September 12, 2010

I Am Specialized

This story is more hard-core bicycle-centric than most. [You have been warned.]

When shopping for a car, or a bicycle for that matter, you are well-advised to take it for a test drive. You want to put the vehicle through its paces and see how it handles, but such opportunities are rare (and regrettably all-too-brief).

Imagine your good fortune if someone were to hand you the keys [so to speak], point you at a famously scenic, undulating road and say: I'll be waiting for you at the other end [100 miles away].

Such was my good fortune on Saturday, when Specialized—the official bicycle sponsor of the Best Buddies Hearst Castle Challenge—extended me the offer to test ride the bicycle of my choice down the Pacific Coast Highway, from Carmel Valley to San Simeon.

Did they really mean "the bicycle of my choice?" After all, my bicycle is pretty nice; it would not be interesting to downgrade. "How about the S-Works Amira?," I asked. "We will have it waiting for you," they replied.

The S-Works Amira is Specialized's hottest women's road racing machine.

To put this in perspective for the non-cyclist who might still be reading this post, let's say my current bicycle is equivalent to, for example, a BMW. It is well-built, high-end, sporty, and pretty fast—but it's not an M-series. The S-Works Amira is a Superleggera [as in, Lamborghini]. It is constructed almost entirely of carbon fiber, outfitted with top-of-the line components.

In other words, unless a particular bicycle part really needs to be made of metal, make it out of carbon fiber instead. The handlebars? Carbon fiber. The crank arms? Carbon fiber. Even the wheel rims are carbon fiber, with an alloy strip for braking. The saddle is mounted on hollow titanium rails. The end product is a bicycle that weighs less than 15 pounds.

My current bicycle is also pretty light, with a carbon fiber frame; it weighs in around 20 pounds. When I bought it a few years ago, I was accustomed to a hefty steel-frame hybrid. That is a fine utility vehicle, but not well-suited to keeping up with my road biking compatriots on the hills. The first time I lifted a carbon fiber bicycle in a shop, I nearly flipped it over my shoulder. I was totally unprepared for how lightweight it would be. The S-Works Amira is stunningly lighter.

Was I really going to hop on a totally unfamiliar bicycle and go for a 100-mile ride? Some would call this a crazy idea. An ill-fitting bicycle is a source of guaranteed misery: soreness, pulled muscles, inflamed joints. Some would call it risky: the handling characteristics would be different. I was apprehensive about moving from my triple chainring set to a compact double. I compared the gear ratios, and tried to convince myself that I would still be able to propel myself up the pair of hills at mile 75 on the route. They are not steep, but with more than 5,200 feet of climbing in my legs at that point, I would be grateful to spin a lower gear up those climbs (1,100 feet over 4 miles).

To keep the bicycle light, I packed the bare essentials for repair in a minimalist saddle bag. Armed with the measurements from a prior bike fitting, it was easy for the mechanic to set me up on Friday afternoon. I spent a few minutes rolling around the parking lot and was relieved that it felt good to me. Game on. Then I observed that it was outfitted with road tubeless tires, and realized that I should chuck the saddle bag. If I flatted, I would have no idea how to effect a repair.

How was it? It was one sweet ride.

This game is all about power-to-weight ratio, and my engine is sadly underpowered. I am slow as molasses, but given how lazy I have been this year, I expect I would have been slower than molasses on my own bike. When I got to the lunch stop, I was feeling quite perky. The first year I did this ride, at that point I was longing for a nap and forced myself to drink a caffeinated soda to keep my engine running.

I was well into the long hill climb when I thought, wistfully, "Now is the time when I would wish for a lower gear." I dejectedly flicked at the lever, and ... shifted down. Whoa! I wasn't already in my lowest gear?! Another half mile or so, I sighed. "This is okay, but a lower gear would be nicer." I flicked at the lever, and ... shifted down. Surely now I was in my lowest gear? I could have assessed my rear wheel, but I realized that I must normally be a wimp to drop into my lowest gear at the first sign of strain. As it turned out, I had two more downshifts to play before I reached the lowest gear. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what a lightweight bicycle can do for you.

