I’m going to start this post in a way that you’re not supposed to start a review—on a sour note. I didn’t see the need for this bike. Initially, it struck me as the inevitable result of the Specialized product machine. The template was struck some years back following the introduction of the Roubaix. The company alternates between a new Tarmac and a new Roubaix each year. In odd-numbered years Specialized introduces a new Tarmac, while there’s a new Roubaix in even-numbered years. Fall of 2011 required a new Tarmac.
When I first rode the Tarmac SL, I was not particularly enamored of the bike. I was a bigger fan of the Roubaix. I still think the Roubaix is the better bike for most non-racing riders. The issue for me was that I was accustomed to grand touring bikes; the two bikes I’d spent most of my miles on prior to first riding a Tarmac had relatively low bottom brackets and longish wheelbases. The Tarmac was a big change; the Roubaix less so.
It wasn’t until I began reviewing the Tarmac SL and the Roubaix SL back to back that I really acquired a taste for the Tarmac’s handling. I’d ridden plenty of bikes with handling as sharp as the Tarmac, and had disliked plenty of bikes with such quick handling. Well, “dislike” might be a bit harsh; they wouldn’t have been my first choice. The Tarmac showed me that with adequate stiffness (particularly in the fork and at the head tube) sharp handling needn’t make you nervous. By the end of the review I’d come to the conclusion I actually liked the Tarmac better in my favorite terrain—the canyon roads above Malibu. Here’s the post where I changed my tune.
Next, Specialized came out with the Tarmac SL2. I didn’t like that bike. It was okay on smooth roads, but anything rougher than a chick flick would rattle you like a paint shaker. It made chip-and-seal feel like the Arenberg Forest. That said, I know plenty of people who liked that bike.
Two years later Specialized came out with the S-Works Tarmac SL3. The biggest difference between those two bikes was in the rear end. The seatstays were flattened and reduced in diameter. And while I was told there were some changes in the layup of that frame, the folks I talked to didn’t go into too much detail. Broadly speaking, I was told that the layup was changed to permit more flex vertically while keeping the bike as rigid as possible torsionally.
So here’s where I have to address that trope of “vertically compliant but torsionally stiff.” It’s become a joke because some of the publications out there use it as a crutch to convince you that a Toyota Camry is a BMW M3. There’s nothing wrong with a Camry, but very few autos can provide the performance of an M3. That line about ”vertically compliant but torsionally stiff” rings hollow because at a certain point, if all bikes have that quality, then it ceases to be a way to distinguish bikes. And we know they aren’t all that way. There are real differences.
When I say I liked the SL3, I mean I loved that bike. Here’s that review: part 1 and part 2. It was one of my two or three favorite bikes I’ve ever ridden due to its particular constellation of road feel, performance, handling and weight. It didn’t need improving. When you’re putting out one of the best bikes on the market there’s a risk in trying to improve upon your work; there’s a real chance that no one will notice the difference. And the risk there is that if consumers can’t tell the difference between the old product and the new, improved one, they will begin to think what you’re selling is smoke and mirrors.
After assembling the S-Works Tarmac SL4 (and I’ll come back to the assembly in a bit), I went for a ride on the SL3. It was a short ride in my neighborhood, less than two miles. Then I jumped on the SL4, and did the same circuit again. I took care to make sure the tires were pumped up to the same pressure. The difference was not night-and-day, but the bikes were unmistakably different.
It’s common for fans of handmade steel and titanium bicycles to deride carbon fiber bikes for lacking personality, or sometimes it’s phrased as soul. When you’ve got a one-man shop, the marketing effort is pretty obvious. Land Shark begins and ends at John Slawta. As it should. But with a bike like the Tarmac, there’s quite a team involved and it’s not exactly possible to market a bike around every engineer and layup craftsperson who worked on the bike. And believe me, if you’ve ever seen someone doing layup, you begin understand that it really is a craft, just like brazing or welding.
The team responsible for the Tarmac includes some of the most knowledgeable people within their respective fields that I’ve met in the bike industry. And the resources that Specialized put into the bike are staggering. I was surprised to learn that each iteration of the Tarmac, from the original SL up to the current SL4, received its own set of molds. That’s a new set of molds every two years. That’s a lot of tooling. Consider that some Italian bike companies are still using the same frame shapes from six years ago.
So why new molds every two years? Easy. With each iteration of the Tarmac, Specialized has altered the frame shapes, slimming seatstays here, swelling the down tube and growing the bottom bracket there. Like other carbon fiber frames, the Tarmac is made from several monocoque sections that are joined after molding. With each new iteration, the locations of some of these joints have shifted based on what the engineering team has learned about the previous bike.
In talking with members of Specialized’s engineering team, they revealed that feedback from riders on the HTC-Highroad team indicated they needed to increase vertical compliance without sacrificing overall torsional stiffness. While riders said they liked the S-Works Tarmac SL3, the front end was a bit harsh for a 200k day. To that end, Specialized replaced the 1 1/2-inch lower headset bearing with a 1 3/8-inch bearing and decreased the diameter of both the fork steerer and the head tube. Another important evolution in the Tarmac is the move to Specialized’s OSBB design, which is essentially a press-fit 30. Such a large bottom bracket structure—and similar ones by other manufacturers—has eliminated bottom bracket flex that I once used to take as a given in all bikes.
Aside from the desire for a more gentle front end, one of the few criticisms sponsored pros had for the S-Works Tarmac SL3 was that the rear brake bridge wasn’t stiff enough, that the rear brake would chatter and squeal. To correct that, the brake bridge was beefed up and right at the brake bridge the seatstays were also beefed up.
