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Here in Australia, we have only been on the receiving end of good coverage of the Paris-Roubaix classic for the past two years. In 2007, Stuart O’Grady became the first Australian to win this most classic of classics. Then, in 2008, it was Tom Boonen’s turn. In 2007, I wasn’t in the market for a new bike. In 2009, I was.

You see, I have discovered that riding everyday on a Pinarello Prince shod with carbon rims is something of a fragile proposition for the roads around here. Our roads are more a study in the abstract deployment of ribbons of tar as a device through which to connect potholes, bumps, bits of roadkill and an artistic tidal encroachment of dirt and grass from the paddocks upon which this tar has been unceremoniously dumped.

Mind you, the Prince is fairly unfazed. But I know what the bits would cost to replace.

So, I was keen to adjunct an everyday bike into the mix; to share the load and spare the wear. In theory, the ideal bike already in my shed; a 2006 Specialized Roubaix Comp dressed up in Dura Ace and Ksyrium SL wheels. A fine reliable machine and my first serious road bike after a spell of some 20 years from the day I decided to race no more. I put 20,000km on that Roubaix. It’s a reasonably light, stiff, seriously comfortable machine that was, alas, always too big; I could never be rid of lower back pain from all the stretching I had to do.

Feeling the need for a bike to more thoroughly match the traits of our local roads, I watched the 2008 Paris-Roubaix race as a purveyor of the thrill of the race and of the world’s most rugged road racing machines. Any bike that does well on the Pave will do well on the roads around here.

As someone pre-adjusted to the merits of the Specialized Roubaix, Tom Boonen’s win on the then just released 2009 spec. Specialized S-Works Roubaix SL2 presented something of a compelling argument to seal this deal. I put my order in after perusing frame size geometry with a bit more care than last time around. I ordered the 56cm frame decked out in the brand new SRAM Red ensemble and a set of Mavic’s new R SYS wheels. I did, however, argue for a longer crank (to my standard 175’s), a longer stem (to 110cm – still the shortest stem I have ever had) and a set of Look’s Keo pedals.

My intent was for a rugged ‘second bike’ (actually, it would be the eighth; my stable is getting a little crowded these days…). The intent was spend about half what the Pinarello Price was worth and that’s pretty well where this bike came in at $9500 complete (or 55 per cent of the price of a Prince). With exchange rate vagaries, the price has since gone up another $1,000, so, for once, my timing was good.

I confess to a long term desire to enter the heady realm of Specialized’s S-Works top end. My last Roubaix was only a Comp. S-Works is Specialized’s serious racing top end; the bikes they seed to the pros. And, in the case of this bike, S-Works is something of a development laboratory of testing and feedback with signed Pro-Tour riders. Tom Boonen’s feedback and advice was apparently instrumental to the design and development of both the S-Works Tarmac and the S-Works Roubaix. Thanks to Boonen, the final bike has a rear triangle and associated handling that are significant upgrades on the original designs.

The usual brief for S-Works bikes is for lighter, stiffer carbon, top drawer parts spec., racier geometry and a Pro-Tour race proven pedigree.

I was also keen to explore the SRAM Red component group. The media frenzy centering on a component maker which dared to challenge Campagnolo Record and Shimano Dura Ace suggested a story worth exploration. SRAM and Specialized have so much in common: an upstart, innovate-or-die tradition-be-damned, in-your-face antithesis to the romantic family-based traditions of European and artisan frame and component makers to which the Campagnolo and Pinarello traditions are firmly attached. I wanted to try this upstart hi-tech gear out! You can just hear the Star Spangled Banner playing in the background whenever you contemplate the black stealth carbon offerings from these US-designed, Taiwan-made 21st Century management miracle empires of screaming technical and marketing efficiency.

And…I had heard quite a bit about those R SYS wheels with their fat found carbon spokes and a presumption to replace the esteemed Ksyrium ES. All up, the bike presented an opportunity to indulge a pile of technical curiosities and, to be honest, a new round of indulgence in my favorite dysfunction of bicycle lust. I couldn’t wait.

One month later, the deal was done and the bike was mine. I ordered it sight unseen, as there were none to be seen! I savour these moments of the first glance. My instant first impression was of a bicycle as uncompromising in racing intent as a stealth bomber ready for take off. My second imrpession was of a bicycle that could not possible weigh this little. Even before I used the scales, I know I was holding a machine that was leaner than my Pinarello Prince. 6.9 kg against 7.2kg to be precise. With pedals.

