By Ashley Gruber
Specialized's aggressive marketing, sponsorship, and overall excellent products have made the name synonymous with success. The company's list of wins over the past few years with its vaunted Tarmac, Roubaix, and Shiv bikes has been impressive to say the least. There's no doubting the Big S's pedigree on the men's side, but with their top of the line women's bike, the Amira, the Morgan Hill, California-based giant has created a bike that should allow for great success on the women's side as well - and with the sponsorship of the HTC-Highroad team, the wins have begun to stack up with startling regularity for the Amira.
It's easy to see why women's product development has grown so much over the past few years. Women's products make a difference to women, and frankly speaking, women are without question one of the biggest markets waiting to be tapped. For a company like Specialized, known as a progressive, forward-thinking organization, it's not surprising to see that they've come out with such a solid line of women's bikes, highlighted, of course, by the Amira with its nod to the men's Tarmac and the Ruby, which harkens to the Roubaix.
The Amira is a racing bike built specifically for women. Like its brother, the Tarmac, the ride of the Amira is best characterized as quick, light, and precise. The light weight, coupled with excellent geometry, and a treasure chest of excellent components make this bike an absolute pleasure to ride. It's often like this with one of the industry's superbikes - if you put the best components on an excellent frame, more often than not, you're going to find yourself with a bike that you're gushing over, rather than finding issues with.
Such is the case with the Amira. It's a bike that leaves me with no qualms, save for one significant one: the price. It's always the price, isn't it? The bike that I have been riding for the past few months, the S-Works Amira, retails for $8100 with Dura-ace components and Roval Rapide SL wheels. It's an unquestioned thoroughbred, and while the price is steep, you can be extremely content with what you get.
With the glittering set-up, there's little to fuss about, but if forced, I might take aim at the Roval Rapide SL wheels. While Specialized's house wheels are excellent, for the money, I would have preferred something along the lines of an industry wheel leader, say Zipp or Mavic. Of course, that goes very much against the Specialized credo of making every part of a bike, so if you want that, best look elsewhere, or just buy the wheels separately.
That's splitting hairs a bit though, because the Roval Rapide SL's are still firmly attached to my bike, and I've found them more than suitable for the daily grind, racing, and even the cobbles of Roubaix and Flanders. In fact, I'd say that I like them a lot. For day to day riding, the aluminum braking surface and fair 1595 gram weight make them a wheelset that I can depend on.
Let's take a closer look at why the bike deserves its place as one of the industry's finest women's offerings...
Underneath the hood
The idea of making a women's specific bike is not quite as easy as it sounds. Flowers, a pink paint job, and a small frame don't necessarily make a bike for a racer. If anything, Specialized has eschewed the traditional feminine look for a bike that is arguably the best looking in their entire 2011 line. The 2011 version of the Amira is, in my opinion and quite a few others, one of the best looking bikes in the giant stable of Specialized bikes. The paint scheme is, for lack of a better term, smoking. The glossy red upper paired with a matte black lower half looks fantastic. My only qualm at this point, is that the paint scheme hasn't been applied to the rest of the Specialized line on the men's side. As Specialized has made a point of noting in the past, women's technology leads the way. I guess this could be another occurrence where it's easy to see that in action, because I can't imagine we won't be seeing this on a Tarmac or Roubaix in the not so distant future. Of course, the success of a bike doesn't correlate terribly closely to its paint job. A nice looking bike is a bonus, and in this case, it's an appreciated bonus.
In terms of the bike itself, the foundation is unquestioned. Specialized took the proven values from its men's line, but modified them to work specially for a woman. That's a controversial notion, especially when the idea is based around something as general as what an average woman's body is supposed to be like: longer legs, shorter torso, narrower build, lower weight. Specialized has conducted extensive anthropometric research though and stands by the idea. Whether you agree with that or not, at the bare minimum, there's no getting around a few basic facts that the Amira covers with aplomb: women are generally smaller than men and they generally produce at least a little bit less power and sometimes significantly less.
