Remember when disc brakes first appeared on road bikes, and the straight laced traditionalist market balked? And now it’s almost an accepted fact that unless you’re after a bike for racing (where you’re not allowed them) disc brakes are the order of the day. Then 25c tyres were ‘faster’ but no one liked their spongy feel? Now suddenly even Chris Boardman says you’re outdated if you’re riding on skinny 23cs (honestly, I discussed this with him over breakfast 6 months ago).
Things change. Research and experience show us truths – that fatter tyres produce less rolling resistance and that riders will go faster if they know they can stop in the rain – but it takes guts to produce a product that fights against all of the accepted social norms of a highly traditional industry.
Specialized have stepped up to the mantle with their new road bike. The Specialized Ruby of 2017 is completely different to its predecessors. It’s got suspension, an addition which Specialized designed with the help of none other than F1 leader - McLaren Applied Technologies. Automotive designers have been on to the fact that smooth rolling means fast rolling for some time, and the bike giant decided to take a leaf out of their very extensive and impressive book.
Add in disc brakes, wide 26c tyres, and a SWAT box like the one that proved so successful on the mountain bike models and you’ve got an endurance machine like no other. Even more interestingly, Specialized aren’t marketing this ‘just’ as a comfortable bike for all day riding – they believe that comfort makes it faster too. Disc brakes mean you couldn’t race the Ruby, and relaxed geometry mean that’s not the idea – but if you wanted to ride a sportive really fast then it wouldn’t be an outside choice.
We had the chance to join Specialized for a few days riding the bike near Paris at the end of July, and we’ve been testing it around the Surrey lanes (as superstitiously as we could – it was all very secret-squirrel and we were told to ride it ‘somewhere quiet') ever since.
Future Shock Suspension
First things first. The ‘Future Shock Suspension’ system is effectively a spring that sits in the steerer tube and offers 20mm of travel (17mm downward, 3mm upward). There are three different spring strengths: comfort, sport and race – the closer to 'comfort' you go the more responsive the suspension becomes.
The spring moves up and down as you ride. Specialized carried out a lot of research in this area. They hypothesised that there were two ways suspension could work on a road bike: they could offer ‘splay’ or ‘axial compliance’.
Splay is the fore/aft movement of the front axle relative to the frame – it means the front end of the bike would move back and forwards to cater for rough roads. Axial compliance means that the handlebars move relative to the front axle. Their research showed them that axial compliance ticked the comfort box and was much faster. Effectively no movement was ‘wasted’ as per the splay option where forward motion is countered. The idea is that the bike moves beneath the rider as she travels over ridges and rocks – almost forgotten as soon as she’s got over the funny looking springy tube beneath her.
Specialized are obviously aware that the performance minded market is going to ask the question:
'Isn't the spring going to make me slower, or prevent me from sprinting'?
So they took the bike to CU Boulder Locomotion Laboratory and put it on a treadmill with a 7 per cent incline. Twelve [male] subjects were measured for metabolic output (effort) when riding at the same fixed power output with the spring in action, and locked out. The study showed there was no difference in metabolic output - effectively the men required the same amount of effort to pedal at the same power regardless of the spring. Add in that on bumpy roads the spring might make the ride smoother, and you've got a pretty solid argument I've got to admit.
We’ll come back to how the system feels to ride in a minute.
Frame and geometry
Specialized are refreshingly honest in their approach to the women’s specific bike debate. They’re open about the fact that they don’t have all the answers, but they use data where they can – and they have a lot of it.
The brand use Retül systems to carry out Body Geometry fits all over the world – and every bike fit is entered into a system that collects the saddle height, ideal reach, etcetera of women and men for their relative heights and they base their bike building decisions around this.
This scatter graph on the right shows (a very condensed view) of what Roubaix customers needed in terms of stack and reach vs Ruby customers. The chart on the left shows the same information for one of the brand's MTB models...
For whatever reason - physiological or sociological - the Ruby customers wanted something different to Roubaix customers so Specialized made a bike that fits those requirements. They stopped making female specific frames for the MTB model in question because there was so much overlap in the middle (or 'average' - remember each blob represents hundreds of people).
That’s that women's frame elephant out the window. The bike is built around a disc brake function, and shocker: Specialized claim it’s also the lightest frame they have ever made - on both the Roubaix and Ruby platform. It’s really not a bike that’s ‘just’ about comfort – it’s made to climb, and quickly too.
To add further comfort, the seat clamp has been dropped by 65mm (so you've got two bolts further down the frame as opposed to a normal seat post clamp to adjust saddle height) and a 'zig zag' shaped 'CG-R' seat post with comfort adding Zertz inserts has been used. The top of the seat tube is wider than previously, too - allowing for greater flex and comfort.
Aside from at the seatpost, the 'Zertz inserts' of previous models have been dropped across the new incarnations. You can still get an 'old style Ruby', now called the Ruby SL4, with Zertz and rim brakes.
Another accepted truth is that road cyclists should try to jam all of their essentials – including tube, pump and/or co2 and tyre levers into their rear pockets. Failing this, they may use a saddle bag provided they’re comfortable with ridicule from some particularly Velominati loyal members of the community.
