Some years back when I was an editor at Bicycle Guide, my colleague Joe Lindsey and I had the occasion to meet with a gentleman hawking electric bikes. He was the head of marketing for some electric bike company that is now less-remembered than Major Matt Mason. In 1997 the idea of an electric bike was a good deal less accepted than it is today. Worse yet, the pitch was a good deal less refined. The poor guy was desperate and it was evident in his voice, his pitch, his face. His big play was, “But it’s easier!”
Joe, in his wonderfully soft-spoken and gentle, but direct, manner responded, ‘Well, you see, our readers like the work. They want to pedal hard.’ There was a bit more to the conversation, but there was little to do at that point other than wish him well. I told him we weren’t hostile to what he was doing, but we just weren’t the right outlet. As we walked away, I turned back for a moment and the look on his face was less hang-dog than hanged-man. Returning to the office empty-handed clearly wasn’t how this little excursion was supposed to go and his next stop appeared to be the gallows. There have been few occasions in my life when I have said anything to someone that made them look sadder. I’ve never been so acutely aware what it meant to pity someone as I did that day.
Fast-forward 10 years. My buddy Jim buys his wife an electric bike as a way for her to run errands without always getting in the car. She’s lucky enough to have an exceedingly local life and rarely has to travel more than three miles from home. So one day she rolls up to the coffee shop as we’re hanging out post-ride. To my eye, with its 20-inch wheels and ultra-long stem extension (essentially a handlebar mast), it looks to me more like a travel bike than a proper bike. Naturally, Jim begins egging me on to take it for a spin. My refusals go unheeded; he doesn’t care that I’m in cleats, that it doesn’t fit, that I’m trying to be polite about not being interested. So I get on. The variety of bike she had included a twist throttle, meaning you could pedal, add in some electric power, or just ride it like an electric scooter.
As I rolled out, I did what cyclists do—I pedaled. That’s when Jim yelled after me, “Use the throttle!”
When I did, the resulting kick had a curious effect: I smiled. Actually, I didn’t just smile, I grinned. I didn’t need a mirror to know how large it was; I could feel my cheeks press against my helmet straps. Were I prone to embarrassment due to shows of public emotion, this would have sent me to a closet. Fortunately, I’m not easily flustered by my own actions, so as I headed back up the hill to my friends, it didn’t really bother me that they gave hearty laughs when they saw my smile set to 11.
The particular combination of acceleration and nearly noiseless operation is what made the electric bike such a revelation. Cars and motorcycles have taught us that big accelerations with motors make big noises. We’ve been taught to expect big throttle action to result in equal parts velocity and noise. After all, only half the love of muscle cars is a love of speed. The other half is a love for the growl, the aural conflagration that is the internal combustion engine. Lions wish they could sound so impressive. But when you take out the scream, no matter how lovely a symphony of pipes and explosions may furnish it, the combination of all-out-attack quickening and child’s-toy noise breaks our expectations, making the experience tantamount to a joke. And any time you multiply fun by funny, the result is a tightening of facial muscles combined with involuntary hiccups of air.
Yeah, I grinned and laughed.
I tell you that to explain why when the folks at Specialized rolled out the Turbo—their electric bike with a price tag like a top-notch race bike—and said, “You’re guaranteed to smile,” well, that’s when I didn’t laugh.
Now before anyone thinks this is a full-fledged review of the Turbo, let me say I’ve had exactly one ride on this thing and it was roughly as long as a network sitcom. That’s not really enough for me to do what I’d call a review. But as an introduction to a product, well, it had the same effect of a tasting pour at a winery. Yes, I’d like to purchase a whole bottle of that, please.
The first, biggest, difference between the Turbo was … hell, kinda everything. I’d like to point to how there’s no throttle, that instead there is a four-setting switch that dictates just how much electric assist you receive. I’d also like to point out how it handles like a regular bike, and how the gimongous battery fits into the down tube to keep the center of gravity as low as possible to improve the handling. They are all really stellar features that make the Turbo a very different line of thinking in the electric bike category.
It’s when the switch that determines how much assist you get is in the fourth and highest setting that the bike is at its most incandescent glory. For every watt you put into the pedals, the Turbo matches it, just like when your employer gives you a dollar-for-dollar match for contributing to NPR. The payoff for a watt-for-watt contribution, though, is way more fun. This is on the order of first-kiss exciting.
The Turbo will actually teach you a thing or two about riding, as well. Because it multiplies your wattage, if you pedal in squares, the bike will surge with each pedal stroke. I’ve never ridden anything that does more to reward a smooth spin. The handling is as balanced as a liberal arts degree. It’s nimble, but not too quick, and stable, but not lazy.
Now, I should make clear that this thing weighs more than both of my sons put together, more than most downhill bikes, more than a book by David Foster Wallace. It’s a good thing you won’t need to load this onto a roof rack; it’s unlikely most cyclists could lift it that high (I’m speaking for myself here). The good news is the wheels are military grade and roll up and down curbs with the nonchalance of a dump truck over flowers. Let me be blunt: This is a real bike, through-and-through.
The genius marketing move would be a $100 million TV ad campaign in which consumers were challenged not to giggle. Don’t giggle, get $100. Giggle and … you get to keep riding for another hour. I tell you, this thing is better than Six Flags.
At some point I may enjoy the opportunity (and I do mean enjoy) to do a full review on a Turbo. The challenge for the bike isn’t that you need to be convinced that the big, red S did its homework. It employs a proprietary battery developed by the same folks who do batteries for Apple’s mobile devices. Yeah, it’s like that. The bike employs myriad features to make sure it’s as easy to use as an iPhone. Actually, it’s easier.
The challenge with this bike is the suggested retail of $5900. If we compare this to purchasing a mountain bike from Specialized, the difference is that the mountain bike is a passion-driven discretionary purchase. We all-cap WANT a mountain bike. That purchase is aspirational—I’m gonna have so much fun on this! But the Turbo is much less likely to be seen through quite the same recreational lens. Sure, it will for plenty of people who aren’t currently cyclists, but I’d like to think that part of the Turbo’s charm and promise will be its ability to make believers out of existing cyclists. I harbor this suspicion that if thousands of dedicated riders were to add these to their quiver for commuting and errand duty (CED), that would be yet another win not just for this bike or electric bikes as a category, but for cycling as a whole.
Another suspicion: if the Turbo is unlikely to be a passion purchase the way a new bike usually is, something will need to make the purchase easier to swallow. After all, this will still be a discretionary—i.e., not a necessity—purchase for most people who consider buying one. There’s a chance that Ed Begley might ditch his electric car for one, but I can’t imagine too many people will turn to the Turbo as their sole means of transportation, at least in the good ole United States of Murka.
With that in mind, what I think Specialized ought to do is partner with GE Capital to come up with a financing program for the Turbo. There’s already a one-year-same-as-cash deal, but that means your monthly nut is the same as the payment for a very nice car. I’m thinking something that brings the monthly payment down below $200. At that point, I’d consider it.
It’s interesting to me that the Turbo is just a bike. It’s not a utility bike. There are (thus far) no accessories for it like racks or trailers for CED. Wouldn’t that increase the attraction for this bike? Wait, that gives me an idea.
