Wednesday, April 1, 2009

BSNYC Product Review: Look 566 Road Bicycle

Well, it's April Fools' Day--unless you're French, in which case it's Poisson d'Avril, or unless you're from New Jersey, in which case it's "Bathe Your Pet Day." (For some reason, everybody in New Jersey bathes their pets on April 1st. Feel free to insert your own Jersey-themed wet pussy joke here:________) Obviously, pranks are the order of the day on April 1st, and on the various cycling-themed websites in particular hijinx and tomfoolery abound.

I have no inclination to engage in contrived hijinx or tomfoolery today (mostly because I pretty much do that every day anyway). However, since this is a day when people do things they might not ordinarily do, I'd actually like to be uncharacteristically straightforward and take a look at a bike that a company was foolish enough to lend me for testing. If this offends you, you're certainly welcome to pretend it isn't happening and move on to James Huang's wacky April Fools' post. If not, please read on.

Firstly, I'd just like to say that the fact I received a bike to test has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with my shark-jumping or my Dark Corporate Overlord (DCO). What happened was, shortly after I "tested" my Scattante, a publicist emailed me and asked if I'd like to try a Look 566. Since I like riding bikes I figured there was no harm in what really just amounts to borrowing one for awhile and riding it around, so I agreed. Plus, even though I maintain I have no interest in becoming some kind of serial product reviewer, I am interested in staying on top of what these companies are trying to sell. And I vastly prefer having stuff sent to me than going to bike shows or wherever else you see this stuff, since it allows me to avoid people. (People-avoidance is a passion of mine).

Anyway, after I agreed to try the bike I checked it out on the Look website:

Ride a century on Saturday. Race it on Sunday. This bike does it all.

With speed and efficiency, comfort is sometimes forgotten. At LOOK, we prioritize comfort just as high as speed and efficiency. Without comfort comes fatigue. Made of a secret blend of High Resistance and High Modulus carbon, and constructed by our proven tube to tube manufacturing method, the 566 is not only light, but extremely compliant while not sacrificing pedaling efficiency. The tuned flattened top tube and seatstays equate to a smooth ride, while the new Twisted Stay chainstay design means that no forward energy is lost under any pedaling load by resisting lateral flex and allowing vertical flex. We’ve also taken our proven Pro Tour geometry and shortened the top tube and heightened the head tube to ensure all day back and neck saving comfort. Ride the local century on Saturday and race the local criterium on Sunday. This bike does it all.

In understanding any bicycle (at least from a marketing perspective), we must understand the concept of the bicycle, and this can generally be found in the form of a catchy phrase contained in the marketing copy. So the concept of the Look 566 is a bike that "does it all," and that can be ridden all day comfortably as well as raced. While I can certainly appreciate this concept, I also thought that's what a road bike was supposed to be anyway. And as far as all the other stuff about a "secret blend" of crabon and "resisting lateral flex" while "allowing vertical flex" and so forth, that just means none of the tubes are round. Ultimately, the way they arrive at a bike that "does it all" is by making the headtube on the 566 taller than all their other bikes, which they finally mention there towards the end. Anyway, they sent me the SRAM Rival complete bike, and here's what the whole thing looks like once it's been put together and ridden for awhile:

The bike came with pedals (guess what kind?) but because I don't use that kind I installed my own. Also, the stem the bike came with was too short for me, so I used a longer one. And obviously, I added the bottle cage and dork-tastic saddle bag. Otherwise, though, this is the bike as Look sells it.

Obviously, when it comes to crabon fiber road bikes, rule #1 is that the bottom bracket shell must be..."beefy." And rule #1 when reviewing crabon fiber road bikes is that this..."beefiness" must be photographed up close and commented upon. So here goes:

The oversized bottom beefy.

Big freaking deal.

The next rule of crabon fiber road bikes is that the frame must be covered with acronyms or buzzwords that highlight certain elements of the bike--kind of like real-life mouse-overs. The Look did not disappoint in this regard either:

Up front, it had "F2D Frontal Flex Design," which apparently means that it has a fork. A real reviewer would doubtless also comment on its "ingenious" cable guides as well. I, however, am not a real reviewer.

In the rear, it had STSC, which stands for "Special Twisted Section Concept." This sounds like a metal band, but it just means that the stays were a weird shape.

On the downtube was reassurance that this was no ordinary carbon fiber. It was "performance tuned" carbon fiber.

