Paris-Roubaix needs no introduction: ancient cobbles, brutal winds, and all-out racing all the way to the Roubaix velodrome. We’re about to embark on a journey through the ages on the Specialized Roubaix SL8, to one of the sport’s most unique places, where history meets the future in the form of cutting-edge road bikes riding full-gas over ancient roads. How would this particular Roubaix fare at the Hell of the North, its namesake race?

In 2004, the world of road cycling was remarkably straightforward: weight was everything, stiffness came a close second, and compliance… why would you want that? You rode bullet-hard carbon frames with skinny 23 mm tires pumped up as hard as they would go. The pinnacle of performance was stiffness-to-weight, of course. People thought that shaving off fractions of grams and ramping up stiffness values was the elixir of speed. But then, through the mist, came the Specialized Roubaix, gliding over the cobbles.

This mirage showed up with longer chainstays and a longer wheelbase, a more upright riding position, and semi-transparent elastomer Zerts inserts in the seat stays, seatpost, and forks. First, you smirked, then groaned at its apparent helplessness and wondered how long it’d take until it was inevitably forgotten. But it stuck around. When early aero bikes appeared, it stuck around; then it stuck around when gravel bikes came onto the scene; and it stuck around as the earliest endurance bikes clamoured to own a category that the Specialized Roubaix had long established.

Why so shy? There’s really no need for the Specialized Roubaix to be so self-effacing.
Roubaix represents pain, suffering and hardship. But not this one: this Roubaix is all about comfort.

Specialized named this bike after the Queen of the Classics, Paris-Roubaix – a 260 kilometre slog known as the Hell of the North, leading to the historic Roubaix velodrome. In this race, there are around 60 very particular kilometres that make it the most mythical event in the calendar; they are not lung-burning mountain passes, but rather 29 ‘secteurs’ of cobbles that instil fear in any rider. The terrain of tractors, grazed by goats, and guarded by World War II bunkers, these ancient thoroughfares are verging on prehistoric and existed before the advent of the bicycle. They survived through the decades, as the first cyclists rattled along on solid rubber tires, remaining constant as the world around them changed. Nowadays, the cobblestones are a novelty, a destination for enthusiasts and racers who enjoy suffering.

But if Paris–Roubaix represents what used to be, it simultaneously represents what will be: Thanks to the competitive nature of Roubaix, riders, teams and brands have been pushed to come up with solutions on how to cheat the punishing cobbles, how to survive the Hell within Roubaix. One way is through bike development.

So where does the Specialized Roubaix stand within this history? Now 20 years old, the latest iteration aspires to represent what road bikes can be today: A cobble-guzzling, aero-optimized, all-road beast?

We’ve already had the opportunity to get to know the SL8 model as part of our All-Road Bikes 2024 Shootout on the Cote d’Azur, which was special enough, but now we had a personal invitation to its home turf, its stomping ground – to the tooth-rattling cobbles of the Paris-Roubaix Challenge.

Wind and cobbles deserve their own chapter in the guidebooks of Northern France.
The 29 secteurs of cobbles each have their own rating: 1 star is “smooth”, 5 stars are hell.
The Roubaix velodrome is something of a place of pilgrimage for cycling fans.

Born to be mild – The comfort-maxxing Specialized Roubaix

It’s raining. I mean, really raining, verging on the definition of pouring. I sigh, slipping again, buckling up my helmet just to walk over the cobbles. Water trickles through cracks in the cobbles, collecting in muddy puddles. We’re on the Carrefour de l’Arbre. Its cobbles are nothing like those you see in picturesque old towns. Over the past 150 years, its stones have been mercilessly worn down by horse-drawn carriages, tanks, tractors, and whatever else has rolled over them. This process has left a raised crest in the middle and there are countless stones missing, disfigured and deformed – it’s rather like being stared down by a bare-knuckle boxer, leering at you as you step into the ring. As I try to make out my ideal line, three-times winner Peter Sagan appears to read my thoughts: “Choose it well,” he says. I smile, silently saying to myself: “You’re better off going back to the hotel, Nils”.