Hey Mike, make if you’ll make a bakfiet Turbo and offer a financing plan, I’ll be first in line.
When I was at the Specialized Global Press launch recently, I attended a presentation on the Specialized electric bike called the Turbo. I also had a chance to ride one. The experience of riding the bike came into direct conflict with what have traditionally been my views on electric bikes. Case in point: there’s a guy I encounter from time to time on the bike path near my home. He’s in office casual dress, wears a ginormous motorcycle helmet and when he seems me, needs to race me. Even if I’m only going 14 mph. I can’t help but think he’s being a bit of a putz. Of course you’re faster than me, dude; you’re on an electric bike. And no, I’m not going to race you, even if I’m pedaling hard. The thing is, none of that thinking is helpful.
Allow me to digress: I feel like I know the struggle of the werewolf not to shift form in the presence of a full moon. The most interesting literature of werewolves holds that they are, among all the bad creatures of the horror world, the ones least at peace with their evilness. Victims of werewolves, they are slaves to the power of the moon and lack the ability to choose their victims the way vampires do. No one, not even a loved one, is safe in their presence. A great example is the John Landis film, “An American Werewolf in London.”
Somewhere along the line, I was bitten by the creature that imparts snobbery to its victims. This is the dark side of refined taste, the ability to appreciate excellence. Somewhere along the line, the appreciation for greatness becomes a hunger for it. It’s that space where, after seeing The Who live, your buddy’s garage band will not only no longer do, it downright hurts your ears.
I can be as much the elitist roadie snob as anyone you’ve met. I know I came by that as a result of being a student of the sport. I watched how the pros pedaled, how they sized their clothing, when they shifted, how the braked and all the rest. From tube socks to jerseys so large the pockets hung down over the saddle, I catalogued all the sins not to commit. As a result, I’ve got a keen eye for all the violations. This isn’t just a matter of style; I can give you several objective and even helpful reasons why you shouldn’t wear a windbreaker that is two sizes too big for you. The trouble is, it’s not enough not to say anything to the offending rider. I’m aware that each time I judge another cyclist as having fallen short of the rules, I’m being a prick. I don’t like that guy. Every day when I roll out, I have to remind myself that anyone on a bicycle is one of my people, even if they don’t identify with me. They can think me a MAMIL all they want; they don’t have to be friendly to me. I just need to be friendly to them.
I’ve had to work at that acceptance, and it really has been work for me, but I had a little recently when I was out for a mountain bike ride in Annadel State Forest with Greg Fisher of Bike Monkey. We encountered a woman new to mountain biking, at least as far as doing it off-road. She was gingerly picking her way through some rocks and apologized for holding us up, then in her own defense she said, “At least I’m not at home on the couch, right?”
We can forgive her for wanting a little reinforcement, can’t we?
In response I said, “You’re out here; you’re on a bike; you’re one of us.” At that, she smiled. I did, too. I had a couple of reasons to smile, the first being there was a time when I really couldn’t have welcomed her the way I did. She was in cotton, had tennis shoes on, needed to drop 50 pounds … I could go on. But where a cyclist might see a non-rider faking it, all the rest of the world sees another person on a bike. And this is an occasion when the rest of the world is right. We may see incandescent cycling clothing as what separates the devoted from the dilettantes, but it’s really just another reason for non-cyclists—real non-bike-riding people—to dislike us.
I bring this us vs. them mentality up because hostility to cycling is rising with the addition of bike sharing programs and more people choosing to commute by bicycle. The conservative punditry has made this crazy leap that the desire to make cycling easier for people—thanks to bike sharing programs, bike lanes, sharrows and minimum safe distance passing laws—is, in fact, a subversive grass-roots effort to take away cars. By making the world safer for bikes, we’re going to take away cars. I can’t begin to tell you how much I despise this variety of fear mongering.
It’s hard to parse a fear, chiefly because fears are largely rooted in irrational thought. Hard, but not impossible. My suspicion is that these folks, as characterized by The Wall Street Journal‘s Dorothy Rabinowitz and John Kobylt of the John and Ken Show, see us as early adopters. We are the non-smokers who are going to complain to government about all the cancer that cigarettes are causing and we are going to force our nonsmoking-ness on those poor, freedom-loving smokers and deprive them of the simple pleasure just having a few puffs of a butt. Think of all the deaths cars have caused. Surely cyclists—those evil, non-job-holding, non-tax-paying, light-running rebels to decent, civilized society—will use traffic deaths as Exhibit A as we make our case for why we should stop burning fossil fuels, save the planet, wreck the economy, destroy our way of life and then demand everyone grow a handlebar mustache, Rabinowitz included.
We really are the bane of society, aren’t we?
My point is that there is a real us vs. them split, and for my part, I’ve realized that it would be helpful for me to do what I can to welcome everyone I see on a bike as a cyclist. In calling inexperienced riders cyclists, we help them begin to self-select as one of us. I think that’s important because as cycling and cycling infrastructure becomes a bigger political football, we will be well-served to do all we can to convince every Huffy owner they are one of us, that their riding matters, not just to them, but to us as well.
Thanks to electric bikes and bike share programs, cycling is increasing in numbers. This is a good thing, full stop. Clueless new riders are going to weave in bike lanes, blow lights and generally frighten everyone nearby, whether they are other cyclists or drivers. In my mind, I’m telling myself this is just part of the learning curve and that in the long term this will be good for cycling in general. And I’m being careful not to use the term “sport.”
I no longer see people on electric bikes as the other, as having more in common with drivers and motorcycle riders than with bicycles. In my mind, we need them. The us of cyclists can never be too big; that tent can grow to accept everyone on two wheels and as a friend once said to me years ago when I asked him how many people I should invite to my party, “It can never be too big. The bigger the party, the better the time.”
While at Copper Mountain I spent the better part of two days riding mountain bikes. For me, the point to the exercise was to ride a bunch of bikes I was unlikely to actually review, while expanding my vocabulary of bikes. I’ll also confess that with singletrack latticed across the ski area, not doing some mountain biking while there seemed like it would have been a criminal missed opportunity.
I do try not to be felonious.
The thing that surprised me as I walked by to my room following my last ride was that I never ended up riding anything with 26-inch wheels. It was both an accident and not. I’d intended to ride something with 26-inch wheels just to have the experience of riding the smaller wheels again, but every time I went to select another bike, I went with yet another 29er. I know what happened. My sense of fun trumped my interest in being thorough. It’s also why I did multiple runs (I’ll explain that in a minute) on two bikes rather than switching after each run. The sense I had was that the first run was the handshake and the second run was the conversation. I can’t say I was always faster on the second run, but I felt like I had a better feel for the bike the second time down the descent.
