Just Add Wind

Just Add Wind

Some years back, I was attending the launch of the Cervelo S5, the innovative bike maker’s aero road frame. It was the latest evolution in their pursuit of aero gains for road bikes and we spent the afternoon riding canyon roads above Malibu. On our last and biggest descent of the day, Decker Canyon, I pulled the ripcord and bested my previous top speed on that descent by two full miles per hour. At the time, I was fourth on the Strava KOM. And I didn’t even have aero wheels that day.

A 2 mph gain at 45 mph due to improved aerodynamics didn’t immediately make sense. I hadn’t felt like I was going faster. So much for perception.

However, that experience has served as a reference point for me when people object to disc brakes on road bikes because they think they will disrupt the aerodynamics. There’s some wind tunnel testing that suggests disc brakes won’t impede aerodynamics, and another test that suggests at certain yaw angles, discs will actually improve aerodynamics. Let’s just say the jury is out, a zero sum until further notice.

What isn’t really up for discussion is that riding on an aero road frame will result in higher speeds, as my descent of Decker demonstrates.

So wouldn’t we want better brakes on a bike that goes faster?

That’s the question on my mind when I consider why so many road bikes offer disc brakes while so few aero road bikes do. I’d have expected Felt to be on top of this. Specialized has released a disc version of the Venge, but one of the only other disc-brake aero road bikes on the market is the new Noah SL disc from Ridley. I had a chance to ride the more budget-oriented Noah last year and to get on the disc-equipped SL was tantamount to trying the double IPA version of an IPA you already love. Just that much more flavor.

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The Noah that I rode last year didn’t have the F-Split fork and it featured a different layup. The SL layup also had to evolve to accommodate the disc brake mounts. More on that in a bit.

There’s an element of nearly every company out there that relies on racing for at least some of the brand’s identity. While Raleigh has cast it aside almost completely, there are companies like Specialized and Cervelo that rely on it to inform their identities the way Bono is a rock and roll singer. Dude does a lot of other things, but we know him because his songs have made him a star. It is in this way that Ridley relies upon racing not just for brand identity but as the north star for their products. The Noah SL disc is a perfect example.

As a reviewer, nothing makes me happier than when I climb on a bike and ride down the street and think to myself, “Oh, this is a bike for _____.” I like not having to figure a bike out, but instead having the bike tell me what it is. If a bike has a strong identity, it should come through while pedaling it.

With the Noah SL disc, the first time I got the bike above 20 mph, which was within the first mile, the thought that occurred to me was how I’d love to take this machine out on one of the group rides down in Orange County. There, the roads are runway-wide, the breezes as consistent as a clock, the asphalt smoother than a late-night deejay’s voice. On those ribbons you can drill yourself into watt unto watt, all the cross-eyed effort you’d ever want to subject a friend to. This bike would flatter you on Strava.

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The thing is, this bike is stiff like most aero road bikes are not. Asking how much this frame weighs is the wrong question. The question with this bike is how stiff it is. And it’s the stiffest aero bike I’ve encountered. Period. It’s a bike meant to charm sprinters. It’s also a bike that isn’t for the timid. It’s stiff vertically, as well as horizontally. That’s why the smooth roads of Orange County. I’d take this out on our handful of smoother pavings around here and then completely redline myself.

A bike like this makes the pain fun.

I also did repeats of a local climb that dead-ends in a state park. Traffic is low, especially in the early afternoon. It was a place where I could test the braking on a difficult descent.

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To disc or not to disc
I’ve got a lot of money tied up in bikes that use traditional rim caliper brakes. I don’t look forward to any of them becoming obsolete. I flat-out don’t want to give them up. I love riding them. So any time I get on a road bike with disc brakes, I have this vague desire to dislike—not the bike—but the braking. I have the lazy hope that I might conclude that there’s not enough modulation, or too much power or that some other key aspect will fall short in some way and leave me happy with my existing brakes.

That I still play this mental game is silly. It’s a pretty half-witted attempt at self-delusion.

The simple fact is that disc brakes are superior to rim calibers. The only way I could tell you they aren’t would be by lying to you. The reason for this is that the modulation is greater; you have a finer sense of braking force, and also ultimate braking power feels higher. It may be that physically a rim caliper can exert just as much braking force as a disc brake—an argument that’s been made to me repeatedly—the difference is that less hand force is required to reach maximum braking. It may seem unlikely, or improbable, that brakes that increase your sense of modulation would also offer superior overall braking power, but I’ve had that experience again and again while using Shimano’s Ultegra Di2 disc group. That’s not to say I haven’t had it with other groups, but I’ve ridden that group more often than any other and the experience I have approaches flawless and is scientific in its repeatability.

