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2009 Look 596
By Tom Demerly.
Read this first about our reviews

When a proven bike brand combines manufacturing experience with design innovation the results can be impressive.

If the combination of these goals is optimal then the results are spectacular. Consider the case of the Look 596 triathlon bike: Look’s 596 Triathlon Bike combines experienced leadership and innovative design to produce a state-of-the-art technology leader. When you consider Look’s legacy in high end, race proven carbon fiber bikes the only thing surprising about the 596 is that it hasn’t happened until now.

2009 Look 596

Look is an innovator of carbon fiber race bikes. Look’s designs took Bernard Hinault and American cycling pioneers to Tour de France glory. Legends Andy Hampsten, Bernard Hinault, Steve Bauer, Laurent Jalabert and Greg Lemond all rode Look. As Look’s bicycle program matured their ski division was sold to Rossignol. Their focused approach to bike design became more sophisticated. During one Tour de France three teams were using Look’s carbon bikes. In a race ruled by sponsorships this level of equipment consensus for bike frames is rare. The implication was clear: Other brands did not offer the same benefits.

Look is one of few manufacturers who actually build their own bikes. Look carbon bikes are not made by a third party manufacturer- they are made by Look in a Look facility. Look’s factory in Tunisia is across the Mediterranean Sea from Nice, France in Northern Africa. Tunisia is a partially French speaking country, another logistical advantage for the French headquartered Look. The design, engineering and manufacturing teams all speak the same language- literally. This close proximity to Look’s French headquarters has enabled design engineers at Look to press further into advanced manufacturing and greater design integration. This degree of integration is difficult for other bike brands that speak English and work with a manufacturer literally half way around the world speaking Chinese and building two additional competing brand names.

2009 Look 596
Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault on early Look carbon fiber frames in the Tour de France during the mid '80's.

Even with these logistical advantages it took Look a decade to understand the triathlon bike and execute the geometry well. Former top professional cyclist and Tour de France star Laurent Jalabert used early Look tri bike designs in several Ironman distance races after he left professional cycling and began racing triathlons. Jalabert brought with him a wealth of eclectic experience from years as a top level pro cyclist, a perspective rare among top triathletes and tri bike companies. In Jalabert’s Ironman debut he had one of the fastest bike splits. His influence on tri bike design has optimized the performance mix of the 596. Look’s previous multisport offering suffered from design and geometry compromises endemic of the entire industry during that era. A greater understanding of triathlon bike fit helped Look improve their tri geometry.

2009 Look 596
Key features and good system integration distinguish the Look 596.

Look’s 596 is a high end super-bike that competes with other triathlon super-bikes: Cervelo’s P4, Scott’s Plasma, Trek’s TTX and Felt’s DA. This is the tip-of-the-spear for performance triathlon bikes and should deliver the optimal mix of weight, aerodynamics, stiffness, ride comfort, fit and mechanical performance. At this price, there should be no excuses. The Look 596 carries a suggested retail of $4999.00 for the frame, integrated fork, seat-mast, crank, bottom bracket pedals (!) and two stems along with spares. While that is a lot to spend, you are getting a lot of components with the frame, notably an ultra-lightweight bottom bracket and crank- more on that in a minute, and a set of high end pedals. All you need to add are a transmission (derailleurs and shifters), cockpit, wheels and a saddle.

2009 Look 596
Viewed from the front the 596 is extremely narrow and maintains its thin profile until the rear triangle begins.

Starting at the front of the Look 596 is the integrated fork/ frame/stem assembly. The front of the bike is extremely narrow and it remains skinny all the way to the rear triangle. This is a cornerstone of good frame aerodynamics. A bike that starts thin but bulges out somewhere in the main triangle will almost always produce more drag. In general, thinner is faster, and the 596 is razor thin, the entire main frame is about the width of a U.S. quarter coin. The integrated head tube/fork assembly is very deep. This aspect ratio of depth to width is Look’s answer to front end aerodynamics.

