Reportage

Shining a Light on Road Riding: A Review of the Specialized Aethos Disc Road Bike

Road bikes. We don’t really talk about them so much over here at the Radavist – anymore. There was a time however where we’d post galleries from road adventures and still to this day, one of my favorite rides I did in California was on all pavement. Still, there have been a few defining reasons for the wane of the road bike’s popularity and it wasn’t until I accepted the offer to review the lightweight Aethos road bike that I began to mull over these reasons. A 16lb road bike is both terrifying (am I going to break this thing?!) and a joy (WOW! this is incredible) to ride but what does the state of road cycling look for me, personally, and how did this review shape my perspective of drop bars after a long hiatus from enjoying the pleasures of road riding? Read on to find out.

Adventure Riding Has Taken Off

In years prior, we’d review lots of road and gravel bikes but recently, there’s been a shift to reviewing touring bikes and hardtails over here. While this change or shift in direction is my own doing, it does speak to the larger, over-arching theme two-wheeled vehicles have seen in the past few years.

For instance, the moto industry saw a sharp decline in road motorcycle sales, in lieu of dirt bikes and adventure bikes. The whole “adventure” lifestyle thing has taken off in every industry from automotive to cycling. People are camping more and prefer dirt byways to scenic highways.  More and more companies are sinking their cache and resources into gravel, touring, bikepacking, and otherwise dirt-oriented bikes. Then the pandemic hit, which threw gas onto the fire of this outdoor-oriented surge.

My own personal experience with this has culminated with our move to New Mexico, where endless dirt is just a mile or two from my front door. I gave up the easily accessible solitude of riding road bikes in car-free Griffith Park in Los Angeles for mountain biking that is literally in our neighborhood.

Not to say there isn’t ample road riding here in Santa Fe. There is. It’s just the infrastructure isn’t there… yet. I recently was interviewed in a local paper about the cycling industry’s presence in New Mexico and was asked what the state could do to make road cycling safer here. In short, my answer was “a lot.”

If our roads had wider shoulders or shoulders at all, if traffic enforcement penalized reckless driving, if drivers weren’t distracted by their phones, if drunk driving wasn’t such an issue here, I might feel safer riding a road bike on some of our beautiful backroads. However, every time I hop on a road bike, I’m quickly reminded just how unsafe it is for us.

What I’ve tried to do in order to rectify this is ride bikes in plain clothes, as I feel, anecdotally, that drivers give me more space if I appear to be a kook out for a pedal, rather than a lycra-clad racer bøi looking to zip around everywhere. I’ve also erred on taking more meandering paths out of town, rather than the most direct route. Santa Fe is blessed with a large cycle path infrastructure. Yet, these paths aren’t really bike-friendly during peak hours. The main issue is these paths are often crowded as people drive to them for exercise. Yeah. I don’t get it either but on any given afternoon, droves of people are out on the “bike paths” walking their dogs, mostly off-leash, and with headphones in. Thus, ironically, it feels safer to ride on the streets.

Yet, “safety” is subjective:

“In 2018 there were 6,283 pedestrians and 857 bicyclists killed in crashes with motor vehicles in the United States. Together these vulnerable road users account for a growing share of total US traffic fatalities: in 2003, pedestrians and bicyclists represented 12.6 percent of total traffic fatalities, and in 2018 they accounted for 19.5 percent of fatalities.” – PedBikeInfo.org

All of this is just a backstory for why I haven’t spent much time on drop bar bikes since moving here. Not to say that riding a mountain bike across town to get to the trails isn’t any less dangerous than riding a road bike but in my experience, I feel safer on a burly MTB than a dainty drop-bar bike as wide bars often widen your spatial requirements on the road. Drivers are less likely to overtake you if you’re taking up more space around here. The speed at which I travel is generally slower as well.

I’ve been putting in some mixed-terrain miles recently in a loop that runs the gamut of experiences here in Santa Fe, from tree-lined, twisty roads in Tesuque, to the hot and exposed badlands of Chupadero, and the leg-throbbing climb up Pacheco Canyon in the Santa Fe National Forest, where at the terminus of the road, there are many options, all leading to alpine landscapes lined with aspen trees and very few people. It’s the one gravel loop in town that combines multiple kinds of terrain with a good amount of climbing, all at elevation. As the world seems to be opening back up slowly, with it will come more gravel races, and I need to up my fitness to be able to document these events.

