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On a brisk Belgian morning, the Tuesday before Paris-Roubaix, far from the prying eyes of the media, Specialized’s director of research and development opened up a large unmarked bike box and pulled from within a gloss black frame. Emblazoned with a simple white “S” on the head tube and “Specialized” on the down tube, this was an example of Project Black, Specialized’s stealthy test program designed to get developmental products into the hands of their top pros. At first glance this bike appeared to be another Roubaix SL2, but upon closer inspection the truth was revealed. This was the next generation and every nuance of the design had been tweaked to deliver more performance over the famed cobbles.
On this Tuesday morning Saxo Bank’s classics superstar Fabian Cancellara would get his first chance to ride the new bike and decide if he would campaign it the following weekend over the unforgiving cobblestones of northern France. Specialized was cautiously optimistic.
They felt they had produced a great bike, a leap forward from the Roubaix SL2 in every way. But they also knew how skeptical true classics specialists are of new technology. Unwilling to roll the dice during races that can be won or lost with one misplaced tire, one instant of inattention, they ride only what has been race proven. In fact, Cancellara himself rides with a good luck charm in his pocket and a Lucky 7 medallion on his bike. Would he ride the Project Black frame?
The rest is history and a marketing coup for Specialized. Cancellara not only rode the new bike, he demolished the Paris-Roubaix field in a way no other rider had done in recent memory. With 50 kilometers to go and 11 sectors of cobbles remaining, he simply rode the best riders in the world off his wheel. With that stunning display Specialized had the endorsement they needed. Cancellara had just won the biggest classic in the world on the all-new Roubaix SL3.
So what exactly do you do to improve the bike that won the last two runnings of the race it is named for? Specialized knew no major shift in direction or mandate from the Roubaix SL2 was necessary, so they simply aspired to make the SL3 do all the same things—only better.
What are those things? The Roubaix SL3 is at its heart an endurance bike built for long miles in relative comfort. As such it is designed to offer a more laid-back position, as the SL3 version retains the SL2’s proven endurance geometry. When compared to a race bike, head tubes are taller across all sizes and offer a slightly more laid-back angle. Fork rake is increased, chainstays are longer and as a result the wheelbase increases. The end result is an upright position that puts more weight in the saddle, relieving pressure on the hands, arms and neck while retaining an even weight distribution between the wheels.
Another hallmark of the Roubaix line up is unparalleled compliance and high-frequency vibration dampening. This is an area where Specialized truly ramped up the SL3’s performance. The Zertz inserts used in the forks and rear seatstays are designed to interrupt high-frequency vibration before it can reach your hands or lower back. The SL3 gets much larger inserts than the SL2, but the major difference is a little harder to discern. Instead of being popped into molded openings as previously used, they are actually bolted into molded depressions. This allows more of the Zertz surface area to interact with the carbon frame. The effect is similar to touching a tuning fork. Use a single finger and it will stop vibrating, eventually. Grab it with your hand and it will stop immediately. That is the difference between the Zertz insert attachment in the SL2 and the SL3.
The Roubaix SL3’s big hit compliance comes from the seatstays which have been redesigned to deliver up to 6mm of possible deflection vertically, while they track from the dropouts to the seat tube in a much more direct route to ensure as much lateral stiffness as possible. The front end also has vertical compliance in mind. The increased rake of the fork provides the vertical compliance up front with the custom tapered steer tube ensuring it doesn’t go to waste. Instead of 1-1/8 to 1-1/2 like a Tarmac, the Roubaix uses a 1-3/8 lower bearing to allow the compliance to reach the rider’s hands.
Of course the flip side of compliance is a “noodly” feeling laterally. One look at Fabian Cancellara’s power meter tells you the Roubaix SL3 is no noodle. How was the elusive balance between vertical compliance and lateral stiffness struck? Up front the SL3 uses a massive down tube to resist torsion from both the pedals and the bars. The 1-3/8 lower bearing is tucked up into the head tube to allow the fibers from the down tube to wrap directly around it. The top tube utilizes a new shape at the head tube called the Cobra. It actually flares as it contacts the head tube, which lets the front end comply vertically but holds it rock solid laterally. At the pedals the bottom bracket and chainstays are now molded in one piece with internal bracing and massively oversized, essentially borrowed right from the Tarmac SL3. While slightly longer than a Tarmac’s stays, they are otherwise very similar, promising incredible power transfer.
One of the most impressive facts is essentially an afterthought. Thanks to Specialized’s FACT 11 carbon, the frame tips the scales at just over 1,000 grams for a 56cm. That is incredibly light for a bike created from a design brief that didn’t include the word “lightweight.”
Specialized has also used the Roubaix SL3 to premiere internal cable routing in their line up. Requested by their ProTour squads as insurance against the mud and turmoil of Paris Roubaix, the S-Works spec includes internal routing for all Di2 cabling, making it one of the cleanest electronic bikes on the market. We would have preferred seeing the battery pack mounted under the down tube, but as the Tarmac SL3 doesn’t even have internal brake routing we’ll be thankful for what we can get.
What is so refreshing about all these contours, inserts and angles is the fact that the performance they offer goes beyond the showroom. The bike delivers as advertised—and when the advertising claims, “nothing is smoother or faster,” that is truly impressive.
Ruthless pavement, yawning potholes, and miles of chip seal are simply no match for the technology the Roubaix SL3 throws at them. There will still be a spring in your cadence and a real bite in your attack after long arduous miles. But perhaps the true brilliance of the bike is that it provides the overall stiffness to translate that spring and bite into speed.
With an exceptionally stiff bottom bracket and chainstays, the bike is as at home during full-blown sprints as it is taking the sting out of cobblestones. The finely tuned front end offers all the stiffness needed to really wrench on the bars and continue to track a precise line or push your limits down a swooping mountain descent. A nice surprise from the Roubaix SL3 is how well it excels in the mountains. While it may have been designed for the flat lands of northern France, the bikes laid-back riding position and overall stiffness make it an extremely confident tempo climber.
As impressive as all this is, the Roubaix SL3 still involves compromise—and most of it is a result of the bike’s geometry. Two things truly effect its handling, the longer overall wheelbase, and specifically, its longer chainstays. Compared to a Tarmac it has a much less frenetic feeling. It’s not going to be as attuned to last-minute dives up the gutter, or quick twitches left and right while threading the needle in a bunch sprint. While descending it can truly push your limits but will be less forgiving if a corner’s radius decreases unexpectedly. While accelerating on the flats, the bike jumps up to speed instantly but while climbing the steep stuff the longer stays seem to deliver a less immediate surge of speed when you hop out of the saddle and put the power down. Of course these things are true of any bike with a longer wheelbase, but no other bike with this wheelbase delivers as much stiffness.
This is the smooth ride and laid-back position for riders not yet willing to hang up their cleats on the local club ride. In fact, it’s probably the bike the majority of riders should be on to complete more miles, more quickly. After all, how many times do find yourself diving into the gutter, rocketing across the field to fly into the final corner in order to unleash a blistering sprint for victory? If the answer is, “Not to often,” the Roubaix SL3 is for you.
The Bottom Line (at the time)
PRICE: $9,400 [as tested]
GROUP: Shimano Dura-Ace Di2
WHEELSET: Shimano Dura-Ace 7850 Carbon Tubeless
OTHER: Specialized S-Works Carbon Crank
WEIGHT: 16.6 lbs. (with pedals and cages) [58cm]