Strengths and shortcomings of one of every tri bike style under the rainbow.
The most technologically advanced bike isn’t necessarily the best. Each individual rider dictates what he or she finds valuable in a tri bike, and many personal lists do not align with the cutting edge of innovation. Fundamental attributes like ride quality and fit can easily get lost behind flashy nose cones and dramatic aero tubes, but function—not flair—will keep you happy with your tri bike years after rolling it out of the store. Start your search for a tri bike by listing the characteristics that mean the most to you (and by getting a bike fit). Tri bike design has split into many directions, and these four bikes cover the complete range of fit, ride and construction styles to choose from.
Orbea Ordu M30
Bike profile: Keyed to the wants of demanding cyclists
Suited to the values of road time-trialists with a twist of tri-friendly fit, the Ordu shifts instantaneously and has a mean-looking integrated front end suited to aggressive positions. It jumps at every input—steering or sprinting—and responds with aggression. For a forgiving fit, this bike isn’t the one, but immaculate component function (except for the rear brake) and compact fit make it an ideal choice for the hard-nosed and discerning rider.
As the sport has grown and welcomed athletes of every body type, tri bikes have become increasingly friendly to moderate and upright positions. The Ordu is not part of that trend. Orbea’s integrated front end is shaped to drop the bars into a demanding, aero-oriented position. Flat aerobar extensions provide ample leverage through the wrists to yank an extra couple of watts out of an intense effort. These bars, however, do not create a relaxed grip suited to long riding or offer the ability to reshape into a dramatically more conservative fit. Make sure your position is suited to this bike before pulling the trigger because it is best for an ambitious riding style.
Forget the notion that Shimano Ultegra is a mid-level groupset—it functions at the absolute pinnacle. Derailleurs get the glory, but it’s the full kit spec’d on the Ordu M30—crank, cassette and shifters—that separates this group from most tri bike builds. Every piece of this 11-speed kit is designed to work in unison, and the difference is tangible. The external Shimano front brake controls the bike beautifully, although the hidden rear caliper lacks stopping power and is a challenge to adjust.
Responsiveness trumps stability with the Ordu. The bike feels dynamic in all situations, and the under-foot stiffness of this frame seems to outdo the others, yet most road vibration melts away. Moving quickly is the bike’s natural inclination, which places more responsibility on the rider to hold a straight line from the aero position. A steady cruiser this is not. Its stiff and snappy construction makes riding it a blast.
It Goes to 11
Ten-speed kits have had a decade-long run that is coming to an end. Mid-level 2014 SRAM and Shimano kits are both 11-speed, and the most price-conscious Apex and 105 groups are likely to follow in the near future. These component kits are not technically compatible with their prior-gen predecessors (although some pieces can be crow-barred together), so replacing parts and swapping between bikes will become increasingly difficult over the next few years as 11-speed becomes ubiquitous. Ten-speed parts won’t disappear, but having an 11-speed kit will become an increasingly valuable convenience in the next few years, irrespective of shift performance.
Cannondale Slice 5 105
Bike profile: Maximizes rider potential, sacrifices new tech
Techie upgrades can help squeeze the last few drops of speed from a well-trained athlete, but cycling performance ultimately comes down to human ability. This bike has all the attributes needed to exploit a rider’s fitness, and the sticker price is reasonable. Transcendent handling gives the bike a seemingly innate sense of the rider’s intentions. A luxuriously appointed machine this is not, but the components can be upgraded to match the frame’s prowess.
Feel free to push the boundaries during a technical descent on this bike. It can sweep through broad curves without ever feeling twitchy or unstable. And it’s just as suited to going hard in the aero position. The Slice 5 105 grips a straight line and barrels down the road while absorbing any small agitations without skipping off-course. Many frames of this age (read: older design) have an old bottom bracket standard that isn’t as stiff as the current tech, but this bike has an up-to-date BB that helps the frame feel responsive to a hard kick.
Cannondale was ahead of its time when it crafted this bike’s geometry more than six years ago. It is constructed to fit a plethora of age-group riders instead of the people at the top of the triathlon pyramid. The frame’s fit accommodates realistic positions, not a Tour de France time-trialist. Vision TriMax aerobars can be elevated above the bars with a spacer kit for a taller position, but they cannot be drawn back toward the rider. The lack of reach adjustment is the bike’s biggest fit limiter, but the swappable standard stem helps mitigate potential issues.
A downgraded parts kit is one of the reasons why the Slice 5 105 costs much less than the Cervélo, Felt and Orbea. Just about every piece was selected for price, not function, and shifting performance suffers as a result. Microshift levers feel loose when flicking through gears and lack the solid and decisive feel of Shimano’s bar-end set. Changing gears is also slower in the front and rear than the other bikes in this review. The frame’s simple design helps allow the brakes to live up to their full potential and makes travel and maintenance as easy as possible. Pull on the levers, and the calipers scrub speed with increasing immediacy.
