Sunday, March 5, 2017

Specialized Roubaix - Is Smoother Faster?

The New Roubaix upfitted with 32mm tubeless tires plays well on unpaved

Product Review of New Specialized Roubaix

I confess to being a long time fan of Specialized Bicycle Company products.   I've ridden their bikes since 2007 and have used much of their rider gear with good success.  In 2012 I began working at a bike shop that carried the line exclusively.  It was an immersion into a culture where new technology was constantly being developed.  It was exciting to see new innovations come into production.  Not only bikes but rider gear as well.  Much of the new tech stuff was going to the mountain bike genre as that style of riding seemed to benefit the most from improvements in suspension, braking systems, and tires.   None the less, the road side was not ignored as Shimano's Di2 Electronic Shifting became available on some of the higher end bikes.  Later disc brakes, including fully hydraulic systems, began appearing on road bikes as well.  Both these products were controversial among roadies at first, but would eventually be accepted and acknowledged as improvements.  This may have been partially due to the growing interest in gravel and mixed surface riding.  Not to forget the popularity of Cyclo-Cross, which benefited greatly from much of this technology.  What followed were continual further improvements of shifting and braking systems to the point where these can now be considered highly refined.  Through axles, which were found to work best with disc brakes, found their way from Mountain to Cyclo-Cross and are slowly being introduced to Road Bikes, especially those designated for adventure or endurance.  Someone was destined to find a way to utilize this technology by packaging it into something entirely new.

Specialized answered the call with the development of the all new Roubaix, an endurance road bike.  They added some of their own innovations such as the Future Shock (headset suspension), Cobble Gobbler (seat post), and Hover Bar (road riser bar) to a newly designed carbon frame.  The final touches like Shimano hydraulic disc brakes, Ultegra components, available with electronic shifting, SWAT box storage compartment, clearance for 32mm tires, tubeless ready rims, and through axles made for quite a package.  The Specialized mantra for the Roubaix, even on the older versions, is Smoother is Faster.  This comes from their history of racing at the famous Paris-Roubaix over the roughly cobbled roads in France.  To which their namesake model has taken some wins.  A decal on the top tube in view of the rider serves as a reminder,

I rode over 1,000 miles split over two new Roubaix models, one with electronic shifting and one without.   The first one I tested was a brand new bike designated to be a demo model for Pete's Bike Shop.  It was a Roubaix Expert with full Ultegra 11 (mechanical) and Shimano Hydraulic disc brakes.  I was asked to try it on some rides up to 200k.  What follows is my personal experience.

First Rides

It came out of the box with 26mm tires, though there was clearance for 32mm.  I took a few short rides on the stock set up.  The bike felt pretty amazing.  Even with the 26mm pressured to 90 psi it was the smoothest riding road bike I'd ever been on.  The shock inside the headset, which Specialized calls the "Future Shock", really took out roughness and vibration from the front of the bike.  Paired with the GCR seat post's lower seat clamp and elongated diameter seat tube above the clamp the ride was pretty cushy from the rear.   While riders alongside would comment on noticeable fore-aft movement of the carbon seat post I only felt smoothness.   The up and down movement of the handlebars was also noticeable by anyone watching from alongside.  Again, my perception was just smoothness.  The concept that's employed is to suspend the rider instead of using more traditional methods.  Specialized chose this approach because other suspension options, including increased frame / fork compliance,  have been proven to reduce speed and power transfer.  This Roubaix features a stiffer frame and fork from prior versions yet is more comfortable to ride.

Making a few Changes

Before moving on to the 100k and 200k distance I changed out the tires for Specialized 30/32 Roubaix Pros and experimented with tire pressures in an attempt to find the optimum balance between comfort and performance.  I  also changed out the CGR seat post for a Specialized Carbon post with a two bolt clamp instead of the single side bolt on the Gobbler. I was having problems with my saddle shifting while riding. I was betting that running wide tires negated the need for the added suspension from the post.  I would still have the fore-aft movement of the standard post due to the clamp and seat tube design.  I was confident that with the cushier tire I would not notice a difference.  I felt ready for the first 100k.   I purposely chose a route with lots of pavement flaws and even found a few miles of unpaved surface as the icing on the cake.  The bike took it all in stride.  I'd become accustomed to standing and gliding over rough pavement, or dodging around the imperfections whenever possible.  The realization that this was not necessary took awhile to set in.  Keeping power on through rough patches of road has appeal,  And, tends to support the Smoother is Faster philosophy.  Late in the ride I transitioned onto the unpaved section with growing confidence in this bike.  It seemed right at home with the looser surface.  For the first time in as long as I could remember I was having fun on a dirt road.  At the end of the 100k, which actually was a little long at 70 miles,  I was loving life and the new Roubaix.

