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by Imogen Smith
October 18, 2016
Photography by Mike Blewitt
WOMEN'S CYCLING BROUGHT TO YOU BY ORBEA
Liv split from big brother Giant in 2014 to become the world’s first bike brand dedicated only to women. It’s fair to say that in the last three years, Liv’s products have been established as the most recognisable in a crowded women’s specific marketplace. A lot of this has been achieved at a grass-roots level: through local ambassadors in many countries, through demo days for women, and through ride programs. Then of course there’s more savvy marketing on top of that.
Liv produce a vast range of women’s bikes, from townies to time triallers to XC race machines, but the endurance road model, the Avail, is one of the most popular and versatile. The Avail line was redesigned in 2015 from the ground up, around the dimensions and needs of female riders. The result is a geometry that differs quite considerably from Giant’s unisex Defy range, and feedback has been positive – for the third year running, the Avail’s tubes and angles remain unchanged.
For 2017, the Avail is available in a range of models (which will vary from country to country depending on what’s imported for the local market). In Australia, the line begins with the entry-level, alloy, 8-speed Avail 2 (AUD$899), and runs all the way up to the Advanced-grade composite framed Avail Advanced Pro 0 (AUD$7,999/US$7,300), with 11-speed, electronic SRAM eTap wireless shipping and SRAM hydraulic disc brakes. The 2017 Avail Advanced 1 sits right in the middle of the range, retailing for AUD$3,299/US$2,375.
The Avail Advanced 1 comes in an attractive package of silver and gold decals over a nude, matte composite frame, with full internal cable routing and press-fit bottom bracket. The frame’s robust downtube and fat bottom bracket area are balanced by elegant seat stays, while little details like an integrated seat clamp with hidden bolt tie the whole package together with a sleek overall finish.
The frame itself is made of the same Advanced-grade composite material as the top Avail on the market, second-best in the Liv/Giant armoury to the Advanced-SL grade. While the Advanced-SL grade boasts to having a higher grade carbon fibre, both are made using a similar ‘modified monocoque construction’ technique, which sees the front triangle moulded as one piece, then bonded to rear stays, reducing the total weight of frame material used.
The frame is noticeably shaped around Giant’s ‘PowerCore’ bottom bracket, an oversized bottom-bracket/chainstay area with a press-fit 86-millimeter-wide bottom bracket, teamed with asymmetric chainstays for stiffness on the driveside and stability on the non-driveside.
Up front the Liv features a tapered fork steerer (1 1/8-inch top and 1 1/4-inch bottom bearings) for delivering better torsional steering stiffness – 15 percent better, Giant claim, than straight steerer tubes of past. The Avail Advanced 1’s is a composite hybrid with alloy steerer.
A close-up of the Avail Advanced’s only frame change for 2017. The road-specific disc brake flat-mount replaces the old post-design, while thru-axles provide greater wheel retention
In 2016, the Avail Advanced 1 was fitted with Ultegra shifters and levers, plus mechanical discs. In 2017, RS505 hydraulic disc brakes, levers, and shifters will be a welcome upgrade (although it’s worth noting that this model’s price has also risen from AUD$2,999 last year to AUD$3,299). The addition of 105-level hydros has brought about other small changes, too. 2016’s post-mount calipers have been replaced by Shimano’s neater flat-mount design, and front and rear 12mm thru-axles add stiffness and minimise disc rub, neatly rounding out the new setup. This change to a simpler and cleaner disc brake mount design and thru-axles is the only structural change seen to the Avail’s frame for 2017, but it’s a valid upgrade nonetheless.
Shimano Ultegra 6800 compact cranks match nicely with the huge-range 11-32T cassette out back
Otherwise, the Avail 1 Advanced is fitted with a Shimano Ultegra drivetrain, Giant Connect stem and Contact handlebars, and women’s specific Liv Contact Forward saddle. The wheels are Giant-branded PR-2 Disc rims built on Performance Tracker Road Disc sealed bearing hubs, and finished with Giant’s P-SL 25c tyres. The Pro series Avails come with Giant’s RideSense ANT+/Bluetooth sensor as standard which provides wireless cadence and speed measurement, but if you want one on the Advanced you’ll have to purchase it separately. There’s a small hole in the frame where the sensor can be fitted on the inside of the non-drive side chainstay.
