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Tech review - March 9, 2004
Giant TCR Composite 1
The frame honed under ONCE and now ridden by T-Mobile is available as a bike in four specifications and at rather reasonable prices. John Stevenson had so much fun on the Giant TCR Composite 1 that Giant had to forcibly take it off him.
Giant's range of carbon fiber road bikes for 2004 comprises four models: TCR Composite Team; TCR Composite 0; TCR Composite 1 and TCR Composite 2. The TCR Composite 1 uses the same monocoque carbon fiber frame as the rest of the range, but keeps its price under control with a Shimano Ultegra component group in place of the TCR 0's Shimano Dura-Ace and the Team's Campagnolo Record. To drop it neatly into the gap between the all-Ultegra TCR Composite 2 and the TCR Composite 0, Giant ups the ante with Mavic Ksyrium Elite wheels and an FSA Carbon Pro Team Issue crankset.
Giant has been working with carbon fiber since the nineties when its bonded, lugged Cadex bikes were a value-for-money hit among riders looking for modern technology at a bargain price. But gluing carbon tubes into aluminium lugs isn't the best way to take advantage of carbon's qualities; lugs are heavy, and one of the theoretical advantages of carbon is that you can make a frame any shape you like, distributing the stresses of riding in ways that are impossible with tubes.
While the UCI's regulations about bike shape shoot down some of the more extreme things you might want to do with a carbon frame, Giant has gone down the path of making the whole frame in one piece anyway, in what's known as 'monocoque' construction. This is an extremely efficient way to make a bike frame, in terms of the amount of material needed, but it does have a limitation: you have to make a mould for every frame size, and moulds are pricey.
Giant's compact frame design is a straightforward way of dealing with this. Make a frame that is low-slung and you can fit the rider by changing seatpost and stem dimensions, so you need make fewer frames. Giant offers four sizes (S, M, L and XL) and claims it can fit "virtually every size of rider", with a little tinkering with bars, stems and seatposts. At 5ft 11 in (180cm), I'm right at the top of the intended size range for the medium-size TCR frame, but with a 125mm stem and plenty of seatpost showing, the TCR Composite 1 fitted me to a tee.
The TCR Composite 1's frame comes with a fairly standard set of fixtures and fittings: two sets of bottle bosses, slotted gear cable stops on the down tube; slotted brake cable stops on the top tube; an external seatpost clamp; a bolt-on front derailleur hanger; and a replaceable rear derailleur hanger. There's also a threaded hole for a race number under the top tube; a nice touch.
The M size we tested has a 73 degree head angle and 73.5 degree seat angle, with a 55.5cm top tube (measured horizontally). However, the most striking aspect of the geometry is the tucked-in rear wheel. With 405mm chainstays, Giant has had to shape the back of the seat tube to make room for the tyre, and you'd be pushed to squeeze in anything bigger than a 25mm tyre for riding on poor roads. The rear end is so close-coupled that even non-cyclists notice - I had a passenger in a delivery truck lean out and say, "That tyre's damn close to the frame isn't it?"
Bits and pieces
The TCR Composite 1 is hung with a selection of good-quality components with an eye clearly on the combination of weight/performance and price. You could easily throw money at a frame this light and end up with a bike that's well under the UCI's permitted minimum weight, but it wouldn't sell for the TCR Composite 1's very reasonable asking price.
Shimano's venerable Ultegra group provides the gears and brakes, and it seems almost superfluous to say much about them. Ultegra works, it's a reasonable weight and it's not expensive. It's not as durable as Dura-Ace, but you don't expect it to be; it's just a fuss-free get-the-job-done group. And that's what we find - brakes that stop, gears that shift and it all clicks along nicely.
The TCR Composite 1 rolls on Mavic Ksyrium Elites, shod with Michelin Pro Race tyres. The Ksyrium Elites are the baby brother of the Ksyrium line-up, with steel aero spokes and conventional nipples at the rim. I have to admit to being pleasantly surprised by them, despite being sceptical about 'non-standard' wheels. The Ksyrium Elites have remained straight and true throughout the test, though at a claimed 1715g, they're not super light.
The Michelin Pro Race tyres are grippy in the dry, but some riders complain their wet-weather performance is not great. I had no problems, but I'm cautious in the wet anyway.
I'm ambivalent about the FSA Carbon Pro Team Issue cranks. On the one hand - well, they're carbon. They must be good, right? And they are. They're not noticeably flexible, and they shift fine. But after 1,500km they are starting to look a bit scruffy. I had the chain over-shift a couple of times before I got the front derailleur dialled-in and the right hand crank is distinctly scratched as a result. This is a bike at a price point that makes it attractive as a do-everything machine for training and racing, or even as a very nice training bike. I wonder if a carbon crank is a wise choice on a bike that's therefore not going to get handled with kid gloves.
Up front, the steering is handled by an Easton EA50 aluminium handlebar, a Giant-branded Syntace carbon fiber stem and Giant's carbon fiber fork, all turning on an FSA integrated headset.
The Easton EA50 handlebar is surprisingly wide at 45cm centre to centre (Easton claims it's 44cm, but we make it 45). This suited me just fine - I like wide bars. But tester Anthony Tan, who was originally supposed to be the main rider for this bike, couldn't live with it at all, and we did wonder why Giant specced such wide controls on a bike that's intended for riders between 5ft 6in and 5ft 11in. The bar has a 31.8mm clamp and Modolo-style flats in the medium-depth drops. It's wrapped in a rubber tape that initially feels unusual but turns out to be grippy, comfortable and, so far, durable. Overall, no complaints about the control set-up.