I could tell you that the bike uses Specialized’s FACT IS 11r carbon—okay, I have told you that it has the FACT IS 11r carbon. But that didn’t help, did it? Information ought to answer questions, not raise them and while all that stuff signifies that the carbon fiber material and layup that Specialized is using is more sophisticated than anything they used in the past, it really doesn’t tell the consumer anything objective. Not a crime, but not nearly as helpful as they’d like us to think. The upshot—the part that matters—is that the S-Works Tarmac SL4 is the lightest frame Specialized has ever produced, that is, with the exception of the women’s Amira frame. My 58cm frame weighed in at 898 grams and likely came in a few grams heavier than the matte carbon version due to the number of coats of paint necessary to generate that bright arterial red.
Up next: the build, the ride, the bottom line.
Here’s the part of this bike’s geometry that is surprising: The combination of a 72.5-degree head tube angle and 4cm fork rake results in an astonishing amount of trail—6.53cm. That’s more than some of the most sluggish bikes I’ve ever ridden. It may be that what kept this bike handling with the crisp precision of a Swiss timepiece was that long head tube and relatively high bar position. The retailer from whom I picked up this demo thought that at my height (5-feet 11-inches) I ought to be on a 53cm frame. Aside from the fact that I’d never be able to sit up enough to get up a hill, there was that tiny problem of the pinched nerve and the unavoidable problem of having so much weight on the front wheel that the bike would only turn under duress. Yes, I tried it in the parking lot and the suggestion that a guy my height would ride a bike that small was, well, laughable.
Speaking of sizes, the Race and Team Machine are both available in six sizes. Top tube lengths are 52, 53.5, 55, 56, 57.5 and 59cm. Every one of the bikes features a 73.5-degree seat tube angle and 40.2cm-long chainstays. The bike with the 52cm top tube has a 70.5-degree head tube angle and the 53.5cm top tube has a 72-degree head tube angle. All other frames share an identical 72.5-degree head tube angle.
That the same head tube angle, seat tube angle and chainstay length runs through most, if not all, frames tells you a couple of things. First, it tells you that BMC saved money in tooling by not cutting as many molds. But because (to the best of my knowledge) every frame uses an identical 40mm-rake fork, four of the sizes enjoy identical steering geometry. The 53.5cm top-tube bike is close. Only the 52cm-frame falls significantly outside that geometry; it’s got so much trail that unless it’s spec’d with a 50mm-rake fork it’ll need a tugboat to turn.
While these similarities help unify the handling across most of the sizes, there is a liability to this approach. In the smallest frame a 73.5-degree seat tube angle may not be steep enough for some riders and in the biggest size that seat tube angle may be way too steep for some riders. The challenge here is that with a proprietary seatpost, you don’t have the flexibility to order an aftermarket seatpost with either no or 4cm of setback. I can envision some very disappointing fitting sessions if someone didn’t do their homework ahead of time. Details like this make the new Retül Frame Finder an indispensable fitting tool.
BMC touts several technologies in the Race and Team Machine models. First is the TCC or Tuned Compliance Concept. With the TCC the fork, seatstays and seatpost feature specific layup and material selection to allow for a certain amount of vertical compliance. I really need more miles on the Team Machine to see how much they vary between the two models, but having been on bikes that excessively stiff vertically, I can say that it is possible to make a bike that is less comfortable than the Race Machine—it really could be stiffer vertically, and I’m glad it’s not.
The ISC or Integrated Skeleton Concept is the design element that leads to the little strut that runs from the top tube to the seat tube just below the seat tube junction. It’s meant to spread impact forces, but honestly, I’m not sure what impact forces the marketing copy refers to and given that no other bike company has gone this route, I’m suspicious of the benefits it confers.
Two other design details contribute to the bike’s performance-oriented stiffness. First, the bottom bracket uses a BB30 design to all but eliminate twisting forces at the BB. Second, the fork features a tapered steerer to increase stiffness at the head tube and crown. The tapered fork is one of those innovations that came from a single company (Time) that nearly everyone has adopted. That’s how you know an idea is good. When I go back and ride my old Seven Cycles Axiom I immediately register the difference in torsional stiffness; that bike uses a 1-inch fork, and while it doesn’t feel like a noodle, the increase in stiffness when I move to another bike is unmistakable. I might not be able to quantify the difference, but that doesn’t make the perception subjective. Similarly, I can recognize features of my wife’s face in my son’s face, but I’ll never mix the two up.
With its particular constellation of features—consummate stiffness, relaxed handling and low, but not excessively low, weight—this bike is a great choice for a huge number of riders. Its handling is more aggressive than grand touring bikes like the Specialized Roubaix, but isn’t as sharp as more race-specific rides such as the Giant TCR Advanced. It’s going to serve well for someone doing group rides and gran fondos and if you want to jump in a crit from time to time, it’ll corner effectively. With two bikes so similar in design, I’m inclined to recommend the Team Machine to lighter riders while encouraging guys 165 lbs. and up to go with the Race Machine.
I’d love to get some more time on the Team Machine in order to help differentiate the two bikes further. I’ve never encountered a web site that did less to identify the differences between two similar bikes than BMC has done. I went as far as watching some videos produced of the bikes, one theoretically meant to tout the bikes’ stiffness and another that fancied itself a report on the bikes’ low weight. The two videos were identical between the two models and nearly identical to each other. Making matters worse was the fact that the only sound was a bit of sound effect; there was no voice-over.
There’s no doubt the Race Machine is a terrific bike. Honestly, my greatest criticism is their marketing copy. They’ve done so little to differentiate it from the Team Machine, the only way I can recommend one over the other is by rider weight, and I doubt that’s what they had in mind.
