One Year On My Roubaix Part 2

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As outlined in my previous post, One Year on My Roubaix, the S-Works Roubaix rides on top of something along the lines of a cultural shift. To pay the required AUD$17,000 Specialized are asking for this bike, you are buying into more than a bike and your decision is likely to be more complicated by factors than might apply when looking for, say, the latest Giant TCR, or Scott Addict. 

With that out of the way, I do have some observations on how the bike coordinates with all the marketing hype Specialized uses to explain this bike and what I hoped for from its performance. After riding my 2018/19 version for 8,300 plus km I am in a good position to offer some conclusions.

First to the brief. The performance of any road bike is informed by its collective response to the three core dimensions of bicycle design: bike weight, bike stiffness and bike compliance. Weight, stiffness and compliance interact to define the way a bike rides. Compliance is not often included as one of those dimensions, but it needs to be. 

Weight is easy. Total bike weight is hugely important to how well a bike climbs, and, let us not forget, how well it does other stuff like going down hill and resisting cross winds. So too, let us never forget, is the rider’s weight. There is absolutely no point in buying a fly-weight bike if you are a porker with a 25 plus BMI. That’s just a fact. Fatties are better off buying heavy, and using that heavy to help accelerate body weight loss and only then buying light, once you enter the realm of marginal gains.

Stiffness is also critical to climbing prowess, and to how well you can sprint. It is also a characteristic that can shock your body into early fatigue and misery if you choose to ride on anything worse than hot mix.

Compliance is a design feature that bike makers are finally talking about and designing around these days. You hear about nano tubes in your carbon or rubbery layers in carbon layouts; seat posts designed to flex, and wider rims and tyres to provide for a more ‘airy’ ride. That’s why 28mm tyres are now all the rage. 

I’d propose that absolutely no one has fixated on the compliance dimension more than Specialized in relation to the S-Works Roubaix (and all the other models of Roubaix in that family). No other bike maker is currently offering suspension up front to add compliance to a ride (other than Lauf with its Grit but that is directed more at gravel biking than purely for the road). 

We all know about this bike’s sprung head tube as a solution to riding on rough roads or pave. But Specialized has also been careful to point out that the S-Works Roubaix frame, itself, is the lightest frame they actually make. And, indeed, it’s also proposed to be the stiffest. Even more than for the Tarmac.

Normally, compliance, stiffness and lightness are at some odds. To suggest that you can max out all three seemingly without compromise is an interesting claim. But that’s where the suspension comes in. Without the ‘headshock’ and the strange Z shaped seat post, you would not be able to ride this bike on any normal road; it would be a chiropractic assault after just a few km. Rather, the intention of this bike is to offer a ride that is as un-fatigueing as you’d get from a really good endurance bike, while still being a bike that’s competitive for serious racing. Most people I have spoken to seem to be under the impression that the Roubaix is actually an endurance bike (and thus a bike intended for old guys past it for speed). That’s because of all the focus on ‘suspension’ and a softer forgiving ride. And they are all totally wrong. No, what this bike is about is outright serious pro-level speed enhanced by and, really, as an outcome of all that compliance. You don’t really get this from Specialized’s marketing pitch. I think that is a shame. But I do need to assert, the S-Works Roubaix is NOT an endurance bike. Though it would serve a cyclo-tourist well (and what is wrong with that?), it is primarily intended for racing on rough roads (like all the roads where I live and, probably, where you do too). 

You see, there has been some seriously clever thinking in relation to the suspension designed into this frame. Which explains the link with Mclaren because the design took some serious computing power to figure during its development (Mclaren has some massive super computer grunt to assist with the CAD stages that gave birth to the Roubaix). The key is that this uber stiff frame offers all the benefits you can get from that trait: it climbs like a Giant TCR and you can sprint it like a Propel. Putting the suspension spring in the head tube (rather than in the fork like the Lauf Grit) ensures all that frame stiffness connects directly to the road without any kind of suspended insulation (or suspension caused efficiency losses). Because locating the spring where it is only suspends your wrists, not the rest of the bike. That is clever. You are not going to loose any pedalling efficiency through suspended wrists. The same goes for the flexy seat post design. 

