As Dave K. notes, it's time for me to give him back his sweet November Bike. That means it's time for me to write a review.
Full disclosure. Dave said the other week that if I wanted to keep the bike I could buy it at a demo discount price. I'm thinking about it... it's a nice bike. Now on to the review - in which I give my views that are not impacted either way by Dave's generous offer. I promise. Here's the truth as I see it.
I've ridden this bike on a bunch of rides now. Dave's basic setup doesn't suit me - he likes a setback seatpost and narrow bars, and short-for-my-freakishly-long upper body stem. But the basic cockpit is comfy, snug but room enough to ride efficiently. It's a damn race bike, not a Cadillac.
I rode with a really solid wheel setup, my Powertap / Ultegra Deep Vee set, with 700x25 Conti Gatorskins. These wheels are beyond stiff; they are a six-pack-0f-Viagra-and-cocaine-on-your-private-bits stiff. So however this frame rode, it was despite the wheels, not because of them.
So how did it ride, you ask?
Pretty damn awesome.
Dave told me that they went through roughly 50 possible build options, and went with the design they thought would be super stiff, with a reasonably tall head tube. Racy but comfortable, solid but keeping you in a reasonable posture for training, and racing everything from crits to Jeff Cup to Poolesville to Battenkill. The geometry isn't relaxed; it's more like traditional road race geometry, with wheelbase, rake & trail and set tube angles close to the Specialized Tarmac, a road bike with serious palmares and in wide usage. So the handling will be familiar to many of you.
But the ride characteristics set it apart. This bike feels a lot like a Cannondale CAAD 9 - that's a relatively inexpensive aluminum Crit Racer Special for those who aren't familiar with it - a bike that also offers major bang for the buck. But it has a little bit of extra give on the square-edged bumps that any 40-something roadie can tell you are the common indicators of whether a frame is truly "vertically compliant" as claimed in its ads. Yet the comfortable ride never compromises the stiffness of the bike. My back and confidence still aren't there yet to throw 1850 watt stomps - and the back may never be good enough to do *that* again. But I threw a bunch of 1450 watt stomps on this bike one day, and couldn't cause any serious bottom bracket flex. The massive conventional bottom bracket helps, but that can only get you so far; the flexy-flier vibe is absent because of how the tubes were constructed and put together. This bike is solid.
Did you hear me right in that last paragraph? Yes you did. I just told you that this bike absorbs the harsh jolts like the carbon bike you're familiar with, but transfers power like the stiffest commonly available aluminum road bike. It isn't as plush as my TCR, or a Tarmac, or "comfort" carbon bikes like the Specialized Roubaix. But all that means is that it doesn't have the slightly dead road feel that a lot of carbon bikes have, a feel that obscures feedback from the road surface that tells you about how much traction you have and what kind of cornering you can get away with. That makes the ride lively, like a good quality scandium frame, but without the bouncy flex of scandium. So it's stiffer under power than mass market carbon without being harsh; more responsive to the road surface than mass market carbon, without being nervous or transmitting jolts to your lower back.
This bike has made me think a bit about what the big manufacturers are doing with the "race bikes" that they are selling us. It's possible that some mass market race bikes are this stiff and responsive. I wouldn't know, I haven't been on too many $5k frames lately. Maybe the Colnago Extreme Power feels this way. But the production bikes available to most racers in the $2k - $4.5k retail price, the carbon bikes that us real workingman racers ride, don't feel like this at all. They tend to feel mushy in comparison, with a sort of dead, un-lively road feel that cushions all shocks, but which does not provide great road feedback and which flexes a bit when you step on it. Nice bikes, a world better than the aluminum or steel racers of 20 years ago, but not being all they could be.
Why wouldn't a racer prefer a taut, responsive, lively bike like this, to a slightly dead, nice-but-a-little-mushy "race bike"? Wouldn't you prefer a Porsche 9/11 turbo to a Corvette? Why don't all production carbon race bikes feel this way?
The November Bike makes me suspect that what is going on, is that a lot of the carbon bikes marketed to us as race bikes, are actually targeted at a broader market, rather than at actual racers. Who uses a mass market road racing bike anyhow? Twenty or thirty copies of the bike you ride, in Dura Ace or Red trim, may go to a ProTour team, along with a half dozen high end versions of the bike for the stars, or maybe even some high end custom bikes rebadged as a Tarmac or Madone or TCR. A bunch of continental teams will get a dozen or ten bikes each. A bunch of local race teams here, there and everywhere will get to buy some at a good discount, but nonetheless at a slight profit for the manufacturer. And then thousands will be sold at retail, a few to racers, a bunch to triathletes who don't know better, and tons to recreational riders who like to ride (or 'race') charity centuries or the local touring club rides or shop rides with a few friends, and even to the irritating guys who come out to try to crush you three times a year on the Cap Crescent or W&OD as you're limping home from Hains or the Goon Ride.
Actual racers are a small chunk of the road riding population, and to the extent that a big manufacturer makes a "race bike," it's meant as a tool to sell lots of units to consumers, not just to be raced.
This probably entails some compromises. The "race bike" you buy is definitely very raceable, but then so's a Surly Crosscheck. That doesn't make it an ideal race tool. A mass market race bike has to hit a pretty fat sweet spot; Tom Boonen will ride it until they get him his special, no-flex carbon layup a few weeks before La Primavera. A bunch of guys on the Potomac Pedalers will ride them. Some guys on your local shop ride will have them, and your team, and so will the guy who only comes out onto the Capital Crescent a few times a year to try to crush you when he races you up the trail in his Discovery Team kit. The bike design is by necessity very compromised. It can't be otherwise, if you think about it.
But when a local guy designs a race bike, he doesn't have to compromise. He can tell the fabricator what he wants, and he'll get it. In this case, Mike and Dave went for nasty stiff, comfortable mid-range race geometry, and tubes that make it able to absorb big jolts without losing responsiveness, road feel and that important stiffness. The bike is responsive, snappy and sharp handling; a joy to ride and when you step on it, the thing just goes. It tracks straight and steady, but turns with just a subtle shift of weight on the pedals or on the handlebars. It goes like a scalded cat.
Because of the narrow focus, and the design choices that Dave and Mike were able to make, this bike will probably race better than a lot of bikes costing twice as much - you don't need as much tool, when the tool you are using is designed specifically for the job you're doing, right?
This is the kind of bike you'd design for yourself, if you had some time to think about it and you wanted to make a carbon race bike to meet your needs as a racer and hard core bike enthusiast, right down to the pricepoint that is friendly to those who sponsor their own racing efforts.
Am I going to buy it? Yeah, I think so. I'm starting a renovation project on the house but if I can scare up the scratch I think I'll go for it. This frame just rides too damn sweet to pass up, and I think it'll rock once I get it outfitted the way I like it.
Hit Dave up and ask him for a test ride if you're interested. I'm sure he'll oblige.