Moving on to 200k

Less than a week later I was set to ride a 200k.   Still fiddling with tire pressure I started out at a meager 35 psi.  Simple reason dictated this had to be at, or below, the lower limit.  Things were going well until I hit a metal object which cut the tire and left me with my first flat.  With a boot over the cut my friend Brandon and I continued the route knowing there was a bike shop along the way about 10 miles further.  We procured a new Panaracer 32mm tire and a new tube.  I kept both in my backpack as a spare opting to continue on the booted tire for as long as possible.  I was enjoying the bike as much as the earlier rides for the next 40 miles when I got a puncture on the rear tire again.  We changed it out with the new Panaracer using the new tube I purchased as well.  It was a simple puncture not related to the prior cut.  Once underway we had a rather lengthily discussion about switching over to a tubeless set up which would have at least prevented one of the two flats.  Overall, the bike was fine on the 200k despite the unfortunate flats.  A subsequent 200k with a large group of riders went quite well using 40 psi in the tires.  I had zero flats.

The next test was an all unpaved 100k ride on the D & R Canal.  We rode from Princeton, NJ to Lumberville, PA and back.  I used the same tires that were on the bike pressured to 40 psi.   This resulted in good ride quality and zero flats.  I found myself really enjoying this style of riding and began to see the allure of gravel and mixed surface events.  While there are bikes that are more specifically designed for this purpose the Roubaix would surely get the job done in fine style.  This versatility brings added appeal.
The New Roubaix Expert with Ultegra 11 
Climbing on the New Roubaix

Before turning this bike back in I did one more 100k ride on a route with some good size climbs.  I was used to a Tarmac Pro which is a very good climbing bike and quite light at just under 16 lbs.  The Roubaix weighed in at 19 lbs out of the box, which is good for a disc brake bike, but I wondered how it would compare.  I was pleased to learn that it is a competent climber, but a bit different.  The Roubaix features a compact double with a large cog of 32T on the rear.  I was used to bigger gearing, so I didn't think I would use the 32.  I was surprised to find myself in it on sizable hills.  I was using higher cadence than I normally do and found that difference enjoyable. Initially, standing climbing feels a bit odd due to the slight movement of the Future Shock.  In time one adapts and the movement is no longer noticed.
Future Shock headset suspension with 20mm of travel

Descending.  Wow!!!

The one area where the Roubaix hands down shines is descending.  The suspension and disc brakes combine to give the rider unparalleled confidence. It tracks straight and true, soaks up road imperfections like they are not even there, and brakes effectively with one finger gently pulling the lever.  It's possible to let it go completely, then reign it in with little effort.  The bikes superior descending  advances the case for Smoother is Faster.

Upgrading to Di2 and Tubless Tires

I turned the mechanical shifting Roubaix over to another store employee for further testing.  A few days later a box arrived from Specialized containing a brand new Roubaix Expert UDi2 painted in Neon Yellow / Monster Green.   The color was in huge contrast to the Flat Black of my former demo Roubaix and would require a little getting used to.  During assembly we changed out the stock tires for 32mm Panaracers and set them up tubeless.  The DT Swiss 2Bliss ready rims worked perfectly sealing the tires up with minimal effort.  My first ride would be with 40 PSI, which turns out to be the ideal pressure for a rider of my weight (164 lbs).   I did many rides from 20 mile commutes to 130 miles on this bike with excellent results.  I've committed to ride it for a minimum of one year.  I look forward to some challenging rides on this machine during the brevet season when fitness is at a higher level.  If there is a conclusive way to prove Smoother is Faster I hope to find it.

Rando Ready?

The question I expect from rando friends is: if the bike is suitable for our style of riding?  For me personally the answer is a solid YES!   The big stopper for many of the brevet crowd will be no easy fender solution or rack mounts.  This bike will suit those who want a comfortable bike for multiple purposes.  It will be fast, fun and comfortable on brevets even though non-conforming to traditions.  Also, it will work well for many other styles of riding.

More detailed information of some of the features of the New Roubaix are detailed below.

Future Shock

Perhaps the most unique and talked about feature of the new Roubaix is the coil spring shock located inside the headset.  Specialized provides three different tensions from light to stiff for rider preferences.  Installed in the bike from the factory is the medium, which I found a little too light so we switched to the stiffest one.  It still worked well soaking up bumps but gave minimal movement during standing climbs.  This little movement is disconcerting at first but after adapting seems unnoticeable.  The use of the Future Shock allowed for a stiffer fork to be used on the bike.  Extensive tests have shown that forks that flex to allow absorption of  shock slow the bike during this motion.  The Future Shock Isolates the rider from these forces above the headset without the speed scrubbing of other methods.

