I've been riding for a bit over two years, and on my steel Gunnar Sport for a bit over a year of that. Last December, I hired a coach and started training to race. I've enjoyed riding and racing the Gunnar, though it took me awhile to get where I could steer the big beast around corners. In fact, I crashed (hard) the first time I tried to push the pace on it during a charity ride, not quite making it around a downhill off-camber corner. Somehow, the cracked ribs and being knocked unconscious gave me a need for speed, and I've been riding the Gunnar with confidence in fast group pacelines, crit's and road races. However, as I improved my fitness, it became clear that the Gunnar's 22# weight, and its handling, were beginning to hold me back. My size (6'6" and 198#) and age (56) are enough to hold me back, all else being equal, and so I decided to take the plunge and buy a full carbon race bike. For edutainment purposes, I'll go through the decision and purchase process.
Step 1: The first decision was whether to once again go custom, or to try an off-the-shelf bikes. I quickly decided I wanted something off-the-shelf, believing my improved fitness would enable me to comfortably ride a bike with greater saddle-to-bar drop than what I was using with the Gunnar. I wanted 'monocoque' construction, with shaped tubing, as opposed to round tubing cut to size and then mated with carbon or Ti lugs. I also wanted to pay a reasonable, non-custom price, like normal people do.
Step 2: Having never really stopped keeping my eye out for tall off-the-shelf bikes, Step 2 was mostly just making sure I hadn't missed anything. So I surveyed websites, filtering the options based almost entirely on Head Tube length (HT), which controls saddle-to-bar drop. My Gunnar has a 29cm HT. I knew I could go down from there, but I set my minumum HT length at ">20". My other key criteria was a good all around racing bike that I could use in everything from a criterium to a long road race, and, after that, local availability and LBS considerations. I fairly quickly narrowed my choices down to these three bikes:
Specialized Tarmac 61cm (23cm HT)
Cervelo R3 61cm (22.5cm HT)
Trek Madone 64cm H2 (25cm HT)
Luckily for me, the bike shop favored by my coach, where I could get a "Friend of Coach" discount, carries all three brands. That's rare, but this LBS is Phoenix's 800 pound gorilla of bike shops, so the brands live with it. I stopped by, and talked to coach's friend about the options. He is a huge fan of the Tarmac, but it became apparent that the geometry would be a truly radical change for me. Ditto with the Cervelo. I had my Gunnar with me, and he happened to have the largest Madone (64cm H2) on the rack. That was a shock. So with tape measures, a level and plumb bob, we began determining how close the Madone could come to the fit of my Gunnar. Turns out that was pretty darned close. With the spacers in place, and the stem up, the bar drop of the Madone matched my Gunnar with no spacers and the 120mm stem flipped down. So we made the Gunnar match the Madone drop, and I rode it that way for awhile, including in a crit, some hard training rides, and a 70 mile road race. I had no issues.
Step 3: We reached the point here in Phoenix where there is a big gap in the racing schedule. There are a couple of Summer races at cooler altitudes, but racing in "The Valley" was over. It was time to get serious about the new bike. I started sorting out the options, from upgrading the 5.2 on the rack, to doing a customized order of the most advanced Madone 6 series. It turned out that the primary upgrades for the 6 series frame are a different carbon layup, made in the US, that enables the same strength with less (lighter) carbon, and a fork where even the steerer tube is CF. Except, that is, in the 64cm size, where the fork reverts back to an alloy steerer tube. So, for me, the 6 series only offered more advanced CF, with no real weight series. Plus, I would likely not be able to test ride a 6 series. I was lucky to find the 5 series to ride.
When I called the LBS to discuss these parameters, I got a shock. Trek had sold out the years manufacturing run of 6 series Madones in the largest 64cm size. Oh, and another really tall guy had crashed his bike and was seriously considering the 64cm Madone on the rack. I decided it was time, and pulled the trigger on the 5.2, ordering swapouts of the bars, the saddle and the rear derailleur, and taking a big plunge on some Zipp 404 tubular racing wheels.
For comparison, here is the Gunnar Sport - 22#:
Here is the Trek Madone 5.2, in training mode - 18.4#:
And here it is in racing mode - 17#:
While the weight reduction is significant, I'm finding other factors to be of even greater benefit. I rode the Madone on a hard century (110 miles; 6,500' of climbing) 4 days after picking it up. I was in better shape at the end of that ride than any long ride I ever did on the Gunnar. The Madone is smoother over bumps, vibrates less, and must be significantly more vertically compliant, because it is just not as taxing to ride. It's possible that the lateral flex in the Gunnar contributes somehow to fatigue - I dunno.
The other huge surprise is the handling. I'm a big guy, and I make for a very high center of gravity. I was worried that the more aggressive geometry (shorter wheelbase, more vertical head tube and less trail) would make the bike twitchy and hard to handle. Such is not the case. It turns out it is much easier to handle, because it goes where I want it to go! I no longer have to really focus on getting the bike around turns - it just happens much more naturally. One side benefit of its steerability is my ability to ride the Madone with no hands. Riding no hands on the Gunnar is problematic, and always short lived as the bike wanders off course and I try like hell to work it back in line. I can ride the Madone no hands down the bike path, even around curves, and even if I need to stay to my side so someone can get through going the other way. The only price for this handling I've found so far is a very slight tendency for the front wheel to jump around a little at over 40mph - I need to pay attention to hold a precise line at very high speed.
I got my first rides on the Zipp wheels last evening and this morning. Last evening we had winds gusting over 20mph, so it was a good indication of the handling of the deep section CF rims. While I could certainly feel the effects of the gusts, moreso than on the shallow training rims, there was no twisting vector to the force, so I could maintain a straight line and felt totally safe.
So, there you have it. I'm absolutely loving the new bike. It is fast, and it is comfortable. The only complaint I have is that, when I removed the rear wheel to fix a flat and try the Zipps on for the first time, I found this chip in the frame at the dropout. The skewer of the stock Bontrager wheels dug into the frame, probably due to the bike being on the rack and subject to test rides for awhile. I'm figuring out what to ask the LBS to do about it. Fill it with epoxy and touch it up? Store credit? Suggestions encouraged!