First-look review: Specialized Roubaix 2017

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The original Specialized Roubaix was arguably one of the first ‘comfort performance’ road bikes on the market, a category that a plethora of manufacturers now build bikes for. For 2017 Specialized hasn’t just updated the Roubaix — rather they’ve revamped it, producing a bike with technical features, and one in particular, that they hope will keep the brand at the cutting edge.

In crunching the data to develop the 2017 Roubaix, Specialized again partnered with British McLaren Applied Technologies, the F1 engineers that had a helping hand in creating both the current Tarmac and the Venge ViAS.

On first sight, it’s obvious that the latest incarnation of the Roubaix is a whole different beast. Gone are Specialized’s Zertz inserts (elastomer dampeners in the fork legs and rear stays) and in comes what looks to be a reimagined Cannondale Headshok unit.

Sat above the head tube, in place of a stack of spacers, is a rubber tubular sleeve: Specialized’s new Future Shock suspension.

The latest Roubaix has been a project five years in the making. And for this new model, Specialized ventured down a different path to many when it came to producing a bike that is smooth over rough roads.

The tech

With many comfort performance bikes, fore and aft movement (splay) is where you’ll find much of the technology and comfort benefits, the flex of the fork or seat post providing the majority of the compliance. For the new Roubaix, Specialized’s and MacLaren’s engineers found that a more conventional suspension unit that provides vertical compliance promised to offer a smoother ride than strategies that focus on fore/aft compliance.

“We prototyped many different ways to incorporate axial compliance at the front of the bike – ranging from traditional MTB style suspension to convoluted flexible dropouts,” said Chris Yu, Applied Technologies Lead at Specialized. “The fundamental breakthrough that we landed on was the recognition that locating the compliance above the frame and fork resulted in the compliance benefits of suspension while avoiding the traditional downsides (like bobbing under pedalling and vagueness in handling).”

The spring-based Future Shock system that Specialized eventually settled on provides 20mm of travel. Three spring options will be provided though Specialized believes the vast majority of riders will prefer the same spring rate. This is because the springs are designed for the road conditions and not rider weight, size or frame geometry.

One thing that has been carried over from the Tarmac to the Roubaix is the bike’s head angle and fork rake. Sean Estes, Specialized Road PR manager told CyclingTips: “When we asked our sponsored riders what they wanted in the new Roubaix, the Tarmac’s head angle was high on the list”.

Another thing the Tarmac has passed onto the new Roubaix is the mantle as Specialized’s lightest road frame. The new Roubaix S-Works frame comes in at 900g while the non-S-Works Roubaix frame weighs 1,050g (for comparison, the Tarmac frame weighs in at 966g).

This doesn’t mean the new Roubaix builds into a lighter steed though. The addition of the included CG-R Seatpost, which is slightly heavier (260g) than a standard post, and the suspension cartridge (295g) bumps the weight up. The top tier Roubaix S-Works with SRAM eTap tips the scales at a respectable 7.2kg.

The front end isn’t the only part of the Roubaix frame that has been updated — the rear triangle and seat post/seat tube have also seen a considerable revamp. The rear triangle now has what are, in essence, drop stays. The seat stays now join the seat tube 65mm below the top tube; the spot where the seat post is now clamped.

An alloy bridge wraps around the front of the seat tube and bolts into the seat stays, clamping the post in place. This combination reportedly allows for a stiff rear triangle and a highly flexible seat mast. So while Specialized has moved away from fore/aft movement for compliance at the front end, they’ve embraced it at the rear.

The seatpost clamp s 65 mm lower than the top tube. This clamp on Boonen's none production bike is a little unfinished. The final production version is in a very glossy looking black.
The seatpost clamps 65mm below the top tube. This clamp on Boonen’s non-production bike is a little unfinished. The final production version is in a very glossy looking black.

Specialized has managed to lower the head tube (a demand from the pros who wanted to keep the bike looking low and fast) but in order to still provide comfort and a higher position, they offer the bike with a riser handlebar (15mm rise, 125mm drop, 75mm reach) — a carry-over from the Venge ViAS.

The bike also comes with two headset covers of varying heights. These were hard plastic on the test models but will be a softer, rubberised material on the production models.

For a road bike that has an unavoidable 2cm of stack up front, it all looks very slick, low and fast.

This is Boonen's test rig, notice how he wasn't using the CG-R seatpost.
This is Boonen’s test rig. Notice how he wasn’t using the CG-R seatpost.

The fork is built from Specialized’s FACT 11r carbon and features a 12x100mm thru-axle design. It will also accept a tyre up to 32mm wide. This allowance for larger tyres has also lead Specialized to lower the bottom bracket height.

Disc mounts on the fork and the rear are full carbon too. If you’re a traditionalist you may be disappointed to hear there’ll be no rim brake versions available.

Other little extras include the SWAT kit, an integrated toolbox that is mounted with two bolts between the down and seat tube. It’s big enough to hold the usual essentials but does look a little like an ebike battery.

