Friday, December 27, 2013

Gear Review: Litespeed Ci2

Confession Time: Up until this year, I had never ridden a road bike.

Yes, you read that correctly.

In my years in triathlon, I went straight whole-hog into the game. I bought my Felt B16; when that went down, I moved to the Blue Triad EX; then to a Specialized Shiv Tri Pro; back to a Blue Triad EX. I'd figured that since I was going to be spending large amounts of time in the aero position, I might as well grow accustomed to it as well as becoming more adept at handling that type of bike.

There were, of course, drawbacks to this approach, with the largest being no group rides out of shops. Although tri bikes were welcomed, you either were 30 meters off the back or off the front in order to ride in the aerobars. And with the different seatpost angles (more on that in a minute), it is less than ideal to be cranking away for a couple of hours out of aero.

So along it went, until after Cedar Point. You see, your scribe is currently without any bike in the first place. Instead, I've been tasked (if you could call it that) with riding some of the bikes that we will be selling out of Rev3 Multisport. I've started off with two bikes from American Bicycle Group, the fine folks behind Litespeed and Quintana Roo (the latter of which is the bike sponsor of the race series).

To wit, for the purposes of full disclosure: I have not been compensated by ABG, Litespeed, Quintana Roo, or any of its representatives or subsidiaries in any way. These are bikes that are under ownership of either Rev3 Multisport or the race series. I have simply taken my fit coordinates, applied those coordinates to the bike, and gone riding.

First up: the Litespeed Ci2.

The Macro-Scale Stuff: TT/Tri vs. Road, Frame Materials, and a History of Litespeed
This part of the conversation is going to be *ahem* a bit long-winded. (I can already see the eye rolls from a bunch of you, saying "No kidding, you're always long-winded." I digress.) But bear with me.

First, let's talk about the geometry of the bike. Or, for lack of a better term, the way this bike fits and is constructed. Generally, there are two types of fit for performance riding: road position and TT/tri position. The road position will feature more pressure rearward on the bike, reaching forward towards the hoods or drops. The TT/tri position, meanwhile, shifts forward onto the aerobars and with it requires pelvic rotation on the saddle.

Now, you can ride a road position on a TT/tri bike, and you can ride a TT/tri position on a road bike. The question then is of comfort, handling, and optimization. A TT/triathlon bike will feature a steeper angle from the bottom bracket to the seatpost and saddle; this to help promote riding forward and rotating on your pelvis. It helps distribute your weight across the platform of the bike, also helping with the handling. Meanwhile, a road bike's seat tube angle is shallower, trying to put pressure towards the rear, as you lightly come forward to be able to touch the hoods/drops.

So, if you're looking to race triathlon seriously, it's worth getting a true TT/tri frame. But if you're dabbling in triathlon while also looking for something to be able to ride the roads a fair bit with groups on the weekends, then the Ci2 could be in your wheelhouse.

I say this because in some ways, triathlon and time trialing have led to some revolutions on the road bike side as well. Although weight is still king for many cyclists, aerodynamics are now playing an ever-larger role in the design of road bikes. Why? Well, because drag (the force of wind applied against you while riding) costs you power. If you have less drag, more of your power translates into speed. More speed is definitely better than less, especially if it takes the same amount of power to get there. This is a large part of the success of the aero wheel industry (which we'll get into in other posts), and now you're seeing it come out more and more in actual frame building.
Image courtesy of Volvo Speed.

What helps get us there is the use of carbon fiber. Carbon is still a relative newcomer to the frame building game. Traditional, bikes have been built with metals and alloys: steel, aluminum, and titanium are three examples. But carbon is a bit of a different animal.

Carbon fiber lay-up involves the lay-up of different sheets of the polymer. You then introduce a resin, which hardens the fiber into the shape applied. In the purposes of bicycle building, there is a mold (essentially, a "negative" of the bike) that these sheets are laid into. The resin is applied, and voila! Out comes this new shape.

