During my pro career, I rode a fair few bikes and I've tried out a host of others since then. Even so, somehow the Specialized brand has managed to evade me. Although I haven't ridden one before, I've heard good things about the bikes and noticed their increasing presence on the road and in races.
You only need to look at the success of the two ProTour teams using Specialized bikes, Gerolsteiner and Quick Step, to see what their road bike reputation is built on. With this is mind, I couldn't wait to get my hands on this month's test bike, the Specialized S-Works Roubaix SL.
Specialized boast that the frame is built using Functional Advanced Composite Technology (FACT) with E390 AZ1 construction. I found out how all that jargon translated into practice by putting the Roubaix SL to the test on the roads of Detroit, Michigan.
Frame - long, lovely, with a big bottom bracket
The first thing that struck me about the 61cm frame as it rolled out of the shop was how big it was. True, at 6ft 2in, I'm a big guy, but even so the length of the headtube was a whopping 235mm. The curved toptube lent the Roubaix a futuristic look, as did some funny little plastic inserts called "Zertz". Zertz are shock-absorbing elastomer pieces that are inserted at specific points in the bike's carbon fibre frame. Even with these Zertz interrupting the sleek lines of its beautiful black and silver paint job, the Roubaix was still a looker.
Its seat-tube was a normal size, but as my eyes followed it down towards the bike's bottom bracket I realised where the stiffness of the frame came from. To say the bottom bracket area was large would be an understatement. It was huge.
Adding to the futuristic look of the bike were the Specialized S-Works FACT carbon cranks, which almost appeared integrated into the frame. The left crank consisted of a tubular carbon arm with no holes, attachments or bolts anywhere. On the drive side I could only see one small 5mm bolt; this gave the overall impression that the cranks were specifically designed for use with this bike.
Ride - fast, direct, and comfortable
After a couple of minor adjustments, I jumped on and headed out for a ride. I noticed immediately how solid the bike felt and was amazed to discover that nothing required adjustment or felt weird. With a brand new bike, it's not unusual to experience an initial period of getting used to the bike. With the Roubaix SL, however, there was nothing of the sort - it rode well from the off and even felt like it knew where I wanted to go.
Part of the bike's comfort came, I think, from the fairly long 49mm fork offset, and the 73-degree angle of the headtube. But it also had something to do with those Zertz inserts.
The plastic inserts in the seat-stays, seatpost and forks took away the impact of the potholes and bumps I rode over, leaving me to enjoy a smooth, effortless ride. With this level of comfort, the Specialized felt more like a touring bike than a performance model - but that laid-back impression was dispelled as soon as I stood up and put some pressure on the pedals.
The bike responded immediately to the force sent to it. Given the fact that the entire bike weighed just 7.1kg, I had expected it to feel soft when pushed hard. But, despite my efforts to make the frame flex so that the chain would rub on the front derailleur in 50x12, nothing was giving. Each sprint only made me more confident about the bike's ability to propel me along the road.
Equipment - well thought out spec
Before setting off, the other concern I'd had about sprinting on the Specialized was its 120mm stem and handlebar set-up. I'd felt a fair bit of movement when pulling on the bars in the shop, which I thought came from the large headtube and stem. But when I sprinted, both on the hoods and in the drops, the movement I'd felt earlier wasn't noticeable at all. It proved to me once again that to get a feel for a bike, you really have to take it out on the road.
The Specialized S-Works handlebars were some of the most comfortable I've ridden. The problem with most bars is that the ergonomic bend is too steep, bringing your hands too far back to reach the brakes.
In order to compensate for this, you must bring the brakes further down on the bars, which can then lead to having nowhere to put your hands when they're on the tops. The S-Works ergonomic drops had a shallow drop of 132mm - perfect, in that they enabled me to reach the brakes but still have my hands exactly where I needed them.
I also liked the fact that the length of the bars after the ergo bend was long enough to feel safe. I can't count the number of times I've hit a large hole and had my hands lift off the bars for a moment. With 8cm of extension after the bend, the S-Works bars provided plenty of room for me to rest my hands, and also to help recover control of the bike after losing contact with the bars.
I also liked the way the bars were flat across the top all the way to where the brake hoods were located. This provided plenty of room to rest my hands and find a comfortable riding position.
Adding to that comfort was Specialized's Body Geometry Soft-Touch cork ribbon. This tape makes other cork ribbons seem outdated. The white tape that came supplied looked a bit out of place on the all-black bike, but generally provides good grip in the rain and under sweaty palms.
The wheels provided were Mavic's Ksyrium ES with S-Works tyres. These wheels have been ridden by many, and they're great all-rounders. They provided decent stiffness when cornering hard, but they weren't so rigid that every crack or bump lifted them off the ground.
Having said that, cornering hard on the Roubaix SL did take a little getting used to. The long headtube made me feel a long way off the ground. When riding at high speed and leaning the bike, it didn't dive into corners in quite the way I'd hoped. I had to help the bike find its way into the corner but, once adjusted, the bike tracked perfectly on the exit. A smaller frame might have felt more comfortable cornering at high speed.
Overall I liked the way the Specialized rode. I'm not a fan of its compact 50x34 cranks; with the largest chainring only a 50, it's difficult to hammer up the road in group rides. I also had to drop the stem all the way to the top of the headset in order to get low enough not to feel like I was dragging myself through the wind all the time. This is not uncommon with large headtubes and serves to eliminate the need for stacking under the stem for those who like to sit a little more upright. Nonetheless, it's a problem if you're used to a lower riding position.
If you have a long upper body, or you like to stretch out a bit, the toptube length of 60cm might feel a bit short - you'll need to change the 120mm stem for a longer one.
While you're at it, I'd recommend changing the saddle too. I couldn't get used to the Body Geometry Toupe gel saddle. I tried to move it around to get comfortable, but I just wound up moving my fore-aft position on the bike out of whack. The one-bolt S-Works carbon seatpost enabled me to correct this, but the skinny saddle never really agreed with me.
The Specialized S-Works Roubaix SL is a high-performance road bike that's great for road racing or high-end touring. I never did come to fully understand the technology behind FACT. What I did discover was a bike that rode extremely comfortably and was responsive without being twitchy. This combination enabled me to relax on the bike and save energy. At the same time it responded well when I gave the signal to go. It climbed well, and was steady as a rock when descending at 45mph. Now, if I could just get a 53 chainring on the front, I might just stand a chance of hitting that kind of speed on the flat...
Responsive without being twitchy, the Roubaix SL combines the power and acceleration of a performance bike with a comfortable ride over the long haul - thanks in part to those "Zertz", and to good handlebar ergonomics.