The understated grey of our S-Works Roubaix SL8 stands mutely in the rain, looking as though it can’t quite decide if it wants to look fast or comfortable. The top tube has an organic-looking curve to its underside, in total contrast to the upper seat tube that clearly is all about the aero gains. From there, note the slight visual offset of the tube profile, which rounds out as it runs down towards the bottom bracket. It’s a little jarring.

Specialized have deliberately opted against full integration of the cables so that there’s wider flexibility for stem and handlebars combinations. As it is, every Roubaix comes as standard with their Hover drop bars, which prop up a more relaxed riding position, which might be nice for your back, but isn’t so nice on the eye. Personally, I’m glad my bike is specced with more classic handlebars.

Like a piece of art.
The flowing lines of the top tube and the aero seat tube – the Roubaix isn’t quite sure which way it sways: fast or feel-good.
Roubaix champions the retro look, so I feel a little out of place with my high-tech whip.
The Hover bars, which come as standard on the bike, feel good to ride, but are rather visually divisive.

Good Vibrations – Future Shock on the Specialized Roubaix

Even without the Hover drop bars, the Roubaix takes comfort seriously, providing a noticeable amount of flex in the seat post with the dropped seat clamp and – to the envy of some gravel bikes – the ability to take up to 40 mm tires. It gets even more exciting between the stem and head tube, where Specialized fit the latest version of their 20 mm Future Shock suspension.

Now in its third generation, the Future Shock system is more tunable than ever, with different springs and washers (think: spacers) allowing you to tweak the ride to suit you and the terrain. On the top-shelf S-Works Roubaix SL8 and Roubaix SL8 models, you can even make mid-ride adjustments to the suspension, locking it out with a quick turn of a dial. I think this is a bit of a concession for the purists out there. Most of the general road riding population won’t be the sort to sprint on the drops for every city limit sign, so they’ll probably keep the shock open and active. I will, anyway.

The more entry-level models – the Roubaix Standard and Roubaix Sport – don’t have the hydraulic damper, just a steel spring. For the damped versions, Specialized promise a reduction in vibration and impact at the bars by more than 50% versus other endurance bikes. But what will 50% mean for my experience on the cobbles? Hell will always be… kinda’ hellish, won’t it?

Full comfort in-coming: Future Shock 3.3 with a knob to control the damping.
There are three different springs to customise your ride.
Springs, washers and this tool are the card to play at Roubaix.

Setting the bar – How to set the right tire pressure for Roubaix

4? No way. 3,5? Nope. 3? Still no. We’re on the notorious Carrefour de l’Arbre, trying to dial in the perfect tire pressure with help from the team at Specialized, which includes John Cordoba, their product manager for road and gravel. Beyond changing the combination of springs, washes, tire widths, and rim depths, we’re also wrangling over fractions of a bar, all with the aim of achieving the ultimate cobble-cruising setup for the next day’s Paris-Roubaix Challenge.

But the weather conditions are doing their best to scupper my belief in the technology. As a heavier rider I think I’ve got an advantage, but being weighty isn’t enough of a solution: I slip and slide off the crest, my rear wheel scrabbles for traction in the mud, braking points disappear into puddles, and the notion of an ideal line remains an abstract concept. As Sagan pedals alongside me, unperturbed, I ask for a tip. He responds: “Stay on the bike.”

Thanks, Peter.

Then all of a sudden, the sun appears. The cobbles begin to dry and the more I feel like I’m getting the hang of it, the more fun it is to play on the Roubaix. I’ve yet to come across a road bike that gives you such fine adjustment to achieve exactly the ride you want through suspension setup and tire pressure.