With so much new and unfamiliar technology at hand, it’s hard to pin-point which bits contributed to the sense of extraordinary difference that my first ride revealed. I am familiar with the plush ride my old Roubaix Comp used to provide. A stretched out lazy upright comfortable endurance machine for ultra long rides and compliance with really bad roads. But the gap between the ride of my old Roubaix and my new S-Works was as large, if not larger than the gap that separated that old machine from my Pinarello Prince. There is really no comparison.

My first S-Works Roubaix SL2 ride impression was of a bike that is both incredibly stiff and miraculously, if not incomprehensibly compliant as well. It is much stiffer and lively than the old Roubaix. It is every bit as wired and alive in its ride as the Pinarello Prince. But not as harsh or ‘tight’ as that miraculous Italian steed. I am searching for a comparison and the closest I can make is with the Pinarello Paris. If want a Paris, you are now out of luck. The model was killed by Pinarello earlier this year. But that bike’s balancing act of race pedigree and comfort seems to have been reincarnated in the S-Works Roubaix. The comparison is not perfect as the Roubaix is still more compliant on the cobbles that describe our local roads than anything from Treviso (except the wondrous Pinarello CX cyclocross bike). Speaking of which, I think if I were a cook attempting to duplicate a recipe, I could describe the S-Works Roubaix as one part Prince, one part Paris and one part Pinarello CX. Generically, for those without access to these machines, a probably more relevant description would be to imagine a hybrid between a dedicated, uncompromising Pro-Tour carbon racing machine and a top-end cyclocross bike; a miraculous mix that manages to avoid the downsides and capture only the most positive features of both. I can’t imagine how they pulled this one off.

Suffice it to say, I was impressed.

I’ve put in about 5,000 km on my S-Works Roubaix since then, but my impressions are largely the same. The foremost and most resilient impression is of a tight, stiff, efficient ride. The bike is at home on long steady rides, while being comfortable beyond the design brief of bikes like the Specialized Tarmac SL2 (which shares so much of the Roubaix’s design), top end Pinarellos, Colnagos and the like. You don’t loose much if any speed through the gentler geometry of this new Roubaix. You do loose a noticeable, though slight edge in climbing and cornering given its longer than usual wheelbase and slightly more stretched out, slightly more elevated riding position. I would probably not race the Roubaix in a criterium IF I had access to a Pinarello Prince. But if I did not have a second bike like that at hand, the Roubaix would do and do the job well.

Hill descents are also distinctly, though still slightly different from a less compromising Pro-Tour machine. There’s less of a sense of riding on rails – a more sweeping mannered descent is a hallmark of the Roubaix. Descents feel more ‘safety-harnessed’ than you’d get from, say, a Pinarello Prince. That might translate, for you, to a less exciting descent. But for me, it means a less anxious ride at speed.

As a dedicated Campagnolo fan, I must whisper some encouraging observations on the prowess of this new SRAM Red ensemble. It’s distinctive, not better. But not worse, either. Equivalent to, not the same as. It’s different but great. I love the ultra short throw of both the front and rear derailleur levers. The Red brakes are superb. Magnificent in fact. But that’s probably attributable at least in part to the lovely breaking surfaces on this bike’s R SYS rims. I can’t comment on the SRAM crank as this S-Works Roubaix comes standard with Specialized’s own Campagnolo-like crank. No complaints of any kind there. This was not a cost cutting decision on Specialized’s part. Their S-Works crank is a design that’s an expression of the Specialized design team’s enthusiasms and thrill to be daring to be different.

I would observe, however, that the SRAM Red chain is essentially a flaw to be avoided. I threw mine out after only 2,000km and replaced it with a Dura Ace chain. The difference was immediate, persuasive and impressive. I could not recommend SRAM’s efforts in this direction. Shifting is more precise, quieter and the drive chain is smoother with Dura Ace at work.

The Mavic R SYS wheels are the most controversial part of this bike. Specialized specs these things as a standard option. R SYS is an interesting but confused attempt to be different when being different is an uncertain benefit to pursue. Especially when you compare these wheels with the wheels they replaced. I prefer Mavic’s Ksyrium ES. The R SYS are very stiff, rigid wheels. On any other bike than the Roubaix, I suspect that riders will be loosing their teeth. Then there’s the small matter of the delicate spokes shattering with ease if your bike should fall on its side or someone should put their foot through them; as was the case for me. I noticed all this before Mavic placed its general recall notice; these wheels are now, officially, unsafe. My understanding is that Mavic will be upgrading the spokes to increase their resistance to a wider array of crash-related challenges.

