Giant TCR Advanced SL review6
by Mark V on Nov 12, 2011 at 8:36 PM
In the 1995, Giant debuted their Compact Road Design, and three years later the Taiwanese company became the bike supplier to the ONCE professional cycling team. I remember those yellow TCRs really stood out amongst all those European bikes, the first really radical departure from traditional look of road bikes in decades. At the time, the concept was that the radically sloped top tube, long seatposts, and adjustable stem would allow just 3 frame sizes to fit everybody. Ultimately, that 3 size concept didn’t endure, but the TCR did demonstrate that the level top tube was just an arbitrary design element and that a long carbon seatpost could be used to tune the ride of an otherwise tight and rigid rear geometry. After the past 15 years, almost every major manufacturer has incorporated sloping top tubes into their road racing designs.
Meanwhile, I’ve had a series of custom bikes for racing, recreation, and courier work that were built in steel, aluminum, and titanium. They all had some ideas that I’d stolen from those TCR designs, even though I’d never owned one. But after all my travels in Taiwan over the past four years, visiting their high-end factory in Taichung, meeting Giant founder Liu, and hanging out with sponsored pro team Rabobank, I kinda had a jones to try out the TCR. Certainly, if I were to get another carbon frame, I would get a Taiwanese bike, and it doesn’t get anymore Taiwanese than Giant.
This is a 2011 TCR Advanced SL, size XS (sizes XS/S/M/L/XL available). It is a full carbon monocoque with an integrated seatpost (ISP). The frame accepts a BB86 press-fit bottom bracket. BB86 is essentially the same size bearing and bearing position as used by typical external bearing road cranks, but BB86 makes the shell (frame) wide enough house those bearings internally. The bearings sit in lightweight plastic cups that are pressed into the shell from either side. The bottom bracket components and the frame’s shell end up being lighter since a lot less metal is used, but the frame itself can also be laterally stiffer since the width of the down tube can now be 86mm wide rather than 68mm. If that wasn’t enough, the monobloc-style chainstay and laterally flared seat tube contribute to the stiffest bottom bracket I have ever experienced (no shit). Giant employs the same philosophy at the front end too. The carbon steerer tube is 1.125” at the top, but flares to a stout 1.25” at the crown. Though this is less than some forks that balloon out to as much as 1.5”, for the first time ever I actually will say, “Yep, I think that’s as much as I’ll ever need”.
In order to achieve my saddle height, I had to cut the TCR’s seatmast. The frameset includes a small cutting guide that clamps in place, and then you cut across the top of it. It’s fine for one time use, but with a better guide I could make an accurate cut in about a fifth of the time with much less risk of the blade going unevenly. Giant also provides some barrel adjusters that fit into the shifter cables stops at the head tube. Structurally speaking, the sides of the head tube are a good place to rivet in the stops, but it does make the cable run rather tight on my short head tube and slammed stem. Also, the front brake cable can potentially foul the shifter housing paths as the fork swings. This meant that getting the housing lengths just right was the most time consuming aspect of the build, though on a taller bike the shifter housing would angle up more on the way to the handlebar, minimizing brake caliper interference.
Actually, the length of the head tube is one of the few gripes that I have with this bike. At 120mm with integrated headset, it is the tallest I’ve ever owned. Normally I straight draw the line at 115mm, but I reworked the headset pieces to lower the stack by 5mm so that the combined height of the head tube and headset is back down to the acceptable limit. With a 17deg down stem, I just barely put the bar in the acceptable height range. If it were any taller, I’d have rejected the bike. I’d have test-ridden it, but I wouldn’t have put it in my stable even if it were given to me. As a comparison, the Specialized Venge has a 100mm head tube in my size, and my custom built Davidson MkV has a 105mm head tube (but with 15mm higher BB than the TCR). On the other hand, Ridley and BMC have 130mm+ on their smallest road frames (disgusting).
The saddle clamp is integrated into what is generally called a “mast topper” that slides down over the ISP and then tightens with a pinch-bolt. The pinch-bolt merely keeps the seatmast topper attached to the frame. Though Giant’s topper allows for some vertical height above a point where the ISP is maximally inserted into the topper, the pinch-bolt doesn’t provide enough clamping power to maintain position with the rider’s full weight pounding on it during use. Instead, small internal spacers fit into the Giant topper before it is fitted over the ISP; combined with the secure 2-bolt saddle clamp the Giant design cannot lose the rider’s saddle positioning even over the most brutal road jolts. This design also allows the ISP to be built fairly light. I recently had to cut down an aero seatpost from another manufacturer, and I had a chance to compare the trimmings to the portion of ISP I cut off my Giant. Even though the two pieces had similar shapes and external dimensions, the Giant ISP section was significantly lighter per unit of length.
