LOOK's new 796 Monoblade
article & images by Nick Salazar
Oct 6, 2015
The LOOK 796 Monoblade is a rather long-overdue refresh of the TT bike from French stalwart whose older model, the 596, was once a rather fetching and competitive frame. But times have changed, and the decade-old design was in need of a serious redesign. In that sense, the 796 Monoblade fulfills its purpose: it's a complete ground-up design that bears virtually zero resemblance to its predecessor.
On the whole, the 796 Monoblade is a bit of a strange beast. It has a rather stunning look, it's insanely narrow up front, and it does a great job of hiding every last cable (at least for electronic; there will still be a slight length of exposed cable for mechanical builds). And it has some highlights. But it also has some very glaring problems as well, which we'll get to.
The first thing you notice about the 796 Monoblade is how incredibly skinny this thing is. This thing has Speed Concept narrowness, and doesn't even use a bayonet steerer to accomplish that feat. It's just a very narrow steerer tube, which flares out to a standard 1-1/8" spacer on bottom, and uses a toothed hirth joint on top to join to another flared section for another standard bearing up top. The head tube sits just 19mm wide, the UCI minimum width. The system is pretty simple and straightforward, and a nice way to keep the bike wicked narrow.
Cables run through the integrated zero-rise stem, whose shape blends smoothly into the top tube. A compartment just aft of the stem hides a Di2 junction box. Sadly, there is only the one stem height. It comes in two lengths (85mm and 110mm), but bar height is only adjustable via flipping the bar: +50mm when flipped up, -50mm when flipped down. This is a rather obtuse adjustment; a whopping 100mm between the only two options you get. It'd be nice if there was a flat bar option, as there is on the Scott Plasma 5. A 100mm adjustment range with only two positions is a bit too far to be of real use. The extensions do rise with their own series of spacers, and can be finely adjusted. It's the base bar that's so limited in stack choices.
The front brake is integrated into the fork. But it uses a TRP-style V-brake, which I have never seen work well on a tri/road form factor. On any bike. Of course, I'm biased when it comes to brakes because I sell the Omega X. However, I have no problem applauding a good integrated brake when I see one, as I did recently with the Argon18 E119, which executed the concept brilliantly. The LOOK V-brake design is a mess; difficult to install and adjust. LOOK claims their brake works with up to 28C tires, which shouldn't be a limiting factor for triathletes. Other V-brakes don't usually fare so well. Another curious aspect of the front fork is that it's completely flat up front, as if it were originally meant to accept a standard brake. But there's no hole for one. This is odd, because I assume a rounder or more pointed front would have yielded superior aerodynamics versus a completely flat face.
One thing I always loved about the original 596 was its lovely Zed 2 crank. LOOK has updated it with the new Zed 3. This time around, there's a semi-aero quality to the spider, though it's a bit ruined by the four cutouts LOOK decided would be a fun feature; personally, I really wish they'd just left the whole thing solid for better aerodynamics. But the crank is wonderfully light, and formed of a single carbon fiber structure. It requires the use of a massive 65mm bottom bracket shell, found only on LOOK models that cater to this crank specifically. The original was always nice in that it accepted both standard 130BCD and compact 110BCD rings. And it had a 5mm adjustment range built right into the crank, via a triangular rotation built into the pedal spindle. The new version also comes in three sizes, allowing crank lengths as short as 150mm! The sizes go 150, 152.5, 155mm on the short crank, 160, 162.5, 165mm on the medium, and 170, 172.5, 175mm on the long version. Again, I think the crank is very well done, although it can only be used on LOOK bikes and isn't transferrable to any other make of frame.
There are some other nice things to mention: the geometry is decidedly tri-friendly, with a nominal 76-degree seat angle that is made steeper by the flippable seatpost head. And top tube bosses allow standard storage options, though they're going to be a bit of an aerodynamic compromise given the raised top tube. They'll stick out completely exposed to the wind, as shown here. Storage boxes work best aerodynamically when they act as a fairing for the stem, as on the Felt IA and Scott Plasma 5.
On the other hand, this bike looks like quite a nightmare to work on. The front end uses proprietary extensions and somewhat cumbersome aerobar hardware. There is no continuous reach or roll adjustment possible, so the extensions are simply cut to length. This is basically unworkable in the world of constant fit optimization and adjustment.
The seatpost is, to put it bluntly, a nightmare. The post must be cut to length, leaving only 12mm of adjustment room once the cut is made, via a system of spacers that requires the saddle hardware to be removed in order to adjust. And that adjustment is of course in the positive direction, meaning more height. If you wanted to leave some negative adjustment room, you'd have to cut your seatpost 6mm short, then use 6mm of spacers, yielding a +/-6mm adjustment range. This is basically unusable; saddles even of the same brand can easily have a difference in stack height on the order of 20mm or more, meaning if you switch to a new saddle you might have to buy a whole new seatpost from LOOK. And then cut it to size. And then hope you don't need to adjust further if your fit ever gets revised. The whole "cut your seatpost" method of installation simply has no place in modern bike design. It's the Achilles heel of beam bikes, though even the Dimond looks to have more than LOOK's paltry 12mm of post-cut adjustment.
These nitpicks may seem minor, but for me they may be a deal-breaker for the bike as a whole. This thing has a modern design language, but an archaic level of installation thoughtfulness. The bike reeks of "team-only" use, where a dedicated mechanic can work on each bike with care, and has lots of spare parts to swap out when needed. The consumer may find this bike to be way too difficult, inconvenient, and inflexible to work as a dedicated tri bike.
Check out the gallery below for more images on the LOOK 796 Monoblade.