I'm completely mystified by the Selle Italia Flite Trans Am saddle, though. Based on the classic - and comfortable - Flite shape, the Trans Am has a large hole in the middle for soft tissue relief. That's a well-proven idea, but to restore strength lost by cutting a hole in the saddle hull, Selle Italia seems to have reinforced the area round the hole to the extent that the comfortable flex of the Flite is lost, and instead you end up sitting on a pair of quite rigid edges. To say this is uncomfortable is putting it politely. Nobody could stand more than a few minutes on the Trans Am and I switched it for a saddle I knew fitted me well before taking off on any serious rides.
Whatever seat you decide to ride, the C Tech carbon seatpost is a keeper. It's an easy-to-adjust two-bolt design with a set back clamp. The front bolt is adjusted with a knurled nut on the top and while this looks fiddly to get at, it's easy to turn as long as the rear bolt is loose. With the original saddle in place you can even slip a hex key through the hole and adjust the front bolt with that, but it's not essential. It's also a big practical improvement on last year's aero post, which came in seven lengths to tailor the frame to the rider; a big headache for retailers and for second-hand sales.
Our Australian-spec TCR Composite 1 came without pedals, but Time Impact S pedals are supplied on US bikes. In fact, while the core spec of Ultegra/FSA/Ksyrium Elites is the same in most territories, the details of the TCR Composite 1 do differ from country to country, so check your local version of Giant's website for full details.
On the road
The word that springs to mind as you first roll down the road on the TCR Composite 1 is 'lively'. I've seen Giant's road bike handling characterised elsewhere as 'twitchy' but I think that's a shade harsh. True, this is not a bike for rolling along in a trance, but its handling rewards attentiveness with an ability to be chucked instantly into corners and generally turn thought into deed almost before thought is completed.
That's nowhere more evident than when the deed is 'climb'. Most riders who don't climb well profess to hate uphills, but I'm strange. Despite disadvantages of weight (I could do with to lose some) and temperament (I'm not keen on pain), I love to climb. There's something meditative about getting in the zone and flowing up a long ascent. It's almost a Zen thing; the sound of one man toiling - usually at the back. The TCR Composite 1 loves to climb too, but unlike me it's not anchored by gravity and it doesn't care about suffering. In fact, between you and me, I suspect if it were human it'd be down the Hellfire Club on Saturday nights, dressed in black plastic and getting up to all sorts of shenanigans. It leaps enthusiastically at uphill suffering and rewards slavish toil at the pedals with gobs of upward and forward motion.
Strangely, this makes it a perfect match for me; climbing was easily the most fun part of riding the Giant. I found myself keeping up with riders who were substantially fitter than me, not because of the bike's light weight (though that didn't hurt) but because its sheer delight in going up inspired me to dig deep into my meagre climbing powers. Of course, my near-collapse at the end of a climb on one ride was entirely my own fault for not taking it just a shade easier...
The Giant is also solid and stable on the descents with no hint of speed wobble up to 80km/h. If I find a bigger hill and any problems at higher speeds, I'll let you know.
A large amount of the riding I've done on the TCR Composite 1 has been the daily dash between home and the office. It's a 27km run with a small hill or two and, inevitably, lots and lots of traffic lights. The TCR Composite 1 has excelled at being sprinted from a standing start, and this morning in particular did a great job of last-minute swerves around unexpected car doors. Don't these people have wing mirrors?
It also hasn't let me down when I have ventured out to the park with the local training bunches. Jonesing for a ride the other evening but with a social appointment a couple of hours after work, I headed into the park, intending to solo gently around for an hour or so. In the ensuing 30km sweatfest I was swept up by a small bunch going at something around Warp Factor 8 and when I asked it to please let me hang the hell on, the Giant didn't let me down.
In case I'm not making myself clear, I've had a hell of a lot of fun on this bike.
But now a confession. The Giant TCR Composite 1 is the first of the recent crop of high-tech, high-end bikes that I've had the chance to really spend time with, and I'm completely blown away. A bike this light and this eager is a whole order of magnitude more fun that the staid old things I've been running round on for the last few years - it's like switching from a station wagon to a Ferrari. No, strike that, it's like switching from a horse and buggy to a rocketship.
I'm also impressed at the price. Not too many years ago a monocoque carbon fiber frame would set you back ten grand for the frame alone, and not long before that they were the exclusive domain of Olympic team efforts to win gold medals. That Giant is able to hang a decent set of parts on this frame and sell it for under four and a half grand Australian and three thousand US dollars is pretty darn impressive. Truly, this is an affordable rocketship.
Any complaints? It seems churlish to moan that fitting a full-length pump is awkward (after all, this is a race bike - you should have tech support), but, well, it is. The curves at the head and seat cluster areas force you to anchor a top tube mounted pump with an extra strap so it doesn't easily bounce out. I guess I could carry a mini-pump somewhere, but I hate how long it takes to inflate a tyre with one. Also, it would be nice if it came with some sort of pedals, but it's hard to blame Giant for not wanting to guess this year's popular pedal flavour, or risk lumbering its dealers with lots of unwanted pedals.
The bottom line
Would I buy a Giant TCR Composite 1? Like a shot. In fact, this review has taken a while precisely because I knew once I had written it, I'd have to give the bike back. Sure, I've been making excuses about wanting to see how it went in the park training bunch, or out for a longer ride, but really, I just wanted to keep riding it. Any sort of ride; any time. It's been an inspiring bike to live with, and my ride logs for the last few months show a big increase in kilometres. There's nothing like a truly nice bike to inspire you to get off your butt and ride.