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Could a $9500 Bicycle Turn Me, a Sad Sack of Flesh, into a Superathlete?

I rode a Tour de France-worthy bicycle for a month to see how fast a normal person could go. Spoiler: Kinda fast!

I was 50 miles or so into one morning's ride, pedaling up an exurban hill, the third hard climb in succession, in the lowest gear, uncharted territory where every stroke pushes you maybe three inches forward.

It must have been quite a sight for the wealthy denizens of rural-ish New York, to look outside the windows of their rumpus rooms to see a tall gangly weirdo in aerodynamic spandex drooling and swearing at himself as Porsche SUVs and ants raced past. The only solace I remember feeling was the knowledge that, were I to eventually fall over, not quite dead but already locked in rigor mortis, I'd at least live out my final moments on someone's plush lawn.

I should say right away that this story, nominally a bicycle review, started with a Facebook post. My recent 29th birthday coincided with an increased consumption of mountain bike magazines and the realization that, thanks to the years I've lived so far and the coming slow decline of my body's general condition until my eventual death, I've only got about 10 good years of legs left. I have woken up every day for the last three months terrified that I am going to be too old to ride bikes well by the time I can afford them.

Now, I don't currently own a mountain bike, but do live in Brooklyn, which has a noted dearth of mountains, and this all means I've been spending the rare evening at home putting things on Netflix that I don't care about expressly so I can stop rewinding while I read about suspension geometry and wonder if I'm going to live long enough to shred again.

I have become the itchy-scratchy stressball of neuroses that the quantified-self industry subsists on. Earlier this year I again started using an app called Strava, which tracks your runs or rides in detail for $9 a month, which is perfect for charting your training gains—or losses, as we slide over the peak of our biological fitness and testosterone production and all that jazz and accelerate toward soft-gutted daddom.

The 2017 Specialized S-Works Tarmac eTap is all-around one of the highest-tech, fastest bikes you can ride. Everyone has their preferences, and other companies' top-tier road machines might be more up your alley, but suffice to say that anything at this level is faster than any average person could ever need. But if you can afford it, why wouldn't you ride the best? It's unlike anything else you'll ever ride, and will probably ruin all other bikes for you. Image: Derek Mead

I love Strava—it's one of the rare apps I am a Premium Subscriber of—but one of its central features drives me completely insane: As it charts your rides around wherever you go, you'll occasionally come across a "segment": a route, selected for being a challenging climb or open room for sprinting or an otherwise notable stretch of road, for which there is a leaderboard of every person to ever time themselves riding across it. And there's the rub: Since I didn't keep up training through the last seven years of avant-garde living, and never invested in some sort of experimental gene-editing tech, I figured I had about a couple years left to try be #1—King of the Mountain, or KOM, in bike parlance—on one of these goddamn segments. So I might as well start now.

Of all the bikes I've owned over the years, I'm currently down to two: a 1985 Cannondale road bike that I spent a bunch of money to get running again and now don't ride because it's too fragile for Brooklyn's bombed-out roadways, and an All-City singlespeed cyclocross bike, which makes for a simple, reliable all-weather commuter, and because it's basically the road equivalent of a BMX bike, is the perfect companion for ripping around the city like an obnoxious maniac. I think it's my favorite bike I've ever owned.

But all-out speed is far from its forte, and after giving what I thought was perfect, all-green-light effort on my favorite sprint climb in Brooklyn and only charting #33 all-time—and subsequently getting owned in the following 3.3 mile loop of Prospect Park, where cyclists actually have gears and wear kits more aerodynamic than a tank top and jean shorts—I did what every grumpy person on Earth does and posted an exasperated, complain-y Facebook post saying I needed to find a new bike.

By chance, Patrick "Tree" Miller, a friend from our UCSB bike club, Kroozer $kid Nation, now works as the road R&D technician for Specialized, a top-tier bike company based in California's Bay Area. After "liking" my existential crisis, he said he could perhaps help me get some sort of Tour de France-winning bicycle for review.

