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.
When I was a kid, the ultimate vacation I could take was to go to Disney World. I’d be excited for days, even weeks beforehand, dreaming of all the incredible rides I’d enjoy once through the park’s gates. Once actually through the gates, choosing what to go on first was no easy task.
Outdoor Demo has taken the place of Disney World for me. There are more bikes to ride and people to see than I possibly get through in two days, even after eliminating from the list everyone I’ll see inside the convention hall. But it never actually works out quite that way.
I began today with a spin on the Neil Pryde Alize, one of the bikes that I saw this summer at Press Camp, but for which I was too short on time to go for a ride. I rolled out with the early morning Lake Meade ride and while there are a great many people on that ride looking for a good hard ride as it could be their only chance to ride in the next four or five days, I decided to hide in the back of the group and take an early turn around so that I could get on to riding other bikes.
The Alize was a pretty nice bike. If anything, it reminded me of Felt’s Z bike before its newest incarnation. There was plenty of stiffness to be responsive but not so much stiffness you wanted to take air out of the tires. The handling was very predictable. Oddly, I found my heels hitting the chainstays, which, because I’ve got size 42 feet, is a very unusual—essentially unheard of—phenomenon. Aside from that one detail, a nice bike.
It’s been a while since I last rode one of Specialized’s more entry level road bikes. I rolled out on a Roubaix Comp mostly to see just how lively a ride Specialized’s more budget-oriented grand touring model would offer. For 2013 the Comp gives riders many of the features found in the previous Roubaix SL3 frame. Honestly, at this price point ($TK), I expected something on the doornail side of dead. Surprisingly, this bike was anything but.
There’s no doubt that the Zertz vibration dampers do mute some of the high-frequency vibration that would otherwise reach a rider’s hands and rear, but what surprised me is just how much feedback I was still able to experience. This bike is a good deal more sensitive than its predecessors.
The other aspect of the bike’s ride quality was the amazing stiffness this bike possessed. I wouldn’t expect too many bikes in this price range to offer the precise tracking or BB stiffness found in this bike. And while I have traditionally ridden a 56cm frame in the Roubaix (though I ride a 58cm in the Tarmac), I went out on the 58cm Roubaix this time and while the steering felt a bit light initially due to the high bar, I was able to shift my weight forward a bit in turns to make the bike handle a bit more predictably. I gotta say, though, riding uphill with a bar that high was more comfortable than a chaise lounge at the beach. Okay, maybe not quite, but I liked it in the same surprised-at-how-great-this-is experience.
My very next bike was of a piece, the Giant Defy 0. This is Giant’s next to the top-of-the-line for its grand touring line, or as they call it, their “Endurance” line. Position is very similar to the Roubaix on this bike thanks to a long head tube. I tell ya, it’s kinda nice to sit up like that. The frame offered really good stiffness in torsion without being overly stiff vertically. Road feedback was good; it offered a bit more sensitivity than the Roubaix, but it wasn’t the high-volume feedback that I’ve found in some frames.
The seat tube and seat stay shapes suggest a bike that should be pretty harsh at the saddle, but that wasn’t my experience at all.
Of al the bikes coming out of Europe, the #1 bike that my friends covet has been Look’s 695. I’ve been curious what the draw is, so I spent some time hanging out at Look until one was returned. In differentiating the 695 from some of the top-of-the-line American frames Look staffer Kevin Padgett used a wine analogy. He suggested that American bikes were like California wines—bolder, more fruit-driven, and less apt to age well—whereas the Look was more like a grand cru Burgundy—refined, structured, less flavor-of-the-month. Does the comparison really hold up? It’s hard to say. I do think it’s a fun way to get people to think about differences between bikes, though.
Here’s what I can tell you about the 695: There’s a good reason that people have been excited about this bike. It offers exquisite sensitivity and provided one of the stiffest platforms from which to sprint that I rode in the two days of Outdoor Demo. Honestly, I was surprised by how much road surface feedback the bike offered; every French bike I’ve ridden prior to this one was as wooden as a barn.
