This wasn’t an easy bike review
to write. Here’s why: On our web page right now we have
two reviews of Cervelo bicycles and another three in the archives.
Does that mean we are here to sell
Cervelos? Yes it does. But I’ll also argue there is a
fair bit of objectivity to our reviews and also to the buying
for our store. Like I say in almost every review on our site:
Before we sell something first we have to buy it, and I guarantee
you- it is a lot harder to sell me a bike than it is to sell
We’re a niche store- a niche
of a niche actually. We sell all kinds of bikes from kid’s
bikes like the Fisher Tyro and Sunspot to $199.99 mountain bikes
like the Fisher Mako.
In the past six months we’ve
had customers travel to our store from four continents for triathlon
bike fitting. Some of them experienced triathletes, most of
them first timers who want to get the correct bike the first
time with a minimum of hassle and a maximum of care.
That’s our niche. It is also
For us, Cervelo is a good fit and
a great partner. I’ve done over 200 triathlons on four
continents in the last 22 years and I’ve owned four Cervelos
myself. We’ve probably sold around a thousand by now.
We’ve been a Cervelo dealer from their very first year.
If you are considering any of the
Cervelo models and like to do research I suggest you read the
other reviews on our site and visit Cervelo’s website.
It is also worth visiting the triathlon internet forums like
Slowtwitch.com where you may see a guy named “Gerard”,
Gerard Vroomen, Cervelo’s President. See what other people
say about Cervelo on the forums.
In this review I am going to tell
you why I think you may consider buying a Cervelo. Again. This
time the new 2005 P3SL.
Complex, no compromise design and construction distinguish
|The 2005 P3SL is the flagship Cervelo triathlon
bike. It is an aluminum aerodynamic bike specifically
designed for solo rides in a timed environment. The P3SL
uses a novel and unique frame configuration that maximizes
both rider and frame aerodynamics.
It also may be the single most winning
bike in the entire history of triathlon in terms of total races
won, large and small. I wager that if such statistics were available
(they aren’t) we would discover that more professional
and age group triathlons- from the local sprint race to Ironmans
around the world- have been won on a Cervelo P3 than any other
single bicycle model.
There are a lot of reasons for this.
One is that a lot of people own P3’s, the earlier version
of the new 2005 P3SL. Some of the people who own them are first
time triathletes. Some are local hot shot age groupers. Some
are top professional triathletes like Lisa Bentley, Bjorn Andersson,
Lothar Leder, Steve Larsen, Bryan Rhodes, Kai Hundermarck and
many others. They all ride the same bike.
Lothar Leder was the first man to break 8 hours for
Ironman. He is seen here on a stock Cervelo P3 frame
the following year.
|Cervelo has been successful at the “Win
on Sunday, sell on Monday” style of NASCAR marketing
by racking up an uncanny number of big race wins on their
stock bikes. In 2001 four Ironmans around the world were
won on stock Cervelo P3’s. That year P3’s
won Ironman Lake Placid, Malaysia, Germany and South Africa.
The P3 was the first bike to win Ironmans on four continents.
All on stock frames.
You can’t go to the Chevy dealer
and buy Jeff Gordon’s NASCAR race car. But you can buy
Lothar Leder, Lisa Bentley, Bjorn Andersson, Steve Larsen, Bryan
Rhodes, Kai Hundermarck and a ton of other pro athletes’
bike at your Cervelo dealer.
The reason why the Cervelo P3 and the
new supped-up P3SL have been successful under so many
athletes I attribute to a number of factors.
Firstly, two related factors: Fit and
The Cervelo P3SL uses a two prong attack
on aerodynamic drag: Improved frame aerodynamics and
improved rider aerodynamics.
Tour de France veteran turned Ironman triathlete Kai
Hundermarck lays rubber at Ironman Germany on a stock
The first part of that two prong
aerodynamic attack (the frame) is a given provided you can get
the bike to travel through the boundary layer of air quickly
enough for the airfoil shaped tubes to actually amount to an
advantage. That is somewhere north of 20mph. The faster you
can go, the bigger advantage the frame becomes.
There has been a lot of controversy
surrounding the effectiveness of aero tubes in making a bike
faster. A somewhat retro, grungy school of thought contends
aero tubes exert either a minimal advantage or none at all.