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Sprintastic
In the late ’90s, I rode a number of bikes that had handling I described as being for the brain-dead. They tracked straight with the confidence of a high school Romeo. I could put my head down and churn all the watts, and look up only occasionally to verify that I was still rolling the white line like a tight-rope walker. That variety of handling isn’t as common today. There are a couple of ways to get there, but a slightly higher bottom bracket combined with a bit more trail than found on most current race bikes is the common way to get there. I recall an Independent Fabrication Crown Jewel that tracked so well that once when a friend accidentally shoulder-checked me, we ended up just leaning against each other for a few seconds, even though he bested me by more than 20 pounds. On many other bikes I’d have ended up in the ditch.

That the Noah SL should possess this classic geometry is refreshing and says something about what Ridley believes this bike’s destiny to be. It also serves up their bona fides as making racing bikes for racing types. You don’t make a bike like this if you don’t want the owner to stand up and sprint themselves into a near blackout.

Descending on a bike like this tends to either be terrific fun for the rider because it can take high speeds without any shimmy, or because you have to countersteer so deliberately it can seem sluggish in turns, which can be a tad frightening. For riders who are willing to apply some forceful english to the bar for hard turns, a bike like this can be really rewarding.

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Belgian, through and through
The prevailing story in high-end bicycle production is that all the high-quality carbon fiber frames are coming out of Taichung, Taiwan. That is largely, but not exclusively, true. Ridley has figured out how to produce frames in its factory in Paal-Beringen without sacrificing comfort or suffering the fate of unreasonably expensive bikes due to European labor rates.

The unpainted Noah SLs weigh between 950 and 1070 grams (depending on frame size), which is very respectable for an aero frame. Only a handful of aero frames are breaking the kilogram barrier and none off this much stiffness. The big takeaway in this isn’t the actual weight of the frame—what will make this bike fast are its aerodynamics, not its lack of mass. No, the big takeaway from the frame’s weight is what I felt out on the road. This bike, despite a stiffness rarely found in prison sentences, still felt pretty lively because it didn’t have 1500g of carbon and other assorted foam, bladders and resin.

The Noah SL is offered in five sizes: XXS (51.6cm top tube and a 37.9cm reach), XS (52.5cm top tube, 37.4cm reach), Small (54.5cm top tube, 38.4cm reach), Medium (56.5cm top tube, 39.0cm reach) and Large (58.5cm top tube, 39.6cm reach). The size run is well-proportioned. It may appear odd that the XS has a shorter reach than the XXS, but that’s an effect caused by the one-degree change in seat tube angles between the two bikes. For the most part, reach increases by 1cm or less, which will make fitting this production bike relatively easy for any good fitter.

The pursuit of performance and quality has led to an accidental fallout in the bike market in that most companies offer a $10k bike despite a down industry. It’s like putting a Lamborghini dealership in Fairbanks, Alaska. Not exactly the target demographic. Performance-wise, I’d put the Noah SL against anyone’s $10,000 wonderbike. Price-wise, it’s not in the same class. The frameset (frame, fork, seatpost) is $3900, while the complete bike as reviewed is just $5400. The price on the frameset is plenty fair, but the deal on the complete bike makes it a killer deal for anyone considering a disc-equipped road bike. When I compare the experience I had on the Noah last year, the extra investment for the Noah SL disc is money well-spent. I know Ridley will sell more of the less expensive bike, but they’ve achieved something special with the Noah SL disc.

Final thought: Sprinter’s dream—no-brainer deal for brain-dead handling.


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17 comments

  1. Dave King

    Padraig,

    Once again, very interesting review that makes me think about things I hadn’t thought of.

    Early on, you mention max speed. I have some skepticism about max speed on Strava, Garmin or other GPS systems regarding how accurate these high speeds actually are. I have seen on my Strava ride reports (and others, too) max speeds into the 60’s mph on roads that I know are impossible to achieve (not to mention that I or these riders probably don’t have the skill, mass or cojones to achieve that speed).

    On my local rides here in the Berkeley/Oakland Hills, Strava will tell me I reach max speeds into the high 40’s/low 50’s which I don’t believe. I know the roads here that one can achieve that and I’m not on those roads nor am I approaching the feeling of that kind of speed. I’m 44 and have been a cyclist since 15. For years I used an Avocet computer. Later I used one of the early PowerTap hubs. As a Cat 1 racer in the late 90’s/early 00’s, it wasn’t uncommon to reach speeds well into the 50’s – so I know what that feels like. And I believe that the method used to calibrate those Avocets was pretty accurate.

    I think that the distance and average speeds are probably pretty accurate on GPS. I’m wondering if there is some algorithm used by Garmin or Strava that tries to compensate for lost bits of data (such as can occur on descents in canyon areas where the GPS might be briefly lost).

    Thoughts from others?