The other detail I liked about the bike was its geometry; it didn’t feel overly aggressive, so on the fastest parts of the demo course, it felt very stable, it was still really easy to flick into a corner. This was one of my favorite bikes of Outdoor Demo and one for which I’d really like to do a more in-depth review.
The 675 is Look’s response to the grand touring segment. While there’s loads of seatpost showing in the photo above, the bike in question is a 56 rather than a 58. While not as dead as many of the French maker’s older models, the 675 was intentionally laid up with the goal of damping a significant amount of vibration to leave riders feeling fresher at the end of a long ride. It’s harder for me to comment on the handling of this bike due to its small size; with the bar so low there was enough weight on the front wheel to make the handling a bit sluggish.
The unusual integrated stem and top-tube design looks like it isn’t very adjustable, but spacers are available to raise the stem so you’re not locked into a single fit.
The Litespeed C1 was easily the biggest surprise of all the bikes I rode at Outdoor Demo. More than any other bike, I really want to have time to do miles on the C1 in order to do an in-depth review. The c1, for those who aren’t familiar with the bike, is Litespeed’s contribution to the aero road bike category. The C1′s design engineer responsible for this bike, Brad Devaney, told me that their wind tunnel data showed this frame and fork provides a rider with more aerodynamic gain than a set of Zipp 404s. The claim seemed to hold water because on the downhill run on the demo loop the bike was significantly faster than my previous two trips down. While I didn’t have a speedometer of any sort, what I noticed is that I had to brake for a turn that I’d previously sailed through due to higher perceived speed on my part.
Seeming fast and being fast may be two different things; I’m sure I’ll be able to settle that for myself if I have a chance to review the bike. The problem aero road bikes have typically faced is that due to their narrow tube profiles, they lack torsional stiffness, so they get loaded up with more carbon to make them stiff, but the extra carbon deadens the frame feel. Well, the C1 was nearly as lively in feel as some of my favorite non-aero road bikes. To get great aerodynamics, solid road feedback and world-class stiffness in one bike has been rare. I need more time on this bike.
The L1 is Litespeed’s newest bike, an 830g road frame (they are already working on a new layup that could shave even more weight) that can take on bikes like the Specialized Tarmac, Felt F1 and BH Ultralight (I dropped by BH to try to take an Ultralight out, but I couldn’t get anyone to acknowledge me, so I left after 10 minutes). Compared to the Felt F1, this was a less aggressive, more comfortable bike, yet it seemed to give up nothing in torsional stiffness or precise handling.
This massive BB looks like it’s going to be stiffer than a plate glass table but a surprising degree of comfort comes through to the saddle. For as responsive as the bike was, I was surprised by how pleasant it was to stay in the saddle on rough pavement.
While the size of the seatstays suggests stiffness, the fact that the seatstays merge with the seat and top tube enables Litespeed to use longer carbon fibers in its layup and that helps the ride quality.
On a separate note, a number of readers out there who work in the industry saw me in my RKP kit and came up to say hi. If I didn’t thank you then, thanks for taking a moment to say hi and thanks for reading.
Specialized, in conjunction with McLaren has introduced a new ultra-aero time trial helmet. So new, so special is this helmet that only two of them exist—so far. As you read this, those helmets are in the possession of Tony Martin and Levi Leipheimer. Their particular combinations of badass time trialist, über-fast bike, none-faster-than helmet and all the ensuing confidence one derives from carrying the biggest gun in the shootout could make the coming Tour de France prologue a little extra satisfying for the folks in Morgan Hill.