So Specialized took what works incredibly well on the Tarmac and toned it back just a wee bit. The lightweight FACT IS 10r carbon frame is wicked stiff, but dials things back just a bit from the Tarmac's 11r lay-up. The race ready geometry puts the rider in the right place, and then the build of the bike helps with the rest. Features like shorter, oversized chainstays and a shorter, integrated, tapered head tube, make for a bike that handles well, turns quickly, and ensures that much loved feeling that no effort goes wasted. Lateral and torsional rigidity are accomplished effectively through a wide, triangulated stance between the brake bridge and seatstays - this, paired to a large diameter downtube and oversized bottom bracket yields a ride that's ice cube crisp, precise, immensely stiff, yet still quite comfortable.
The comfort can be attributed as well to the carbon lay-up. For the Amira, Specialized chose specifically to stay away from the stiffness provided by a bike like the Tarmac SL3. In testing, they found the ride to actually be too stiff for the typical female rider. A slightly suppler bike not only yields a bike that's more comfortable, but one that can be ridden more effectively and driven better as well. That's not to say that the Amira is in any way noodly. We're talking about a difference that can be felt by very, very, very few that aren't named Fabian Cancellara. The Amira is still massively stiff and massively efficient in its power transfer, it's just not exaggeratedly so, or to the point of detriment.
By using the now industry standard larger diameter downtube and oversized bottom bracket, the Amira has the essential ingredients for both lateral and torsional rigidity, which provide the solid ground necessary for any race bike. A tapered head tube has also been incorporated to add stiffness for a solid front end that turns wonderfully. The tapered front end is another point of demarcation for the Amira versus the Tarmac - where the Tarmac uses a 1-1/8" to 1-1/2" tapered head tube, the Amira only goes from 1-1/8 to 1-3/8. The goal in every way was to create a superbike like the Tarmac, but for women.
As I've mentioned a number of times above, the ride is excellent. It's exactly what I'd expect from one of the world's leading companies for one of its line leading bikes. Anything less than excellent would be extremely unsatisfactory, especially considering the price. The superlatives are expected with a bike like this. This is the almost painful part of the review where I gush about how each watt feels like it's blasted into forward motion, how the bike corners on rails, and how I'm blown away. In truth, I will say those things, but no, I wasn't blown away. I expected it, and I got it. It's like getting into a BMW M3 and pressing hard on the accelerator. Are you surprised by the feeling of being pinned against your seat? Surprised that you're taking turns in ways you didn't think possible? Nope. That doesn't make it one teeny little bit less enjoyable either, in fact, the smile that follows is that knowing - ah yes, this is what it's supposed to be like smile. Such is the case with the Amira.
The first time I climbed with the Amira it felt like I, for lack of a better term, had a motor helping me. While it wasn't exactly the hilarious Fabian Cancellara motor soap opera, there was a noticeable feeling of no energy wasted. The bike pushed forward with my pedaling like an excited puppy out for a morning walk, willing me forward, urging me upward. It was a satisfying sensation to feel the bike seemingly want to move upward just as badly as I did. Even going up Quimby Road outside Morgan Hill, a 10+% heathen, I felt comfortable. The force of my legs going down on the pedals pushed me forward in a way that didn't make me curse my equipment--each stroke moved me forward without a feeling of loss. The Amira can take anything you throw at it and beg for more. When sprinting out of the saddle, I can't help but smile as my hard efforts are met with a companion more than willing to match me. I mentioned the notion of a slightly more supple ride compared to the Tarmac SL3 - I never noticed any feeling of anything other than just right. When my husband Jered, who weighs a solid 20 kilograms more than I do, rode the bike a bit, he couldn't tell the difference between the Amira and the Tarmac. Whatever the differences are - they're tiny, and they're not noticeable for the vast portion of us mere mortals who just like to ride bikes, and even that lucky subset of the population who ride bikes full-time.
For me, beyond stiffness and that contentious, cliche feeling of exact power transfer, the handling of the Amira gets top marks. More often than not, I'm going to notice how a bike handles rather than how it feels in a decisive all out effort. To be honest, I don't notice much when I'm redlined, other than pain. Turning, however, is something you do take note of. How a bike handles over good roads, bad roads, cobbles, turns, anything - that's something that really counts, and that's something that the Amira really accomplishes. The Amira is a beautiful bike based solely on the ride - add in everything else, and the price tag starts to sound more reasonable. Perhaps even fair?
