We pitted four of the most advanced triathlon bikes in head-to-head competition on the road and in the wind tunnel to find the fastest, most aerodynamic machine on the market.
This article was originally published in the March/April 2013 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.
There are only two ways that one triathlon bike is faster than another: It either has impeccable mechanical function and predictable handling while fitting perfectly to help the rider perform better, or the machine itself can go faster in a straight line. And when it comes to tri bikes, aerodynamic resistance more than any other factor determines straightaway speed. We took four cutting-edge bikes ranging from totally integrated to nearly stock to compare their performance across all categories. And to find the aerodynamic champion, we tested them head-to-head in the wind tunnel at Faster in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Cervélo P5 Three
$6,000 (with Vision Team wheels), Cervelo.com
Verdict: Total package—great ride, realistic fit, mechanically simple and an aerodynamic standout
The Canadian company did an about-face regarding the geometry used on its top-flight aero bike. Formerly dedicated to the needs of Pro Tour cycling teams, Cervélo tuned the P5’s geometry for positions achievable by cyclists who hold desk jobs. The frame is formed for realistic Ironman fits, and the 3T Aduro aerobar extends the fit range from conservative to aggressive. Horizontal reach distance to the elbow pads is the P5’s only fit limitation. The pads cannot be choked far back toward the cyclist.
Clean integration is the brilliance of the P5. Built with a standard aerobar attachment and externally mounted brakes, the P5 has more mechanical similarities to a road bike than the most integrated contender in this review, the Trek Speed Concept. Magura’s RT 8TT hydraulic rim brakes require a different set of mechanical skills than cable brakes, but require service less frequently. Replacing cables takes a fair amount of patience, but the P5’s aerobar system makes airline travel with the bike extremely simple.
The P5 remains poised under intense cornering and during high-speed descents. Its predecessors had a tendency to flex a bit when cornering heavily—especially with the aerobars propped by a tall stack of steerer tube spacers—but the P5 is rock-solid, inspiring faster and more aggressive lines through tight bends. The bike snaps up to speed instantly without the dreaded “wet noodle” feeling that used to plague some aero bikes.
Fancy but not flashy, the Shimano Dura-Ace 7900 mechanical drivetrain is crisp, light and durable—it just lacks the wow-factor boasted by the other three. A new flagship mechanical group will be slowly replacing this component kit throughout the year. Magura’s hydraulic RT 8TT rim brakes feel slightly stronger than mechanical brakes. Their performance didn’t deteriorate during a three-month test of this bike.
This bike outperforms the others in high rider speed, low wind speed conditions, generating substantially less drag than the nearest competitor at zero and five degrees of yaw. At wider yaw angles, it performs very similarly to the Specialized Shiv, while losing ground to the Trek. This drag profile is best suited to faster riders because high average speeds also translate to shallower yaw angles.
Orbea Ordu GLi2
$5,500 (with Shimano RS21 wheels), Orbea-usa.com
Verdict: Incredible component function and most affordable, but trailed in the tunnel
Orbea ditched antiquated road-style TT geometry and replaced it with a true triathlon-first fit scheme. In addition to a steep seat tube angle—a first for Orbea—the all-new Ordu’s front end is situated for aggressive yet attainable positions. It uses an adjustable rotating stem to affix the aerobar to the frame. This system can accommodate a wide range of fits and is easy to adjust. Conservative, upright positions are the only ones that will test the bike’s adaptability. No matter the position, the front end is elegant.
Orbea adopted Selle Italia’s Monolink system to attach the aerobars to the frame. The rotating stem pieces allow the aerobars to easily come off the frame for travel, but fixing the stem to the frame must be done precisely. The other bike with a similar stem—Felt’s DA—uses notches to prevent the stem from rotating downward, but Orbea’s does not. Carefully assembling this joint is key. The external front brake is the easiest and most functional option.
At press time, the production-grade front-end assembly wasn’t completed to allow a full ride test. Rather than speculate on ride quality without a sufficient test, we are reserving judgment for now.
The Ordu GLi2 is spec’d at the pinnacle of performance and value. Top-level electronic groupsets from both Shimano and Campagnolo claim minor “improvements” beyond Ultegra Di2, but its shift quality is second to none. It does, however, lack brake grip shifters. Orbea elected to use a standard Shimano Ultegra front brake, and the result is great performance and easy service. It may sacrifice a bit of aerodynamic performance, but gains plenty in functionality.
The Ordu created more drag than the others in the wind tunnel test. One way the Ordu attains a price several thousand dollars lower than the others is by spec’ing a less exotic aerobar—the 3T Brezza II. This component coupled with the highly functional although completely external front brake may generate more drag than the alternatives, but both provide real benefits in the form of a lower price and powerful, reliable braking performance.
Specialized S-Works Shiv
$12,000 (with Zipp 404 wheels), Specialized.com
Verdict: Universally practical and aerodynamically competitive
Craig Alexander has to drop his bar nearly as low as possible to fit the Shiv—a good thing for most triathletes because few people can mimic his fit. The Shiv’s frame is designed to fit positions ridden by everyday athletes. Its stack height is taller than nearly all tri bikes with a similar reach length, matching realistic aero positions without relying on a tower of spacers. They can be used to elevate the rider farther, and the aerobar offers a seemingly infinite range of adjustment. The bike can solve just about any fit problem.
Instead of dropping the stem-and-steerer tube in favor of a unique integrated system, the Shiv blends the standard components together without sacrificing practicality. Brake calipers strike a balance between functionality and aerodynamics. They aren’t quite as effective as the Shimano stopper used on the Orbea Ordu, but still provide more than adequate power and modulation. Adjustment and service are also easy. Packing the bike into a travel case and reassembling it are simple to do.