I live in Southern California, and the cycling scene here is unlike any I’ve encountered anywhere else. When I go back home to Memphis, I run across guys on bikes with 9-speed Dura-Ace, which, except for the brakes, is arguably one of the hardiest workhorse groups for the money that was ever produced. Mounted on a Serotta, it’s an assemblage that simply won’t need replacing unless it’s stolen or crashed.
But here in the land of—hell, just what is this place? It’s the ultimate buffet of what America has to offer. From fabulous wealth to poverty that would make even Leona Helmsley weep, Los Angeles is all things to all people, the ultimate dream maker and crusher to 10 million people in 4000 square miles. But the cycling community is bred from an educated, successful lot. Nine-speed drivetrains? That’s the stuff of rain bikes and spare cyclocross bikes. Steel? Definitely not the A-bike. Ultegra? That’s what folks recommend to the first-time AIDS riders.
People turn over their bikes on a pretty regular basis, but it has a curious effect on the riders. I’ll roll up to someone on a group ride and ask, “Hey, how do you like your new Gonkulator?”
“How’s it compare to your old Trek/Specialized/Giant?”
“Well, I’m not sure how to describe the difference, but I know one thing: It made me more excited about riding. I’ve increased my mileage by a third this month, just because I’m not skipping rides.”
That’s the funny thing about bikes; you can keep all the company the same, ride the same roads, probably even go the very same speeds, but a new bike is a new, fresh experience and has the power to reinvigorate your riding. It’s why I fundamentally believe:
Better bike = better experience = better life.
With the flash and fashion of all the carbon fiber creations out there it’s easy to lose a whole material like, say, titanium. I’ve spent the last couple of weeks riding a Moots Vamoots around and found myself wondering why the hell I’m not seeing more of these on the road.
The Vamoots is the cheeseburger of the Moots line. Now, they work with grass-fed, ground Kobe, but the Vamoots is a bike with no surprises except for its quality. It’s the sort of bike you look at whose beauty is so obvious, its function so implicit, that your reaction is to think, “Well, of course.”
The Vamoots is constructed from 3/2.5 titanium; this is the sunny day of titanium tubing: beyond reproach. The 7/8-inch chainstays are as much a signature of the bike’s appearance as its ride quality. You know a Moots by its socks, but more on that in a minute.
While the glowing luster of the titanium recalls days of government surplus and grunge metal, the geometry hails from days hard men with names like Merckx and De Vlaeminck. That’s because the Vamoots is built around old-school grand touring geometry.
This is a bike aimed squarely at those who are unconcerned with what anyone else is riding. Neither the material used to create this bike nor the geometry it is designed around are the least bit trendy.
The Vamoots is available in nine production sizes, from 48cm to 60cm in 2cm increments. And if none of those work for you, custom remains an option. Speaking of options, it’s refreshing to see a bike that offers choices. In addition to a custom fit, you can request S&S Couplers, track dropouts, a pump peg, chain hanger, rack eyelets, fender mount in the chainstay bridge, a third set of water bottle bosses (now that’s a long day!), decal choices, Di2 internal and other cable routing options. Whew.
My Vamoots was a 58cm frame. The top tube was 57cm; that’s 5mm shorter than that found on the ever-popular Vamoots CR. It had a lowish bottom bracket: 7.3cm; that’s 2mm lower than on the Vamoots CR with its decidedly racier geometry. The chainstays were 42cm long; that’s 5mm longer than on the Vamoots CR. And the head tube is 17cm long, a full centimeter longer than on the Vamoots CR. The head tube angle, at 72.75 was a full degree slacker than on the Vamoots CR. Both share an identical seat tube angle of 73. Finally, the fork had a rake of 40mm, yielding a trail of 6.37cm.
Put simply, confusing this bike with a race bike would suggest a need for cataract surgery. Years ago, with chainstays that are longish but not so long as to offer heel clearance for big panniers, a bike like this would have been termed light touring. It recalls the Specialized Sequoia and the Raleigh Alyeska. They were bikes you could ride from here to Mars and not regret the experience. Specialized boss-man Mike Sinyard so loved the Sequoia that the Roubaix is just a 21st-century version of that bike.
Now, that’s not to say you couldn’t get this bike around a crit course. I did some very fast group rides on this and was able to follow the line of riders in front of me, but to do so is to misuse the bike to a degree, like slicing apples with a bread knife.
Tomorrow: Part II.
The grand touring category of road bikes is growing, but honestly, some of the bikes handle a cow on roller skates. Not so the Specialized Roubaix. Newly minted is the Roubaix SL3, which I rode at Outdoor Demo. The big change for the SL3 is the fact that the Zertz dampers are secured to the frame with small screws, increasing the dampers’ effectiveness. The new design cuts down on the number of bladders used (four fewer) and simplifies the molds, the upshot being a somewhat lighter frame.
I still run into Zertz non-believers. While I can accept that not everyone wants a frame that dampens vibration that much (I certainly don’t want that experience all the time), there’s no doubt in my mind that no other frameset currently on the market does more to minimize vibration than the Roubaix.
Tube shapes continue to be refined as well. If there’s a bike that better combines incredible power transfer, torsional stiffness and vibration damping, I’ve yet to ride it.
I can virtually assure you than no brand took itself less seriously and more stylishly than Ritte van Vlaanderen. It’s a curious balance, that.
The Ritte bikes are all open-mold designs sourced overseas, but they feature, well, they look authentically Belgian. What else do you need to know?
