Way back in the early 1980’s, our Local Council (called Armidale Regional Council these days), did some maintenance on our local sealed road. We only have the one… And it resembles a single lane cycleway gone to the weeds; also resembling Cormac McCarthy’s post apocalyptic road of desolation in his book, appropriately called The Road. Riding on this road has killed my wrists (well, that and riding on the same Council’s endless gravel road network – which did not help). For decades, I’ve followed the alluring and evidently compelling social construct that, for a road bike at least, stiff is good and stiffer is better. Part of this construct is that the very best road bikes are a statement of frame inflexibility, but with, perversely, and probably via wishful thinking, with just a touch compliance as well. It is a compelling argument, at least if you don’t think to critically. Frame flex means that all your super powers are absorbed in bike bending rather than being thrust into the road like the interstellar rocket launching pad most of us seem to think we need. Bike bending bad. Stiffness good.
Living with this meme is something else. Especially if you ride LOTS and ride on roads like the one I am forced to ride (because, as I said, it’s the only sealed road we have around here).
Living with this meme and doing the kind of miles I do (25,000km per year) is pushing the meme way past it’s event horizon of reason.
I have ten wonderful road bikes, each, at one time range toppers and a statement of road bike art. So long as you live on great roads and ride more sensible miles.
So, I have two broken wrists (or so it feels) and every bump is a jolt of piercing pain. This is killing my Strava KOM’s…
I checked out the local medical scene for advice and the advice I got was along the lines of re-building my wrists via something along the lines of a Dremel saw. Quacks.
It then seemed compelling to self-medicate via procuring a more ‘compliant’ bike.
My explorations along these lines started to reveal some fascinating insights into the ‘prevailing road cycling wisdom’ that, for so many, has each and every manifestation of a serious and genuine religion. Here are a few core tenants:
- Elite cyclists need an elite bike or at least something that looks like one
- An elite bike is defined by how stiff it is, and by how many pros ride it in pro races
- Stiffness equals speed
- Compliance is nice so long as it does not, ever, compromise speed
- Road bikes and their riders can be sorted into different camps, with road and endurance cycling as the two main cults that are, emphatically, not the same
I admit to total failure over the meme concerning the utter necessity for a ferociously stiff bike. Yes, I did buy a Giant Propel. Yes, that would have to be the single dumbest thing one could ever choose when all you have are desolation roads like those where I ride. Yes, a high tech aero bike is a thrill on hot mix. No it’s not on potholes and patched-up roads of neglect. Lesson learnt and no, I am not going to ever buy a Pinarello Dogma F10 or a S-Works Venge. But here’s where things get complex. Think on this. The S-Works Roubaix is, actually, the stiffest frame Specialized have ever made. Yes, really. But, it is designed around compliance at every single interface between that frame and the world around it. That’s also the story for my number one favourite bike, the Open UPPER. That gravel bike has a seriously stiff frame, as does the 3T Exploro. But these gravel bikes are also designed to mesh with compliance at every interface to present a superbly controlled, compliant ride. So, frame stiffness is kind of a deeper, more complex story through which to select a bike. It really shouldn’t be the number one metric of choice.
An ‘endurance’ bike has become, in the popular mythology of cycling, a euphemism for bikes that ‘real roadies’ would choose to ignore. Or, in whispered-so-as-not-to-offend terms, endurance bikes are for slow riders, old riders, slow old riders, riders who do not make the ‘grade’. The presumption is that an endurance bike is a slower bike, a heavier bike or a cheaper bike: a bike on the losing end of the old Fast-Strong-Cheap, choose two equation. However, just like bike frame stiffness, the concept of endurance versus road (racing) bikes and their riders is a touch more complex than you might think. Someone who rides a Curve Belgie from Perth to Sydney in one go is, by definition, an endurance rider and that bike is an endurance bike. I bet he or she can outride me, or you, unless you are into that continent crossing game as well. It annoys me when bike retailers try to partition off endurance machines when they smell an interest in riding criteriums. I have been directed away from endurance bikes time and time again by misinformed bicycle retailers. I blame them for the state of my wrists… Are there any $10,000 plus endurance bikes out there? Does Peter Sagan ride an endurance bike?! Actually, the answer to both those questions is yes! And the answer is the Specialized S-Works Roubaix.