I settle on the medium Future Shock spring, no washers, a 51 mm deep Roval Rapide CLX II front wheel and a shallower Roval Terra CLX II rear wheel. I know it sounds (and looks) a bit weird, but I was in a marginal gains kinda mood. And before you raise your eyebrows at the wild-sounding 60 mm in these gusty winds, they actually felt incredibly stable. But what really got my indoctrinated roadie brain whirring was just how much you can do with very little tire pressure. At the end of the setup session, I head back to the service course with the S-Works Mondo tires set up tubeless, riding 3.1 bar at the front and 3.5 at the back. I could have gone down to a 2.–something, but I was reluctant: the tire-wheel combo could have tolerated less air pressure, but there was some sort of mental block in my mind that said “no, Nils!”. After all, this is sinfully expensive gear, on which I couldn’t bring myself to unleash even more punishment on the cobbles.

Most relationships lack the care and attention that’s shared between Specialized and their bikes.
Peter knows the secteurs so well he could almost ride them blind—and he’s generous enough to give us a hand with the bike setup.
Tire pressure and spring rates allow you to tune the Roubaix optimally for every condition—cobbles included.

Spring-loaded satisfaction – Damping the Roubaix myth

The Specialized Roubaix has ridden to seven victories at Paris-Roubaix, but oddly enough, Lotte Kopecky from SD Worx opted for the Tarmac for her 2024 win. But, I wail, am I not here because the Roubaix is the perfect bike for the Hell of the North? In some ways, yes, but WorldTour racing is moving on at a rapid rate, and the decisive moves are more likely to happen before the segments, than on them. The racing is faster, and a rider’s positioning within the peloton is critical. That’s where aerodynamics matter more in these instances than comfort. As modern race bikes can run wider tires and rims anyway, WorldTour pros can get away with a less comfort-focused ride, and instead go all-in for aerodynamics.

The professionals weigh up aero gains with comfort.
With racing this quick, the Roubaix isn’t the right bike.
The race winners take home a treasured cobble from the race.

As I’m not harbouring any ambitions to win, I’m exceptionally smug about my bike choice for the Paris Roubaix Challenge, but I end up feeling oddly disappointed: Shouldn’t I be suffering more than this? What about those beaten-up palms and wrecked wrists that you see amongst the pros? The emptiness in their worn-out gazes? This Roubaix is smoothing out Roubaix to an extent that I hadn’t fully appreciated before. The bike doesn’t skip over the cobbles; it’s tracking them like a boss. Even the sidewinds don’t bother me and I’m carrying mad speed over rough terrain, leaving skinny-tires roadies in my wake. Had this bike existed 100 years ago, the race would likely never have caught so much attention. I feel like I’m skiing moguls, and I’m having so much fun that I almost forget to give a “yes-this-is-epic” grimace for the photographers, though it should be noted that I’m not going anywhere near as fast as the pro racers.

As I cross the finish line in the velodrome, I realise I haven’t once locked out the Future Shock. I’m not sure if this says more about me or the bike.

The Purgatory of the North? The Roubaix is so comfortable that Hell became bearable.
Surely so much compliance is a crime.
Who will be the big dog when it comes to race day?

Never met an all-rounder like this

It’s hard to define the Roubaix, especially when its own name pigeonholes it as the master of a bygone era. Roubaix conjures up images of unimaginable suffering and epic battles. But that’s the exact opposite of what I’ve just ridden. It doesn’t just shine on the cobbles, but rides beautifully away from them too. It feels more comfortable than rival endurance bikes, more capable than some gravel bikes, and lighter than many climbing bikes (true for our S-Works version, at least), and – excluding the riding position – it’s still acutely aero for the present day. This Roubaix makes it easy to ride fast. But it’s a privilege that you have to pay a lot of money for.

The Specialized Roubaix doesn’t scream take-my-cash, with its awkward, on-the-fence aesthetic that sways loosely between aero and comfort. And, yes, perhaps it has less status at your local chaingang as our sport continuously suckles at the teat of stiffness and speed, but what this unquestionably capable bike can do is plaster a massive grin on your face and turn Hell into something more pleasant – that sounds pretty heavenly to us.

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Words: Nils Hofmeister Photos: Nils Hofmeister, Specialized