Specialized is no stranger to making high-end bicycles, be they mountain bikes or road bikes, and you’ll find professional racers who use its frames straight off the shelf. In some races, the rules governing how a bike looks and is constructed are fairly open.
Development of the Venge bike started as far back as 2006, when Specialized first thought of including aerodynamic elements of its Transition triathlon bike into a road racing frame. It was near the end of its design phase, in 2009, when McLaren first approached Specialized, and the bike was all but done when the collaboration started in earnest, in mid-2010.
The S Works + McLaren Venge prototype made its debut in March 2011 and the bike started winning races not long thereafter. They’ve made 450, and we test one here.
Design and engineering (five stars)
For triathlon and time trials, for example, Specialized makes a bike called the Shiv, which has an exceptionally aerodynamically efficient frame – so efficient, in fact, that it looks like it’s going a million miles an hour even when standing still.
A frame of the Shiv’s shape, though, may not be used for road racing (events like the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia), which is governed by UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) rules. And aero bikes, because of their vast hollow sections, are typically not especially stiff, which is an issue when it comes to bike handling.
In road racing, frame tubes must not have an aspect ratio of more than 3:1; they’re usually elliptical in cross-section, and one diameter cannot be more than three times greater than the other. So they visually resemble the frames in your local bike shop’s window.
Specialized’s latest road racing machine is called the Venge, a carbonfibre-framed bike that, although unequivocally not an ‘aero bike’, uses lessons learnt from the Shiv to cut as clean a shape through the air as possible.
After the Venge’s conception and aero work is where McLaren came in. McLaren’s input into the frame runs rather deeper than a car maker’s usually does, but this was – and remains – a Specialized bike first and foremost.
Example: when McLaren got involved, the companies set themselves some strict rules. The grade of carbonfibre had to be the same as the regular production Venge model’s, and the McLaren-influenced bike had to run down the same production line. It used the same geometry as well.
Because the production run was going to be 450 strong and these bikes get strapped on to bike racks and treated badly, as bikes sometimes are, it even had to be strong in places that you wouldn’t expect of a full-on race bike. It’s no good if a customer goes to strap it to a roof rack and pierces the top tube, for example. McLaren might not like the Mercedes-Benz analogy, but think of the Venge S-Works + McLaren as an AMG variant of, say, an SL, rather than a stand-alone SLS.
McLaren’s intelligence and influence, then, primarily went into the production process and the lay-up of the carbonfibre frame. If decades of making Formula 1 car chassis has taught McLaren anything, it’s how to construct things from carbonfibre.
The result is fairly remarkable, given the production-related constraints. A standard S-Works Venge frame, fork, seatpost and crankset weighs only 2179g. Specialized claims that the nearest rivals – a Cervelo S3 and a Ridley Moah – weigh 2332g and 2500g respectively.
But the McLaren Venge weighs just 2071g. Overall, that’s five per cent lighter than its sister model, but remove the ancillaries and you’re talking – in simple frame weight – a 20 per cent reduction.
Yet the overall stiffness has been increased, with stiffness-to-weight up by 11.6 per cent around the bottom bracket. The figure is 89.7Nm/deg/kg there, and that is the key area because it’s where a rider applies power. If any of that power is lost in flexing the frame, it’s not being used to propel the bike down the road. Again, it’s a figure that, Specialized claims, is higher than any rival’s.
How does McLaren take 20 per cent of the carbonfibre out of a frame and yet still improve its rigidity? By being experts in the field of carbonfibre, after becoming the first people in Formula 1 to race a car with a carbonfibre composite monocoque (in the 1981 championship) and by ensuring that every road car it has produced has had a carbonfibre tub.
McLaren has its own custom Finite Element Analysis (FEA) software, in which loads and stresses can be calculated on all kinds of components (such as, er, a bike frame), to decide how carbonfibre plies should be shaped and in which direction they should be laid up before everything is baked in place.
A bike like this is subject to some fairly serious loads — a rider like Mark Cavendish can apply around 1.5kW (that’s about 2bhp) through the pedals, and if he’s applying that to one pedal while pulling on the handlebar of the other side of the bike, there’s a significant twisting force going through the frame.
The less the frame twists, the more of his power is used in propelling the bike forwards. McLaren's processes also managed to remove an entire ply of laminate (in this case non-structural) from the inside of the frame, which is usually there to help remove mandrels (shaping tools). That alone saved 40g.
Interior (five stars)
Well, there is no interior as such, but let’s focus on the riding environment. Some of that is down to personal preference: what pedals and saddle you use, frame size and the length of the stem for the handlebars.
Because the S-Works + McLaren Venge rolls down the same line as the regular Venge, you can choose from the standard frame sizes, and the seat post is marked in 5mm increments for fine tuning of saddle height. (Pro riders say they can detect even sub-millimetric changes to saddle heights.)
There’s a neat design touch to the seat post: it’s reversible, with the seat mounting point set back by 10mm from its centre, thereby increasing the range through which the seat can be located by turning the seat post around.
What cliché shall we use for the handlebars: that all major controls fall easily to hand? It would be rather disastrous if they didn’t. You’ve got myriad positions in which to place your hands, but only the conventional, rested-on-brake-lever one gives access to the brake and gear levers, which we’ll come to in a moment.