    1. Author
      Padraig

      I’ve never, ever seen a GPS unit I’ve used (Garmin, Wahoo, Lezyne or iPhone) record a speed higher than I was going. I’ve often seen my speed reported lower than I was actually going due to canyon walls or thick foliage, but I’ve never it reported high. The location where I recorded the max speed I reported is one where I consistently hit speeds in the range of 45 mph. I’ve no reason at all to believe that the information reported was significantly inaccurate, and like I said, the place where I recorded that max speed is a place I always went very fast.

    2. VeloKitty

      > I’ve never, ever seen a GPS unit I’ve used (Garmin, Wahoo, Lezyne or iPhone) record a speed
      > higher than I was going.

      And how do you know the actual speed you were going?


    3. Author
      Padraig

      Years ago I began quizzing myself on my perceived speed before looking down to check my computer. It’s something I still do and I’m pleased to say that I’m remarkably solid in my perception up to about 30 mph. I’ve never had an experience where I thought I was going 14 and looked down to see the unit display 19. When I still lived in Southern California, I knew my braking zones on descents and it took a conscious effort on my part to exceed the max speeds I typically saw. While I’ve got a pretty fine sense of speed, I’ll admit I’m not as finely calibrated as a bike computer, but I’ve yet to see anything recorded that was off. Some of the early GPS units would occasionally record some odd spikes, but I never saw anything sustained that seemed off. If it was off, it was really off.

    4. 32x20

      I have certainly seen Strava report higher top speeds than I achieved. It seems to be triggered by too-short segments where there are incomplete data points. Over an entire descent (or some reasonable time between start and end points (>15-30s) it seems very accurate.

    5. Les.B.

      With the older Garmins like the 500, one has the option to use the very dorky but very accurate method of magnet-on-the-spoke for speed tracking, instead of the GPS. I hardly ever took advantage of that because the magnets are just a PitA to deal with. And I don’t have any experience of the speed reading being inaccurate with GPS.

      I would love to try that bike on the Santa Monica hills.

  2. Lyford

    What’s often missed in complaints about disc-brake aerodynamics is the freedom to optimize rim shapes without a brake track. I suspect we’re just beginning to see what’s possible.

  3. 32x20

    After owning a fast handling ‘crit’ bike for years I’ve got a new appreciation for brain dead handling. The additional steering effort buys you more feedback through the bars. Quick handling is great for changing lines mid-corner at 20-30mph, but the additional feedback when setting up for a descent at higher speeds really inspires confidence. It seems to be a smart choice for a bike like this.

    I am curious why a higher bottom bracket contributes to this? It seems like stability is often cited as a reason for low bottom brackets. Ridley seems to prefer higher BBs, but I always assumed this was some interbreeding between their road and CX lines.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      “Stable” and “stability” are two words that are both misused and misunderstood. A low bottom bracket actually makes a bike more maneuverable, that is, easier to initiate a turn and easier to steer back under you to end the turn. There’s a fine balance to be struck with a high bottom bracket and and low trail. Too little trail and the bike gets crazy twitchy, but with just enough the bike will track straight until you tell it to turn. It’s possible to get a very similar effect with a low BB and lots of trail, but the difference plays out in how you initiate a turn. With a low BB bike you can initiate the turn with your hips, but with a higher BB bike you’ll have to countersteer to really initiate the turn.

  4. Grego

    That was a very nice review that offers the reader some real education as well as a solid impression of the bike. Thank you.

    Why ever would you stop riding that Indy Fab Crown Jewel?

  5. Scott Matsuda

    As always an enjoyable and informative article. Thanks for calling FELT out for not having released a disc version of our AR! Indeed, it is easy to slap disc mounts onto an already existing aero frame platform, but you know us well enough to know that’s not our style. Disc brakes offer many of the advantages that you cite, but they also present certain challenges especially when we are dealing with aero road bikes. One can improve braking and hurt almost every other aspect of the bicycle – weight, aerodynamics, ride quality, etc… we also want to make the next generation AR faster than what we currently offer. This is no easy task and we are doing our homework to bring the very best bike to market. I know the suspense is killing you, but it’ll be worth the wait.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      I hope you’ll take the call out as a compliment to Felt’s reputation for being forward-thinking in its product development. I do look forward to the next-gen AR.

  6. Kimball

    As a teenager back in the early 70’s me and a buddy made ‘tall bikes’ by taking old beater bikes, flipping the frames over, reversing the bottom bracket so the chain was back on the right side, and flipping the fork. We then added steel tube extensions (crudely I must admit) to raise the seat and handlebars. The crank was now at the top of main triangle so bottom bracket drop was now a rise of maybe 18” and the head tube angle very relaxed. A trick to get on, but once up and moving it was super stable and easy to ride.

  7. Craig Peer

    Great review once agan. As far as GPS units go, I use Ride With GPS. It usually records a lower speed than I actually see on my Garmin 510 screen, by maybe 1 or 2 mph. It’s done this fairly repeatably. Just say’n.

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