There’s nothing like hearing it from the horse’s mouth. The horse, in this instance, is Specialized. What we’re hearing is the story on Tom Boonen’s bike—in greater detail. Let’s start with the basics. According to Specialized media honch Nic Sims, Specialized tries to get new teams on their bikes as early as possible so that riders can adjust to new geometry but due to contracts the earliest Quick-Step could be on bikes was at the January training camp, when each rider was immediately sized and presented with a stock bicycle. Boonen was even presented with both the 58 and 61-cm bikes. He chose the 58 because it gave him the desired difference in height between saddle and bar. When the initial fit wasn’t to his liking, Specialized’s next step was to offer him a selection of custom-made stems. Sims says that making custom stems is something the manufacturer can do at the in-house frame shop in Morgan Hill. A 14cm stem didn’t do the job. A custom frame was the only answer.
As you’ve heard, Boonen’s bike is 13mm longer than his old Tarmac SL. What that means is that he is riding a custom bike made from the E5 material with a top tube that is 13mm longer than the top tube on the 58cm Tarmac. Naturally, with a longer top tube a few other changes to frame dimensions must be made (such as the introduction of a longer downtube) and while those frame dimensions are different from an existing Tarmac size, Sims stressed that the custom frame produced for Boonen bears the same handling geometry as a Tarmac, though the longer top tube does result in an obviously longer wheelbase. More than a few people have criticized Specialized for not immediately making Tom-tom a custom carbon-fiber rig immediately. Sims says making a custom carbon-fiber frame wasn’t considered a practical first response due to the time it takes to re-tool . The designers at Specialized wanted to get the fit right before committing resources to a custom carbon frame and the best way to do that was to go through the design iteration phase in aluminum. Thanks to their careful work, the design team nailed the fit on their first try and Boonen was satisfied. He has since signed off on the design and Specialized sent those drawings overseas for the construction of the mold. That’s right, the construction of the mold. Sims says a hand lay-up of carbon fiber would not have met their stringent quality control or performance requirements.
The net result is this: In May, Boonen will take possession of a custom-fabricated Tarmac SL. Only this one won’t be quite so, uh, SL. His frame will weigh approximately 100 grams more than a comparable frame due to an extra wrap of carbon fiber on the frame to make his bike just a little stiffer. And before you criticize the stiffness of a Tarmac, bear in mind that this frame is being built for a guy who has little trouble delivering 1500 watts in a sprint. As a point of pride Sims pointed out that Mario Cipollini’s custom E5 Tarmac used, in fact, the mountain bike tube set. Said Sims, “That bike was so stiff it was uncomfortable for most people to ride.”
Asked how expensive it was to build a mold for a bike meant solely for Tom Boonen and Sims responded, “I don’t know, but really expensive. We’ve already invested a million dollars in this team, so it was worthwhile.” When asked if the company wasn't exposing itself to potential negative coverage by having two very public teams using its frames—surely any accidents or problems vaguely linked to the product could have a negative impact, Sims responded, “Quite to the contrary, there is no better testbed than the Pro-Tour and we count on our sponsored riders to give us as much feedback as is possible. As a result of feedback from riders like Tom Boonen and Bettini we are already making changes to our saddles and wheels. Tom Boonen didn't fit our Tarmac frame so we had an aluminum frame built which we are using as a template for a carbon frame that we’ll be able to deliver to him in May. All of this feedback and the tweaking that results helps us make better bikes for every rider.”
It would be unfair to typify the Specialized road bike line as anything but high-performance, that the bikes aren’t actually of quality befitting a professional. Sims points out that for the rest of the team riders in Gerolsteiner and Quick-Step, a production size has worked fine, but because these guys ride thousands of kilometers per year, any change in fit can be greeted with dismay. Sims said, “Most of these guys notice a 2mm change the average person may never notice.” Giovanni Lombardi called a bike that featured a bar position 2mm higher and 3mm longer a “f#$&ing chopper.” As a result, he cautioned, “When you’ve got someone of the caliber of Bettini or Boonen—World Champions—you do whatever is necessary to keep them winning.”
Another big thanks to Padraig for digging deep and compiling this report for BKW.
Photo Courtesy: Specialized Bicycles