Days of Future Past: The Rise and Fall of the Spine Bike
Once upon a time bicycles were pretty much built out of steel. Sure, there had been forays into wood (the Elliott Hickory!) and aluminum (Caminade!) and even carbon fibre (Carlton-in 1971!), but steel was real pretty much into the 1990s. A shift began that saw oversize aluminum tubing from makers such as Klein and Cannondale, titanium impressed from Litespeed, Serotta, and Merlin, while Kestrel’s carbon bikes made a splash with triathletes. Greg LeMond, an early adopter, even rode a carbon bike at the Tour de France.
Greg on an early LeMond carbon frame
The big manufacturers were pretty confident with aluminum by the turn of the century and titanium was making inroads but carbon clearly was offering Something Big for the future—strength, light weight, resistance to corrosion, potential to be tuned for different applications—but there was not a lot of experience with it outside of the aerospace industry and Callaway golf clubs. So two of the largest US-based bicycle manufacturers decided to test the waters in a novel way and thus were born two unusual top-of-the line two-wheelers from the US market leaders in road bicycles—the Trek-manufactured LeMond series of “spine bikes” and the S-Works Tarmac E5.
After a brief and unsuccessful foray into bicycle manufacturing, three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond worked out a license arrangement in 1996 with the Trek Bicycle Corporation to build LeMond-branded bicycles which were notable for their geometry. LeMond favoured long top tubes and relaxed angles for riding comfort as a performance aid for the kind of long-distance races favoured in Europe. No criterium bikes, these, but the LeMonds were classic in appearance and available in a variety of materials. There was a titanium bike, an aluminum one, as well as steel frames made with Reynolds 853 tubing that are still deemed superb by steel aficionados.
“Half-something and half-carbon”
In 2003 the entire LeMond line changed as all the higher-priced bikes then became half-something and half-carbon, representing a big infusion of engineering into the brand. The upper half of the frames featured Trek’s OCLV 110 carbon while the lower half, in the case of the premium Tête de Course model, was butted 3Al/2.5v titanium chemically milled by Reynolds in Britain, with following years using ti from True Temper. The idea was to unite the lightness of carbon (and apparently the OCLV 110 variant was state-of-the-art then) with the supple riding characteristics and strength of titanium. The Tete de Course, handmade in America, also had a compact geometry, with a slightly dropped top tube. It featured laser-cut mitre joints where the carbon and ti intersect and even had titanium dropouts. Weighing in at 7.6 kg (16.8 lbs) with various Bontrager carbon bits this wonderful bike was priced at US$5,000 or, inflation-adjusted, around US$7,000 today.
In those early days of the Aughties there was a magazine called “Business 2.0” that was all about innovation and its May 2004 issue had a story on this exciting new bike from Specialized. The Tarmac was described as a 7.6 kg (coincidence?) machine that looked like nothing else on the road and combined the virtues of carbon monocoque (light weight and shock absorption) and E5 double-butted aluminum (light weight and stiffness). In a masterpiece of craftsmanship, the two materials were laid-up by hand and baked in a mould to produce a seamless, strong and smooth frame at, of course, vast expense. It was meant to be a rolling ad campaign to highlight Specialized’s engineering skills since not many were expected to be sold. In fact, only a few could be built each day but the idea was that lesser bikes in the Specialized line would shine in the reflected splendour of the Tarmac, with its glorious curved top tube. Price for this wonderful bicycle was, yes, US$5,000.
LeMond ‘Tete de Course’ 2005
Both the S-Works Tarmac and LeMond Tete de Course, equipped with Shimano Dura-Ace components, were revelations and yet by 2007 both were gone, at least in their split-materials personas. But they had left a considerable mark. The Tarmac had achieved great success in European racing with notable riders whose last names included Boonen, Cippolini, Bettini, Rebellin and Leipheimer and the latest versions are seen under today’s top riders. The Tete de Course saw domestic action in the United States as Team Saturn won pretty much everything it entered in its final year in 2003 and the model was used by Webcor the following year as well. It was a bike on which Chris Horner and Tom Danielson were to claim a lot of victories.
