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First Ride: Specialized’s redesigned Roubaix

KORTRIJK, Belgium (VN) – Specialized went back to the drawing board to rebuild the Roubaix, its flagship cobblestone bike, from the ground up, and the new iteration couldn’t look more different from previous models. Gone are the wavy seat stays and fork with Zertz inserts. And at first glance, you might miss Specialized’s biggest design accomplishment, a damping unit built into the steerer it is calling “Future Shock.”

Photo: Dan Cavallari | VeloNews.com
Future Shock. Photo: Dan Cavallari | VeloNews.com

The Future Shock unit lives inside the head tube and is fixed in place. The stem mounts to the top of the two-piece Road Control unit, which is essentially a series of springs contained in a two-piece tube that allows the cockpit to move axially when the front end of the bike incurs impacts.

Smoother is Faster

What does that mean exactly? Chris Yu, head of applied technologies at Specialized, says the whole idea is to make you faster with the most efficient compliance possible. “We’ve had the qualitative notion that smoother is faster based on the theory that if you hit something, you slow down. That’s really why we started developing the first Roubaix,” Yu says. “We haven’t had a way to quantitatively prove that statement until our involvement with Mclaren Applied Technologies. Mclaren’s rolling efficiency simulator was designed specifically for Specialized.” And it told Specialized engineers that not all compliance is created equal.

Yu explains there are two types of compliance: splay and axial. “Splay is what the bike industry has traditionally done,” he says. “The fork is designed so the legs bend. Any type of bending is splay. It’s not the most efficient way to get that smoothness. Axial means the compliance is in line with your fork. So just think traditional suspension on your mountain bike. It’s a very efficient way to build in compliance and get speed out of that system.”

Specialized toyed with plenty of options for a front compliance feature, from splay forks to other axial options, before they landed on the Road Control unit. Photo: Dan Cavallari | VeloNews.com
Specialized toyed with plenty of options for a front compliance feature, from splay forks to other axial options, before it landed on the Future Shock unit. Photo: Dan Cavallari | VeloNews.com

But Specialized wasn’t content to just slap on a suspension fork, or an axial suspension unit below the head tube where suspension usually lives. Locating the unit there would adversely affect handling, and it would contribute to pedaling bob and efficiency loss. By moving the axial compliance from below the frame chassis to above it, most of those disadvantages disappear. Hence, the Future Shock unit moves only above the head tube.

So that takes care of the front. Out back, the frame itself looks quite similar to the Tarmac, but with a more sloped top tube. Yet while pro riders like Tom Boonen, who were involved in initial feedback on the project, told Specialized to essentially make the Roubaix like the Tarmac but smooth, the new Roubaix has quite a few tricks up its sleeve that the Tarmac doesn’t. Specialized worked closely with Mclaren to develop the frame and to understand how a rider’s mass impacts ride quality. Upon quick inspection, it becomes clear Specialized didn’t integrate much compliance into the frame at all.

Most shock absorption comes from the the CG-R seatpost and slightly lowered seat stays so Specialized can stick with a stiff rear end for excellent power transfer. The seatpost is longer to accommodate the lower clamp position, which in turn means you get a bit more flex. Its rear end is certainly stiffer than, say, Trek’s Domane, which means you do get thrown around a bit more in the real rough stuff, but it hardly mattered on all but the worst cobbled sectors (Carrefour, for example, but a miracle couldn’t have helped me there). The front suspension unit took out so much of the chatter to my body that it never occurred to me that the rear might be overly stiff. So in a sense, the bike is balanced, but not necessarily for compliance. It’s balanced for racing.

Before deciding that front compliance far outweighed the need for a dedicated rear compliance feature, Specialized toyed with the idea of making the seat stays move for rear shock absorption. Photo: Dan Cavallari | VeloNews.com
Before deciding that front compliance far outweighed the need for a dedicated rear compliance feature, Specialized toyed with the idea of making the seat stays move for rear shock absorption. Photo: Dan Cavallari | VeloNews.com

“In the rear,” Yu says, “there are significant disadvantages to going too far with compliance. If you go too far, you happen to do a lot of steering through the saddle. You build too much of a disconnect in the rear end, and it starts to feel strange.” So Specialized stuck with a fairly rigid frame for power transfer and a more connected road feel, rather than trying to balance compliance with performance.

The Ride

The Roubaix is definitely a cobble crusher, and if your home roads include a fair bit of dirt, you’ll dig the new Roubaix. But the Future Shock unit takes some getting used to. There’s up and down movement in the handlebars, and that motion is likely to take you by surprise. You’ll notice it at first, and there’s definitely an ‘ugh’ factor to it. But by the end of a hard ride you’ll barely notice it. That’s how good it is: Your control improves on rough roads, as does your comfort on cobbles, and the rest of the bike is stiff enough that you might call this a race bike.

Here’s where you will notice the Future Shock movement: hard sprints on smooth pavement, and short, punchy climbs. That’s not to say it’s bothersome, just that you’ll notice the movement. I know, that sounds odd: It moves but it won’t bother me? Strange, but true. In terms of handling, the fact that Future Shock sits above the head tube makes cornering a confident affair, and your body’s input on the handlebars won’t ever be enough to change that. Still, it might be a good idea for Specialized to explore a lockout feature so riders can do without Future Shock when it’s not necessary, like on smooth pavement. Realistically, how many of us are on rough terrain 100 percent of the time?

Of course, since the frame itself takes a stiffness cue from the Tarmac, the new Roubaix does feel solid and stable in most race and ride situations. I was able to throw down some serious watts (stop laughing!) and while the Roubaix doesn’t exactly feel as responsive as the epically stiff and twitchy Tarmac, it certainly held its own under hard efforts.

What will classics season look like?

Having ridden the Flanders cobbles four times in the last year, and the Roubaix cobbles once, I can tell you this: Both the Trek Domane SLR and the redesigned Specialized Roubaix will be weapons of choice. But both bikes do so in very different ways. They differ in balance: Specialized has focused on front compliance here, noting that the rear end doesn’t matter quite as much and in fact adding compliance to the rear can affect handling, in a bad way. Trek has aimed for a balanced feel front to back, and both companies achieved their goals. The question is, which is better?

That depends. I flat-out crushed the Flanders cobbles on both bikes (well, compared to my previous tries, anyway. I’m no Boonen). It wasn’t even close. Where the Roubaix excels is cornering: Because the suspension is mounted above the head tube,  Specialized is able to keep the fork and head tube exceptionally stiff. Go ahead, dive into cobbled corners. The bike will stick, seriously. But there’s a learning curve and wide tires and rims at a decently low pressure matter. Specialized specs the new CLX 32 Rapide wheels from Roval, which are low-profile, wide carbon rims (32mm depth, 21mm inner width, CeramicSpeed bearings, 1,340 grams/pair for clincher disc version), and the stock builds come with 26c tires.

The one-day classics are anyone’s game, but it seems that any rider on a Domane or a Roubaix would have an advantage. Epic battle between John Degenkolb, Peter Sagan, and Tom Boonen? Yes please.

But who cares about the pros? What does this mean for you? Simply stated, it means you’ve got yet another incredible option for riding on rough roads without sacrificing your body to the endeavor. And, thankfully, you can still feel like you’re on a race bike if your day includes intervals or other not-so-fun racer-guy training.

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