Cervélo’s new P3 provides the blueprint for a fast and functional tri bike.

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.

Integrated storage

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.

RELATED: Cervélo Unveils The P5

Integrated and effective brakes

Original P3: Flimsy dual-pivot externally mounted caliper
New standard: Hydraulic externally mounted calipers

While many aspects of tri bike design are starting to converge on a single solution, brake design continues to be extremely fragmented. The Trek Speed Concept 9 Series has fully integrated brakes that nearly blend into the frame while the Guru CR.901 uses off-the-shelf brake calipers. Both bikes are highly desirable to the right person and extremely expensive but use dramatically different brakes. Guru’s brake solution is the most practical and functional while Trek’s may be the fastest and most mechanically difficult. The P3 splits the difference. Working in conjunction with Cervélo, Magura developed a tri-specific, hydraulically driven rim brake with excellent stopping power that is nearly impervious to the shower of sports drink that all tri bikes inevitably suffer, and it tucks neatly in front of the frame to keep aero drag to a minimum.

Tri-specific saddle

Original P3: Uncomfortable long-nose saddle
New standard: Saddle designed for the aero position

Of all the detrimental contributions to triathlon bikes made by road time-trialist traditionalism, none may have been more literally painful than the supposed “time trial” saddle. Basically, these are just road saddles with a Pinocchio-style nose (grown for telling the lie that they were comfortable in the aero position?). Plenty of saddle manufacturers were able to stamp out cheap versions of this seat, so a frightening majority of tri bikes came with a long-nose time trial saddle. Part of the logic behind including these saddles was that tri bike fit is so specific and personal that most people are just going to scrap the stock saddle, no matter its design. That is bunk. Although there is no perfect saddle that works for every triathlete, every aero-specific bike fitter that I have consulted agreed that ISM-style saddles work more often than any other option. There is no perfect road bike saddle, yet high-end road bikes still come with quality seats. Instead of down-spec’ing the saddle on the new P3 to something that almost certainly isn’t going to work, it comes with the option that arguably suits more triathletes than any other—the ISM Podium.

Functional componentry

Original P3: Down-spec’d drivetrain parts to save money
New standard: Finding the balance between function and price

Other than a few arbitrary rules that govern the positions time trialists can ride, quantity of use is biggest difference between a TT bike and a tri bike. Time-trial bikes are rarely ridden, specialized tools for an uncommon subset of road cycling; aboard a triathlon bikes is (in theory at least) where a triathlete will spend the vast majority of his or her training miles. As a result, component function is more important for a tri bike than it is for a TT bike. Cervélo was a pioneer of the shift from complete groupsets (every component coming from the same quality tier such as Shimano Ultegra) to mix-and-match sets with a few quality pieces and several inferior ones that reduce both price and component performance. While that strategy is still effective, the build kit spec’d on the new P3 compromises nothing. Not only does it have Dura-Ace derailleurs, but it also sports a chain and cassette from the same Shimano parts kit.

The Cervélo P3 Dura Ace retails for $5400.

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