Be careful if you buy a Ritte bike. You’ll be expected to drink beer after your race is over. And that’s not a bad thing.
I tend to get more excited about the concept of city bikes than actual city bikes. This Breezer comes with dynamo-generated lighting, a rear rack, a chain guard, fenders with flaps, a nearly infinitely variable drivetrain and a built-in lock—the sort that keeps honest folks honest. Oh, and it doesn’t weigh 50 lbs.; rather, it weighs a bit less than 30. I could see myself running serious errands on this thing.
Let’s be honest, calling a set of brakes, derailleurs, bottom bracket and cranks a group is like calling a pair of speakers a stereo. For that reason, FSA’s claims that they make a road group were, until just recently, rather laughable. The crux move of a group is the integrated brake/shift lever. Without that you’ve got a clown car and no clowns. The Vision Metron shifter takes an important step in the right direction, though. Product managers can honestly spec a full set of parts from FSA and Vision now, even if they can only do it on time trial and triathlon-specific bikes. The shifter function is terrific, though one does wonder just how often triathletes will downshift when they mean to brake.
The carbon fiber rear derailleur is amazingly light, as is the cassette. The other manufacturers need to keep an eye on these guys. Should they get really aggressive about OE spec, they could become very dangerous, if not dominant, as they now offer cranks, bottom brackets, headsets, wheels, derailleurs, brakes, cassettes, shifters, bars, stems, seatposts and saddles. Heck, even Shimano doesn’t do all of that.
As a postscript, every exhibitor I spoke with liked the date change to August 8-12. The only concern they expressed was for shop attendance. Surprisingly, some shops did voice support for the date change as well. The shops that did like it said it was easier for them to get away that time of year due to the fact that they had solid college student staffing that time of year, something they lack in late September. However, all but one New England-based retailer I spoke with said they wouldn’t be at the show—no question.
The new location got mixed reviews from exhibitors and attendees alike. For some, Anaheim represents an opportunity to have a bit of a family vacation. But for those who really want to cut loose and have a party, Anaheim is … a buzzkill.
Interbike reports that attendance is up 3 percent to more than 24,000, while the shop count held steady at 4000. Outdoor Demo attendance was roughly the same as last year with 3900 attending. Interbike reports there were 120 exhibitors at Outdoor Demo; figures were not reported for last year, so it’s unknown if that’s up, stead or down from last year. Figures for the number of exhibitors on the Interbike show floor were not reported for this year or last year.
Of course, the great hope is that attendee numbers will hold steady while exhibitor numbers will climb with the return of companies like Trek and Giant. We’ll have to wait a bit more than 10 months to find out.
When I found out that the Z1 frame was tipping the scales at 900g, I knew I wanted to review one. My first trip out on one came in borrowing one belonging to one of Felt’s staffers. In two rides I knew I needed to experience more.
I arranged for a frameset rather than complete bike. I had a Campy group sort of lying around waiting to go on a bike. Doing reviews this way cuts the expense for a bike company pretty radically and while I had done this on a number of occasions previously, that’s not quite what I did here. Spoiler alert: I bought the frameset.
With that out of the way, here’s why: When it comes to my views on frame geometry, high performance carbon fiber construction and weight, the Z1 comes very close to everything I want in a bike. Traditionally, my preferences have been for relatively low weight, a longish wheelbase, a tad more trail and good torsional stiffness. I also like a low bottom bracket, but as far as production frames go, that’s just a pipe dream on my part thanks to the CPSC. The Z, like all Felt road frames, has a 27cm-high BB.
As I see it, you have several alternatives. You can buy a heavier frame that will offer more impact/crash resistance. It may handle better, or it may not. It may have a superior road feel, or it may not. You can buy a frame with a lower BB, but it won’t be as light. Of course, you can choose to purchase a frame with a shorter wheelbase and less trail and those bikes abound.
My preferences aside, in absolute terms, the Felt Z1 is a remarkable and rare bicycle. To my knowledge, it is the only grand touring frame that tips the scale at less than 1kg in a 56cm frame. Even the Cervelo RS weighs more than 1kg. And while weight isn’t everything, the bike’s weight comes with an important corollary. To be that light, the frame must employ a fairly ambitious blend of intermediate, high, and ultra-high modulus carbon fiber. This blend allows for exceptionally thin-walled tubes. As a result, the Z1 has a road feel that imparts much greater sensitivity than competitive models. As much as I like the Roubaix, the Z1 has a far superior road feel.
Among cycling cognoscenti there’s a certain mistrust of bike reviews. The joke goes, “and they said it was torsionally stiff and vertically compliant.” I think the reason these assessments don’t pass the BS meter is simple. Anyone who rode steel from the Columbus SL/Reynolds 531 era knows a thing or two about vertical compliance. And if you ever rode one of the bonded aluminum Alan or Guerciotti frames, then you know a lot about vertical compliance. Today’s top-shelf carbon fiber frames are stiffer than those old frames in every single dimension. Where they really differ is in the severity of road vibration they transmit. An equally stiff frame made from steel transmits more road vibration. What gets called “compliance” by most cyclists is really just vibration damping and the beauty of carbon fiber is that some carbon fiber frame have the ability to damp a broad spectrum of vibration so that the sensation isn’t so much wet blanket, but rather volume lowered. Kind of the opposite of the amp in “This Is Spinal Tap.”
Look, this one is turned down to five.
That said, there’s also some suspicion for the notion of torsional stiffness. To this I cry foul. When I began reviewing bikes I would spend some time making sure the shifting was adjusted perfectly to eliminate the ability of componentry to color my opinion of the frame building. It was only fair.
