• The Specialized Allez Sprint (Alex Rose-Innes)Source: Alex Rose-Innes
Aluminium frames had what seems now to be a criminally short time in the sun at the pinnacle of the professional sport. While they are now ubiquitous in budget bikes, there was a time where plain aluminium race bikes, and exotic alloys blending scandium and magnesium, cost more than many compact cars.
By
Alex Rose-Innes

9 Dec 2015 - 9:47 AM  UPDATED 9 Dec 2015 - 11:01 AM

That was before carbon fibre ate the industry. And while steel has seen a resurgence that is as much artifice as utilitarian, and titanium has remained on its high perch, aluminium is mainly confined to fitness bikes and low end versions of road and mountain bike lines. Carbon fibre is now synonymous with the high-end, it’s rise inevitable as economies of scale made it cheap. The material is stiff and light and can be molded into interesting tube shapes. Aluminium was summarily dismissed as a harsh and unyielding material.

And, yet, a hard-core group of bike racers in the US steadfastly maintained that the Cannondale CAAD was the greatest bike ever to roll around a criterium. While the other big brands dived headlong into carbon, Cannondale stepped tentatively into composites with their hybrid frame, the Six13, but the CAAD was still right at the top of the line-up. The release of the Evo and Synapse confirmed Cannondale’s full composites commitment to compete with Trek and Specialized, but aluminium wasn’t forgotten. A whole new frame, the CAAD10, was launched — it was a revolutionary made-in-Taiwan bike using new welding technologies and many of the ideas from carbon tube shapes.

Aluminium was reborn as a no-bullshit material for race bikes. This was driven by somewhat misguided notions on the durability of carbon frames, but a light and stiff $1000 frameset looked like the perfect weapon for the chaotic world of amateur criterium racing. A whole new subset of weight-weenies was born, too, with people spending many thousands of dollars on building sub-6kg CAAD10 bikes. As soon as the unpretentious, pragmatic racer (™) was identified by marketers, and it wasn’t long before Specialized elevated the humble Allez to S-Works status, but while it shared a common material, there was something about the CAAD nomenclature that suggested a history and a broader connection with racing culture.

Specialized then did what they do best — heavy R&D — and they put their freshly-built wind tunnel and aerodynamicists at Morgan Hill to work. The 2016 Allez Sprint spent more time in computational fluid dynamics modelling and in the wind tunnel than the original Venge. Compared to the standard Allez, it is stiffer, lighter and more aerodynamic. The addition of a SRAM Force 1 drivetrain is the final act of signalling as to what this bike is: a worthy, focused, and perhaps better-conceived competitor to the CAAD. Indeed Cannondale’s new CAAD12 line is less focused than its predecessor, a muddled collection of disc- and regular-brake models that don’t to sit well in Cannondale’s overall range.

So what’s different with this bike (show your work)?

The Allez sprint, with its muscular head tube/downtube/fork junction, is also what the CAAD10 is not — lively, nimble, and rock solid*. I was never entirely convinced with the tube-shape cues from carbon models on the CAAD10, and it always seemed to have a bit of a soft ride and rather slow handling that required deliberate steering. Perhaps the CAAD12 will be better.

There is something wonderful about a Force 1 drivetrain on the Allez Sprint, too — a sense that this bike is built for purpose with no extraneous bits. I’ve always thought it silly when reviewers describe bikes as “fast”, but perhaps it is a matter of perspective: this bike makes you want to ride fast. The aggressive geometry, with its steep seat-tube angle, suggests rather strongly that this is not a bike for noodling about on a Friday morning coffee ride. This is bike that demands a slammed stem, a set of no-nonsense 60mm-deep wheels, and a honed aero position.

[And now we depart from this traditional piece of bike review fodder.]

Is there is a better way to review bikes?

There are objective elements that are crucial to consider when reviewing a bike, things that actually matter to everyone — stiffness, weight, aerodynamics, and touch points. The subjective qualities often get higher billing, but, even in the subjective, there is a determinism, a crowded terminus of texts, where it’s reinforced that certain materials have a “known” personality — “Laterally stiff, vertically compliant”; “springy”; “lively”; “responsive” — reviews are no longer iterative but repetitive, the hackneyed signifiers in the text are repeated, and the attributes in the signified are bolstered. This goes beyond simple clichés, and into the anthropomorphism of bicycles. We’ve long assigned human traits to our machines, an atavism to the era when beasts of burden were ascendant, but it is really past-time to cast that stuff off. Far more interesting is to consider the marketing mechanics at work between bike companies, the professional sport, and the people who pay for the sustenance of the aforementioned.

Unfortunately, bicycles are a frustratingly homogeneous thing. The Double Diamond design is pretty much unimprovable and, aside from differences in frame materials, there is very little wood to chop in agonising over round-tubed frame attributes. Far more interesting, I believe, is the rider, and, just as the engine in a car is the true differentiating factor, so too the engine of a bicycle must be augmented by design. This brings us back to objective realm of fit and aerodynamics. Aside from rolling resistance, and assuming the frame and wheels are not made of noodles or lead, aerodynamics is all that really matters. Any bike design that allows a rider to adopt an aerodynamic position, which has more than a cursory attempt at aerodynamic tubing, and is coupled with fast wheels, is going to be better than a $20,000 Colnago with Lightweight wheels and Campagnolo Super Record EPS.

Realistically, beyond somewhat vague analysis of handling (see above *), the only legitimate way to objectively review bikes is in the laboratory and wind tunnel. For starters, it’s easy to dispense with muddled things like ride compliance when reviewers — bother professional and amateur — don’t normalize things like wheels, tires, tubes and tire pressure.

Here’s a jumping off point for valuing things that can be measured versus waffling on about characteristics:

  1. Bikes are only faster than one another if their combination of drag and rolling resistance is measurably lower.
  2. Weight doesn’t matter nearly as much as one would think.
  3. Latex tubes and supple tires are the best $/seconds gain you can make.
  4. Rotational mass is orders of magnitude less important than aerodynamics — don’t take any notice of wheels “spinning up” copy. In fact, you can trash the rest of the review.

All of this assumes that bicycle buying behaviour is rational, which it certainly isn’t, and so we return to the rider as the most interesting part of the story. The example of cars above is revealing — how do we differentiate an easily-commoditised product? Most don’t buy road bicycles based on data, but on brand identity. There is very little to separate the mechanical group sets of Shimano, SRAM, and Campagnolo, but, to some, the choice is an article of faith. Some brands have the pressing weight of history and the glory of past champions as a point of difference, others are unapologetically Jacobin in their radical approach to technology; a Constitution of Year 1, where is history is disavowed. Consumer choice is fundamentally fascinating if you allow it to be, it is also confounding.

But what about the Allez Sprint?

Whilst “how does this bike make me feel?” is potentially a more interesting way to review a bike once we’ve dispensed with the dispassionate performance details, it’s not really going to sell magazines. Formula sells magazines, and iconoclastic attempts at looking at things backwards won’t do much for the longevity of corporate partnerships.

However, I like to think that racing bikes makes us a little more pragmatic — and herein lies the value proposition for the Allez Sprint. At least as fast as the old Specialized Venge at low yaw angles, it allows you to build an aero-as-fuck race bike for under US$3500. Sure you’ll give up some watts and seconds to the Venge ViAS, Cervelo S5 and Trek Madone, but there’s none of the concomitant anxiety about damaging your $15,000 bike.

Which is why I bought one but, then again, I have two other Specialized road bikes hanging in my garage. So why did I buy this bike again?

This article was first published at De Renner.