After a long and very secretive gestation, the Specialized Venge exploded into public view amidst a blaze of hype and PR. A win on its debut at Milan-San Remo with Matt Goss was a marketing dream and the McLaren connection seemed to impress everyone from journos to dreamers to the dozen or so people who actually put deposits down right away for the £9,000 team version.
First of all, let’s clarify the McLaren link. It came about late on in the Venge project and it was actually carbon fibre engineering, rather than aerodynamics, that the F1 and sports car company contributed. Only the top Venge features the McLaren touch that adds stiffness and cuts weight.
The bike that we shot for the Wish List and that I rode was a regular US-spec Venge with SRAM Red. UK bikes will only be available with Dura-Ace. I was particularly keen to ride it because I’m lucky enough to have ridden the new Scott Foil and the Cervelo S3, and have a Felt AR2 on long-term test. It’s one thing to find out if the new Venge is a quick, genuinely aero bike, but it’s much more important to discover whether it can manage that without compromising the ride quality.
Riding the Venge
The Venge immediately feels fast. Familiar roads were the setting, prevailing winds were the challenge and a Garmin Edge 800 was referee. It’s still a very basic test compared to a wind tunnel or even a velodrome and a power meter, but I’m convinced that there’s free speed to be had here. We also did a roll down test against a conventional bike and the Venge cruised two bike lengths ahead.
Does it feel faster than its aero rivals? No. It’s hard enough just to identify any degree of advantage over a conventional bike so the difference between the aero class certainly isn’t tangible. Specialized have loads of their own data, gathered far more scientifically, as do other brands. What’s interesting to note is that they all talk of around 20 watts saved at 40kph. A bike only creates around 800g of drag anyway, so the difference between aero bikes is inevitably very slight.
On that basis, the rest of the riding experience is more important than whether it saves you 22W or 23W, and this is where the Venge began to disappoint me. In fact, it was annoying before I’d even ridden it as the saddle clamp had to be drifted out with a hammer in order to alter the angle and there wasn’t even anything wrong with it. The single bolt wedges the two sides into the post and it’s a nuisance to set up. The tubes in this test bike had valves that were too short for the wheels too.
The long headtube and sloping toptube – derived, oddly, from the old Transition time trial bike that has been replaced by the Shiv – give the frame odd proportions that don’t look racy. In fact, it looks a lot more like a sportive machine.
It’s still possible to get a deep riding position thanks to the clever stem. As well as flipping it, you can rotate an angled shim inside it for a range of angles from -16 to +16 degrees. The option to set it very high suggests that maybe Specialized know that more Venges are likely to be ridden on sportives than raced. The 52/36 crankset concurs.
The thin carbon fibre S-Works handlebar is the most flexible that I can remember riding and doesn’t even offer a great deal of damping either. It also doesn’t tuck the cables away neatly enough, and the bar tape is thin, so they are annoyingly present in your grip. After a four-hour ride my hands felt sore, which has never happened on any other bike. Also, Specialized haven’t routed the cables into the frame as tidily as Felt did on the AR.
The Venge is a light bike, at 7.03kg, but at this high price its aero rivals are at least as light. The ride comfort is average too, absorbing slightly less of a poor road surface than the Foil and AR2. It’s way less comfortable than the best conventional frames.
Pedalling stiffness has always been a big challenge with aero designs. Scalpel-like downtubes do not lend themselves to resisting flex. In this respect the Venge is… okay. It’s certainly a lot stiffer than the AR2 that I’ve ridden extensively but the Felt compromises more than others in pursuit of aerodynamics. There is some slight tangible flex when you really attack hard on the Venge and it isn’t quite as rigid as Cervelo’s S3 and it’s nowhere near to the Scott Foil which sets the standard for stiffness in aero bikes. I’m only talking a small amount but it’s enough. I am being picky here but with good reason – this thing costs £6k so it isn’t sufficient for it to not bend in half when you get out the saddle, it should be properly stiff. I suspect that the McLaren partnership came about because Specialized couldn’t make the Venge light enough or stiff enough for their pros to ride it, and they needed Goss and Cavendish winning on it to drive sales.
The wheels let the side down a bit too. They aren’t as light or as stiff as we’d hope for on a £6k bike and they put a big dent in the value for money. The lack of lower spec options is surprising too. Felt and Scott will get you aero for well under £3k and Cervelo still offer the S1 and S2 frames.
It may seem like I’ve been very harsh on this bike but it’s exactly my job to cut through the hype and hold a top end bike to the toughest of standards. Aero bikes have always been about fighting the compromises that the wind tunnel demands and the Venge doesn’t move the game on. If I was spending my own money, it would go on the one bike that does – the super light, ultra stiff, enormously impressive Scott Foil, in whatever spec I could afford.
£6,000 (Dura-Ace); $8,800 (SRAM Red); $9,200 (Dura-Ace)