SPECIALIZED TARMAC MID COMPACT APEX
Has carbon fiber made steel obsolete as a material for lightweight performance based bicycle frames? Steel and aluminum are still used in utilitarian low cost bicycles, as well as most mountain and touring bikes. They say that the high cost and questionable durability of carbon fiber makes it out of reach for most cyclists. For some aluminum is a low cost, light weight alternative. However, today most aluminum and even titanium road bikes use carbon fiber forks. This contradicts the idea that carbon fiber is too fragile or too expensive for the average consumer.
This is an account of how I bought a complete carbon fiber road bike for a lot less than you would expect. The very best carbon fiber models are priced around $10,000.00. These are the ones raced by the professionals and purchased by the very wealthy and/or the very obsessed. They say that dollar for dollar cheap carbon fiber road bikes are inferior to their aluminum counterparts. Sometimes you have to take these truisms with a grain of salt.
Although I follow professional bicycle racing on television, the modern age was passing me by. I was totally retro in that I insisted that my Italian, steel framed chromoly bike was the height of bicycle engineering. Of course I knew that professional racers have been using carbon fiber frames for a couple of decades or more. I wasn’t even thinking of purchasing a new road bike until last year when I was overtaken by a seriously overweight cyclist.
It all started when I wrecked a rear wheel as I bombed a downhill section of road on my trusty Marinoni. I bunny hopped or at least tried to bunny hop a missing twelve inch section of pavement and slammed my back wheel into the edge of the missing asphalt. Needless to say I wrecked the rear wheel. So when I went to my local bike shop and explained my dilemma to the shop owner, he suggested that I try the latest in moderately priced aerodynamic wheels with bladed spokes, a Bontrager Race Lite.
I put the wheel on my bicycle and took it out for a ride: Boy was I surprised by how fast it was. It transformed my Marinoni into a speedy flier. You would never have thought how much resistance there is in a traditional bicycle wheel. I got down on the drops. No sense wasting such a tremendous aerodynamic advantage. It was speedy on the flats, downhills and easy uphill gradients where I could keep my speed up.
I was really impressed until I started pedaling up a steep section of road. It felt like I had a boat anchor attached to my bike. I am not easily discouraged and kept on pedaling. Eventually I was overtaken by a fat guy on what looked like a state of the art carbon fiber bike. I was totally demoralized and turned around to go back down the way I had come. I was not going to let a fatso show me up.
It started me thinking. Was it my bike? I weighed it on the bathroom scales and it turned out that it weighed twenty-one pounds and some change. It was a little bit porky but I knew that it wasn’t just the weight of the bike that was holding me back. After all the weight of the bike is only a small fraction of the weight of bike plus rider. Never-the-less, the road bike magazines I was reading at the time were featuring the latest racing bicycles weighing as little as thirteen or fourteen pounds ready to ride. Of course they were unrealistically expensive, but there you go; maybe my overweight nemesis was riding one of those exclusive machines.
But I knew that there was more to it than just the overall weight of the machine and I did a little internet search and discovered that my new wheel weighed a little less than a thousand grams (981 grams with the wheel set listed as weighing over 1,700 grams). Most of the additional weight is located in the rim where the aerodynamic shape gives the wheel added heft. It is an alloy wheel and the really light aerodynamic wheels I found on the internet were made of carbon fiber. They were very expensive.
I wasn’t ready to throw in the towel and did some more research. I know that light weight rims and tires are very important if you want a bike that pedals up hills effortlessly. I found some wheels that I considered reasonably light which were not overly expensive (around a thousand bucks for a wheel set weighing around fourteen hundred grams). Yea they were expensive but it is all relative. They were much less expensive than the really light carbon fiber race wheels, some of which were so fragile that they were not meant to be used for anything but racing.
I also discovered that the bikes that I was lusting after had more reasonably priced cousins with lesser components, frames and wheels; some for as little as two thousand dollars. I was beginning to come up with a realistic plan. The next step was to go the bike shops and see what was available.