Yet where does a road bike fit in here? Well, I never took on my new favorite mixed-terrain loop until I got the Aethos in for review. It was the Aethos that brought me out to Chupadero or La Cienega and their wonderous pavement loops.  I’d get out most mornings to pedal peacefully across the foothills and while it might be a placebo effect, I really felt like having a super light bike was a device to delete excuses.

Too windy? 16lb bike makes it easier.

Too cold? Pedal 16lb bike harder to warm up.

Too tired? 16lb bike, dude!

This is a review bike and one that I wouldn’t necessarily buy for my preferred riding style but it did make me think. A lot. It made me reminisce about riding road bikes in Texas with my friends, about long, arduous HC climbs in SoCal. Surely, there was something I could bring back from this review period to my local experience in New Mexico. I will say, I don’t think I’ve ever had such an internal conversation about a review bike before!

Let’s Look at this 16lb Bike

The Aethos is a paradigm shifter. It was a massive undertaking for a brand that’s built its pedigree on such endeavors. Making a UCI-compliant bike, suited for the general (albeit wealthy) population, meant designing a bike that had panache and classic styling in a world of god-awful, gaudy, massive-tubing, super graphics, MAMIL machines. Part tech flex and part consumer-driven weight weenie-ism, the Aethos is low-hanging fruit to hate on but when you throw your hairy, tattooed legs around one, it can be a truly dreamy riding experience. Even pedaling in shorts and a t-shirt makes you feel P R O.

I had to actually look into our archives to see when the last time we reviewed a road bike here at the Radavist and it was the Speedvagen Disc OG Road bike in 2019

My last carbon road bike experience was my Argonaut, which I sold a few years ago since I hadn’t ridden it in a year. I have a rule in my quiver; if I don’t ride a bike for a year, I sell it. This keeps my “collection” down to a manageable number and ensures I don’t become a hoarder.  Later, I sold my Speedvagen OG-1 for a similar reason; I just didn’t ride it all that much. Yet, I still have my Firefly as I doubt I’ll ever sell it even though it was on display at Sincere Cycles all last year.

Needless to say, I was a bit apprehensive to take on a review of the Aethos as I wasn’t too sure I’d want to ride it. Was it just too “roadie” for me?

What I noticed immediately about the Aethos is how similarly it rode to both my carbon Argonaut and my steel Speedvagen. The Aethos “danced” up climbs, isn’t overly stiff or chattery, doesn’t have that hallow resonance many carbon bikes have when rolling across chipseal or rough pavement, and would bank into turns with a grace that I’ve found more in line with titanium frames than plastic bikes.

The details of the Aethos are what you’d expect from Specialized. Everything is thought out with internal routing, clean, swooping lines, and a stance that makes even the dirtiest rider stop and take a gander.

My Aethos Ethos

There is one thing I really like about riding road bikes and that’s the efficiency and speed at which you can travel. On days where I needed to get out for an hour or two and wanted to get lunch somewhere outside of the normal digs in town, I’d pedal over to Tesuque Village Market for some Tomatillo Shrimp Enchiladas. In order to get over to Tesuque, there’s a decently-sized hill that you have to climb in both directions. Typically, I’d slog up this climb on my hardtail or full-suspension to get to the start of the Winsor trail (we like climbing the trail that most people shuttle here in town). This hill is a litmus for how my ride will go. If I’m feeling slow, it’s going to be a longer day than if my legs are feeling spry. This is on a 2.6″ 29er tire too.

Yet, you put me on a 16lb bike with 25mm tires and everything seems instantly easier, even with that leg-vein popping gearing the Aethos ships with. Ain’t no need for compact gearing here!

I’d pedal over to TVM, sometimes taking the long way, and fill up on beans, rice, and other New Mexican cuisine treats before hopping back on the bike and pedaling home. For the past few months, I’d do this ride at least once a week, while the rest of the time on the Aethos was spent on a few different ’round town loops.

