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RoubaixSL2.jpgMy wife tells me that all bicycles look the same.

She’s not alone. Many people I encounter have a pretty fixed view on bicycles (a lot like my fixed view on cars). Buy the cheapest one you can find and expect the world in return.

Now us cycling connoisseurs are of a different view. We can suffer sleepless nights over the choices between carbon or magnesium stems, between carbon or titanium rails on our seats or over the choice of tyres. Let alone over which marque to support. Italian, French, Swiss, Canadian or the USA. Or, yes, we could go for a make from Taiwan.

As an insatiable purveyor of classification schemes of all kinds, and as a person who has a fair few bikes from different times and places, I’ve come to conclude that in the world of road bicycles, there are two basic species of choice. In the one corner, we have the heritage-loaded, classically informed European artisan machine. Here are the Pinarellos, the Wiliers, the Colnagos and the Look’s of the world. In the other corner, representing an entirely different set of fundamental concerns, are the technology-first upstarts from the new world; mostly inspired from America and Canada. Here I refer specifically to the works of Specialized, Trek, Cervelo and the like.

This is a relatively complex species divide. It’s certainly not black and white. Take Specialized. Though they have been around for many years now, their current reputation was forged mainly over the past ten years, from the birth of the Specialized Roubaix and Tarmac. Without the heritage of Italian artisans who were once Tour and Giro heroes, Specialized and the like have been compelled to impress by technology alone. There never has been an ancestral artisan shop floor character for these makers. They were born into big business from the start; accountants and engineers mixed into the payroll from day one. Companies like Specialized are the product of a grand corporate vision. Pinarello and its kin grew into their bigger visions, as the emergent outcome of hand made trial and error; as the outcome of bicycle racers turning to the welding rod. Yes, now the two tribes compete head on, but the products they offer are quite distinct.

Pinarellos are from Treviso. Founder Giovani’s signature still adorns the top tubes of all their high end frames. The design brief is the nexus of art and science. These are bicycles to display in the living room when not engaged in a race. The European bicycle species usually follows the gradual pathway of refinement and studied emergence.

Specialized’s top end toys scream a different sound. There’s no mention of the place of making (other than the fact that we all know they’re made in Taiwan). The only inner sanctums here are in their R&D labs; not the reverence for masters past as is always attached to the great European marques. One does not venture to the Specialized world HQ to meet and shake the hand of Mr Specialized… But one can, still, shake the hand of Giovani and Fausto Pinarello. Similarly, there is no Mr Trek. No Mr Cervelo. It’s not just a case of family owned enterprise matched up against their corporate counterparts. There’s an entirely different ethos underlying the two branches on this high end tree.

The more important point to consider is how the best from both camps compare. I am in the fortunate position to be able to make some judgements here. Let me focus on just two bikes. The Pinarello Prince and the Specialized S-Works Roubaix SL2. Both bikes met head to head in this year’s Paris-Roubaix. Tom Boonen won on the Roubaix. The credentials of the Prince include an inventory of Classics wins (like this year’s Dauphine Libre under Don Alejandro Valverde). And though I realise that the Specialized S-Works Tarmac is a more valid comparison with the Prince, the Tarmac and the Roubaix are full-blood relations of equal race winning standing. And I own the new Roubaix, not the Tarmac. So that’s the comparison I would like to make. And the setting of Paris-Roubaix where both the Prince and S-Works Roubaix first met head to head is a pretty valid setting for where I ride (which is no praise for those who pretend to maintain our local roads).

I am holding the new (2009) Specialized S-Works Roubaix and the 2008/9 Pinarello Prince as two exemplars from the camps I am trying to compare. These are the top end bikes from each maker. They are the flagships intended for Pro-Tour glory. But they are so very different; two different instruments from entirely different schools of thought. The genetic crowns from the two species concerned.

I’ve had my S-Works Roubaix only a week. I’ve had my Prince for a bit over a year. But I have owned the first generation Specialized Roubaix since 2006. Time to draw some comparisons! These two bikes emphatically emphasise the distinctions of heritage that I am seeking to propose. They are both astounding achievements as racing bicycles.

The 2009 Specialized S-Works Roubaix SL2 is a big leap from its predecessors. Putting my 2006 Roubaix against this new version indicates a leap rather than a progression in design. There’s little to compare. Really, the only thing to remain is the design brief to deliver a bicycle that is kind to riders over harsh, uneven, lousy roads. Kind but still race winning capable. My 2009 Roubaix is a design study in angles and curves; there little symmetry where every single tube is of a different shape. The SL2 is thoroughly stiff yet amazingly compliant on the vertical plane; which means that this is a thoroughly comfortable bike to ride. Much stiffer than the original Roubaix. But much more luxurious to ride than my Prince. It seems an impossible compromise to combine comfort with rigid efficiency. But Specialized has pulled this off while keeping the machine at only 6.9kg (mine is size 56, dressed in SRAM Red).

Prince01_1024x768.jpgThe Pinarello Prince is a different machine. It’s also thoroughly stiff, but has a harsher ride. It’s a more nimble, faster machine with greater connection to the ground. You won’t win or loose a race like Paris-Roubaix over the margin between these two machines. The choice is between two different razor sharp instruments from two different schools of cycling.

The Specialized is uncompromisingly high-tech. It makes up for its lack of ‘illustrious artisan heritage’ through making a brazen statement of the fresh and the new. This is a laboratory bike. The Pinarello comes from the bench of a technologically informed craft gallery. The Specialized is beautiful for its statement of technological prowess. The PInarello is beauty incarnate. The Pinarello embeds its cutting edge technology (such as its still unrivalled HM wavy carbon sci-fi material innovation) within the nexus of form mixing perfectly with function. The Specialized wears its cutting edge on its sleeve. Form follows function; the beauty of this new Roubaix is the technological statement it makes.

This all gets very subtle. If I wanted to ride for the beauty of what fast bicycling can provide, I’d ride the Pinarello. If I wanted to simply go fast and revel in the naked cut down worksishness of the state-of-the-art, I’d ride the Roubaix (or its less compromising, close to but not quite twin sister, the S-Works Tarmac SL2).

The reason I have both is that my Roubaix is the bike for every day. My vastly more expensive Pinarello Prince is now protected for the occasional flight of fancy on those days when weather and mood combine to proclaim the unmitigated joy of cycling. If these two bikes could speak, I doubt they would be able to converse. I can’t imagine that they would share any common communicative sounds. They are the terminal buds of two divergent branches; both valid and enviable, but from paths that are distinctly separate and each worthy of dedicated exploration.

I will be presenting a review of the Specialized S-Works Roubaix SL2 soon (and of its SRAM Red components; which tell the same story of difference from Campagnolo Record as the two bikes I am comparing. Red is a technological scream. Campagnolo Record seems, somehow, to suggest a connection to the world of Leonardo da Vinci).

The final point to make is simply this: the persistence of the degree of inspired human creativity that conceived and delivered machines such as these recommends a confidence and hope for the future of mankind, even in these times that are so otherwise troubled.

One Response to “Bicycle Appreciation”
  1. David Chen says:

    You lucky guy, you have both outstanding bicycles. I have enough budget to buy either Specialized Tarmac SL2 or Pinarello Prince, but not both. I am very torn between the two, I envy you my man.

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