Last week I attended the introduction of this new helmet at the McLaren Technology Center in Surrey, outside London. Both Specialized and McLaren are reluctant to share too many details of their working relationship. They could teach a graduate workshop on discretion. And I freaking hate that. I’ve often described myself as the eternal Discovery Channel watcher. I love to learn and I’m full of questions, even at this point in my life. My visit to McLaren was both one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever visited and one of my least satisfying experiences in writing about the bike industry. At a certain point I just stopped asking questions because they couldn’t/wouldn’t/shouldn’t answer.
So what are we left with? Well, let’s have a look at this helmet. They’ve been working on it for … a while. We really don’t know how long. What we know is that according to their wind tunnel data they’ve devised the absolute fastest helmet on the planet. They spent twice the amount of time in the wind tunnel as they did when designing the Venge, which suggests they would have spent a similar increase in time using Computational Fluid Dynamic (CFD) software to evaluate design changes even before getting to the wind tunnel. These days, most companies doing advanced aerodynamic work do all the heavy lifting with CFD and use the wind tunnel for proof-of-concept.
So what is CFD?
Do you remember the scene in Yellow Submarine where you see the music flowing out of the musical instruments as if it was a fog of beauty settling over the landscape? As a kid, I loved that visual—truth be told, that hasn’t changed; I still love the image of music settling over people as if beauty itself was washing over them. Visualizing the invisible isn’t strictly the domain of hippies on halucinogens, though they rightfully believe they hold a special ownership of that space.
CFD or Computational Fluid Dynamics does much the same thing (not as LSD, but making the invisible visible). Workstations running CFD software take an imaginary wind and blow it over a theoretical shape and then show you in a kind of lines-and-arrows diagram just how the air moves over that surface. Better yet, it can generate short movies to show you just what happens in areas of turbulence.
It’s amazingly cool to see; bong within easy reach, my college roommate could have watched this for whole Saturdays.
I have the sense that Specialized and McLaren looked at the TT helmet market and thought that they might be able to knock that problem off just to show how effective their partnership is. After all, a new TT bike can be years in the making. They just introduced the Venge last year. The wheel market is glutted with new ideas (some of which are working very well). I’m betting that the TT helmet is an interim project while they work on something bigger—a bike—on a longer development timeline.
So what really makes this helmet different? If you’re going to reduce this helmet to its two most important achievements, the first would be its drag numbers for when the rider looks down. Many TT helmets have great head-on drag. The problem is that they turn into sails if you pull a little red kite prayer. While this helmet doesn’t manage to maintain the same drag numbers head-on as head-down, its head-down numbers are so good that it is still faster than some companies’ helmets head-on. The chart below is a small sampling of the many helmets the big red S tested; I saw a chart that was hard to read because it listed so many helmets. This one is a good deal easier to follow.
This chart is also notable for an unintended reason: I had no idea the Spiuk Kronos was so damn fast. Go figure.
The second significant development introduced with this helmet are its gill vents. At the rear of the helmet there are slits along the top and sides that help channel air by and through the helmet to speed its flow. Not only do they make the helmet faster, they move more air over the rider’s head, we’re told, helping to keep him cooler as he rides.
There have been a great many TT helmets that were little more than fairings with a pad or two. They were as protective as a perforated condom, though entirely more popular. The S-Works helmet offers real protection and even uses dual-density foam to keep head trauma to an absolute minimum should you go down.
It’s hard to know just what McLaren provides Specialized in their partnership. Both companies are—quite understandably—pretty tight-lipped about the work they do together, that is, beyond revealing a new product. During the presentation I attended they talked about some of their work being strictly about technology. It was veiled and cryptic enough to be worthy of a Jedi master. Just what they meant I really don’t understand.
But let’s back up a second. McLaren’s Advanced Technology Division exists to bring McLaren’s considerable technological prowess to less fortunate companies. What I learned during our visit is that they spend a lot of time evaluating companies before they make an approach. And yes, so far as I understand, they reach out to you after deciding you’re cool enough. You’ve got to have the horsepower to be able to spend copiously on development. You’ve also got to have a reputation for predation, identity-wise and an ability to convey brainy gnar in your marketing.
