Text and production: Iain Treloar
Photography: Kevin Scott Batchelor and Dan Escobar for Specialized
Aluminum is dead.
That’s what much of the mainstream cycling industry would have you believe, anyway.
After many decades of steel road bikes, aluminum had a heady few years as the next great tech advance in the mid 1990s. When Pantani danced up the slopes of the 1998 Tour de France on his now iconic celeste and yellow Bianchi, it wasn’t immediately clear that he was ushering in the end of one era of bike tech and the start of another, but it turned out that way. Every Tour since has been won by a rider astride a carbon fibre machine, and for a long while it seemed like it was game over for aluminum as a performance material. A new narrative around the material emerged and it went something like this – aluminum’s too harsh, too flexy, too heavy.
And sure, if you look at where the material was, then maybe there’s something to all of those criticisms. But thanks to a committed few manufacturers – Cannondale and Specialized in particular – that’s certainly no longer the case. Development of aluminum has steadily continued, while manufacturing advances have paved the way for the most sophisticated aluminum frames ever. Today, in a cycling world still dominated by carbon fibre creations, there’s a convincing case for the return of aluminum to the top of the sport – and in collaboration with one of the top US Pro Continental teams, Hagens-Berman Axeon, Specialized are making it happen.
Old dog, new tricks
The Allez has had a decades-long run in Specialized’s range, at various points occupying a position in the brand’s range as a high-end steel bike, a reasonably-priced alloy one, and a stage-winning, zebra-striped sprint weapon piloted by flamboyant Italian Mario Cipollini. But with the arrival of Specialized’s carbon fibre race bikes, the Allez was left behind – superseded at the top end by the Tarmac, pushed into second-tier status by its more fancied stable-mate.
2013 gave the first hint that Specialized wasn’t yet done with performance aluminum road frames. The release of the S-Works Allez brought fresh innovation to a long-established material, at its core the development by Specialized’s engineers of a proprietary welding technique. D’Aluisio SmartWeld (DSW) – an ingenious treatment at the headtube which moved the weld away from the area of greatest strain, using a rolled edge like a soft drink can — allowed the frame’s designers to shed the limitations of conventional aluminum manufacturing.
A demonstration of the thinking behind SmartWeld with an aluminum soft drink can – it’s fragile in the centre, but far stronger at the rolled end. As a bonus, this approach also makes for a stronger and more fool-proof connection when welded.
The heavily hydroformed headtube mimicked both the appearance and performance of the contemporary Tarmac, and response was strong enough to convince Specialized to expand the model’s availability from an ultra-limited release to a mainstay of the range the season after. But still there was room for improvement.
Industry veteran Chuck Teixeira, long at the forefront of aluminum’s development as a cycling material, was poached from Easton and joined the team working to advance the Allez’s performance. He’s a straight-shooter who doesn’t subscribe to broad categorisations when it comes to materials.
“From a rider’s perspective, credit always seems to go to the material, that’s how it’s always been. X material rides good, Y material rides bad… (but) the performance of any material is actually driven by the application and engineering use of that material,” Teixeira says. “It’s up to engineering to coax the best we can from whatever material we’re working with. Reality is if the bike is too stiff or rides bad, it’s partially a reflection of how we (engineering) applied the material, and not just the material itself.” There’d be no excuses with the Allez Sprint – Specialized was looking to redefine what was possible with aluminum.
From the outset, lofty ambitions were set for the new model – according to Teixeira, “we wanted this bike to be as stiff in the bottom bracket as the Tarmac, as aero as the Venge, and within 100-150 grams of the Tarmac”.
To hit these marks required a major shift. “Aluminum frame performance had just about plateaued, given that construction methods had remained stagnant for many years,” explains Teixeira. “It’s like anything else – same approach, same results.” In the end, it was a combination of Specialized’s learnings from their carbon fibre models and novel manufacturing techniques that informed the design of the Allez Sprint. “Carbon frames that are molded do not have the same shape limitations that a welded alloy frame has. The carbon shapes out there have evolved and are driven primarily by the performance that they yield. We knew that if we wanted to improve our alloy performance we needed better shapes. Welded tube-to-tube approaches would not get us where we needed to be… to do this we needed to take a fresh approach,” Teixeira says.
The new bottom bracket developed by Teixeira and Specialized’s engineering team was a game-changer.
Having proven the concept at the headtube junction, Specialized’s engineering team looked to the bottom bracket as the next avenue for improvement, with a radically hydroformed bottom bracket shell formed as two hollow halves, brazed down the central seam and SmartWelded to the frame tubing. In the rig and in the saddle, the results were truly impressive – “stiffness that you can feel when you jump on the pedals,” says Teixeira – and more than closed the gap to Specialized’s carbon contemporaries.
“We were more aero than the Venge, created a stiffer BB, and were within 150 grams of the Venge and Tarmac at the time,” Teixeira explains. “For better or worse carbon will always be perceived to be higher-performing than aluminum… (but) the bottom line is we feel this a bike that you can win races on, at any level.”
Not bad for a dead material.
Aluminum’s race return
Now, imagine for a moment you’re the son of arguably the greatest cyclist that’s ever lived, Eddy Merckx. You have an impressive career, including a top-10 Tour de France finish and an Olympic medal, and then, after a 13 year professional career, you retire. What next? Well, you move continents, become director (and then owner) of a development team in the United States, and do your best to provide a pathway for young riders.