The Avail Advanced 1 comes in three sizes, 43cm, 46.5cm, and 50cm. The geometry is all about the relaxed stability associated with the ‘endurance’ concept in road bike design. The 50cm bike I tested has a fairly relaxed head angle of 72 degrees and the wheelbase, at 100cm, is pretty long. If you compare the Avail to the racy Envie, for example, you’ll notice that the Envie’s chainstays and wheelbase are considerably shorter. That’ll provide more lively handling, but the Avail is built around comfort and stability. The 17cm headtube makes for a very upright position, which has a big influence on the handling of the bike, particularly at speed.
There’s a lot of talk about ‘inspiring confidence’, especially in women’s-specific bike marketing. As a rider who loves to race a traditional race roadie, but who is also frequently terrified, I’ve been pretty intrigued to see what all this fuss about ‘comfort’ and ‘confidence’ – the kind of promotional verbiage that proliferates whenever features like disc brakes are discussed for women – would actually mean for me as a rider.
There’s no denying that the Avail is as comfortable as a pair of fluffy slippers. A lot of this comes down to the 25c tyres, padded saddle and composite frame design. The bike really impressed me with its muted and compliant ride, even over really rough bitumen and choppy country roads. The Avail is stiff, sure, but when looking to accelerate or drive forward I found I had to work pretty hard against its geometry: the upright position that the head tube naturally promotes, along with the long wheelbase, make getting low and aggressive a real feat in hamstring flexibility and determination, and acceleration an exercise in delayed gratification. Sprinting, on board the Avail, might be best left for the occasional dash to the coffee shop.
That aside, I was nicely surprised by the Liv’s climbing ability, which is impressive, even considering she tips the scales at 8.8kg without pedals. Sure, it’s not going to accelerate like a spooked cat, but out of the saddle, the long wheelbase and stiff carbon provided a balanced platform and excellent power transfer. In the saddle, I was always comfortable in the Avail’s natural, rather than aggressive, position, even when I had to grind a bit. That wasn’t often though – the compact 34/50 crankset, combined with a huge 11–32 tooth cassette, made just about any hill spinable.
25c tyres offer a nice volume paired with the wider rims
Giant’s PR-2 disc wheels look great, and should be strong and reliable, as well as stiff with their thru axles, but they’re not particularly light, and it’s clear that much of the dollar value in this bike lies in its frame and disc spec. If you were looking to save weight for your next big sportive or epic mountain-climbing holiday, the wheels would be my first choice for an upgrade.
I was pretty pleased with the Avail’s cornering ability after the first few rides on the flat, twisty roads around Brisbane’s river suburbs. Through sweeping, admittedly low-speed corners the Liv felt fine, even nippy, owing a lot to that stiff front end, from tapered steerer through to thru-axle. When I took her out to the mountains west of the city I found that, cornering downhill and at speed, a huge amount of body language is needed to lean the bike adequately into the turns – the only alternative being to slow down. That said, on straight descents the Avail felt great – stability to burn – and that’s the trade-off.
The more a bike is designed around what Liv call ‘descending composure’, the less lively it’s going to be at speed and in and out of bends. The problem is that the upright position the Avail encourages made lowering my body’s centre of gravity pretty tough, and the long wheelbase and chainstays meant she also preferred to travel in a straight line. I found myself bent double, with my chest close to the stem, straining to get more weight over the front wheel, just to manage a mountain descent at 45km/h, a speed I’d ordinarily be able to swing my own roadie at without using the drops.
Most women considering this bike will be interested to know whether disc brakes are worth the expense and nearly inevitable weight penalty. The answer is: Yes… But:
In the line of duty as a meticulous bike tester I took the Avail up our local mountain in a torrential subtropical downpour to see what would happen down what we locals affectionately call ‘the steep side’ in the wet. I’m very used to using discs on my mountain bikes but this test has been the first time I’ve ever used them on the road. I can report that road discs do have more stopping power than your ordinary rim brakes, but a lot of this is wasted (in most situations) because you can only brake so hard and fast before you lock up your wheels and skid. To me, the potential power of the discs, whether on steep descents or riding in traffic, was a bit like the giant bottle of brandy in the back of my pantry – nice to know it’s there, but highly unlikely I’ll ever get around to using it all.
