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by Caley Fretz
July 3, 2018
Photography by Caley Fretz
This is a story of lessons learned.
As of this week, the Specialized Venge is officially in its third generation, and the latest iteration is many things the last was not. It’s not only a logical step forward, it’s a necessary step back into the real world, where bikes are ridden and races are raced.
It’s not that the old Venge Vias was bad. It wasn’t. It was just annoying to work on and didn’t ride very well, and it was kind of ugly. Or shall we say polarizing? Those ugly wing bars were very polarizing.
The new Venge isn’t any of those unfortunate things. It’s easy to work on and relatively comfortable and really quite striking. And it’s faster, too, so Specialized says. And lighter. And stiffer, but only in the right places. It’s better. I’m happy to say that unequivocally, which is pretty rare.
The funny thing is that it was mostly made by the same core team of engineers and designers. They just learned a few lessons along the way.
The place to start the story of the new Venge is probably with Ingmar Jungnickel. Back at university in Germany he developed a test to research the effect of high profile racing wheels on the dynamic stability of bicycles in crosswinds. Later, an intern, he developed a system for measuring drag in a wind tunnel that is now used by WorldTour teams and the German national team. He did these things before he was 25. This is the sort of individual we’re dealing with.
Specialized has a wind tunnel. They call in the Win Tunnel, because they’re very good at marketing, and it was an integral part of the development of the old Venge Vias. Chris Yu, the aerodynamic lead on that project and also a glorious super nerd, spent hours in the tunnel, working through hundreds of iterations of the frame until they found something they thought was fast. And it was; there’s no question the Venge Vias was fast.
The problem was that in their dedication to aerodynamic gains the engineers at Specialized let a few rather important things slide. They forgot, for example, that it’s a good thing to be able to add or remove a headset spacer without detaching and re-running brake lines. The ability to put a new stem on with fewer than four hands is also good. A bike that handles well is really good — vital, almost. They made tubes narrow and integrated everything and the result was a very, very fast bike that was just not very good at being a bike you’d actually want to ride.
This required a solution. Part of that solution lay in finding a way to keep the bike fast while improving the way it rode.
This is where Ingmar comes in. He arrived shortly before development began for the new Venge. Specialized needed fast tube shapes that would also allow for predictable, dependable handling and good ride quality. Ingmar found them in a supercomputer.
Ingmar set about combining and rewriting a pile of computer programs to create a custom bit of software that churns through thousands of tube shape iterations in the time it would take Chris Yu to get through one or two. Horribly simplified (sorry Ingmar), the software runs CFD (computational fluid dynamics) and FEA (finite element analysis) for each shape and keeps working until it finds a shape that is drag optimized for particular weight and stiffness targets.
The shapes the program churned out became a new launch point. The engineering team had what they believed to be the optimal head tube shape, downtube shape, seat stay shape, fork leg shape, even how the fork leg should be tapered. They had shapes that were just as aero as the old bike, or more so, but that were also fatter, rounder, and stiffer. The frame could be lighter, it could ride better, and aerodynamics wouldn’t be sacrificed.
That’s what Specialized says, anyway. Did it work?
The new Venge is lighter, it rides far better, and, according to Specialized, it’s faster than the old one. It’s also better looking and the integration is better thought out and more user-friendly. It will only be sold with disc brakes and only with electronic drivetrains. Here’s the full breakdown, feature-by-feature.
Is the Venge lighter?
The Venge Vias was portly, around 1200 grams for the frame and another 410 for the fork. The new Venge drops those figures down to 960 grams and 385 grams, respectively, a loss of around 20%. These are claimed weights, mind. But there’s reason to believe they’re at least close: Specialized also claims that the S-Works Venge comes in at 7.1kg with deep, 64mm Roval wheels, and I just weighed the one we have here and it came in at 7,152 grams.
Is the Venge stiffer?
Obviously, we haven’t done any third-party testing yet. Specialized claims that bottom bracket stiffness improves relative to the Vias with the greatest gains at larger sizes (18% stiffer for a 61cm).
Front end stiffness is improved as well. The engineering goal for the new stem was to match or exceed the oversized Zipp SL Sprint stem popular with sprinters like Peter Sagan and Tom Boonen (who rode it with the logo covered in tape or paint). According to Specialized, that goal has been achieved.
Specialized admits that a drawback of the old wing shaped Vias bar was a lack of stiffness. The new bar is flat and uses one of Ingmar’s optimized shapes. Combined with the stiffer stem, the difference is dramatic. The front end feels far more confident and than it did on the Vias, particularly out of the saddle.