Considering this week's luxury theme week on Motherboard is focused on how the rich buy more time for themselves, I figured I could take the whole thing literally and see if I could buy my way to the top of Strava—to dope with money, if you want. And that's how I found myself a few weeks later at Bicycle Habitat, a high-end shop in Manhattan, getting my sad sack of bones poked and prodded and measured so I could be custom fitted to an S-Works Tarmac, Specialized's top-flight race bike, which costs a mere $9500 or so.

This model could go right off the showroom floor and win a pro race. I'd love to call it the Ferrari of bicycles, but I'm guessing the Italian bike companies would be annoyed with me, so we could call it the McLaren (with whom Specialized has a partnership with). Describing it feels most like describing a car from the Fast and the Furious: the frame is made of FACT 11r carbon fiber (one better than the 10r used on cheaper multi-thousand-dollar models), the carbon wheels and cranks have CeramicSpeed bearings, and the damn thing has a SRAM Red eTap electronic wireless drivetrain because cables are ugly and heavy and come on the damn shifters are wireless!

The problem with a bike this advanced and this fast is simple: Everyone on Earth wants to race you, but more on that in a bit. Let's just leave it at this: I could ride this bike for the rest of my life and never be fast enough for it.

I left the grime on for photos so everyone knows I actually rode it. It's a weird feeling knowing you have to charge your derailleur batteries, but the SRAM Red drivetrain was my favorite part of the bike. I love the shift pattern: hit the right lever button to move up a gear on the rear derailleur, and hit the left to move down; hitting both at once shifts the front derailleur. It's way simpler than the usual setup, in which each lever has two buttons to control one derailleur on its own, and was way way better for shifting while on the drops. The shifting was very direct—some might say a bit harsh, but it felt solid when shifting, like the thunk of the transmission of my dad's old Mustang. One cool bonus of the wireless setup is this frame doesn't have any holes or routing for shift cables. Image: Derek Mead

Unlike most other sports, which feature organic moves that you could at least imagine seeing in nature—running, jumping, throwing, dunking—cycling is inherently mechanical. The core measure of strength for cycling is wattage, or how much power your spinning legs can produce over time like any old generator. Everything else—the aerodynamic suits, the carbon fiber, the wackadoodle helmets—are all in service of maximizing the efficient usage of those watts.

Because riding means doing the same exact motion a hundred times a minute for hours on end, efficiency starts with ensuring the bike fits properly. I spent two or three hours with David, an actual legit racer who also works at Bicycle Habitat strapping jamokes like me to their fancy bikes to make sure they don't blow up their ligaments as they pedal around.

Dialing in precise and efficient kinematics starts with the feet: David measured the size and orientation of my feet, dialed in the positioning of the cleats on my shoes, and then measured my flexibility and range of motion from ankles on up. This took about an hour and a half, after which I was able to finally hop on the bike (well, on a stand) and test things out.

After adjusting the seat, swapping handlebars, moving the stem, and adding a shim to the shoe of my short leg, David converted me from a flailing Tasmanian Devil to a dialed rider with consistent, mechanical pedal stroke like an oil derrick, or the diesel engine in a cargo ship, or some other similarly powerful thing. And with that done, and now having gotten to know each other in a far more personal fashion than I anticipated, David bid me au revoir.

David first started by measuring the spread and general orientation of my feet, and I thanked god I remembered clean socks. Image: Xavier Aaronson

Next we measured my flexibility (I am not flexible, hence my lack of a slammed stem, sorry internet) and knee angles. The goal was to set up the bike so that my knees move up and down in perfect vertical alignment, without rocking back and forth in a circle or side to side. This ensures efficient power production as well as preventing strain on the joints during hours of riding. Image: Xavier Aaronson

Once on the rollers, we had to do a bunch of adjustments to dial in the seat and cockpit to ensure everything felt comfortable and smooth, which is the most essential to having a fast, fun time. Image: Xavier Aaronson

I've been run over by enough cars to know it sucks—especially when it's two in the morning in East LA and you've already skidded through your back tire to show off for attractive pedestrians and a taxi driver decides you are the one in the group that needs to inspect his bumper—but usually it's the bike that takes the brunt of it. Wobbling into traffic, all I hoped for was to get it home in one piece.

