Thursday, March 18, 2021

Deciding between a road or gravel bike: A year+ testing the Specialized Ruby and Diverge

Toward the end of summer in 2019, I started yet another hunt for a road bike. I’d been riding my second-hand Bianchi circa early 2000s and was enjoying getting some speed back in my life. The problem I’d been having though was with my hands and wrists. Since I couldn’t get anything above a 23mm tire on the bike (I had 25mm on the wheels, but they didn’t really fit without major problems), the hand pain I was experiencing was more than I could handle. I made the decision to start looking again to hopefully find something that would give me both a little more comfort for my already damaged hands and keep the lightness and speed I was growing accustomed to enjoying.

Going back to the drawing board, it seemed like the most logical thing to do was to test ride bikes I could find locally instead of jumping into yet another option that I’d have no means of riding before buying. What I’ve realized over the years is that I do much better with bikes I can test ride prior to purchasing. My luck with both mass production mainstream manufacturers and custom builders has been unfortunate though, and so when I set out on this particular round to find a road bike that might work, I wanted to at least have an opportunity to test several possibilities to see if one of them could be that perfect (or at least close to perfect) road bike, without needing to go through the ordeal of a custom frame.

As with many other cities, there are few local bike shops with stock on hand outside of the Trek, Giant, Cannondale, and Specialized brands. To make matters even more challenging, a lot of shops don’t carry sizes that are appropriate, but rather stock the typically-sold sizes ranging from about 54cm to 58cm. So, if one is not 5’8-6′ tall, finding testable choices can be even more difficult.

Trying to remain open to possibilities of new technology or even different materials, I wasn’t ruling anything out. After reading a lot and test riding too, I wasn’t really finding what I wanted. I rode some Cannondales and quickly ruled them out. They just didn’t feel right to me. I also briefly rode a Specialized Diverge and enjoyed it, but thought that it seemed like a do-it-all bike. Not a bad quality by any means, and I recall thinking that if I had only one bike, it would likely be something I’d pursue, but it just wasn’t giving me quite the feeling I was wanting in a road bike.

After returning home from one test-riding session, I happened upon some information about the Specialized Ruby (which has now been eliminated and the Roubaix has taken over for both men’s and women’s version of this bike). Why hadn’t I thought to test that one, I wondered? So, after looking to see if anyone had one in stock, I did a quick roll around the shop’s neighborhood to check it out for myself. It seemed comfortable, thanks to the future shock up front, and relatively quick, but it’s so hard to commit to something with such a short ride. The shop was agreeable to permit me time to ride around the neighborhood, but I knew that taking it for a couple of hours just wasn’t possible.

Deciding that I needed more than a 10 minute ride under my belt with this bike, I rented one from a shop for a day and took it out on a 45-miler to see what it really felt like on the roads I regularly ride. It was amazing! I was in love with this bike – both due to comfort and speed. I was shocked that I had seemingly found the unicorn that allowed me both the ability to go fast and not have hands in pain for the duration of the ride. Where had this bike been all of my life?

I didn’t have a lot of options for purchasing the bike because the Ruby model was being discontinued, but I was also still hesitant to buy one because of my poor luck with road bikes. Ultimately, I decided that my rental test seemed pretty great, so I was ready to move ahead. I bought the same model-level I’d tested during the rental and tried to wait patiently.

When the Ruby arrived, I got to work testing it. My first ride was about 30 miles/48 km and went very well. I had close to the speed I wanted AND I was comfortable. It was like a great epiphany — my heart was so happy. My second ride was close to 30 miles but wasn’t quite as fast as the first one. I ended up dropping about 1 mph average, which was disappointing, but I’d done a little more climbing, so it made sense in my mind. By my third ride, I was ready to go a little farther so I got in a 45-mile/72km ride, but my speed dropped even more, putting me down nearly 2 mph average from the first ride. For the fourth ride, I wasn’t having a great day physically and ended up stopping short at just under 20 miles, but had also dropped a little bit of speed yet again. By the time I reached my fifth ride which lasted a smidge over 40 miles, I was still down an average of 2.5 mph for the entire ride.

The Ruby at the top of NCAR in the spring 2020.

Regardless, I was happy with the bike and because we’d rolled into October and things were cooling off, I figured my body was just entering what I call cold-weather-mode, during which I seem to naturally slow down. I shrugged it off and figured I’d revisit the speed issue when late spring rolled around again.

Around this same time, I spotted a Specialized Diverge for sale online. It was new-old stock (2018) at a shop back east, but was being sold at a terrific price. My mind began to plot. If the road bike was so good, maybe the gravel bike would be great too? I had enjoyed the test-ride I’d taken at the bike shop on the Diverge, short as it was, so maybe it was supposed to be with me? I knew I didn’t need it… after all, I have bikes that can travel on gravel roads, and even the new road bike was okay on them, thanks to the slightly wider 28mm tires and geometry, but it was calling to me and I really felt some strange pull to buy it. Sometimes, there’s just no explaining things I do, I suppose. Plus, I figured if I didn’t end up liking it, I could always sell it and break even (or come pretty close to doing so).

So, after some plotting and calculating (and selling some stuff I wasn’t using), I ended up with the Diverge in addition to the Ruby. After riding them both for a good year plus, I realized that the two bikes are pretty similar, though there are a few differences. The Diverge has the capability of taking up to a 42mm tire, the Ruby can handle up to a 30mm tire. The Diverge feels a bit more squishy when riding — not in a bad or good way, just a little different feeling, but is appreciated on rougher roads/gravel. Weight-wise they aren’t as far apart as one might think, with the Diverge being ~3 lbs heftier (most of which seems to come by way of the wheels). With pedals and saddles (knowing that I ride leather saddles and platform pedals, so this will affect the weight), the Ruby weighs in at just about 21 lbs and the Diverge at approximately 24 lbs. The geometry of each is close to the other, but slightly longer and more relaxed on the Diverge.

