Cervelo P3 Ultegra (2011)

Cervelo is to tri what Colnago is to road: a storied headbadge with a tradition and a caché unmatched by any bike brand. This, although Cervelo was just one among many tri bike companies only a decade ago.

There were fewer than 30 Cervelos at the Hawaiian Ironman in Kona in 1999. There were only 45 in 2000 and in 2001 the rankings looked like this: Kestrel (156); Trek (143); Cannondale (143); Litespeed (95); Softride (72); Quintana Roo (71); Cervelo (57).

How things change! By 2002 Cervelo had climbed to 4th. Move forward three years and Cervelo finally takes the podium, so to speak. In 2005 there were 195 Cervelos in Kona, and that was the first year Cervelo "won" the Kona bike count.

How did Cervelo take that top spot? It didn't hurt that the frame reviewed here was introduced at the 2004 Interbike show, and debuted on showroom floors in mid-2005. Since then, Cervelo's numbers in Kona have climbed off the back of this, the world's best-ever selling tri bike. Last year Cervelo had 442 bikes in the race, this year 448. No other company has ever had more than 175 bikes in the Hawaiian Ironman. This is how legacies are built.

For all that, however, the cycling world is either catching up; has caught up; or has surpassed Cervelo in terms of tri bike value and performance, depending on whom you talk to. I believe Cervelo has built its reputation and its dynasty on the back of this bike reviewed here today, as well as its aluminum ancestor. How does this model, six years old, fare in 2011, considering the newer bikes in its competitive set?

As has been noted in other recent Slowtwitch bike reviews, there's a glut of attractive tri bike models in the mid-$3000s price point. This is the spot manufacturers seem to be aggregating some of their most potent offerings.

Cervelo is right in there, and does not disappoint. It is no secret that the P3 frameset has been around awhile. In fact, if it's not the oldest of Cervelo's carbon molds, it's at least the oldest of its tri bike molds. Still, this bike was so far ahead of its time—and so copiously copied by many of its competitors—that it's hard to omit noticing the homage to this landmark bike when noting the offerings of other brands in 2011.

To be sure, it wasn't this P3 that started today's curved seat tube revolution, rather its aluminum precursor. Before the emails start arriving describing all the bikes that had curved seat tubes, this feature technically goes back further than readers might realize. Bikes made with curved seat tubes were available more than a century ago. But in the modern era of aerodynamic bikes, with main tubes having built with minor diameters less than 30 millimeters wide, and 3:1 aspect ratios, The P3SL was the original.

When the P3 Carbon—now just P3—first arrived, there were problems. The forward position in the 2-position seat post wasn't forward enough. The binder affixing the saddle in place did not always keep the saddle in place. This is why those choosing not to be among the "early adopters" of new models are rewarded for their patience. Since its arrival on the scene, the P3's seat post had been redesigned, we're in the fork's third iteration.

There is one change to the P3 frameset last year to this: Cervelo's FK26 fork—debuted last year on its P4—trickles down to this bike (and to the P2 as well). This fork replaced the 3T Funda Pro, and offers a bit more of an aerodynamic match to Cervelo's down tube shape.

The P3 reviewed here is spec'd with what Cervelo calls its "Ultegra" group and that's true up to a point. The front and rear derailleurs are Ultegra, as are the chain and the cassette. The shifters are, of course, Dura Ace, because Shimano only makes its bar-end shifter as a Dura Ace product.

This makes the bike shift very nicely, though the shifting ergonomics of Shimano's bar-end shifter are not on a par with SRAM's shifters (in particular its 900 TT shifter, which is universally praised for its shift quality and its ergonomics, as opposed to SRAM's R2C shifters which many love but about which others still sit on the fence).

The P3 has played it safe by specifying an Ultegra shift system. Specialized and Felt are both rolling the dice that customers will gravitate toward SRAM drivetrains. Scott, Cannondale, Trek and others are wagering that Ultegra is the right group for this price point, and the Slowtwitch poll querying its readers justify the Ultegra choice: "The gruppo you'd prefer on your tri bike, based on performance AND value?" The answer Slowtwitcher's give: Ultegra (36%); Dura Ace (19%); Red (15%); Force (12%); Di2 (9%); nothing else polls above 5%.

