When the original Specialized Roubaix first appeared in 2004 it caused something of a stir. From the outset, Specialized’s remit for the Roubaix was to design a performance bike that offered speed without compromising comfort. Its unique ‘Zertz’ vibration-damping viscoelastic frame inserts and tall front end certainly made the model stand out against the competition at the time.
The best part of a decade later, and Tom Boonen marked his return to form in 2012 by using a Roubaix to win the race from which the bike takes its name – Paris-Roubaix. Boonen used the latest SL4 incarnation of the bike to devastating effect over the cobbles of northern France to take the prestigious one-day Classic.
The rough, pot-holed roads of Britain aren’t as far a cry from the farm tracks of mainland Europe as our local councils would perhaps like to admit, so the Roubaix has a definite appeal to UK riders. And a bike built for comfort is going to be good on long, all-day rides too – ideal for gran fondos and sportives. Since 2004, however, many other manufacturers have also launched models aimed at the same market and Specialized has had to up its game. Can the Roubaix still cut it?
Frame of extremes
The Zertz inserts in the FACT (Functional Advanced Composite Technology) 10r carbon-fibre Roubaix frame have been enlarged for 2013 and instead of sitting in a ‘hole’ in the frame and fork legs, they now look like they have been slotted in. The down tube and head tube have a Coke can-sized girth and contrast markedly with the skinny seat stays. It looks like a frame of extremes, but the internal cable routing and subtle silver and black paintjob keep the lines clean.
Although it’s hard to ascertain exactly how much the Zertz inserts influence its performance, there’s no denying that the Roubaix SL4 offers a very smooth ride. The relaxed head tube angle and relatively long wheelbase help to create a stable feel – our 58cm Roubaix has a wheelbase over 2.5cm longer than the same sized Specialized Tarmac model and a 3.5cm longer head tube.
The climbing ability of previous Roubaix frames has been retained. Get out of the saddle, press hard and the bike drives up the slopes. Get knackered and you can sit down, slip into the 28-tooth rear cog and twiddle up a 20 per cent incline at your leisure. Even sprinting on the flat is carried out with a surprising sense of urgency. Downhill, that higher front end, long wheelbase and shallow-drop bars keep you feeling well in control.
To add to the comfort, the bar tape hides away gel inserts running along the tops. Although this makes for a chunky grip, they were at all times comfortable to this tester’s hands. The bars, as with the rest of the finishing kit, are from Specialized’s own-brand stable, and it’s all well up to scratch.
The Expert comes equipped with Shimano’s second-from-top Ultegra groupset. Everything about the Ultegra group is slick. Up and down shifts are snappily quick, and the shifting remains tolerant of your average winter’s accumulation of dirt. The brakes are strong but not grabby, with a performance that makes you wonder why Specialized has bothered offering the bike with mechanical disc brakes.
The presence of a lower-spec Tiagra 10-speed chain and 105 cassette meant nothing on the road – they worked in harmony with the Ultegra components. The aforementioned wide-range 11-28 cassette is matched to a compact 50/34 chainset. Although those sort of ratios might have hardened racers sucking in air between clenched teeth – Boonen, for example, used a 11-23 on his Paris-Roubaix bike – for your average hilly ride for normal people that is a sensible range of gears.
If the Roubaix Expert has a weakness, it’s the wheelset – a set of DT Axis 4.0 hoops. We found that these occasionally rubbed on the brake pads when climbing out of the saddle. As a package, the wheels, skewers and own-brand tyres are no lightweights either. I swapped them out for a set of Stan’s Alpha 340 ZTR wheels and tubeless tyres in order to assess the effect of the wheels on the overall ride of the bike.
The difference was immediately noticeable, with quicker acceleration and a half-kilogram drop in weight. The Axis wheels aren’t bad, but I can’t help feeling that they are right on the borderline for a bike costing three grand.
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Thankfully, the wheels are far from a deal breaker. The Roubaix Expert gels well as a whole. At a steady pace, it provides a smooth, assured ride. At higher speeds and bigger efforts, there’s no loss of stability and the frame feels surprisingly taut. Specialized has successfully made another stride forward in its quest to perfect the meeting of comfort and performance, and the Roubaix is still a class leader.