Over the colder months of winter 2019-2020, I spent more time on the Diverge than the Ruby. I found myself really enjoying it. I was slow (even slower than I’d been toward the end of the season on the Ruby), but I seemed to be having fun. Plus, I was getting in some rides on roads I typically avoid because of my hand issues. While the majority of the riding for the Diverge was meant to be on dirt and gravel for me, we have some pretty rough paved roads to the north, and it works well on those as well.

Riding during the winter months on the Diverge.

Speed-wise, I was frustrated, but I was enjoying not having hands in so much pain at the end of rides… and, I know that cold tends to zap my power, so I just enjoyed riding, knowing that things would probably change when temperatures began to warm again.

There’s been a lot of discussion over the last few years about whether or not the future shock is of any value. If you don’t know what this is, it’s basically a spring that’s been added at the head tube that behaves like a miniature shock, absorbing some of the road chatter. Some argue that it slows the rider down, but on the whole most seem to like it. I fall into the latter category, definitely. Even if it is mildly slowing me down (and that is an “if” because I don’t feel like this is affecting my speed), its advantage far outweighs whatever small speed deficit there may be. It’s allowed me to ride roads I normally avoid and to be spared a lot of the associated pain due to those rough paths. Both the Ruby and the Diverge have performed well in this regard.

As the spring of 2020 rolled around, I went back to riding the Ruby more regularly, but found that my speed was still suffering more than I would’ve liked. Because of the pandemic, I was spending more time riding than usual so I was getting a good sense of both bikes, but also began to see via real-life rides how similar these two bikes truly are — and that I really didn’t need them both. Of course, I knew that from the start, but as the year moved along, I knew I’d probably make a decision at some point to let one of them go.

The bikes have pretty close specs. Both are carbon, they both run Shimano 105, and both are outfitted with the CG-R seatpost (which looks funny, but works well). The only real difference in parts is the wheels, and while neither is anything to write home about (DT Swiss R470 for the Ruby and Axis Elite for the Diverge), there is a weight addition with the Diverge wheels.

I performed a few rounds of quite unscientific testing, riding the Ruby one day on a specific route and then on another day riding the Diverge on the same. What I found after several of these was that my speed really wasn’t much different, if at all, from one bike to the other and that knowledge sat and festered a bit in my mind as I tried to decide what I wanted to do, if anything.

My unscientific documentation of various rides comparing the two bikes.

After using the Diverge for a small amount of time as my main bicycle and because I still felt as though the Ruby was a little heavier than I’d like for a dedicated road bike, in the summer of 2020, I decided to let that one go and kept the Diverge. To date, I haven’t regretted that decision.

What I’ve learned from this longer term experiment has been personally useful. I was already aware that there is a lot of talk about gravel bikes and the differences (or lack thereof) from road bikes. What I learned, particularly in this instance, is that they really aren’t all that different from each other. Perhaps if I’d gone with something more race-oriented for the road bike I’d have had a different experience, but other than rather small details and some wider tires, these two bikes are very similar and ride/perform nearly identically. If I were presented a choice between the two having the knowledge I have today, I’d go with the Diverge/gravel bike (as I did), only because it’s a little more useful to me being able to take it on gravel paths with a bit more ease due to the tire width. I recall reading at one point that if one rides more dirt/gravel to go with the Diverge and if the rider chooses more paved paths to go with the Ruby/Roubaix, as they can both handle either. I would agree with that assessment.

Although I am by no means a speedy rider, I have days during which I enjoy trying to be better, faster, and push myself. Finding that sort of bike has been a challenge for me partly because of physical limitations and injuries and partly because finding the right fit can be difficult as well. I also likely have an unreasonable expectation of what a dedicated road bike will be for me. What I’ve decided is that unless I am willing to endure road chatter, a more aero-like positioning, and thus hand pain and numbness, I don’t know that I will ever really find a road bike that gives me the speed I’m always trying to achieve during these experiments. I have days when I am able to achieve speed, but it seems to connect more to 1) lack of wind, 2) my feelings on a given day, and 3) how my body is doing overall. I know the day will come when I will care less and be far less capable of attaining any sort of speed regardless, and in that sense, it would be wise to give up the hunt for this elusive road bike. I have also discovered that so often the problem is really me rather than the bike. At a certain point, I have to accept that I am simply not a racer and never will be; and, though I don’t mind being slow, it can be an incredibly frustrating realization on those days when I just want to move swiftly.

All of this has caused me to reflect a great deal on the bikes I have owned over the years – both those I let go because of a want for something better, faster (whether real or imagined), or different, and those that I enjoyed but sold to fund another purchase and then lived with the regret. Nearly a decade ago I wrote about the grass-is-always-greener mentality when it comes to my bikes and I can’t help but wonder if that thought process or feeling ever goes away — if there will ever be a time when I’ll appreciate what I have when I have it and stop worrying about how fast (or slow) I am on a bicycle, or whether there’s something that functions better.

The Diverge, in some ways has been like my Rivendell Sam Hillborne. They are, of course, very different bicycles, but with each of them, when I ride, I tend to worry less about speed. Oh, I have days when I get frustrated or feel slow, but something about this bike gives me permission to simply ride, and I think that’s what I’ve enjoyed the most about it. As I accept the fact that I am a mere mortal, and not a particularly athletic one, I begin to appreciate the bikes that allow me to enjoy the moment, the ride, and not obsess about every minor detail over a route. Although I have given up trying to guess which bikes will remain and which will go, this one seems to provide something I was missing and I can appreciate it here and now for that very reason alone.

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