First Impressions: Riding the new Specialized Roubaix from Flanders to Roubaix

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When I found out that we would be headed to Kortrijk, Belgium for the Specialized launch, things started to click. We still didn’t technically know what we were going to see, but it was pretty easy to read between the lines. Not only is Kortrijk used as a base camp for major classics events, it’s also a short trip from Flanders and Roubaix. The surrounding countryside is dotted with infamous cobble sectors and varying road surfaces perfect for testing out a new bike. A bike like the all new Roubaix.

It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that with excellent bikes like the Domane popping up, Specialized’ endurance flagship was due for a face lift. More than just a cosmetic refresh though, the Roubaix had to deliver a ride that was fast over any surface. Which led specialized to question, is smooth fast? In principle, it seems like an obvious answer. But in practice, it was much harder to prove. Specialized has relied on their sponsored athletes to help with that question for years, but for the new Roubaix, a ground breaking bike was going to require a new approach. It was time yet again to enlist the help of McLaren, only this time they would be testing how to make a bike faster by making it smoother rather than more aero.

The result of that partnership is not only the lightest frame that Specialized has ever made, but a surprising take on how to make a bike smooth and fast. The new Roubaix is something that has to be ridden to be believed, which was exactly why we were about to set out to ride some of the most infamous cobble stones in the world…

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Once it was clear that were were there to see the new Roubaix, thoughts of what to expect started flashing through my head. Would we see some kind of suspension fork system hinted at by Specialized’ patent applications? Decoupler systems a la Domane? Super Zertz? There were so many possibilities that when the curtain was finally pulled from the bikes, I was a bit stunned. It looked like a bike. Nothing really jumped out as new or revolutionary, except that Zertz were no longer present. It wasn’t until Kevin Franks pushed down on the handlebars and the whole front end above the headtube bobbed that we knew something was up.

The biggest story with the new Roubaix is in the new Future Shock suspension system which resides in the steerer tube, above the head tube. The thinking is that axial compliance above the head tube keeps the riders’ hands and arms suspended for comfort and control while keeping the front end of the bike rigid and feeling racy. This was after countless hours spent by the McLaren brain trust dissecting just what makes a bike smoother, and how that translates to making it faster. Their findings indicated that anything on the bottom half of the bike added to the comfort story but made the bike slower. Adding in compliance above the seat tube and head tube made the bike just as fast, but still improved comfort.

That’s good on paper, but what is it like to actually ride? Fortunately we were in the perfect place to find out.

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Photo: Jim Fryer / BrakeThrough Media | brakethroughmedia.com
Photo: Jim Fryer / BrakeThrough Media | brakethroughmedia.com

Our first day on the bike was spent getting it dialed in, adjusting fit, and feeling it out over the streets around Kortrijk. After providing Specialized with my measurements ahead of time, I arrived to a bike that was almost perfectly dialed in for my fit. Depending on the rider and the handlebar height, Specialized used either flat or riser road bars, and since I don’t have a particularly low front end, riser bars were used in my case. For the record, I’m about 5’8″ and was on a 52cm frame. In order to fit the Future Shock cartridge in the steerer, the Roubaix frame uses a much shorter head tube this year which puts the head tube height about the same when you add in the height of the cartridge. Even the real pros will still have the boot showing beneath negative stems like Boonen’s set up above (bottom picture).

While the stem can’t be moved up and down on the cartridge to change ride height, there are three different positions of the cartridge itself which provides 30mm of total adjustment range. But one of the big benefits to the system is that you can use standard stems with a shim, and between the cartridge height adjustment, different stems, and riser or flat bars, you can dial in a huge range of fits.

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Additionally, there are three different main springs that can be changed out to alter the feel of the front end. Medium will be the stock rate, but soft and firm springs will also be available.

