Cervelo P2SL

The last time we road tested a Cervelo was seven years ago. It was the P2K, I wrote the review, and in it I both praised and savaged the bike. I loved how the bike rode, but it was the true trophy bike: very pretty, your friends envied you, but it was high maintenance and frequently a challenge. The P2K required a real calculation. Were you equipped to deal with both the exhilarating and the maddening? (There was no in between). If not, consider marrying something low-maintenance though less-exciting.

Cervelo took the criticism to heart, and made changes allowing it to get its product to the next level -- indeed, the highest level. Cervelo stands unchallenged, as of this writing, as the triathlon industry's premier bike manufacturer. In large part this is due to its ability to recognize and preserve the good, and to admit to and fix the bad.

It seemed appropriate to take another look at what was essentially the same idea, updated for this decade. Indeed, the P2(SL) is Cervelo's Ford Taurus: once the best selling and most highly praised model in the industry, finally put out of its misery after a 22-year run. One wonders how long the P2SL will be around. In some ways it's much like that trophy wife at age-45: gravitationally challenged versus younger models, including its own progeny. What's its raison d'etre?

On our reader forum we get questions all the time about which bike to buy, and in most cases there is a price target attached to these queries. The most frequent number mentioned is $2000. "I've got around $2000 to spend," or "...between $2000 and $3000." This is not a sexy price point. You only get to see the bikes without their bikini tops if you're willing to spend $3000, and you don't get the full monty unless you're willing to take it up to $5000. For $2000 you get a post card of Betty Page, but...

...it's the $2000 bikes that get taken home to meet the family.

So, yes, by all means let's talk about Felt's DA, Trek's 9.9, and Cervelo's P3C. Let's drool over Kuota's new Quake, not out yet, with a price of $3500 for just the frame. Let's speculate what life would be like with a BMC TT01 in the garage, or a Time RXR. But at the end of the day, most of us are left to choose between a QR Kilo, a Felt S22, an aluminum Giant, Trek, Cannondale or Specialized at this same price point, or of course this bike we're reviewing here.

For me, what counts first is whether the bike does everything the bike is supposed to do. Will it break or will it stay together? Can all the parts be assembled onto the frame, and will they work as they ought? Does the bike shift, does it brake, is the bike straight and true? Can the bike be assembled without a huge burden placed on the owner and his mechanic? Are all the parts worthy of one another, or is there a wide divergence in the quality and utility among them? Is the paint going to stick to the frame? In other words, is the reliability I expect, and that I get, in a $200 bike also there in the $2000 bike?

In the case of this bike, the answer is yes, yes and yes. But it was not always so. Even after the P2K's shortcomings had been shored up, there were issues. The seat post did not always reliably stay affixed in its place. The Wolf fork was a work in progress. Today, however, nothing is afoul. Nothing needs to be changed.

Well, okay, that's not quite right. One-and-a-half things need to be upgraded. It's the brake levers. I have a confession to make. In 1990 I was in Germany, in Koblenz, in a bike shop, and noticed a set of brake levers on a $300 city commuter bike. They plugged into the ends of the horizontal handlebars on a bike built in the upright comfort style -- you know, of the 3-speed, internal hub mold. Now, 17 years later, I feel like the Ancient Mariner, with this albatross of a brake lever hung around my neck. I can only say in my defense that it seemed like a good idea at the time. The quality of this bike is so high that it deserves some Profile QS2 levers, or some Blackwells, or Visions, or Tektros, anything with a return spring.

After I'm satisfied the bike solves all the problems any bike needs to solve, I look to the specific things a bike brings to the table. In the case of this bike, there are three that come to mind. Will it be more aerodynamic than your average bear? Does it solve the ergonomic issues: specifically, is it comfortable at my points of contact and can I set up the bike to accept my position coordinates? (If you don't know what I'm talking about by position coordinates take an afternoon and read about them.) Finally, will the bike handle appropriately during all the phases of riding in which I'm to be engaged, once I've set the bike up in my preferred position?

The primary functions having been satisfied, this grants the P2SL inclusion into the family of rideable bikes. These secondary functions outlined in the paragraph above determine whether the bike vaults ahead of the pack, or whether it remains just another bike. Let me characterize the P2SL in the following way: As regards these secondary characteristics there is no bike made today -- including the P2C and the P3C -- that gives you more than you can get with the P2SL. Meanwhile, half or two-thirds of the tri bikes made today -- at any and every price point, up to $7000 and even $15,000 -- do not meet the P2SL's ability to satisfy fairly basic concerns.

Consider that there are four sexy frame features viewable on your local tri shop's showroom floor: main tube minor diameters of 30mm or thereabouts; carved out seat tubes that fair rear wheels; aero seat mast complexes extending uninterrupted from the BB to the saddle; and rear-entry, length-adjustable dropouts. The P2SL has all these. How many other bikes do?

The P2L also has licked the problems of handling in pretty much all the elements associated with tri riding, and it does this while allowing me to get into the position I personally require for optimized use of the bike. The only other thing -- this bike is spec'd with Profile Design T2+ aerobars. They're okay, they're fine, but if I were to buy it, I'd have them swapped out for the T2 Cobras and their superior available hand position (this is the "half" of the "one-and-a-half" things I'd change). If I was riding really low in front, I'd swap the whole bar out for a Visiontech, or something similarly low-profile like an Oval, a Blackwell or a Hed.

Keep in mind that this bike is built for steep riding, which is the sort of riding I do. That's why I like it. If this seatpost clamp is flipped back into its rearward position, you'll find the bike long. You won't be comfortable as a result of this, and unless you know what you're doing (or feeling), you'll resort to raising the bars in an effort to fix this discomfort. It won't be bar height that's the problem. It's the overlong cockpit, and the overshallow seat angle. If you want the clamp facing backward, you ought to pass on this bike, and get one designed for that style of riding, yet in this same price point. The Kuota K-factor comes to mind.

There is a tertiary set of attributes that a bike can exhibit. Its cosmetics, how much it weighs, that elusive quantity termed "ride quality," the durability of the frame, and that of its parts, are also important issues (I'm talking about the bike here, not other elements important to the transaction, like the bike's warranty and the company's customer service). As to these tertiary elements, they are what cause you to up-spend to the P2C or the P3C. It's not that the P2SL doesn't deliver in those tertiary categories, eight years ago it would have. It just doesn't today, to the degree its Cervelo carbon siblings do.

This bike comes with three different parts groups, and can actually be purchased complete for as low as $1750. I would carefully look at the parts options. The important upgrades between this and the $2000 version are the Profile Design TriStryke (a very good upgrade) and the Dura Ace versus Ultegra set of derailleurs. The saddle upgrade is the most important of the batch. If your retailer has the lower-priced version, that may be an even better way to go.