RBA Shootout: The Kings of Comfort

Regular readers of RBA will recall the July 2012 issue where we offered our first look at both the 2013 Trek Domane and Specialized Roubaix. To us, there were two key takeaways to consider from that story. One was the influence that a single race (Paris-Roubaix)-or, more specifically, the centuries-old cobbles that made up a minority of sections of the course-was having on contemporary frame designs. Secondly, it was the byproduct of that influence- pro-level race bikes adapting comfort-oriented frame features- that struck us as especially newsworthy.

Think about it: two of the biggest bike brands in the world, renowned as much for their race results and race-oriented bikes as they are for being bitter competitors behind closed doors, both locked in a duel to define a new age of road bikes. For as long as anyone can remember, comfort and performance had never been spoken of in the same breath when it came to discussing race bikes. Comfort was in fact a ‘dirtier’ word than doping. To be a winning bike racer was to embrace a stoic, uncomfortable and even pained existence. But then things started to change. Some would say the seed was merely the specter of old age visiting the very product managers who for years designed bikes to be stiff and unforgiving to the same degree that they themselves were young, strong and confident. A more nuanced interpretation might simply be that after all these years of seeing comfort and performance as intrinsically incompatible, technology has now rewritten the rules of bike design. Regardless, mark these days in history as those when talk of comfort was not something relegated solely to the needs of 50-year-old riders looking for bikes to help resurrect their youth so as to maintain their position in the local peloton despite their fading levels of fitness and flexibility.

 Trek Domane 6.9
Years in the making – even when no one knew it was in the making

Two notable occurrences took place when Specialized introduced their Roubaix bike back in 2004. The first is that the comfort-inclined Roubaix would go on to become the best-selling model in Specialized’s vast catalog of road bikes. Secondly, sensing the road world’s embrace of improved rear-end compliance- and more important, the success that the Roubaix was bringing Specialized on the showroom floor-Trek began chasing their tail trying to come up with a bike to compete with the Roubaix. They tried a frame that used seat tubes that were internally wrapped with elastomers as a means to dampen road shock. It may have worked, but unlike the Zertz systemused by Specialized, you couldn’t see the elastomer, and as the popular saying goes, ‘Out of sight, out of mind.’ And they tried a squishy elastomer shock that was actually once used with success under George Hincapie at Paris-Roubaix. But it was bulbous, unsightly and hard to work into the manufacturing process. Back to the drawing board.

The heart of the Domane is what Trek calls their IsoSpeed system, which consists of a seat tube that is decoupled from the top tube, allowing it to rotate forward (34mm) on a bearing ‘into’ the top tube to absorb bump forces. Although Trek bristles at using the word ‘suspension’ here, if we were to rely on old mountain bike parlance (as opposed to the Roubaix), the IsoSpeed is an ‘active’ form of-well, okay-compliance.

The actual IsoSpeed part of the frame is so integrated as to almost be imperceptible at first glance. The simple bearing system is housed underneath a plastic cover, and while designed to work for the life of the bike, the internals are completely serviceable without any special tools. Like all of Trek’s high-end road bikes, the Domane 6.9 is made using their proprietary OCLV Carbon technology. Long a mainstay technique found only at the Trek factory in Waterloo, Wisconsin, Trek has since created certified OCLV manufacturing in Asia where the Domane frame is built before being shipped to Waterloo to receive final assembly. The frame is constructed in separate parts wherein the top tube, head tube and downtube are all one piece and joined to the one-piece bottom bracket and seat tube. There is a single carbon piece that connects the top tube to the seat stays around the IsoSpeed.

 Like the Madone, the Domane uses a quasi-integrated seatpost design that allows for 10cm of adjustment with no need for cutting. Nice. To better understand what Trek is trying to accomplish with the Domane versus the standard Madone race bike, just look at the numbers. The Domane’s geometry speaks to the ‘endurance bike’ crowd with a 100.8cm wheelbase, 55.4cm top tube, 17.5cm-tall head tube, 71.9-degree head angle, and a 73.3-degree seat angle (size 56). Those numbers reflect increased stability and more upright positioning. The Domane has internal cable routing that can accommodate either mechanical or electronic drivetrains. Commuters will be thrilled to find a pair of ‘invisible’ rear fender mounts that are positioned flush on the rear dropouts.