What else did I notice about the bike? The big chainring was smaller than the one on my bike (50 teeth, vs. 52), the smallest cog was the same (12 teeth). I missed the speed of my big ring. Shifting from the smaller ring to the big ring seemed a bit tricky; I found that I needed to be more deliberate about it. The cranks were 2.5mm longer than on my bike, which meant I was pedaling a larger circle. I had no discomfort while riding, but with a new soreness running down the backs of my calves and tightness in my Achilles tendons, I suspect the longer cranks worked my muscles differently. I was also startled by the sound of the wheels when cornering at speed, and I backed off. It was only then that I heard that distinctive sound of carbon rims and, without prior experience, it seemed prudent not to push the limits.

When I bought my bicycle a few years ago, my brother remarked:
You paid HOW MUCH for something you have to PEDAL?
Imagine his reaction to the S-Works Amira, more than twice the price.

Like Fabian Cancellera, I Am Specialized. For a day.


  1. Racing frames are a lot stiffer as well as being lighter. I'd be most apprehensive about getting beaten up by road chatter during a long ride, but apparently you haven't suffered there. I also think that carbon rims are unsafe for the kind of riding we do. As lightweight as you and the bike are, you are *much* more likely to get a blow-out at speed coming down a long hill like Hamilton or a Sierra pass. If you buy an Amira, sell those wheels while they're new and get some more suitable ones for hilly terrain. For jetting up hills, larger cleats would have as much effect as those wheels anyway and they aren't unsafe. Tubular tires IMHO are also inappropriate for non-racers but perhaps you really do mean "tubeless" (excellent!) rather than "tubular." Remarkably the bike does not have one of those idiot seatmasts; big points to Specialized there. I'm surprised you had trouble shifting the compact, which should work better than a triple. Probably the front derailleur is not quite adjusted right.

  2. So, are you buying an Amira? The S-Works are great bikes. Also, was the big ring on the cassette a 27 or 28?

  3. Gearing was 50x34 and 12-27. The 2011 is a 52x36 11-28. Well outside my budget, though, so it's good that I like my current bike.

  4. Pat, sounds like a sweet ride! I have the Tarmac but not the S-Works, it's a very smooth ride. I was surprised at how good the compact gearing is and haven't had any problems on the hills (but do miss the big ring from time-to-time).

    It's great that the fit worked so well for a century on an unfamiliar bike. And sounds like you enjoyed the ride more than usual, awesome!

  5. I recently bought a Specialized Allez, moving from a triple with a 12-25 cassette to a compact double with a 12-27. After riding a hundred plus miles with the double I'm actually happier with it. Yes the shifting is a bit more deliberate (and a bigger power change -- something which I have to get used to) but there are no cross-chaining issues and I usually know which chain ring I'm in. I spend most of my rides on the 50, only dropping down when there's a steep hill to climb. Having the 12-27 cassette helps: the increase in gear inches for my lowest gear was only 1.6 and I can still climb all the hills I could climb before. Glad you got to ride the S-Works. Sounds like you really enjoyed it.

  6. I love Specialized and now have three of them: one ancient but still amazingly hearty 1992 Stumpjumper hybrid for city riding--just for errands and when I have to haul more stuff than will fit in my Timbuktu messenger bag, one carbon Era women-specific MTB with tubeless tires (love it more than words can express) and finally, an Amira, but not an S-Works. My Amira runs on a double, compact crank, and that's what I'm used to. Sometimes I top out on the big ring, but that's a rare event. It's three pounds heavier than the S Works Amira you describe here. I know there are many other brands on the market but there's something about Specialized that really works for me. They fit me like a glove and are really well built. That said, if someone offered me the S-Works or if I decided to splurge and actually purchase one, the Amira would be on craigslist in a heartbeat. Shhhh, don't tell Amira, she'd be jealous and who knows what would happen on my next Mt. Ham descent!