I have always liked the Giant TCR Advanced SL. It’s a wonderfully efficient, well considered, utterly proven design that ticks just about every box for your average hard core road cyclist. Light, fast, nimble, reasonably comfortable and fast, the TCR is the essence of an engineering-first design that simply works. I guess the TCR’s utter removal from hubris is another great feature! These TCR’s are not exactly the bike of choice for coffee shop poseurs. The TCR is more the bike you’d get if you wanted to remove every possible impediment from your crusade to win that next race or to simply fly like the wind on one of those forever-rides we endorphin addicted road obsessives like so much. Yes indeed. The Giant TCR Advanced SL is the bike I’d have if I could only have one bike.
So, as you’d imagine, I was interested when Giant decided to remove its flag from the TCR and hoist it from the retro-horizontal top tube of its brand new (as of one year ago) flagship, the Propel Advanced SL. While the TCR is still in business, it has become very much an orphan in the Giant line-up these days. Through the 2014 pro season, half the Giant Shimano squad were on the new Propel while the other half hung on to the TCR. Interestingly, all the climbers in that squad stuck with the TCR. But the fast boys like Marcel Kittel spent the season on the new machine. What’s the message here? Is the Propel a flat road bike that struggles in the hills like some kind of lightweight time trial bike?
I resisted the temptation to try out the new Propel based entirely on prejudice. I am not a sprinter. Kittle et al are sprinters and they ride Propels so a Propel, surely, is not for me. Plus, I was a non-believer when it comes to the aero fad. The elephant in the room for me was the big lump that still has to sit on top of all these new aero designs. That lump has not exactly progressed much in terms of aero facility since the days of Maurice Garin (1903 le Tour winner). I rather thought that barring some kind of radical cosmetic surgery involving bodily reconstruction to resemble a catamaran mast or the tail section of a modern fighter jet, this fascination with teardrop shaping our bikes was some kind of marketing ploy; or something only likely to be of value to the ultra elite looking for that last one per cent.
I was destined to remain unimpressed with the new aero bike project embodied by the likes of the Specialized Venge, Cervelo S5 and now the Giant Propel. Until my local purveyor of bicycles and all things related, Mark Bullen of Armidale Bicycle Centre, pointed me to a demonstrator Propel he’d just put on the floor. I suspected a plot… After all, how likely is is that a demonstrator appears in just my size and with a seat mast cut to exactly my specification (exactly 788mm, seat top to BB centre)? How often do demonstrators come in top-of-the-line Pro-Tour spec? How could I possibly resist? Exactly. Especially when this particular Propel is dressed in the new Dura Ace 11 speed Di2 group set. And is equipped with Zipp 404’s.
Like all flag ships, this Propel is dressed in flag ship parts. I’ve been wanting to try out Dura Ace Di2 ever since my love affair with Campagnolo Super Record EPS was initialised by my the Wilier Zero.7 to which that gruppo came attached. Nothing, I thought, could possibly be as good as EPS. But to make such a judgement, one rather needs to try out both back to back. This demonstrator Propel would, at the very least, allow me to validate the world conquering perfection of Campagnolo EPS.
My first ride was utterly loaded with negative preconceptions. This bike would be harsh on our local pave. This bike would ride the hills like an iron gate. This bike would be as inspiring as a front seat at a National Party political campaign (think Red Neck and the drooling of spit). Maybe I’d have to walk up my favourite hill. Maybe the very first side wind gust would catch these 58mm Zipp 404’s and blow me off the road. But at least I’d be able to judge just how good my Campagnolo EPS is by way of comparison. I was thinking I’d be returning this bike to the shop that very same day. After all, there must be a reason why half the Giant Shimano squad are still on the TCR. I was, I was sure, about to find out why.
Let me segue to sailboards.
Have you ever ridden a high performance sailboard/windsurfer? If so, you know about your feet strapped into stern foot loops, a harness hook connecting you to the boom and a sail filled with brutal speed. You’d know about flying from one bit of water chop to the next, you’d know about how it feels to be a human wind powered rocket. You’d know what it is to be able to fly! You’d know how that magnificent mylar/kevlar sail is dragging you into a slot where wind and water conspire into a pure vortex of speed.
