Welcome to GamJams Midwest Tech, where we check out new gear and gadgets designed for bike racers like you.
Last fall, I had the good fortune to have in my possession a pair of nearly identical cyclocross bikes. While I wasn't exactly storming the Midwest with my two-bike arsenal (that would be this guy), I had a fair amount of fun and recorded a couple of decent results.
One was a Trek Cronus CX Ultimate — the top-end carbon race bike. SRAM Force-equipped with Avid Shorty Ultimate brakes. The other was a Trek Ion CX — the aluminum sibling of the Cronus. They had identical equipment, down to the handlebars, seatposts and saddles.
Though I rode and raced them both for their intended purpose, I finished the season favoring one over the other. I liked the aluminum one better. Why? Well, there are a few reasons. (Though I should say first off that the Cronus is a fantastic bike. I love my Cronus.)
- Durability. You know how people describe wheelsets as "bombproof?" That would work for the Ion CX frameset, too. I rode that bike hard, and not once did I worry about the consequences. On the flip side, I saw a lot of broken carbon in the fall. Four bikes by my count.
- Price. That Ion came into my hands through the generous shop discount I had when I was a bike shop guy. Even without that discount, though, the frame retails for $809.99. The Cronus frame retails for $2,199.99 (and has the same fork).
- Ride. It goes without saying that any bike with 30 psi in the tires is going to be pretty smooth, but never did I feel like I was sacrificing anything by racing an aluminum bike. That could be becasue I'm not that good, and what I do does not require a carbon bike. But I won a race and was on the podium in another on that bike. It didn't do me wrong.
Put those things bullet points together, and I think it makes a compelling argument for going with aluminum over carbon for cyclocross — especially if you're paying full retail. But what about on the road?
Yeah, what about aluminum for the road? Do the same rules apply?
Taking into account my experience last fall, I decided to make the switch for my 2013 road bike as well. After reading reports from local riders on 16.5-pound aluminum builds (that didn't cost a fortune), I went with the Specialized Allez Race. Aluminum frame, carbon fork and steerer, nice, smooth welds and a black-on-black paint job. Pretty cool looking bike. It retails for $2,400 with SRAM Rival and DT Swiss Axis 4.0 wheels. (The frameset-only price is $880.) Cannondale has a number of iterations of its popular CAAD10 aluminium race setup in the same price range.
After swapping out parts — SRAM Force, 3T build kit and my faithful Dura-Ace wheels — I took it for a quick test ride. And it was fantastic. It is, of course, stiff. And thanks to fortunate geometry similarities, it feels exactly like my Cronus setup. It has a slightly different road feel, which is to be expected. It has a different hum than my previous carbon bikes had.
And the performance? I can summarize that by saying I probably won't buy a carbon race bike again. I raced it a few days after the build was complete and noticed no difference in performance whatsoever. It's light, it's stiff, it accelerates swiftly on command. And it's reasonably inexpensive compared to a similar carbon build.
Plus, it is a worry-free machine for me. I'm not talking about mechanical bits or maintenance. I'm talking again about durability. If it ends up on the pavement, it will most likely suffer scrapes and scratches, or maybe a dent. I can't say that about a carbon frame, though I've been lucky so far. Let's just say I've become a lot more sensitive to that issue since having to pay for my own bikes after leaving the bike shop. Before, I always had the attitude of, "Eh, I'll figure something out," if a bike broke. And now it's, "Can I pay to replace this cabon wonderbike? No? Better ride something I could replace if I had to."
Would I like having a carbon race bike? I would — I enjoyed the heck out of the series of bikes I've been able to race over the past few years. But as a guy who serves often as pack-fill, I think I'll be just fine with this one. I'll check in toward the end of the summer with an update.