The advantage of carbon is that it is typically lighter than a comparable alloy frame. Also, you can mold it into different shapes. There's also flexibility and stiffness available based on the type of sheet used in a particular region. As an example, the bike can feature a different lay-up near the bottom bracket and crank, versus the stem or seatpost. You want that bottom bracket to be stiff for maximum power transfer, but you don't want the bike to ride too harshly, so you use a different lay-up to allow for more compliance in that area to smooth out rougher road surfaces. After all, a bike is only as good as it is ridden, and if the frame is so stiff that you can't ride it...well, that doesn't do anybody any good.

Which brings us all around to the manufacturer in question today: Litespeed. You see, Litespeed has been one of the finest crafters of titanium bicycles, starting in 1986. They were innovators in frame design with the alloy. Most famously, their expertise in frame building led a certain U.S. Postal Service rider to ride their frame, re-badged as a Trek, to two individual time-trial victories in the 1999 Tour de France.

However, titanium can only get you so far these days. In 2010, Litespeed introduced their first full line-up of carbon-fiber bikes. They now feature a complete line-up of road bikes: the carbon L, M, and C series and the titanium T series.

The Techno-Babble

The Ci2 sits in the aero road frame category for Litespeed. The C series is designed with aerodynamics fully in mind; every tube shape is designed to help save watts. Litespeed claims that the C series saves you 20.4 watts versus a standard, round-tube bike. I'm not here to validate that claim by saying, "Yes, it actually was worth 20.4 watts!" My purpose, instead, is to determine whether this bike is successful in its mission.

So, what exactly is the mission of the Ci2? Well, for starters, all the C series frames feature the same frame design. Where they differ is in carbon-layup. The C3, Ci2, and C1 all feature 30T modulus carbon fiber. The C1R features 60T carbon fiber. What's that mean? The C3, Ci2, and C1 will all ride a little more compliantly than the stiffer C1R.

The bike is built around the BB30 bottom bracket standard. Without diving too deep into the wormhole that is bottom bracket standards, BB30 bikes feature internal bearings that press/snap into the frame. You then have a crank with a spindle width of 68 millimeters. The advantage of those internal bearings? The bike is overall narrower, so you don't need the frame to be as stiff as it would be if it were wider there. So you get similar power transmission out of a bike that might give you a little more road compliance. It is my personal favorite bottom bracket standard.

So, if the majority of the C series features the same frame, what is the distinction between the C3, Ci2, and C1? Component specification. The C3 features Shimano's "entry-level" performance line of 105. Keep in mind, 105 is far from entry-level. But in the world of performance products, 105 from Shimano and Rival from SRAM are your starter kits. It also comes with Easton EA30/50 stem and bars and the workhorse Shimano R500 wheelset.

The Ci2 steps up to Shimano's Ultegra Di2 electronic shifting system. Yes, electronic. The advantages of electronic? Auto-trim of the front derailleur (no more chainline rub in cross-gears!) and that, once it's set, you'll have crisp shifting, every time. The disadvantage? If you run out of're hosed. This groupset doesn't eliminate the need to replace consummables (chainrings, cassettes, and chains) but it does eliminate the need to add mechanical cables to that equation. Also, we start to get a bit more aerodynamic on the wheel choice: the Easton EA50 set. It's a 30 millimeter deep aluminum set, giving you some aero benefit while still being durable enough to beat on everyday.

The C1 is Shimano Ultegra mechanical. Why is the "higher" end bike mechanical? Weight, for one. But also, some cyclists still prefer good old mechanical shifting. There's also a host of slight component spec-upgrades from the Ci2.

So, looking at the product line, the Ci2 is meant as that midline, performance model in the C series line-up. It comes with a respectable selection of components. It also helps that non-mechanically inclined athlete with the electronic shifting. Simply charge the battery, re-install, and away we go.

Competitors for this bike would include the Specialized Venge Expert Ultegra, the Cervelo S3 Ultegra Di2, and the Felt AR3 EPS. (EPS is Campagnalo's electronic shifting system.)