Cervélo P3 Dura-Ace
Bike profile: Function over flash
While most bike designers equip tri models at this price level with a flashy front-end system, Cervélo instead elected to build a near-perfect version of a non-integrated tri bike. In that sense, this bike is a throwback. Shifting is crisp and immediate; hydraulic brakes are immune to the typical spew of sports drink that clogs many traditional calipers; fit specs work for most triathletes; the bike thrives while twisting through tight corners. And the Cervélo engineering crew’s hard-earned reputation as aerodynamic wizards builds confidence in the P3’s straight-line speed, even without the added drag savings of an integrated nose cone.
Of all the triathlon bike frames, this one might fit the most athletes. With sizes stretching from microscopic (45) to gargantuan (61), there is a P3 for just about every body type. And the frame shape is crafted to match realistic tri-specific fits. The 3T Aura Pro aerobar offers limited adjustment. Stack height adjustment range is minimal and, while the extensions can move in and out, the pad position cannot be drawn far backward to shorten the reach length. Mounting the aerobar with a standard stem and steerer tube instead of an integrated system provides about 6 centimeters of stack adjustment range (from stem position and orientation), which helps counteract the limited aerobar but with a penalty to aesthetics and stiffness.
Along with changes to geometry, the handling feel of Cervélo’s tri bikes has evolved in the past few years. The P3 retains the nimble touch of the prior-generation Cervélo tri bikes and boasts a few notable improvements. This bike calmly holds its course without any over-exaggerated movement and feels more stable when reaching for a bottle—although it still requires more input than the Cannondale. Overall stiffness is better. Jam the bike through a corner, and every part of the frame moves in unison, inviting the rider to press harder and take advantage of the bike’s agility.
Forgoing integration isn’t just a cost-saving measure; it simplifies a bike and reduces mechanical complexity. Combined with Cervélo’s livable cable routing system, the P3’s basic housing path makes trouble-shooting, traveling and routine service relatively easy and rapid. Component performance is outstanding. Gear shifts are swift and precise (11-speed), and the hydraulic Magura RT6 TT brakes provide ample yet predictable stopping power. ISM saddle popularity has rocketed upward ever since it was first released because its two-tong design helps the majority of riders get comfortable in the aerobars. Including this valuable saddle is a big upgrade.
Bike profile: Full-blown integration without fit limitation
This is not the bike that Mirinda Carfrae rode to her Kona title last October, but it is still a damn good one. The sleek front end is the headline feature, but ride quality is truly its most valuable attribute. For the combination of confidence-inspiring stability and responsive agility, the DA4 strikes the mark. Component quality is mostly excellent, but one (easily upgradeable) weak link thwarts shift performance.
Want to stretch the limits of your hamstrings and tuck into a suicidal fit that would make time-trial world-record holder Chris Boardman proud? The Felt DA4 can stretch you long and low. Prefer to stay upright and shelter your muscles for the run? That’s no problem either. The frame geometry itself is demanding and best suited for a person looking to push his or her fit to the extreme, but its bevy of adjustment options can stretch and extend the bike to match even upright fits without mortgaging ride quality or its sleek look. The aerobar is clamped to the frame with an integrated piece that extends directly off the frame. Several different versions of this piece extend the fit options, and an aerobar shim kit can prop the bike farther beyond a typical fit range. Elbow width is the only real limitation. Felt’s own Bayonet aerobar cannot splay the arm pads out far to the side of the extensions to provide relief to tight shoulders or a constrained chest.
Set this bike on a straight course and it sticks resolutely on track. Its stability helps inspire confidence when grabbing for a water bottle or when fatigue takes your focus off the road. It doesn’t exactly skip through corners, but its predictable demeanor builds the trust needed to steer from the aerobars without fear. Assembled with one of the compact stem pieces, it responds immediately to any acceleration—every part of the bike seems to move in unison.
This 11-speed component kit—shifters, derailleurs, chain, cassette and crank—is ready for the future. Its backbone will stay current for many years, so if you decide to buy a road bike in a couple years, this kit will be compatible, enabling wheel swaps and other handy synergies. One element of this bike disappoints compared to the rest: the Microshift bar-end shifters. These off-brand levers lack the precise feel of Shimano’s shifters and seem to degrade more quickly. As a result, the top-tier Shimano Dura-Ace 11-speed derailleurs lose their pop. Relegating these levers in favor of the real deal is a worthy $130 upgrade that would significantly improve overall shift performance. Stopping power is serviceable but not outstanding.