Hot on the heels of Jeremy’s post on modern carbon componentry, we’d like to share with you our experience riding some state-of-the-art carbon bits and pieces: an Easton EC90SL stem, EC90SLX3 handlebars, and EC90 seatpost. Now, I admit that I am a late adopter. Until just last year I was still riding 9 speed; I admitted that I had not yet rolled wide rims in our review of Handspun-built HED C2 Belgiums. In addition, there are some parts I don’t justify spending much money on. I prefer to rummage in used bins for $20 handlebars and stems. If a bar is a classic bend, that’s great. If a stem isn’t ugly and doesn’t weigh more than my cranks, that’s a bonus. That’s about as advanced as I’ve got.
This means that I’ve ignored some of the advancements in the industry, and when I opened a box containing an EC90SL stem and EC90SLX3 handlebars, I was shocked. The handlebars – oversized at the clamp, with a compact, variable-radius bend (more on that later) – weigh in at just over 200g, and the stem, just over 100g. My new cockpit therefor weighs well under a pound: much, much less than my older setup. And sure, weight is only a concern for those going up mountain passes with an eye on a stopwatch and a powermeter, or for those seeking to build a particularly light bike for fun and the jealousy of their riding buddies (don’t lie!). While I’m impressed with the weight of these parts, it’s not a huge concern to me. Much more interesting to me is the shape of the handlebars, and the stiffness of the stem/handlebar interface.
The variable-radius bend – a feature of many modern “compact” handlebars – is made for integrated shifting and the subtle but important changes that “on the hoods” riding makes to a rider’s fit. When I mounted the stem and bars, my hoods (Campagnolo, 2nd generation shape) were higher and closer. When riding in the drops, I had two very comfortable positions to choose from: back in the drops, a comfortable cruising position, and forward in the drops, for sprinting. Handlebars with this bend can be quite comfortable, but more importantly, they’re an interesting way to tweak your fit. A compact handlebar is a crucial tool to consider for getting maximum comfort and use from your bike, and they can have several different effects – you can use them to attain a higher, even transition from bars to hoods, or you can also use them to get some more comfort from a low handlebar setup.
Easton touts some intelligent carbon design for these handlebars that results in a careful combination of stiffness and flexibility, and it’s noticeable. When my hands were “back” in the drops – in a low crusing position, rather than a forward, fingertips-at-the-levers position – there’s some obvious flex built into the system. I could grab the drops and twist and flex them. I appreciated the additional comfort this led to my ride – I ride a very stiff bike (a Spooky Skeletor), and the effect of these bars was similar to riding a high-quality carbon fork. One might not notice the difference between two high-quality carbon forks, but if you move from a low-end to a high-end one (as I had with an unbadged cheap-o to an Alpha Q and then an Easton EA90SL fork, incidentally – though separate from receiving these parts for a PavÃ© review), you feel the effect. And, similarly, I felt the effect of going from old alumiinum handlebars to high-quality, modern carbon bars.
The final evident quality of this setup is its stiffness. Bear with me as I follow a paragraph on flex and comfort with one on stiffness, but I was fairly intrigued at this characteristic of these parts. Back in the drops, they flex. Forward in the drops – by the tighter radius of the bend – you get the full effect of the carbon’s ability to be specifically woven for varying strength. I suppose I’ve never ridden a very stiff stem & bar, and in fact had poo-poo’ed discussion of them as snake oil aimed at getting people to spend money. Sure – until I climbed and sprinted on them. Then, I felt that elusive feeling that stiff parts offer – the sense that you can put a bit more into your bike. Sprinting and climbing may be mainly about the legs, but many will tell you that some upper-body and core workouts can improve one’s performance and power output. It stands to reason that a stiff cockpit helps.
I also test-rode Easton’s EC90 seatpost. On first glance, it’s evident that the saddle clamp is fairly bulky, and as with almost all seatposts, it lacks the ability to adjust tilt and fore/aft saddle position independently of each other. However, like the other Easton carbon components, it’s impressively light, with some flex built into to the system providing some additional comfort to the bike’s system.
The sixty-four thousand dollar question, of course, is how much is one willing to spend for all these benefits? The Easton cockpit is not cheap, with the handlebars and stem each retailing for well over $200. They may not be as expensive as other parts out there, and indeed, considering the direction of bike parts’ prices (as well as quality and performance), it’s neither unusual nor unrealistic for many consumers. So, for those willing to drop the coin on high-quality bits,, the Easton EC90 SL and SLX3 stem/bar combination, and the EC90 seatpost are very fine choices indeed.
My own reaction is a bit more modest. Riding these parts was a delightful experience indeed, but my cycling takes place on a budget. They haven’t convinced me to spend $200 bucks on a stem or handlebar – however, they have convinced me of the importance and value of some of the advancements in handlebars and stems that have been made in the past ten or fifteen years. I can be riding lighter and stiffer parts, and not feel as though I’m throwing money down the drain. I think it’s time to open up my budget just a bit more.