It took about a block to realize the pitfalls of trying to commute about on a modern race bike. Putting aside the separate set of shoes for a moment, it's impossible to ride slow because it's so light that it'd rather float off into a cloud than track straight. (I think it's about 15 or 16 pounds, although I've always had a policy of not weighing my bikes because knowing they could be lighter gets expensive quickly.)

Plus, even with a pretty understated paint job, the Tarmac is still a bat signal for every pumped-up rider, from messengers to Citi bikers, who want to say they beat some dude on a fancy bike, even if that means running through lights and traffic to win. Riding through the crowded streets of lower Manhattan, I slowed to a crawl to keep anyone from dying on my watch.

As soon as I got to the Williamsburg bridge, though, it was on. David warned me that the bike would take off whether I was on it or not, and that's more or less what my first experience pushing it was like. I zipped up the climb without even realizing my legs were moving, passing a couple dozen bikes on the way to the top. Later, I found I cut 35 seconds off my best time. Success! And then I saw I was ranked 430/9300. Hell.

How's that for an aero outfit? Image: Xavier Aaronson

The next evening, I went for my first actual ride on the Tarmac. When I spoke to Specialized about my review being more of my own personal battle against time itself, they offered to also let me test out the company's Evade skinsuit, which the company claims is the most aerodynamic (well, fastest) skinsuit on the market. All I know is that it's a skin-tight jumpsuit that costs $500 and really should only be worn during professional time trials. But if I'm gonna dope with money, I might as well let it all hang out.

Riding a $9500 bicycle slowly through traffic in Williamsburg, Brooklyn—a neighborhood with a complicated relationship with both wealth and non-fixed gear bikes—while wearing a skinsuit elicits a response from passersby similar to what I'd imagine it'd be like to get oiled up and nude and drive a Lamborghini convertible through Beverly Hills: People are sure you're some sort of insane rich asshole, but there are so many around that it's not worth much more than a raised eyebrow.

Look at how much fun we're having! No computers to look at or anything!

I'm surely letting The Fear grab hold as I'm thinking this—who really gives a shit, I suppose—but as in the Lambo scenario, all I want to is let it rip on the highway and feel the wind glide around my glistening body. Fast bikes should be ridden fast, and that's what I'm here to do.

I've ridden all manner of bikes all my life, but never got too seriously into racing because it's not cheap. But the real beauty of it is just riding for, and sometimes against, yourself, hearing the tires hum on the pavement and not much else because the wind is whistling in your ears. This first ride out on the Tarmac, doing a couple laps of Prospect Park, whose inner loop is usually blocked off for cyclists and runners, I felt more at peace than I have in quite some time. It was kind of embarrassing how much I was giggling, to be honest.

Of course, I can and have done the exact same on the bike of a mere mortal, but the prospect of riding the Tarmac was enough to get me more readily over the hump of riding through five miles of traffic and bombed-out roads for the smooth ring of the park before work. Plus, while I knew I'd never get to the top of the charts in the park because people actually race there, on a random evening I was still fast enough to kick everyone's ass by a wide enough margin to almost make good on the promise made by the $10,000+ of gear I was zipping around on. And when I got home, already giddy from numb legs from the ride, I got the results from Strava: a sweet, sweet flood of PRs, which are signified by a tiny medal made of pixels and sweet, sweet dopamine.

Quantify me more baby!!

Better yet, with my muscles pumped up by cold hard cash, on my favorite uphill sprint, I'd hit the lights on Vanderbilt Ave perfectly and managed to jump from #33 to #9 out of 7575. Success! Who needs to exercise when you can be rich?

I can't prove Will George cheated, but that's a suspiciously low heart rate. One annoying thing about Strava is that people DEFINITELY cheat on the leaderboards—unless there are people in this city who really can sprint 45 mph up a mile-long climb.

I'll sum up the next few weeks by saying this: I never again got a clear shot at the Vanderbilt hill. I also hit a plateau where I wasn't training as hard as I'd like—thank you, Strava, for being an endless reminder of that—and not getting enough miles in to make up the difference in bulk. Every time I hopped on the bike my legs felt dead, and 10 miles in would loosen up, only to wear down after another five or so. I felt bad, and old, and crappy after every ride, compounded by feeling like a poser for riding a professional bike at particularly amateurish speeds.