Photo: Jim Fryer / BrakeThrough Media | brakethroughmedia.com
Photo: Jim Fryer / BrakeThrough Media | brakethroughmedia.com

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Immediately, one of the most surprising aspects of the bike is how weird it feels in the parking lot, but how quickly it becomes normal when you’re actually riding it. Due to the design of the cartridge with a main spring, booster spring, and a negative spring, the handlebar floats in between the two extremes. On extreme impacts you can actually bottom out the cartridge which still feels less abrupt than a big impact on a normal fork, and on sprinting you hardly notice the 3mm of travel before the cartridge tops out. Initially it’s an odd feeling for sure but you can certainly feel it working. After winding our way through the Kortrijk country side, it was time to prepare for the crown jewel of the trip – Flanders to Roubaix.

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Photo: Jim Fryer / BrakeThrough Media | brakethroughmedia.com
Photo: Jim Fryer / BrakeThrough Media | brakethroughmedia.com

In terms of places to start a ride, it doesn’t get much better than the Centrum Ronde van Vlaanderen. Situated right in Oudenaarde, Belgium, the museum is stacked with history and the Brasserie De Flandrien provides a great way to get caffeinated for a brutal tour of the cobbles. Our route would take us from the CRVV in Oudenaarde, through some of the classic Flanders cobbles like the Oude Kwaremont and then traverse over from Belgium into France to sample some Roubaix cobbles including the Carrefour de l’Arbre before rolling into the famed Velodrome de Roubaix for a victory lap.

Talk about a bucket list ride.

Photo: Jim Fryer / BrakeThrough Media | brakethroughmedia.com
Photo: Jim Fryer / BrakeThrough Media | brakethroughmedia.com

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If you follow road racing at all, the cobble should need no introduction. They’re rough, unforgiving segments of time literally cast in stone. You hear about them, you see the pros wince in agony as they race across them, and yet nothing can really prepare you for them when you finally arrive. To be completely honest, I was a little intimidated going into this trip. I had only been riding for about 5 months since my injury and my shoulder, arm, and hand strength wasn’t where I would have liked it to be going into this ride. That fact only serves to highlight how good the Roubaix seems to be.

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On my first true ride on the cobbles, with a group of fast riders including Astana pro Jakob Fuglsang, and my left side still not at 100%, I was completely surprised at how well I was able to ride. Don’t get me wrong, it was still some work to keep up with the lead group, but the front end was admirably controlled over the roughest sectors. One of the comments during the trip was that this was a ‘mountain bikers’ road bike,’ which seems to have some merit. To me, the bobbing of the front end was easy to get used to, but other riders mentioned how they were having a harder time wrapping their head around it. The Roubaix is almost like the road bike equivalent of a hardtail mountain bike with a supple suspension fork up front and a rigid back end, though the whole thing still feels very race oriented. And yet, because of that suspension at the front of the bike, it seemed like you could really keep your weight on the bars and power through the sectors rather than sitting up and trying to ease the pressure and vibration from the bumps. That very aspect of the Roubaix has led top pros to change how they ride the cobbles, according to Specialized. It will be interesting to see how things play out this coming Classics season as the new Roubaix is put to the test on the world stage.

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The duality of the Roubaix is certainly one of its best attributes. While it manages to answer the comfort story, underneath it is very much a race bike. Between the quick handling and the efficiency of the carbon frame (our test bikes were 10R layup Project Black frames), the Roubaix feels much faster than your typical endurance road bike. In the end, the big question seems to be the acceptance of the Future Shock Suspension cartridge. Is the slightly odd feeling of a floating handlebar worth the added benefits of increased comfort and speed? In our limited time on the new Roubaix, it seems so – though the look might take some getting used to.

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Comments

36 thoughts on “First Impressions: Riding the new Specialized Roubaix from Flanders to Roubaix

  1. Domane: road bike that kills and dampens constant vibration and pitted gravel
    Roubaix: Mountain bike that springs over large holes on the road.

    I have not tried both but in keeping with some rigidity and control, I can confirm the Domane was 100% on target when I rode it for days. The Roubaix looks more like a deeper pot hole survivor. Everyone will have a choice.

    1. I’ve seen the back end of a Domain bob up and down with a rider pedaling seated. Meanwhile this Roubaix is rigid in the back. I wonder which is more efficient? And if the front of the Roubaix is floating in it’s sag, it could soak up small bits as well.