Now, you can buy the Look 566 as a frameset, but if you buy the complete bike they sent me it will come with these handlebars:

I couldn't find these on the FSA site, so I suspect they're some kind of OEM special. As you can see, they're carbon (or at least carbon wrapped) with flat tops, and the tape stops in plenty of time to leave the tops bare and show off the logos. This means that not only are the tops slippery, but also that when you're holding them you're also holding a handful of cable housing. Obviously, you can always buy new tape and wrap the bars completely, but there's still no groove for the cables. Sure, you can also just switch the bars, but I don't understand why a "does it all" bike designed for comfort would come set up this way in the first place. Perhaps worst of all, Look missed a chance to use another acronym: SCS (or "Stupid Cockpit Setup.")

Otherwise, though the components were fine. The wheels weren't exactly Jobst Brandtian, but at least they seem relatively serviceable and stayed perfectly true. Also, the Rival stuff was excellent. As far as the compact cranks, a 50/34 with a 12-26 cassette in the rear means that when you're going easy on the flats you're either crossed over in the big ring or crossed over in the small ring, but that's mostly just a consequence of living in a relatively flat area. Gearing can always be changed, and I certainly can't blame Look for my local topography.

So How Does It Ride?

The main reason bike reviews often sound so ridiculous is because they inevitably veer off into those sensuous descriptions of the bicycle's ride quality.  Either that, or they attempt to quantify something that is essentially subjective, which is often even more ridiculous.  

The truth is, any bicycle that fits well and is set up properly will ride well, provided it's being used in a reasonable way.  (Your well-fitting road bike is not going to ride very well through a rock garden, for example, just as your mountain bike is going to be sluggish on the road.)  All a frame really needs to do is place your components where they need to be and not break.  For this reason, the whole business of evaluating slightly different bicycles with slightly different combinations of components and attempting to discern those differences is mostly pointless.  

What you can do, however, is evaluate a bicycle's marketing.  So does the Look 566 do what it was designed to do?

Well, the Look rides well.  This is not because of the twisted stays and frontal flex and "performance carbon," because my other bikes that have none of these things (or if they do they're not called any of those things) also ride just as well.  So we can file those in the "subjective" drawer and safely forget about them.  The "objective" difference between the Look 566 and a lot of other road bikes, and the thing that really makes it what Look call a "does it all" bike, is the tall headtube.  And it is tall--it's about three centimeters taller than my own otherwise comparably-sized road bike.

This is certainly not a bad thing.  Higher bars can be more comfortable for some people.  Moreover, Look say you can "ride a century on Saturday" and "race it on Sunday."  This is true.  The bike was perfectly comfortable on long rides, and I was indeed able to race it as well.  Granted, I was a lot higher up than I usually am, which felt weird, but it really wasn't a problem and I'm happy to say I even passed.  So in this respect the bike did exactly what it was supposed to--while few people would want a headtube this tall on a race bike, it is a raceable bike.  So job done there.

However, the problem I have with the Look 566 is that while it's not a race bike, it looks like one, and it has all the limitations of one.  Certainly, pro bikes must be covered in decals and attention-grabbing color schemes.  And certainly, crabon fiber bikes do make good race bikes.  So if you need a pure race bike it's not surprising you wind up with one of these pro bike replicas, even if you don't particularly like the way they look.  You're also not going to worry about things like frame clearance or fender eyelets, since you're mostly using the thing to race.  On the other hand, if you're searching for a bike you can ride all day comfortably that can be raced as well on occasion, you don't need to settle for a misshapen crabon fiber billboard.  You're free to consider other bicycles that won't look dated next year, and that are versatile in other ways as well.  

So while I can see wanting a bike that fits like the Look 566 and is geared like it, and that allows me to ride hills slowly all day yet still jump into a race or a fast ride when I feel like it, I can't see wanting this one, since I don't really see the point of a bike that looks like a pro race bike but really isn't.  A number of companies make road frames with taller head tubes that also have eyelets here and there and are less expensive than this one to boot, and I'd much rather have one of those instead.  Still, if you do love everything about modern race bikes except for the fit, then the Look 566 is certainly a better choice than getting some pro bike replica and getting all kludgy with your stem setup.

In any case, I still enjoyed riding the bike, and I'm grateful to both Look and their publicist for letting me rub this one.  I also managed to find a use for the... beefy bottom bracket shell, which was actually wide enough to accommodate this pentabike sticker sent to me by my partner in bromance, Stevil:

I also used it to test a prototype front wheel I plan to bring to market:

I personally feel that the sticker and the wheel go great together and help mitigate the aesthetic effect of that giant headtube:

In any case, thanks for reading, and for suffering through my "review."  I can assure you that nothing was harmed during the course of this extensive test--except possibly my dignity.

Happy Bizarro April Fools' Day,