Shimano and Trek’s own Bontrager brand fill out the component selection for the Domane. Our bike was spec’d with the 2012 Dura-Ace parts. Light-action shifting to a fault, the only drawback test riders found was the amount of lever throw when making downshifts. Having ridden the vastly improved 2013 Dura-Ace drivetrain with shifters that have half the amount of throw, we’d advise keeping an eye on which parts the bike at your dealer is spec’d with.
Of all the Bontrager accessories found on the Domane, the Bontrager Aeolus 3 carbon clincher wheels were the spiffiest. Not only light and low (profile), they also provided excellent braking performance. Although the white-wall tires and white hubs on the Bontrager hoops had no effect on performance, they did rankle everyone who thought they knew anything about eye candy. Additionally, with its scooped-out design, the Bontrager Affinity X Lite saddle didn’t win any converts, as it made zeroing in on personal fore/aft positioning difficult.

Ever since Trek began their Domane advertising campaign last spring, it seemed like they were underselling the most unique and significant feature of the bike-this thing sucks up bumps! Best of all, you can’t really tell that the IsoSpeed system is doing a great job at what it was designed to do. Thanks to the 90mmwide bottom bracket and the wide downtube that connects it to the head tube, the Domane’s torsional front-end stiffness is definitely something to write home about. Despite the IsoSpeed’s single pivot (located right in the middle of the frame), the Domane enjoys hard sprints and defies any power-robbing frame-twisting. Beyond the IsoSpeed system, there was also a fair amount of added compliance coming from the deflection of the proprietary ‘Ride Tuned’ seatmast. Though we were unable to isolate the deflection in the bike’s ride quality within the movement of the decoupled seat tube, it’s visible nonetheless and no doubt added to the frame’s impressive rate of rear-end absorption.

Two complaints we had with the Domane centered on the front end. The first was just a niggling problem we had with getting our positioning right due to the dedicated 20mm headset base spacer. These should be no more than 5?10mm tall to allow for optimum positioning options. The other was the imbalance of front- and rear-end compliance. Even with the rearward-facing fork dropout of the IsoSpeed fork, the front end is noticeably less compliant. No doubt helping to enhance the disparity is the 1 1/2-inch lower bearing on the head tube.

Bottom line? The Trek Domane rates as the worst ‘suspension’ road bike ever, which is exactly what makes it an ideal candidate for an army of riders looking for the most efficient, comfortable, performance- oriented ride on the road today. In every way but the one way that certain riders are looking for (harsh ride), the Domane looks and acts like a standard road bike. That is until the road surface reaches up to cause fatigue and discomfort. Two interesting side notes about the Domane that are worth considering: When Fabian Cancellara rode a Domane for the week he wore the yellow jersey last July, it very well may have been the first time a bike with both a ‘compliance system’ and fender mounts led the Tour de France. Better still, Trek has taken the IsoSpeed system all the way down to a $1500 price point with a trio of price points leading up to the 6.9 that we tested.


? IsoSpeed is simple and effective
? Compliance feels imbalanced between front and rear
? Pedestrian appearance

Price: $8674 ($3629 frame)
Weight: 15 pounds
Sizes: 44, 47, 50, 52, 54, 56 (tested), 58, 60, 62cm
For more info visit TREK

Specialized S-Works Roubaix SL4
Eats bumps for dinner without sacrifice

Over the course of the past eight years, Specialized has popularized the endurance bike category to the point that the Roubaix is the best-selling bike in their line. No, they weren’t the first to offer a bike with a longer wheelbase and slightly slacker head tube angle than the traditional racing geometry allowed; they weren’t even the first to place dampers into the frame to reduce road vibrations. What they were able to do was combine all these things while keeping performance a high priority. Add in a few Paris-Roubaix victories, some great marketing and all of a sudden you not only have a new bike segment but a bestseller. The 2013 Roubaix marks its ninth year in the line and gets a host of new updates designed to be smoother and faster than the previous version.