The Giant Propel Advanced SL is a sailboard for the road. There’s no other way to describe how this thing performs.
You know how a head/forward side wind bashes you around and makes your ride a misery? Remember that? You know how a side wind punches your wheels off the road? Especially when descending a hill at speed? It’s all enough to make you want to ride your indoor bike instead.
Well, the Giant Propel is a brand new experience in the wind. Just like a sailboard, this thing actually sucks you into the wind. Headwinds still slow you down, but not in the same way as before. It’s like you are now riding a heated knife into a vat of buttery wind. The Propel kind of drags you along into an otherwise disagreeable head wind. There’s an extra dimension of control over your forward motion that has simply been missing to now. The closest I can come to describing the sensation is the difference between riding a sailboard with and without a centreboard rudder. The Giant Propel aero design is all about adding a rudder to the boats we usually ride. Now there is an added element of grip in the face of a front on or forward wind. It’s just like being sucked along for the ride!
Who’d have thought that all this aero shaping of a bike frame could possibly make this much difference! Not me for sure. I must confess that these sensations of sailboarding on a bike had caused me to forget my intended focus on the Shimano Di2 and the expected harsh ride. But once I had started to acclimatise to this new feeling of riding a bike with a rudder, I started to notice that the ride is, actually, pretty close to the ride I get from my TCR. Yes, it is a touch more harsh, but not by much. Let’s say the effect is a bit like adding 10 psi more to your TCR’s tyres. The Propel’s ride is actually an impressive compromise between speed and efficiency on the one side and comfort on the other. Any serious roadie will have no problems pulling off a 200km ride on this bike. And I reckon my local roads are always going to be harsher then yours, wherever you might be. This bike’s integrated seat post and its Zipp 404’s conspire to provide a very impressively sorted ride. Not sweet like you’d get from, say, a Wilier Zero.7 or, say, a Colnago CX-1 or the new Colnago C60. But then again, after five minutes you get used to the Propel’s ride and forget that extra dimension of comfort and revel, instead, in a generally faster. more purposeful ride.
So what of the Shimano Dura Ace 11 speed Di2? It’s OK. This is the best Dura Ace yet. I like the two sets of shifting buttons that feature on the Propel; one set on the brake levers as usual and another set of tiny tabs sitting like claws within the handle bar drops. But this new Di2 is definitely not in the same league as Campagnolo Super Record 11 speed EPS. Campagnolo gives the feeling of a slot for each and every gear. Dura Ace Di2 is nowhere near as precise or positive in terms of definitive shifts. Nor are the hands anywhere near as comfortably supported as on EPS. Campagnolo is very definitely the more ‘ergonomic’ option in terms of bio-engineered precision. Yes, those secondary Di2 shifting tabs are ever so nice for shifting in the drops, but you simply don’t need two sets of gear shifters with Campagnolo EPS; the single set are simply perfectly positioned for shifting wherever your hands might be on the bars. This new Dura Ace also suffers in terms of shifting buttons that are never as easy to instantly locate as on Campagnolo EPS. Campagnolo got this right and so it stays.
How does the Propel handle the hills? I live in a place of regular, shortish, sharp hills. Average gradients are between 7 and 15 percent but most hills are less than 3km in length. Though one hill is nearly 20km long and averages 8 per cent so it’s a cat 1 or better, and there are three like that. But the usual pattern is agitated undulating with only a few places that are what anyone might regard as flat. Technically, this is the kind of terrain that fits more in the design brief of the TCR than the Propel. Which is why I enjoy my TCR so much. I wasn’t expecting much from the Propel in terms of facility with hills. For starters, even in this top of the line spec, my Propel weighs in at 7kg all up, which is about 0.3kg more than the TCR. But the TCR also has a compact frame; the Propel is almost a pure square rig (it’s apparently more aero like that given that a dropping top tube catches more wind). The Giant Propel feels like a bigger bike than the same sized TCR (both have exactly the same geometry). The TCR has better climbing credentials than the Propel, on paper and in practice. But not by much. Once again, the Propel surprises by its ability in the hills. It rides even stiffer than the TCR so there are no losses from a flexing frame. Of any kind. Best of all, the illusion of larger size disappears once a hill takes hold; the Propel simply disappears as gravity turns sour.