There are a bunch of development teams, but yours isn’t like them, not exactly: the results speak for that. The team has a number of impressive wins – a national championship here, U23 editions of Paris-Roubaix and Liege-Bastogne-Liege there – but the metric that most counts for a development team is the number of riders that progress to the next level in the sport. It’s on this front that Axel Merckx’s Hagens-Berman Axeon squad is basically unrivalled.
In the team’s nine years of existence, 26 riders have graduated to WorldTour contracts; names like Taylor Phinney, George Bennett, Alex Dowsett, Joe Dombrowski. Of the teams in the American continent, there are few better launching pads for a young cyclist looking to make it as a pro – the Axeon squad operates at a level that has pundits asking whether they’re the best development team of all time.
For Axel Merckx, it’s a way of giving back. “I owe everything to cycling,” he says. “My Dad left a huge legacy behind and my goal is to try and leave something behind for the future of the sport in my own way.”
The role of a development team is an important one that extends beyond maximising a rider’s physical performance – it also needs to be a place where a rider can grow.
“Being available during the highs and lows is an important part of my job… We work diligently to create a safe and encouraging environment for the riders,” Merckx explains. “We also provide coaching, feedback, opportunities, and give them exposure to the WorldTour teams.”
From 2016, Specialized has sponsored the team, providing them with top-flight Tarmacs – until 2018, when the team were presented with the aluminum Allez Sprint frameset instead. Given the average racing cyclist’s conditioning to believe in the superiority of carbon fibre, it’d be fair to assume that this raised some eyebrows.
“At first I was quite hesitant going to the Allez, as we were coming from one of the best racing frames in the Tarmac,” admits team veteran Will Barta. At Axeon’s recent winter training camp, the riders had plenty of time to get used to their new bikes, covering over 1,000km through the canyons and coastline of Southern California. Despite any initial misgivings, the riders came away pleasantly surprised. Preconceptions around the properties of aluminum frames were quickly dispelled: “When you are accelerating it loses no power through the frame. It also surprised me in terms of weight, which is always a huge thing for us – with our race wheels, the bike is right at the weight limit,” explains Barta. “It’s a great all around bike.”
Chris Blevins – a multi-disciplinary prodigy who’s recently ridden his way to national U23 titles in cross country MTB and cyclocross – joined the squad this year having already ridden a wide selection of the Specialized range, including, briefly, an Allez.
“I actually raced (this frame) for a couple races on the NCCF / Specialized Junior team two years ago. But the hundreds of other races have all been on carbon bikes,” he says. Nonetheless, Blevins has a soft-spot for the Allez Sprint, describing it as one of his favourites in the Specialized line up. For Barta, there’s even a hint of nostalgia to it: “the Allez is the second aluminum road bike that I have ridden. My first road bike was a 24-inch wheel aluminum bike. So in a way, it is coming full circle, which is pretty cool.”
Australian sprinter Michael Rice draws parallels to his first bikes, too. “I got my first aluminum bike as a birthday present, which was a little Orbea that my Dad and I built up with parts from various garage sales. I thought it was the coolest thing ever!,” he reminisces. Years on, as one of the team’s brightest prospects, he’s back on an aluminum bike; not disappointed, but smitten. “When I first saw the Allez, I really liked the sunburst paint scheme. Together with the neat frame geometry, it really makes it an attractive bike,” Rice says.
A cult following
There’s something refreshingly unpretentious about a team of young hitters riding an accessibly priced bike, and the enthusiasm around the Allez Sprint reaches far beyond Specialized’s sponsored riders. Like Cannondale’s CAAD road bikes, the Allez Sprint has quickly developed a cult following. There are many reasons for this – Specialized’s savvy decision to regularly unveil exciting limited edition colour-schemes, the frame’s performance-to-cost ratio, the fact that it just straight-up seems to be a good bike – but there’s also a pragmatism to the Allez Sprint that is quite endearing.
It’s interesting enough to be different, it’s cheap enough to be accessible, it has fewer concerns around durability than carbon fibre, and as Hagens-Berman Axeon are demonstrating, it performs well enough not to be a compromise. Cycling can at times be a hideously expensive sport, but with a US$1,200 frameset price, the Allez Sprint feels borderline subversive.
Chris Riekert, Specialized brand manager, points to the Allez Sprint as a bike that can “provide a more affordable price point to younger riders.” It’s these younger riders that are the peers of the guys riding for Axeon, and look up to them, and seeing an admired rider on a bike that’s actually attainable is a remarkably powerful thing.
“For whatever it’s worth, I truly believe in this bike as something that can help get performance to people who don’t have [access to] it normally,” Riekert says. “If I was an 18-year-old kid who looked up to one of these guys, and I thought the only reason they were able to do it was because of a $10k bike, it’s a turn-off… you’re that kid and you look at him and he’s got the same bike as you’ve got? To me that feels right. That’s what it should be.”
Sponsorship is marketing. It’s not philanthropic; it’s transactional. But this feels different, because it’s a bike that’s genuinely interesting and innovative, made from an underdog material, being ridden by the guys who are the future of the sport. Sure, in the end there are units to shift and races to win – only for the riders of Hagens-Berman Axeon at the training camp, being given their bikes for the season and sharing the joy of #newbikeday, it doesn’t feel like it.
The return of an aluminum frame to the Pro Continental level is an interesting tech story, sure – and as Teixeira sees it, “validation that we got the engineering right”. But on the flipside, it’s also a frame that costs a quarter what an S-Works Tarmac does and can provide much of that bike’s performance, significantly lowering the financial barrier to entry into the joy of cycling.
“This bike is an opportunity to get kids psyched to go race their bikes,” Riekert tells me, and it clicks – who better to ride that bike than a bunch of kids who are psyched to go race it?