I need to reiterate that the altitude kicked my back 40. The base elevation for Copper Mountain is 9700 feet. That’s not so bad, except for the fact that I had to sleep at that altitude, too. The ongoing oxygen deprivation was almost comical in its effects. Even the slightest uphill effort could leave me lightheaded and gasping. So while I used to think that lift-served mountain biking was strictly for the Marlboro set, I need to admit that sometime this spring the thought occurred to me that if you weren’t pedaling up to the top of the mountain after each run you could get at least three times as many runs in. Other things this attractive include Mexican Coca-Cola, the Ferrari Daytona and a babysitter … that changes diapers. Hey, I’m a parent.
Yet another admission: Two days into our stay, had someone come to me with fast-acting EPO, like three-hours quick, I’d have gone for it. I don’t fault the folks at Specialized for picking such a lovely spot so completely devoid of oxygen; I just felt frustrated that I was so compromised in performance. I felt such a sense of desperation at my inability to pedal it gave me yet another window into what may transpire for some riders when they consider doping.
The elevation at the top of the lift was, as shown above, a whopping 10,700 feet. Following one trip up I decided to try to check out a trail that started a bit above where the lift ended. I’ll be generous in my retelling and claim that I rode 200 meters. You weren’t there, so you won’t know that I’m grossly exaggerating. When I pulled over to catch my breath, I made it look like it was a planned stop to go pee on a tree, not that anyone was watching, of course. Still, one must keep up appearances. Dignity and all, you know?
I was able to take in four lift-served runs. The first two were aboard the S-Works Camber, a 24-lb. trail bike with 110mm of travel and 29-inch wheels. While I’m unwilling to name names, I am willing to reveal that a few years ago the top engineer for one bike company known for making very fine road bikes said to me that full-suspension 29ers was just a bad idea, that they’d never ride well and that for reasons of control, you really wouldn’t want a 29er to have more than 100mm of travel. Ever.
Um. Yeah. About that. Do you think I should tell him how much I liked the Camber? No, me either. As an example of a bike that doesn’t work, the Camber fails miserably. That is, it fails at failing, which is to say it was good fun. I’ll admit that when I demoed one in spring of last year it was a heavier bike that really didn’t offer much in the way of interest. The steering was mildly quicker than the Stumpjumper FSR 29, but it weighed more and wasn’t as stiff. So when I purchased my bike, I went with the Stumpy. However, this new S-Works version of the Camber has a much more aggressive feel to it while still feeling plenty plush for my riding style.
And what is my riding style? Well let’s say I have the downhill competence of a cross-country rider who’d like to be a freerider, just without all the airtime. I know, kinda lame, but if I’m in the air, it’s usually because it’s being handled by someone with a license and a logbook. The reality is that for a great many of us who have come to an agreement with our own mortality, one in which we promise not to bait it and in return we get a chance to have some fun, if not stupid, free-fall fun, a bike like the Camber is pretty cool. It’s not a cross-country race bike; it’s a mountain bike for people who enjoy cruising single track and aren’t afraid to pedal uphill some. For roadies who want a full-suspension 29er and aren’t planning to race cross country, this is a great example of what to look for.
After my runs on the Camber I took a break for lunch. It was there that at least two different Specialized staffers said I really needed to take a run on the Enduro. You’ll pardon me if at least initially I took their exhortations as a sort of ill-advised encouragement to a new driver—”Hey, you like cars? Forget that Ford Escort. Just wait until you try the Porsche 911!”
I was wary in that last-time-I-did-this-I-broke-my-arm sort of way. Not that I’ve broken my arm in more than 35 years, but still. When I expressed concern at what I’d do with more than six inches of travel, how it seemed unjust to use a Bugatti Veyron to drive to church (within the speed limit), I got assured nods that I would, indeed, know what to do with it. That nature would take its course. Seriously? I can’t tell a seven-inch-travel bike from an eight-inch-travel bike, at least not unless you tell me which is which. In as much as I have a wheelhouse, downhill bikes don’t enter my bridge; hell, they aren’t on my boat.
As it turned out, the only way to end the conversation, or at least steer it to something else as we ate lunch, was to promise that I would take at least one run on the thing. I pictured my mother astride a Ducati—any Ducati—as the rough approximation of me tearing down the singletrack on the Enduro.
To recap: The Enduro veers from the outer reaches of trail bikes into all-mountain—better known to some as freeride. It features 29-inch wheels, 165mm of travel, weighs less than a fair-size dog (25.9 lbs.) and I was told had chainstays short enough to avoid that bus-in-a-parking-lot feeling so common to the Stumpy 29er when trying to negotiate switchbacks; more objectively, they measure 41.9cm compared to the Stumpy’s 45cm stays. The Camber is right in the same territory, at 44.7cm.
At low speeds this thing doesn’t countersteer; all steering requires just that, steering. That takes a bit of getting used to. It felt a bit ungainly initially. However, once I dropped into the singletrack and got the thing up to speed (I have no idea just how fast that might have been but it was roughly between “look out!” and “oh yeah!”) it handled naturally, moving with me rather than in response to me. There were times when I could easily have cruised around some rocks and instead I just railed through them, just to see what the bike could do. What it did was roll through the stuff as if it was as unremarkable as pocket lint. Whatevs.
Sure enough, when I got to the first couple of switchbacks I noticed the Enduro carved through them in a way neither the Stumpy or Camber could. Shortly thereafter I lost time. What I recall is being aware that just after New Order’s “True Faith” started on my iPod, I began letting the bike run. I have a memory of me singing along to Peter Gabriel’s “I Have the Touch,” Thomas Dolby’s “One of Our Submarines” and Sinead O’Connor’s “Troy” but the rest of the run is a series of mental snapshots captured mostly when I needed to hit the brakes.
Terrain that had been difficult on the Camber was a good deal easier on the Enduro and stuff that was fun on the Camber became stupidly exhilarating. At one point I pulled over just to give my arms a break. After clipping out and pulling out one of my earbuds I noticed a sound. I was laughing.
It was on my second run that I gave a bit of thought to why the bike was working so well for me. Ever since I’d made the switch to suspension in the early ’90s (a whopping 80mm of travel back then), I had appreciated that while some riders saw suspension as a ticket to air time, the real benefit to suspension was improved control. The more your wheels are in contact with the trail, the more control you have over where the bike is going. The Enduro allowed me more than just control; it gave me a certain faith that everything would just work out in those dicier situations. I’d see braking bumps and ruts and think, “Problem!” to which the bike looked back with the face of Alfred E. Newman and said,
Still, I braked too much.
The Enduro is arguably the biggest surprise in a cycling experience I’ve encountered in more than 10 years. I really didn’t think the bike would work for me, and as it turns out, I was able to make enough use of it that I could appreciate the intention behind the bike. There is still room for me to develop as a rider with that bike, which is something I think is important in any mountain bike purchase. Allowing for your developing skills is an aspect of a mountain bike purchase that really doesn’t have an analog in road bikes.