Point the Shiv in a straight line and it calmly holds its course. It feels almost impervious to the shivers and twitches that plague some triathlon bikes. Despite its inclination toward going straight, it deftly moves through sweeping turns. Its monstrous downtube and head tube catch a bit more wind than the other bikes in this test, but the bike’s predictable handling characteristics help resist any input from the wind.
There has been a deluge of new component kits in the past year, but, even with an upgrade just around the corner, Shimano Dura-Ace Di2 remains unmatched. Front shifting feels almost automatic, the rear derailleur stays tuned barring a disaster, and shifting from the brakes is a real speed and performance advantage. Zipp’s 404 Carbon Clinchers might be the best wheels for racing/training double duty. This kit makes the Shiv ready for anything, but at a hefty price: It’s $8,700 more than the cheapest Shiv.
Specialized designed this bike for real-life triathletes, not just endurance all-stars. The bike’s aerodynamic performance reflects those goals. As yaw angle increased, its drag dropped, meaning the Shiv is comparatively faster in conditions frequently experienced by amateur triathletes.
RELATED – Craig Alexander’s Kona Pro Bike: Specialized Shiv
Trek Speed Concept 9 Series
$10,600 (with Bontrager Aeolus D3 wheels), Trekbikes.com
Verdict: The fastest bike, and the most mechanically challenging
Trek has created a range of integrated stems that span a wide breadth of fit preferences. Paired with the highly adjustable Bontrager aerobar, this bike is a fit chameleon capable of morphing into a conservative position or an aggressive one. Accommodating very conservative positions requires a lot of spacers, and the frame itself is best suited to aero fits ranging from moderate to race-oriented, but the machine can accommodate upright positions as well. For micro-adjustments to position, Bontrager’s aerobar can be tweaked in any direction.
Integration can come with a host of complications, but blending nearly the entire front end into a single seamless form did not turn the Speed Concept into a mechanic’s nightmare. Re-cabling the derailleurs and brakes takes more time and precision than on a standard bike, but it is achievable with practice. The aerobars can be micro-adjusted to account for position tweaks, and adjusting the brakes is the only irregularly difficult mechanical task. Changing width and pad orientation for different wheels is a struggle.
There is a fine balance between a twitchy bike and an agile one. The Speed Concept can weave quickly while riding the aero position without feeling unstable or skipping around the road. It isn’t a tranquil cruiser, but it still settles into a nicely balanced medium. Quick sprints are no problem; the bike willingly skips up to speed, although it feels barely less stiff underfoot than the others.
Campagnolo, the historic Italian component manufacturer, ignored triathlon for several years, but reentered with a phenomenal groupset. It was worth the wait. The Campagnolo Super Record 11 kit executes sharper rear shifts than any other mechanical tri components. It jumps through the cassette with a light flick of the shifter, yet each gear change feels solid and crisp. Trek’s integrated brakes perform admirably but struggle to fit wide-rim wheels and are more difficult to adjust than any other in this review.
Despite being the oldest frame design in the test, released in the summer of 2010, Trek’s combination of effective shapes and creative integration allowed it to beat the other three contenders in the wind tunnel shoot-out. While the Cervélo P5 held an advantage at very narrow yaw angles—zero and five degrees—the Speed Concept took control of the test at wider angles, which occur more frequently for amateur triathletes who typically can’t match the speeds of pure time-trialists.
Tunnel Test Results
Test recipe: There is no such thing as a perfect wind tunnel test. The rider impacts the aero drag created by the bike, but replicating that influence is fraught with error and inaccuracy. A person shimmying or looking at a different point can skew the results. Some tri bike companies decide to test their designs with a dummy mounted to the bike. While this strategy does a great job at re-creating the interaction between rider and machine, a small difference in the dummy’s position can outweigh any disparity in the bikes themselves.
For Inside Triathlon’s test, we took elements of the best test procedures in the business and created one that can measure the differences between the bikes—although imperfectly—while keeping other variables to a minimum. Here’s how the bikes were tested at the Faster wind tunnel in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Bike setup conditions:
• All bikes were tested with the same Zipp Super-9 Clincher Disc and Zipp 404 Carbon Clincher front wheel.
• Bikes were tested without a rider or dummy.
• Saddle was removed from the bike and the seat post was set at a uniform height. Openings for saddle attachment hardware were covered with electrical tape.
• Elbow pad height was set equally for all bikes.
• Reach distance to the pads and bar tips was set equally for all bikes.
• Chain was positioned in the big chainring and smallest cassette cog.
• Shift levers were set horizontally.
• Crank arms were fixed in the horizontal position using a Velcro strap.
• The bikes were tested with the spec’d components and aerobars—translating this into a complete bike test, not a frameset comparison.
• No accessories were mounted on the bikes, including Specialized’s integrated Fuelselage hydration bladder.
• The bikes were tested in 30mph wind at 0, 5, 10, 15 and 20 degrees of yaw on both sides.
Test design drawbacks:
This test protocol isn’t perfect. These are the shortcomings that impact the test results but may not influence rider speed on the road.
• The lack of a rider is the most obvious shortcoming. The cyclist impacts the way air passes around the equipment, and this test neglects that fact.
• The tip of the seat post is exposed to unadulterated airflow in this test even though it is almost entirely hidden when the bike is actually ridden by a cyclist.
• Aerobar extensions are exposed to the wind when the rider’s hands would typically cover this portion of the bike.
To watch a video about the test and read more analysis, go to Insidetriathlon.com/tunneltest.
“Like” us on Facebook to get the first look at our photo shoots, take part in lively debates and connect with your fellow triathletes.