2009 tri bikes at the entry level

The P1

The Cervelo P1 is the old Cervelo P2SL. The name change prevents confusion and gets rid of the aluminum versus carbon designations. This bike is aluminum and is the only tri bike in Cervelo's line in that metal. But you should not assume this makes it unworthy. Transport this bike back to the turn of the decade and it might've been, at that time, the world's best tri bike. That was only 8 years ago.

It's got the same geometry you'll find throughout the brand's tri bike line, which means it fits properly those who ought to ride this bike. And who is that person? It's a relatively fit and trim rider of average morphology who wants a bike that's equipped to go very fast (assuming the engine pushing the bike equals the bike's ability to be pushed).

Who is not a good candidate for this bike? This bike's geometry is best ridden relatively steep (77° of seat angle or steeper, measured center of BB to center of the saddle's rails), and relatively low in front. This is, of course, how you ride a tri bike quickly. But not everybody is equipped to ride this way, in the aero position, throughout the distance of the bike leg. If you are not equipped to ride aero, and in the aero position, for the entire duration of a triathlon's bike leg, best look elsewhere. Don't buy this bike only to ride most of the time with your hands on the pursuit bars and not in the aero position. This is not a fast bike (no tri bike is) if that's the way you're going to ride it.

Also, riders with very long legs in proportion to their torso lengths may find the P1 a bit long in the waist and low in front to match this morphology. The solution is a bike less long and less low. Alternatively, swapping out this bike's "low profile" Visiontech clip-ons for some higher-rise Profile Design T2s, or Syntaces, will give you a better shot at making this bike work without resorting to a bunch of spacers.

The bike is simple, and simply functions. The cables route easily, the rear wheel is chain-stay-adjustable, the handling is correct, and its geometric elements "match," that is to say, the available saddle positions; the head tube top; the cockpit; all match each other (we won't say that about a lot of bikes in the tri bike market).

The spec of the bike is solid and well-conceived, though it is tri trailer trash spec, which I am proud to say I pioneered almost two decades ago. What I mean is, there is no "gruppo" here. It's Ultegra, nominally, but with Cervelo dual pivot brakes. What are those? Well, let's not delve too deeply into questions like that. Let's just say that they stop the bike and we'll just leave it there. Vittoria Rubino tires, Shimano R-500 wheels, these are all decent, but they're OE spec. Hey, this is a $1750 bike. What do you want, Super Record?

In fact, it could be worse. The chain and cogset are Ultegra. In the old days it was 105 or Tiagra, or still lower on the totem pole. In my day the brake levers were Dia Compe 188s. Not on this bike. The world has changed, and the Visiontech brake levers on this bike are ready for prime time.

This bike doesn't have anything you have to change out, not even the gearing. It comes with an FSA MegaExo crank in—get ready—a 110mm bolt pattern. This makes Cervelo one of the only bike companies that gets it. Triathletes aren't bike racers, they don't ride variously with 400w exertions mixed in w/120w ride-alongs. Triathletes ride, or should ride, at a relatively steady exertion rate, and that relatively high rate requires turning a relatively high cadence. So, the P1's 50x34 chainrings are spec'd for the sort of riding a triathlete will do, day in and out.

This bike is priced a bit above the lowest-end Felt and QR, but the up-charge is defensible—not slam-dunk worth it, but defensible. Like the QR and Felt lower-end offerings, the P1's smallest size is built in 650c, which makes this thankfully a rideable bike by those under 5'6".

The Tequilo

The Kilo is dead, long live the Tequilo. This is now QR's entry level tri bike, at $1600. Like the Cervelo P1, the Tequilo's aluminum frame is simple and trustworthy; an easy build; and functional. In fact, the Tequilo's geometry has typically led QR's line in functionality, because as QR's geometry has morphed over the past 3 years its easier to change a welded bike's frame specs than a bike with a mold you're stuck with.

The Tequilo has all the sexy frame features you want: good steep geometry with speed in mind; aero seat tube and post; rear entry dropouts with adjustable chain stay lengths; faired rear wheel. It does not have the P1's internal brake and shift cable routing. That's about the only aero feature the frame lacks.

The geometry of the bike is "long and low," meaning it's not a bike for weekenders. Unless you're prepared to ride it fast, in the aero position, the entire bike ride, think twice. This is race geometry. This is the sort of geometry a top no-draft pro would ride. Look at these pics of Hawaiian Ironman pros. None of those pros were riding this bike and, indeed, none in that photo essay were riding QRs. But the most aggressive positions represented in those pics are what this bike is meant to accommodate. So, is this your desired way to ride? If so, read on. If not, pass this bike by.