Here's the full component breakdown of the model, as it would stands on the sales floor of your local bike dealer:

  • Frame: Aero 30T Carbon
  • Fork: Litespeed Aero Carbon
  • Headset: FSA ZS Taper
  • Seatpost: Litespeed Aero Carbon
  • Front Derailleur: Shimano Ultegra Di2
  • Rear Dereailleur: Shimano Ultegra Di2
  • Crankset: Shimano Ultegra 53 x 39
  • Brakes: Shimano Ultegra
  • Shift/Brake Levers: Shimano Ultegra Di2
  • Cassette: Shimano Ultegra 11-25
  • Chain: FSA Team Issue
  • Wheels: Easton EA50 Aero
  • Stem: Easton EA70
  • Bars: Easton EA70
  • Saddle: Fizik Arione
  • Tires: Vittoria Rubino Pro Slick
I test-rode both the medium-large and the large size Ci2, with the large being the preferred frame size.

The Ride: How's it feel?
Well, let's get my major niggle out of the way first: I hated the saddle. Me and Fizik just aren't friends with one another. That said, saddles are a major contact point for the bike. If you don't get your saddle selection right, nothing about the rest of the bike can be right, no matter how well it is set-up. For myself, this means I'm riding a Cobb SHC170 for road fit and an ISM Adamo Road for triathlon. The same holds true for your bars, and your pedals. If you're not comfortable on board your bike, start there.

OK, so now that we've gotten that part out of the way:

I landed smack dab between sizes on this bike. I could use the reach (the distance from the center of the bottom bracket to the head-tube top) from the medium-large and the stack (the distance from the center of the bottom bracket to the head-tube top) from the large. After riding around a fair bit, I determined that I preferred the fit off the large. I found it easier to play around with reach here, personally, with stem length than anything else.

Alright, so we've settled the fit in, got it to the fit coordinates, and made all of the adjustments. So now, time to play around.

The first thing I noticed after clipping in was the smooth acceleration of the bike. This isn't a "snappy" frame, where you can really feel every pedal stroke. Instead, this is like a diesel: constant, continual acceleration until it hits terminal velocity.

Once up to speed, the frame really starts to shine. The tube shapes have definitely paid dividends, as this bike wants to stay at speed once it is there. It simply cuts through the wind. It also cuts out a lot of road vibration as well. Our roads here in northern Virginia make Maine's seem pristine by comparison. We're talking a little chip-seal, some dirt/gravel, some pavement from 1972, some concrete is all handled adeptly. Credit, too, those Easton wheels for helping out with compliance and without falling out of true.

Shifting is as crisp as you would expect electronic shifting to be: direct, precise, authoritative. I've personally preferred SRAM shifting for years, although Di2 might make me a believer in Shimano. The brakes scrub speed well, even in wet/muddy conditions.

Of course, there has to be some kind of trade-off when it comes to the rideability of this particular frame. After all, it can't excel at everything! This isn't the world's best climbing bike. We have a solid 1.2 mile torture chamber known as Ridge Road, featuring a deliciously nasty continual 8%+ climb. So, of course, I ride it all the time.

All of that great, smooth road compliance means the bike feels ever so slightly soft while really trying to mash on the pedals on Ridge Road. Some of that, in my opinion, lays not in the fault of the frame, but moreso of the component spec.

Although this bike is BB30, it comes with a Shimano crank on it. Shimano cranks require the Shimano Hollowtech bottom bracket, which installs outward of the frame. So remember those advantages of BB30 that we'd talked about before? Well, now it's gone. As a side note, for 2014 Litespeed has changed over to a native BB30 crank. So this part of the discussion will probably be rendered moot!

That being said, it has more than held its own on more respectable grades that you'd be more likely to find on most of your rides. It is smooth, fast, and downright fun to ride and easy to care for. What more could you ask for?

In totality, I'd highly recommend this bike for most athletes. The aerodynamic advantage is there. If you're a mountain goat, step up to the C1R. But for most people, this is going to make your life much, much easier. Spend less time wrenching. Spend more time riding.

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