Like Oprah’s Favorite Things, I have a bunch of Stuff I Like. Unlike Oprah, you won’t find one under your seat. Here goes another addition of, Stuff I Like (And Paid For*)*not always retail.
Long before I had a blog, hell, before the Interwebs had blogs, I was a bike racer. And I was pretty successful on a national scale. And I was short. Am short. Not growing taller. And back in the 1990’s, there was not one single stock bicycle frame in the world that was worthy of racing in my size.
“Oh c’mon Jen, that’s not true,” you’re moaning, “Trek made them, Specialized had one, TONS of people had WOMENS SPECIFIC FRAMES.”
Sure they did, you’re right. But for one, I predate those and two, when they did show up most of them were not all that great from a racing perspective. Don’t get me wrong, I get it. Chicken and Egg. There were like ten of us who were any good and nine of us were tall enough to ride men’s bikes.
And so I rode. On things cobbled together. Until one day I was sponsored by an independent frame builder (crafty, huh?) who made me beautiful hand-made custom steel bikes in exactly my spec. It looked like everyone else’s bike because it had a horizontal top tube and was proportional. And those bikes rode like a dream. I am forever grateful to them for meeting my needs and I turned down literally tens of offers to join other teams for fear I would have to give up my bikes that fit.
I retired from bike racing in 2001. I had my team bike re-painted all shiny so I could pretend I still got new bikes. I put new parts on it. Life was good.
The rest of the world began riding compact frames, but my steel steed still looked like the bikes everyone was riding when I started. And I was fiercely loyal to my sponsor even after I had stopped racing.
One day I was approached by a good friend and former race mechanic who now works at Specialized. He asked if I would like to be a tester for a women’s bike. Now if you know me then you probably know what I was thinking. (Purple with flowers on it doesn’t make it a good bike people!) To be fair, up until that moment I had the ultimate women’s bike – custom. But somehow I was drawn.
Perhaps it was the carbony-goodness of this new bike. Or the fact that it was almost TEN POUNDS LIGHTER than my steel ride. Maybe it was the fact that it wasn’t purple with flowers on it. Or maybe it was a maturity that brings open-mindedness. Whatever it was, it resulted in a Specialized Amira being delivered to me one April day in 2009. The Amira is the women’s version of the men’s Tarmac – Specialized’s standard road racing machine. I built it and took it for a ride.
Now if you’re a sporting company and you would like me to review something, there is a bit of detail you should know. I HATE NEW EQUIPMENT. I hate it so much. I hate it the minute I try it. If I keep trying it, though, sometimes things turn around. This bike was no exception to the rule; it is built around a much more modern design than my old bike, so the front end was five centimeters higher than what I was riding.
“I hate this and it rides like a semi.” I think those were the first words out of my mouth. But I couldn’t seem to resist the lightness, so I rode it again. And again.
I don’t remember when my opinion started to change, but I remember when it completed its one-eighty. Jonathan and I rode the Shenandoah National Park Skyline Drive from end to end. It is roughly one hundred miles and about 10,000 ft. of climbing. We did it in just over six hours without going hard. When the ride was over I realized I had never once felt that good after a ride that hard. The anti-fatigue properties of carbon were evident as well as this one other little detail. This bike fit. It fit and it was STOCK.
We moved to Utah that year. One day I came home from a ride and leaned the bike against the wall in the garage and went inside. With me right there, some horrible soul came into my garage and took it. Upon discovering this I sobbed like I had lost my best friend. I was utterly inconsolable.
When the tears finally dried up I concluded I would now be willing to purchase a replacement. And if need be, I would pay RETAIL. I can stop the review right there, because if you know me, you know I never want to and hardly ever pay retail. So you know I LOVE THIS BIKE.
In the end I didn’t have to pay retail. Insurance helped out with parts and friends in nice places helped me find a new one. I had an identical bike back. See this bike was STOCK and not completely irreplaceable. To me, after all those years of not being able to just buy a bike like a normal human, this was and is a big deal.
At this point you’re wondering, “what’s so great about this bike? Does it have a motor? Does it also make Belgian Liege Waffles while you ride?”
Here’s the techie stuff. Keep in mind I am not large and therefore I will review things from a different perspective than a 250 pound, over six-foot dude. I don’t break much, and when I do it must be crap.
Fit: It specs out like my custom did. Sure, that’s my bias, but Specialized probably wouldn’t have made it in this size if there wasn’t some demand. I ride the 51cm Amira S-Works.
Ride Quality: Haters stand back: steel may be real but “plastic” is fantastic! See my info about riding the Shenandoah road above. Fatigue disappears when the road shock is being sucked up by a carbon frame, seatpost and handlebars. Remember, I’m small, so I’m not as worried about breaking things.
Handling: Bicycling Magazine voted Little Cottonwood Canyon, UT the second best road descent in the entire U.S. It sits about two miles from my door. Though in my opinion it takes second to Big Cottonwood, which is about one mile away and has more cool turns. Anyhoo, I’ve had this bike on both of those roads, brakes open wide, 50mph plus. With a slight lean of the hips the Amira sails through corners like it’s on rails. To be fair I haven’t raced a crit on it, but then again I don’t want to race crits anymore anyway. It is solid and predictable. It is stiff in all the right places so you lose nothing cranking on it in a standing climb. Its weight (about 15 pounds for mine) makes it go uphill like you aren’t even on a bike, but on descents it handles like it weighs much more (in a good way). Trustworthy.
Availability: Perhaps from where I sit this is the most amazing part of the story. I walked into a local shop one day and there were multiple models of this bike in stock. I had to pinch myself as a strolled along looking at multiple builds and sizes available when NOT ONE of these would have existed ten years ago. There are two sizes smaller than my 51 cm and a couple sizes larger. Any bigger than that and you are well into the men’s size range. Price points for this bike range from $1750 to $8500 in seven different parts packages and as a frame. Seriously! Unheard of ten years ago. I still ride a 2010 model but the 2013 models have only gotten better.
But does it look good? Sadly, if you are in the market for a purple bike with flowers, you’ll have to look elsewhere. Besides coming in a huge variety of sizes and builds, the Amira is also painted to look like, well, to look like a proper racing bike. Red, black, navy, you know, regular bike colors. I think somewhere in the line there’s a purple one if you must. The curved top tube is a nice aesthetic that hides just how compact the frame is; in other words, this bike just looks NORMAL. And for a long time that was not the case.
I will admit that I haven’t ridden any other bikes of this era. And I don’t feel the need; Specialized nailed this one first try. For years all I wanted was the option to walk into a local bicycle dealer and purchase a bike that was every bit as nice as the big men’s bikes, but in my size. And now short folks everywhere have the same option. Lots of my female friends have purchased Amiras and Ruby’s (the women’s version of the men’s Roubaix). It’s a good time for shorties to ride a bike. Now if it would only stop raining!