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It’s the end of July and we’re in a classroom setting in a small town in the south-western suburbs of Paris. Specialized’s Head of Women’s Brand Vanessa Christie is addressing the room of media folk and it’s clear she can hardly contain her excitement. Behind the door to her left awaits a small fleet of bicycles ready to be unveiled and begging to be ridden.
Inside, the journos are eager to see and ride what we are told is a “radical” innovation and an industry-first.
When the all-new Ruby Pro is rolled into the room, she’s welcomed with Oohs and Aahhs. The eyes go straight to the beautiful blue chameleon paint, then onto the disc brakes and then – whoa! Well, that’s different – the suspension on the steerer tube.
The Ruby sports rear and front suspension, tech features to further Specialized’s reputation as one of the most influential and innovative women’s brands in the industry.
The Ruby Make-Over
Ruby is the Roubaix’s younger sister and was first introduced in 2005 as an endurance road bike, one that marries performance with comfort. Twelve years later, it’s obvious that the 2017 model hasn’t just been updated, it’s been rebuild from the ground up, continuing to combine performance with comfort but with a whole new twist.
Comfort: “The perfect ride does not require the perfect road”
Specialized has been making women’s products for 15 years, and has been collecting data about women who ride throughout that time. They know that while the world’s best female cyclists like world champion Lizzie Armitstead and the UCI number one ranked rider Megan Guarnier perform on the Specialized Amira, the majority of the women’s market does not aspire to line up at the Champs-Elysees alongside these professional athletes.
Instead, “most women ride for fun, fitness and distance. For the sense of achievement, for strong legs, for a clear mind, for experiencing new places, new people and great food,” said Christie.
This is apparent in the recent popularity of riding the road less travelled – the adventure riding, bike packing and gravel rides – a trend the industry has been tailoring to in recent years with more comfortable geometry, disc brakes, wider tyres and rims, more clearance and load-bearing capabilities.
These less-travelled roads, however, tend to come with cracked, chip-sealed pavement, cobbles or no pavement at all.
“The perfect ride does not require the perfect road,” said Christie. “We believe that a bike can smooth the harshest of roads.”
With the Ruby, Specialized set out to create the smoothest performance bicycle on the planet.
Performance thesis: “Smoother is Faster”
Often in the bike industry, comfort is followed by words like upright, wide-tyred, cruiser, endurance and generally everything but ‘fast’. With the Ruby and Roubaix, Specialized set out to prove that smoother is actually faster.
“With the Ruby we tested the thesis that smoother is faster,” said Mark Cote, Head of Integrated Technologies. “The idea that when you go over rough terrain and you can smooth it out, ultimately you are going to have a more efficient and faster experience.”
We’ll talk in detail about the technology below but Specialized’s reasoning behind their “smoother is faster” thesis is this:
– Comfort means less fatigue, especially after a long day over rough terrain. (Think about riding cobbles all day versus smooth pavement).
– A smoother ride increases your ability to apply constant power. So as smoothness increases, while power becomes less stochastic and more constant, you save time.
– Increases in smoothness also aid in traction, which in turn aids in speed, as it keeps the tires better seated to the ground. This not only provides an obvious advantage in inclement weather, descending, and cornering, but it also optimizes rider effort. Increase in rolling efficiency is in direct correlation to greater speed and acceleration.
Although the Ruby is marketed at recreational riders, Specialized is so confident in its thesis that the company would love to see its sponsored teams ride the Roubaix and Ruby over the cobbles at the classics next year.
While simple in the effect and somewhat resembling the early mountain bike suspensions (think Cannondale Headshok!), the spring-based “Future Shock” is a technology that has been five years in the making in partnership with McLaren Applied Technologies, known for their Formula 1 automotive engineering.
Unlike weight or aerodynamics, compliance is hard to quantify. What exactly happens when you roll over a bump? How do the rider and road surface interact? What is “smoothness”? How do you measure it? Working with McLaren gave Specialized quantifiable data to work with.
“Together with McLaren we built the world’s most complex bicycle simulation model that has allowed us to look at some pretty hard ideas,” said Cote. “McLaren changed how we look at a bike and helped us create technical performance targets and the insight on how to hit them.”
Many prototypes were built and tested but ultimately, innovation would have to come in the form of front end compliance.
“In the past five years, a lot of attention has been paid to comfort – wider tyres, lower pressures, and vertical compliance. But everything has been on the rear end. In working with McLaren it became obvious that we need to have more compliance on the front end otherwise we’ll never change the game,” said Cote.
In layman’s terms, bumps — big or little — create vibrations that go through the frame and into the rider’s hands, feet, arms, lower back, etc. The many bumps throughout a ride add up, creating an uncomfortable ride and fatiguing the rider. To dampen vibrations, engineers look at compliance — how the bike can absorb the vibrations. For many years now, the industry has been trying to dampen the vibrations for a smoother ride but often compromising speed and agility in order to do so.
Much of the existing technology is centered around the fore and aft movement (a.k.a “splay”) of the fork. The majority of the compliance tends to come from the flex of the fork and seatpost. McLaren’s and Specialized’s engineers, however, found that while splay certainly creates a comfortable ride, it’s neither the smoothest nor fastest.