For the launch of the new Roubaix Specialized kitted us out with their in-house brand’s latest wheelset: the Roval CLX 32 Disc. Inner rim width is 22mm allowing tyres from 25mm upwards to be installed. Specialized’s testing has apparently shown that these new wheels are more aero than the current CLX 40 rim brake wheels. Ours came installed with Specialized’s own 28mm-wide S-Works tyres, a tyre that has seen a huge amount of love in the pro peloton, admittedly in narrower widths.

First impressions

Quite aptly, the launch for the new Roubaix was held in the town of the same name. And, in order to create a true “Classics” experience, they brought along one of the greatest Cobbled Classics riders of all time, Tom Boonen (Etixx-QuickStep). The perfect testing ground and the perfect training partner.

The new Roubaix certainly works — it’s smooth and fast, exactly what Specialized set out to develop. But as with any bike that performs the job it’s designed for, it also comes with a number of drawbacks that limit its use in other settings.

Anyone who’s had the chance to ride the pave of Northern Europe will tell you the faster you hit the cobbles and the longer you can keep that speed, the ‘smoother’ and easier the ride will be.

Specialized’s statement, “smoother is faster” was demonstrated on our first venture on the cobbles. I found my front wheel stuck nicely to the pave, not losing forward momentum or traction. I was able to keep my speed while the suspension took the hits. Finishing cobbled sections feeling fresh was a whole new and very welcome experience.

 

Testing at lower speeds and attempting to accelerate on the cobbles was also pleasantly surprising. The 2cm of suspension allowed me to actually push on the bars, rather than keeping my weight back and slowly yet forcibly easing the bike up to speed. I felt I could force all my energy into the pedal stroke, accelerating without having vast amounts of energy wasted by a bouncing front end.

Having Tom Boonen as a training partner threw up a testing procedure I wouldn’t have encountered had I tested alone. The four-time Paris-Roubaix winner obviously made crushing the cobbles look easy and when he decided to show us who was the boss on the Gruson pave sector, I had my eyes glued to his rear hub.

My brain disengaged and I found myself following him at speeds that took me well beyond my usual skill level. Keeping my head down and concentrating on holding his wheel saw me take poor lines through the cobbled corners (a far cry from what Boonen was doing), hitting pot holes and broken cobbles at speed.

The bike reacted admirably — steering was direct and responsive. At one point I looked up briefly and then had to attempt a bunny-hop to avoid a pot hole. My reaction was a fraction of a second late, however, causing the back wheel to clatter into a deep hole. It bounced back out and the bike kept its straight line, not faulting once. This surprised me — I’d have expected a solid jolt and a considerable lag in speed.

This incident showed me that the handling and shock absorption of the new Roubaix allows for rider error. The compensation was evident as I finished the sector only meters behind Tom (the more I tell this story the closer I will get, until, one day, I will tell people I managed to finish ahead of him).

Not a bad training partner.
Not a bad training partner.

Cornering at speed had me scratching my head initially. Each time I intentionally accelerated into a rough or cobbled corner, the back end would jump from under me, skip away then regain traction. When I told Specialized’s Creative Specialist Chris D’Aluisio what I was finding, his quick laugh and smile suggested he was happy with the way the bike was being ridden. He asked if I was pushing it in the corners, riding as if I was in a crit. I was.

Rather than easing off and slowing slightly into the cobbled corner, while keeping my weight centred over the bike, the suspension allowed me to load the front end with weight as I would on a smooth corner. The front of the bike, with its suspension, allowed the front wheel to stay firmly planted, holding its line while the rear, with little weight over it, lost traction.

Repeated cornering showed D’Aluisio was right. After a while, and after playing with my position over the frame when entering corners, I was able to carry my speed and eliminate the skipping of the rear wheel.

Being able to enter rough corners fast showed me that I had greater control over the bike when compared to how I’d have to enter the corner on a fully rigid bike.

Chris Yu explained how the professionals usually tackle the pave and how the new setup allows for a different approach.

“The pros are traditionally used to sitting very far back on the bike and putting as little weight on the bars as possible in these situations,” Yu said. “However, with the new Roubaix, we had a lot of feedback that they ended up changing their riding style to have a firmer grip on the bars and letting the Future Shock do its
job”.

A learning curve

The new Specialized Roubaix is a bike that has a learning curve, especially if you’re the sort of rider that enjoys pushing yourself, your skills and your equipment to the limits on unfamiliar and rougher-than-normal roads. That learning curve doesn’t just stop at cornering, though.

The head unit’s 2cm of suspension affects quite a few aspects of the ride, some in a highly positive way, others in a slightly detrimental way. It’s an unarguably comfortable bike, doing the job it’s designed for like no other comfort performance road bike I’ve previously ridden. In my mind, its one downfall comes when you get out of the saddle.