The front fork features a low-profile flat-mount hydraulic brake
Still, discs are going to be very useful. They’ll save effort on very long, alpine-style descents where arm fatigue is a possibility. For those new to riding and unused to descending in the drops, one of the great things about discs is that you can still access their full power from the hoods – for rim brakes you’ll need the leverage of the drops to pull off hard braking in any kind of safety.
Returning to my trip up the mountain in the downpour, when it’s wet, discs are great. That’s because, unlike your rims, which get covered in that slippery black brake grime and lose power in the wet, discs behave pretty much the same in all conditions. They’ll also save your rims from wear and tear. Still, disc brakes are not the revelation they were to the mountain bike world 15 or so years ago, and that’s reflected in their slow and contentious take-up. Braking on the MTB compared with the road is completely different – road riding requires smooth, anticipatory braking before corners and when coming to a stop. MTB is about quick, last-minute speed washes and jabs to help drag the rear wheel around corners, as well as infinite modulation to maintain as much momentum as possible. If discs are something you’re tossing up, you might ask yourself how often you’re likely to ride down a 20km mountain or in the rain, how capable you are of riding in the drops, and how much of your riding you’ll be doing in Australian conditions (shorter descents, great weather, etc.). Then there’s always the point that, if you’re interested in trying out racing someday, discs are currently banned by UCI rules.
The most bizarre decision by Liv must be the choice of handlebar on the Avail. Where most bike brands will spec their women’s specific bikes with women’s specific parts at contact points (hands and seat, plus feet), the Avail comes specced with a 40cm unisex Giant Contact handlebar with pretty shallow reach.
The Shimano RS505 shifters need to house the hydraulic brake aspect within, making them a little large in appearance
While it’s true that your dealer should fit you out on your bike and would probably swap it around, no problems, and handlebar width is always a matter of personal preference, I thought it unusual when teamed with the Shimano RS505 brake levers. Fitting hydraulic system into an STI shifter has, of course, has some design constraints and the hood area is both long and high, with an unsightly bulb at the crest. To reach around the hoods (I could get my entire hand around beneath the levers – great for leverage!) I found I had to stretch pretty far forward, and could even use the tops of the handlebars like mini aerobars. Although I’m a tall 172cm with arms like an orang-utan, in the drops I could barely reach the brakes with my fingertips. Even after winding in the adjustable lever reach, the stock handlebars seem a strange choice. Best to check your reach to the brakes carefully before you leave your shop – some quick changes shouldn’t be a problem.
I got along just fine with the Liv Contact Forward saddle
Liv have, however, got the saddle just about right. A simple, narrowish design with a middle channel, the Liv Contact Forward saddle felt comfy without being overpadded or fussy. Again, it’s something your dealer should be happy to swap around if it doesn’t suit you.
The Avail is going to be a popular choice with women who want to feel safe but also want good performance from a road bike. A lot is made of words like comfort and confidence in women’s bike marketing, so throughout this review I’ve been asking myself whether I feel comfortable and whether I feel more confident. Comfortable – yes. In fact, the Avail really excelled over bumps and on rough roads, providing cushiony compliance no matter what I chucked at her. She’d be amazing on gravel, especially if you swapped in some 28c tyres. But confidence? I suppose it depends what kind of rider you are. If you like to be first to the bottom of the hills or swapping off on a paceline, it’s my firm belief that you’d be more confident on a bike designed for agility, disc brakes or not. That said, if you ride to enjoy the views of surrounding countryside, to socialise, and to stay fit, the Avail will take you as far as you want to go.
The 2017 Liv Avail Advanced 1 – as tested
Shimano Ultegra 6800 derailleurs take care of the shifting duties. It’s all smooth performance here
The Advanced frame is the same as used in the Avail Advanced Pros
Clean internal cable routing enters at the head tube
The Avail’s hidden seat clamp is a nice touch
The Avail Advanced 1 uses Giant’s own rims and sealed bearing hubs
There’s ample tyre clearance around the 25c rubber