Our final day of riding gave us the opportunity to do a group ride, either on- or off-road. I chose the dirty ride with the hope that I wouldn’t be DFL on the climb up to Searle Pass. As it turns out, I wasn’t, but that’s only because I didn’t ride the full eight miles there. At five miles I was so hypoxic I couldn’t have spelled the word that refers to the condition. For the ride, I’d chosen the S-Works Epic World Cup. This 100mm travel beauty with 29-inch wheels carved like a paring knife but really left most of the suspension duties to the rider. Elbows and knees are the ticket. At five miles I’d reached an elevation of roughly 11,200 feet and realized that even if I could ride higher I wouldn’t be conscious to enjoy it. It was after turning around that I really wished I had selected a bike with more travel. The kicker was the realization that the Enduro was just as nimble (at least, in my hands) in the switchbacks as the Epic. Oh, and a word to the wise: This whole one-chainring-thing really only works if you’re in proper condition. It’s funny to me how roadies can never have too high a gear while mountain bikers have figured out they really won’t pedal a hugemongous gear, so they don’t bring it along.
This past week I and at least one journalist from every reputable cycling media outlet flew to Colorado to attend the launch of the 2014 product line for Specialized. I heard at least five languages other than English spoken, and no less than six distinct accents of English uttered. At one point at the mountain bike demo tent one of the mechanics called my name so I could go over for saddle height adjustment and suspension setup and I responded with, “C’est moi,” which I do from time to time when I’m kidding around. Well, given the population assembled at the oxygen-deprived locale of Copper Mountain, the tech turned and said, “Oh, sorry, are you from France? Are you with a French magazine?”
Me and my sense of humor.
In addition to all the journalists, many of Specialized’s top dealers were in attendance as well. I’d prefer not to contemplate the logistics (and expense) of assembling so many people at a ski resort; it’s just too overwhelming. But for a big bike company like Specialized, such a gathering makes a lot of sense. Rather than try to introduce all the new products in a noisy trade show booth, they can make a deliberate (and rehearsed) presentation in a function room, complete with projector and sound system to make sure everyone follows along.
I attended presentations on the new road line, the mountain line, the women’s line and what they are now calling the “core” line. Core refers to all those bread-and-butter items in a product line—aluminum road bikes, entry level mountain bikes, including some oddball stuff like a go-anywhere touring bike and even, yes, a fat bike.
I’ve not been invited to this event for some years. Previously, when I attended I focused exclusively on the products I was most likely to review in the coming year. This time I decided to do things in a different way. Because I tend to get to ride the S-Works and Pro level bikes, I figured I’d branch out and ride some of the bikes I’m less likely to review. Well, mostly.
My first ride after the presentations were over was on a Venge Pro Race Force, which is to say a frame one step down from S-Works equipped with SRAM Force components; it retails for $5800. I’ve been meaning to ride a Venge for ages, but circumstances just haven’t lined up. Until now. We rolled out from Copper Mountain and headed downhill to Frisco, where we did a loop on the bike path around Dillon Reservoir, a place that gave my colleague Dillon Clapp of ROAD endless opportunities for self-referential jokes. I concede, he set them up well, even when I saw them coming.
Under ordinary circumstances, I can learn 80 percent of what I’m going to find out about a bike in the first five or ten miles … provided I can make some efforts. Given my current state of fitness, which can easily be described as one in which a 12-year-old paper boy with a full load of papers and one leg tied behind his back could drop me, being at 9700 feet of elevation (the height of the village at Copper Mountain) left me with as much operating bandwidth as someone trying to watch a YouTube video over a dial-up modem. I could stand up long enough to make five or six pedal strokes (okay, maybe it was a dozen), but then I’d have to sit back down and stop pedaling and pant like a dog stranded in the Mojave.
What I can say for sure is that I’d happily do more miles on the Venge. It’s not nearly as harsh a ride as the Cervelo S5 and it was stiffer in torsion than some of the other aero bikes I’ve ridden. Specialized likes to say the Venge is more bike than aero, and I get what they are claiming. Just how aero it is when compared to other aero road bikes is what would require some research.
It was during the “Core” presentation that I was introduced to the latest iteration of the Specialized Allez. The bike has been around in its current form for a year, but it completely escaped me. I don’t have any notes or photos of it from the last Interbike, which is a shame because I was suitably impressed by the presentation to feel that riding it was warranted.
What makes the bike remarkable is the aluminum tube set. Yes, you read that last sentence correctly. Specialized’s Chris D’Aluisio invented a new process, now patented, called Smartweld that increases the strength and stiffness of the front end of the bike. The top and down tubes curl inward, like the bottom of a soda can, and meet a hydroformed (and size-specific) head tube with similar inward-curled sockets for the top and down tubes. This creates a kind of 360-degree trough for the weld bead, making it easier for a less-than-expert welder to perform the weld correctly. Afterward, there’s less grinding away of material.
The frame is anodized to keep weight down while giving the bike a stylish finish. You can see the Smartweld as a vertical stripe in the top and down tubes. While the Smartweld is ground smooth, the other welds on the frame, such as those at the bottom bracket, have the traditional look of a Dynafiled weld bead.
Specialized is offering an S-Works edition of the Allez and the frame, rather incredibly, bears a claimed weight of only 1060g for a 56cm frame. I rode both the S-Works version as well as the Comp. The Comp has a mostly 105 drivetrain with an FSA crank and retails for $1350. The S-Works version featured the 11-sp. Dura-Ace group, and while last year’s bike was $7k, there’s no word yet on what this year’s version will go for. And yes, Virginia, that is a lot of money for an aluminum bike.
What I can say about the ride quality of the two bikes is that they are impressive. The Comp was as good as anything I’ve ridden in the past, while the S-Works was easily the finest-riding aluminum frame I’ve encountered. Because there are multiple price points for this bike, the tube sets vary some as well. I’ll go as far as to say that I preferred the ride of the S-Works Allez to some carbon frames I’ve been on. What I can’t really speak to is just how stiff the bike is in torsion. While I made some efforts, they were so compromised by the altitude I doubt I generated 200 watts on any of them. It’s possible this bike won’t be quite as impressive if I take it on a sea level group ride.
My first day-and-a-half of riding left me with the desire to spend more time on the Venge and the Allez. I’ll be honest and say that I find S-Works stuff far more interesting (and satisfying) to ride. The pricier bikes simple feel better as I ride them and that has nothing to do with how much better a Dura-Ace shifter functions as compared to a 105 (and the difference is dramatic).
That said, I’m aware that not everyone has enjoyed the benefits of President Reagan’s trickle-down economics (maybe because it didn’t work), meaning not everyone is going to spend $5k (or more) on a bicycle. Most folks have the good sense to own a home and have a college fund for their kids, which means a $14,000 bike is a recipe for nothing so much as a divorce. I anticipate I’m going to revisit both the Venge and the Allez in a longer review, even though the rides I did at the press intro were supposed to cure me of that urge. Go figure. My sense is that if I was still racing, rather than risk killing an expensive carbon frame in a crash during a crit, I’d purchase something like an Allez or a Cannondale CAAD10.
So there’s this news that Specialized has built its own in-house wind tunnel. My professional reaction was nothing short of “Holy cow!” It’s a colossal investment for a facility that will do nothing for a company that produces mountain bikes, city bikes, kids bikes—even an electric bike—and none of the bikes in those categories will be affected by this new facility. For a week or two Specialized’s PR team had been posting little teases on FB and Twitter, photos that were mostly just jokes, along with the phrase “aero is everything.” I was curious, but mostly only because I could tell it would lead to some announcement. But what?
