Specialized Roubaix: Evolution of the High Performance/High Comfort Road Bike

Pro Bike Geometry Dominates Road Bikes Business from Mid Eighties to 2000

Following the road bike boom in the 1970s and early 80s, road bikes declined in popularity as the mountain bike market emerged. The road bike market from the mid eighties until the turn of the century was dominated by bikes with aggressive, race-oriented geometry. This trend was exaggerated by two trends: longer top tubes on road bikes became the norm with American manufacturers who were capitalizing on the success of pro cyclist Greg LeMond, and the use of threadless headsets which had a lower stack height than the older, threaded models.

These two factors made the front ends of most road bikes too low and too long, leading to discomfort, especially on longer rides. The trend helped facilitate the rise of the hybrid bike market. Hybrid bikes used shorter top tubes and taller head tubes. This gave greater comfort in the short run, but the hybrids were inefficient and heavy compared to road bikes.

Comfort Became an Issue for Road Bikes at the Turn of the Century

In 2003, Specialized Bicycle re-introduced a bike that they had made for a few years in the early 1980’s – the Sequoia. The original Sequoia was a lugged steel bike with sport touring geometry. This allowed for use of racks, fenders and wide tires, but without the add-ons and with a 23 or 25mm tire the bike was light, responsive and fun to ride. The new Sequoia was made from an aluminum frame with a carbon fiber front fork. You could put racks on it but there wasn’t enough clearance for fenders or wide tires. Strong sales of the new Sequoia demonstrated that there was a market for “endurance road bikes” as Specialized called them. Here was a bike that was comfortable, relatively light and had a shorter top tube and longer head tube than most other road bikes of that time. The Sequoia was ideally suited to century and club rides, or touring if you didn’t have to carry your own gear.

The Specialized Roubaix Road Bike Revolutionizes the Industry

The following year, 2004, capitalizing on the success of the Sequoia, Specialized introduced the bike that changed the industry: The Roubaix. The Roubaix, which took its inspiration from the famous Paris-Roubaix race (run over many sections of uneven cobblestone), was a bicycle with a full carbon fiber frame that introduced several important innovations. The top tube was longer than the Sequoia but not too long, more in line with European stage-race geometry. The head tube was much taller than the norm, which allowed more flexibility in handlebar height.

A multi position stem was used to enable a greater range of handlebar heights than most other road bikes at the time. The carbon fiber frame was engineered to be torsionally stiff but compliant (flexible) vertically, which maximized pedaling force while allowing the frame to absorb road shocks effectively. And an elastomer material, which Specialized trade-named “Zertz” was inserted into the seat stays, seat post and fork. This Zertz absorbed the high frequency road buzz that lightweight bikes amplified and transmitted to the cyclist, contributing to the riders’ fatigue level on longer rides.

That first year, 2004, the Roubaix was available in four models with the highest being the Roubaix Pro. That put the bike on an equal footing with Specialized’s highest-end road racing bike, the Allez Pro. The very next year, Specialized introduced its S-Works line of bikes, the very pinnacle of cutting edge technology for each bike type. For 2005, the S-Works Roubaix was sold as a frameset only. In 2006, it was sold as a frameset and a complete bike. By now, the other big players in the bike market were trying to copy the commercial success of the Roubaix, but they never put in a wholehearted effort to understand the bike or its market, and Specialized was staying 2 – 3 years ahead technologically. The 2007 S-Works Roubaix added SL to its name, signaling a significant weight reduction from previous models.

2009 Sees Specialized Bicycle Company Introduce the SL2

For the 2009 model year, Specialized did something extraordinary: they introduced a major technological frame advance in the S-Works Roubaix only, dubbed the S-Works Roubaix SL2. By now, Specialized-sponsored Pro Tour teams like Quick Step and Gerolsteiner were using Specialized’s race-specific bike, the Tarmac. By giving the Roubaix more cutting-edge features than the Tarmac, they were signaling that the Roubaix was a bike to be taken seriously by professional and elite-level riders as well. And indeed, their efforts paid off with the Roubaix coming full circle to its original inspiration: Quick Step rider Tom Boonen won the 2008 Paris-Roubaix on an S-Works Roubaix. He would repeat the following year, and in 2010 Saxobank’s Fabian Cancellara took the title, also on a Roubaix.

The 2011 Roubaix saw a number of startling changes. The S-Works Tarmac had been upgraded to a new frame technology, dubbed SL3, for the 2010 model year. This construction method created the frame in four parts: the top tube/head tube/downtube section was made in a single unit. The seat tube was a separate unit, as were the seat stays. The bottom bracket area, chain stays and a short lug to connect the seat tube and down tube were fashioned as one piece. This gave the Tarmac best-in-class bottom bracket and chain stay stiffness, the part of the bike where torsional flex would waste the most power. And it allowed the bike’s engineers to build in vertical compliance in the seat stays and top tube, to give the bike a smoother ride.

The 2011 Roubaix got this innovation, plus a few more. The Cobra head tube wrapped some fibers from the top tube and down tube around the front of the head tube, widening the top and bottom of the head tube as well as the connecting ends of the top tube and seat tube. This stiffened the head tube junctions for quicker, more predictable handling with less material, saving weight and maintaining the vertical compliance of the top tube. Also for 2011, the Roubaix gained internal cable routing plus redesigned fork and seat stays.

The Zertz inserts were no longer all the way through the carbon. They fit into a concave section in each area, maintaining the vibration-damping properties as before while also making the fork and seat stays torsionally stiffer for better power transfer and handling. And perhaps the boldest innovation of all: the Pro and Expert models of the Roubaix also gained SL3 construction and internal cable routing, bringing the technology that one year earlier had been available only on S-Works bikes costing upwards of $8,000 to models starting at around $3,500. Also, the entry-level Roubaix Elite at under $2,000 and Roubaix Comp at about $2,600 were given SL2 framesets. Talk about trickle-down!

What Does the Roubaix Revolution Mean for the “Rest of Us?”

So what does all this bike geek-speak really mean to the average cyclist? It means that now, almost any rider can get a bike that is super-light, super-fast and super comfortable. The Roubaix handles like a dream, accelerates quickly and maximizes rider power and comfort. It can flatten hills, shorten century rides and make road biking a true joy for beginners, elite riders and professional cyclists alike. That’s a pretty impressive achievement for a bike that defined a whole new category just seven short years ago.