It has been said that integrated seatposts are the answer to a question that no one asked and that they detract from resale value of the frame. But compared to the newer aero-section seatposts found on some of the newer road bikes (Specialized Venge, Scott Foil, etc), the Giant’s ISP is no more troublesome. As a mechanic, all these bikes are a hassle to wrench on because you can’t clamp on the seatposts like you could with a bike with a typical round section seatpost.
Another thing I’d like to talk about is the carbon ride. Personally, I largely think that the “laterally stiff yet vertically compliant” cliche is bullshit. A diamond bike frame is a like a rigid truss; not a lot of room to flex vertically. However, carbon fibre composite is a heterogenous structure, and kinetic energy has trouble crossing the boundaries between different materials. This is what allows carbon to dampen vibration in tennis rackets. So what you have is a structure between the rider and the road that dampens vibrations, making the ride seem smoother. But one would expect that some frequencies of vibrations might dampen more than other depending on the structure. Some carbon frames seem smoother than others, probably because they are more effective at damping over a wide frequency range. A lot of these newer carbon bike frame making use of very high modulus fibre (and very low resin-to-fibre ratios) seem to have narrow tuned ranges. This Giant TCR is one of them. On smooth to slightly aged asphalt, the TCR is feels like velvet, but hit a section of brick or cobble and the Giant is distinctly unpleasant.
As pictured, this Giant TCR Advanced SL weighs 14.5 lbs despite the deep-section aero wheels. It is also an incredibly rigid pedaling platform with striking lack of mass and low slung top tube. In a sprint or uphill attack, the TCR accelerates like a magnetic rail gun projectile. Cornering is a little slow, though only compared to other real race bikes. I’d say that the TCR requires a little more persuasion as it enters a turn. Whereas my Davidson MkV feels like it’s jumps into the turn with me, I need to be a touch more deliberate with the TCR. The stability isn’t unwieldy but it is noticeable. This isn’t really a bad thing, since my sprint style involves a lot of movement out of the saddle to drive the bike at max speed; a bike that is skittish doesn’t allow me to go all out. The compact style frame gives me a lot of room to throw the bike around. Steady on fast descending sweepers, the Giant might not be my first choice for a really technical criterium. Really, this is stage race geometry good for the climbs and field sprints.
Fifteen years after Giant stepped into market with serious road bikes, the TCR Advanced SL carries on Giant’s post-modern traditions. This is a fantastic bike, well-suited to my preferences. Yet it is interesting that Giant has largely ignored the recent trends in aero road bikes as embodied by the Specialized Venge, which is actually built by the other juggernaut of Taiwanese bike manufacturing Merida (Merida also owns 19% of Specialized). Giant debuts the 2012 TCR Advanced SL with a 1.5-1.25” tapered steerer, even lighter weight, and cleaner lines, but the new bike largely eschews the attention to aerodynamics that Specialized, Ridley, Felt, and others have pursued. Time will tell if the now well-established Giant has made the right market decisions, or if they themselves will need to acknowledge new directions away from existing traditions.
One rather odd detail is the external/internal rear brake cable routing. The cable runs below the top tube until the rear stop, then it pierces the top tube before it meets the rear caliper. The only logical reason for this is to keep the housing close to the centreline of the frame, away from the rider’s legs. The broad carbon top tube would likely cause the housing to otherwise splay outwards. Aesthetically, Giant should have made this all internal routing, because the partial internal design is both ugly and inconvenient to replace (external split stops being the easiest to work on).
The back of the seat stays and mono bloc style bottom bracket readily collect road grime. The clearances at the fork and rear triangle preclude this bike from anything resembling a gravel grinder.
You might think that I, having chosen the TCR, am not concerned about aerodynamic drag reduction. That’s not true; I simply feel that the wheels and fork are more important aerodynamically than the frame. And my wheel of choice is the Hed Stinger6. But soon I’m going to have to do something about these hella fat aero rims and the SRAM Red calipers that can’t comfortably swallow them. The brake arch has enough room for the tire, but the pads sit too close to the rim. It’s not so bad on the front. On the rear caliper, the longer cable run diminishes the snap of the return spring. Also to prevent the rim from dragging on the pads during really hard efforts, I ran the caliper all the way open. When that wasn’t enough, I filed a little bit of the caliper arm away so that it could open up a tiny bit more. I’m looking into a solution from TRP…I’ll report back later.