Although I was primarily interested in Shimano Dura Ace Carbon wheels, I was shown a set of Eastern AE90 SLX wheels which were around the right weight, had shallow aerodynamic shaped alloy rims and ceramic bearings. An acquaintance let me ride a bike with ceramic bearings and they felt like silk. The sales clerk assured me that there was nothing wrong with the wheels and she had them in stock. The only disadvantage was that they did not have bladed spokes although the spokes were double butted.
There had been some internet chatter about problems with these wheels but I put my faith in the bike store that sold them to me. It is possible that most of the problem wheels were purchased over the internet where there is a lot of equipment being offered for a very low price (some of it of questionable quality). Besides, Cadel Evans won some stages in the last Tour De France using a deep dished carbon version of these wheels. They are not some cheap Chinese counterfeits.
After looking at several low cost carbon fiber bikes in my frame size, I settled on a Specialized Tarmac Mid Compact Apex. It was priced at two thousand dollars and felt a lot lighter than my Marinoni. The Apex group is the lowest cost SPRAM component group available. It comes with crank set with a thirty-six tooth inner chain ring which would help pedaling up steep hills.
The frame is made from a lower cost carbon fiber (FACT IS 8r versus 11r) and does not have the oversized bottom bracket and internal cable routing of the top of the line Tarmac S-Works SL4. The geometry on the lower cost Apex is exactly the same as the Tarmac S-Works SL4, a bike that has had multiple wins at the grand tours including the 2010 Tour De France.
According to Specialized, “FACT IS construction, this is when the whole bike is constructed as one piece in a mold. 250+ pieces of carbon are hand laid, and the result is absolutely tremendous performance. It does have a high price tag, because many times after a bike “bakes” the result is not 100% perfect.
The “R” value is an indication of the level of modulus of the carbon fibers; the higher the value, the higher the modulus. Modulus simply refers to the stiffness of the individual fibers in the carbon matrix, which will dictate the overall stiffness and efficiency of the material. As modulus increases, we are able to use less material to produce a frame of equal or greater stiffness than that of frame utilizing lesser modulus fibers.
As a general rule, each higher level of carbon will decrease frame weight 100-150 grams, and provide a slightly stiffer, snappier ride.
Our 11r carbon bikes are like formula 1 race cars. They are absolutely the best bikes that can be made, with the highest quality materials.”
The 11r is going to be slightly lighter, a bit stiffer, and somewhat better at absorbing road vibrations. OK so my frame is 8r and is slightly heavier than 11r built up to a similar stiffness. There are 454 grams to a pound and so it doesn’t really amount to a whole lot (about a pound more than the frame that the pros use). If you take the total weight of bike and rider into consideration, I doubt that the added weight would be noticed. The Apex frame with its curves and sweeping lines is engineered for lightness, stiffness and comfort just like the higher priced version.
A quick ride around the parking lot revealed that my new bike was a quick and responsive weapon even with the slightly porky stock DT Axis 2.0 wheels and Specialized Espoir sport wire beaded tires.
We put on the Easton EA90 SLX wheel set and a pair of light weight Bontrager tires. It was time to take my new bike out for a test ride. There is only one way to describe this bike – awesome. And not just on the up-hills; it was awesome everywhere and especially on tricky twisting down-hills.
The bike fit like a glove. It was a point and shoot weapon with strong uncompromising brakes. If asked to, the bike could change lines before you could even finish the thought. Above all else it inspired confidence everywhere. On down-hills it was rock solid and cornered like it was on rails all the while dodging obstacles with lightening quickness. The only downside to a bike this responsive is that it demands complete concentration at all times. Anything less can be scary and downright dangerous.
It accelerated out of flat corners with unbelievable snap. When I stepped on the pedals hard it surged forward. The transmission of energy from the pedals to the road was instantaneous. It made me into a much better cyclist. Even when my level of energy was down it still gave me an edge that I could feel.