More than four years ago the road product manager at one of Specialized’s competitors told me flat-out that we had essentially reached the end of the line in terms of big gains on weight and that all the real advances in technology that would aid performance would come from aerodynamics. The point being not that bikes wouldn’t continue to get lighter, but that the gains would be so incremental and at such an incredible cost in terms of durability and expense that for most bike companies the diminishing returns wouldn’t justify the investment. Instead, the gains to be made in aerodynamics were (and are) relatively low-hanging fruit.
Computational Fluid Dynamic software has speeded up development time by giving engineers virtual wind tunnels on work stations. But that software has limitations. The work stations are crazy expensive (and thats from a guy who doesn’t find Apple products to be unreasonably priced) and the license for the software costs what an engineer does. And then there’s the fact that you can only learn so much in CFD. At a certain point, you have to go to the wind tunnel. When you consider just how expensive wind tunnel time is (it can run what a good recording studio does) and how much of it you need (eight hours is barely enough to get a fair picture of how a single bike with no rider performs), then you can see how it would be possible to keep one busy for three shifts per day.
Having been on-hand for a company’s rental of time from the San Diego Low-Speed Wind Tunnel, I’m aware that you rack up a host of other costs any time you do testing. There’s the down-time for travel, and while a SoCal-based company like Felt can drive to San Diego before rush hour, Morgan Hill is a full day’s drive; any other location requires a boarding pass. Add meals and hotels to your transportation costs, and suddenly renovating a warehouse starts to sound like a pretty good idea.
I should also add that there are a great many products on the market that bear the signifier of “wind-tunnel tested.” It’s a do-nothing claim. I don’t mean to suggest that companies lie when they report that. No, the point is that plenty of companies visit the wind tunnel after the design work is complete, molds are cut, and production units are about to ship to retailers. “Blowing” a bike or helmet or wheel after the design work is complete means you know how much drag it generates. Wind-tunnel development requires multiple visits and for longer periods of time than are required just to make the claim of tested.
Significant in this that the staff and students of SBCU will gain access to the wind tunnel to aid them un better understanding the aerodynamic implications of a given fit; it’s yet another good reason for a retailer to send staff to Morgan Hill for training.
There is a darker side to this announcement, though. This ratchets up the bike development arms race. If you’d asked me which company would be first to introduce an in-house wind tunnel, I’d have said Zipp. I gotta figure the boys in Indiana have one on the drawing board. Prior to the PON acquisition I’d have guessed that Cervelo was working on one as well. Methinks that the new owners might be a bit more conservative in their spending.
While you might have winced at the industry’s first $10k bikes, news that Specialized had developed a $20k version of their Venge in conjunction with McLaren caused more than a few people to require the Heimlich Maneuver. Marketing costs generally get spread over an entire company’s bike line, which is why it’s so important to have a popular $200 mountain bike if you want to sponsor a big pro team. However, development costs are charged to the category of bike that generated them. You can expect to see all S-Works bikes tick up with this additional expense.
I expect we’re going to see a faster Venge. I expect to see that. What I wonder is if we’re going to see a more aero Roubaix. I don’t really care for how this is going to ratchet up bike development costs. But we’re going to learn a lot because Specialized is going to learn a lot. I love learning. I’m an eternal student. That part excites me. For that, I can’t freaking wait.
One of the more noticeable differences between the Tarmac SL4 and its predecessor is its internal cable routing. The change in frame design to allow for internal routing isn’t peculiar to Specialized. Many manufacturers are offering frame designs with internal routing options. This has been driven to a great degree by electronic shifting systems, Shimano’s Di2 and Ui2 in particular. Some bikes offer an option for either internal or external routing, depending on whether you plan to use electronic or mechanical shifting systems; some still require mechanical systems to be routed externally. Not so with the Tarmac SL4. All cables get routed internally, whether the bike is spec’d with a mechanical or electronic shifting system.
Internally routed cables clean up the look of the bike, there’s no doubt. That said, I need to make a small declaration: Internally routed cables may look nice, but the bike suffers in almost every other way if you’re using mechanical shifting.
The first issue is assembly. Now, this doesn’t affect you as a consumer right off the bat, but it affects the shop you do business with because it can double the amount of time required to build a new bike. That slows down the productivity of the wrenches, thereby driving up the owner’s cost to build the bikes, and that’s a cost he has to figure into his bottom line. Where it affects you is any time you take the bike in for any service that requires replacing a cable. I’ve built a lot of bikes over the years and while I’m not as quick as I used to be, I can do a very thorough build on an ordinary road bike from the box in two hours. My initial build of the S-Works Tarmac SL4 took me six freaking hours. Now I’ll admit, had I been able to attend a tech presentation that went over the assembly procedure on the bike beforehand, I suspect that could have shaved as much as two hours off the assembly. I could have watched Avatar during the time I wasted just trying to figure out where each of the ferrules and cable guides went.
Even once I knew how everything fit together, when I swapped out the parts for SRAM’s new Red group, the tear-down took more than an hour and the assembly of the new parts took three full hours. Working on this bike will never, ever be speedy and you’re going to pay for it by being charged more in labor. And in the event you’re not, you ought to be concerned about your retailer taking a hit on his bottom line by not making enough on the labor. I know everyone wants a deal on parts and labor, but your local shop needs to make a profit so they can keep being your local shop. End of sermon.
The other problem that internal routing causes is a degradation in shift quality. I haven’t noticed a problem with rear braking, but I did notice that the Dura-Ace 7900 I first built the Tarmac SL4 with didn’t shift as well as it did on the Tarmac SL3, which had externally routed cables. Given that the group was fresher than sushi, there shouldn’t have been anything wrong with the shifting that wasn’t already an inherent problem in the group—which mostly boils down to high shift force. I consistently had a problem with either the rear shifting hesitating on downshifts, but if I increased cable tension, it would hesitate on upshifts. The sweet-spot in shifting proved to be nearly as elusive as the Snuffleupagus. I did manage to get the shifting to work with 7900, but it took a great deal of fiddling. With SRAM Red the dial-in of the shifting was a good deal simpler.
I’d like to go back to the seemingly incompatible goals of torsional stiffness combined with vertical compliance. If you’ve ever seen a modern helicopter on the ground with the engines off, then you’ve probably noticed how the rotor blades sag while at rest. Those rotor blades are made from carbon fiber and they are stiffer than a murder one sentence in rotation, but vertically they aren’t made for stiffness; they achieve their proper straight attitude thanks to centrifugal force.
Now, no bicycle frame is ever going to flex visibly under its own weight, but carbon fiber layup technology has come a long way since the original Kestrel 4000. Today, there’s software available that allows engineers to simulate particular layup schedules. They can specify the dimensions of the structure, the size and shape of each sheet and the orientation of the fibers. Following a set of calculations that make differential calculus look like long division the workstation yields feedback on how stiff that structure will be under a given load. The upshot is that we’re now seeing frames that are hundreds of percent more flexible vertically than they are torsionally.
