If cruel Gods reign over the pave of Paris-Roubaix, the 2009 edition, referred to by some as the Easter Miracle, would be gospel. With only 17kilometers to ride the lead group of five, an explosive mixture of rouleurs, sprinters and all around hard men, seemed destined to wage one of the greatest battles the finale of Roubaix had ever seen. It was not to be. Within a single kilometer the Gods of the pave brushed aside four men with a disinterested wave of their hand, allowing Tom Boonen to ride home alone, victorious.
The 2012 edition was kinder, crushing hopes much earlier in the day, as Boonen attacked with over 50kilometers to ride, again arriving at the velodrome alone. It was a tactic aimed at a rider not even in the field, Cancellara, as if to say, If you werent home with a broken collarbone, I would still beat you.
Both of these victories, as well as his 2008 triumph, were achieved on the bike named for the race, the Specialized Roubaix. When Cancellara rode the bike in 2010 he won as well. Incidentally, a year Boonen did not ride for Specialized. The bike may just be a talisman of some kind, warding off the Pave Gods crueler intentions.
The bikes tenure at Paris-Roubaix has seen rapid development as the precise nature of the punishment cobblestones inflict on the human body has been better understood. 2013 sees the most advanced Roubaix ever, the new S-Works Roubaix SL4, the same bike Boonen used during his dominant 2012 performance. As the culmination of all they have learned at the sharp end of the Paris-Roubaix field, the new bike is the manifestation of the Hell of the North in carbon.
For the everyday rider a classics bike like the Roubaix is an endurance bike – aimed at the century rider, the rider looking for a more relaxed fit, a more comfortable ride. The trick is finding a way to get these concepts to play nicely with things like power transfer and nimble handling. Initially it was assumed big race day sacrifices were made at the altar of compliance when it came to an endurance bike. The Roubaix has been Specializeds case study in disproving this and the SL4 is the best argument yet.
The Cobble Gobbler
Lets start with the endurance aspects, those features that deliver the comfy ride. Specialized starts with geometry, and to a large degree the Roubaix has codified what is now universally considered endurance geometry. The chain stays and front center are both quite long, resulting in a wheelbase two and half centimeters longer than a comparable Tarmac. The fork rake is also more pronounced and the head tube is a degree slacker and whopping three and a half centimeters taller. The overall effect is more weight in the saddle, less of a reach to the bars and a stable, predictable feel. To any ride running stacks of spacers or a proud, upright stem, the Roubaix SL4 delivers the same position without destroying the bikes aesthetics or road manners.
This is only half of the battle with an endurance platform, whether its destination is the forest of Arenberg or your local grand fondo. Comfort is king and Specialized uses some updated old technology as well as some truly novel solutions to achieve it. Zertz, elastomer inserts, have been a mainstay of the Roubaix line and the SL4 debuts their biggest redesign. The concept is simple, bang a tuning fork and it will vibrate until you grab it with your fingers, dampening the vibration. Your bike is the tuning fork, Zertz inserts are your fingers. Specializeds partnership with the McLaren F1 gave them access to a vibration rig designed to test F1 cars. Specialized engineers were able to take vibration telemetry recorded on bike and plug it into that rig. They then ran simulation after simulation discovering more contact was better. The SL4s Zertz now wrap around the forks and stays, instead of being pressed into them, to maximize this contact.
Specialized knows compliance matters in the saddle a lot more than out of the saddle, when power transfer is the priority, which is why they use slim 27.2 seat posts and never embraced the integrated seat post craze. To create compliance divorced form power transfer a new seat post was designed, the COBL GOBL-R. Seriously, thats what its called. When combined with the vertical compliance designed into the rear of the bike the radical new post helps deliver an incredible 16mm of travel.
Next up is an idea whose time has truly come, different lower head tube diameters for different bike sizes. In the past, if you rode a 54 or 56cm bike, the head tube would be just right, but to a 50cm rider it might be a bit rough while 61cm rider might find it a bit soft. The new Roubaix gets three different bearings, 1.125 for the 49 and 52cm, 1.25 for 54 and 56cm and 1.375 for the 58 and 61cm. Combine this with size specific tube diameters and lay ups and the 49cm will handle just like the 61cm and every size in between.
