It’s only natural that a bike meant for longer days would be designed to eat vibration the way a whale sucks down krill. Specialized includes its Bar Phat bar tape with gel inserts to further cut vibration at the handlebar, before lawnmower hand has a chance to become a problem. This tape, of course, is wrapped around a wing bar, easing the degree to which your hands have to wrap around the bar.
The wheels are Roval’s Roubaix, a modern answer to the 32-spoke, 3-cross wheel that remains the favorite of pros racing the event that gave rise to this bike’s name—Paris-Roubaix. The wheels feature 24 spokes front, 30 spokes rear, two-cross, bladed spokes with machined aluminum hubs featuring a Swiss-made freehub rolling on a Specialized 25mm-wide Roubaix tire.
So what else can you do to reduce vibration transmission? How about a Specialized Body Geometry Toupé gel saddle?
Zertz inserts, Bar Phat, wing bar, old-school wheels (sorta), big tires and gel-filled saddle, it all adds up to as many different responses to vibration as I can think of. You might say a no-stone-unturned approach to reducing vibration.
Reducing vibration does more than just increase comfort, though. It reduces muscle fatigue and has the power to make five hours feel like four, leaving you fresher at the end of a long ride. This probably isn’t as big a deal for young riders, but for riders who have celebrated their 50th birthday, nerve pinches and back and neck issues become very real obstacles to comfort if not outright completing long rides.
I don’t want to go too far into the parts spec for this bike; it would be unfair to Specialized to judge the bike relative to my like or dislike of Shimano componentry. There are, however, some important points to touch on.
The Roubaix is spec’d with a compact drivetrain. The crank is Specialized’s carbon fiber S-Works model with 50/34t rings. It is mated to a Shimano Ultegra 12/27t cassette. When one considers that this bike’s most likely consumer is a non-racer, the choice of a compact crank and widely spaced cassette is an entirely logical pairing. Why not give the bike gearing meant for mortals?
The shifters and derailleurs come from the 7900 Dura-Ace lineup, while the brake calipers are Ultegra. The only real fault I can find with the bike is in the Ultegra calipers; they simply don’t offer the same stopping power and modulation as the Dura-Ace grabbers, but that’s something I’m aware of due to riding different bikes. Someone without the same frame of reference won’t have any issue with the Ultegra brakes as they do an adequate, if not pro-worthy performance. On the other hand, the mix of Dura-Ace and Ultegra parts helps bring the cost of the Roubaix Pro in at $5000, as opposed to the cost of the Roubaix SL2, which runs $2200 more. Heck, that’s another bike!
So what’s the Roubaix like out on the road? I think it’s simply one of the most comfortable bikes on the market. People often confuse vibration damping with road shock. The Roubaix won’t fill potholes, hide rocks or smooth driveway ramps, but it has a very real ability to hit everything you ride over with 300 grit sandpaper. It won’t make every road glassy smooth, but it will definitely take the edge off any rough road.
Vertical compliance is an elusive quality to track. I don’t often believe I’ve found it in today’s carbon fiber bikes due to their incredible stiffness. Consider that Dave Kirk, the builder who invented the Serotta DKS suspension, said that suspension system, even when equipped with the softest of the three silicone dampers included with the bike, only saw 1-2 millimeters of vertical travel in the chainstays. I’m sure you experience more vertical compliance with an old Vitus or Alan than any of the current crop of carbon wonders. However, I’ve identified occasions when there was too little vertical compliance and found a bike to be chattery on rougher roads. Yes, a bike can be too stiff. That said, this bike doesn’t have nearly as much vertical compliance as an old Alan or Vitus. I wish that were enough to put the conversation about vertical compliance to rest, but it won’t.
The debate still rages on about whether energy is lost when a bike flexes, particularly when it flexes at the bottom bracket. I’ve got my answer, and had it long ago. For new riders, the answer is much simpler, though. A stiff bike allows someone still developing their skills to apply more force to the pedals with fewer hazardous overtones. On the Roubaix, any power you put into the bike will cause it to continue in the direction it is pointed with nothing so much as increased haste.