When we first laid eyes on the S-Works Roubaix SL4 the week prior to Paris- Roubaix (where Tom Boonen would christen it with a win), there was hardly an official word from Specialized on the updated frame and seatpost. We had to wait some months later until finally getting thelowdown on the two most attention-getting features: the radical COBL GOBL-R seatpost and the updated Zertz mounting. However, as it turns out, the biggest change is one that wasn’t immediately visible to the eye-a size-specific fork crown. All Roubaixs use tubing diameters and layups that are frame-size specific- larger frames get beefier tubes and vice versa-but until now the fork crown has maintained an 1 3/8-inch diameter regardless of frame size. That has now changed, and three different diameter fork crowns are used: 1 1/8 for the 49 and 52cm frames, 1 1/4 for the 52 and 56cm, and 1 3/8 for the 58 and 61cm. The more ‘custom’ approach should help maintain the ride quality Specialized strives for, regardless of the frame size, rather than the smaller or larger sizes suffering from less than ideal ride characteristics. As far as dampening features go, the Zertz elastomer inserts found in the fork legs and seat stays are larger and have more contact with the carbon on the frameand fork. More contact area means faster vibration dissipation, reducing the high frequency vibrations from chip-sealed roads and small bumps.

Even with the newZertz design, Specialized felt there was a need to provide more absorption than what the elastomers and frame flex alone could offer and decided to take a cue from the 1990s mountain bike era with the COBL GOBL-R seatpost. Using a sort of leaf spring design aided by a nonadjustable elastomer, the seatpost provides 16mm of flex-double what the previous Zertz seatpost provided-while adding only 40 grams over an S-Works post. The overall geometry remains untouched over the previous Roubaix, which delivers a longer wheelbase than the Tarmac due to 1cm-longer chainstays and an additional 6mm of fork rake, along with a 0.5 degree slackened head tube. The head tube itself is 2cm taller than the Tarmac’s, coming in at 19cm on a 56cm frame. In order to maintain front-end stiffness, the Roubaix’s top tube is dropped below the top of the head tube slightly in order to create a smaller front triangle, thus enhancing stiffness. Like its predecessor, internal cable routing is found throughout and can be configured for both electronic and mechanical shifting.

Two build options are available for the S-Works Roubaix SL4, ranging from the $12,000 Dura-Ace Di2 bike to our $8000 test model, which uses the latest SRAM Red group and a host of Specialized’s in-house parts. With the exception of the S-Works FACT carbon crankarms, Red handles the full-drivetrain and braking details.   

One of our most vocal complaints with the high-end Specialized bikes for the past couple of years has been with their wheel spec. The Roval-branded Specialized wheels have always been of good quality, using DT Swiss internals and spokes, but the aluminum and co-molded carbon/aluminum rims weren’t much of a selling point on an S-Works level bike. Now that Roval has added two carbon clinchers to their line, that complaint is a thing of the past. The  comes with CLX 40 wheels that are 40mm deep, 25mm wide and weigh in at sub-1400 grams for the set-very impressive. One of the wheels’ features that we applaud is the use of SwissStop’s Black Prince brake pads as replacements rather than an often-hard-to-find, proprietary pad that most other carbon clinchers demand. The last noteworthy upgrade is to the hub and bottom bracket bearings, which now feature CeramicSpeed ceramic bearings.

A year and a half ago we tested a 2011 Roubaix SL3 Pro on the verycobbled roads where the bike was originally conceived-Paris-Roubaix. Fast-forward to our latest 2013-edition

Roubaix, and although we didn’t get to test it this time on the cobbles of Belgium, we put it through the type of terrain that most riders will actually be using it for. To begin with, we replaced the COBL GOBL-R with a standard S-Works carbon seatpost to try and get a better sense of what we were feeling from the frame itself. After the initial ride, one test rider commented, ‘It feels like a longer Tarmac. Between the lateral and torsional frame stiffness and the CLX 40 wheels, it accelerated nearly on par with the Tarmac. Its stability and vibration damping ability made it surer on the descents than a traditional race bike.’ Once the COBL GOBL-R went back on, it was greeted to mixed feelings. Everyone agreed on one thing, though: it didn’t fit with the sleek, aesthetically pleasing lines the Roubaix was graced with. But looks aside, it worked like a champ. The amount of compliance it provided is second to none on any road  we’ve tested. Itate up potholes faster than a 400-pound lineman at a hot-dogeating contest. Although, the motion of the rear of the saddle tipping rearward when compressing took some getting used to, which gives you the feeling of slipping off the back of the saddle until we became used to the movement.

