Friday, January 25, 2008
Review: Cervelo SLC-SL
Frankly, I’m not sure which is more interesting: Cervelo’s web site or their bikes. I’ve always admired bike companies that will take the time to explain the thinking behind their products. It’s rare that a company will discuss the development of a product in any real depth. Rarer yet is the company that will help a consumer evaluate which bike might be most appropriate for said consumer. If all the company offers are mountain bikes, road bikes and the odd time trial bike, no real assistance is needed because if someone can’t decided between off-road or on or crits vs. triathlon, well, they need more help than a bike company can offer.
That’s what makes the Cervelo site so much fun. Frankly, there’s so much information, so many articles and presentations, I have yet to see it all. Perhaps the most interesting of the bunch is the presentation “Col de la Tipping Point.” It’s an examination of whether a rider is better off using an aero bike vs. a super-light climbing bike … even on a mountain stage of the Tour de France. They examine Frank Schleck’s choice of the SLC-SL on the day he won the stage up l’Alpe d’Huez. The math involved seems solid enough, though some of the assumptions may be up for some debate.
Their determination: The SLC-SL gave Schleck the advantage he needed to win, more than he would have gained with an R3 SL.
Verifying this sort of advantage, unfortunately, is nearly impossible. There’s no way to control for all the variables you’ll encounter in rides in order to test one bike against the other. And that’s the frustration with this bike. Riding a bike that is unusually light, or at least lighter than your daily rider, is immediately apparent. And while I’ve seen plenty of nerds do the math to show that losing 1.5 lbs. off a 15 lb. bike is a less than 1 percent change in weight once you factor in the weight of a 150 lb. rider. This is bunk. The difference between a 15 lb. bike and a 16.5 lb. bike is immediately apparent. That 10 percent increase in weight is significant enough to be noticeable to any rider.
But what about aerodynamics? I could ride the SLC-SL back to back with a bike of equal weight but inferior aerodynamics for weeks and am not sure I’d be able to define the difference. In my rides on the SLC-SL a funny thing did happen, though. Every time I was at the front of a ride, I started to wonder if the bike was giving me an edge. Ah yes, the power of the placebo effect. And every time I had that thought, I felt ridiculous.
A small note on the internal cable routing: It rattled worse than my nerves in an earthquake. After two hours I was homicidal over the noise. As the bike wasn’t mine and I didn’t have it for a month, I didn’t have time to find out how to shut it up.
And while this review is about the Cervelo and not about the Shimano Ultegra-SL, I need to take a moment to say how impressed I was. If I had not known the components were not Dura-Ace, I might never have figured it out from their performance. The weight was impressive, shifting performance was excellent and brake response was adequate, though it seemed not quite as easy to modulate as the Dura-Ace stoppers.
Inevitably, the question of why someone would ride an aerodynamic road bike instead of a time trial bike comes up. After all, time trial bikes use designs that maximize the bicycle’s aerodynamics. And while better aerodynamics is faster, the fact is, aerodynamics aren’t everything. The best time trial bikes aren’t as stiff as the average road bike is at the head tube. This is to give riders improved comfort over long time trials (such as the Ironman), something they can afford given their events don’t end in sprints.
My lasting impressions of the SLC-SL were these: The SLC-SL handled with great agility, but enough stability to keep me out of trouble. The bike had great torsional stiffness, nearly that of the Specialized Tarmac or the Felt F1. However, the aero seatpost was as stiff as any of the integrated seatmast designs I have ridden so far. It was extraordinarily stiff vertically. The term vertical compliance came up only in the negative. It’s a great bike, just not for a century. I’m aware that CSC riders are capable of covering 150 miles on this bike, but we have the power of choice. Were I racing crits and trying to ride off the front, this would be a first-round draft.