Litespeed C1R, Part II
For Part I, click here.
As I mentioned near the opening of this review, the C1R was part of that rare group of bikes in which I noticed the extra complement of speed provided by the aerodynamics in the first mile of riding it. I tell you, if you ride enough different bikes, the one with significantly improved aerodynamics will call attention to itself. Think Ford GT40 pulling away from a stoplight.
There was a short window earlier this year—prior to the birth of the Deuce—when my form was fair adjacent. I wasn’t actually fast, but I was fit enough to get to the front of the rides I did, even if I did blow up almost as soon as I got there. At least I could get there. With the aid of the C1R and a set of Zipp 404s, I had the ability to get to the front, do a brief pull and then get out of the way before blowing up. As achievements go, it was as dubious as a Wall Street broker claiming to save souls, but the difference for my own riding was too great to be ignored. The combination of frame and wheels was worth about as six weeks of training. It was as remarkable a change as the difference I’d experience from when I’d decide it was time to knuckle down on my training and that first day when I’d think, “Hey, we’re making progress here!”
That change takes about six weeks for most folks, me included.
My review bike was a large; it had a 57cm top tube, parallel 73-degree seat and head tube angles, 4.3cm of fork rake and 6.8cm of BB drop for neutral handling. The front center on this bike was a longish 59.8cm while the chainstays are a rather short 39.5cm. If that long front center and short chainstay design sounds familiar to any geo geeks out there, they ought to. This bike is the heir apparent to the old Litespeed Ultimate, arguably the most beloved bike Litespeed ever built. The C1R is offered only as a frameset. It goes for a very reasonable $2999. The C1, Ci2 and C3 are all offered as complete bikes and even the best spec’d C1 is only $5299.
Because so many riders seem so resistant to the idea that aerodynamics can make a significant difference in performance, I keep working to think of new ways to convey the extra speed. My initial rides on an aero road bike, on the Cervelo SLC-SL, was one of those Candid Camera moments, an occasion was so significantly out of whack with my normal experience that I doubted perception and nearly wondered if someone was messing with me. Fast forward a year and the same thing happened on the Felt AR. Then with the Cervelo S5.
Think about the difference you feel between sitting up with your hands on the top of the bar and then what you gain when you put your hands in the drops. Yeah, well an aero road bike is worth even more. It is easily worth a cog, sometimes more.
Now, we all know the knocks against aero road bikes. Riding one is like playing jockey to a jackhammer; they twist like Chubby Checker, and they offer all the road feedback of a couch cushion. Helluva pitch. Like trying to sell someone a box of ticks.
Imagine my surprise when I got on the C1R and it didn’t ride like I was doing laps over railroad tracks. I’m about to review a traditional road bike that has a harsher ride than the C1R. It’s no Specialized Roubaix, but I’d put it in a range of comfort on a par with almost anything rolling on 25s, or a fuzzy robe. The road sensitivity was a shocker, too. Wall thickness was kept to a minimum in the midsections to help transmit more high frequency vibration while the lack of paint or 3k weave cut down on the deadening effect of coating a frame in non-structural material. This thing is yet another argument for bike companies going to the extra expense to use materials like high modulus carbon fiber with resin infused with carbon nanotubes.
The engineer responsible for this bike, Brad Devaney, told me that the integrated seat post was a real point of conversation on the C-series bikes. He said he was determined not to let an ISP dictate the ride quality of the bike. Even so, he says the C1R will move to an aero seat post for 2014.
Brad also told me that wind tunnel testing confirmed that this bike gives riders a greater aerodynamic edge than a set of Zipp Firecrest 404s. That’s a bunch of free speed. Combined with a set of 404s and your friends will be inclined to kid that you need to pee in a cup. Trust me. On a long run out the coast to the far reaches of Malibu I found myself doing 24 into the wind on a false flat and I was only riding at a moderate tempo. Given my fitness at the time I estimate that’s 3 mph faster than what I would have done on a regular road bike with box-rim wheels. I was enjoying myself. Friends were coming up to me to comment on how well I was riding. Look, when you’re friends bother to comment on how well you’re going, when it’s so noticeable that they feel a need to comment, well that is all the independent confirmation I need.
As disclosures go, I should make clear that Brad and I go way back. Summer of 1989. We worked on two sides of a Park repair stand at the Peddler Bike Shop in Memphis, Tennessee. Brad was majoring in engineering at the university across the street and any time we ran into a thorny mechanical problem, something we couldn’t figure out how to resolve, we turned it over to him. He had a rare combination for insight into materials science, logical thinking and creative problem solving, even among a shop full of competent bike mechanics. I have a soft spot for his work because I really believe in him. He’s a fierce competitor with a gentle nature and the natural smile of someone who can give compassion as readily as he receives it. That compromises my impartiality, but if I thought this was a crap bike, I’d never have asked to review it. There are ways to dodge that kind of awkward.
Brad told me that it was important to him to give the C-series bikes lines that flowed, rather than taking a single aero shape and “sweep it from head tube to bottom bracket.” For me, that’s part of the beauty of this bike. One of the points he’s most proud of on this bike though was the concave surface on the down tube where the bottle bosses are. With that shape the bike is actually more slippery with the bottle and cage than it is without it. Yes, according to wind tunnel testing, this bike is slower without the bottle than it is with it.
As I noted previously, the frame’s weight was just a nick over 1kg. That relatively low weight for an aero frame was a big contributor to the ride quality both in overall comfort and road feel. But because it lacked another 200 or 300g in carbon fiber found in some of its competitors, this bike did flex some under out-of-the-saddle efforts. I’d compare it favorably to that first generation of oversized steel. You could move it around some in a sprint, but not enough to disturb the handling. However, descending was the one occasion when the bike’s tube shapes and low weight came up as something other than diamonds. On tight, technical descents, the bike lacked the crisp carving of the current generation of American carbon fiber road frames. It wasn’t sloppy the way the French carbon fiber stuff used to be, but it just wasn’t quite as precise as what I’m used to and that was enough for me to sit up a bit and scrub some speed with my torso.
It was on big, exposed descents, ones where cross winds can push you a bit that exposed the C1R’s greatest weakness. The constellation of C1R, Zipp 404s and cross wind created an oscillation that caused me some puckering. It wasn’t a typical high-speed wobble, but arguing fine points on the particular flavor of wobble isn’t really necessary. I suspect this bike would be a problem in the Front Range of Colorado and a few other mountainous places where you can encounter stiff winds.
That’s, what, maybe five percent of the United States? Most places I rode, most places I might ever ride, this bike handled perfectly fine. Even in crosswinds on the flat it wasn’t a problem. It was only after my speed was up over 40 mph and there was a crosswind that there was a problem. When I switched out the from 404 for a 202 the issue was cut considerably.
The lesson for me was that we’re at a point where all aero road bikes give up something. All of them. The S5 beats you to death. The Venge gives up a bit of speed to offer better handling and not quite as much pistol-whipping of your undercarriage. The C1R is the only aero road bike that gave up some torsional stiffness to gain ride quality and comfort. I don’t have any objective data to confirm that it’s as fast as the S5, but it is at least in the same class. As a result, for those considering an aero road bike, the C1R is a real alternative. A different approach to a common problem. This is easily my favorite aero bike I’ve ridden so far.
When I think about the riding I used to do in Tennessee, lots of flat roads that run straight for miles at a time, I appreciate just what a daily asset this bike could be. Man, if I wanted to race again, I’d train on a steel bike with box rims and then race this on the weekends. With this bike I could break stuff—legs, wills, records.