Litespeed C1R, Part I

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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.

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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.

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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.

IMG_4666The bike that inspired a category.

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.

Bastard.

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20 comments

  1. The Tashkent Error

    Somewhere along the search for miniscule aerodynamic advantage, the frame aesthetics died a horrible violent death.

  2. Mark S

    The integrated Seat post is always a deal-killer for me. Aerodynamically it is likely great, but it is impossible to box. Look has some fine aero bikes, but that seat post…. Ridley has the same issues. I think their Helium SL which dropped the ISP will be better as a result.

    Here in Canada, I see an inordinate number of S5′s on the used web sites, likely due to the ‘kidney belt” issue. It would be like riding 200km on tour TT bike with drop bars. Owch. The S3 was a much nicer bike.

    I think the venge is a great compromise and would be a nice transition from my 2006 S-works tarmac.

    More aero is free speed, but the body is old.

  3. Winky

    I’m with TE. Mr White shouldn’t be bewildered by peoples’ choice to not ride/buy some of the ugliest bikes ever made. When I saw my first S5, I almost threw up my lunch. I just couldn’t own one. Never, ever. Perhaps the Venge is OK, and Trek’s aero tweaks to the Madone don’t make it any uglier, but the Cervelos are just wrong. I know this is irrational.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Thanks for the comments. There’s an intersection between the math of aerodynamics and industrial design. I accept that not every bike will look attractive (which is why I loved Winky’s parting shot, “I know this is irrational.”), but I will say that while I struggle with the look of the S5, I really do think the C1R is gorgeous. It looks aero to my eye.

  4. Clark

    Curious, was the omission of the new aero Madone a conscious one? Not suggesting a mistake, but just wondering since personally I’d put it in a similar category as the Venge, and perhaps even Cervelo’s new RCA and redesigned R5 (hough they’re probably not quite as slippery as Trek’s or Specialized’s offering, nor are they necessarily trying to be).


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Clark: I consider the Madone in the same category as the Cannondale SuperSix EVO; it’s a road bike with a couple of aero nods. I don’t see it as being in the same class as a Venge, and the Venge is less optimized for aerodynamics than the Felt AR, the Cervelo S5, this Litespeed, the Giant Propel or the Scott. That said, it’s possible the Madone is more aerodynamic than Time’s aero road bike.

      Winky: Consider the needs of the aero road bike: It’s still a road bike, not an all-out TT bike. It’s got to get you through a significant day. As this is a road bike, not a TT bike, the bottles are there, regardless. Try to look at this as a faster road bike, not a failed TT bike.

  5. Winky

    I am always a little bemused by the bottle cages on these aero bikes. I know that aero bottles don’t work in racing/riding where you are relying on neutral support that has round bottles. Nevertheless, what real benefit arises from wind-tunnel tuned down tubes and seat tubes that then have fat bottles placed behind and ahead of them for most of their length?

    Don’t get me started on Cervelos awkward cable running for zero-to-none practical benefit.

  6. Winky

    Padraig,

    I know what you are saying and I agree that they have a purpose, and yes, they may be a good choice for some. But when I look at the downsides (ugly, uncomfortable, heavier and less stiff) Vs the upsides (slightly faster, but less so when riding in a group or with bottles on), I just coudn’t bring myself to consider the Cervelos or that Litespeed. The Venge, yeah, perhaps…..

    The points in my rides when I REALLY need performance to hang on are the climbs. The fast bits? They don’t seem to be as critical. The guys with the aero-bikes can just take longer pulls!

  7. Les.Bo.

    I’m kinda siding with Tashkent E. The uuuuugliest thing I ever saw on a bike is those solid-disc wheels. Ugh.

    “Beauty is only skin deep, it’s true. But ugly goes all the way to the bone.”

  8. puck monkey

    Padraig,
    I totally agree with you about Cervelo bringing aero bikes to the masses. I’m old enough to still recall Alex Zulle riding a Look KG 196 in 93. This bike blew my mind and I still consider it the grandfather of both TT and aero road bikes.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Puck Monkey: Great point. The Look KG 196 absolutely was an aero road bike. If memory serves, they designed it, built it, then blew it in the wind tunnel and called that “wind tunnel tested.” It’s a common tactic, actually. But why it would be years before anyone else would really chase this in a way that made a lasting impact on the bike industry is something of a mystery. Maybe it’s because they are French and the French are almost never credited with being innovative in a rational way.

