By Tom Demerly.
The Importance of the $2000 Road Bike.
Reviewing road bikes in the “about $2000” category is like trench warfare: It goes on forever, there are a lot of soldiers and it feels like a stalemate. Until you find something different.
The $2000 road bike category is so important because it tends to be a first bike buy-in for many high end consumers. This is not so much a review of the important $2000 road bike category or any one bike. It is more an attempt to flush out something other than generic. It’s also an insight into how we buy bikes. This data will help you decide and show you how to make meaningful comparisons on your own and will propose one of my favorites in this category.
A Note on Shopping for Your First Road Bike.
Shopping for your first road bike is more involved than just a spreadsheet analysis and a quick test ride. Fit and positioning are the most important determining factors in a good ownership experience. I also don’t like buying a bike largely by component group. As a product category gets more crowded it becomes more difficult to shake out the true winners. Since the $2000 road bike category is a common “buy in” it is very crowded. It takes something tangibly different to shake out the exceptional.
“Test rides, in general, are a poor evaluative tool. Fit and positioning are the most important…”
Because the bikes in this category are so similar a test ride won’t reveal the differences. Test rides, in general, are a poor evaluative tool. A test ride bike hasn’t been optimally fitted to you, the tire pressure and other variables that influence the ride are rarely held in control and very few new shoppers do test rides with their cycling clothing, pedals and shoes over a long enough duration to produce an accurate impression.
My best recommendation is to prioritize the purchase: First, buy what fits. No other factor will influence your enjoyment (or lack thereof) than bike fit and position. Second, look at frame construction, design and material quality. A bit of detective work is usually required here. Third, buy the component kit you find easiest to use with the best feature set. Fourth, do you have a dealer who can work on the bike and perform warranty service? Fifth, do you like the way it looks?
Geometrically this entire category tends to have higher head tubes with the exception of brands like Felt and Specialized who offer two different geometries in two separate bikes at this price range; a low head tube road racer and a higher head tube sport bike. This is a strong reason to consider these brands. You and your bike fitter decide whether you want a high head tube bike or a low head tube bike.
And the Components… SRAM or Shimano?
Pick your component brand: SRAM or Shimano. While debates swirl about these two warring factions SRAM offers some interesting distinctions. The SRAM shifter allows you to pull the shifter paddle all the way back to the drop bars and still shift. For racers the advantage is clear: You can shift easily from the drops while sprinting out of the saddle. For sport riders this may not be a big deal. The shifter paddle on the SRAM lever only performs one function: Shifting. With Shimano STI the brake lever also shifts the chain up the cogset to an easier gear on the rear, and to the big ring from the small. There is that rare occasion when a shift also turns into braking. That’s annoying, maybe even a little dangerous.
SRAM Apex offers a wider range of gearing with two chain rings. This eliminates any need for a triple. A double chainring equipped bike is lighter, mechanically simpler and tends to shift better. SRAM even offers a functional 11-32 gearing option for SRAM Apex, but on the Litespeed M1 you’ll need to install the mid cage version of the Apex rear derailleur. If you ride the 11-32 with standard 50/34 compact gearing you can almost climb a wall in low gear. The ratio is nearly 1:1. There is almost no high gear sacrifice either since a 50/11 is a very large top gear.
The SRAM Apex Double Tap shifter/brake lever is also adjustable for reach- you can adjust the levers closer to the handlebars for smaller hands. Shimano offers a difficult to find capability to reduce brake lever reach, but it isn’t built into the lever. SRAM is a better option for people with small hands.
SRAM Apex didn’t start as a touring group. In the 2008 Giro d’ Italia the difficult 16th stage was a 12.9 kilometer uphill time trial in the Italian Alps at the Plan de Corones, a hard-packed, gravel road with gradients above 23%. The stage was so difficult Andrew Hood of Velo-News quoted Slipstream’s David Millar as saying “This race is just insane! ..just ridiculous!” Race leader Alberto Contador was concerned he could not maintain traction on the gravel if he climbed while standing on the pedals. His mechanic combined SRAM mountain bike components with road components- compatible because of the 1:1 actuation ratio unique to SRAM road and off road components- to fashion the first inspiration for SRAM Apex. This gave Contador a low enough gear ratio to climb while seated. While Contador did not win the stage (Franco Pellizotti did), he maintained his lead and went on to win the race.