Our tour of McLaren was exceedingly entertaining, what with the wheel-change competition on one of the Vodafone Formula One cars (and wherein our protagonist nearly peeled the skin from his thumb in an ill-timed activation of the air wrench), but probably encompassed less than 10 percent of the building. We saw cars driven by Ayrton Senna, Lewis Hamilton and Emerson Fittipaldi and had the ability to take pictures of nary an item we saw outside of the area where the intro was conducted.
Next spring this helmet will begin appearing at select Specialized retailers at a retail price that I suspect will fit somewhere between emergency room visit and college tuition. It’s fair to surmise that those retailers will all be Specialized Concept Stores.
Press Camp is both the best and most difficult aspects of of a trade show rolled together. It’s the best of a what a trade show can be because you had the ability to receive the complete attention of whoever you’re meeting with. And it’s a chance to pick up anything you’re interested in and really look it over, also without the worry of being interrupted by anyone. But it’s also challenging in that every conversation you have could go on for at least an hour longer than you have time for. At Interbike I’ll schedule a 15 minute meeting with someone and not have enough time to find out what the new products are. Here at Press Camp, I have 45 minutes and we end up digging deep into the first half-dozen products and end up not having enough time to get through the others. No matter how much time you have, it seems never to be enough. Thankfully, I consider this to be a happy problem.
I’ve been meeting with people who aren’t necessarily core to what RKP is about, such as Hayes. Yes, they offer this amazing forged cable-actuated cyclocross disc brake shown above. And ‘cross bikes are firmly in the wheelhouse of RKP. But really, I stopped by to learn more about their suspension forks and many brakes. Anyone who does that much good work I want to check out; after all, their brands also include Answer and Manitou.
Years ago, I reviewed plenty of Canari clothing and used it in photo shoots. It was fairly inexpensive stuff and good price points. Since then, the quality has risen noticeably and the price hasn’t increased that much. It’s nice to see a company invest in Southern California manufacturing, while offering many of the high-end features you see elsewhere, such as digital printing, full zips and hidden seams. While there I saw what was one of the more intriguing pairs of sub-$150 pairs of bibs I’ve encountered in a good 10 years. Expect to hear more on those.
I first used a Camelbak in 1996. Back then, the product was good, but had plenty of issues, many of which I can no longer recall. As the company has improved and evolved, their packs have become more sophisticated and the bladders stronger, better fitting and less likely to impart any taste. Above are just a few of the different bladders they produce at their own facility. For where I live, the pack mule approach to spare gear is never necessary. There are no lightning-laced afternoon thundershowers and the temperature won’t drop 20 degrees as dusk approaches, but my mountain bike won’t carry more than one water bottle and I don’t go out for mountain bike rides on the weekend that aren’t at least three hours, so hydration is an issue. I encountered some new packs from Camelbak that I’ll be trying as soon as I’m back.
Assos is here and this was a chance for me to see some new products on the way for 2013. There have been some revisions to base layers that should make them noticeably more comfortable than most, if not all, their competition. And with four different weights, they produce something perfect for whatever conditions you’re riding in. Above is the jersey that will be worn by the Swiss team at the Olympics. I can already see Cancellara killing it in this jersey. Inside the jersey collar I noticed a little inscription.
My German is beyond rusty (think Yugo in a junk yard and you’ll get an accurate picture), but the inscription suggests that the jersey is to be used by the nation’s heroes in pursuit of the top step of the podium. Not bad.