Now the real trick, how to get all that technology to refrain from sapping the bikes get up and go ability? The S-Works Roubaix starts with hi-modulus materials for the right foundation. They then shape that material very carefully. The headtube is a gorgeous pin-up evoking hourglass to eliminate flat spots at tube joints for a lighter and stiffer structure. The seat stays take a very direct line from the dropout to the seat cluster, eliminating excess material and upping the torsional stiffness. The three bearing sizes play their part here as well, ensuring a stiff front end, no mater the size. The result is quite amazing, torsional stiffness numbers exceeding many pure race bikes and a frame weight of under 1000grams. Our 58cm test bike, with new SRAM Red, S-Works cockpit and new Roval Rapide CLX 40 carbon clincher was 14.8lbs with pedals and cages. That is ludicrous. A big old cobble crusher at a weight any 130lb Basque rider would die for.
The wheels, the positions and setting up early
The first impressions while riding had us thinking three things – the wheels, the wheels, the wheels. The Roval name is finally worthy of the Specialized brand – super fast spin up, no slapping with all-out sprints and a wide body for even more ride quality and added aero value. These are wheels non-Specialized owners will buy to replace their stock wheels. At under 1400 grams they are lighter than Zipp 303s and equal to ENVE 3.4s. Specialized has a flat out home run with these wheels.
Enough about wheels, this is a bike review. All of the compliance features the bike is stacked with work. Youll be checking for a rear flat until you get used to the bikes incredible ability to smooth out the road. From small hits to big potholes, from high frequency vibration to cattle grates, the Roubaix SL4 soaks it all up. The rear feels remarkably similar to the new Trek Domane, but the front end is truly magic and pairs perfectly with the new rear for a very balanced feel across all road surfaces.
In terms of get up and go, this is the liveliest Roubaix ever, which means its the liveliest endurance bike ever, as the SL3 already set the standard. At slow speed accelerations, on the hood style jumps, the bike is quick and responsive, while big jumps in the drops feel different, a bit slower, but not because of any lack in rigidity. This is the tall and slack headtube at work, keeping your weight back and making you focus much of your effort on staying low and aggressive.
The tall headtube will also require a bit of a retool for riders used to descending on a more aggressive bike. Setting up early is key. Break the perpendicular plane before the apex to progressively lay the bike over, maxing out as you rail through the apex. Try to late apex the bike, slamming over at the last minute, and your exit will much too late. Early set up will allow you to truly white knuckle with the best of them, but on a tight, technical descent it does mean you will be very busy.
As one would expect with a bike designed for the cobbles, with a monster like Boonen at the controls the Roubaix SL4 is a screamer in the saddle. Lay down big power and the bike carriers it obscenely well. Those incredible new Roval wheels play a big part here. Did we mention the wheels? Fantastic. But we digress. Happily the new seat post and its unique design, do nothing to hamper even an untidy rider in the saddle. It seems to respond from wheel up impact, not saddle down. Another interesting point, Boonen is clearly riding a Roubaix SL4 with a shorter head tube. Its obvious in any photo from 2012 Paris-Roubaix. Wed love to see a Boonen style head tube as an option. It would allow more pure racers to take advantage of the incredible weapon Specialized has made available to endurance riders everywhere. Until then, well be slamming our stem and running a seriously negative angle.
The target audience may be the endurance rider, or the older gentleman, who wants the best race technology in the world combined with a position that makes sense for them, but in the process of building this Specialized has created a bike so rigid, so light, so fast that even a pure climber, or big sprinter, ready for a smoother ride needs to consider the Roubaix SL4.
In addition to the S-Works SRAM Red build tested here, Specialized offers an S-Works level Roubaix SL4 with a Dura Ace 11 Speed Di2 build and the same Roval wheels for $12,000. The new SL4 platform can also be had at the Pro and Expert level for as little as $3800 with Ultegra.
Roubaix SL4 S-Works
As Tested: 58cm Weight: 14.8lbs w/ pedals and cages Build: 2012 SRAM Red Compact; Roval Rapide CLX 40 carbon clinchers; S-Works SL Carbon bars; S-Works alloy stem; COBL GOBL-R seat post; BG Toupe RBX Pro saddle.