Apex’s capability combines the best of full size 53/39 tooth 130 mm bolt pattern chainrings, 50/34 tooth 110 mm compact chainrings and even triple chainrings. It is a truly versatile drivetrain that provides the broadest gearing range in the industry.
“Is SRAM Apex better than Shimano 105? That’s a matter of opinion. It is a matter of fact that APEX has greater capabilities.”
Shimano’s 105 has been substantially updated in recent years to include a full size, compact and triple crank capability, but the gearing range does not match SRAM. And while Shimano invented the dual control brake lever shifter, the configuration of the levers has not changed since they were introduced around 1990 when this writer saw prototypes on Andy Hampsten’s bike at the Jacksonville stage of the Tour of the Americas. That makes Shimano STI over 21 years old in design concept. Proven? Absolutely. Evolved? Not so much. And therein lies the motive to “Make the Leap” (SRAM’s tag line) to something new and innovative. Is SRAM Apex better than Shimano 105? That’s a matter of opinion. It is a matter of fact that APEX has greater capabilities.
Felt and Litespeed: What We Decided to Buy- and Why.
When we went shopping for road bikes in the about-$2000 category we wanted to buy a complete sales portfolio: The bikes we liked had to stand above the din of nearly-same Ultegra equipped bikes from Trek, Giant and others. We already liked the two Felt Ultegra equipped $2000 road bikes since they offer two distinct geometries near the extremes, a low front end road racer in the F5 and a higher front end sport-touring bike in the Z5, and they contrast nicely with the SRAM bikes since they are Shimano 105 equipped. Felt dominates the “about $2000” Shimano equipped road bike category with the F5 Team, F5 Limited and standard F5 versions of their F5, the Z5 and the female specific ZW5. That is a commanding 5 road bikes within $300 of the key $2000 price point. They are also the only players in this category with carbon fiber dropouts and a bare frame around 900 grams. Additionally, their F5 series has the lowest head tube on a newly designed frameset for Felt, making it the true performance entry in this category. If you want a Shimano equipped $2000 road bike, there isn’t much reason to look beyond Felt.
That left one bike to buy for our stable: A SRAM Apex equipped bike at about $2000. We didn’t want to buy two SRAM Apex equipped bikes, in the case of Specialized with their two different head tube heights. We didn’t mind considering two bikes with Felt since it offers more fit options in a more commonly recognized component group (Shimano 105). The Felt bikes come with forks that have carbon fiber steer tubes- a feature customers won’t see when shopping but will appreciate because the bike is lighter and rides better.
Even though SRAM Apex is a stand out component group consumers’ understanding of it is lagging. In 2011 Shimano 105 bikes will still outsell Apex equipped bikes- so the 105 bike buy was more important. This trend may change in 2012 or 2013, but it is the reality now. SRAM has captured the attention of the high end rider from Lance Armstrong to the local Category 2 racer, but the $2000 entry point customer still defaults to Shimano. Chances are the SRAM Apex customer will be the better researched, more discerning component buyer.
We made what we thought is a smart play and bought the Litespeed M1 with SRAM Apex and all-aftermarket FSA brand handlebars, stem, seatpost and wheels. Litespeed is a niche brand that doesn’t sell low end recreational bikes (like Specialized) – the enthusiast buyer will recognize that- the same buyer who will flush out the advantages of SRAM Apex over Shimano 105.
Our one beef with the Litespeed M1 is the cro-moly steer tube which adds weight. We would have preferred a carbon fiber steer tube. The two $2000 Felt bikes (Z5 and F5) and the SRAM Apex Specialized bikes use a carbon fiber steer tube fork, but the higher head tube variety- the Specialized Roubaix Elite SL2 Apex, uses the Specialized “Zertz” inserts, claimed to absorb road shock. I don’t like the Zertz feature- I don’t think it works. This caused us to pass on the two Specialized bikes when we went shopping for a SRAM Apex bike.
A Few Details on Component Specifications.
