2015 Swift Ultravox TI
Swift Carbon is one of those brands kind of on the periphery - like Franco, Meridia, and Neil Pryde. Cool-looking, well-designed and sponsoring notable teams (Swift sponsors Drapac, an Australian UCI pro team) but not that common -- you won't likely see these brands on the weekend ride. These brands are also "made in China or Taiwan" which carries a bit of an unneccesary stigma (spoiler alert but most bikes are manufactured in Asia).
Out of the box, I was intrigued by the components and the frame looked great. And, needless to say, I was interested in seeing how Swift would "build a better mousetrap" and looked forward to testing it.
Swift Carbon is a direct to consumer company headquartered in China.
Made in China - a lot of things are made in China--and there is a bit of unfounded resentment because of it. But face it, a lot of things are being outsourced and made offshore so why not embrace it? That is what Swift has done; they've relocated headquarters to China to oversee, first hand, the manufacturing process of their carbon bike frames. This puts them closer to the factory where they can monitor quality control and make fine adjustments. The founder, Mark Blewett, is a former South African pro. His aim is to produce a ride quality (from a carbon bike) similar to the Reynolds Chromo 853 and 753 frames of the '80's.
Sizing. Swift's bike frame sizing was a little different than what I am used to. I focus less on the stack (distance from the center of the bottom bracket to the center of the handlebar) but more on "reach" which is the distance from the center of the bottom bracket to the center of the head tube. I am just under 6 feet tall and like reach to be around 387cm which is typical for a "size 56" bike. While the large Swift is called a 56.5, it has a reach of 394, which is substantially longer. The size 54, on the other hand, has a reach of 388. So I opted to downsize to the 54. In practice, I found that there was plenty of stack in this size (note in the photos that the seatpost isn't that high) though the reach was actually a bit cramped. Unfortately, the Zipp seatpost has a plate at the end that makes the makes moving the seat to the rear on the rails a bit limited. I would have liked to stretch out a little bit more.
Frame: the frame featured a huge down tube, massive bottom bracket and chain stays with a somehwat flattened top tube and extremely thin seat stays. It seems that this combination of shapes is has become the new formula for offering stiffness with compliance. Cables were neatlly and internally routed as well.
Components: the Swift came equipped with a very compelling component set up; mechanical 11-speed SRAM Red (albeit with the heavier duty Force cassette -- a smart choice), Zipp Service course cockpit and seatpost, Zipp alloy rimmed wheels, and a gorgeous fizik Aliante saddle. On the surface, the component choices seemed excellent, however, they turned out to be...
Controversial Component Choices
It's remarkable how component choices can have a dramatic influence on the overall ride quality and satisfaction of a bike.
To this end, there were some controversial component choices.
Saddle: the bike came with a gorgeous black and chrome Fizik Aliante saddle, which, in my opinion, is perhaps the best saddle ever -- for commuting.
In fact, the first review I did for roadbikereview was for this saddle. I loved it. But, because it is so plush and comfortable, it also tends to mask imperfections in how a bike rides. The downside of the Aliante? If you like to move around on the saddle, it may not be right for you. Because you sit "in" the saddle rather than "on" it, it doesn't encourage moving forwards and back. And because of it's elevated rear, pushing back on the saddle raises the distance to the pedal which can lead to knee discomfort. On a road ride (vs a commute), I like to do that--move back and forth; to whit, my saddle of choice is now the Fizik Antares; the Antares is flatter and allows the same saddle height no matter if you are forward or backward. I place a lot of emphasis on saddle choice like this because it truly does affect the ride quality.
Tires: the bike comes spec'd with 700x25 Michelin Lithium tires which turned out to be surprisingly slow. I didn't think tires made that much of a difference but when going on a casual ride with a long, gradual uphill, the bike felt really sluggish. In fact, on that ride, I got dropped! Later, I ran in to a friend and on a flat section of road, we both stopped pedaling to see which bike would coast down quicker. We let off the gas and, wow, he just kept going while my bike felt like it had anchors. By coincidence, Velonews recently did a tire test and they claim the Michelins require 29% more wattage to roll at 40kmh than the Continental GP4000's my friend was riding. Later I replaced the tires with Schwalbe Ones (700x25) and the bike felt much faster; the same Velonews article claims these tires require 21% less effort than the Michelins.
Torx bolts: the beautifully crafted Zipp Service Course stem required Torx bolts. While I appreciate their better resistance to rounding, wow, what an inconvenience to have to carry a Torx wrench in addition to Allen wrenches. I "get the benefit" and, sure, setting up the stem should be a one time thing, but it took me a while to dial in the fit. And carrying an additional Torx wrench was a bit of a hassle.
Rear Wheel: the rear Zipp wheel also had some issues with braking; either it was slightly out of true or the braking surface was a bit uneven; there was noticable "pulsing" from the rear brake. Also irritating - the inner tubes were barely long enough for the 30mm high Zipp rims. Inflating was a bit of a challenge.
So how did it ride?
Despite all the drama with the component choices, the bike was a joy to ride. The ride was silent and there was no rattle from the internally routed cables. The Zipp cockpit felt great and the wheelset was smooth (with the exception of the rear braking). And the mechanical SRAM Red was excellent.
The only downside? When I replaced the stock tires, though it felt much faster, the bike still didn't quite "shoot forward" when climbing. But it did feel very connected and competent. And while going up wasn't stellar, the bike descends like a dream. The steering is very accurate but not twitchy; it is confidence inspiring. I've stated in many past reviews that I'm a lousy descender but I felt extraordinarily comfortable on this bike on the downhills. In fact, I set a lifetime Strava PR on a steep and technical 1.5 mile descent, despite riding in frigid cold weather.
What really sets this bike apart, though, is it's velvety smooth ride on the flats -- yet, somehow, it's got amazing feedback through the frame.
You can feel every nuance of the road pavement but it doesn't beat you up. This is a remarkable balance between responsiveness and comfort.
If I had to choose a bike to do a century, this might be it.
This was a really interesting bike to ride. And I was amazed at how component choices could make such a huge difference.
Kudos to Swift for creating a bike that has an amazing ride quality. It seems that Mark Blewett has been able to deliver the smooth and plush feel of a traditional steel bike while dialing in some additional road feel -- for a lot less weight.