The divide between what we think of as a race bike and an endurance bike is narrowing all the time, and the S-Works Roubaix SL4 is what’s helping drive the two formerly competing categories together. Thanks to a level of compliance that doesn’t come at an expense to stiffness or weight, there are very few instances where the new Roubaix would not be an advantage over the Tarmac. Now that we know how smooth the Roubaix can be with the COBL GOBL-R, it almost puts Specialized in a predicament. We would ultimately like to see the same level of compliance, but from the frame, so that we wouldn’t feel the need to hide the seatpost with an extra-large seat pack! Sure, it’s undoubtedly a step in the right direction, but not the ultimate fix, especially for a $8000 bike-well, maybe if Boonen won with it!

? COBL GOBL-R seatpost breaks the bumps but hurts the eyes
? CLX 40 wheels perform with the best out there
? An endurance bike that is well below the UCI-racing 15-pound weight limit

Price: $8000
Weight: 14.6 pounds
Sizes: 49, 52, 56 (tested), 58, 61cm
For more info visit SPECIALIZED


While we actually got to ride the Trek Domane on the Flandrian cobbles back in May, news of the redesigned Roubaix came straight to us literally from the start line of Paris-Roubaix from a phone interview we did with Specialized’s R&D guru, Chris D’Aluisio. Fast-forward four months and we’ve now had both bikes underneath us for an extended test that includes riding both over the rough Northern California roads that make up Levi’s GranFondo course.

These are two bikes with two radically different designs intended for  specific segment of the market. And although each bike is destined to both outsell and outperform the other, in the case of RBA deciding which would be our ‘desert island’ bike (the one bike we would choose if allowed no other), then there can only be one winner. But first, let’s consider the following ride notes compiled from our extensive test.

Components: If you focus solely on light-action shifting, the Domane is for you, because no other company has put as much effort into effortless shifting. Well, that is if you only define ‘effortless’ in the light-action push needed to make a shift. Where the Roubaix’s SRAM Red shifting qualifies as effortless is that the shifts come with at least half as much lever throw. SRAM shifts take a scoosh of extra effort, but they are made in half the time. When it comes to the wheels, it’s a tie, since both bikes get the luxury of state-of-the-art carbon clincher wheelsets. The Trek comes with the made-in-Wisconsin Bontrager Aeolus 3 wheels, while the Specialized receives the brand-new sub-1400-gram Roval CLX 40s.

Aesthetics: As similar as the two bikes looked in color and frame shape, there was one hands-down winner in the ‘looks’ category-the Specialized. Where the Roubaix nailed the ‘race bike’ look, the Trek looked more like a ‘tourist’ bike. The overabundance of white (stem, hubs, bar tape and gangster white walls) seemed to be a prime culprit here. The one caveat in this beauty contest? The
Roubaix had the better looks from the neck down; in other words, the COBL GOBL-R seatpost was a swoon deterrent.

Extras: Both bikes are laden with a handful of less noticeable features. For the Trek, it was the DuoTrap computer sensor integrated into the left-side chainstay that measures speed, distance and cadence with any ANT+ system. For the Specialized, it was the ceramic bearings used in the wheels and bottom bracket that were a noteworthy upgrade.

Handling: Both bikes had capable handling traits; however, the Roubaix took this category for its fluid-like cornering prowess, which could be attributed to more front-end compliance rather than the harsher feel of the Domane. Where the Domane had easy enough turn-in capabilities, the Roubaix just seemed to carve and hold its line better in both tight, slow turns and fast, arcing turns. With each one designed with an eye on delivering a win at Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, there’s plenty of race mixed in with comfort.
In the end: We chose the Domane as the better complete package. Both frames muted the rough road better than any standard hardtail, but where you could feel the Roubaix working, Trek’s IsoSpeed system was most notable for not being notable at all. You knew the IsoSpeed decoupler was working, but there was no conscious feeling that it was.

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