I also had meetings with Clif, where I received a few new samples and we spent time discussing just how cool a life Gary and Kit lead (yes, I’m envious), and Cannondale. Honestly, I wanted to get more familiar with their mountain bike line, just because I find them interesting. (It has either helped or not helped depending on your personally outlook that I’ve been sharing a room with Richard Cunningham of Pink Bike and he’s had a Claymore here in the room that I continue to eye with fascination; at 180mm of travel, it’s a park bike and something I must admit, I have no idea how to ride.) Alas, they’ve got some cool stuff going on with road and that’s all we really had time to discuss. The big news on the road are a few new models of the SuperSix EVO. They are now offering a women’s model, and in five different sizes. And as is to be expected with any truly conscientious work, each size not only receives a full set of its own molds, but the layup schedule changes for each size, giving each bike a consistent flex pattern for the riders. There’s also a new SuperSix EVO made with intermediate modulus carbon to bring that model down to a more affordable price point, as well as a new layup of the SuperSix EVO Hi-Mod in which they’ve done a bit of judicious refinement in the layup schedule to shave another 40 grams or so from the frame and they say become the undisputed leader in the weight game.
We spent a lot more time discussing their ongoing work with aluminum and how much bike they continue to deliver even with an entry-level bike like one of the CAAD 10s. Watch for a pair of reviews of the CAAD 10 and SuperSix EVO in the near future.
It’s worth mentioning that one of the most-discussed products here yesterday was the just-announced Giro Air Attack helmet.
Even though the helmet won’t be available until spring of next year, it had most of us talking. And while the press materials make a compelling case for why it will keep you just as cool as any of today’s helmets, what had everyone’s curiosity, of course, was its shape. The helmet is said to offer a significant aerodynamic advantage, but many of us, and if I’m honest, that group includes me, struggled to get past the look. It’s worth noting that we’ve come to accept and even champion some head-ware that has no real analog in nature. Put another way: We’ve come to accept a pretty strange looking device—even like it. The strangeness of the look of the Air Attack says more about what we accept than what it truly is, which is a lot closer in shape and look to other sporting helmets.
I’ll do my wrap-up of today’s meetings this weekend as I leave here before lunch for a flight to an undisclosed location for the introduction of a new Specialized S-Works product. It should make for some great photos.
Junket is a word for a trip made at someone else’s expense, as in a press junket. It is also a sweet, milk-based dessert thickened with rennet. RKP’s main and tallest editorial practitioner, my friend Padraig, will be enjoying one of these two things over the weekend and into next week at the invitation of the Specialized bicycle making company.
The thing which Padraig will be enjoying—like me, you’re still hoping it’s the milky dessert—will include a ride with the Omega Pharma-Quickstep team, or at least, those riders who will be racing the Tour of California. The roster, as it stands, includes Tom Boonen, Levi Leipheimer, Dries Devenyns, Bert Grabsch, Frantisek Rabon, Stijn Vandenbergh and Peter Velits. Whether or not Leipheimer races ToC remains to be seen, but he’ll be in attendance regardless, possibly eating junket. The mode is to grate some nutmeg over top.
Hopefully that won’t preclude him from answering questions, some of which we need to come up with here and now.
We might, for example, say to Tom Boonen, “Tom, every woman and half the men in Belgium want to sleep with you as a result of your big wins in Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix this year. Given the success you’ve already had, how do you motivate yourself for stage races during the rest of the year?”
The obvious answer is that there are women (and possibly men) the world over who can still be inspired to lustful admiration by winning stages and intermediate sprints, but it would be fascinating to hear Tommeke answer the question for himself, no?
There are also some lay-up questions to Levi about how it feels to get hit by a car (spoiler: it hurts and is scary), but even after that I’d love to hear how, at 38 and coming back from being hit by the aforementioned automobile, do you put your season back on track. How do you revise your goals to be both ambitious and realistic at the same time?
At that point, I might turn to Peter Velits and say, “Hey, Pete. You finished second at the 2010 Vuelta, winning the individual time trial and the team time trial, as well as climbing like a monkey on macchiatos (macchiati?), what do you rate your chances for the ToC, and who would have to get hit by a car to put you in the team leader’s role?”