Which is not to say that these suspended disconnections from the road don’t affect the way the bike rides. They do. You do feel some real removal from the spring interface between your handlebars and the furies passing through your forks and wheels. That does feel ‘different’ from what you might be used to with a conventional road bike. Some might find that disconnecting a touch disconcerting and that happens most when climbing out of your seat. You do notice it. Even after, as in my case, nearly 10,000km of getting used to riding this bike. I am a climber and I have always connected climbing with how directly I feel the front wheel is connected to my arms. (The feeling is along the lines of using your arms to grab that road with your fingers and claw yourself up a hill until you pass out; with your forks becoming arm extensions. The notion of sticking a suspension interface between your bars and the forks is a bit like what might happen if your arms turned into rubber enroute; not an attractive thought).  I am used to the sensation of furious rigidity and discomfort as the price of killing a hill. Which is why I so detest riding mountain bikes on sealed roads. All of which kind of describes where it is that a rider needs most to adapt when riding the S-Works Roubaix furiously up a hill. Which is NOT to say that it won’t be riding as efficiently as a pure climbing bike (like, say, the Giant TCR). This is all a mental adjustment thing, not a matter of any inefficiencies. You do need to mentally adjust. But rest assured, the headshock is not going to slow you down or erode your climbing efficiency in any way. It just feels like it does. This is a critical point and a real challenge for Specialized’s marketing challenge to sell this bike. 

So, I do most certainly assert that this is a serious climber’s bike. It as light as any disk brake frame out there despite the suspension bits and it certainly is stiff. Full marks for pulling this astonishing achievement across the light-stiff-compliant arc.

And yes, you are riding a little higher than you might be used to if you usually ride slammed. There is no prospect for lowering your bars because of the sprung head tube. Yes, if you equate riding higher with endurance riding, you might equate this ride with that which you’d get from an endurance bike. But again, that is a mental thing. Yes, riding higher is less aero than you’d be on a full aero bike, but no one said or claimed that the Roubaix is an aero machine. Just like a climbing bike is not an aero bike. Which is why I have emphasised climbing (rather than say, time trialing, on this machine). If you want an aero bike, don’t buy the S-Works Roubaix. I don’t and am glad for it because I live in the hills. It’s useful to keep this context in mind when thinking about the Roubaix.

But you can see why so many people are so quick to write this bike off as an endurance ride. It kind of looks like such a bike, but is most emphatically does not ride that way. Rest assured, you CAN win the Paris Roubaix on this thing (as has been the case in recent times).

The real missing link offered up by this bike is what you get from all that compliance. I doubt that anyone would ever object to a more comfortable ride than you’d be getting from bikes like a Giant Propel or the infamously bone shaking Basso Diamente (or from any modern aero bike). At least some heroic riders might keep such thoughts to themselves if they consider a softer ride also softens their sense of masculinity – the ladies don’t usually bother with inane posturing of this kind. But who, really, would object to surviving longer into a ride than your aero crushed mates? Here is the thing. A more comfortable ride means less fatigue. Less fatigue means you can ride faster for longer. And probably win more races over rough roads or for a course that extends past 100km. Compliance feeds into faster average speed over a longer ride. It’s a mathematical fact. This is one result I have proved over and over to myself over the past year. I have riding logs going back 30 years for the roads I ride. My total ride times are never, ever, longer on the Roubaix than for my more conventional road machines (I have 20 road bikes at the latest count including a Giant TCR, a Propel, a Colnago C59, a Bianchi Oltre, a Wilier Zero.7, a Trek Madone, a Merida Scultura, and three top-end Pinarello’s, none of which are demonstrably faster than my Roubaix over longer rides). 

Actually, I love the way that the Roubaix challenges mental models and smashes convention at every turn. That’s feeding all those anarchical predilections that got me, effectively, kicked out of my academic career (I detest linear thinking professorial bog dwellers who switch off their brains once their tenure has been secured). The Roubaix excites an excitable mind! It’s a regular chaos machine! If you are as exciting as a cabbage, perhaps this is not the bike for you. 

And finally, I can report that over a year of some serious Roubaix riding over our manically marginal local roads, nothing, but noting has gone wrong with any part of this bike. I have no issues to report. None at all. Other than the usuals of punctured tyres and worn out chains. Yes, The 2018/19 Specialized S-Works Roubaix is one magnificent bike. 

It is, though, to be noted that the bike was re-designed for 2020. The new model has a revamped headshock (now with adjustable compression but otherwise basically the same) and a new seat post that looks more conventional but, apparently, flexes even more than before. I can’t comment except to say that I will be getting the new one sometime in the new year. I will report back then, but am not really compelled to write the old model off because a new one offers even more of what makes my own bike so great. That might end up being too much of a good thing? I do think, though, that the newest model looks too conventional for my taste. Specialized have tried to make the 2020 model look almost identical to its Tarmac. I am not sure why. I am pretty sure that every conclusion I have made with respect to the 2018/19 Roubaix will also apply to its 2020 counterpart. Certainly, the inherent iconoclasm of this machine is very much still intact. It’s just that Specialized seem to think it important to do some redesigning to make it seem less radical than it actually is. Maybe they think the new model’s more conventional looks will sell more bikes. That’s a bit of a shame.