in chapters like the ones on group riding, advanced skills, materials and construction and geometry (as well as others) that you’ll find information that will be novel to you. The chapter on professional racing can serve you as a handy cheat sheet—’Wait, did Merckx win 525 or 535 times?’ ‘Did Bernard Hinault win more Grand Tours than Lance?’
I’ve written The No-Drop Zone not as a reflection of my experiences and beliefs, but rather as a compendium of all those who taught me over the years. I am hopeful that even the most experienced would find it an enjoyable and even illuminating read.
The bike industry has been extremely supportive of this book. Andy Hampsten lent his insight to the foreword, and authorities no less auspicious than Mike Sinyard of Specialized, Fatty of Fat Cyclist, Brad Roe of peloton and Joe Parkin at Paved have lent their expertise and endorsements. Heck, recent silver medalist at the World Championships, Dotsie Bausch, gave me considerable assistance with the chapter devoted to women’s issues.
I’m hoping that each of you will pick up a copy of The No-Drop Zone for the simple reason that nothing will sell this book as well as a recommendation from an experienced cyclist, like you, the readers of RKP.
I’m learning that pre-orders for a book online can have a profound effect if bricks-and-mortar stores stock a given book. Naturally, having this book in every Barnes & Noble around the country would do me a world of good and provide more availability to cyclists who like to shop retail. If you’re interested in this book, I hope you’ll go to the bn.com site and place an order for it. We’re probably five or six weeks from shipping the books out, but your pre-orders could have a powerful role in that chain’s decision to stock it in all of their locations. You can find the book here.