I should have remembered all this as my wrists started to disintegrate via the continual, never ending road-shock of too many miles on abject roads. The re-birth of my cycling obsession some ten years ago happened via a Specialized Roubaix Comp.Knowing no better, I started out on this bike because I thought it might handle our appalling local roads better than my old Vitus 979 racing bike (hail be its name, for ever and ever, amen). Which was seriously true. I put in over 10,000km on that bike and lost 30kg in the process (in six months). They were good days. But then I got religion and decided to follow the mantra of Italian Carbon and got into the cult of Pinarello. Somewhere along that story line, I must have had a heretical regression, because I recall buying the first of the S-Works Roubaix’s sometime between one Pinarello and the next. That was the old Zertz (elastomer) insert machine (with the strange lightening bolt shaped forks and seat post). It was the lightest bike I ever owned. But Zertz was a fiction perpetrated by marketers of the most cynical kind. That thing was anything but compliant. But it was fast and light. And definitely not cheap. Memory fades. I recall lots of frame creaking and a recall on the Mavic hollow carbon spoked wheels. And then it was gone. But I can’t recall to who or how. It just faded out of my Italian carbon fixation of the time. It left little impression.
By the end of 2018, I was lined up to buy the latest Bianchi Oltre XR4, with frame additives for compliance, or so the advertising suggested. This very bike did so well in the last grand tours, and, impressively, at Paris Roubaix (my favourite race of all). It’s a climbing bike, a sprinters bike, an everything bike. Lovely. That’ll do. But there was a small voice floating around my cult-of-the-road bike mind. Who won Paris Roubaix in 2018? What did he ride? Yes, you know too. Peter Sagan on an S-Works Roubaix. The voice faded and Bianchi fever built, along with the pain in my wrists. Even I started to wonder about the prospect of being forced to give up cycling. Despite ordering a Lauf Grit front end for my 3T Exploro Ltd gravel racing bike…
In mid December, I picked up the phone. Rainbow Cycles at Coffs Harbour was the local Specialized dealer. Yes, there was one Roubaix left in size 56. It was a Mclaren special and the last of its kind in stock. Reading a credit card number out over the phone is so very easy…
I decided to merge the concept of buying this left-field bike with a holiday at the coast. And so it was. And here are my impressions.
I have travelled a paradigm shift. Again.
The first insight is to ignore the advice you’re going to get when thinking about an S-Works Roubaix (or the more sensibly priced Specialized Comp Roubaix if you are happy with Ultegra and a lack of pretension towards glow-in-the-dark orange yellow – or Mclaren Classic Orange to be precise).
No, this is not a classical road racing bike. Yes, it is. Yes, it has leanings towards endurance geometry. No it doesn’t. Yes, it has real suspension between the handlebars and the frame. Yes, you can feel a touch of spring when you hero attack the hills via an out-of-the-saddle assault. No, this does not, in any way, take away speed or the application of power to the wheels. Yes, it is and does look different (to, say, a S-Works Tarmac or, indeed, a Bianchi Oltre XR4). But what road bike does not look different to other road bikes when it’s owner passes over $10k plus? You might not like the Lord Voldermort lightening strike shaped scar of a seat post. But it grows on you. You might not like the Cannondale-like Head Shock inspired Future Shock under this bike’s handlebars. But it grows on you. Or maybe you hate the look of Specialized’s strange storage box that straddles the bottom bracket junction rather than hanging off the saddle like on every other bike. Or perhaps the notion of a 15mm winged rise on the ‘Hover’ handlebars is just too much hearsay for your purist roadie inclinations. It was for me. But hey, this IS a paradigm shift we are riding here…
What is this bike supposed to be?!
Between you and me, it’s not really a dedicated solution to riding the Paris Roubaix race or cobbles anywhere else for that matter. A gravel bike is best for that, or a standard road bike when enough pro rider pay compensates for the aching wrists you’re going to get when your dreams are to be a rouleur.
No, despite its name, the S-Works Roubaix is not a dedicated cobbles racing bike. But the name is suggestive of the bike’s real intent. This is a bike for crap roads. Or aching wrists. Or aching wrists from crap roads. Or, in other words, it’s just what I need.