The fork is integrated into the head tube. The stem originates in front of the axis of steering. When you think of stem length on the 496 you measure the total distance from the anchor bolt in the fork to the center of the bar clamp on the stem. The stem itself is girder-like with four mounting bolts held at 5 Newton meters of torque. As with all stem plates, bring these up to torque in an “X” pattern and use a torque wrench. This stem design combined with the sturdy aerodynamic fork crown makes the front end of the 596 stable and confident. When you climb out of the saddle the bike feels solid. Steering at low speed as you enter a crowded transition area is well mannered. The front brake is partially recessed into the fork with the trailing edge of the brake pads actually between the fork blades. This is not only an aerodynamic feature but also helps with front end brake feel, which, along with steering, is superb. One of the first things you notice about the Look 596 compared to other advanced tri bikes is sure-footed steering. A lot of carbon fiber cockpits used on lightweight tri bikes are relatively flexible and don’t inspire confidence. The 596 front end makes up for that. If you have ever tried to negotiate a wide turn in the aero position only to rethink that line half way through the turn you’ll appreciate the confident handling of the 596. The bike holds a line well through a corner. More flexible front ends on other tri bikes tend to “fade wide” under hard cornering- an unsettling feeling. The front end on the Look 596 isn’t wimpy. It goes where you tell it. Yank hard on the bars on a tough climb and the bike obeys. The front end design of the Look 596 yields tangible improvements in comfort and handling while offering a potential aerodynamic benefit as well. This is the hallmark of integrated bike design: Everything is optimized. Nothing is an afterthought.

A deep aero section and excellent sizing flexibility on the integrated front end.

The unique stem design of the Look 596 provides an impressive range of cockpit positions with no spacers. On other high end aero triathlon bikes much of the aerodynamic benefits are eliminated by adding a stack of spacers to make the front end high enough for most riders. Having a low front end does make a frame more aerodynamic, but if the rider must add a stack of spacers to achieve a comfortable position then most of the aero benefit is lost.

2009 Look 596
In addition to the ease of adjustability the stem is extremely stiff.

The Look 596 in my size has an effective head tube height of 130 millimeters compared to only 90 millimeters on my Cervelo P3C. That is a whopping 4 centimeter difference (higher) in my frame size. Adding 4 centimeters of round headset spacers would compromise front end aerodynamics. If you like a moderate to higher aerobar configuration the Look will enable you to achieve it without spacers. You can also position the stem in the lower mounting bracket on the 596’s integrated fork/head tube making the front end very low. This is a clever design that maintains aerodynamics while completely eliminating the much less aerodynamic round headset spacers. Look scores a tangible victory here. You can build the front end of the 596 low or high and easily adjust in between for different length events. The front end design on the 596 is well conceived, lightweight, sturdy and aerodynamic achieving several design goals simultaneously. Athletes will appreciate the versatility in the front end when they go from short distance to very long distance events. If you like a higher handlebar position for Ironman distance but want to go lower for sprints, Olys and 70.3 distance the 596 facilitates this without stem changes. The front end of the 596 is well conceived and features an enormous effective range of adjustment.

2009 Look 596
No need for spacers and a very wide range of cockpit adjustment.

The main frame of the Look 596 includes a narrow, aerodynamic down tube in an airfoil shaped seat tube. It is the top tube that raises questions. While there is little consensus on aerodynamic design of triathlon bike top tubes the company with the most logical design is Cervelo. Cervelo top tubes (P2, P3, P4) are horizontal, minimizing forward facing surface area and reducing drag. Look uses a visually striking “kinked” top tube that does increase stand-over clearance but is less aerodynamic than a horizontal top tube, suffering a similar aerodynamic fate as the Specialized tri bikes. This is long on fashion but short on function. The Look 596 would be more aerodynamic with a flat top tube, and Look embarrassed themselves by conceding that the design feature was predominantly aesthetic. At least they are honest about it. Having ridden the bike I will come to Look’s rescue a little by adding that this aids in out of the saddle climbing, but you can’t argue away an aerodynamic penalty. The bike would have better aerodynamics with a flat top tube similar to the Cervelo P series.