Torsional flex is yet another dimension of frame response that can be problematic. In the extreme, torsional flex can make a bike really hard to handle. Anyone who ever rode a Schwinn Twin tandem will tell you it handled like al dente pasta. Early carbon fiber forks from Europe (I’m specifically excepting the Kestrel fork) flexed enough in hard cornering to alter my line. I experienced no torsional flex that I could comment on with this bike. With its enormous-diameter tubes (I could fit a Navel Orange in the down tube) this thing tracked as straight and true as a sheet of drywall, even in aggressive cornering.
The bigger deal with the Roubaix is its handling. When I began building my vocabulary of bikes through ongoing shootouts and reviews, I quickly picked up on a theme of preference. I liked bikes that had really calm manners. They didn’t tend to feel too exciting when I first got on them, but after four hours you appreciated the way they held a line and when on a descent they made 45 mph feel like 35. And because your perception of speed is often the great decider for when you hit the brakes, any bike that makes you feel more in control and less like you’re doing something reckless is going to inspire confidence and a feeling of safety. Heck, you’re likely to go even faster.
The Roubaix seems a first cousin in its handling attributes to some of my old favorites. When I look back on the best descending bikes I’ve ever ridden, many of them have been Italian. CPSC rules prevent American bike manufacturers that deliver complete bikes (as opposed to framesets) from designing with a bottom bracket drop of more than about 7cm; you’ve got to calculate pedal-down lean-angle clearance very carefully to get any more BB drop than that. As I mentioned, Specialized squeezed another 1.5mm of BB drop into the design; it may not seem like much, but even that tiny amount makes the bike easier to lean into turns.
Out on long rides, the easy handling of the Roubaix is a pleasant departure from the twitchy reflexes of many bikes. You can sit up and look around, enjoy yourself, see the sights—and not worry that you’ll soon run off the road. Is there a more appropriate bike to take on a century traversing back roads of questionable maintenance? Maybe not.
The issue of weight must be addressed or it will seem like I left out the be-all, end-all number. It’s not, but that number is 16.06. Given the pavé-capable wheels and tires spec’d on this bike, that’s a very impressive number.
The number of people who enjoy road riding has has increased by multiplicatives in the last 10 years thanks to charity rides, Lance Armstrong and a host of other factors. When you consider how many of them joined the USCF (their numbers are up, but they haven’t doubled) you realize a very small percentage of newer roadies have moved into what many folks think is a much more aggressive expression of the sport. The Roubaix is an appropriate response for tens of thousands of riders who don’t need the agility of a bike like the Tarmac.
The 2010 Roubaix does feature some different parts spec from the 2009. That it has taken me so long to write this review is something of a disservice to Specialized. I’m sure you’ll be able to find this bike on the floor at many bike shops, but I’ll note the differences in spec for the new season. The big changes are as follows: a Dura-Ace 50/34t crank is substituted for the Specialized carbon fiber model. An Ultegra front derailleur replaces the Dura-Ace model. An even wider-spaced 11-26t cassette is exchanged for the 12-27t one. A narrower, 23mm tire replaces the 25mm one; both feature 120 tpi casings with Flak Jacket protection that seem impervious to all but land mines. Finally and most significantly, the Roval wheels on the ’09 bike are replaced with Roval Fusee SL wheels, a noticeably lighter set. The 2010 bike will weigh closer to 15.5 lbs. out of the box.
As a reflection of the population, grand touring bikes ought to be dominating road bike sales. Specialized did much to remove the stigma from these bikes by offering the Roubaix in carbon fiber and giving it top quality parts spec. In a world dominated by bikes made for American crit racing, the Roubaix is one of the most intelligently designed bikes I’ve ever ridden. Easily one of my all-time favorite bikes.
As I did with bikes I reviewed at BKW, I’ll be scoring bikes on a 100-point system. It will take into account every facet of the bike: price, design, effectiveness for given consumer, parts spec, fit considerations, handling, weight, stiffness, road feel and even availability, the idea being a $2000 bike has the same chance of scoring 100 points as a $10,000 bike if it accomplishes its consumer-oriented goals.