That’s wrong. Butt-assed, dick-in-the-dirt wrong.
Asian Invasion: Bryan Rhodes takes Langkawi Island by
winning Ironman Malaysia on a stock P3 in 2001.
|The volumes of university and industry
wind tunnel testing performed commercially and independently
with varying degrees of sophistication around the world
have all reached the same general conclusion: Aero tubes
do exert an effect on bicycle aerodynamics. The only disagreement
is how much of an effect.
If the local arm chair bicycle know
it all tries to tell you any different just do what the little
girl in the MSN TV commercial did and go on the internet and
see for yourself. Do a Google search on “Bicycle aerodynamics”.
You won’t have to click on too many of the 649 search
results to find out that wind tunnel tests in Germany, United
States, Canada, France, Italy and other countries substantiate
that an aerodynamically designed, airfoil shaped, bladed frame
is somewhere from slightly faster to much faster than a round
Now to me, that is pretty obvious.
I’m no engineer, but I’m not moron either. The tubes
are shaped a lot differently on a Cervelo P3SL than a round
tube bike. You can damn near shave with the trailing edge of
the down tube. Clearly- you don’t need a lab coat, goatee,
pocket protector and little round glasses to figure out that
has some effect on aerodynamics compared to a big ‘ole
round tube. How anyone can suggest it has no effect it absurd
reasoning to me.
The fact remains that the degree
of advantage an aerodynamic frame provides is a matter of contention.
Some tests say a lot, others say less so. One thing for sure,
in extensive reading over the past few years I have never encountered
a single wind tunnel test or other bicycle/rider aerodynamic
test that proved an aerodynamic, bladed frame offered absolutely
no advantage to a round tube frame. It is simply a matter of
how much advantage.
Click to Enlarge
"Win on Sunday-Sell on Monday" marketing has
proven Cervelo's stock bikes are the finest race machines
That established we move to the bigger
issue, one that not even the most cynical retro-grouch
can dispute: Rider aerodynamics. No one has ever disagreed
that a more aerodynamic position will make a rider faster.
Rider position is the second prong of
the P3SL’s attack on aerodynamic drag. It’s
also a big part of the reason this bike has won so many
The P3SL is not a bike for every
triathlete. Cervelo readily admits that. The P3SL has the lowest
head tube of any bike I commonly sell. On my 53cm P3SL it is
a scant 89 millimeters. Compare that to a 53cm Guru Trilite
with a 120 millimeter head tube. That means the P3SL is designed
for you to ride with your handlebars very low relative to your
saddle. Low equals fast from a strictly aerodynamic perspective.
There is a dilemma to this, and also
the reason why the P3SL isn’t necessarily the answer to
everyone’s bike prayers. While a low position is always
more aerodynamic it is not always more biomechanically efficient.
Some people don’t have the lower body flexibility to ride
powerfully for an extended time in a low, aerodynamic position.
For them a bike with a higher head tube, like the Guru with
the 120 millimeter head tube, may be a better choice. Their
riding posture may not be as aerodynamic but their increased
power output may overcome the extra drag of a higher position.
|But for the rider with good lower body
flexibility the P3SL is like riding a razor blade. There
just isn’t much bike as viewed from the front, and
when you lower your body down onto the low slung handlebars
there is less of your body too. If you can ride in that
position, and I believe most people can train themselves
too, you will be a lot faster at a given power output.
If positioned correctly most triathletes can benefit
from the improved posture on a P3.
No rider epitomizes the P3SL posture
more than Bjorn Andersson. Andersson smashed his way onto the
Ironman scene with a stunning ride at this year’s Ironman
New Zealand. I did Ironman New Zealand this year and saw Bjorn
Andersson’s P3 in the transition area prior to the race.
His position was too bizarre to take seriously. His handlebars
were lower relative to his saddle than any triathlete I had
ever seen, and he intended to ride 112 miles like that on rough
New Zealand roads then run a marathon. By the end of the day
Andersson dismounted with a new bike course record and a 17+
minute lead going into the marathon. He nearly held it too.