The SRAM Apex double click shifters are ingenious. There is only one lever on each side. On the right the first click is for downshifts and if you go beyond that click to the next click it is an upshift. If you hold it there it upshifts three gears at a time which is nice when you encounter a sudden steep uphill. Nice…
There is a hill near my house that I haven’t been able to climb since the days when I owned the spectacularly light Vitus and I was in my prime athletically. I purchased the heavier steel framed Marinoni after bending the frame on my Vitus. With the new slightly heavier Bontrager rear wheel on my Marinoni the hill was almost impossible. I stayed away from it because I didn’t want to injure my back.
Now I was able to fly up the hill with my new Specialized Tarmac. I still had to stomp on the pedals in the easiest gear but the climb was quickly put behind me with no ill effects.
My first ride was a total success with a few caveats. At one point I was riding up a very steep urban street when I heard some voices behind me. I looked around and saw a guy on a bicycle towing a little red wagon with a child sitting in the back. The child was about five or six years old and I picked up my cadence not wanting to get passed by this duo. Luckily for me the bike pulling the wagon veered into a side street just as I started to surge. Total disgrace was averted.
Then when I got to the top where Wildcat Canyon Road winds into the hills I saw an older guy about my age pedaling a lugged steel framed bike into the intersection. It might have been my imagination, but he took one look at my carbon fiber wonder and went off in another direction. He looked totally demoralized and I could empathize. I was a certified retrotec myself a few short weeks ago and I fully comprehended his discomfort. He didn’t want to get beaten by one of those newfangled beasts.
On the twisty downhill as Wildcat Canyon road descended down to Dam Road, the bike flew through the corners with abandon and I quickly caught up to and passed another hapless rider on a metal framed bike. He didn’t have a chance. I felt like a million dollars swooping through the corners like a pro. The only place where the Tarmac was at a slight disadvantage was when I turned onto the straight and slightly downhill section of Dam Road where the lack of deep aerodynamic rims and bladed spokes held it back a little bit. More expensive wheels would be the solution here.
Can a new bicycle make you into a better rider? After all it is all in the legs isn’t it? My legs didn’t get magically stronger. But this experience has made into a true believer. A new bike can give you wings (my apologies to Red Bull).
I don’t know what the engineers have been doing with carbon fiber, but I can tell that they have not been resting on their laurels. They have developed new resins and ways of applying them to create spectacular results. You can search the internet and learn everything there is to know about carbon fiber, but it is enough for me to say that the finished product is astonishing.
The professionals want the very best and the models that you and I can afford benefit from the research and development that goes into their bikes. Specialized equips quite a few professional teams and the Tarmac is the end product of the kind of excellence that the pros demand. This is pretty cool since Specialized originated in Northern California building the first production mountain bikes. They are still located in Morgan Hill, California near where I ride.
My frame is light, stiff, and comfortable. It reacts so intuitively to my commands that it feels like an extension of my body. There is no imprecision. It is totally connected to the road without feeling overly stiff, although I did find myself searching for the smoothest lines as my speed increased. Of course some of this excellence might also be a result of the wheel set that I chose. But there is no denying it; I certainly got my money’s worth.
Riding a new bicycle with new components and new tires is always a great experience, making it tougher to write an objective evaluation. Although I might have been influenced by subjective impressions, I did try to describe the traits that make this bike so special to me. Besides, Mark Cavendish and Alberto Contador, my heroes, were both sponsored by Specialized and raced bicycles similar to mine.
The bike shop that sold me my bike has offered free tuning for one year and so if any problems do surface I imagine that they will be rectified. It is a small local shop and they stand behind what they sell because they want to keep their customers happy. A happy customer is a loyal customer. Although there are great deals over the internet, you don’t always know what you are getting. That being said, I did get a two hundred and fifty dollar discount as well as the trade in value of the original wheels ($500) at the bike shop.