In summary, the 2010 S-Works Roubaix SL2 is an astonishing bike. It’s a hard core racing machine with some flexibilities of value to those who ride rough roads, or to those who ride extreme distances, or to those who simply enjoy a design statement of subtle, but significant difference. In even fewer words, the 2010 S-Works Roubaix is a statement of general purpose, purposefully-engineered efficiency.


8 Responses to “Specialized S-Works Roubaix SL2 Review”
  1. gmg says:

    Nice review. I am considering the Roubaix Comp with Ultegra SL components. I wish they’d just dump the mavic r-sys wheels. I have not read one review that sounds entirely optimistic about these wheels. I’d like to get them with either ksyriums, reynolds carbon clinchers or shimano dura ace 7850’s. If you have any wheel opinions for this bike, please share them. I am no racer, just a middle aged overweight weekend warior. Please continue to update any more observations of the roubaix.

  2. MontanaJ says:

    Excellent and thorough review. Very helpful (I’m considering purchasing this bike). Interested in learning why you said you lose an edge in climbing. Can you be more specific? I love climbing and would really like to understand more about this aspect of what sounds like a fantastic bike. Please share more details re. that, if you can. Thanks!

  3. Roderic Gill says:

    thanks MontanaJ. At the level of bikes such as this, matters of difference are a touch subtle. But when I try the S-Works Roubaix out on a hill I know well, and then something like a Pinarello Paris or Prince on exactly the same hill, the difference is noticeable. There’s a sense of some minor loss of power on the S-Works Roubaix; you can feel an extra micro second lag between your pedaling and the response. There’s no lag on, say, a Prince (in my case, shod with outrageous Fulcrum Racing Light carbon rims that cost almost as much as the Roubaix…). Also, there’s a kind of sense that the Roubaix is ‘longer’ when pushing it up a hill. There’s a sensation that the weelbase is much longer than on a top end road bike. Yes, the wheel base is a touch longer because that’s a key feature of the ‘comfort’ or ‘endurance’ formula to which the Roubaix is dedicated, but the sensation is that this wheelbase difference is even greater (probably because of the slacker geometry and the longer head tube arrangement (also part of the ‘endurance’ formula’). So, an outright uncompromised road machine (like a Pinarello Prince, a Colnago C50, Ridley Noah etc) will feel more compact and thus ‘disappears’ more when going up steep climbs. Which is what you want on a steep climb!

    But! As I said, all this is subtle difference. And I always remember that Tom Boonen won Paris-Roubaix on this very bike in 2008. So, the differences are hardly going to matter to folk who are lesser cycling mortals and, really, even to those who are. The other side of the S-Works Roubaix formula works to the advantage of the Roubaix on longer rides, though. It definitely is more comfortable, less frantic when screaming downhills (which is particularly welcome when there are cross winds) and better on the back ’cause you are riding slightly higher (unless you hit the head tube stack with a severe trimming with your carbon hacksaw like I did…).

    Final point here is that my S-Works Roubaix has the now infamous Mavic R-SYS wheelset. I like these wheels but seem to be the only person in the world who does. They give a harsh ride compared with any other wheelset I have. They are harsher than the Mavic Ksyrium wheels (the SL and the ES), and way harsher than the carbon Racing Light’s on my Prince. But, this wheel stiffness is good up hill! Which will lessen the gap I claim above between my road bikes and the Roubaix when going up hill. If you put a more ‘compliant’ set of wheels on the Roubaix, I suspect that the difference I noteed in the perception of a longer than specified wheelbase will be even greater. Hence I think the choice of the R-SYS wheel set for the S-Works Roubaix is a good one for this particular bike. Despite the fact that my Roubaix is hanging on a wall while I wait for Mavic to replace my front R-SYS rim via its recent voluntary recall program.

    It takes lots of words to explain subtle things like this… as you can see.

  4. Dan Higgins says:

    Thanks for this helpful review. I currently ride the 2008 Roubaix Pro and have my sights on upgrading to the 2009 S-Works SL2 Roubaix. For me the comfort is the reason I purchased the Roubaix. If I wanted more of a road bike and wanted a Specialized I would get a Tarmac. So I certainly hope the Specialized does not make the Roubaix any more like a pure road bike.

