I’ve got something to share with you. Part of the cost of me being a total word nerd is that some turns of phrase in the bike industry drive me crazy. Case in point: Any time a magazine refers to a “review” as a “test.” The God’s honest truth is almost no one ever gets a piece of gear from a manufacturer with the express advance consent to destroy it by some scientific method. Sure, bikes get broken (been there, done that) and phone calls containing profuse apologies ensue (made them). But actually putting a bicycle frame or component on some sort of test rig so that you can push it to its absolute limit and then report on the particular method of failure isn’t something bike magazines routinely do.
The upshot is that what we all publish are best described as “reviews.” My opposition to the use of the word “test” is that it implies some sort of scientific evaluation. While I do my best to subject bikes and components to objective evaluations, there’s always a subjective element, a part of the experience, the appraisal, that cannot be reduced to raw numbers. As a result, it’s really rare that we are ever in a position to discuss failure mode on a first-hand basis.
That said, crashing can be a pretty effective way to find out just how strong a part is. When I went down in Tuna Canyon, I came as close as I’m likely to come to finding out about failure modes for a few different items. Some of you have asked what I was riding and how it fared. The bike that day was a Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL4 with the new SRAM Red and Zipp Firecrest 202 Carbon Clinchers.
Aside from my jaw and teeth, I can also claim to have thoroughly investigated failure modes for the S-Works Tarmac SL4 frame and fork, not to mention the S-Works Shallow Bend Carbon Fiber Handlebar, as well as the new Zipp 202s.
The final GPS sample taken just before my ill-fated face-first dismount indicated that I was traveling at 29.9 mph. That’s one true statement about the moments leading up to my crash. Here’s another: I never touched the brakes. I think it’s safe to conclude that by the time I buried my wheel in whatever I shoved it in with sufficient gusto to arrest my bike’s forward motion like a couple of drunks in a bar fight, I may have scrubbed a bit of speed, but it couldn’t have been anything significant. Of that last statement I’m certain for one simple reason: The time that elapsed between my bike stopping and me stopping was insufficient to allow me to tuck, roll or even get my hands or arms up to protect my head and face. When people talk about things happening in fractions of a second, I can tell you this was faster than love at first sight.
If ever there had been a time where I might have reported on riding something hard enough to break it, well, this would have been that occasion. Taking one for the readers. Occupational hazard. Being empirical. Whatever. The simple fact is that I didn’t break the handlebar. I didn’t break the fork. I didn’t break the stem. I didn’t break the frame and most impressive, I didn’t break the front wheel.
Let’s say that last one again, for emphasis: I didn’t break the front wheel. Hell, it didn’t even come out of true. While my face took the majority of the impact force, the front wheel did take a fair drubbing when it hit whatever it did to bring the bike to a stop and thrust me, tether-ball-like, over the bar.
I can recall my friends picking up my bike as the paramedics were doing their dead-level best to convince me that I’d been unconscious since the release of Star Wars. Amid the many questions they asked as they secured me to the backboard, in the background I heard my buddies say, “Man, his bike is fine.”
I also recall thinking, “Yeah, no shit. Have you seen my face?”
Like I said, I thought that if for no other reason than it hurt too much to say out loud. At that point I still had a mouthful of gravel and dirt. The dirt didn’t bother me; the gravel was a definite pain. The experience was not unlike having a mouthful of peppercorns. Inevitably, you’re going to swallow some and I really could have used a beer to help wash it down. Looks like I have plenty of those now, though—thanks again.
I’ve broken my share of components over the years. I’m not a heavy guy (that day I was all of 162 lbs.) and I’m not even all that forceful as I ride, but I’ve broken bars, stems, seatposts, saddles, a couple of forks and plenty of wheels. When I picked up my bike from the friend who stored it for me for a few days, the only indication I could find that proved the bike had hit the deck was some dirt on one lever and on the bar tape; there was a bit more dirt on the front wheel.
I’ve inspected the bike thoroughly. I can’t find anything wrong with it. And I’m aware that the way composites are laid up today, they are designed that if they suffer a serious impact, though several layers of carbon may break, the entire structure won’t instantly fail. This gives the rider the opportunity to feel that something is soft, not all is right, time enough to pull over and avoid catastrophe.
I can tell you this bike feels the same as it did before I went down. The story might be different if the bar or levers or some other component had taken the second big impact, rather than my face, but they didn’t. I’ve looked for any indication I can find that I shouldn’t trust this bike and I couldn’t find a reason not to ride it.
So I rode it today.
It’s fine and I’m better for getting back in the saddle of the horse that threw me.
My ride today was, in part, an affirmation in my belief of how far carbon fiber technology has come in the bike industry. I don’t think manufacturers get enough credit for how much they’ve improved the durability of carbon products. And I’m not suggestion this is in any way isolated to Specialized or Zipp. I am willing to bet most of the bikes and wheels out there would have survived my particular crash. I can’t imagine how hard you have to hit to actually make any of those things fail.
Like I said, I didn’t enjoy this, but I’m glad that the bike I was on performed as advertised. I might even call it a “test.”