Cycling takes an ENORMOUS amount of time. Training properly means getting up at dawn, sliding into more spandex, and pedaling for as much as the day allows. For someone who works 55-60 hours a week, finding 10 more to sit in the saddle wasn't easy.

And that doesn't count all the time spent eating. I think I burn around 350 calories for every 10 miles for ridden, which, considering I'm already a slender man, means shoving a lot of random crap in my piehole just to keep up. I suppose if I was really rich I could also afford some sort of insane nutrition program, but for now I've got a body built by protein powder and pasta. Yum.

I did have one bright spot in my quest for a KOM: At the end of my morning ride is a short, curving sprint that I came within a couple seconds of winning on my first attempt with the Tarmac. After a bunch of botched attempts and general sadness, one day I hit the start perfectly, sprinting THWACK THWACK THWACK through the gears—SRAM's eTap drivetrain shifts in a very direct fashion, and I am now addicted to it—until a semi truck in front of me moved to block the inside line of the turn. Figuring that, after whole weeks of failure, I'd either get the KOM or just go ahead and die already, I went the long way around the truck and blessedly the rest of the road was free, and I took it home to victory. Well, actually, I tied two other people and it's only 0.2 miles long but fuck it, I've got a crown on my profile baby!

PRAISE ME, I AM KING OF THIS ROAD! Until someone reads this and decides to knock me, Hans, and Kristina off.

I figured I'd try to get one last KOM before I sent the Tarmac back. One day, I got a similar run of good lights leading up to another short sprint, and I went for it. I knew I'd put on more speed than usual—I got one more THWACK in—and the light at the finish line was green. Smooth sailing. And then someone on a bike ran their red light right into my path and stopped.

While the Tarmac has surprisingly good brakes for a carbon-wheeled bike, there's only so much stopping skinny tires can do, and I managed to leave about a 100 foot skid on the pavement before colliding with the other cyclist at… like three miles an hour. After a series of back and forth apologies, I pedaled home and decided to hang it up.

It left me in a weird spot: Yes, buying my way out of training worked, that's for sure. But the joy of riding a slow bike fast is a far different experience than riding the fastest bike as fast as I could, all the time, with people trying to race me everywhere I went. I figured it was time to hang it up before I died.

Or so I thought! See, Specialized's PR folks, knowing that I was going to try to race around Brooklyn, also wanted me to test their new Roubaix, a less-aggressive bike that's designed more for smoothing out bumpy roads. (Hence why it's named after basically the most hellish race ever. If you haven't seen it, watch this video.)

Built to shred. The Roubaix I rode was equipped with Shimano Dura-Ace Di2, which didn't quite jive with me the way the SRAM drivetrain did; shifts didn't feel as seamless in my pedal stroke, and I didn't like returning to having two buttons to control the rear derailleur on the same brake lever. Too much fumbling. Other than that, you can see the FutureShock there, as well as how the seatpost clamp was integrated into the seatstays, giving a bunch of room in the seat tube above for the seatpost to flex back and forth—20mm to be precise. I didn't notice the seatpost flexing while riding, but my butt appreciated it. A model with these exact parts on it isn't part of Specialized's regular lineup, but something similar would run about $6500. Image: Derek Mead

A McLaren sticker is always a good sign. I'm a huge fan of disc brakes for riding around the city, as they tend to have more power, modulate well, and I don't have to worry about wearing out expensive rims. The Shimano hydraulics on the Roubaix were excellent, although the travel a bit short. Through axles on a road bike are still a bit unusual, but while dealing with flats would be more of a pain in the ass, they're great for in the city because thieves don't want wheels with them.

This new model has a shock called a FutureShock, which Specialized codesigned with McLaren, that features 20mm of travel below the stem. In addition, the seatpost is mounted deep in the frame to give 20mm of flex for your butt to move back and forth over the bumps, and the model I had came with disc brakes, which are a godsend in the stop-and-go of the city. It's kinda weird for a fast road bike, but make no mistake, there are a ton of eyes on it in the cycling world. The Tarmac is best described as some sort of high-end knife—precise, perfectly honed, dangerous in the wrong hands, but ultimately familiar—the Roubaix was the bike people talked to me about, including one friendly UPS driver who just about lost his damn mind over it.