    That said, I do a fair bit of climbing (living in Colorado.) I ride the R-Sys wheels now. (Love the ride although the thought of possibly catastrophic failure does go through my head.) But I never thought the R-Sys has a harsher ride than the Ksyrium SLs I originally had on the bike. I thought the R-Sys were more compliant. But maybe that is my imagination? Which would be better climbing wheels? The R-Sys or the Ksyrium? And, yes, I’m waiting for my replacement front wheel. 😉 I will probably sell those R-Sys wheels with my Roubaix Pro if I get the S-Works. (I am making myself lose a few pounds before spending money on the S-Works. Great motivation!)

  5. Carlos says:

    Great review, thanks for all the time and thought you put into it. I’m looking right now, and have been riding everything from Giant Defy to Trek Madones to Fuji and, of course, this bike. I have been playing around and testing the Roubaix Pro and one of the lower models. Then, today, I stepped onto the S-Works – and my god, what a difference. It’s unlike anything I’ve ridden. I’m not sure if the international package is different, but standard here in the US now is the full DuraAce package – including tubeless carbon wheels. I am admittedly not a pro by any means, just a recreational rider, but those felt great out for 45 minutes – my first on the bike. And the Dura-Ace shifters were precise and smooth – the whole thing is smooth as butter.

    I too have that lower back pain problem you mentioned with the Roubaix – interestingly. I rode the Pro for about 2 hours the other day (testing) and had lower back pain for 3 days. Granted, I’m a bit out of biking shape, just getting back in from the winter away, and even then, really from 20 years away. But I don’t get this pain on bikes that are supposedly “less comfortable” like the Madone (4.7, 5.2, 5.5) or even the Cervelo R3. I’m wondering if the longer geometry of the bike has something to do with it – and maybe my arms and torso are shorter than most guys my size – 6’2 or so, 235 (in pretty good shape, just a larger guy 😉 . So, I have not decided yet on this bike. I am going to go test ride the Madone 5.5 in a 58 for a longer time, then go back and do a better fitting on the S-Works 58, see if I can pull back the bars a touch and maybe get past this – because that lower back pain aside, I have not ridden anything at all like the S-Works Roubaix SL2 – it was sublime, to say the least. I hope I can make it work, but can’t deal with constant back pain…


  6. admin says:

    Hi Carlos,

    Ah, back pain. I am just back from a 3 hour ride on my S-Works Roubaix. This is a bike on which you can ride forever… Only problem so far is that it needs frequent applications of carbon assembly compound on its seatpost and on the handlebar/stem fastening points – or it creaks and makes nasty cracking noises like crazy. I find that being stretched out causes more back pain than a shorter stretch. So my Roubaix is a smaller frame than the rest of my stable. Right choice for me as back pain is no more. But back pain is also never helped when you carry too much weight. Basic rule of thumb for me is to keep on loosing weight until I start getting dizzy after a long ride. Less is more! After all, this S-Works bike is seriously light, so it’s a shame to ruin all that great engineering work by weighing too much yourself. I must say that buying a new bike is a lottery. You can never get a long enough test ride to judge how you will live with any bike. And then you can be stuck with a very wrong choice. So, apart from buying lots of bikes, buying just one good pike is a seriously anxious job. The other thing I learned was to ignore most people’s opinions on bike fit. I have a very high seat height (my LBS keeps lowering it and I keep raising it…) and that has really helped me out in the hills. The best bike I have ever, ever, owned remains my Pinarello Paris. That’s no longer on the Pinarello catalogue, unfortunately, and the other top end Pinarellos are all much harsher to ride than the S-Works Roubaix. I would avoid any Trek. Mainly because their after sales service here in Australia is obscene. Plus, those bikes simply lack character, to me. The Roubaix is one quirky bike with loads of character. The Cervelo just looks cheap and nasty to my eyes. Hope it goes well for you

  7. Dan Higgins says:

    Evidently the Specialized has switched to the Ksyrium SLs from the R-sys due to the R-sys recall issues. Of course I don’t see a change in price although the SLs are presumably a less expensive wheel!

  8. Al Hunter-Wilson says:

    I just crashed my beautiful ’08 Roubaix pro. broke my collar bone. Just bought and getting made up a black beast.
    An S Works Roubaix SL2 2010 frame. Campag CHORUS 11Speed and Fulcrum One wheels. The only problem is I cant ride for another 3 weeks! My Pro bike was awesome, trained for Ironman NZ on it. So it was a natural choice to go all out for the S Works.

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