The aero road bike is an endeavor unlike anything else in the bike market. While most engineering teams were struggling to make bikes simultaneously stiffer and lighter without sacrificing stiffness, along came Cervelo with the Soloist and created a bike that sacrificed measures of weight and stiffness in exchange for improved aerodynamics. It was like saying juggling a bowling ball, a chainsaw and a newspaper isn’t hard enough, I’m now going to do it blindfolded. And on fire.
Put another way, when you threw the problem of aero road bikes at some of the most talented engineers in the bike industry, it was little different from the challenge of moving from Cat. 3 to the Pro/1/2 field.
What ya got boy?
We’re still early enough in the development of aero road bikes that the results from one company to another vary like the quality of music on the radio. While Cervelo set a high bar in terms of absolute aerodynamics, and has re-set that bar continually with bikes like the S5, one phrase no one has ever uttered is, “My S5 is the most vertically compliant and comfortable bike I’ve ever ridden.”
Somehow, that doesn’t stop Cervelo’s Phil White from wondering why their R5 is so popular. He can’t figure why anyone wouldn’t choose aero over comfort every day of the week and twice on Sunday. I’ve haven’t spent a lot of time talking to the man, but it is endlessly enjoyable, but also fascinating because of his utter bewilderment that people ride bikes not optimized for aerodynamics.
Felt decided to split the difference on comfort and stiffness with the first iteration of their AR model. They gave up some torsional and drivetrain stiffness, but you can finish an 80-mile ride on that bike without needing to soak in a hot tub afterward. Specialized took a similar approach with the Venge.
Last fall at Interbike I encountered Litespeed’s entry in the aero road bike category. On a short hill at the outdoor demo that I’d already descended nearly a dozen times I let the bike roll and it had the unmistakable feel of aero-assisted acceleration that I experience when I switch from box rims to a set of Zipp 404s. I found myself braking a little earlier and harder just before the turn at the bottom and thinking that I still hadn’t scrubbed quite enough speed as I exited the turn. That could have been an embarrassing and expensive screw up. That one experience was enough to make me want to do a full review on a bike.
Litespeed sent me their top-of-the-line frameset for this design, the CR1. My size large (57cm top tube) frame weighed in at 1080g with as much hardware removed as possible and the seat mast intact. Most frames get measured for weight once they are out of the mold and the flashing is removed, but before water bottle bosses, derailleur hangers or any other hardware is added. While I can’t say with certainty the weight of the C1R makes it the lightest of the aero frames out there, what I can say is that it is definitely the lightest of the frames I’ve ridden. There are plenty of non-aero frames that don’t use a seat mast that still can’t hit 1000g. It’s remarkable achievement.
The C1R is available in five sizes. Unfortunately, that’s one less option on sizing than you get with its competition—the Cervelo S5, the Specialized Venge, the Giant Propel or the Felt AR. Practically, what that means is that the Litespeed will be difficult to fit for the smallest and tallest riders. The smallest bike comes with a 52.5cm top tube (37.8cm reach), which is anywhere from 7 to 15mm longer than the others. Similarly, the largest frame has a top tube of 59cm (40.2cm reach), which is conversely 7 to 15mm shorter than the others. The upshot of all this is that the spacing between the sizes is very similar to the other bikes.
Because Litespeed chose different start and end points for their size run, the sizes fall a little differently in my size range. Often I’m looking at a choice between something in the range of a 56.5 or 58.1cm top tube. The ability to choose a 57cm top tube, which is a little closer to idea sizing for me, was a welcome change for me.
Let’s take a moment to give credit where due, or depending on your view, where to lay the blame. This category of road bike simply wouldn’t exist without Cervelo. The Soloist was the first carbon fiber road bike that was specifically designed around aerodynamic properties ahead of all other considerations. As completely fair goes, there were some aluminum road bikes with vaguely aerodynamic shapes (I recall several designs in particular from GT), but the Soloist was the first road bike, i.e., not a time trial/triathlon bike, that was both aerodynamic and intended to be ridden with a drop bar. That particular design culminated in the SLC-SL.
That bike was fast, but the speed came at the price. It should have been sold with a kidney belt. Or instructions only to ride the bike with 32mm clinchers pumped up to 45 psi. Alas.
While the S5 was a more forgiving bike than the SLC SL and more speedier than its predecessor, the S3, anyone who pays attention to what Garmin-Sharp rides in the grand tours will see that they really don’t ride the S5 all that often. Back to that whole kidney belt thing. Maybe it would be different if the pad in Castelli bibs was thicker, but holding them responsible for the Garmin riders not riding that bike more is a bit like blaming Blondie for the demise of disco. Disco, thankfully, was doomed anyway.
Felt released their AR model prior to Garmin moving to Cervelo and it was an intriguing alternative. The gave it slightly more relaxed handing than their F-series bikes and gifted it with a more comfortable ride. The downside to this bike—and see, that’s the deal; currently all aero road bikes have some Achilles heel—was that it wasn’t all that torsionally stiff. It wasn’t a great bike to sprint on, nor was it meant to be.
The Venge is a bike Specialized meant to be closer to a traditional road bike than an aero bike. Think road bike with aero attributes. It needed to hold up under a sprint.
Frankly, these bikes—the S5, the AR and the Venge—are the only three models of aero road bike I’ve seen on the road, and the S5 and Venge outnumber the AR, based on what I’ve seen, something on the order of 20 to one. I’ve yet to see a single Giant Propel on the road, possibly due to the newness of the model. Or, they might be out there by the hundreds, but just not on the Westside or South Bay of Los Angeles. I did, however, see another bike from Litespeed’s C series one day on PCH in Malibu. He looked a good deal faster than me.