No arguments here. Is it possible to complain about a full Dura-Ace gruppo, paired with Specialized's best in-house accessories? The S-Works carbon crankset - BB30, ceramic bearings, and according to Specialized, the crankset with the highest strength to weight ratio in cycling, was fantastic. The 52-36 gearing was excellent, but I would have preferred a 50-34. I rarely miss the extra virtual rear cog I gain with a 52 versus the virtual cog I lose with a 36 over a 34. Honestly, a 50x11 is a fine gear for most all uses for me. If I find myself in the region over 65 kph on a regular basis in the future, I'll consider otherwise, but until then, I'd prefer a 50-34 front pairing. I digress, as the S-Works carbon crankset is a beautiful piece of crankmanship. It's exceedingly light, stiff, dependable, and it looks the part. What more can you ask for?
On the all-important fit side, ergonomic and size specific components like the new women's S-Works handlebar with a shallower drop and shorter reach and women's Body Geometry saddles ensure that the riders gets the comfort she desires as well as the best fit at every contact point and a perfect platform to perform her best.
As I mentioned before, the Roval Rapide SL wheelset is perfect, and surprisingly, the S-Works Turbo tires were some of the best I've ridden in years. I'm continually surprised by the new tires Specialized is producing. The addition of Wolf Vorm Walde, formerly of Continental, has made a huge difference. It won't be long before Specialized is able to assert themselves as a legitimate contender in the high performance tire sweepstakes.
Wrapping it up
The Amira comes in a slew of small sizes ranging from a bike as small as a 44 all the way up to a 56. Specialized has created a high performance bike that will fit virtually any physique. If anything, the sizing peaks out a bit early with the bike that I tested, a 56. Tall women might find themselves looking elsewhere or to the men's line to find a bike that will work for them. Apart from the taller women, the Amira should suit most everyone. Specialized even recommended giving the bike a try as a larger male rider - if Jered were a few inches shorter, he says he would consider the bike on a number of levels. It's a great ride, one that separates itself nicely from the full-on innovate or die feelings of the Tarmac SL3.
The Specialized literature lists some lofty goals for the Amira. They say that they wanted "to achieve the lightest weight, stiffest, and most performance-focused bike for female road racers and enthusiasts." I can say that I personally have not found a women's specific bike that manages that glittering trifecta of desires better than this one. It doesn't necessarily mean that this is the best bike for everyone though. I think there are some excellent offerings on the men's side that work absolutely perfectly for women, but when it comes to a bike that was designed specifically for women, I've found nothing better than the Amira.
Bikes are available starting with a Size 44, cranksets come as small as a 167.5, bars as narrow as 36, and stems as short as 75. The goal was to create sizing that would fit all women, and Specialized have really done a good job with that goal in mind. It seems highly unlikely that there isn't a sizing in the Amira line that won't fit 99% of women.
I'm not much into bike weights. Often, a bike is weighed in such a way that the only time it will accomplish that beautiful number is in the box. For the Amira, I weighed the bike with Speedplay pedals, the Roval Rapide SL wheelset, S-Works Turbo tires, Romin SL saddle, two bottle cages, a half-filled water bottle, and a fully packed saddle bag. With all of that attached, the bike clocks in at 7.8 kilograms. Take off the saddlebag and swap out the Roval wheelset for some wheels that run a bit lighter, and you've got a UCI-illegal bike in no time. And that's in the Size 56 - the biggest of the Amira's.
If the S-Works Amira's price stands a bit too tall, as with everything Specialized, there are a number of other possibilities right below the top of the line S-Works. The Amira Expert retails for $3600 with Shimano Ultegra gruppo and Fulcrum Racing 4 wheels, and the Amira Comp for $2600 with Shimano 105 shifters and Fulcrum 6 race wheels. The Amira Family has different options for those looking to ride a women's-specific frame, but may not want the exact set up that is sold in the S-Works model. The S-Works frameset can be purchased for $2900, the Amira Pro with FACT IS 9r for $2000.