Specialized launch 2016 bikes in Vegas, we ride them

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I left the Specialized Trail Launch in Rotorua with two clear impressions. One, Specialized is hyper professional and super slick. And two, its people are genuinely passionate about riding bikes. Mix those things together and you have a good recipe for making very good bikes and associated stuff. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, as they say, which is why they invited journalists from around the world to test their new offerings which they claim offer a “revolutionary” trail experience.

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Specialized is unique in seeking to offer a one stop shop for all elements of your mountain bike riding escapades. This launch reflected the integrated approach by introducing new clothing, safety equipment, and bikes all focussed on the trail riding experience. It’s a particular type of trail riding experience that Specialized is seeking to advance, clearly informed by some firm philosophies which underlie its product offerings.

One of those underlying ideas is that wearing packs while riding bikes is a pain in the ass. To this end Specialized has developed the “SWAT” system, SWAT being an acronym for “Storage, Water, Air, Tools”. Their first iteration special bib shorts and vests featuring handy pockets to store your stuff have been around for a while and adopted enthusiastically by riders who like to avoid having something hanging around on their back. Specialized has updated these by increasing the pocket volume and quantity of its men’s Mountain Liner Pro Bib Shorts and refining the fit. It has also introduced a new Women’s Mountain Liner Vest with SWAT, with storage options similar to the men’s new bib shorts.

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I tried out the women’s SWAT vest. I’m a dedicated backpack wearer, and generally would prefer to be prepared for most eventualities on the trail rather than go super light weight and bare backed. It would be nice to have the option to go bag-less on short local rides, however, and the pockets on the SWAT vests allow you to carry essential tools (a tube, multi tool, small pump) and sustenance (so long as you’re talking space food like bars and gels rather than a peanut butter and honey sandwich). The vest’s stretchy mesh material is well-fitted and ventilated and holds those items close to your back without bouncing around. The pockets are also designed to enable you to carry a water bottle: I found this quite uncomfortable, as I could feel it on my back, but it didn’t shift around at all. I was also conscious that I did not want to crash and land on my back with all that stuff stashed there. (There’s also another element to the new SWAT system: on that, see below).

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The second idea underlying Specialized’s trail riding package is that light is good. That’s reflected across the range, including in its new trail helmet, the Ambush. Specialized claim it’s the lightest in its class, at 248 grams (at CE safety specification) and 279 grams (at CPSC/SNELL safety specification). Despite its featherweight status it also offers the most overall coverage: it came down much lower at the back and sides than other helmets I’ve worn, which is most definitely a good thing. It was also comfortable and cool to wear, with its effective adjustment and venting systems. I liked the visor with its micro-adjuster which enables you to move the visor to just where you like (and is also compatible with goggle-wearing, if you’re that way inclined). The women’s Ambush comes in one colour (the somewhat ubiquitous turquoise, with lime green highlights) while the men have more colour options.

The new knee pads, the Atlas, also take a lightweight approach. They fit like knee warmers, using lightweight flexible materials and an extra-tall cuff so that they won’t slide down in a crash. It also guarantees no twat-gap. Phew. They’re designed to be worn all day so you don’t have to stop at the top and bottom of descents to pull them on and off. The padding itself is fairly lightweight but seems more than adequate for most trail riding. If I was riding particularly rocky terrain, or racing, however, I’d want a pad offering more protection.

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Finally, to the bike itself. I spent three days riding the brand new Rhyme, a women’s specific 650b 150mm trail bike that promises to help you “find your limit and leave it in the dust”. We didn’t have much dust to play with but I was able to test the Rhyme out on some Rotorua hero dirt and, on the day it rained, that oh so fun Roto-vegas mud. And, after a couple of hours of fiddling and getting acquainted, the Rhyme and I had a really good time together.

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Specialized set out to make a very agile and great handling bike. That’s definitely informed the geometry choices made - which are, by the way, the same as the Stumpjumper (the male version of the Rhyme). The combination of the low bottom bracket (355mm), very short chainstays (420mm), and moderate head angle (67 degrees) add up to a snappy and nimble feeling bike which whips around corners. During my first couple of hours on the bike I felt a bit off in the twisty bits; I think I was oversteering with the result I was cornering more than the trail required. Once I learnt that its geometry means that you don’t have to turn so much it felt super fun and sprightly and easy to manoeuvre, both on the classic Rotorua flow trails and on more technical tracks such as Rainbow Mountain.

A 67 degree head angle is steeper than many other equivalent bikes: it does make the bike snappy and was perfect for Rotorua, but the pay off is that it might feel less capable and stable on very steep trails and in wide open high speed riding. The bottom bracket is low: on the first day I noticed I was striking my pedals more than I normally would, in situations I wouldn’t expect to (like pedalling out of corners). I must have adjusted my riding slightly to compensate because I didn’t much notice it after the first day. It could be an issue if you ride lots of rocky, jumbly trails though.

