There was a time in the early 1990s when it must have looked like suspension road bikes for the cobbled classics were here to stay.
Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle and his RockShox front forks had bobbed their way to victory in Paris-Roubaix in 1992 and 1993, successes which opened the floodgates to a mini arms-race of shock absorbers.
Bianchi even devised a full-blown full suspension bike for Mapei’s Johan Museeuw in 1994 yet a catastrophic mechanical failure – Museeuw destroyed the drive side chain stay and waved goodbye to victory in the velodrome – helped to turn the bright new day of suspension road bikes into a slightly embarrassing false dawn.
So it was not without a considerable weight of history pressing down on them that Specialized attempted to make a success of road bike front suspension on their newest Roubaix and Ruby frames. Nor was it the easiest of technical challenges.
“A mountain bike for us normal people on cobbles is pretty nice but you can’t go fast over cobbles on a mountain bike,” says Chris D’Aluisio, creative specialist at Specialized.
“You’re slowing the system down. You’re heavier, it’s absorbing all the energy of your pedalling. It’s just not a good experience.”
Yet feedback from sponsored professionals – Specialized provided bikes for three WorldTour teams, Boels-Dolmans in the women’s WorldTour and development team Axeon in 2016 – told the American company that the demand for shock absorption was still there, even though it hadn’t caught on 25 years earlier.
“A lot of tyre testing with them has shown us that they really want [high] tyre pressure but they need lower tyre pressure, and it’s that bike that we’re trying to get right,” D’Aluisio says.
The result was a spring suspension unit in a cartridge on top of the head tube, placing the suspension above the frame (and bringing to mind the cult classic Girvin Flexstem that made its way onto mountain bikes in the early 90s, just as ‘Gibus’ was doing the Roubaix double).
The idea is that by giving the effect of lower tyre pressure, the bike provides a smoother ride, better contact with the road and predictable handling. And all of this will come without the bobbing, energy loss and extra weight of a front suspension fork. You can have your big slice of cake and eat all of it.
“We’re able to go two bar more [pressure] and get the same experience with the front suspension,” D’Aluisio says. “Even on normal bikes with dangerously low tyres pressure, they’re still not any faster.”
Suffice to say there was a lot more that went into finessing that final design than simply putting a spring on the stem. Specialized designed a computerised testing procedure with McLaren Applied Technologies, the collaborations arm of the car company, to put some numbers to the idea of ‘smoothness’ in the laboratory.
The result is a bike built for a Boonen. Not only will Tommeke use it for his final cobbled classics campaign next season, but on his normal training roads around Belgium, this is the bike that he wants to ride.
You can’t find a much better endorsement than that.