        1. With the dropped seat post clamp and open frame, the new Roubaix will act much like the Domane (more fore-aft movement now). It is no secret that the CG-R post is not that plush when compared to other flexing posts and certainly not as much as the new Domane SLR design.

          Spesh was looking to soften the seated ride to more closely match the Domane while keeping it stiff and fast, apparently.

        2. So would the heat tube angle change on the Domane while cornering through a chattery section of road? since the “suspension moves fore and aft”

          Also. the roubaix uses that CGR post and a dropped clamp to provide more flex in the rear end. I have seen saddles move up and down slightly with just CGR seatposts, so the extended seatpost that is exposed should help that rear end vibration damping even more.

          1. I don’t know for sure, but the Domane front Isospeed had the flexibility in the upper race of the head tube. It is supposed to allow the top end of the steer tube to flex more, in a fore-aft direction only.

            If true, the movement should mainly be at the bars, not the lower end of the fork.

            I haven’t ridden one yet, but the reviews I have seen don’t seem to indicate any problems.

            In fact, it seems there are more comments about the different feeling of the new Roubaix front end. I suspect it is because it is more movement than the Domane.

            That probably means it’s more effective at bump absorbtion, but may come at the cost of an odd feel?

  2. So what happens in a few years when the spring part is obsolete and needs to be replaced? Does the bike just become obsolete junk?

    And what type of servicing does it need every 18 months?

    1. 1) Do you think servicing something in 18 months is unreasonable?
      2) Do you think they will have spent a lot of time and money in developing this and ditch it in three years? Specialized dealers can order all sorts of service parts for older models.

      1. Yes, In theory we can order those parts, but the availibility of such things diminishes quite rapidly. mainly anything having to to with rovol hubs/wheels/spokes.

      2. Actually, you’re wrong. Specialized routinely stops producing replacement parts on “older” bikes which are often less than five or six years old. Brain shocks are a great example of this.

  3. “the bobbing of the front end” – yea that sounds efficient.

    “like (a) road bike equivalent of a hardtail mountain bike” – except without an actual high performance damped suspension fork and instead a basic spring loaded stem.

    If real suspension does not make vehicles faster why does McLaren put it on their cars?

    Also, Less than 10% of this article actually gives your impression of riding the bike. But to surmise for your readers:

    The new Roubaix feels ‘weird and odd’ but also ‘feels faster and seems smoother’ when compared to nothing (as no other bikes are referenced.) Hope you had fun riding though 🙂 .

    1. “If real suspension does not make vehicles faster why does McLaren put it on their cars?”

      Because their cars weigh 1500 pounds or more and travel at 200 mph?

  4. I have to imagine that someone from Softride will be pouring themselves an extra-stiff drink tonight… If only they’d listened twenty years ago!

  5. I think this design is more clever than commenters (surprise!) are giving it credit for.

    1) Putting the axial compliance (aka spring shock) above the head tube will keep the frame stiff for pedal strokes in or out of the saddle. The problem with a fork shock (stanchion or HeadShok) is that you need a mechanism to lock out the shock so that it doesn’t activate when hammering (thereby zapping your effort). This mechanism does not need to be locked out, it doesn’t interfere with the frame’s job of resisting the downward pedal forces.

    2) This is very similar in concept to a suspension stem, but with some key differences. A) you don’t need to buy a new expensive stem to change fit. B) A stem with pivots moving parts will be flexy as all hell. Sprinting on it will be like sprinting with wet noodle handlebars.

    I know it is fashionable to hate on Specialized (for a variety of reasons), but they do have a crop of engineers that really are doing some cool things lately.

    1. I really like this comment, but I still think its a bad idea.

      Suspending just the rider will help with fatigue, but will not help keep riders from crashing due to poor traction. No doubt that fatigue is a major issue at Roubaix – But with all the mtb tech out there, this is what the big S comes up with? Pretty lame! :-0

      As a former dealer, I like their products, but as a long time rider I will be really taken aback if this design wins the race!