What I missed about road riding is the alone time. I’d catch up on podcasts, or audiobooks, always wearing one earbud to keep it safe, and in general, I could zone out more. Riding dirt always requires your attention, 24/7. You can’t shut off your consciousness like you can on road bikes. Not that I’m advocating for a lack of alertness – calling back to road riding safety concerns – it’s just a different riding experience overall.

Road bikes allow for more miles, more inner-dialog, more retrospective experiences, and ultimately, a different kind of fitness than I’d grown accustomed to with our 20-ish mile MTB rides. Let me tell you, the first 40-mile ride I did on this bike, hurt. I’m used to spinning up steep singletrack these days.

The Nitty Gritty

I was able to review the Aethos Pro with Ultegra Di2 in a size 58cm which comes in at $7,800 USD and at 16lbs on the nose with bottle cages and my very-ironic MTB pedals. As with all Specialized models, there are numerous build kits topping out at $14,500 “Founder’s Editon” and it sounds tone-deaf to call a $7,800 bike the “low end” pricepoint during an economic recession as we’re coming out of a Pandemic in the United States. Yet it’s a simple fact that high-end, lightweight carbon fiber road bikes are pricey. Do you need one? No. Do you want one? Maybe. Should you go into debt over one? That’s up to you.

What you get for $7,800 is an ultralight, straight from the factory, road bike that pedals and handles more like a steel bike than a super stiff crit bike, ATMO. The build kit sits upon the tried and true Ultegra Di2 platform, S-Works post, stem, bars, and saddle, Roval’s Alpinist rims laced to DT Swiss 350 hubs, and super-dainty 26mm 120 TPI Turbo tires. These tires are as thin as croissant flakes but they sure do corner well!

In the process of this review, I got no less than a dozen flats as goatheads are a constant nuisance here, even on pavement. Once the wind picks up – as it does – the roadways are covered in these menacing thorns.  Road tubeless tires, as it seems, are pretty scarce these days. Good thing I started hauling a frame pump and patch kits!

As mentioned previously, the gearing isn’t anywhere close to what I’ve become accustomed to with 1x or compact road drivetrains. Yeah, that takes a good amount of watts to keep moving it at a decent clip. Or have I just gone soft?

Flat mount brakes have weaseled their way into the dirt-oriented bike market but this is where they truly belong. Just a few years ago, disc road bikes had gaudy IS/Post mount brakes and yet now we get really minimal disc brakes that look perfectly at home on a road bike. These minimal brakes just add to the sleek aesthetic of the Aethos. In fact, they almost disappear from the silhouette.

With all the technology that went into the frame design of the Aethos, the real achievement is the minimal branding. Finally, bike companies are at least acknowledging that consumers don’t want to be rolling billboards. Even this “black” bike is indeed a dark green with a subtle, low-luster sparkle fleck in the paint. Droooool!

One of the reasons the Aethos pedals so nicely is the elegant, aka dainty chainstays. These carbon twigs keep the rear end flexing and my long, moose legs require a long seatpost, so that helps as well with some much-needed flex. The bike’s overall ride quality is superb but the rear-end’s compliance makes longer rides on our rough pavement roads all the more comfortable.

There isn’t much room in the fork crown, or the chainstays to squeeze anything bigger than a 32mm road tire into this bike – pictured with the stock tires which measure bigger than their listed 26mm width – but why would you do that when Specialized has a full catalog of dirt-oriented drop bar bikes?

TL;DR

So this was a weird “review” wasn’t it? If you made it this far, thank you, but if you skimmed and skipped forward, I also don’t blame ya. Look, road bikes have always been popular within certain circles and they will continue to always be present in various capacities. In some places, there is an abundance of safe and scenic loops and rides, yet for me, personally, I gave all that up for easily accessible mountain bike trails where you don’t have to worry about cars.

Yet, after a year of riding singletrack almost exclusively, this 16lb dream machine road bike reminded me that road riding can be fun, has its place, and is a good excuse to fill up on greasy New Mexican food. So much so that I’ve found myself riding more mixed-terrain here in town.

The Aethos might not be for you, or even me, but I appreciate that it reminded me that riding road is fun. 

Got questions related to this bike or perhaps you have some points you’d like to bring up about road riding? Drop them in the comments!

See more at Specialized.