No matter how many times I do Interbike, every year something unusual, something fresh, something exciting occurs to keep my interest fixed on a location that were circumstances any different, I can assure you I would never consider as the focal point of a long awaited vacation. I am here strictly for work. And while Las Vegas gets weirder with each passing year, that ever-increasing weirdness is a functional corollary to the bike industry itself, not that it’s getting weirder, but that change is ever afoot that each of us arrives with the hope that we’ll see new products destined to make our cycling experiences not so much better, but as thrilling as that first taste of independence how ever many decades ago it occurred.
This year my show started on an unusual note. Rather than host an afternoon ride to experience their products, SRAM invited some members of the media to meet them at the Ventian hotel, next to the Sands Convention Center, and ride out to the Outdoor Demo at Boulder Canyon. What I didn’t recall about the invitation was that we were going to ride the 2012 SRAM Red crank with Quarq power meter and—oh joy—we would ride a predefined section of the bike path to record a roughly five minute effort and then analyze the data recorded. What I found out was something I already knew: I was tired, and the Quarq power meter seems to provide the same level of data as the SRM in a simpler package. The bikes we rode were Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL4s with 2012 Red, Zipp 202s and the aforementioned Quarq power meter.
Once at the Outdoor Demo, the very first bike I went to ride was the new Pinarello Dogma, or if not new, then the latest iteration of the Dogma. It’s been a while since I last rode a carbon fiber Pinarello and there’s been a good reason for that. The last carbon Pinarello I rode was not an impressive bike, no matter what Pinarello fans would have you believe. It used excessive amounts of intermediate modulus carbon fiber and as a result, though it was fairly stiff, it was dead as roadkill.
The new Dogma is nothing like that. I’d heard a few good reports on the bike, but remained suspicious; I wanted to find out for myself, doubting Thomas that I am. The very first thing I noticed was that in picking up the 9000 Dura-Ace-equipped bike it was a noticeably light bicycle, in the 14 to 14.5-lb. range. Upon rolling out I discovered a bike that offered excellent road feedback and precise handling. Telling you the bike was stiff doesn’t say much; what I’ll tell you is that this bike has gained a tremendous amount of stiffness. It’s stiffer than any of the open-mold bikes I’ve ridden as well as most everything else I’ve ridden coming out of Europe.
Regarding the new Shimano Dura-Ace 9000, I can say that I’m really blown away. While I definitely need more time with the brakes, I can say that the issues I had with both front and rear shifting have been solved. That said, Shimano has gone back to a trimmed front derailleur, with both big and little ring trim. Shift force for both front and rear is ridiculously light. The brakes seem to offer better modulation than the previous version, which was my big complaint—great power, but not enough modulation.
A couple of weeks ago I rode with Specialized’s road product manager, a guy named Brent Graves, who is a real industry veteran. Graves summed up the new group by saying, “It’ll give mechanical groups another five years of live.” I have to agree, though nothing will make me like the look of that crank. Even so, I can’t wait until I have the opportunity to get on a group longer-term.
Next on my list was the new Kestrel. The first name in monocoque carbon fiber bikes has struggled as a brand for some years. Good product has never really been the issue, getting the message out has. When I heard that the new Legend had a frame weight of 780 grams and was using some sophisticated construction techniques, including inner molds to improve compaction.
I went out for a ride with Steve Fairchild who led the design of this bike, RKP contributor J.P. Partland and mountain bike legend Joe Breeze. ASI, the parent company for Fuji and Kestrel is also the parent for Breeze’s Breezer bikes, hence the connection there. Fairchild revealed that he wasn’t concerned with making the stiffest bike on the planet. He’s long had a reputation from his work with Fuji, Jamis and now Kestrel for designing bikes that felt good to ride (read: not overly stiff) and handled with enough certainty to inspire confidence in the rider.
The Legend is the first sub-800g frame I’ve ridden that wasn’t designed with crazy amounts of stiffness. It’s a gentler bike and if Kestrel can get dealers to carry them and generate enough press and a big enough marketing effort, this bike could be fantastically popular. My take is that it’s a great alternative to “comfort” road bikes like the Specialized Roubaix. As opposed to making a crazy stiff bike and trying to quash vibration, the Legend lets the vibration move through the bike to inform your sense of the road surface, but in offering some flex, increases a rider’s comfort for the big hits like bumps, manhole covers, driveway ramps and such.
My final bike of the day was yet another Pinarello Dogma, but this time equipped with Campagnolo Super Record EPS. Having just come off the Legend which was equipped with Di2, this was my first chance to ride Record EPS on the road and to experience it back to back with Di2. The first, biggest difference between the two systems is that with EPS you definitely have a stronger sense of having just pushed a button. Di2 really lacks a strong tactile component that reassures you you’ve just hit a button. Also, the ability to just hold a button down and either dump gear or downshift straight to the bail gear is perhaps not a matter of jaw-dropping engineering, but it’s a surprising thing to experience. I’d like some more time to ride both groups, but based on this experience, I have to say that I think Di2 may downshift a bit quicker than EPS, but upshifts seem to be just as quick. More significant for me is the tentative approach that I’ve adopted with my own Super Record group has been assuaged by the foolproof front shifting of EPS. Shifts are faster and infinitely more precise.
Tomorrow begins with the Lake Meade ride followed by a frantic attempt to get on a great many bikes I didn’t ride today.