Specialized have questioned this with the ‘SWAT’ box – a light plastic case that holds a tube, tyre lever, C02 and has space for cash – just above the bottom bracket. It’s removable, if you hate it, but it’s well worth giving it a go. And if anyone ‘fast’ tells you it’s not cool then you can tell them having your tools lower on the bike is much more efficient when cornering and it’s also more aero.
- S-Works Ruby with SRAM e-Tap & SRAM Red hydraulics: £7,500
- Ruby Expert with Ultegra Di2 & hydraulic discs: £3,800
- Ruby Expert with Ultagra & flat mount dics: £3,200
- Ruby Comp with 105 & flat mount dics: £2,400
- Ruby Elite 105 & mechanical discs: £1,900
The new Ruby frame will be available right across the range – starting with a Tiagra equipped model and shooting up to Shimano Ultegra Di2 and SRAM e-Tap. Frame sizes are available from 44 to 58 across the range too.
All of the models come specced with a 50/34 compact chainset, and cassettes vary – with more expensive models featuring a standard 11-28 and the entry level options an 11-32 which provides a wider range of gearing to make the hills easier.
Tyres vary from 25c to 26c, and the 105 models upwards feature ‘Hover’ bars which add a 15mm rise on either side of the stem. The Ultegra and upwards models have hydraulic discs, whilst lesser models use flat mount versions with resin pads – and all of the wheels use thru axles.
All the tech in the world is useless unless it feels good - and fast - to ride. I hate it when a frame sacrifices racey feeling 'snap' at the altar of comfort, so I got on the bike with a selection of pre-conceptions about how it was going to ride. I thought it was going to be boring.
We managed two rides with Specialized in France back in July, one short 30 mile spin and a second 65 mile outing where we were split into A, B and C groups. Of course I forced myself to ride with group A, which included some pretty serious hitters and some UCI level racers. I was a little concerned I should probably have dropped back to the B academy, but actually the ride proved to be a great display of what makes riding with other women so much more enjoyable: fun on the flats and sufferfests on the hills that always meet at the top with shared claims to 'nearly dying'.
On our trip in France, I rode the 54cm frame, and in the UK I rode the 51cm for a few weeks. I'm 5 ft 5 and found the 51cm was probably the best option, though both could be adapted to fit. It's not often brands provide glimpses of a bike quite this early, or give us quite so long to ride a bike before the 'secret squirrel' embargo lifts: obviously Specialized wanted to give us plenty of time to formulate our opinions on this new fangled set up.
First impressions: I was immediately struck by the width of the bars, the more relaxed geometry and the hugely padded bar tape. All three of the afore mentioned attributes - wide bars, thick bar tape, relaxed geometry - were things I didn't like very much.
I found it hard to tuck myself in on descents initially, though dropping the headset and nudging the bars down fixed this and I did find I could get myself into a position that felt better quite easily. I did find I struggled a bit with hand numbness - and I think I can trace this down to the handlebars being wide and not in a style I find comfortable - not a deciding factor on the bike overall as new handlebars are pretty easy to source.
The obvious thing to do when riding a bike that's designed to absorb bumps and lumps is to point it at one. Testing the bike at home, I had a perfect section of road in mind. I live in a valley - and there's only one way to get out of town that doesn't involve a big hill, and it's through a private school with many speed bumps. Smashing the bike out through the school road I found I was easily able to maintain my speed (still below the limit, I think...) where usually I'd be forced to slow for every one.
It's not just the major bumps, rocks and random road debris that you'd otherwise have to dodge that the bike deals with. Just generally shoddy road surfaces are no longer such an issue on the Ruby. The smooth French roads didn't offer much opportunity to put this to the test - but back in the UK I found sections that I know my stiff, totally un-padded out road bike really struggles with significantly easier. And yes, I believe faster too - on the Ruby I wasn't losing power gafumping over the cracks and crevices as I might otherwise.
So the spring suspension works when it comes to damping out the bumps. But how about when climbing and sprinting - does the spring absorb too much power and make the bike feel slow?
Contrary to expectation, 20mm of travel at the front of the bike doesn't transform you into an uncontrollably bobbing floating head. When really pushing into the bars on an ascent, the movement is detectable but not uncomfortable.
When gripping on to the bars and smashing it out of the saddle to sprint, you do feel movement and I'd not recommend this as a race winning sprint bike. This said, it's also got disc brakes so you wouldn't be allowed to race it anyway - it's not really a bike designed for those purposes.
When it comes to descending, the bike feels unsettlingly fast. In fact, after weeks of riding I still feel like I'm getting used to it. The ease at which the front and rear absorb shocks mean that it's easy to really let go of the brakes, but it's almost like the smoothness means you lose perception of where the road is and how fast you're travelling over it. This can only be considered an attribute, but does take getting used to.
What I most appreciate about this bike is that it's got, in my opinion, an almost perfect blend of comfort and snap. Despite being an endurance machine with a lot of dampening to make it comfortable, when you get out of the saddle to smash it up a hill there's still a feeling of power and the road doesn't become a floating impenetrable carpet. I do believe that's how some 'comfortable' bikes ruin the sensations of the ride on many occassions - and it's pretty clear for many exactly which bike giant's 'comfort/endurance/classics bike' Specialized are trying to compete with here. The Ruby eases out the lumps and bumps, but it still feels alive. I like that.
You should be able to see the Ruby options on the Specialized website, here.