Sprinting or climbing while standing results in a feeling that you’re not getting 100% of the effort your upper body is putting in. You still feel like you’re getting all your power to the back wheel but there’s a feeling that the front end isn’t entirely solid. It’s an odd feeling; a little off-putting at first and something I struggled to get used to in the short time I got to ride the bike.

Chris Yu explained that he too had concerns about how the bike would feel when out of the saddle.

“We knew early on that the initial perception of many riders (including myself) was that any movement of the Future Shock would be a cause for concern while climbing or sprinting,” Yu explained. “We wanted to scientifically study this and demonstrate whether there was actually any metabolic efficiency change with the Future Shock (vs. without). To do so, we engaged the human performance lab at CU Boulder to conduct an independent, academic level study with 16 subjects in a climbing scenario”.

The result of that study: “Under the conditions tested (7.5 MPH up a treadmill inclined to ~7%), in either the seated or standing positions, the Future Shock does not require significantly more mechanical or metabolic power compared to riding with the headset rigidly locked out.”

Even knowing the results of this study, that squidgy, out-of-the-saddle feeling is still a slight niggle; a niggle that reminded me a little of riding a bike with a slightly slacker-than-standard head tube, where the bike feels a little slow under you even though it’s stable.

In the two days I got to ride the new Roubaix I couldn’t work out a way to position my body that eliminated this bob. Talking with other journalists at the launch the agreement was that a MTB-style lock-out option would be ideal. We were told by Specialized that this was something engineers looked at but ultimately decided it wasn’t worth the weight penalty.

My guess is that the bobbing feeling will bother some riders who are used to low-slung race-ready machines. Riders who are after a fast, comfortable, and above all else fun bike will no doubt accept this bob as a simple characteristic of the bike. And probably grow to not even notice it.

I rode with the softest of the three spring options available, and I’m sure the stiffer of the three would certainly help with this bobbing. And, admittedly, the cobbles of Northern European will not be the usual training ground for most. All that said, if I was to use the bike on the cobbles again, I’d stick with the softest spring. Coming off the pave fresh was definitely more beneficial than feeling ‘locked into position’ when climbing.

With most of my focus on the front end, it wasn’t until later in the second ride that I had to remind myself of the rest of the bike. For the two days, I didn’t have any reason to focus a critical eye on the bike’s rear end. The simple reason was that it worked as expected, never throwing up unquestionable characteristics (bar the skipping in the first hour on the corners). It was just there, doing its job quietly, quite literally in the background.

The power transfer is as good as any high-end race bike and the tight rear triangle allowed for snappy acceleration. The combination of the CG-R seatpost’s upper head — a leaf spring design much like that of the prototype forks — and its extended length made for a comfortable rear end. It complimented the front well. Coming away both days without a sore undercarriage and not having to stand too often to ‘relieve’ certain areas showed that this is one aspect Specialized has certainly managed to get right.

The CG-R seat post, just half of the tech out back that heps the bike float over the cobbles.
The CG-R seat post, just half of the tech out back that heps the bike float over the cobbles.

Disc brakes are here to stay, it’s that simple. Though Boonen was and has been testing the bike, it’s still very much up in the air whether we’ll see him crushing the cobbles on a disc-brake specific bike next year. The fact the UCI still has cold feet when it comes to the introduction of disc brakes is the only major factor stopping this bike from being used in professional competition.

For some (myself included) discs are a little ugly, but after riding the Roubaix it’s hard to deny that they offer a performance enhancement.

Round up

Specialized has produced a bike that suits its intended purpose exceptionally well. The technology and balance of the front and rear work in harmony on the rough stuff.

It’s a bike that I feel straddles a few trends. It’s perfect for all-day riding, on rough or smooth roads. It’s designed to take tyres that will also allow you to venture onto roads that a normal road bike won’t allow you to. It’s no gravel bike but it will certainly open new roads to you.

As a comfort performance bike, it definitely stands out from the crowd. Wandering around Eurobike (Europe’s largest cycle industry trade show) last week I can honestly say I didn’t spot any other manufacturer with a similar product. The new Roubaix will surprise many in the industry.

It’s been a while since I’ve jumped on a bike and found myself a little challenged. It was a pleasant experience to throw the bike about and see how it and I reacted; learning to reposition myself when attacking rough corners added to the experience. Sure, that one downfall, the bobbing effect when out of the saddle, was a bit distracting. But it’s a bike that I quickly became fond of and I had a hoot riding it.

The learning curve that the bike throws up when out of the saddle or ploughing too fast into a corner could be seen in one of two ways. For some it may be a hindrance or a barrier, a reason not to buy. For others (and I include myself in this category), it can be seen as a new experience, a fresh lesson in how to treat and work with one’s bike.

Above all it’s a bike that I’d say achieves what Specialized set out to do — to make a fast yet smooth ride on rough, unforgiving roads.

The 2017 Specialized Roubaix range

Disclosure statement: Dave Everett travelled to Roubaix as a guest of Specialized. CyclingTips would like to thank Specialized for their hospitality and the opportunity to review the 2017 Roubaix.

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