If you’re a cyclist, you’ve probably been asked at some point by a friend of loved one, “Why the heck do you own so many bikes?” Among the many potential answers, probably the best and most direct way to explain it is that bikes all serve different purposes, and buying one is almost always in some way an act of compromise. If a bike does one thing really well — say, climbing mountains — it probably does something else with less proficiency. That’s almost always true when you’re talking about aero road bikes, which offer a proven aerodynamic advantage cutting through wind on flats and downhills, but can feel heavy and underwhelming at low speeds and in the hills. This observation also characterized my experience riding the Specialized Venge Pro Race ($5,500).
Now, make no mistake, this is a superior-quality bike — the top of the aero line from Specialized before you get to the $8K range for their S-Works model, which uses a better grade of carbon and is specced with higher-end components — but the shape of the frame is the same. It’s a frame that has made an appearance on the Tour this month with the Specialized-sponsored Etixx-Quick Step team (Cavendish is riding a Venge, but it’s a completely redesigned one, which we’ll talk about later). But you can just look at the bike and its knife-like shape tells you everything: it’s made to go fast. In fact, the aerodynamics were inspired by the Specialized Shiv triathlon bike. Everything from the tapered head tube to the fork blades that meet the wind with a narrow leading edge, is all designed to slip through the wind. Add to that the Roval Rapide CL 60 full carbon clincher wheel set and you’ve got a bike that’s meant to go fast.
But there’s a catch, and all you need to do is look at the bikes the three Specialized-sponsored teams are riding in the Tour — most of them are on the Tarmac — to know what it is. An aero bike is fast in specific conditions, mainly flats and descents, and it really excels with high absolute-power outputs. I rode the Venge on a combination of flats, rolling hills and a few relatively steep grades in the New York area and found it to be really stable and responsive at higher speeds and down hills. At lower speeds and up hills it felt a bit sluggish and overly stiff. My guess (backed by a degree in the dismal science, not real science) is that my experience is mostly a function of my weight (140 pounds) and the type of riding I enjoy (exploration as opposed to racing), which are more compatible with a lighter and more nimble bike like the BMC Teammachine SLR01 I rode previously. If I were racing crits every weekend then the Venge would probably be an ideal choice. I also suspect that riding a size 49, the smallest version of the bike, exacerbated the feeling of a stiff ride.
All of this doesn’t mean the current Venge is a bad bike, but it does mean that it’s a bike with a fairly specific purpose.
Perhaps more interesting in this whole conversation is the brand-new Venge being ridden by a few riders in the Tour this year: the Venge ViAS, a completely redesigned Venge for 2016 and one that will only be available in the S-Works category for $12,500. The chief characteristic of the new bike, designed in concert with McLaren Applied Technologies, is the new frame design — plus some neat features like a front brake mounted behind the fork and a rear brake fairly high up the seat tube — that’s meant to be a full minute faster than the previous Venge over 40 kilometers. Those who have ridden it attest to the speed on straights and downhills and to the top-notch handling, claiming that it’s the fastest bike they’ve ridden (though not the lightest). The design of the ViAS also incorporated what Specialized calls “rider-first engineering“, first used in the Tarmac, which very specifically addresses the needs of different sizes of riders — meaning that I might have a better experience on the new ViAS than the current Venge.
All of this doesn’t mean the current Venge is a sub-par bike, but it does mean that it’s a bike with a fairly specific purpose that probably isn’t the right everyday ride for a lot of people, including me. But, hey, that’s why we like to own more than one bike. If you’re touring the white-sand roads of Tuscany and stopping often to eat grapes from the vine, you might want a vintage Gianni Motta. If you happen to be riding in the Tour this year, the Tarmac. If, on the other hand, you’re a beast looking to drop the hammer and reach max speeds — then by all means have your Venge.