My buddy Tree—he's 6'7", if you're wondering—set it up with wider tires so I could skid and jump on it and generally be a psycho, which was freeing because unlike the Tarmac, I had an excuse for not being the fastest person in the whole damn city. Excuses, it turns out, are a freeing luxury all their own.

But still, this is meant to be a bike for racing through the rough stuff, so to put it through its paces, I took it on a tour of east Brooklyn's worst roads, including about 15 miles of riding in high-speed traffic over ruts and cracks and gaps and speedbump-sized bumps. At one point Google Maps sent me onto an expressway near JFK airport—I was literally just trying to ride to the beach—and I had to hop over a five-foot sewage hole while going 25 miles an hour in traffic doing twice that.

I would describe that situation as "not fun," especially because it knocked both of my water bottles off the bike with 30 miles to go, but not because of the bike, which handled the roads with aplomb, where a traditional road bike might have either bucked me off or merely buckled. Specialized's tagline for the Roubaix is something like "smoother is faster," which is true, but "smoother means not dying" is even more true and a good reason for me to like this bike.

I will say that getting out of the saddle to pump or sprint on a bike with suspension in the handlebars isn't really my cup of tea—I yank the bars a lot and they bounce too much for me, and I had a persistent issue with the stem rotating out of alignment, but I think that was an issue with the stem and not the suspension cartridge—but that is also not quite the point of a bike like this. If we can go back to the beginning for a moment, time is luxury, sure, but it's also about time well spent.

That's not a shock, it's a FutureShock. It can be tuned with different springs depending on the rider, but aside from it bouncing a bit when I was out of the saddle, I mostly forgot about the thing, which is precisely the point. Image: Derek Mead

Perhaps it was solely due to my newfound zeal for life following the Rockaway expressway incident, but being able to finish the ride on a bike that was faster than anything else I encountered, but to do so with a modicum of comfort and relaxation, was pretty great. I don't think anyone else on the bike paths is furiously riding an internal race against existentialism, so if I can win and not shake my teeth losing doing so, I'll take it.

If we can return to how, on the Tarmac, I'd ended up nearly dying at three miles an hour. I, emboldened by wine the evening prior, had picked a lake north of NYC that seemed reasonable to ride to, and woke up the next day earlier than I should have and took off solo.

Once you cross the George Washington Bridge on a weekend morning, you enter into a whole new world, one populated by men in their 30s and 40s, clad in tight-fitting, garish clothing, all riding bikes you only read about in magazines up a wonderfully smooth, rolling highway to stop at one bike-friendly cafe or another before turning back. Parking the Tarmac in an unlocked gaggle of bikes worth at least $150,000 in total, I felt like I'd snuck into a club no one actually knows about.

Making up for a bit of imposter anxiety the only way I knew how, I'd spent a good 15 miles racing some guy back and forth, hovering behind him like a psycho—I really probably should have said "hello," sorry dude—to pass him on the downhills, gears shifting with incredibly satisfying THWACK THWACK THWACKs. Eventually, he took a different turn than I, which was good because I was already worn out just 45 miles in, a good 35 miles or so from home.

After huffing it over some hills to find this stupid lake, I turned back and ended up lost on a far hillier route than I anticipated, at which point you found me wondering if my legs might just end. I seriously thought about ditching the Tarmac, calling an Uber, and figuring out how to apologize to Specialized or disappear and never write this stupid article ever.

I made it to the top of that hill, and there was another one. And at that, I had to laugh, because suffering is pretty damn fun when, in the cosmic scheme of things, it's just suffering while riding a pinnacle of engineering while lost somewhere in rich person land, thankful as hell that I wasn't wasting my day staring at a screen.

I'd like to think that, even through all that suffering, I managed to still put up a good time considering I was riding a prohibitively expensive bicycle made of helium. But, sadly enough, at one point when I'd stopped to refill some water I'd forgotten to unpause the app. The worst, most fun stretch I'd had in this entire exercise didn't even get tracked, and I'll never know how well I did. But, as these things go, that was the time I most clearly remember.

Luxury Week is a series about our evolving views of what constitutes luxury. Follow along here.