  9. Clark

    Some like the swooping curves of a Bianchi or Pinarello, and some like the classic flat top tube of a Cannondale. I can understand that, but as a mechanical engineer, I also appreciate what companies like Litespeed and Cervelo have been able to achieve with true aero profiles. The bike aesthetic is in line with their goal of increased speed.

    Cervelo in particular has some interesting pieces on their site about tradeoffs between weight and aerodynamics, and they address those that say they need more help on the climbs than the flats (http://www.cervelo.com/en/engineering/thinking-and-processes/weight-vs-aero.html). I’m paraphrasing, but they lay out that for the average amateur, the tipping point between an aero bike and a climbing bike is around 5% gradient. As you approach pro power numbers, that tipping point approaches 8% gradient. Furthermore, they explain that for a given route that even includes a decent amount of elevation gain, it’s quite likely you’ll save more overall energy on an aero bike and thus have a bit more in reserve for the climbs.

    Different horses for different courses, but if the goal is speed and the course in question isn’t a hill climb TT, the aero bike will likely get you there faster. If the goal is all-day comfort, some concessions must be made in the speed department. The same goes for aesthetics–for the most part the fastest bikes also look like they’re fast, and that’s exactly what some riders want.

  10. Les.B.

    Questions about aero bikes:
    In a headwind is the difference in effort noticeable on an aero bike?
    If that be true, then I suppose then going downwind you get less of a boost?

    Buddy of mine said he was drafting behind someone on an aero bike + aero helmet, and the assist from the drafting was nil. Is this in fact?

  11. Mateo

    There’s also Wilier Imperiale, also one of the early aero road bikes, now replaced by Cento1Air. Beauty is in beholder’s eyes, but this beholder considers them one of the most beautiful rides…
    For last two years I’m riding Imperiale, although not a gran fondo ride, with good tyres it’s my go-to-bike for most of the season, with various centuries and double centuries.

  12. Eto

    Great product review and ensuing debate.

    As a practicing industrial designer I can admit to foregoing traditional aesthetics for higher functionality when considering the S5 as my new bike this year. My choice for the S5 was motivated by concept of enhancing my human efforts whenever possible with real aero advantages.

    I also appreciated the choices V+W made on the S5 design to enhance it’s performance even if in turn they could negatively affected the bike’s appearance. Cervelo understands they have a problem with how their S5 frame looks. Their latest graphical treatment for the S5 product line tries to “fool the eye” into seeing something else, maybe more pleasing around the seat tube to frame area.

    In general, aero (road) bikes like aero planes or aero passenger cars need not be made “ugly” in order to manage the wind where it counts the most. The Litespeed C1R integrates it’s (aero) features in a purposely styled frame aesthetic that should agree with a good portion of the market they have targeted.

    Personally, I can’t wait to see what Cervelo does next to develop the S line of aero road frames. Hopefully, the re-introduction of the S3 isn’t it.

  13. Bikelink

    Most people don’t race. When I do group rides the only hard parts are going up hills. When I race (mostly crits…and track)…it’s going fast and cutting through the wind. For racing, not getting an aero bike when you get a new one (i’m still riding an ’09 Giant TCR) seems silly. For most group rides it’s probably not worth the relative discomfort (if you can feel a difference).

  14. hoshie99

    For what it is worth, I saw one of these bikes at the Piru TT a few weeks back and thought it looked very nice in person. And, I bet the gap between an aero road frame and a true TT bike is indeed narrow.

    I think the new trend to all around aero road is intriguing. It is not hard to understand that moving through the wind is what a lot of the work we do as cyclists entails.

    That being said, ride quality also counts to me. I suspect many of this new crop of designs will hit a sweet spot that will be very hard to pass up. We are in the midst of a great time – from aero road frames, to custom Ti gravel road bikes w/ disc brakes, one really has so many amazing machines to choose from. If only the budget would allow N+1!

    Really nice stuff…

  15. Winky

    Last summer I was descending down a 4%-5% slope behind a tri-guy on a full-on TT bike. He coasted the whole way down, while I had to pedal just to stay on his wheel. At that speed (maybe 40km/hr), his aero advantage was greater than my drafting advantage. That surprised me. I was right on his wheel, down in the drops and still had to pedal while he coasted. Remarkable difference.

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