Ironman New Zealand 2004: Bjorn Andersson creates a
sensation with an ultra low position on a stock P3 on
his way to a new bike course record.
|Since that day Andersson’s position
has been the subject of tremendous analysis. His ultra-low
handlebars and downward sloping handlebar stem are only
a part of the story. Andersson sits at about 78 degrees
relative seat angle over the bottom bracket. When you
consider the very tight angle between his torso and femur
at the top of the pedal stroke this is actually a very
“relaxed” or tight relative seat tube angle.
I was so fascinated by Bjorn Andersson’s
unusual bike posture I went so far as to buy and build a Cervelo
P3 Team, the bike Andersson used in New Zealand, in a similar
configuration but with my positional proportions. My “Bjorn
bike” did not have handlebars as low relatively as Andersson’s
but it was at the absolute lower limit of what I could tolerate.
When I was in the aerobars my upper back actually slanted forward
down toward the front wheel. It took tremendous effort to raise
my head enough to see down the road. It was incredibly uncomfortable
with 16.7 centimeters of handlebar drop. I rode about 350 miles
over about five weeks on a Computrainer in this posture, never
able to maintain it for more than about 30 minutes at a stretch.
I raced on it once and posted a mediocre bike split and run
off the bike. The “Bjorn bike” was quietly disassembled
and went away, the Bjorn Andersson position a failed experiment
for me. It only gave me greater respect for Andersson’s
unusual ability to maintain an ultra low posture while turning
an enormous gear (Andersson uses a 56/11 top gear on 700c wheels).
Andersson's position represents the absolute extreme
of both torso angle and handlebar drop.
|The Bjorn experiment aside my new P3SL
is configured in a more traditional triathlon posture.
The tops of my Visiontech FSA elbow pads on my aerobars
are 12.3 centimeters below the level of my Fizik Arione
Triathlon saddle. That is an aggressive but manageable
amount of handlebar drop. I can still match my highest
power output numbers on the Computrainer for over an hour
in this posture. My position on my new P3SL is one I can
actually ride hard in the real world, go very fast and
be very, very comfortable. My relative seat tube angle-
the angle I actually sit at while pedaling- is 81 degrees
most of the time on this P3SL. With a 30 centimeter Fizik
Arione Triathlon saddle I have a significant amount of
variance in relative seat tube angle. I wager I could
shift from about 77 degrees relative to a maximum of about
82 degrees and still pedal effectively throughout that
You don’t have to sit on a
bike like Bjorn Andersson to own a P3SL, but you do have to
have some willingness to optimize your posture on the bike,
and that means being relatively low in the front.
It also means if you are correctly
fitted on a P3SL you will be faster than any other bike with
a more pedestrian rider position. That has less to do with the
aero tubes of the P3SL and more to do with how you can sit on
The biggest aerodynamic and performance
benefit to the P3SL, in my opinion, is the position you can
achieve on it. The aero tubes are significant, but they are
secondary to rider posture.
|Speaking of those tubes, the part of the
P3SL that is unique and different from other so-called
“aerodynamic” bikes is the rear 1/3. This
is the exotic and mysterious, elegantly curved seat tube
that conforms around the rear wheel.
Click to Enlarge
The difficult to make curved seat tube enhances aerodynamics
and ride comfort.
When I asked Phil White, part of
the Vroomen/White design team, where the Seat tubes for the
P3SL are made he was tactfully evasive. It is a secret. And
since White’s previous employer, Lockheed (home of the
equally mysterious “Skunk Works”) is no stranger
to secrets Phil White is no beginner at protecting them. The
P3SL’s origin is as mysterious as the stealth spy planes
that hide in desert hangers made by White’s previous employer.
There are no markings on the frame or on the shipping carton
that give it away. Bikes made in Taiwan and imported to the
U.S. must be labeled as such according to Customs and Trade
Commission restrictions. No such labels exist anywhere on the
P3SL. This bike wasn’t made in Taiwan. Sources have suggested
it is made somewhere in the northwestern U.S. Phil White would
not confirm or deny this. “We use different people to
build the P3SL, the important thing is that we have the absolute
best possible bike.”
|The curved seat tube of the P3SL is one
thing that makes this bike difficult to produce. The tubing
wall thickness is differentially butted, its wall thickness
changes throughout its length. And it is different on
each frame size. The process for creating that tube is
extremely time consuming according to Cervelo’s
Phil White. It has to be formed very slowly to prevent
damage to the tube. The end result is an incredibly strong,
aerodynamic shape several other bicycle manufacturers
have tried to mimic but none have been able to duplicate.