This is not to imply that the Giant Propel is a climber’s bike. My Merida Scultura SL eats it alive in the hills, as does my Wilier Zero.7, my Pinarello Prince and my even older Pinarello Paris. And of course, the Giant TCR is a more nimble, lighter ride. There is no contest here. The Propel is faster on the flats than on the steepest of hills. But the deficit is marginal, not deal breaking. If all you intend is to ride in the hills and hills alone, the TCR is the bike to get. The TCR is a climbers bike. The Propel is a bike for a ride with flats, sprints, and hills. The TCR is the bike to have if all you want is to take Strava KOM’s or crush your mates up the Alpe d’Huez.
And then there are those brakes…
In the cause of class-topping aero status, Giant ditched the usual brakes. Instead, we have a retro throw back to cantilever-like brakes of the kind now only to be found on some pre-disc cyclocross bikes. Sitting behind the front forks and cached into the rear seat stays, the Giant’s brakes are certainly streamlined. But do they compromise braking performance compared with conventional Dura Ace, Campagnolo or SRAM? Yes, they do. Nothing stops as well as dual pivot Campagnolo Super Record. End of discussion. Next up are SRAM Red. Then conventional Dura Ace. Last on any possible list would have to be these things on the Giant Propel. I do have a cyclocross bike and it has SRAM Shorty cantilever brakes that almost work quite well. And certainly better than the brakes on the Propel. These Propel brakes do work, but only if you are prepared to adopt the obsessive compulsive predilections of a micro surgeon to keep them adjusted just right. My brakes came standard half locked on the drive side front and back. They’d started to trench out my beautiful Zipp 404’s. They came with brake pads worn out on one side. Such is the life of a demonstrator bike! It took hours and hours to set these brakes up with a proper set of pads. But even then, I had to turn the drive side spring tension screws in all the way to even begin to get something like alignment on both sides of the same rim. Now I can ride without the brakes permanently rubbing on one side of the wheel braking track (the Zipps have carbon braking tracks so forget brakes when it rains). But the pads are permanently off set to one side, so if my wheels should ever go out of true the pads will be rubbing themselves out like the way they were when I rescued this bike from the hell of its life as a demonstrator ride. After 3,000kms my brakes are still kind of true. And they work reasonably well, in terms of stopping power. But they are simply totally outclassed by conventional brakes.
No contest. Basically, if you are the kind of person who has zero predilection for maintenance and/or are one of those dodgy tossers who destroyed the pads on my own bike while it was on the demonstrator circuit, you will come unstuck with these Propel brakes. The brakes on this bike are definitely its Achilles heel. They are almost unacceptable. Not dangerous. But a failed compromise where aerodynamic scores seemed to matter more to the bike’s designers than proper braking performance and reliability.
Finally, some comments on the other bits on this bike. Giant has specced its own in house Contact integrated bar and stem for this top of the line model. The bars are, quite simply, a work of art. They are stunningly comfortable and resemble the wing of a jet. The drops are, at least for me, a perfect semi compact depth to the point where riding in the drops for hours on end is more than OK (especially with those lovely secondary gear changing claws located inside the drops). The bar tops are wide and flat and utterly perfect for climbing (if you climb with your hands on the bar tops like I do). Also standard is Fizik’s Arione R3 Kium (with alloy rails) saddle with the world’s most ill-considered white stripe down the middle. My Arione came equipped with a non-spec mark on the top so I ditched it for the next model up, the Arione R3 Braided (with carbon rails). What a transformation! The carbon rails of my replacement saddle managed to dampen more than a little road vibration through this bike’s integrated seat mast. The bike is now considerably more comfortable with such a simple upgrade (as a seat with carbon rails).
