Cycling Plus magazine's production editor Tass Whitby travelled to Birmingham to Specialized's Concept Store to get a mid-range off-the-peg race bike properly specced and fitted specifically for her. It's given her the confidence she had always been lacking on drop bar bikes.
- Frame & fork: Good-looking female-specific aluminium frame and carbon fork. Specialized know what they're doing on bikes at this price (9/10)
- Handling: Good enough to turn mountain biker Tass into a bit of a roadie (9/10)
- Equipment: Shimano's Tiagra triple groupset is modestly priced but a proven performer. Good quality Specialized kit elsewhere (8/10)
- Wheels: Good to see a pair of Mavic rims on a bike at this price. Spesh tyres are decent too (8/10)
After 20-odd years of riding a mountain bike, drop bar road bikes feel very odd to me. Clipping in, leaning forward, working out which lever moves which mech and which way… But that’s okay, I thought, I can take my time. Go out for a few gentle rides and get used to it.
“Sorry Tass, but I think I’m going to have to drop you at the M4 junction and get back to Swindon as quickly as possible,” says Paul Smith, who’s driving me home – or was, I thought – with the Specialized Dolce Elite I’ve just picked up from the Concept Store in Birmingham. His son’s in a school play and he’s going to miss it otherwise.
“That’s all right,” I lie. By the M4 junction he means where it meets the A46 that leads down to Bath. The main road to Bath. The one that all the articulated lorries use. Hmm. The phrase ‘baptism by ﬁre’ springs to mind.
But I do have the reassurance that, however different this bike feels from what I’ve been used to, it’s the perfect setup for me. It’s the correct frame size, the saddle’s the right height and distance from the bar, and by ﬂipping and adjusting the stem it’s as ‘friendly’ a riding position as I’m going to get. I’ve even had my bottom measured, so the saddle should be as comfortable as possible too.
The session I’ve just been through in Birmingham is a ‘sale ﬁt’, a shorter but still thorough version of the company’s BG Fit system – you pay £120 for a thorough assessment of you and your bike, to make sure everything about it is set up correctly for you. Buying a bike this way is ideal if, like me, you have no idea whether a bike ﬁts you properly because virtually everything about it feels odd and unfamiliar.
Specialized’s Allez has long been a Cycling Plus favourite when it comes to entry-level bikes, with models starting from around £500. So the women’s equivalent, the Dolce, seemed an ideal choice.
I’m a between-sizes ﬁve-foot-six-and-a-bit, but Sue Booth, the ﬁtting expert at Specialized, reckoned the 54in frame would be right for me. With my pretend Monopoly money, I had selected the Dolce Elite with its triple chainset and women-speciﬁc compact frame.
One of the ﬁrst things Sue noted, after getting me to sit and spin on the turbo, was where I put my hands when I sat up. The fact that I sat back with my ﬁngertips on the top of the bar indicated immediately to her that the bar was too low for me – for the moment at least, until I get more used to riding on drop bars. I hadn’t even noticed I’d done it. “This is why it’s very important that you’re completely relaxed,” said Sue.
With yellow dots stuck on my legs at various points, I spun and stopped and was measured and assessed, as Sue gauged various angles and distances. My seat height was adjusted, the fore/aft position worked out, and a plumb line was dangled over my knee to the crank.
“The changes we make are the crucial ones,” Sue told me. Major changes to the kit on the bike can be made, but they would have to be paid for on top, so if I wanted to change the handlebar, for example, I would have to pay. Changing the saddle, though, was part of the package. I’d always thought I had a rather pert behind, but the ‘assometer’ measured 160. As standard, the Dolce comes with a 143mm saddle; the widest suitable one in the shop was 155mm. It would have to do.
Halfway down the A46 to Bath, I had no complaints in the derrière department, but although I knew in my head that everything was where it should be, it was still taking time to get used to this strange new position. There was deﬁnite tingling going on in my hands, although that could have been because I was hanging on for dear life as enormous artics thundered past, and car and caravan drivers skimmed their homes from home scarily close.
But knowing that everything was set up correctly for me gave me a conﬁdence that had deﬁnitely been lacking on any previous outings that I’d done on drop bar bikes. I even got down in the drops! (Their being women-friendly short-reach and short-drop no doubt helping here.)
With more riding under my belt, the 23mm tyres still seem a bit knife-like compared to the fatties on my mountain bike – if you’re riding on smooth surfaces they’re no doubt great, but my commute is mostly on rough, patched-up tarmac which has been damaged even more by the recent snow.
I still can’t note any Zertz-induced damping in the fork either – though if without them the ride would be more harsh then I’m thankful they’re there. Everything else works perfectly. The only problem in the gearing department is down to operator error. When I can remember which lever to push, it works ﬁne.
One problem that not even Sue would have been able to advise me on, though, is to do with where I live. It’s at the top of a big hill, and separated from the ofﬁce by another big hill. That’s one big climb on the way into work, and two on the way home.
Easy on a mountain bike. Not so easy on the Specialized’s 12-25 cassette, despite its triple chainring. I thought I was ﬁt. I gave in. George, our workshop manager, kindly swapped it for a mountain bike size 11-32. My legs are very grateful.