Then you’ve got guys like Bert Grabsch, Frantisek Rabon and Dries Devenyns, a trio of steam engines in lycra, and I’d like to know how it feels to be in the same team with Boonen. Do they hide his room key? Do they call his mobile pretending to be his girlfriend? I would. I would also sprinkle rosewater on his junket, like the English apparently liked to do in medieval times. That’d be hilarious.
We have an audience with the Omega Pharma-Quicksteps. What do we ask? What do we want to know?
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Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
I spent my formative years struggling between wearing clothes that were unfashionable but fit me and those that were fashionable, but didn’t remotely fit me. Not only did I not understand it, my mother didn’t either. Most of the pants I wore in grade school were loose at the small of my back; to keep them at my waist I had to pull my belt pretty snug. Most of my shirts fit okay at the shoulders and then billowed out as they went down, like I was wearing a tailored tent.
Eventually I began to notice from time to time that some clothes simply fit better than others. As much as I loved Patagonia casual wear, their polo shirts were flappy on me, even in small. Their pants and shorts either fit in the seat and loose in the waist or fit at the waist and tight across my crotch. Levi’s 501s stopped fitting me after I took up cycling. I had to switch to the 569s—sit at the waist and roomy through the seat and thighs. Those skinny hipster jeans? I’d never get ‘em past my knees, unless I went for the 40-inch waist.
It wasn’t until an ex-girlfriend taught me about fit models and how all clothing begins with pieces of fabric cut to fit some individual that I began to appreciate why some things fit and others didn’t. Understanding that actually made shopping easier; it eliminated whole product lines because I knew they weren’t cut for me.
When I first got into cycling I was pretty unaware of just how cycling clothing needed to fit. I got it more or less right, but I occasionally bought shorts that were too big and all my jerseys were a size larger than necessary. Even through the turn of the century, most cycling clothing had enough stretch to accommodate differences in physique within a given size.
More recently, with the advent of Power Lycra, compression panels and skinsuit-tight jerseys, I’ve begun to notice some stuff doesn’t fit as well as it used to, or as well as some of the competition. In my reviews of clothing I’ve begun to talk about the nature of the fit. The point isn’t to say this fit is good or that fit is bad, but to note how it fits. We can talk about features like materials, reflective piping, dual-density foam in pads and Power Lycra panels until our faces are cyan, but if you—like me—have a bounteous and spherical caboose, some bibs aren’t going to fit you all that well. It won’t make them bad, but it’s worth knowing that there are others that might fit you better.
The importance of this was driven home for me this past winter when I had an experience I really didn’t want to have. I’ve long been an admirer of Vermarc clothing, but I’d never had the opportunity to wear any of their stuff. It’s a big world and I just didn’t get around to it until this winter. I tried one of their top pairs of bibs. On my first ride, I cut a three-hour ride short because my ass hurt. How could that be? I was wearing the pride of Belgium. What gives?
In objective terms, I’ve been riding 143mm-wide Specialized saddles, though it was recently suggested to me that I might do well to try the 155mm-wide version of the Romin. Not the Incredible Hulk, but not bantam, either.
Well, as it turned, out my sit bones are wider than the widest portion of the densest foam in the pad. I was writing out of the margins, so-to-speak. It doesn’t mean they are bad bibs at all. It just suggests I’m seven feet tall and the owner of a new Mini Cooper.
While this won’t be complete by any means, I wanted to note my experience with some of the different lines out there to help give you a better basis for comparison. For the record, I’m 5′ 11″ and currently weigh 163 lbs., which I hate to admit, is heavy for me.
- Assos—the Uno and Mille bibs are fairly consistent in their style of fit, though the Unos are a bit more snug on me. Like I said, I’ve got enough of a butt that I can’t do straight-leg jeans. The Mille in particular is a fantastic fit for me. And with both pads, my sit bones come down squarely in the middle of the densest foam. I wear a large.