Performance (five stars)
Your trusted correspondents are not necessarily the ideal people for the job of defining the performance of a racing bicycle, beyond saying that it feels, to us, like the fastest bicycle we’ve ever ridden.
Whatever force you apply through the pedals is the force that reaches the wheels. In our experience, it goes, and stops, like nothing else without an internal combustion engine. But given that we spend more time during our working days inside a Costa coffee than a peloton, you have to take what we think under advisement and consider what the pros get out of these.
Mark Cavendish still rides one of these frames – albeit finished in black and green like his own 12C supercar, rather than in the standard colour scheme – and he has, as you might have heard, been quite successful on it.
Cavendish is noted as what they call a sprinter – so he pedals around nonchalantly in the main group all day before involving himself in the break towards the finish and attempting to drop everyone else before the line. The S-Works + McLaren Venge has helped him to become the winner of more mass-start (rather than solo time trial) Tour de France stage victories, with 23 to his name, than any other rider. Make no mistake: this bike is fast.
Making the most of the stiffness are the high-end ancillaries fitted to our test bike. Bicycles aren’t like cars, where every single component is designed to work with the chassis and a non-standard part veers far away from the design spec.
Our test Venge was fitted with an S-Works crankset, Shimano electric derailleur gear shifters, which get the right gear every time, and EE Cycleworks brakes, but it could easily have been fitted with other components without affecting the performance. Ditto the Zipp carbonfibre wheels, which felt the crosswinds a bit during our test but aid straight-line speed.
Ride and handling (five stars)
If, like us, you’re sometimes still astonished by the levels of grip and traction that a car can achieve simply through what often amounts to two contact patches no larger than the palm of your hand, you’ll understand our lack of comprehension of what professional riders can make a bike do during races.
The contact area from a tyre that is no wider than 23mm at its widest and might be pumped to 100psi, in effect making it round, is positively minute. Throw in a construction and rubber compound that is designed to reduce the effort required to power it in a straight line, not one that is intended to produce prodigious grip in corners, and you have an inkling as to why a bike frame’s handling is so important; you do not want frame flex and inconsistent cornering when there’s so little grip to be getting on with in the first place. A rider who can optimise corner speed is one who hasn’t wasted any of his pedalling on the previous straight.
The Venge, then? It feels light, rigid and responsive. Our test was of an otherwise unused example of this rarest of production bikes, and only on McLaren’s ‘VIP road’ at its HQ, so opportunities to test it at its lateral limit were limited.
The turning circle at the end of McLaren's VIP access road is not the ideal place to test on-limit handling — especially if the last time you got a bicycle leant over was while pumping up a tyre on your kid’s BMX. But we can say with some certainty that the Venge is the most responsive bike we’ve ridden. Mark Cavendish agrees.
What struck him was, firstly, aerodynamics. “The speed compared to effort is the most noticeable thing about it,” he said. “The significant difference compared to other bikes is noticeable from the off.”
The second thing he noticed was the responsiveness. “The angle of the head tube and forks makes it the most responsive bike you can buy,” he said. Does that responsiveness mean that he has to adjust his riding? “Only for descending. The responsive nature of the bike means your weight distribution and centre of gravity are important when cornering at speed.
"The bike is built to go fast, so it won’t be forgiving if your weight isn’t distributed evenly when leant right over.”
Buying and owning (five stars)
Only 450 S-Works + McLaren Venge frames moved along Specialized’s production line in China, before finding their way on to the world’s roads beneath the backsides of some very serious riders in high-end competitions, and coupled with top-end components.
Being a very serious rider on good terms with a Specialized dealer was an advantage at the off when it came to getting hold of a McLaren-influenced bike. Even though the S-Works + McLaren Venge cost $18,000 when new (that’s £11,000 at today’s exchange rate), every single one of them found a buyer without a problem.
And if you want to get hold of one now? Good luck. We searched online and found standard used Venge frames for sale, and people trying to source a McLaren one, but nobody selling.
Verdict (five stars)
Want to win a cycle race? This will give you your best shot
To take a carbonfibre frame that is built by experts in their field and to realise a 20 per cent weight saving while increasing the torsional rigidity takes a particular kind of skill that is the hallmark of McLaren's Applied Technologies. We doubt there is anyone in the world who better understands carbonfibre construction.
The exceptional thing about this bike, however, is not just that it’s lighter and stiffer than its contemporaries, or that it’s as quick as it is and that some of the most successful riders of all time are happy on it.
Its success is that it is a production bicycle, made from the same material, by the same people, along the same production line, as the normal item. It is, by any measure, a triumph.
Specialized S-Works + McLaren Venge
We like: Stiffness and lightness, race-winning pedigree, exclusivity of limited production run
We don't like: Slightly gulpsome price, it's hard to get hold of one
Price £11,000; Power 2bhp (Mark Cavendish); Power as tested 0.7bhp (your correspondent); 0-60mph 11.4sec (ish); Fuel economy 0.18 Ginsters per mile; CO2 emissions Up to 2kg per day if you’re trying