Next, I would take the bikes out and after I was warmed up I would do a few sprints in the 53×19 (assuming the cassette was a 12-23). On most frames, I could make the outer plate of the front derailleur rub against the chain. This was my standard litmus test for bottom bracket stiffness. On those occasions in which it didn’t rub, I knew I was dealing with a bike with a really stiff bottom bracket.
That didn’t happen much.
But bottom bracket flex isn’t the whole story. Not even most of it. Once manufacturers had largely addressed BB flex a whole new issue emerged: torsional flex. The issue is familiar to avid tandem riders. Those who rode tandem back in the days of small-diameter steel-tubed tandems will remember a phenomenon referred to as “lash.” Frame twist could be so pronounced as to cause the tandem to steer in one direction or another, making handling unpredictable. Compounding matters, wheels have gotten more flexible. Some 16- and 18-spoke wheels flex like the BB used to.
Carbon fiber frames still run the gamut on flex, mostly due to their forks. Some are sheetrock stiff while others are as flexible as bamboo shoots. Sit on the top tube of a bike and twist the handlebar and you’ll be surprised how often you’ll feel the bar twist slightly and the front wheel stand firm as the fork gives.
The fork on the Z1 is the same as Felt’s F1 with two minor changes. The dropouts are made from aluminum for increased durability while they are shaped slightly differently, giving the fork 50mm of offset. The steerer, the layup of the blades, all that is exactly the same.
This idea of creating exactly the same bike in two categories is significant to me. One thing I heard consistently from women when we reviewed bikes at Asphalt was that any time a bike was offered specifically to women it almost always featured either a watered down frame or parts pick. I knew a number of successful professionals who happened to be women and they felt consistently insulted by the fact that most of the time they couldn’t buy a bike made specifically for women that would also include a top-of-the-line parts pick of Record or Dura-Ace.
So one of my bigger pet peeves is an indication by a bike company that only racers will have reason to buy an ultra-light bike with Super Record or Dura-Ace. Honestly, how many people who are racing out can both afford Super Record and would choose to race it given how much of it is likely to disintegrate in a crash?
The carbon fiber blend that gives Felt’s F1 such a distinctive feel is present in the Z1 as well as their women’s frame, the ZW1. The ZW is essentially just Felt’s Z geometry in women’s sizing.
Back to that whole flex issue. Builders who chose to builde with Columbus tubing back in the 1980s had to choose on what size frames they would begin to blend Columbus’ heavier SP tube set in order to offset the stiffness loss of the larger frame sizes. It was not uncommon to find a 56cm frame built entirely from SL while the 58cm frame featured an SP down tube for some additional stiffness while the 60cm frame would be built entirely from SP. Well carbon fiber allows you to tailor each frame’s material usage to get exactly the right flex pattern.
Because there is no limiter forced by the raw materials, Felt changes the amount of material in each frame size of the F, Z and ZW bikes. Because the ZW bikes are the smallest frames intended for riders likely to be a bit lighter, the ZW1 is actually Felt’s lightest carbon fiber frame, weighing roughly 800 grams in its smallest size.
Why do this? Imagine having the ability to create frames that offer the same flex pattern in every size. Imagine knowing that your riding experience is the same as someone four inches taller … or shorter.
When shopping for bikes, fitting is the crapshoot. Until you take a serious look at the geometry, there’s no way to know if you can fit on a given bike. Between the Z-series frames and the ZW-series (women’s) frames, the Z is available in nine sizes. From smallest to largest, the top tube lengths are as follows: 49.7, 51.5, 52.5 and 54.5, for the women’s bikes and 52.5, 54.5, 56, 57.5 and 59.5cm for the men’s bikes. I could easily have ridden the 57.5cm top tube bike, but selected the 56 due to the length of the head tube and my desire to keep the bar relatively low, while avoiding the change in handling brought about by using a really short stem.
With only five sizes for the men’s bikes there are definitely some holes in the sizing run that could be problematic for some riders. The 1.5cm jumps aren’t too bad (or uncommon), but the 2cm jumps between the 52.5cm and 54.5cm top tube bikes could pose a fitting issue, as could the 2cm jump between the 57.5cm and 59.5cm top tube bikes.
Let’s talk absolutes. I’ve ridden frames stiffer than the Z1. I’ve not ridden one lighter in a 56cm frame—my frame weighed in at 908g. It’s in a dead heat with the best frames I’ve ridden in terms of ride quality. It retails for $2599, about $200 more than Cervelo’s RS and $100 less than Specialized’s Roubaix SL2.
By creating two bikes so very similar in so many aspects, the folks at Felt brought focus to a point that doesn’t get much attention these days: geometry. At the end of the day, the only meaningful differences between the F1 and Z1 are how they handle.
The Z1 reminds me of nothing so much as the Italian road bikes I often reviewed a dozen years ago. It’s calm in a straight line, turns in easily and is responsive in a sprint.
It was at the Markleeville Death Ride nearly Lake Tahoe that I had a revelatory experience. Descending Carson Pass in a painful hail storm (I know, that’s redundant) I began to catch a 3-series Beamer at 40 mph. I couldn’t see much other than the yellow lines to my left and the white line on my right and yet I felt calm and secure. The Z1 was rock solid.
The bike’s only weakness emerges at truly high speeds. I’ve found that once I’m above 45 mph the front end starts to get a little loose, twitchy. I haven’t experienced anything as bad as a speed wobble at those high speeds, but the bike’s unperturbable nature begins to falter. In the grand scheme that’s happened fewer than 10 times and I have more than 2000 miles on this frame.