I think it’s with observing that what carbon fiber allows a manufacturer to do is control the entire fabrication process from the shape of each tube to the material used as well as where it’s placed. As much as I love steel frame building, there’s not a builder out there who has as much control over their fabrication. After all, they aren’t creating their own tubing, specifying the tube shapes before they are drawn and then also dictating the butt lengths. Previous history has shown that the stiffer a steel frame is in torsion, the stiffer it will be vertically. The only steel frame I ever rode that is as stiff as today’s carbon fiber beauties was an Eddy Merckx made with Columbus’ stouter-than-a-Cuban-cigar Max tube set. I’ve ridden only a handful of bikes that bucked more on a bump than that bike; most memorable among them was Cervelo’s SLC-SL.
There’s a huge mitigating factor to this phenomenon: frame weight. While there was a time when a lighter frame deserved to be an end in itself because shaving more than a pound off a frame’s weight was a pound you could lose forever, shaving an additional 100 grams off a frame’s weight won’t give a rider much in terms of better acceleration or speedier climbing, but if you can starve an additional 100g off a frame, especially if you can do it without sacrificing torsional stiffness, the result is a bike with a livelier ride.
I’ve long held both fascination and admiration for the work that goes into laying up a carbon fiber frame. Never have I been more impressed than when I was laying on the ground in Tuna Canyon and my buddy unclipped my shoes from the pedals and picked up an intact bicycle. It became the only topic of conversation that could distract everyone from just how messed up my face was. It’s remarkable to me that I could render the frame useless with one firm swing of a hammer and yet it came through a 30 mph impact ready to ride. Holy Indian cow. My regard only increased when the recall was recently issued for the Tarmac SL4′s fork. Here’s a link to information about the recall.
For the most part, the geometry remains unchanged from the inception of the Tarmac straight through to the Tarmac SL4. The head tube angle, seat tube angle, fork rake, BB drop and wheelbase remain exactly the same between the various iterations. If yo’ve previously ridden a Tarmac and liked it, you’ll like this bike. I went into the geometry of the six sizes in some depth in my review of the SL3. You can check that out here.
The only difference between the SL3 and the SL4 is in the head tube length on the four largest sizes. The two smallest sizes (the 49 and the 52) remain unchanged. In the other sizes, the head tube has been shortened; I’m told this was to respond to requests by pros so they could position the bar lower. On the 54, the head tube has been shortened by 5mm, from 145mm to 140mm. On the 56, it’s been cut from 170 to 160. The 58 was chopped from 205 to 190, while the 61 got a haircut from 230 to 210. I’m of the opinion that head tubes are too short in general and that most riders, when properly sized will never wind up with a no-spacer fit. I’m also of the opinion that the majority of all pros are on bikes with ridiculous fits—no spacers, minus-17-degree stem that’s a centimeter (if not two) too long. What’s most surprising about this is that Specialized has taken a very proactive role in making sure the riders of the teams they sponsor are on bikes that fit them, thanks in no small degree to having one of the best fitters on the planet—Scott Holz—on staff. So it’s a bit surprising to me that their bikes would still have such short head tubes.
As I mentioned in a comment in response to Part I of the review, I went through a fitting recently, one that was exceedingly thorough and pinpointed some issues I’ve been wrestling with, but hadn’t been able to properly diagnose. And I write that with the acknowledgement that I’ve been through five or six fittings in the last eight years. The upshot is the realization that aging has resulted in more spinal compression than I had previously understood. I stand 5′ 11″ these days but still possess a 6-foot wingspan. Compounding matters is that I have a 34 1/2-inch inseam. While I want to have a chance to do a fitting with a 56cm Tarmac before I commit to it, on paper it looks like it’s time for me to drop down a size.
Ride Quality and Handling
What separates the Tarmac from many other bikes on the market is its combination of crisp handling, high stiffness, low weight and sensitive road feel. you can find bikes that are as stiff, but most are heavier and don’t have the road feel. There are bikes that beat it on weight, but most of those aren’t as stiff and as a result don’t offer the precise handling. Broadly speaking, I consider the sub-kilo frames in a class apart from all of the frames weighing 1000g or more. They have a liveliness all their own. You can go on a date with anyone who seems attractive, but when you’ve got chemistry it makes all the difference. Most of those kilo-plus frames are as fun as dinner with someone on Lithium.
It’s been interesting to watch the geometry of other bikes follow suit on the aggressive trail numbers of the Tarmac (62mm for the 49cm frame, 57mm for the 52 and 54cm frames, 56mm for the 56 and 58cm frames, and 53mm for the 61cm frame). What we’ve come to appreciate is that the stiffer the frame the sharper the handling can be. The inverse is also true though: If a bike isn’t super-stiff, you need to relax the handling so that the bike isn’t twitchy to the point of being difficult to control. I can say that with every steel bike I ever rode that posted numbers this aggressive, I didn’t like how they handled but with carbon fiber, it’s a very different story. Let’s put it this way: Steel is to stiffness what slapstick is to comedy, while carbon fiber is to stiffness what satire is to comedy—subtler and more calculated; it rewards skill.
I can come up with a dozen solid, objective reasons why this is a great bike, why the sheer ubiquity of Specialized dealers pumping these things into the market is a good thing for cycling. That still doesn’t seem to be a good enough reason to consider purchasing one. What separates the Tarmac SL4 from some of the more rudimentary expression of carbon fiber bicycles is the difference between an Arabian horse and the plastic variety you find on a carousel. Is this the greatest carbon fiber bike going? Ahh, that’s like asking if Mozart is the greatest composer. He’s on everyone’s short list—and with good reason.
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.
It was on a hill somewhere past the 55-mile mark of a ride that seemed both nearing its end and not nearly close enough to its finish that Carl Bird, the Director of Equipment for Specialized, turned to me and asked a question that I’d been asked at least a half dozen times that day, a question that a guy in his position riding with a member of the media has a certain professional obligation to ask.
“So, what do you think?”
“It’s nice,” or something akin to it, is what I’d said on every previous occasion. This was, however, my first hilly ride since I’d kissed the ground back in October. It was my first ride on these roads. It was my first experience with these descents, which were equal parts unknown and dicey. It was also my first ride on the new S-Works Roubaix SL4 and Specialized’s new Roval carbon clinchers. The combined effect meant I was stretched thin, that I’d spent most of the day trying to figure out how to get my descending mojo back, and the difference in brake response between the Zipps to which I’ve become accustomed and the Rovals was enough that I’d needed to focus on just the riding and forget about the clothing.
Scientific method suggests that if you want to judge the effectiveness of a solution, you control all of the variables, save one. Real life never really affords you that opportunity. The variables come at you like notes out of Jimi Hendrix’ guitar amp, in flurries, overwhelming you and either resulting in a wave of pleasure or a swirling wash of anxiety. Our loop through the hills of Palo Alto, Pescadero and more had been alternately fun and anxiety-producing, though mostly fun.
Back to that scientific method thingy. Ideally, a product intro would substitute just one item, say a pair of bibs or a jersey. Scientific method suggests you don’t grab a bunch of journalists and put them on fresh bikes with fresh clothing on a fresh course. But in the best scenarios, that’s exactly what happens.