2009 Look 596
Look concedes the bent top tube is a cosmetic feature with little or no technical merit.

Look may earn (at least partial) redemption with an innovative approach to rear end aerodynamics. Look used the wind tunnel facility in Magny-Cours, France used by Formula 1 teams and emphasizes the validity of their tests since they were conducted with a live, pedaling rider. While there is little consensus on bicycle aerodynamics among manufacturers there is a general sense that a bicycle rear wheel either needs to be so close to the frame that it permits almost no air movement between frame and wheel (Cervelo P3, P4) or far enough away that the air can move freely in this space. With the introduction of new lenticular “bulge” disk wheels and wider, more aero wheels from Hed and Zipp, any bike design having very tight rear wheel frame clearance will limit wheel choices- those new wider aero wheels don’t fit. Look has opened up the rear end of the 596 for air to move at low pressure between rear wheel and frame. An added spin off is that all wheel designs work well whereas close proximity rear wheel designs have best aerodynamics with a flat disk wheel adjusted very close to the frame. The Look 596 rear end works well with Zipp and Hed “bulge rim” disks as well as deep section rims of all depths and widths. While there is no consensus on the “fastest” rear end design the best designs tend to reside at either extreme- wheel either very close (Cervelo) or relatively far (Look) from the frame. Additionally, the Look 596 rear end is “idiot proof”. If the close proximity rear end designs (P3 and P4) aren’t adjusted correctly and checked occasionally you may experience tire rub on steep climbs or if the wheel moves slightly. Not possible on the Look 596. If you are a current P3C owner and you see rubber skid marks on the back of your seat tube when you remove your rear wheel than you’ll suddenly appreciate the value of this contrary design them. No matter how aero having a tight rear wheel is, if the tire rubs the frame, it’s slower.

2009 Look 596
Look uses a widely spaced rear end to improve aerodynamics according to their tests at the Magny-Cours Formula 1 wind tunnel in France.

Brake mounting on the Look 596 is traditional meaning no aerodynamic benefit here but also no unusual cable routing or mechanical issues relating to unconventional brake placement. It’s not the most aero but it is the simplest.

2009 Look 596 2009 Look 596
Traditional brake mounting is easy to work on and simple but not as aerodynamic as some modern "superbikes".

Cable routing on the 596 is mechanically simple and smooth resulting in excellent component performance. The cable housing stops are part of the frame so they can’t come loose. Bare derailleur wire runs through the frame reducing weight. No problems here- a clean design.

2009 Look 596

2009 Look 596

The mechanical details of the 596 are superb with excellent, simple internal cable routing that is easy to work on and provides good component performance.

2009 Look 596

There are some functional design benefits to Look’s 596 rear end. The rear derailleur hanger is replaceable, a significant functional advantage. Rear derailleur hangers on almost all other popular aero bikes are not replaceable. If you severely bend the rear derailleur hanger by knocking the bike over in a transition area you can’t replace it separately- your entire frame is likely ruined. Not-so on the Look 596. If you bend the derailleur hanger on the 596 you simply bolt on the spare hanger included with the bike. Good thinking Look- on an expensive, high performance triathlon frame that is likely find its way into a flight case this is a good, functional feature.

2009 Look 596
A replaceable derailleur hanger is a practical feature missing from many high end tri bikes.

The Look 596 uses the recent design trend of eliminating a traditional seat post and using an adjustable length seat mast instead. Scott, Kuota, Quintana Roo, Pinarello, Ridley and others are also using integrated seat masts. The benefits include control over ride quality using the elastomer shims included with the bike. These shims come in different densities ranging from soft to very firm and different thicknesses for setting saddle height precisely. I was initially uncomfortable with this design and yearned for an old-fashioned seatpost. I have come around though after experiencing the luxurious shock absorption afforded by the soft elastomers. The design is also more durable than some integrated aerodynamic binder bolts (Cervelo P4) and more streamlined than exposed binder bolts (Felt B2, DA). In general I’m won over to the Look seat mast design- it enables enhanced control of ride quality, it is super durable and never slips, can’t break and is light weight and aesthetically pleasing. For a frame in my size (I’m 5’9”) it does still fit easily in a flight case with both wheels removed. Another benefit of this seat mast design is that your saddle height is easily restored if the bike is flight-cased and your saddle adjustment cannot change or slip. On a regular seatpost design if the piece of tape you used to mark your saddle height falls off you may be adjusting your saddle height by feel out of your flight case. This is another example of component integration that offers tangible benefits with no drawbacks.

2009 Look 596 2009 Look 596
The sizing elastomers are hidden inside the rubber boot on top of the seat mast. Various thickness and hardness elastomers tune the fit and ride.

2009 Look 596
The saw guide is soft aluminum and must be used carefully. A Look road frame is shown in this photo.

2009 Look 596
The guide is provided with the frame and tightens securely for a good cut.

2009 Look 596Adjusting the saddle height and ride quality by using the elastomer stack.

Sizing the seat-mast correctly is a measure twice, cut once situation. Look provides a saw guide for making certain the cut is straight. Use the guide carefully as your saw blade can actually cut into the guide during the cutting. Once the post is cut to the appropriate length there is a significant amount of saddle height adjustment available using the rigid sizing shims provided with the frame. As mentioned these are provided in several thicknesses and durometers (hardness) ranging from rigid to soft. Bikes with seat masts sometimes don’t fit inside flight cases but our size Small test bike fit inside a standard Trico Ironcase hardshell flight case easily.

