Cervélo’s new P3 provides the blueprint for a fast and functional triathlon bike.
I distinctly remember a conversation I had in 2008 with a coworker (and fellow self-proclaimed tri bike elitist) in the back room of Colorado Multisport, a tri shop where we worked at the time. The two of us stared at the Cervélo P3 (then called the P3C) and talked about ways to improve the bike. After a fairly short while, we decided that there was little that needed improving. Narrow, pointy tubes and a steep seat tube angle were our definition of a great tri frame.
While it’s obvious in retrospect that we overlooked several important potential upgrades, he and I revered the original P3C because it was so vastly superior to every other tri bike of its time. By 2008, Cervélo was already atop the tri bike universe because it had innovated its way into that position—and seemingly every other bike maker who cared about the sport was scrambling to catch up. By advancing fit and aero design, the P3C became the standard against which all tri bikes of that decade were judged.
The original P3’s seven-year run is coming to an end this summer and taking its place is a new P3 that looks fairly similar but is in fact remarkably different. The leap from the old standard to this updated version defines the new, elevated expectations for tri bike performance and functionality. Comparison to the P3 has long been the litmus test for triathlon bikes, and the evolution from the original P3C to this new version characterizes the five core improvements to tri bikes since it came out in 2006 that you should look for in any tri bike, regardless of price.
Realistic fit range
Original P3: Skewed for hyper-aggressive positions that many triathletes can’t ride
New standard: Frame geometry is tuned for a less extreme position
The fastest time trial in cycling history was done on the original P3C. Dave Zabriskie rode an average of 54.7kph aboard the bike in the 2005 Tour de France prologue time trial, a result that has since been stripped because he was fueled by more than just training and fresh produce. Past transgressions aside, that frame’s geometry was suited to Zabriskie’s famously aerodynamically efficient (and biomechanically demanding) position—it had a relatively low aerobar height compared to the length from rider to cockpit. It was perfect for elite time trialists, but less so for triathletes, especially those capable of buying top-level bikes who tend to be in the middle to upper age divisions.
Despite its shortcomings, the P3C’s geometry was actually a giant step in the right direction for triathletes at the time. It was one of the first bikes designed around a very steep seat tube angle, which is now universally accepted as a necessity for all tri bikes. Cervélo deserves a lot of the credit for convincing cyclists at large that 78-degree-plus seat tube angles are generally the best for timed races and not just for weirdos racing in a Speedo.
Tuning tri bike geometry to better accommodate more ordinary athletes rather than the super-elite was the next evolution of tri bike geometry. While Cervélo didn’t lead this current geometric shift to less radical fit specs, the new P3 is shaped specifically for fits closer to the middle of the bell curve instead of riders like Zabriskie who can lick their front tire from the aero position. (They are the real weirdos.) For the bike fit scholars, the stack number—the vertical distance from the bottom bracket to the top of the head tube—is between 3 and 5 centimeters taller than the original P3 for similar horizontal reach lengths from the BB forward to that same point on the head tube.
Original P3: Frame bottle mounts only
New standard: Frame bottle, top tube and saddle storage mounts
Triathletes and specialized accessory companies were ahead of bike makers for many years regarding this requirement, and frame designers are finally catching up. Carrying stuff on a tri bike is really important. In addition to the standard frame bottle mounts, the new P3 has an accessory mount on the top tube behind the stem and another opening on the back end of the seat post that can accommodate an X-Lab bottle carrier. A tri bike should offer stable and aesthetically clean ways to carry all the extra crap needed for a five-hour training ride or a 112-mile bike leg.