Also standard are Giant’s own 23mm P-SLR tyres which are nice and grippy, reasonably light but very temporary in terms of tread life. You can expect about 2,000km with these things. I plan to experiment with 25mm tyres (probably Mavic’s Yksium Powerlink/Griplink combination). The clearance between the rear tyre and this bike’s frame is kind of minuscule, so 25mm tyres might not fit. But if I can ram them in, I reckon that little bit more ride dampening on offer from wider tyres will really sort out the comfort side of my ride.
And finally, a comment on the bike’s appearance might be in order. My first glance in the Propel’s direction was 12 months ago and I forgot to notice anything other than it’s odd retro non-compact frame. On first glance, this bike is more weapon than looker. The 2014 spec blue/black combination is Giant corporate down the line. I like the combination but it is hardly soothing. There’s more white on the 2015 model seat tube but that is a retrograde aesthetic step, in my view (this marginally different paint job is the only difference between the 2014 and 2015 models). One would never, I suspect sit staring all slack jawed in admiration over the looks of the Propel, as one might over, say, a Wilier Zero.7 or, say, the New Colnago C60 or V1-r. The Propel has the purposeful looks of a B double cattle truck rather than the Italian design sensory overload of the Wilier. But it grows on you… All that raw carbon is purposeful to the point of some kind of statement. Giant is never likely to recapture the spectacular looks of its own TCR Rabobank Advanced SL from a couple of years back; but this new Propel has a techno-aesthetic all of its own. Intentionally, this is the exact same corporate flagship colour combination – techno-industrial look you also get on the latest TCR, Defy, and the brand new 2015 Giant TCX Pro 0 cyclocross bike (which comes with Dura Ace Di2 and disk brakes – guess what I have in my sights for my very next bike…). The paint jobs on the lower-down-the-range Propels are probably more interesting. The solid turquoise on the Advanced Pro 1 Propel is interesting but the wild orange on the Propel Advanced Pro is vastly more in-your-face. But the deep subtlety of the flagship naked carbon/blue combo is, however, and on reflection, the artistic stayer in the pack. I like it now.
Like the TCR Advanced SL, the Propel is equipped with Giant’s integrated cadence/speed sensor which is ANT+ compatible with standard Garmin units and thus social intercourse with Strava…
Who, then, is this bike for?
This is the bike for a rouleur (an all purpose ‘hard-man’ cyclist). It is fast, provided you are too. It is the bike for a sprinter who also has to endure a few hills before he gets to the finish line. It is a racing bike. It is not a bike for poseurs with more to invest in post ride lattes than miles in the legs. This is not a bike for casual road cyclists. It should never be an option for a new cyclist, or someone straight off a mountain bike. This bike is not a toy. It is a purpose designed tool for a serious road cyclist who enjoys speed and cutting edge performance. A serious cyclist will appreciate its stiffness, precision, speed, and facility in the wind. A casual rider will find it to be harsh, uncompromising and will probably be blown off the road in the first big gusty side wind (deep section rims and a flattened frame present something of a sail to cyclists who are nervous and inexperienced in conditions like that). A serious cyclist will enjoy this bike. This bike will give a serious cyclist an edge. My recommendation is that this bike is for the racing or speed addicted road cyclist contemplating his or her fifth or later ride; it is most definitely not suited to be anyone’s first bike. That is, in fact, this bike’s overwhelming best feature. The Giant Propel does not pretend or attempt to accommodate a wider user-base through intentional design compromise. There are plenty of more widely accommodating rides out there: the Giant TCR is one; any Colnago will suit a more diversified crowd. The Giant Propel is for a harder core experienced road cyclist and will energise all those things that serious roadies love about their bikes without the kind of compromises they would otherwise have to endure for bikes designed to fit a wider user base. It is a total credit to Giant that they have delivered such a magnificent weapon for the more single minded cyclists out there. This one-time demonstrator Propel Advanced SL has a top three placing in my all-time favourite list of bikes (third after my Wilier Zero.7 and, yes, the Giant TCR Advanced SL at number 2).