Specialized Roubaix Pro: 94 points
When Specialized introduced the Roubaix in 2004, it was the first bike on the market to combine top-of-the-line carbon fiber construction with a more relaxed geometry aimed at riders doing charity rides and centuries. Up to this point in time, the handful of bikes out there from the bigger manufacturers that combined a longer head tube for higher handlebar position, a longer than usual wheelbase and more trail for greater stability were made from aluminum and were rarely equipped with anything as nice as Shimano 105.
The implicit message seemed to be that if you weren’t fast you wouldn’t appreciate quality. The reality was simpler: For companies like Giant and Specialized, these early bikes had been aimed at a new wave of cyclists entering the sport, often as a result of events like the AIDS Ride. Getting these riders transitioned to a road bike from a mountain bike had been a significant achievement and there was little stomach on the part of risk-averse product managers to try to steer them into a bike 10 times as expensive as their last.
The road product development team recognized a need for a bike that combined the geometry found in the charity ride bikes with the high performance carbon fiber technology found in their top-of-the-line Tarmac. The Roubaix has been an unqualified hit among more than just the charity ride crowd.
The chicane in the chainstays really doesn’t flex much vertically, but aids in vibration damping
So how different is the Roubaix from the Tarmac? On paper, the differences seem minor, insignificant even. Just a few millimeters here, a centimeter or two there. Let’s compare a 56 in each:
|Seat tube length||53cm||51.5cm|
|Top tube length||56.5cm||56.5cm|
|Seat tube angle||73.25 degrees||73.25 degrees|
|Head tube angle||73.5 degrees||72.5 degrees|
|Head tube length||17cm||19cm|
Three dimensions are the big determiners for fit: the top tube length, the seat tube angle and the head tube length. Those first two—top tube length and seat tube angle are identical. What changes is the head tube length; its greater length gives riders the opportunity to adopt a bar position 2cm higher, allowing them to sit more upright without exposing too much fork steerer above the top headset bearing. As many of you are already aware, too much exposed steerer is at risk for breaking because of the greater leverage the rider can exert on the steerer from the handlebar.
So the bike offered a less aggressive position for greater comfort. The designers didn’t stop there. They increased the wheelbase length by more than 2cm by increasing the chainstay length and by using a slacker head tube angle and more fork rake, thereby increasing the front center distance as well. Practically speaking, this increased the distance between the rider and the wheels, cutting road vibration. More comfort.
The choice to go with a longer wheelbase had an added benefit. It addressed the rider’s more upright position and higher center of gravity (CG) which resulted in reduced weight on the front wheel (relative to the weight distribution in the Tarmac). Bottom bracket drop was also increased to help offset the higher CG; 2.5mm may not seem like much, but it’s enough to make a subtly helpful difference.
The Zertz inserts in the fork are angled to absorb more vibration
The longer wheelbase of the Roubaix means the bike won’t track quite as tight a turn as the Tarmac, but the fact that the slacker head tube angle is paired with more fork rake results in exactly the same trail as the Tarmac. As a result, steering input remains as crisp as the Tarmac’s.
Back to the issue of comfort. The Roubaix’s single most distinctive feature are the Zertz inserts in the fork, seatstays and seatpost. The size of those inserts and the way they are positioned in the fork and seatstays has changed since the Roubaix was first introduced in 2004. They are larger now and positioned more at an angle to the fork blades and seatstays to better serve their purpose, which is to interrupt the transmission of vibration.
I’ve met riders who doubt the Zertz inserts do what they are advertised to accomplish. Having ridden the Roubaix (in various iterations) more than 1000 miles and having ridden other, grand touring category bikes, I do believe that the Zertz inserts cut vibration transmitted through the frame. I often compare vibration—which is different from road shock—with the vibration from a lawnmower. While it’s not nearly as severe, I think the point illustrates the issue rather well. Anyone who has ever used a lawnmower with a two-stroke engine (as opposed to a push mower or an electric mower) knows well the interesting feeling your hands have once you let go of the mower. For a minute or more afterward your hands feel, well, like they are still on the mower. Sex aids wish they were so memorable.
Tomorrow: Part II