My bet is that Specialized is using the Roubaix handle to emphasise the fact that this machine is a seriously competitive racing bike. It is not a toy. It is not a bike for roadies who have given up or have yet to arrive. It is a bike that retails for $13,500. It is dressed with the best including the latest Dura Ace Di2 and disc brakes. It is state of the art. It is also odd. As in different. Which explains why most folk don’t really know what to make of it. It’s not the bike you’d usually put on your short list if that list includes bikes like, say, the Bianchi Oltre XR4 or a Giant TCR Advanced SL 0. Or a Pinarello Dogma F10, or anything else exotic enough to race up the Col du Tourmalet.
I am stunned by this bike.
The Future Shock front end really works. And that is not just me trying to validate a left-field purchase. Or pretending like I might have with the old Zertz inserts on Roubaix’s from the past. The Future Shock is a testament to engineering brilliance. It removes the pain from road shock but preserves all your power and speed. I am unable to detect a compromise. You still get the full measure of ‘road feel’ and ‘connection’. It’s not like riding a mountain bike on the tar. Nothing at all like it. This shock is above the frame. Unlike a mountain bike fork, the frame takes in all the shock of the road and transmits all your power back. It’s only your hands that are suspended. This magic is where the Mclaren deal came in. The computing grunt needed to work out the astounding precision of a shock absorber that absorbs shock but not power or feel was provided by the Mclaren team (and their super computer). This is not a trivial achievement! It’s actually, a bit of an Everest peak. Well done, Specialized.
And let’s definitely not forget the similar achievement of that oh-so-strange looking seat post (the one like Harry Potter’s forehead scar). This thing looks like nothing else so is bound to put the purists off-side. That’s how paradigm shifts work. But it works, just like the Future Shock on top of the head tube. If you look closely, you will notice that the seat post clamp is in an odd spot: way down under the top tube, operating via a series of slits in the seat tube. It is unique. It’s purpose is to provide ‘lateral flex’ (as opposed to the axial action of the Future Shock). Just like the flexy posts on the Trek Domain and the Giant Revolt (and even the flexy rear end of the KTM Myroon hard tail MTB if you want to extend the analogies), the Roubaix’s post flexes with the road. Again, it is also precisely engineered to remove shock but neither power or feel. It’s a perfect rear end to match the brilliance of the spring up front. I can’t begin to imagine the amount of testing and calculation this suspension design has involved. All I can say is that this bike is sprung by engineering rather than marketing. For once, the engineers have had their say and this bike’s looks is what a bike looks like when engineering is given free reign.
The bike tracks like any of my other exotic roadie machines. It descends with a precision that removes all thought of the need for brakes. It climbs like a pro climbing bike. It climbs as well as my Giant TCR Advanced SL 0, and by all that’s holy, that Giant is brilliant at climbing. At least once you acknowledge that there will be touch of ‘spring’ at that point where you stand to power your climb. The sensation is simply different, not of lost power or inefficiency. Just different. There is no cost to climbing power.
Yes, the dedicated roadie will notice, at first, being just a bit higher on the bars. Not to the degree of a usual endurance ride. More like, say, riding an H2 Trek Madone. If that means anything to you. You get so used to this slight elevation that you stop noticing it after a few minutes acclimatisation. I do notice that I spend more time in the drops when riding this new Roubaix than I might than on my Wilier Zero.7 or my Giant TCR, but as I said, this position is about the same as when riding my Trek Madone.
And then there are the wheels! At least on this S-Works version. Those Roval CLX32’s are a match made by the same engineering team that gave us the rest of this bike’s astounding ride. Especially when you clad them with Specialized’s Cotton Turbo 28mm racing tyres. Oh yes. These are good. And testimony to the concept of the total design integration this Roubaix evidences all over and every where else.
I do continue to care that my local Council refuses to maintain my single sealed road. Especially when I pay them more in rates per year than my new S-Works cost. That bothers me. A lot. But I am not feeling like I am held hostage to this Bogan Council’s contemptuous road maintenance regime. My road rage, in this regard, has been suspended via a rather perfect engineering work-around. My recommendation is that this Armidale Regional Council should be forced to provide an S-Works Roubaix to every cyclist who lives along my road by way of compensation. But then again, there’s only a handful of us so that would be a cheap fix for that mob of Mafia wannabes. Well done Specialized. You have hit the target this time around. Pass with High Distinction.