Did they fix the cockpit?
Well, they got rid of the gullwing bar, so that’s a step in the right direction already. The purpose of that bar was to allow for a flat stem (-17 degrees) while retaining the same fit, which improved aerodynamics. Specialized apparently decided that this particular marginal gain wasn’t worth it.
The new Aerofly II bar uses a flat top that is slightly textured and has 80mm of reach to 130mm of drop.
There are a couple other important changes to the cockpit area. You can now run any handlebar with the Venge stem. You can also run most aftermarket stems using a universal stem transition spacer in place of the Venge spacers.
Those Venge spacers are clever. The hydraulic brake lines still run down through the head tube, which used to mean that adding or removing a spacer required removing and re-running the brake lines. No more. Now the spacers twist apart, so you can easily mess with your position.
Engineer Doug Russell told me he spent months thinking about nothing but cockpit integration and ease of use. Well, Doug, kudos. Those were months well spent.
Is the Venge more comfortable?
Yes, but not by much.
Is the Venge more aerodynamic?
Aero is kind of the whole point of a bike like this, after all. So, did Specialized manage to pull off some aero magic? A wider, stiffer, lighter bike that’s also more aero? They say they have.
That chart doesn’t provide a lot of detail, and Specialized doesn’t provide much more elsewhere. They do say, however, that the new Venge will save you 8 seconds over 40k compared to the Venge Vias at zero degrees yaw (straight on).
The Venge now comes with three available bottle cage mounting options, two on the downtube and one on the seat tube. Either downtube option provides the same aerodynamics, apparently. Interestingly, if you’re only going to run one bottle, it’s fastest on the down tube, rather than the seat tube.
(Note: You may see the opposite elsewhere on the Internet. Due to a typo, Specialized’s white paper on the bike says the seat tube is faster. We checked in with Yu and he confirmed the down tube is the faster option.)
The new Venge is only compatible with electronic drivetrains, and will only come with disc brakes, which use the flat mount standard.
The bottom bracket is a BB30. Thru-axles are 100×12 and 142×12.
The new Venge will fit up to a 32mm tire, which is awesome. It comes stock with 26mm tires.
A complete S-Works Venge will set you back US$12,500 / AU$14,500. A frameset is US$5,500 / AU$5,600.
If it wasn’t clear from the rest of this review, I wasn’t a huge fan of the Venge Vias. Neither were a lot of pros — Mark Cavendish told me the Vias rim brakes were terrible just days after the bike was launched. Yu admits that he had to go to the Tour de Suisse and Tour de France that year to do damage control with athletes and mechanics. The Venge Vias was aero, but it turns out aero is not, in fact, everything.
That lesson has been learned. I’ve been impressed with virtually every aspect of the new Venge, from little details like the brake line routing and headset spacers to big details like cockpit stiffness and overall ride quality. It’s a better bike to live with and ride every day. And if you believe Specialized’s own data, it’s still faster.
My favorite aero road bike of all time remains the original Scott Foil, mostly because it didn’t feel like an aero bike at all. It just felt like a stiff, lively race bike. That’s how the Venge feels. It’s too early to say if it tops my all-time list, as I’ve only been on it for a week and a half, the signs are promising. The move to wider tubes, made possible by Ingmar’s optimization, changes the character of the bike completely. It’s better out of the saddle and far better in hard corners, when quite a lot of steering input happens at the saddle but needs to be translated to the front wheel.
The cockpit is a dramatic improvement. It’s stiffer, which is nice if you’re a sprinter, but it’s also just a nicer place to rest your hands. The tops have a bit of surface texture and are relatively comfortable even without bar tape. And though everything appears to be hyper-integrated and even proprietary, it’s not. That visual integration comes mostly through the use of cleverly shaped caps and spacers. You can run whatever bar and stem you want. That’s a good move on Specialized’s part.
I’m not going to say the new Venge is comfortable. It’s a race bike. It doesn’t apologize for being a race bike. But it’s not uncomfortable, either. I guess that’s about as good as it gets in this space — though I imagine the new Madone with the ISO Speed Decoupler is a cushier ride.
If you want more comfort, just throw on some bigger tires. The Venge will take up to a 32. Run those at 50psi and you’ll get more compliance than any frame can possibly provide.
Did I mention it looks good? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, of course. But this thing looks good. It turns heads.
Specialized loves its #aeroiseverything hashtag. But bikes, like the races they’re in, aren’t all about the numbers. The new Venge is a reflection of that. Lessons, learned.