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I used to dismiss those types who wanked on about bike parts, but I’ve recently come to the sad realisation that I have become one of those sorts too and am now rather particular about my bikes and their bits. The Rhyme comes with some really good bits. The brakes are the excellent Shimano XT trail brakes, while the drive train is the versatile 11-speed SRAM X1 (the best of each world I may suggest?). The medium sized bike I rode had 175mm cranks. I think 170mm would better suit most female riders’ size and higher pedalling cadence. They would also help with the pedal strike. Shorter cranks (165mm) are however offered on the smaller sized bikes. The handlebars on the bike I rode were 750mm wide, but the Rhyme will come specced with 720mm wide bars. This seems a strange choice on a trail bike. Even accounting for women’s narrower shoulders, 720mm is a pretty narrow bar, and it’s not a big deal to have a wider bar cut down if desired. The rims are, however, wide, which enable lower pressures and more tyre contact.

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The Body Geometry Myth saddle is a women’s specific one and the result of extensive scientific analysis of women’s bottoms. I didn’t notice the saddle, which is a good thing. It’s made to go and up down with the Specialized Command Post IRcc. It’s a mechanical post with twelve positions (every 35mm). It was sometimes difficult to find each “notch”, and twelve positions seems rather overkill, but I did make good use of a “somewhere in between fully up and fully down” setting and it worked well. The post is air-adjusted so that you can adjust its speed: some I witnessed did shoot back up at rather alarming rates. The extra small and small Rhymes come with 75mm travel posts, while the medium and above come with 100mm posts.

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The bouncy parts are shared out between RockShox and Fox. The fork is the excellent 150mm RockShox Pike, its virtues already well known. The shock is the interesting bit, being a specially tuned Fox Float shock (the Women’s Rx Trail Tune shock) that aims to provide a more responsive tune for lighter riders. The idea behind it is that suspension stroke analysis showed that female riders often don’t utilize the full suspension stroke. The customized shock seeks to ensure riders can use the full stroke while still enjoying a plush and lively suspension feel throughout. I initially found the bike lacked a little ‘pop’, but after speeding up the shock’s rebound and adjusting my weighting a little to bring it more forward on the bike, I found that it was a super playful and fun bike that popped over the Rotoruan roots and rollers in a smile-inducing way and was active under braking and in cornering.

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I didn’t have the opportunity to ride the Stumpjumper, so can’t say what difference the specially tuned shock has on the ride experience. But I think it’s a positive move by Specialized to spec custom tuned suspension on its women’s bikes. Women do tend to be lighter than men and they also often (but not always of course) have different riding styles, tending to ride smoother and lighter than the ‘muscle through’ technique employed by their male counterparts.

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While on the topic of weight, this bike doesn’t weigh much and it’s noticeable. I left my weight-weeny concerns back with my former XC racing life, but I was surprised by how much the lightness of the Rhyme affected the way it rode. I felt it when cornering and jumping, and it was particularly valuable when riding the more technical tracks in the Whakawerawera Forest which require manoeuvring over roots, ruts, and holes.

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Finally, the most sneaky and unique feature of the new Rhyme: its SWAT capacity. This is applicable only to the carbon model. First, Specialized has pushed forward with the idea of tools that integrate with the frame: a chain tool can be found in the top cap, while a minimalist, mini multi tool snaps into place under the top tube. I initially thought that was a cute but rather gimmicky idea, but I actually found it useful to have a multi tool at such easy access when making quick trailside adjustments to seat post, handlebars, etc. Secondly, the Rhyme features a SWAT compartment in the down tube where you can stash a tube, CO2s, light rain jacket, burrito... It is accessed via a SWAT Door, an oblong-shaped piece of the frame underneath the bottlecage. It comes with a “wrap”, a piece of material you wrap your tube, etc in to prevent chafing and rattling.

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Specialized claim that the SWAT system is “groundbreaking” and “revolutionary” because it will allow you to “leave that clumsy backpack at home” and will “forever change the way you carry trail essentials”. Hmmm, I’m not so sure about that. I love the ingenuity and novelty of the concept and how it offers an alternative to wearing a backpack or fanny pack. However, it’s not going to suit all riders or all trail riding experiences. If I’m going on a backcountry epic I will require more than one tube, a water bottle, and a couple of bars to sustain my bike and I. And even on the less epic rides it can be really annoying when you don’t have access to all the stuff you stash in a backpack. This was made quite clear on our first ride together: someone’s fork suddenly lost a lot of air pressure and someone else needed to switch brake pads. On both occasions the Specialized staffers were forced rather bashfully to borrow tools from one of the journalists who had decided to wear her back pack on the ride - for just such occasions.

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Specialized has put together a very good trail riding package. It clearly has firm ideas about the type of experiences it wants its bikes and bike products to offer. Not all elements will suit all riders, of course. Regardless, I think its ingenuity and professional, integrated approach are to be applauded. And it most definitely has made a bike which is as fun as heck to ride around Rotorua.

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