Cobble Gobbler Seat Post

Specialzed has offered this product for awhile on some older Roubaix models and as an over the counter upgrade for any road bike for $250.  It gives additional vertical compliance for shock picked up by the rear wheel.  This is accomplished by a carbon spring inside the large section of the post. On the new Roubaix this is combined with an elongated upper seat tube giving the freedom of  fore-aft motion for shock transferred through the frame in that manner.  I could not feel the movement, but riders alongside told me it was visible.  I found the CGR seat post unnecessary when running wide tires and am using a standard carbon seat post from Specialized on my Roubaix.  Any carbon post clamped into the unique seat post design of the Roubaix will be more flexible than on another bike due to the lower seat clamp and larger diameter upper seat tube.
Oversize upper seat tube allows fore-aft movement of the Carbon Seat Post.
The seat post clamp is several inches below to allow for the flexing.

Shimano Hydraulic Disc Brakes

Without doubt the most amazing braking experience ever!  This system offers one finger control of a powerful braking system.   The only issue I had was road grit from a wet road kicked up into the front rotor causing a rubbing sound.  I was able to clean it out quickly by squirting water from my bottle between the pads.  The Shimano Brake Pads are finned for better heat distribution which keeps the system cooler on long descents with lots of braking.
Flat Mounted Calipers with Ice Tech Pads for added cooling, 160mm Front Roter

Thru Axles

The best possible way to hold a wheel securely in a bike frame is to bolt it in with a Thru-Axle.  This system does not allow for misalignment of the wheel to the fork or frame.  The drop outs have no opening at the bottom.  The axle passes through the circular drop out and the hub then screws securely into threads on the opposite side.   It looks a little like a fat skewer with a threaded end.  A road bike with disc brakes is best managed with a thru-axle as even slight wheel misalignment in a traditional skewer, drop out, set up can cause disc rubbing.
Thru Axles keep wheels perfectly aligned in the frame

Hover Bar

This is simply a riser bar designed for a road-bike.  Surprising it has not been used until now.  This is standard on the New Roubaix model.  It is a short reach bar with 1.5 centimeter rise from the stem.  This allows for a more upright rider position without a radical change to bike geometry.  With a neutral stem the drop is minimal, although this varies depending on seat height.  Riders looking for an aggressive position will have difficulty achieving this without sizing down a frame size.  The appearance of the bar is not off putting. It's gull wing shape has a serious, appealing look to it.  It is also comfortable with a somewhat flattened top.

Swat Box

This is a storage compartment which is bolted onto the frame at the bottom bracket area.  It can handle a spare tube, a C02 inflator, and a small tire lever.  All the items are fastened into special holders so they don't rattle around.  It has an odd look to it and somewhat takes away from the beautifully designed frame.  I chose to remove it from both demo models after realizing it's position interfered with putting a dropped chain back on.

Shimano Ultegra 11

The first bike I tested had full Ultegra 11 mechanical shifting.  I found the system to be very precise and effortless to use.  It's a compact double with 11-32T rear cassette.   The shifters were comfortable, smooth and fast.

Shimano UDi2

I really wasn't looking for an electronic shifting bike, but this is what was offered so I took the opportunity to learn the pros and cons of it.  It is beautifully engineered shifting smoothly, efficiently every time with full range of the drive train.  Front derailleur rub is eliminated with it's auto trim feature.  The rider makes a shift on the rear cassette and the Di2 controller handles the front trim automatically.  Additionally, it makes it possible for a rider to make shifts that are simply not advisable on a mechanical system.  This would include dropping onto the small chain ring while standing with pressure on the pedals.  I did find the shifters difficult to operate with bulky gloves.  I then learned that it could be programmed to use any of the four switches for any shift function.  Connecting a computer or tablet with the Shimano Di2 software loaded on it allows the user to choose many options.  I wound up going with a set up that had the right side shifter controlling all shifts to larger gear ratios both front and rear, with the left side doing the opposite.  It helped prevent the errant shifts with bulky gloves.  On warmer days when only light gloves were needed it was easy to be spot on.  


Hats off to Specialized for daring to bring out a bike that is so innovative and unique. Suspension has been tried on road bikes before, but never a set up as well thought out and refined as this one is.  On a whole the bike should find a large following of riders looking for diversity in their next ride.   Is Smoother Faster?  I hope so.

See you on the roads.

Joe Kratovil is an employee of Pete's Bike Shop in Flemington, NJ.  An Ultra Distance cyclist he has ridden over 120,000 road miles in the pursuit of these activities.