The bike industry is full of good, if ordinary, bikes. There are a number of impressive bikes as well. There are a handful of truly extraordinary bikes. The shame is that Felt’s Z1 could easily be lost among not the ordinary, but the impressive. It’s far more than that.
(A quick note on bike scores: I’ve decided I’m going to score bikes a little more stringently than I did in some of my previous reviews. I’ve revised those scores down and scores in the future will reflect that as well.)
Felt Z1: 95 points
When Felt Bicycles came back from the brink of extinction a few years back I took note. Jim Felt had been a motorcycle race mechanic for a great many big names in motocross, names like Johnny “O-show” O’Mara. He was a good fabricator and had a creative mind.
And then he got interested in triathlon.
It turns out, some of the riders he worked with were starting to do tri’s to stay fit. He started doing them as well and noticed a funny thing. He couldn’t get the triathlon bars low enough to get a truly flat back while riding a properly sized frame.
So he built a few bike frames. They were notable for quick handling and very, very short head tubes. Head tubes that in some instances measured less than 10cm. Riding a Felt was the only way to guarantee your position was as aerodynamic as possible, relative to the time. And the proof was, as they say, in the puddin’. Big names, names like Paula Newby-Fraser began to win on Felts.
In 1996 I spent a week on a Felt. Manufactured by Answer Products in Valencia, Calif., through a licensing agreement with Jim Felt, the frame was TIG-welded from 7000-series aluminum, which needed no heat-treating, thereby dropping manufacturing costs dramatically and increasing the chances that the frame was properly aligned. Back then, Answer employed a number of manufacturing staffers who were part of the ‘90s aerospace diaspora. At the time, I lived in Valencia and rode on a regular basis with a half dozen of them. A few of them told me that if they couldn’t make $60k working in aerospace, then working on bikes was at least cool.
The aerospace bit wouldn’t be important were it not for the fact that their experience made the bikes damn good. The welding was exquisite and alignment superior to any other aluminum bike I’d seen at the time.
Back to that Felt I rode in ’96. This was the same bike Chris Horner won Athens Twilight on and a career making stage at the Tour DuPont in a two-up sprint against the more experienced U.S. Postal rider, Nate Reiss; ’96 would prove to be Reiss’ last season with Postal. Oops.
The bike I rode was unlike any bike I had ever ridden. It was unusually lively for aluminum, as stiff as any Klein I had ever ridden and carried exquisite grace of a filet knife. It scared the shit out of me.
Then Answer went through what we’ll term a transition. In 2000 the new management decided to get out of the business of road bikes and cut Felt loose.
It turns out this was the best thing that could have happened to Jim Felt and his brand.
Bill Duehring, a former VP with GT and all-around industry lifer, had partnered with Michael Müllmann, the owner of one of Europe’s most successful distributors, Sport Import, and the two wanted to start a bike company. The three decided to team up and together they forged a formidable partnership. Felt was known for his ideas about frame and tubing design. Duehring was known for impeccably spec’d bikes at great price points and Müllmann had access to capital and distribution channels.
It was this incarnation of Felt that loaned me a road bike to review when I published Asphalt. Ron Peterson, the editor who reviewed the bike, lauded it for the feel of the butted Easton Scandium tubing and the handling which he adored for crit racing.
At the next Interbike the company showed off its first carbon bike, the F1. A quick look at the tube shapes told me it wasn’t an open-mold design with their decals. It was their own design, engineered in-house. The F1 was essentially the company’s long-admired road bike geometry in carbon form.
In 2007 the company introduced a new road bike model, the Z1. Like the F, the Z was offered at a number of price points, but the Z1 was notable because it used the same blend of ultra-high, high and intermediate modulus carbon fibers as the F1. The similarities ended there.
The Z-series bikes are grand touring bikes. Compared to the F-series bikes, they are built around longer head tubes (not hard to do), slacker head tube angles and more fork rake. They also get longer chainstays. The slackish head tube angle, generous fork rake and longish chainstays gave the bike a longer wheelbase while maintaining the same weight distribution between front and rear wheels as the F-series bikes.
It’s easy to be cynical and just say Felt was aping what Specialized did with the Roubaix, but there are a few differences worth noting. First, the bottom bracket is a bit higher on the Z than on the Roubaix. Next, the Z doesn’t use the Zertz vibration dampers—Felt’s head of engineering, Jeff Soucek, says he doesn’t believe they do anything to help the ride quality of the bike; I’ve argued the point with him, but that’s a different story. Third, as mentioned previously, Felt specs exactly the same blend of carbon fibers in the Z1 that goes into the flagship F1 model. My 56cm Z1 frame weighed in at 906 grams (g).
Lots of companies will talk a good sub-kilo game, but far fewer are doing it than you might think. I watched a 52cm Trek Madone—minus seat mast—tip the scales at 1133g. I haven’t had a chance to weigh a Specialized Roubaix SL2, which would be the frame analogous to the Z1, but when I asked a Specialized representative what it weighed I was told “around a kilo.” I take that to mean north of a kilo, because if it was consistently less than a kilo, that feature would be touted like the cup size of a porn star, I expect.
Let’s talk competitive models for a moment. I have to volunteer that I have some trouble taking a bike company seriously if they don’t offer a grand touring model. Now, in the case of a company such as Seven Cycles that builds bikes to suit the rider, there’s no need to offer a specific model for one geometry, but production-oriented companies are another story. Trek’s got the Pilot, Cannondale the Synapse, Cervelo the RS, Bianchi the Infinito and Giant the Defy. Interestingly, Scott claims to offer two “performance” oriented models “more relaxed geometry. Those two models, the CR1 and the Speedster are more relaxed in marketing copy alone. They have the same BB drop (6.7cm) same chainstay length (40.5cm) and same head tube angle (73 degrees for the large size) as their racing model, the Addict. Indeed, the CR1 became “relaxed” when they introduced the Addict. Perhaps they were referring to the fact that the head tube is a massive 2cm longer on the CR1 and Speedster than on the Addict. Whatever.