But in 2007 LeMond bicycle frames were switched to the Triomphe all-carbon version, while Specialized, feeling it was ready to move fully into carbon, offered the S-Works Tarmac SL, also carbon but still with the bowed top tube that has remained a distinguishing feature of all Tarmacs. The demand for high-end carbon had supplanted all other materials, as it does today, and this demand, coupled with the uneconomic construction of these showpieces, doomed the spine bikes.
Specialized has been at the front of the peloton for a while
The Tarmac series is considered by many to be the most successful in racing history and continues today into its 6th generation, used by WorldTour pro teams Bora-Hansgrohe and Deceuninck — Quick-Step. In spite of very favourable reviews of the Triomphe line, Trek stopped building LeMond bicycles in 2008 as a result of an ugly legal dispute between the company and Greg LeMond and by 2010 the brand was no more.
Leslie’s Specialized Tarmac
That 6th generation Tarmac in its full-spec set-up, weighs in at 6.3 kg (14.5 lbs) with electronic shifting, disc brakes, and many parts made by Specialized itself. It is shown on the company website at a list price of US$13,000 and has had rave reviews. Weights are always shown without pedals, bottle cages and other pieces but it should be recalled that the UCI weight limit for racing bicycles remains at 6.8 kg (15 lbs) equipped. The closest Tarmac in price to our 2003 bikes would be the Tarmac Disc Expert, which sells for around US$6,700 and weighs 7.63 kg (16.8 lbs). It has disc brakes and carbon wheels.
Very special seat cluster
The S-Works Tarmac E5 and the LeMond Tete de Course are nearly old enough to vote now and can be picked up pretty cheaply if you want one. Should you? There have been some cases reported where the Tarmac’s head tube bonding failed, as well as stories of peeling clear coat. Not much discussion on the bike fora related to LeMonds, which were always rare, but one would imagine frame repairs could be a problem and simply not worth the cost even if they could be done. And you won’t get disc brakes with either of these.
“Still a nimble and lightweight contender”
On the positive side, with some judicious upgrades either bike could be brought easily into the 7.25 kg (16 lb) level. Having owned a 2006 model Tarmac since 2008, set up with 9-speed Dura-Ace 7700 and Specialized’s own carbon seat post, handlebars and stem, I can say it is still a nimble and lightweight contender, a real racing bike, although some have criticized it for a harsh ride due to its non-tapered head tube. I had been riding a LeMond Maillot Jaune aluminum frame with a Reynolds carbon fork before getting the Tarmac and found it to be a magic carpet ride in comparison, although I really liked the LeMond. The Tarmac has an extremely stiff bottom bracket (apparently the stiffest ever measured up to that date) with its beefy tubing so you can really put the power down. My only criticism of the frame is that there are moments I feel the rear triangle is not stiff enough, a view, it turned out, that was shared by a Mr. Tom Boonen, who made Specialized redesign it for his race bike and subsequent Tarmacs received the benefit. Nonetheless my original Tarmac E5 has carried me in comfort and confidence in ascents (and descents) of many of the great alpine passes of Europe.
The LeMond Alpe d’Huez
And what of the LeMond? As described I really liked my Maillot Jaune but while its geometry suited me so well (longish torso, shortish legs), it was tiring by the end of a century ride. I have recently been riding a 2005 Tete de Course (Dura-Ace 7800 10-speed) a lot and it is a very different bicycle. It certainly feels light and responsive and is beautifully constructed but the ride quality is startling. It is probably the smoothest on the road of any of the bikes I own, which indicates that the designers were using titanium to its full potential here.
Some years ago the German magazine “Tour” did a technical article that said that ride quality was dictated much more by tires than frame material but I am not sure, given my experience with the two different LeMonds. The first decade of the 21st Century saw a lot of experimentation with frame materials (remember that magnesium Pinarello Dogma?) as manufacturers tried to mix and match. We had carbon forks with steel bikes, carbon chainstays with aluminum ones and so forth. The Specialized S-Works Tarmac E5 and the LeMond Tete de Course were successful in meeting their design goals and were the best you could buy then but it is impressive how well they acquit themselves even today.
The LeMond by TVT