Road Bike, Off-Road

Specialized’s Roubaix SL4 is an All-Roads Machine


April 28, 2015 Sports and Outdoors By Photo by Sung Han and Jack Seemer
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While in New Zealand, one of our big goals was to do a big ride. A century. And we knew that on said century, the road, at times, would not be a road. That was fine; river wash, packed gravel, loose dirt — with a bit of will power and the right bike between your legs, it’s all possible.

Before the journey, we got a panicked email from the coordinator organizing the bike pickup: “I’d strongly advise that whoever is in charge of getting the bikes for your team to talk to Specialized asap about getting off-road bikes…” This is a common misconception: that road bikes are meant only for the road. We weren’t so worried. We strapped a few Specialized Roubaix SL4 ($3,300) steeds to the top of our adventuremobile and set out to our start point, Mount Cook.

The Roubaix is Specialized’s carbon homage to the great cobbled nightmare, Paris-Roubaix. This year’s winner, John Degenkolb, rode a Giant Defy. But Zdenek Stybar, the man right behind Degenkolb, rode a Roubaix. The bike’s familiar with the podium; since 2008, the Roubaix has taken the top step five times (it helps that Tom Boonen rides the Roubaix). And while a lot of that has to do with the rider’s spirit, Specialized’s tech has helped.

The Roubaix’s motto is this: smoother is faster. And that’s true — like a car, the more traction and less up-and-down movements you have, the faster you can go. In addition to mere physics, there’s also rider fatigue to consider; the more jostled a rider is, the more energy expended. The backbone of Specialized’s vibration dampening tech, called Zertz, is made up of viscoelastic dampers integrated into the seat stays and fork. They sit at the midsection, work like shocks and, coupled with a CG-R seatpost that’s also integrated with Zertz technology, they lead to a significantly smoother ride in bumpy conditions.

The Route to Ride

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Obviously, cobbles are the iconic choice, but we never found any in New Zealand. The closest comparable elements on our route were the river wash, full or small rounded pebbles and a few big rocks. Then there were dirt paths that occasionally turned to sand. If you’re looking for a slow burn of challenging terrain in New Zealand, stay off-road with the well-marked Alps 2 Ocean Trail (pictured above). Or, if you want to conquer a gigantic swath of the South Island in one fell swoop, stick to the roads where the views are just as good and the pavement offers a smoother ride.

Specialized’s Zertz does good work to reduce the road noise: instead of bounce, there’s rise and fall as the bike takes the harshness out of the conditions. It doesn’t comprehensively eliminate tough conditions, but it does reduce stress and fatigue. It also improves handling. When the bike takes out some of the bounce, you’re no longer trying to reign in a wild steed; instead, you can be more concerned with pointing the frame in the right direction.

The Roubaix is not a particularly responsive sprinter and it’s only a slightly above-average climber. But it does the long haul and the rough roads brilliantly. On the two days we rode — the first over rough-and-tumble conditions, primarily off-road, the second on a century ride and mostly on-road — the bike was a comfortable, capable companion. When a bike does this much work to ensure your comfort, a bond develops. By the time I stepped off the frame at the waterfront in Oamaru, I loved it.

For starters, my back, neck and ass weren’t wrecked after an entire day in the saddle. The bike had needed to be fleet and stable, including during a mile-long descent where speeds rose to 45 mph. The Roubaix never weighed me down, and it silently worked to do the good work of disappearing underneath me. Most of the ride I was unconscious of the bike — often the best endorsement a rider can give. And, perhaps most important of all, the bike handled all the odd and unstable conditions I threw at it.

In short: You’d never know the this was a “road” bike. Our coordinator can be forgiven her panicked email. The Roubaix didn’t take offense — labels just happen to get people hung up. An off-road bike is just a bike you take off-road, most especially the cobble-killing, river-wash stomping, dirt road rocking Roubaix.