This past spring, I undertook an experiment. I asked Specialized to loan me two bicycles for a review. Not a shootout, mind you, but a review concerned with differentiation. As someone who has penned more than a few shootouts, the competition always results in a winner, which also means there are a few losers as well.
In my experience there aren’t many bikes that I’d call losers.
My point was to spend some serious time with the Specialized Tarmac and Roubaix models and try, in the clearest possible terms, to review them based on what each bike is and is not. They are different bikes, but the real question is how so? Specialized wouldn’t be offering two different bikes with the same basic carbon construction and the same componentry unless they offered reasonably differentiated experiences. Sure, you can rely on their marketing copy, but they have a vested interest in convincing you that there is a difference and one of those bikes is more appropriate to you than the other.
I went to Specialized because they were the first big company to offer two road bikes of different geometries with the same componentry and carbon fiber lay up. Prior to the introduction of the Roubaix, none of the bigger bike companies had offered a high-end road bike of alternate geometry.
Specialized has framed the difference as “competition” versus “endurance.” They aren’t bad terms, but they are terms I haven’t been comfortable using because if I discuss the difference between Cannondale’s Super Six and Synapse, then I appear to be examining two Cannondale bikes through a Specialized lens. That’s bound to go over as well as cyanide in soda.
There’s a basic question floating around this discussion. What does it matter? Why care?
In my case, it stems from a concern I’ve had about most American-designed road bikes for as long as I’ve been reviewing road bikes. The product managers and engineers at most American bike companies (at least the ones I’ve met) are current or former racers. Most carried a Cat. 1 or 2 license. The geometry of those companies’ top road bikes tends to excel at the needs of the racer.
Counter to that was my experience with most bikes imported from European manufacturers. Relatively speaking, most had a longer wheelbase, lower bottom bracket and more trail. They tended to carve lazier arcs through the turns of a criterium unless you countersteered with a bit of force but their easy maneuverability gave riders a calm, confident sense on descents.
The more I rode different bikes, the more I came to prefer those bikes that came from Europe, especially the Italian ones. I often wondered to what degree the riding and racing circumstances of the bike’s designer influenced how the bike rode. It took years and there were no super-clear answers, but eventually, I heard enough for me to believe I had confirmation of my curiosity. The importers for a few of the Italian lines did report that the bikes were designed to descend well in the Dolomites. And on more than one occasion American bike designers told me how important it was that the bottom bracket be high enough to allow a racer to pedal through a corner.
But now there is a new category of road bike and the larger philosophy behind why a company might want to offer a road bike with a different take on handling than their primary offering really hasn’t been discussed much. I’ve heard them called disease ride bikes, century bikes and as Specialized calls them, endurance road bikes.
If we don’t really know what to call them, or can’t agree on what to call them, then their place in the market is as marginal as that of a Velcro water slide. And to me, there is an immense value to this emerging category.
I had to look to the automotive world to find a parallel, but once I did it was billboard obvious: Sport vs. Grand Touring. For most of us, we need no one to help with the distinction of a sedan as opposed to a sports car, four doors instead of two.
The metaphor works on almost every level. A sedan is about a more comfortable ride and more leisurely handling; it doesn’t have the sharp cornering of a sports car, handling that can leave a driver feeling exhausted after a long trip on the freeway. And the stiffer suspension of most sports cars? An apt comparison as well. Most of the bikes that fall under this Grand Touring umbrella have a longer wheelbase and slacker head tube angle to give the rider a bit more vibration damping if not actual shock absorption.
Okay, so you’re not going to put a baby seat in the back or take everyone in the office to lunch, but you get the idea.
So here’s my thesis: In the way that compact bars are a smart response for those who don’t have pro-like flexibility and compact gearing is appropriate for those who can’t ride tempo at 28 mph four hours at a time, GT-geometry bikes are appropriate to the sort of riding that most recreational riders do.
In the next week I’ll be posting my reviews of the Specialized Tarmac Pro and Roubaix Pro and will offer a wrap-up afterward with what I learned from the experience.
Day 2 of the Outdoor Demo gave me a chance to try eight more bikes. The photos of the five bikes contained here are the ones I liked well enough to mention. They were the Specialized SL3, the Look 586, The Fuji SST 1.0, the Cannondale Super Six and the Felt F1.
The SL3 is the bike Specialized was trying to make when it brought out the SL2. This new version eliminates the chatter that spoiled the ride of the SL2 on all but the smoothest roads. It’s stiff torsionally and uses enough high modulus carbon fiber that it offers an unusually high degree of road sensitivity. Easily one of my three favorites for the show.
Overall, the Look was a nice riding bike and would be great for long days, especially centuries. The handling reminded me of the way European steel bikes used to handle. It took a lot of countersteering to get this thing to turn. It was rock solid in a straight line, of course. Were I to review a bike, I think I’d be more interested in the 585, though.
The Cannondale Super Six is much improved from last year. The rear end used to flex a fair amount and while there wasn’t a lot of flex in the front triangle and fork, the stays flexed enough to make the BB feel a little soft, but that’s been corrected now. Unfortunately, the bike was set up with the bar so high I couldn’t get a feel for the handling. The carbon fiber felt a little more dead than some of the others.
The Felt F1 offers an incredible blend of stiffness and sensitivity to road surface. The mold is the same one used for the last few years but a new blend of carbon and a new layup process results in greater stiffness with no weight penalty I’m told. This bike balances stiffness, road feel, weight and durability (impact and abrasion resistance) better than almost any other bike out there. One of my three faves for sure.
I’ve been seeing the Fuji around here and there and wanted to try it to see how it stacked up to bikes from more established players in the carbon fiber field. I was pleasantly surprised. While it doesn’t offer the sensitivity to road surface that the Specialized and Felt do, it was on a par with the Cannondale, which is real praise. Despite the seat mast design, it didn’t transmit an unreasonable amount of road vibration to the saddle.
My top three bikes for the ODD were the Specialized SL3, the Felt F1 and the Parlee Z5. I hope to review them in the coming months. Plenty of companies are getting their frames stiff enough, but they need to spend more time looking at road feel, in particular, sensitivity to road surface. It’s a dimension that is easy to overlook, but balancing the need for sensitivity without allowing too much road vibration to zap the rider can make the difference between a vibrant bike and a dead bike. Dead-feeling carbon is so 1990s. I find it especially interesting that these three bikes, though all produced overseas, come from three different facilities, meaning it isn’t just the factory engineers who know how to dial in some sensitivity when you ask for it. Clearly the people managing these product lines know there’s more to a great ride than just stiffness.