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Cervelo P3SL.
By Tom Demerly.

Read This About Our Reviews First


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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 you one.

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.

But people travel from around the world to visit our store for road bikes and triathlon bikes. Especially triathlon bikes.

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The Cervelo P3SL shown here ready to race with new Zipp 909 wheels.

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 Cervelo’s.

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.

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Complex, no compromise design and construction distinguish the P3SL.

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 aerodynamics.

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 P3 Team.

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 tube bike.

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.

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"Win on Sunday-Sell on Monday" marketing has proven Cervelo's stock bikes are the finest race machines available.

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 races.

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 performance envelope.

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 P3SL.

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.

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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.


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The head tube on this 53cm Cervelo P3SL is a scant 89 mm high.

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.

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What the wind sees: The P3SL is like riding a razor blade.

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.”

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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.

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The ultra aero, bladed seat stays improve ride comfort and aerodynamics.


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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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