Click to Enlarge
The head tube on this 53cm Cervelo P3SL is a scant 89
Key to the curved seat stay design’s
aerodynamic effectiveness is rear wheel proximity. The rear
wheel must be installed as close to the seat tube of the frame
as possible. On the P3SL that means the wheel is actually inside
the seat tube. The tube has a significant relieved slot in the
back of the curved portion, further complicating its shape and
manufacture. There are two adjusting screws housed in the rearward
facing, horizontal dropouts. The idea is to install your race
wheel into the frame, check the proximity to the rear of the
seat tube cut out, and adjust the screws until it is as close
as you can get it without rubbing. Now you have optimized the
rear end aerodynamics of the frame/wheel interface.
Fitting a rear disk wheel enhances the frame aerodynamics
of the P3 family.
|Additionally, the P3 Team and P3SL are
designed to be most aerodynamic when fitted with a solid
disk rear wheel. This creates a more laminar flow of the
boundary layer of air and less turbulence as the air reassembles
behind the rider.
There is a synergistic effect to
using a disk wheel with a P3 frame. That is, if the disk wheel
on a traditional bike frame were to save you 01:00 minute over
40 kilometers (24.8 miles) and using a P3 frame with traditional
or deep section rear wheels were to also save you 01:00 minute
over 40 kilometers then combining the two would not save you
02:00 minutes but perhaps more like 03:00 minutes. Using the
disk in combination with the frame makes the resultant time
savings greater than the sum of the parts.
Those are the two aerodynamic factors
that make the P3SL fast: Frame aerodynamics and rider
aerodynamics. But that isn’t all of the story.
One reason I love the P3SL so much is
that it is a generalization smasher. For those dim-witted
arm chair bike consultants who love to make generalizations
about how a given material rides: “Aluminum rides
like this, titanium rides like that, cro-moly…..”
I’d enjoy their reaction to a hard 50 mile time
trial on a correctly fitted P3SL.
Click to Enlarge
What the wind sees: The P3SL is like riding a razor
Overwhelmingly, the reaction to the
P3SL’s ride quality is that it is a lot more comfortable
than it seems by appearance. Perhaps when people see those aerodynamic,
stealthy race car lines they assume it will be a rough ride.
After all, race cars rid rough. But not this race car. This
is Formula 1 speed with BMW ride. When Bjorn Andersson got his
first P3Team (since upgraded to the new P3SL for his recent
rides at Ironman Hawaii and Ironman Florida, where he had the
fastest bike split) he said, “Comfort was also surprisingly
good which says a lot on the less than perfect roads in NZ.”
Click to Enlarge
This is an attempt to graphically convey how we feel the P3SL
achieves super comfortable ride comfort. The indirect transmission
of road shock energy through the set tube and chain stays significantly
insulates you from road shock.
I’m the first to say that ride
comfort is born from a long list of factors before it is born
of frame design and material. Changing your tires from brand
to brand or from 23 mm wide to 25 mm wide and your spoke pattern
and spoke count as well as rim material and profile or fork
design has much more effect on ride quality than frame material.
Heck, 15 psi in your tires probably exerts more difference in
ride quality than do the differences between titanium, aluminum
and cro-moly as a frame material.
That said the frame design and manufacture
of the P3SL is so novel and different it does exert a profound
impact on ride comfort. This thing rides like those black flexible
swings that hug your butt in the school playground. You are
just suspended above all the bad stuff. It just glides quietly
underneath you, usually in a blur.
Phil White credited the comfort of
the P3SL mostly to the bladed aero seat stays. The machete shaped
seat stays are a full 28.8 millimeters deep but a sharp 10.2
mm wide. Interestingly, this means the airfoil shape is 2.6
times as long as it is wide. The down tube of the frame encounters
the wind at 103.5 millimeters deep through it’s horizontal
length and measures 28.7 millimeters thick for an aspect ratio
(length to width) of 3.6 to 1.
|In addition to being aerodynamic the shape
of the seat stays offer quite a bit of flex providing
a lot of that ride comfort. They act like a section of
vertically oriented leaf spring with the load being applied
at the ends. My time on the P3 Team and the P3SL confirms
it works very well in softening the bumps.