      First suspension stem to win Paris Roubaix 🙂

      1. The comparison between suspending the rider vs suspending the bike is a bit off.

        In the new Roubaix, the Future Shock supports the front half of the rider while the seat post supports the rear half (ignoring the weight supported by the pedals since that varies based on power and cadence).

        Based on that, when the bike hits a bump, the front wheel lifts which also raises the fork and head tube. The weight of the rider, via the hands on the bars, want to stay in position (thanks Newton) which leads to the compression of the spring in the Future Shock.

        There is a similar chain of events when you look at a typical suspension fork. The difference is the relative position of the spring in the system. It is much earlier in the chain for a sprung fork than the new Roubaix. It is between the fixed and moving halves of the fork.

        So, what’s the real difference?
        Unsprung Weight: “In a ground vehicle with a suspension, the unsprung weight (or the unsprung mass) is the mass of the suspension, wheels or tracks (as applicable), and other components directly connected to them, rather than supported by the suspension.”

        For the new Roubaix, the UW is the wheel, fork, front part of the bike.
        For a normal suspension fork, the UW is the wheel and lower half of the fork.

        In most suspension design, having a low UW allows the suspension to move and react faster. Therefore, all other things being equal, the sprung fork design should be able to react faster than the new Roubaix design.

        The Roubaix has the penalty of more mass moving up and down since the spring is so high in the system. But it is still a true suspension. It may have an advantage in lower component weight vs a standard fork, but who knows?

        One major point being that either design should improve not only comfort, but also traction. This happens because the wheel can react faster, and stay in contact with the ground or return to it faster because if the spring return affect.

  6. Any engineering solution has some compromises and this will certainly have some. Here you have the mass that provides the down force for traction on the front tire now lightly sprung. If during poor road conditions it allows the rider to maintain weight upon bars while keeping the tire in contact with the road, you have a win in rougher conditions for traction. Suspension, even in any McLaren, has the primary purpose of maintaining tire contact to irregular surface while allowing the mass above to remain stable. Perfection would come in the form of a fully active suspension, but that is far to much to ask for here and now. Still, this will aid in rough surface traction that doesn’t go dramatically beyond the travel of the combination of pneumatic and mechanical suspension provided.

    On smooth pavement, rapid transitions left to right will likely show a loss of sharpness as the mass above is now sprung and have a slight delay of transitional loading. Yeah, this isn’t a crit machine. The BB drop is also a bit low in comparison to race geo, and especially crit designed bikes. Not Domane low, but lower than prior. The steering trail is on the faster for most of the sizes, with the 54cm being an exception. I certainly wonder if rider at all sizes will have a similar experiences in terms of handling.

    For its intended purpose, it will likely do quite well. It just has some compromise like any mechanical engineering solution.

  7. I don’t understand differencd between this and carbon handlebar from Aliexpress.
    Carbon bars are light and flexy so the comfort is nuch improved over old aluminum bars. I don’t have to buy a new bike either.

    1. The future shock is suppose to weigh in at 250 grams, with the frame being reduced down around 700 grams. The fork is claimed to be around 300 grams and I expect all these figures are without additional hardware. It uses some of the carbon construction methods from the S-Works Tarmac called 11R by Specialized. All that really means is using blends of high tensile strength and high modulus carbon to achieve specific performance goals with reduced weight.

  8. I took one for a short spin near our shop yesterday, and it rides pretty nice. The bike path right out back is pretty rough, and the ride was noticeably smoother than on the previous version of the Roubaix. Obviously setting up the front end will be a little different, but it doesn’t look that bad. I’m kinda excited about it!

  9. I can believe everything they said about this new frame….. but… and soo.. what was all the story behinf Zertz???? and what was really feeling peaple that rode that?? hahah

  10. Do you race on cobbles?

    No?

    Then you don’t need a road bike suspension… simply run a 28 or 30mm tire at 85 psi…

    This bike is made for one pro road race… that if the average guy is luck, he does as a ride.

    The road bike industry is really reaching….

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