The Litespeed M1 comes out of the box with a SRAM 11-26 cogset, enough gearing for all but the highest alpine mountain passes. If you are crossing three mountain passes in a day you’ll swap to the unique 11-32 gearing capability on SRAM Apex. The handlebars are a delightful shallow drop variety perfectly suited for this type of bike. A thoughtful addition on the Litespeed M1 as a randonnee or brevet bike (sport touring) is a small, lightweight bell that belies its non-race lineage. The saddle has a comfort cut out and isn’t bad at all, although many entry point road bike buyers tend to buy an alternative saddle- usually when they should be buying better bike shorts (another story altogether). One complaint on the FSA seatpost is the serrated angle clamp on the seatpost head. You can’t micro-adjust the saddle angle.
The deep chainstays and square-oval bottom bracket area add some welcome snap to the bike compared to other SRAM Apex equipped bikes from Specialized, especially the Zertz equipped Roubaix. It’s still not a racer- it isn’t intended to be (it has a bell on it…) but it also isn’t a mattress. The frame features of the Litespeed strike a nice compromise.
The Litespeed M1 also uses the SRAM Apex brakes, continuing the SRAM story consistently throughout the bike. The Specialized Tarmac and Roubaix SRAM Apex bikes substituted Tektro brand brakes. This seems odd since the Specialized bikes were both $100 more expensive than the Litespeed M1.
The Litespeed M1 has everything we needed in a SRAM Apex sport road bike in one package: pure component kit, aftermarket stem/bar/seatpost and wheels, moderate head tube height and an equivalent frame with the squoval bottom bracket. We bought the Litespeed M1 as our SRAM Apex bike.
“The Litespeed M1 has everything we needed in a SRAM Apex bike: pure component kit, aftermarket stem/bar/seatpost/wheels, moderate head tube height and a squoval bottom bracket.”
The Litespeed M1 makes some degree of compromise on head tube, but still runs high-ish. The frame has a more horizontal top tube in most sizes than comparable designs the other brands. Traditionalists will like this look. Short leg, long torso riders won’t like this since it limits stand over height and presents a relatively high top tube when climbing out of the saddle- we like Felt’s Z5 for that. The more traditional design on the M1 does shore up handling a little and enhances comfort in my opinion. It is a little more luxurious than the comparably priced bikes with tighter rear triangles.
Another interesting feature on the Litespeed M1, especially when contrasted against the other bikes in this category, is the size run is on the odd numbered sizes. In other words, while companies like Felt are making a size name 50cm, 52cm, 54cm, etc. Litespeed has built on the odd number size names with a 53cm. and 55cm. frame size in the two most commonly sold sizes. The Litespeed size names are “T-shirt” sizes, “Small (50cm)”, “Medium (53cm)”, “Medium Large (55cm)” “Large(58cm)” and “Extra Large (61cm)”. There are three big 3 centimeter gaps in the geometry chart between “Small (50cm)” and “Medium (53cm)” and between “Medium Large (55cm)” and “Large (58cm)” and between “Large(58cm)” and “Extra Large (61cm)”. If a customer truly fell between these dimensions they will wind up on one of the Felts with Shimano 105, either the F5 low head tube bike or the Z5 high head tube bike.
Riding the Litespeed M1 is what you’d expect in the sport-touring category. Handling is stable; there is reasonable stiffness at the bottom bracket partially owing to the squared lower section of the down tube and the deep chain stays. The bike is luxury car stable- it isn’t a racer. Acceleration is gradual and straight. It climbs with tenacity if not with animation. It’s a quiet bike. Peaceful and smooth. That is the type of ride- and rider- I pictured SRAM Apex for. The Litespeed M1 frame suits that theme. Think BMW “7” series ride (but not acceleration) at Ford pricing.
Buying bikes is often a mix of spread sheet comparison in the empirical and real world ride experience in the subjective. It takes more than a quick test ride to understand the ownership experience. In our research and experience in the crowded $2000 road bike category the Litespeed M1 flushed out of our 15 member short list as unique for the sport rider especially with SRAM Apex. Whether or not this type of unique equates to “best” is decided by the type of riding you are doing. If you are a long distance, comfort oriented rider who wants to climb while seated and wants a wide range of component capabilities- especially with gearing- the Litespeed M1 flushes out as a leader in this category within a category.