Click to Enlarge
The ultra aero, bladed seat stays improve ride comfort
|Mechanically the P3 and P3SL are refined,
simple and elegant. The internal cable routing is clean,
easy to install, change and service and is rattle free
on the worst roads. The shift cables describe only the
slightest angle in their entire length coming out of a
clever venturi on their way up to the front derailleur
and along the oversized chainstay back to the rear derailleur.
As a result shift lever travel at the tips of your aerobars
is crisp and easy. So is the shifting. The rear brake
caliper is attached to the frame with a novel little plate
that bolts in place. Works great- you never have to align
the caliper once it is bolted in place.
Cable routing under the bottom bracket is simple, effective
and easy to deal with.
The bladed down tube on the P3 family
doesn’t do anything particular for lateral stiffness above
and beyond the contribution of the Smartwall 2 differentially
butted tubing. The walls of the sides of the tube are much thicker
than the leading and the trailing edges. That gives the bike
enough “body” on an out of the saddle climb. It
isn’t the stiffest bottom bracket in the world, but it
is plenty stiff enough to mash the big ring up a steep climb
if your legs are up to it. The low head tube means the front
end isn’t going anywhere you don’t want it to. The
bike feels tight and comfortable. It’s a BMW “7”
Series with engine work and racing wheels.
Click to Enlarge
The novel rear brake mounting plate works great.
|The P3 family will never be the lightest
bikes and that doesn’t matter much. They are all
under 18 pounds built correctly. That is plenty light
enough for me. Honestly, to me anything south of 17 pounds
starts to feel too delicate to me in a pure triathlon
bike. There are no surprises with the handling of this
bike. The entry point of a turn predicts the exit point.
You know where you are and where you will be on the pavement.
It’s a good ride. A race car ride with better seats.
|The P3 family is comprised of three kissing
cousins. The P3 Team is the red and white painted bike
that wears a nice 2005 Shimano Ultegra 10 speed kit this
year. Expect to pay around $2799 for that bike.
Is this the inspiration for the new P3SL finish?
The P3SL, the current flagship, wears
a cloak of low observable, anti reflective non-color that mimics
the anti-radar coating on the SR-71 Blackbird, F-117 Nighthawk
and other things starting with the letter “X” that
fly high and fast over the desert in California. Apparently
Phil White learned in his Lockheed days, if you want it to be
fast, mysterious and cool you make it flat black. This bike
is not painted. It doesn’t even have decals. The markings
are applied with some other process. You guessed it, he wouldn’t
tell me what the process is. But Phil White did say it was much
lighter and more durable than the paint on the red and white
P3 Team. That is where the bike gets its name- the P3 “SL”
for “super light“. Now, realistically, the bike
is not that much lighter than the painted P3 at about 100 grams
(five ounces) less. But hey, it is all about the details (and
that badass finish). P3SL is dressed in Shimano Dura-Ace 10
speed and goes home for about $3599.
Click to Enlarge
Cervelo's proven, simple internal cable routing.
|A third member of the family, the current
P3 “alpha male” is the enigmatic P3C. The
P3C is little more than a sparkle in a composite manufacturer’s
eye right now. It was shown at the Interbike trade show,
surfaced once more at Ironman Hawaii strictly for display
(but notably absent from any sponsored athletes) and has
since managed to duck the bike industry paparazzi.
Projected delivery is “Some
time in 2005”. The only thing the P3C shares with its
little cousins are the “P” and the “3”.
It is the “C” that makes the difference: The P3C
is one continuous, slippery, glossy projectile of carbon fiber.
The P3C was heralded as “Best of Show” for the 2004
Interbike by Velonews and Cyclingnews.com. In a year when everything
at Interbike was carbon fiber the amazing P3C caused smitten
retailers to swoon and dejected exhibitors outside the Cervelo
booth to throw their toys. The P3C stole the thunder of all
the other bike builders. Not even the scantily clad Vegas models
got more gawks at Interbike. While putting a price on such an
object of desire is clearly profane you’ll pay a $4399
tribute to this mistress in return for total domination of the
bike leg with no safe word. But unlike other objects of fetish,
once you subject yourself to the P3C you won’t require
permission to mount.