This bike is spec'd more or less like Cervelo's P1, except a step down, to Shimano mostly-105 instead of the P1's mostly-Ultegra. The stem, saddle, and other peripherals are in the house-brand category, which today is not wholly unlike putting your logo on a T shirt. The stem, who cares at that price point? The saddle, well, on tri bikes saddles are quickly going the way of pedals: they ought not to even be included as part of the build. All that is to say the spec is fine where it matters, and where the spec doesn't matter, well, it doesn't much matter.

The QR Kilo, selling at around $1500 back 15 years ago, was then and remained until today a staple entry-level tri bike. But this is the Tequilo. Without this model's original logo of the armadillo drinking a margarita, and the Kilo to aid in the play-on-words, there is nothing to help people understand where this model name comes from. Nevertheless, at $1599 this bike continues QR's tradition of making bikes in this price point that are hard to match.

The smallest-sized Tequilo is built with 650c wheels, making it an excellent option for those under 5'6" in height. Women will also want to look at QR's Chicquilo, the distaff version of the Tequilo.

The S32

I think it's fair to say that Felt has, in the past two seasons, broken from the pack and ensconced itself clearly in second place in the world of tri bike sales. This happened for two reasons: Felt introduced its new DA/B2 mold for the 2007 season; and with the introduction of that mold, all its bikes (including its aluminum bikes) were geometrically redesigned to fit properly. Prior to the 2007 season, the bikes were a terrific value, it's just that the damned things didn't fit anyone, at least not without some fairly serious jury rigging.

This is now the third consecutive season of bikes that fit like a dream (and also like a Cervelo), and it was only a matter of time before Felt got out of its own geometric way and made bikes that you could ride without being a contortionist. Because Felt, since its inception, has been a world leader at ingenious and aggressive spec, these well-fitting machines outfitted with sexier spec for the buck are making a run at Cervelo.

All that is just what you'd expect me to say, right? I've been saying pretty much this for the past two years, and Felt deserved every praiseworthy report of mine. But I must tell you that with this specific bike, the S32, Felt—the company that so often catches the bike world with its pants down—has been disrobed itself by those in its competitive set. This isn't to say that the S32 is not a good value, or a good bike. It's that other companies are very frankly making a better bike in this category.

First, there is the frame. There's a round seat post going into a round-to-aero seat tube. This is do-able on a $1200 bike, but not one selling for $1550, not when QR's Tequilo offers sexier features for only $50 more.

Then there's the house-brand aerobars. I give Felt a 10 for bravery. Certain things you just don't expect to see house-branded on a bike, and this is one of them. Do these bars deserve to be on a bike? Or are they an overreach? I don't have an opinion yet, because I have not spent enough time with them. But $1500 is not nothing. Even though it's the tri bike market entry price, it's still a chunk to spend. Maybe the bar is an upgrade over last year's Profile Design Aerolite. But the Aerolite is not the only alternative. Felt is taking a big risk on a proprietary aerobar. Ironically, though, the risk is bigger on an entry level bike like this. You can pull an OE bar off a $4500 bike and replace it with what the customer wants. Not so on a $1500 bike—there's just not enough profit to fiddle around with these bikes; they have to be built ready to ride out the door.

The crank is the one area where, arguably, Felt holds its own. It depends on whether you consider Shimano's crank an upgrade. I spoke to one of Felt's largest dealers about this issue. The dealer also sells many QRs and Cervelos. His shop considers this one of the big values of Felt's S32, that the shifting of Shimano cranks, with Shimano derailleurs, is superior to the shifting on FSA's cranks (the cranks that Cervelo and QR spec on their entry level tri bikes).

Okay, maybe. It's a fair point to argue. But this crank, Shimano model FC-R550, you will probably not find in Shimano's catalog or on its website. It bolts to a Hollowtech bottom bracket, but it is not, itself, a hollow crank. It is an OE model that sits below Tiagra in the food chain. I can understand no Ultegra, and I can maybe understand no 105 on this bike. But not even a Tiagra? (And if you follow this better-shifting narrative, what do we do with Felt's B2, which is spec'd with an FSA crank?)

There is one specific thing Felt does that most other companies do not: their smallest two sizes use 650c wheels. Felt does an excellent job of making tri bikes that fit smaller riders.

So while, on balance, Felt's bikes are wonderful values and deserve to sell at the high levels they're selling at—and while praiseworthy overviews of Felt's 2009 tri bikes you'll certainly find written, by me, on Slowtwitch—Felt did not hit a home run on this year's S32. Nor did it strike out. It's somewhere between an infield hit and a ground rule double. Dollar for dollar, QR's Tequilo beats it. While in previous years Felt's values got better and better as the price decreased, that's no longer the case. Felt's sweet spot is now at a higher price point.