Because it’s genius. It works. You take some riders, put them off-kilter with a bunch of unknowns and then turn up the heat. Somewhere between simmer and boil you forget about what you’re on and start focusing on just the act of riding. Look, I understand that this seems like an elaborate self-deception, like flirting with yourself via email, but I can say from some experience that while you learn a lot about a product within the first five miles of a ride, all the serious insights into whether a product works or not come dozens of miles later, after you’ve forgotten that you’re even using it.
Like I said, Carl asks me, “So what do you think?”
The miles in my legs weren’t that numerous, but they’d been plenty challenging, so my answer came from a place where I wasn’t thinking about the guarded, politic answer. It came from an honest place, an I’m-ready-to-finish-this-ride-up place. I’d had my fill of unknown bike times unknown roads.
“Well, you nailed the bibs.”
It was an honest moment, and revealed more than I intended. I try to be more reserved in my opinion after only a single ride. While I couldn’t articulate it at the time, I knew I’d ridden some bibs of similar quality in the previous year. Upon reflection after getting home, I came to the conclusion that I liked them better than the Hincapie Signature bibs I’d been wearing, and they were in the neighborhood of the Rapha Pro Team Bibs I’d reviewed last summer. The Specialized SL Pro Bibs go for $150, the Rapha, $250. I would probably still pick the Rapha bibs over the Specialized bibs, but I can’t recall the last time I wore a pair of $150 off-the-shelf bibs that were this good. “Never” isn’t an unreasonable answer.
For our ride I chose to wear the aforementioned SL Pro Bibs and Jersey, the leg warmers, the arm warmers, the base layer, the Neoprene shoe covers and the SL Jacket. As I was dressing, temperatures were in the 40s, but by the time we rolled they were in the low 50s. Compared to most of the other riders, I was more heavily dressed, but I wanted layers that would allow me to stay warm and yet peel off as the day warmed. Over the next four hours, the only change I made was to pull off the jacket for a while and then don it for the final descent off of Tunitas Creek. That jacket is one of those bantam-weight deals that weighs roughly as much as a Monarch butterfly. It’s a translucent white so that you can see the jersey beneath, a quality that makes it both more visible and something I think team sponsors tend to appreciate. The fit was just roomy enough that the sleeves flapped a bit in the wind, but the material is so light that it wasn’t noisy the way a flag in a gale is.
As a person who detests most wind breakers, this is one I’m willing to keep around.
The Neoprene shoe covers are meant to fit over Specialized shoes. No surprise there, right? Well reaching back into my past, I can tell you I’ve never used a pair of shoe covers or booties that I didn’t have to fight to get over the toe and cleat and then around the heel. Again, I’m aware these things were designed for Specialized shoes, but they slipped past all the usual obstacles with more grace than a bank heist flick. I was also impressed with the Velcro flap that pulls open to allow you to adjust the Boa dials mid-ride. On a ride where the temperature fluctuated over a good 20 degrees, my feet were never too cold nor too warm. Goldilocks would approve.
Plain black arm warmers are to cycling clothing what the microwave is to the kitchen. They’re a commodity, yet of such ubiquitous utility, you really can’t do without them. The only way to impress me at this point is by improving fit, warmth or stretch, if not all three. The patterning on these warmers gives them some slight articulation at the elbows making them ever-so-slightly a more natural fit. Once positioned, they didn’t budge, but I consider that a basic requirement along the lines of windows in a car. The leg warmers were plenty long (I’m surprised by how many leg warmers are barely long enough to reach my hamstrings), featured ankle zips so you can pull your socks up (or yank them off mid-ride) and silicone grippers on the outside so they don’t tug at the sensitive skin high on the inside of your thighs. And they’re thick, thicker than any of the last few brands of leg warmers I’ve tried.
A pro-fit jersey, like those that are becoming more common, isn’t an easy thing to do. Ideally, it’s not simply a regular jersey just cut a half-size smaller. It features forward-swept shoulders to eliminate unneeded material in the chest and reflect the outstretched arm position you adopt while riding. It’s a garment so specific in fit that when not on the body it looks more like a short-sleeve straightjacket, like it should be just as comfortable as confinement. Most of the panels reject polyester for something stretchier, like Lycra. It’s a retrograde move; we gave up Lycra in jerseys some time in the 1980s, right? It was just a transition material meant to get us from Merino wool to polyester. All that’s true, but what is also true is that a pro-fit jersey is meant to fit much like the top of a skin suit and skin suits are made of—yeah, you remember—Lycra. The better pro-fit jerseys I’ve encountered are cut shorter than traditional jerseys, but also place the pockets lower on the jersey and feature smaller side panels to wrap the pockets around the back better, making access to said pockets easy, rather than a yoga move.
For all its efficiency, at a certain point a skin suit just doesn’t make much sense, or at least not as much sense as a jersey and a pair of bibs that fit like one. They are easier to size properly, easier to get on and take off, easier to answer the call of nature and more comfortable—when was the last time a skin suit felt as good as your best bibs? Let’s not forget the fact that a full-zip jersey allows better ventilation on hot days.
Of all pieces of cycling clothing, though, bib shorts are easiest to get wrong, hardest to get right, hardest to forget about when they aren’t right. I’ve lost count of the different brands and models of bibs I’ve worn and have been amazed by the ways you can get them wrong. The most crucial details are pad quality and placement, the cut of shorts themselves and the sizing of the bibs. It’s still possible for the train to leave the rails, but far less likely if you get that much right. In the last year I’ve ridden a bunch of bibs in the $150 range. I can get through two hours in any of them, but I wouldn’t dare wear any of them on a ride I suspected would last as much as three hours or more, save these.
Final thoughts: I’ve been to a fair number of product intros over the years. At some, we’d stand around and look at the parts. Unimpressive. At a few we went out for hammerfests where we were too busy chasing the company’s staff to give a lick of thought to what we were on. Less than stellar. But the best ones roll out for a nice ride, not so long to kill you, but long enough to both think about and forget about what you’re riding. It’s a weird balance, but as my reaction to Carl illustrated, done right it can result in some honest opinions.
The big, red S up in Morgan Hill, California, has introduced a new clothing line for the spring and summer 2013 season. To be fair, lots of companies have new clothing lines for the coming, but not-yet-here, good weather. So why bother to report on it? Well, as it happens, it’s not new in the “here’s our line for this year” new; it’s new as in wholly new, as in they practically skipped a year’s production while setting up a new prototyping studio in-house. Had this been more of the same, clothing-wise from Specialized, I can’t say I’d have bothered to write about it. It’s not that it was bad clothing previously; it was just unremarkable. If, perhaps, it had been priced like a movie ticket, that would have been a different story.
This new line, I’m impressed to write, is just as thoroughly a Specialized product line as their bicycles and components. In broad strokes on the road side, it’s divided into two sub-categories: SL (performance) and RBX (endurance) to mirror the bikes and saddles. The idea is that the SL is more aggressive in fit and more cutting edge in materials, which makes it aimed more specifically at Tarmac and Venge riders. The RBX line (as in Roubaix) is meant for a less race-oriented rider.
