AJACCIO, France (VN) — Look’s all-new 695 Aerolight came into view strapped under a helicopter, swaying from a long rope as the theme music from Pirates of the Caribbean played in the background. Thirty-odd international journalists stood on a Corsican beach, necks craned towards the sky, staring in a mix of awe and barely controlled laughter at the purely preposterous show occurring before our eyes.
Bike companies have pulled some outlandish stunts at launches in the past; this one topped them all. But who are we to criticize a bit of French panache on the eve of le Tour?
From a distance, the new 695 Aerolight looks quite a lot like the old 695; in fact, we’d wager that the molds used on the front end haven’t changed at all. But what lies under the classic French paint job, and what’s hidden under the chainstays and inside the fork, are a series of drastic departures from the old model.
The Aerolight, first spotted in a very early prototype version during last year’s tradeshows, moves its front brake inside the fork itself and hides the rear under the chainstays, just behind the bottom bracket. It also moves to a new, thinner 1.5k carbon fiber, allowing the company to increase the number of plies and thus increase control over parameters like stiffness and weight.
The new frame also gains compatibility with both Di2 and EPS internal batteries and a new set of frame plugs to easily swap between electronic and mechanical groupsets.
The result is an exceptionally clean look, pun not intended, improved aerodynamics, and a lighter, stiffer frame. Weight drops 90 grams, to 870 grams, and though the shape of most of the frame hasn’t changed, the move to an integrated brake system has dropped aerodynamic drag by a claimed 3 percent relative to the old 695.
We’re simultaneously wary and hopeful regarding the latest wave of integrated brake systems. They do have the potential to decrease drag, and they tend to improve a bike’s visual appeal as well, but they also tend to be a pain to set up, adjust, and keep clean. Most are based off a linear pull design, like the V-brakes found on your 1990’s mountain bike. That means they tend to be high on power and low on modulation relative to a traditional road caliper.
The 695 Aerolight’s front brake is a completely custom, linear-pull design. Look calls it a “double-V,” meaning that it has two lever arms on each side instead of just one. This allows for a bit of extra adjustability, making swaps from narrow to wide rims a cinch, and in theory should improve modulation. It also allows the inner arm to be adjusted independently of the outer arm, so the outer arm is always nicely flush with the outside of the fork, improving aerodynamics.
Impressively, Look says that the custom front brake, with all its hardware, is actually competitive in weight with traditional brake sets. Look’s weighs 137 grams (claimed), and SRAM’s latest Red front brake comes in at just over 130 grams. The gold-standard Dura-Ace brake weighs 10 grams more, about 147 grams.
The Look version has another thing going for it: integrated cable routing. Ridley’s Noah FAST, for example, has bits of housing sticking out the side, flapping in the wind. Look’s integrated routing, which has the cable enter through the bottom of the stem, solves this problem, but likely makes wrenching a bit of a nightmare.
As with everything, it’s a bit of give and a bit of take. You get a better looking, more aerodynamic system, but you pay with extra setup time.
The rear brake, tucked neatly behind the BB, is a TRP-built linear pull option, just as Giant uses.
Look did not provide any quantitative stiffness figures relative to the old 695, but we’ve spent many hours on the old bike and can draw some decent comparisons.
The new Aerolight feels more comfortable, even with the tiny Mavic tires we tested it with. Front-end stiffness was completely indiscernible from the old model, while the rear end felt a bit firmer when out of the saddle. Of course, we were on foreign roads on a relatively foreign bike with foreign wheels, so take those observations with a grain of salt.
The bottom line is the 695 Aerolight, like its predecessor, feels like any number of top-end race bikes available today. It’s stiff, it’s relatively light, and not super comfortable. So let’s focus on the brakes.
BMC, Ridley, and Giant have the most impressive integration going, and none of those brakes can stack up favorably against the likes of Shimano’s new Dura-Ace 9000 stoppers. The linear-pull brakes on the BMC TMR01 and Giant’s Propel are a bit grabby, and Ridley’s lack a good range of adjustability. They’re fine — better, in fact, than many traditional brakes from just a few years ago — but aren’t quite at the top level.
Look’s TRP-built rear brake feels about the same as it does on the Giant: powerful, but a bit grabby with average or below average modulation. Once you get used to it, the power is actually quite nice, but it’s a bit of a learning curve. If we had to pick a wheel to get extra brake power and lower modulation, the rear would not be it, though. We’d prefer that feel up front.
The front brake actually feels much better than expected, at least for this 145-pound tester. Modulation is much improved over other linear-pull options, including the Aerolight’s own rear brake, and power was acceptable. It’s the closest thing we’ve felt to a good dual-pivot caliper.
However, discussions with some of the larger journalists on-site revealed a vexing problem: for larger riders (200+ pounds), the front brake was low on outright power. Light riders will love the improved modulation that comes from a bit less bite, while larger riders may want more power. However, the lack of power could likely be remedied with pad choice.
Test riders, big and small, did notice the slight discrepancy in power and feel between the front and rear brakes, but it never manifested itself as rear-wheel lockups on the road. A bit of fiddling with the adjustment on both brakes would bring them into harmony.
Even on the twisty roads of Corsica, where each turn seems to decrease in radius and hard emergency braking occurred frequently, the Look’s brake system stacked up relatively well. It’s certainly a try-before-you-buy piece of technology, as not everyone will get on with the different feel and there’s no swapping back to traditional calipers, but we’d happily bring an Aerolight back to throttle in the mountains outside Boulder. After a few minutes to adjust, we were no less wary on the descents than usual.