The vast majority of these bikes feature a watered-down carbon fiber blend (compared to flagship models) and a component spec that says century riders won’t notice an extra three or four pounds. Anyone who thinks only fast racer types will spend big bucks on a bike have completely misread the bike market. Completely.
Next: Part II
After months of riding on both the Roubaix and the Tarmac SL I was dismayed. I had yet to determine a preference relative to my own riding and that was killing me. Mind you, I wasn’t trying to determine the better bike, because I didn’t actually think one was superior to the other, but I believed that because the two bikes were different I must, as some point, arrive at a conclusion about which better suited my taste. Simply put, I should get down a technical descent on one faster than the other. Which would it be?
Malibu contains more than a dozen roads that run from the ridgeline of the Santa Monica Mountains down to Pacific Coast Highway. The roads can drop nearly 2500 vertical feet at grades of up to 18 percent. The descents generally range between 4.6 and 9.2 miles. Most of them feature more than a dozen turns per mile. At 40 mph, that’s a turn about every six seconds … and many of the turns can last for three or four seconds.
Of these descents, three offer grades steep enough to sustain speeds above 45 mph over road surfaces that don’t make the experience seem like fodder for an episode of Jackass.
Kanan Dume Road recalls the sweeping turns and consistent grades of the Rocky Mountains. It features far fewer turns than the other descents and a good deal more traffic.
Tuna Canyon Road is where the ill-fated Red Bull Road Rage was held. It features more than 70 turns in 4.2 miles and drops some 1800 feet at an average gradient of 8.1 percent. On the descent’s one significant straight (which was used for the speed trap in the Red Bull event), it is possible to clock 60 mph just before a sharp left turn will cause you to rethink your actions or alter your future. I know plenty of riders afraid to descend this road and it’s one of a handful of roads I descend where I’m unwilling to let the bike run. The looming wall of dirt has whispered things to me about deceleration trauma that I’m unable to repeat.
Decker Canyon Road is a bit like Tuna Canyon light. It is almost a half mile longer, drops 150 fewer feet, culminating in a 6.8 percent average gradient, as compared to Tuna Canyon’s deceptive 8.1 percent average. It also features nearly roughly ten fewer turns, meaning the road bends don’t come quite so frequently.
Decker Canyon is my road of choice for challenging myself on a descent or when testing the limits of a bike’s cornering. The descent is fairly steep, but not super-steep, the turns come in rapid succession and nerves of steel are tested in the turns, not in the chutzpah of straight-line speed.
I came up with a crucible. I’d take both bikes up to Malibu. I would ascend Encinal Canyon Road six times—three times on the Tarmac and three times on the Roubaix—and following each five mile, 6.3 percent average gradient ascent of Encinal Canyon I would plummet down Decker Canyon.
My first two ascents of Encinal were aboard the Tarmac. The second two were aboard the Roubaix. Trip number five was back on the Tarmac and the final trip was made aboard the Roubaix. The six circuits only added up to 57 miles, but the climbing totaled more than 9000 feet ascended.
My position was very similar on both bikes; saddle height and setback was the same and reach to the bar was within a centimeter, though the bar on the Roubaix was almost a centimeter higher. Switching between the two was unremarkable from a position standpoint. However, as soon as I did switch from the Tarmac to the Roubaix the increased vibration damping was immediately apparent.
According to my GPS data my fourth and fifth ascents (Roubaix and Tarmac, respectively) were my two fastest; my average speeds were within a tenth of a mile per hour of each other. Interestingly, I burned fewer calories on the Roubaix, lending further credence to the idea that cutting vibration can decrease fatigue.
My three fastest descents were aboard the Tarmac. On those descents (first, second and fifth) my max speed was 46, 46 and 46.5 mph, respectively. My slowest descent, surprisingly, was my first trip down on the Roubaix.
The tightest turns on the descent, the ones on which there was no question of braking, just how hard would be necessary, were all right-handers except for the final switchback less than a mile from the bottom. I was able to carve very consistent lines through these turns and found myself consistently shaving the yellow lines on the Roubaix and six inches to the right on the Tarmac. That minute difference made a big difference at speed.
What I noticed was that the more I felt like I was really having to manage the bike—push it—to negotiate a turn, the more inclined I was to brake before the next turn. I did almost no braking during turns on the Tarmac but did scrub speed with some regularity during turns while aboard the Roubaix.
A brief word on my descending: Fast. I like it. Roller coasters were always my favorite at amusement parks when I was a kid but today, compared to mountain roads, they lack a critical interactivity component. That said, I don’t take what I believe to be are risks. While I find the foregone conclusion of a roller coaster lacking, I enter every turn with the belief that my safe exit from it is deal-done. As soon as I feel like I’m really pushing a bike, I back off. My empiricism ends at the point of wondering just how fast I can enter a turn and exit it without a yard sale. Aided by downhill pads and a Kevlar suit I might play my hand differently and bluff my way straight to call, but in Lycra I do little more than ante up.
What I learned was I preferred the Tarmac for descending. I’m unafraid to declare my surprise at this. I really thought that the Roubaix would see me brake less and roll up to higher speeds, but it just didn’t happen that way and I can say that I did my best to make each of those drops an E-ticket ride.
But how many people buy a bike for how it descends?