Instead, the new Ruby and Roubaix focuses on axial compliance, which is the vertical movement of the handlebars, relative to the front axle. In other words, a more conventional suspension unit, something that depresses vertically as used in mountain bikes, offered a smoother ride than splay does.
The Future Shock
So what does all this technology look like? As mentioned above, the front steerer tube –with a soft rubber casing where you’d normally find the spacers – does aesthetically resemble the 1990s mountain bike suspension. But unlike mountain bike suspension, the Future Shock sits above the headtube, allowing for a more stable ride as the bike remains firmly on the road.
Inside the rubber casing is the steerer tube and a replaceable spring, which come in three different tensions and offer 20mm of travel. The spring tension relates to the road condition and rider preference – less tension equals a cushier ride – rather than the rider’s weight.
The spring was easy to swap, but Specialized still recommends buying the right tension spring upfront and seeing a Specialized dealer when wanting to switch the spring.
While the front-end technology gets all the attention, the rear end should not go unnoticed. Embracing the comfort of splay, the rear triangle sits well below the top tube and the seatpost clamp is located lower down the downtube as well, allowing for a highly flexible seat mast. Combined with the CG-R seatpost, this makes for a highly dampened ride.
The whole package
Suspension aside, the new Ruby also sports the lightest Ruby frame yet, ultra-lightweight and cushy Roval CL 32 wheels, SWAT technology, and a new geometry.
The Roval CL 32 Disc wheelset are among the lightest carbon clinchers Specialized has ever made yet feature a rim that’s crafted around a 26mm tire shape for performance on all roads, no matter how steep or rough the going gets. Despite it’s narrow profile, Specialized found that the CL 32 wheels are in fact more aerodynamic than wheels with almost twice the depth like the CLX 40 rim brake wheels.
My favourite “extra” feature is the SWAT system. Located in between the down and seat tube, the SWAT kit is an integrated box that sits in between the down and seat tube and is intended to hold your spare tube, levers and tools. Bye, bye clunky saddle bag!
“Please don’t just run straight into the nearest pothole or curb you see,” Cote warned before taking the bikes out for a first spin. And I’ll admit, it was tempting to do just that. Even with just 20mm of travel, the suspension was immediately noticeable, feeling more like my hardtail mountain bike than a road bike.
As we cruised through the beautiful French countryside I quickly noticed that there is a learning curve to this bike, bigger than on other bikes. Up until now, a road bike shouldn’t bob or move and so, initially, I couldn’t shake the notion that my headset was loose. I must have checked it half a dozen times during my first ride. I just couldn’t get used to that feeling.
Up the first climb I was fully prepared for a lag in speed and, despite Specialized’s claim, a loss of power. I was pleasantly surprised, however, that the bike climbed beautifully. The Ruby Pro is certainly the lightest disc-brake equipped women’s bike I have ridden yet and paired with a fast set of wheels, it was very responsive and agile.
On the descents and fast corners, on the other hand, the learning curve became the most apparent for me. As the suspension absorbs the vibrations, I wasn’t getting any feedback from the road either. As such I found myself descending and corner somewhat hesitantly, which is very much unlike my usual riding style.
Mother Nature decided to give us a true “Classics” experience on the first day of riding as the skies opened up and rain came down steadily. The wheels remained firmly planted on the wet pavement and not once did I fear sliding out.
The second day of testing was longer, which gave me a better appreciation of just how comfortable this bike is, despite having switched to the spring with the most tension. As the roads weren’t all that rough, it made little difference.
Once adjusted to the feeling of a dampened ride, it was remarkable how smoothly the bike sailed over cracks and rough pavement. The cobbles or bumps didn’t disappear, mind you, but they weren’t nearly as jarring as on a fully rigid road bike.
I came away from two good days of riding without any soreness or stiffness in the body, which is also due to Specialized’s excellent women’s specific touch points.
The new Ruby certainly is the most comfortable performance road bike I have ever ridden but is it the fastest?
My biggest skepticism regarding the “Smoother is Faster” thesis remains to be the power output in sprinting and jumping out of the saddle.
It feels like the initial pedal stroke and coinciding pull of the upper body is wasted in the depression of the suspension. There is the slightest of bouncing going on, and while I didn’t feel hindered by it climbing, in a sprint I didn’t feel as fast.
But Cote said they have done extensive research on this, working not only with McLaren but also with the human performance lab at CU Boulder, which found that there was little to no detrimental effect even during hard sprinting or climbing out of the saddle.
I was certainly not the only one who felt this way so even if it’s just in the riders’ heads, a lockout option, for the placebo effect alone, could perhaps be an option in future iterations. Or perhaps with more riding, one would grow to forget it’s even there.
The Ruby handled like any performance bike should – she’s fast, agile and snappy. It was truly a joy to ride and I found myself thinking that two days was simply too short.
The comfort of the Ruby truly is unparalleled and since this is currently the only performance road bicycle on the market with the front and rear suspended, I am sure more innovative approaches from other brands will soon follow.
We didn’t get to ride much cobbles and I would have liked to have ridden rougher roads to truly put the suspension through the wringer. Racing a 100-mile gravel event last weekend, I kept wishing for this kind of technology on a bike with a bit more tyre clearance for those long gravel events and backcountry adventures.
The Ruby provides all-day comfort in a snappy, lightweight package. This bike will undoubtedly help many explore new roads, reach new distances and enjoy that perfect ride no matter what the roads look like.