The most impressive example of integration on the Look 596 is the crank/bottom bracket/pedal assembly. This is no longer a hodge-podge of separate bottom bracket, crank and pedal components, but an integrated system with integral sizing and gearing adjustment, lighter weight and lower bearing resistance than traditional designs. In short, this design is brilliant. It offers significant benefits with one drawback- no pedal choice. No matter what size frame you need you have the choice of 170, 172.5 and 175 millimeter cranks on the bike. In other words- you don’t change cranks to change crank lengths. Additionally, the chainring spider has mounting holes for both 110 millimeter bolt pattern (compact) chainrings and 130 millimeter (full size) chainrings. This degree of fit flexibility is unheard of in previous designs. This is accented with an innovative, oversized bottom bracket assembly that lowers bearing rotational speed and bearing resistance while increasing bottom bracket stiffness. The Look 596 is supplied with a high end pair of Look Carbon clipless pedals that are specific to this bike. This integrated pedal works with the unique crank to facilitate the ability to change effective crank length with the same crank arm. If there is a drawback to this design I can’t find it. If you do find one, there is an adapter that enables you to install a traditional bottom bracket- although I’m not sure why anyone would want to. Perhaps the only drawback to the highly integrated approach is that you must use the special Look pedals supplied with the bike in order to appreciate the other advantages of the integrated crank and bottom bracket. I have no issue with that since I like these pedals. They are lightweight, have good rotational movement (float) and cleats are readily available. I switched to this system from Time RXS and I am perfectly happy with them. It was a worthwhile switch to gain the adjustability in gearing (compact and normal) and the better bottom bracket assembly along with extremely light weight of the entire package.

Summarizing the technical features and benefits of the Look 596 we see:

  • Integrated, aerodynamic stem/fork assembly that eliminates the need for headset spacers: More aero, lighter, stiffer and better steering. Highly adaptable for different distance events.
  • Integrated seat mast design with elastomer inserts: Mechanically more reliable (no binder bolt to fail), tunable ride quality without compromising frame stiffness.
  • Integrated bottom bracket/crank/pedal system: Includes both compact and traditional gearing in one package, reduces overall weight and increases bottom bracket stiffness. All common crank lengths on bike at once.
  • Replaceable rear derailleur hanger: Can be more easily repaired in case of a bike crash or knock-down.
  • High clearance, flow-through aerodynamic rear end facilitates new generation “bulged” rim race wheels such as Zipp and Hed.

And in contrast we see two design concessions:

  • Curved top tube design is less aerodynamic than horizontal top tube.
  • Lack of flexibility in pedal choice when using supplied/integrated cranks (but standard crank/bottom bracket can be installed).

This is a pretty attractive set of features and benefits with only minor concessions. The incredible ride quality alone is the most striking benefit and noticeably different from other bikes- especially on a hilly course or rough roads. On a triathlon course like the St. Croix 70.3 with its bad pavement and difficult hills the Look 596 would be a significant advantage.

2009 Look 596
Very large bearing reduce rolling resistance and provide excellent stiffness in the bottom bracket. Note the carbon fiber housing.

2009 Look 596
The oversized bottom bracket/crank assembly. Removal and installation are easy and require few tools.

2009 Look 596
The crank and bottom bracket are an integrated unit designed together to be light, stiff and have low bearing resistance.

2009 Look 596
The significantly oversized bottom bracket shell in the frame is clean and precisely installed.

2009 Look 596
This unique pedal mounting system enables three crank lengths with one set of arms using the different pedal mounting orientations.