In my estimation, more bikes ought to be purchased that way. I think it indicates a great deal about a bike’s character. A downhill turn is the ultimate litmus paper for any bike. If the bike won’t turn, you should ask yourself what that bike is meant to do and what you plan to use it for.
But here’s the asterisk: My preference for the Tarmac was revealed under fairly extreme circumstances. Most riders won’t ever ride down a road as challenging as Decker. There just aren’t that many of them in the world and unless such a road is part of one’s regular vocabulary of roads, the reasonable response is to back off. So what about the downhills more regularly encountered? What if, say, you rode in the Rockies or the Alps?
If I factor Malibu out of the equation and consider the other roads I took the bikes over, the many other roads I’ve ridden around the world, the answer is easy.
The Roubaix is easily one of the best all-around bikes I’ve ever ridden. I’ll venture to say it is one of the best thought-out bikes on the market. For most riders under most circumstances the Roubaix is an easy correct answer. It’s lighter than elfin armor, handles with the relaxed control of a Bond villain and cuts vibration like a power outage.
The Roubaix should be the default answer for anyone considering a Specialized road bike (or perhaps many other road bikes).
So where does that leave the Tarmac? It is, without marginalizing it, a bike for the margins. The Tarmac is the Navy SEAL to the Roubaix’s sailor, the surgical scalpel to the butcher knife, the truing stand to the Y Allen wrench. It is the accept-no-substitute for criterium racing, intestinal descents and the most aggressive group rides.
They are both spectacular bikes and well-enough differentiated to have earned their place in the Specialized product line.
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
When Specialized introduced the Roubaix in 2004, it was the first bike on the market to combine top-of-the-line carbon fiber construction with a more relaxed geometry aimed at riders doing charity rides and centuries. Up to this point in time, the handful of bikes out there from the bigger manufacturers that combined a longer head tube for higher handlebar position, a longer than usual wheelbase and more trail for greater stability were made from aluminum and were rarely equipped with anything as nice as Shimano 105.
The implicit message seemed to be that if you weren’t fast you wouldn’t appreciate quality. The reality was simpler: For companies like Giant and Specialized, these early bikes had been aimed at a new wave of cyclists entering the sport, often as a result of events like the AIDS Ride. Getting these riders transitioned to a road bike from a mountain bike had been a significant achievement and there was little stomach on the part of risk-averse product managers to try to steer them into a bike 10 times as expensive as their last.
The road product development team recognized a need for a bike that combined the geometry found in the charity ride bikes with the high performance carbon fiber technology found in their top-of-the-line Tarmac. The Roubaix has been an unqualified hit among more than just the charity ride crowd.
The chicane in the chainstays really doesn’t flex much vertically, but aids in vibration damping
So how different is the Roubaix from the Tarmac? On paper, the differences seem minor, insignificant even. Just a few millimeters here, a centimeter or two there. Let’s compare a 56 in each:
|Seat tube length||53cm||51.5cm|
|Top tube length||56.5cm||56.5cm|
|Seat tube angle||73.25 degrees||73.25 degrees|
|Head tube angle||73.5 degrees||72.5 degrees|
|Head tube length||17cm||19cm|
Three dimensions are the big determiners for fit: the top tube length, the seat tube angle and the head tube length. Those first two—top tube length and seat tube angle are identical. What changes is the head tube length; its greater length gives riders the opportunity to adopt a bar position 2cm higher, allowing them to sit more upright without exposing too much fork steerer above the top headset bearing. As many of you are already aware, too much exposed steerer is at risk for breaking because of the greater leverage the rider can exert on the steerer from the handlebar.
So the bike offered a less aggressive position for greater comfort. The designers didn’t stop there. They increased the wheelbase length by more than 2cm by increasing the chainstay length and by using a slacker head tube angle and more fork rake, thereby increasing the front center distance as well. Practically speaking, this increased the distance between the rider and the wheels, cutting road vibration. More comfort.
The choice to go with a longer wheelbase had an added benefit. It addressed the rider’s more upright position and higher center of gravity (CG) which resulted in reduced weight on the front wheel (relative to the weight distribution in the Tarmac). Bottom bracket drop was also increased to help offset the higher CG; 2.5mm may not seem like much, but it’s enough to make a subtly helpful difference.
The Zertz inserts in the fork are angled to absorb more vibration
The longer wheelbase of the Roubaix means the bike won’t track quite as tight a turn as the Tarmac, but the fact that the slacker head tube angle is paired with more fork rake results in exactly the same trail as the Tarmac. As a result, steering input remains as crisp as the Tarmac’s.
Back to the issue of comfort. The Roubaix’s single most distinctive feature are the Zertz inserts in the fork, seatstays and seatpost. The size of those inserts and the way they are positioned in the fork and seatstays has changed since the Roubaix was first introduced in 2004. They are larger now and positioned more at an angle to the fork blades and seatstays to better serve their purpose, which is to interrupt the transmission of vibration.
I’ve met riders who doubt the Zertz inserts do what they are advertised to accomplish. Having ridden the Roubaix (in various iterations) more than 1000 miles and having ridden other, grand touring category bikes, I do believe that the Zertz inserts cut vibration transmitted through the frame. I often compare vibration—which is different from road shock—with the vibration from a lawnmower. While it’s not nearly as severe, I think the point illustrates the issue rather well. Anyone who has ever used a lawnmower with a two-stroke engine (as opposed to a push mower or an electric mower) knows well the interesting feeling your hands have once you let go of the mower. For a minute or more afterward your hands feel, well, like they are still on the mower. Sex aids wish they were so memorable.
Tomorrow: Part II