Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Review: Specialized Allez Race E5 Smartweld Road Frame

About a year ago, I bought my last carbon race bike. Not my latest carbon race bike — my LAST one. And I've since sold it in favor of an aluminum-framed model.

That sounds an awful lot like either retirement or a newly born carbon curmudgeon, doesn't it? In reality, it's neither. Carbon bikes are fantastic and so is racing. But with a couple of kids, bills to pay and no stockpile of rainy-day bike money (hey, the economy has been rough for a while, you know?), even the remote possibility of having to replace a broken carbon frame gives me a stomachache.

So earlier this spring I took the leap into high(er) end aluminum and ordered a Specialized Allez Race. (Disclosure: I race for a team sponsored by a local Specialized dealer. I got a good deal. Retail is $2,400.) I've had teammates in the past talk about "just going with a cheap frame and spending money on nice parts," but nobody actually went through with it. After mulling the idea for a while and getting ride reports from those who had been riding the Allez, I went for it.

I will not buy a carbon race bike again.

Before carbon became the coolest thing ever, most companies had great, lightweight aluminum race platforms. Today, I can count two readily available, race-worthy aluminum frames: the Allez and the Cannondale CAAD10. That doesn't mean other companies don't have frames that could be raced — they're just not frames that are designed to race.

The Allez E5 frameset benefits from Specialized's Smartweld technology. Basically, the company found a way to make a lightweight aluminum frame that remains durable, stable and racy. Here is an in-depth look at the technology. The video is a bit long, but pretty cool.

The full-carbon fork (including the steerer) is the same as the pro-level Tarmac Expert SL4. The welds are only noticeable up close, so minute that I've had a lot of people asking me how I liked my Tarmac. Well ... actually ...

The Allez for 2014 comes in a number of configurations, but if you already have the parts on hand, you can go with the frameset alone for $880. That was my initial choice, but by March (!) the framesets were all gone, so I had to order the full bike. I ended up swapping out all of the stock componentry, so rather than a SRAM Rival-level build, I had a SRAM Force build, with a number of other spare parts — like old Ultegra 6600 brakes and Dura-Ace wheels.

The Good

After racing Trek's top-end Madone for the past three seasons, I was concerned about ... well, everything. As I was building up the +Specialized Bicycles Allez, I was wondering whether I'd made a huge mistake. Change is scary sometimes. Because of my late order, I only rode it once before I raced it. Afterward, someone asked me how I liked the new bike. I did reasonably well that day, but I never once thought about the bike — it just did what I needed it to do.

Since then, I've been pleased by its ride, handling and race prowess. Put simply, the bike does what you ask it to do. And with a reasonable build like mine, the slightly heavier (compared to carbon) aluminum frame was a non-factor. If a guy were to load it with SRAM Red and Zipp wheels (as I saw a number of times over the course of the season), he'd end up with a 15.something-pound bike.

The one question that does get asked a lot in regards to the aluminum frame is the ride itself. As the carbon war heated up, aluminum got a bad reputation for rough ride quality. While it's true that it's not as smooth as most carbon frames there are easy fixes: a nice carbon seatpost and a carbon stem. Both will help add a bit of smoothness and certainly won't hurt in the weight department. Much like in the first race, I was at no point left wanting in terms of ride quality. Earlier this year, I rode back-to-back centuries (which was silly by mile 80 of the second day) sans gloves and had no problem.

And remember that Hutchinson Sector 28 tire review from a few months back? Those tires fit in this frame. That's a bonus if you want far more tire options. (Also, you can take those wider tires on the local singletrack if you get bored.)

The Bad

I have the smallest of gripes about the Allez, and it has more to do with cosmetics than anything else. Mine, as you can see, is matte black, which is awesome. But matte frames, when you get down close, almost always look dirty. For 2014, there are two different paint jobs for the frameset option, and one is glossy. That might be a good choice for those who must keep their machines clean.

The Verdict

Carbon bikes are still wonderful, but they're no longer the only option for someone who wants to get into a high-performance bike. Those who want to maximize their money would do well to check out aluminum bikes like the Allez (or the Cannondale offering). You can do a lot of fun things with componentry and wheels when you're not spending $3,000 on a frame.

Review: Specialized Allez Race
2013 Specialized Allez Race E5 Road Frame
Date published: 11/05/2013
4.5 / 5 stars

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