The clothing may be made in China, but thanks to that aforementioned in-house design studio, the entire development process is controlled by Specialized staff. The initial CAD patterns are created by staff, printed out on a plotter in the studio and then used to cut fabric for prototypes. In the case of the SL bibs they made seven prototypes in multiple copies of each of the five sizes offered. Once Apparel Product Manager Peter Curran was satisfied they had the design right, it went overseas for production samples. You’d think this part would be simple enough, but as it happens, virtually no apparel factories specialize in cycling apparel, and that can lead to some comic, if ironic circumstances. From time to time their overseas counterparts would come to the conclusion that the forward-swept shoulders of a race-cut jersey didn’t reflect proper human anatomy, so they would “correct” them, by bringing them back, like those of a dress shirt. Had it not been for samples made in Specialized’s in-house prototyping, they might not have caught the issue.
The SL apparel features a pro-style skin-tight fit for the jersey while the bibs have a longish inseam with a folded fabric cuff and no gripper elastic. The Cytech-made pad which is manufactured to Specialized spec is designed for a rider who rolls his hips forward to flatten his back. The densest foam is also shaped to be matched to the shape of Specialized’s saddle. The SL apparel is available in five sizes, small through XXL.
By contrast, the RBX apparel sports a slightly more relaxed fit in the jersey. It’s not as loose as the untapered “club cut” offered by some companies, though. Compared to the SL jersey it’s also slightly longer and the appearance more subdued for those who’d like to draw as few stares as possible while standing in line for that post-ride coffee. While I haven’t had a chance to ride in the RBX pieces yet, in trying both the bibs and the jersey on, I was impressed with the fit. The difference between the fit of the SL and RBX jerseys was distinct, the way skim milk doesn’t taste like two percent, but it’s not so disparate that you wouldn’t still call it milk.
The RBX bibs feature a different pad, one that’s designed for riders sitting more upright and therefore using denser foam directly beneath the sit bones. Unlike many bibs I’ve encountered that were intended for less avid or experienced riders, the RBX bibs don’t condescend by using inferior materials. Now, these aren’t Assos, but in terms of fit and finish, they appear to be some of the best-made bibs intended for those who sit more upright. Grant Peterson should buy a set.
Both the SL and RBX lines are available in in Pro and Expert levels, while the RBX also comes in an even more affordable Sport level. If the Pro stuff seems a bit spendy, the Expert level good will provide many of the same features and design philosophy, while the Sport line will allow someone on a budget tighter than a rubber glove to get in the game. At $175, the Pro level bib shorts (available in both SL and RBX) are the most expensive items in the entire line; the Sport bibs are only $65 and the shorts are $50.
There’s more to the line than just bibs and jerseys. They offer a complete set of arm, knee and leg warmers, a base layer, multiple wind breakers, vests, gloves and tights. There’s a complete women’s line as well.
Curran said that a significant priority for the line was to make sure that the clothing offered significant sun protection. He noted that the U.S. is notably behind other countries in terms of addressing skin damage caused by exposure to the sun. Not only is the U.S. behind in awareness, it’s behind in products that protect against sun damage. Every product in the line has been given the designation of DeflectUV. Every product has been certified as possessing at least an SPF of 30, though some are rated 50. In addition to all that, they have introduced of sun protection layers—arm and leg covers, gloves and caps.
Given the way Specialized encourages people to ride more and longer, Curran said they’d come to the conclusion that they really had a responsibility to create a product line that considered the ramifications of increased sun exposure.
It’s rare that you see a product line so thoroughly overhauled and while it’s premature to call the new line an unqualified success, I’m impressed, based on my experience in the post to follow.
Action images: Robertson/Velodramatic
How I love Interbike. I could count the ways, and would count the ways, except that RKP is now something approaching popular with some of the bike industry and I’ve been busier than a salt shaker at a diner. Though Interbike is ostensibly about product and sales, what that makes this event so terrific are the many people I have the pleasure to work with and the fact that we’re all in Las Vegas to celebrate just how great a sport cycling is. We’re all preaching to the same choir, but no one is complaining.
Yes, that is the Giro d’Italia trophy above. I picked it up and got my picture taken with it. While nothing about its weight (which is somewhere between 1970s Cadillac and Blue Whale) suggests that it is in any way delicate, one cannot simply grab thing like an old suspension coil and hoist it above your head. As I handled it, I felt as if I was rolling out the Dead Sea Scrolls and there was no way I could be too careful.
The queen stage of the 2013 Giro d’Italia (Giro representatives preferred the term “king” stage) was announced in a press conference yesterday and while they talked for entirely too long to introduce a single 150km-stage, the stage is a doozy and will not only be the Giro’s first visit to the famed Col du Galibier, it will also result in a mountain-top finish on that murderous climb. That stage will break people (I can’t wait).
BMC introduced a new aero road frame, the TMR01. It features integrated brakes, internal cable routing and a number of truly aerodynamic features that make it at least appear to be exceedingly fast. Of course, the promotional video of Philippe Gilbert storming down a descent in the Riviera was amazing to watch, for a few reasons, one being he’s as stylish on the bike as George Clooney is at pretty much every moment of his life, another was the road Gilbert was blistering, and the final was the simple fact that I’ve been made a believer of aero road frames and I’m dying to ride this bike.
You’ve probably heard that Specialized is introducing a new road shoe. If you studied pics of Tom Boonen killing it at Flanders or Roubaix this spring, then you might have spied the new model. On display below samples of the new work was this collection of production shoes and prototypes from over the years. So much of Interbike is spit-polished it was nice to get a glimpse inside the work that goes into a sophisticated piece of footwear meant to fit as many riders as possible. No small feat, ahem.
The big news at Specialized (and here’s a good reason why the complete lack of any presence at all by Cannondale and Trek sucks unicorn blood—I can’t say a thing about them, which makes it seem like I wasn’t interested, which isn’t the least bit true) was the new Roubaix SL4. I’ll chase the full details at a later date, but I’m told that this iteration has evolved a bit to make it a somewhat racier bike. This most noticeable change is a shorter head tube to make the thing feel less like an English 3-speed to veteran roadies.
My piece on carbon clinchers this summer opened some interesting communication channels. Some product managers came down from Specialized and we went for a ride on the terrain in question and a couple of guys from Reynolds came up for a visit and ride as well. The note that the Reynolds team struck was both proud and conciliatory. Proud because with 10 years building carbon clinchers, they’ve been at it longer than anyone else. Conciliatory because they understand that the single biggest issue they face is that some riders are on product that really can’t be compared with their latest work. We went through the new Aero series of wheels, wheels I’m hearing compare favorably with Zipp’s Firecrest and Enve’s SES wheels for stability. I’ll be getting on a pair a little later this fall.
It’s Interbike, which means I’m in the showroom for Santa’s workshop. This Fondriest isn’t going to be a top seller, or on anyone’s best new product list. That’s just fine. I took this shot because those polished lugs are freakin’ gorgeous and if you don’t take time at Interbike to geek out, you kinda missed the point.