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.
Plot spoiler: These are the finest wheels I’ve ever ridden in my life.
There. That’s out of the way. Now that I’ve eliminated any sense of drama from this review, I can get down to the matter at hand and discuss the experience of riding Zipp’s standard-bearer wheelset.
There’s an arms race in cycling that’s been escalating over the last 10 years. I think back on the most I could spend on a set of wheels or even a whole bike 10 years ago versus the colossal $2700 that these wheels go for and I choke. There’s nothing else in my life that has escalated as badly over that time, save the housing market and we see what happened with that. Somehow, I don’t see Zipp, HED or Lightweight wheels suddenly dropping in both price and value—not now, not in the future.
The math on this is difficult to avoid. For that much money you could outfit an entire Girl Scout troop with iPhones. Or you could provide the entire U.S. Army with bubble gum. Or you could purchase a single set of wheels that would do more to improve your performance than an extra two hours of training per week can.
These wheels are so sophisticated I could probably write about them for the rest of the week and not divulge any of Zipp’s trade secrets. The 404s possess three distinct features that have caused me to come to the conclusion I did.
First and foremost is the Firecrest rim shape. While I am aware that one of Zipp’s competitors claims to have arrived at the rounded rim profile at the same time as Zipp, the fact is when Zipp came out with Firecrest at Interbike in 2010, their competitors talked crap about the silly shape. The trick to Firecrest is that it treats the half of the rim behind the axle as a leading edge and that blunt shape improves the rim’s aerodynamics dramatically. The most surprising aspect of this is what is called vortex shedding.
Those of you who have ridden deep-section carbon rims and been buffeted by the wind have experienced vortex shedding. Every time the airflow attaches to the rim surface and then breaks free from it the wheel is buffeted and you feel it at the bar. That’s not even the most dramatic feature of the Firecrest shape. This is:
It’s more stable in a crosswind.
The rim shape causes a change in the wheel’s center of pressure. It’s a crazy term for the point of leverage the wind has on a wheel; it’s a very east-to-feel phenomenon. Ride a deep-section wheel in a crosswind. If the wind is blowing from right to left, you’ll be steered to the left. That’s because the center of pressure of most wheels is forward of the steering axis. Firecrest, on the other hand, shifts it almost in-line with the steering axis. Ride a Firecrest wheel in a crosswind and you’ll feel almost no pressure on the wheels. It’s a bit more complicated than that, as the way a rim sheds a vortex changes slightly as the wheel spins; the center of pressure can actually shift behind the steering axis slightly, steering you into the wind instead of pushing you across the road. It’s a remarkable sensation and results in a real increase in confidence compared to riding other deep-section wheels.
How good an idea is Firecrest? Well, after bagging on it as crazy, both HED and Enve have moved all their wheels in that direction. And while competitors may be trying to emulate the vortex shedding properties of Firecrest, they can’t copy the golf-ball-like surface of the ABLC (Aerodynamic Boundary Layer Control) that keeps the air moving by the rims.
If you were to buy a set of 404s for only one reason, Firecrest would be it. No other deep-section wheel I’ve ridden is as stable as the 404 Firecrest.
The Carbon Clincher technology is my next most favorite feature of these wheels. The time I spend in Malibu riding with friends means I’ve either personally melted or seen melted wheels by every manufacturer except Zipp and Easton. Last summer a small group of us did the now notorious descent of Las Flores Canyon. I rode the 404s and didn’t have a bit of trouble, despite some firm braking at times. After reaching the bottom I waited more than five minutes for a friend to arrive. He was concerned his ultra-zoot wheels from a certain German manufacturer would melt, so he stopped three times to let them cool off. Granted, this guy weighs a good 30 or 40 pounds more than I do, but if you can’t take a mountain descent on a set of wheels, what good are they?
Other than the fact that they don’t melt—which is reason enough to take note—they do have one other detail that make these clinchers pretty killer: The rim width. Roughly 25mm wide, any clincher you mount on these wheels can be removed with no tire lever (sweet) and gives the tire a much wider footprint, increasing traction without—I’m told—increasing rolling resistance (amazing). There is a however, here, however. Setting up brakes for a rim this wide isn’t easy and you have to adjust the brake shoe angle because of the angled braking surface. Swapping out these wheels for another set is going to result in at least a half hour of work, if not more.
The wheels’ next best feature are the 88/188 hubs. They are an improvement on the previous iteration of the hubs with which I experienced near constant creaking. Really effing annoying. These are stiffer and don’t creak. What is more impressive is how these things roll. Zipp uses grade 10 ball bearings in the hubs. That is, they are accurate to .10 of an inch. That 2.5 times as round as the grade .25 balls used in Dura-Ace and Record hubs.
You may not think that’s particularly impressive, but I can say from experience that when I’m inside a group, the combination of superior aerodynamics and fast-rolling hubs causes me to hit my brakes to modulate my speed because I begin rolling up on riders in front of me when we’re coasting.
My set weighed in at 1562 grams, just a couple grams off the advertised weight. I’ll call it even. The combination of aerodynamics and weight mean that they are not only killer on the flats, but they are light enough to be reasonable climbers.
Engineers at two different bike companies told me off the record they have taken a number of wheels to the wind tunnel to test with their TT bikes. Both said that tire choice has a huge effect on aerodynamics. Even so, both also said that no other wheels they have tested are as versatile as the 404s.
Here’s the strange thing I’ve noticed about riding with the 404s. While I have many friends who will train on heavy wheels and save the good stuff for race day, in reviewing these wheels, I didn’t have that luxury. I needed to get miles on them right away. Oh, and I’m not really racing, so there’s that, too. With the addition of the 404s, the increase in aerodynamics gave me enough of an edge that I was able to get to the front of the group rides more easily. That, in turn, gave me the ability to stay at the front more. The upshot may seem counterintuitive; the wheels didn’t make the ride easier for me. They made it easier for me to get to the front and flog myself more, rather than sitting in the pack just trying to hold on to my spot. It seems I train harder with faster wheels.
Honestly, suffering more—not less—is the last thing in the world I expected to have happen.