- Castelli—these are cut for riders with a slighter frame. For me, by the time I’ve crowded my ass into them they are a bit tight across the front. I’ve experienced this more with some of their bibs than others, but I do get it to some degree with all of them, save the Claudio (thermal) bibs. In my mind, most are climbers’ bibs. I wear a large.
- Capo—This line is pretty remarkable for its middle-of-the-road fit. I’ve had no issues with their bibs, nor have any friends reported issues with their stuff. I wear a medium.
- Voler—I’ve had issues with being sort of between sizes. I was too big for the smalls but the mediums weren’t as snug in fit as it seemed they ought. I can’t recall ever being between sizes with another line. The quality has come a long way from what it once was, but the pad will only stay put if the bibs are tight enough that you don’t catch the bibs on the nose of the saddle. I wear a medium.
- Panache—this is another line that offers ample room for my bumper. In addition to being roomy enough to accommodate both of my glutes, the pad is one of a handful that can rival Assos’ for comfort in terms of width and placement of the densest foam. I wear a large.
- Rapha—I’ve just begun wearing the new Pro Team bibs and have been impressed with the fit. They are cut with plenty of room for my glutes without being loose up front, which is what happens if the butt is too roomy (which I did experience once). I wear a medium.
- Hincapie—like Castelli, these tend to lack a bit of room in need in back. I wear a medium.
- Giordana—Giordana has so many different product lines, there’s no one essential truth to their fit. Most of their stuff fits me pretty well, though the FormaRed Carbon bibs use the same narrow pad in the Vermarc bibs I tried. I wear a medium.
- Vermarc—overall the fit was good; I just need a wider pad. I wear a medium.
- Etxe Ondo—these could use a bit more room in the butt, but overall the fit was pretty good given the Power Lycra panels. I wear a medium.
- Specialized—these had a very traditional fit. It may be that the Lycra they used was just particularly forgiving (I believe it was 6-oz. throughout) and that what made the fit. I wear a medium.
- Primal Wear—not quite enough room in back, so it ended up being a bit snug in front. I wear a medium.
- Nalini—another pair of bibs that needed more room in back to keep the front from being too tight. I wear a medium.
- Assos—all the Assos jerseys I’ve worn have been cut on a pretty noticeable taper. However, there are always materials with such great stretch utilized that the fit ends up being remarkably forgiving. distinctly short, lengthwise. I wear a medium.
- Castelli—the jerseys I’ve tried are cut a bit more straight than Assos jerseys, though it appears their top-shelf stuff is cut on more of a taper. Mid-line stuff is somewhat long, but the pro stuff appears to be shorter. It’s really easy to buy a size too big with Castelli. I wear a medium.
- Capo—cut on a slight taper and cut on the short side, though not as short as Assos. I wear a small.
- Voler—cut remarkably straight and nearly as short as Assos; it’s a unique fit, but one I like when I’m not in perfect shape. I wear a small.
- Panache—these jerseys feature a significant taper and run short. Out of season I need to wear a medium; when I’m fit and want a pro-style fit, I’m a small.
- Hincapie—these are cut straight and long. They’ve got to fit the man himself. I wear a small.
- Giordana—again, Giordana offers so much stuff their fit is all over the place. Inexpensive stuff is generous in fit, while primo stuff like the FormaRed Carbon is short, snug and tapered. I wear a small.
- Vermarc—they feature a tapered cut and run slightly short. I wear a small.
- Etxe Ondo—yet another tapered cut, but these run on the long side, though not so long as Hincapie. I wear a small.
- Specialized—this is a remarkably straight cut with a little more length than some stuff. A conservative, fit-almost-anyone cut. I wear a small.
- Primal Wear—cut pretty straight and with a fair amount of length. I wear a small.
- Nalini—tapered cut, almost as short as Assos. I wear a small.
Bottom line: I’m not trying to steer you into or out of any one clothing line. I have my personal likes, but the value in this is to give you a greater frame of reference for choosing clothing next time you go to buy something. Fit is at the root of comfort. Go be comfortable and ride well.