2009 Look 596
The entire crank, bottom bracket, bearing, cup and chainring spider assembly weighs 416 grams.

How does the Look 596 ride? Considering the degree of difference in this design from a more conventional, less integrated frameset we expected a big difference and we aren’t disappointed. The Look 596 rides with the stiffness of a Tour de France level pro road bike but increased stability in the aero position. Ride quality is… what ever you want it to be since you can make it feel pillow soft with the softer seat mast elastomers or more responsive with the harder elastomers. I selected the softest ones and have stuck with them- I like the seemingly conflicting qualities of a very stiff bike from the oversized/integrated crank and bottom bracket and the plush, shock absorptive ride from the elastomer pillows in the seat mast. Using the elastomers has results in a noticeable improvement in saddle comfort. It is the best of both worlds. Combine these ride characteristics with highly tunable fit and position and the Look 596 becomes a high performance argument for system integration. I have never been on a triathlon bike that performed so well across the entire envelope of speed and terrain as the 596. There are some bikes that are great on the flats, some that are exceptionally aerodynamic, some very light and/or very stiff, some that are luxuriously comfortable and others that corner well and climb hills well. Getting the amalgam of those qualities usually means owning four bikes. The Look 596 does it all well- climb, descend and corner. It is girder stiff and mattress comfortable while being mechanically sound and feathery light. If system integration in bike design is the trend the Look 596 is an argument in favor of it.

Our test Look 596, which has since become my personal bike for the beginning of the 2009 race season, was built up with new SRAM Red components, a Zipp Vuka aerobar system and new Zipp race wheels. The completed bike weighs about the same as a large house cat, or just under 16 pounds. I’ve never been on a bike this stiff but this comfortable.

Size names for the Look 596 sound smaller than they actually are and will likely confuse many customers. The bikes run very large making the size names sound absurdly small. I tested both the extra small and the small sizes, ultimately settling on a “small” which fits roughly the same as a 54cm Cervelo P3C. I’m 5’9” tall with a longish torso. The idea of riding anything called “extra small” just didn’t sound right- but it would fit me well using the longer stem. The real difference between “small” and “extra small” is the length of the top tube- they have the same head tube and seat tube center-to-center measurement. The Look 596 will not fit smaller riders. If you are less than 5’6” tall you can cross the Look 596 off your list- it won’t fit. The extra small and small frame sizes measure identically in stand over height, seat tube length center to top (not counting the extension above the top tube) and head tube height. The only real difference between the small and extra small is effective reach or top tube length. I have a longish torso so I went with the “small”. Better names for these two sizes might be “small regular” and “small long”. Whatever the case the geometry offers some unique sizing capabilities especially in terms of reach dimension- it’s just difficult to figure them out based on some rather ambiguous size names alone.

2009 Look 596
Size names on the 596 don't offer much information but their geometry charts give accurate dimensions except for forward seat angles.

Look’s geometry chart for the 596 is not very useful for steep seat angle riders as it does not depict the bike in the more forward, steeper seat angle configuration. The effective seat tube angle on my bike is 79 degrees, the same as my Cervelo P3C. I’m looking forward to Dan Empfield posting stack and reach fit coordinates for the Look 596 on his Slowtwitch website for a more accurate comparison to other bike fits. Prior to Empfield’s examination I would suggest the bike runs high, but with size names sounding utterly out of whack. Few riders at 5’10” will relish the idea of being on a frame size named “small” but most in that height range will fit that size name.

Fit and finish on the Look 596 are truly superb. This is an area where some super high end bikes lag. While there is validity to the argument that we buy these bikes to go fast and cosmetics are way down the list of performance priorities it is still nice to have a bike with a pretty paint job and nicely done graphics that look well finished upon close examination. The closer you get to the Look 596 the better and more finished it appears. There are two colors in this bike, the bright racing red I have and an elegant white color that evokes images of Lexus and Mercedes. The nice cosmetics on this bike complete the valid technical details.

2009 Look 596
The closer you get the better it looks. The bike has excellent fit and finish throughout and is available in two exciting color schemes. It is a beautifully finished product with nice attention to detail.

The Look 596 melds the design agendas of fit and position, weight, ride comfort, stiffness, aerodynamics and mechanical performance into a synergistic mix. The 596 strikes a balance between these design priorities, with no single priority ruling the design. It is an eclectic design that performs well on the flats, on steep and rolling climbs and behaves predictably through corners while providing the industry standard in ride quality. No one design agenda presides over the others; it is simply a fine balance of design requirements. In some areas the 596 is the best triathlon bike I’ve ridden. The result is a valid and innovative design that is as fast as it is pleasant to ride and to look at- a true racing thoroughbred with attention to aesthetic detail and real world functionality.

2009 Look 596
Look's 596 Triathlon Bike with SRAM Red, Zipp Vuka cockpit and new Zipp wheelset.


© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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