What we don't know with precision is whether customers are more attached to the idea of gruppo integrity than in years past. Some companies making tri bikes in this mid-$3000 price range stick to Ultegra for brake calipers, cranks and so forth, while others down- or cross-spec. Cervelo is a cross-spec'er from way back, and retains that habit. The front and rear brake calipers on the P3 are FSA's Gossamer Pro, and the crankset chosen is FSA's Gossamer MegaExo. In this latter case, I think this is the bike's weakest spec link. Were I to own a P3 (and I do) I'd like to see FSA's SL-K crank aboard the frame (and in my garage, it is). Alas, the SL-K is spec'd on the P3, just not this P3—you've got to move to the P3 Dura Ace to get it.

Still, one nice thing about the Gossamer MegaExo on this P3 is the 110mm bolt pattern and the 50/34 chainrings: almost certainly a more suitable gearing for the fattest slice of the market, especially for those who'll train and/or race on courses with hills.

All that said, best not to get too hinky about the crank spec. It's fair to say that cranksets are becoming a part of that set of components for which original equipment spec is simply a place setter for what will eventually come on the bike you ride. Certainly stems were always that way—it would be dumb luck if the stem spec'd on the bike happened to be of the length and pitch you need. Saddles are just about as portable these days. Bikes spec'd with fi'zi:k Arione Tri2 saddles stand a pretty good chance of having their saddles remain affixed once purchased, still, these bikes' new owners should make sure saddle + fanny = happy.

Crankarms are now trending shorter, per rider, and manufacturer spec hasn't yet caught up with this. So, there's a pretty good chance you may want to move to a shorter crank than that spec'd on your Cervelo. Rule of thumb these days: your road bike's crank minus 5mm.

Speaking of saddles, that fi'zi:k comes on the P3 Ultegra and it's nice to see Cervelo joining a lot of companies that have moved away from the house-branded saddles that end up getting tossed into retailers' saddle bins. Only on the P1 does Cervelo stick a placeholder saddle on the bike and at that bike's price point that's understandable and defensible.

The P3 sports Visiontech in front of the head tube—an all aluminum construct of stem, base bar, clip on and brake lever. This is all very functional, sturdy, ergonomic, if not overly lightweight. To be sure, It conspires with the bike's geometry to provide a low position, so, this bike is best ridden by those who'll choose a steep set up, and/or who are morphologically neutral or who trend toward a longer torso.

If this does not describe you—if you aren't going to ride as steep; do not intend the front of your bike to be low; are long-legged—you are not disqualified from riding a P3. Rather, you might need to consider a different front end. I ride a P3 very successfully—and by "success" I don't necessarily mean "podium-worthy", rather, that the bike works nicely for me—with no spacers, a flattish stem, but, with 3T bars instead of Vision bars. This raises the aerobar pads about 20mm, and I don't have to rely on spacers above the headset.

Another height option, of course, are the riser kits designed to sit under Visiontech's armrests, and Cervelo exercised some forethought on your behalf. Rather than the S-bend extensions, the P3 features tradition upturns. In fact, if you look at the pic adjacent, you'll note the shifters are considerably higher than the armrests. This set up really begs to be altered in one of two ways. Either the amrests need to be pedestaled to match the extension height, or the extensions need to be cut, so that the shifters are lower in elevation. Something has to give—but the bike is designed that way. Either de-cable the bike, remove the shifters, and cut the extensions, or leave the extensions as they are and pedestal the armrests. Either is fine. Just, the bike will work best if you do one or the other.

One concern with Visions: If you cut these extensions at their distal ends, you also shorten the extensions, which might be good, if they're too long for you uncut. But if they're the right length for you uncut, then your retailer must replace these with longer Vision aerobars which, post-cut, now fit both your length and your height requirements. Were Visions outfitted with modular (removable) extensions, this process would be easier (and there is a new version of these bars that do have removable extensions).

Frankly, were the P3 outfitted with SRAM shift system, the process would be easier yet—while Shimano's shift levers can be removed without de-cabling the bike, SRAM's levers are more easily given to that. What this means is, the P3 is outfitted quite nicely, but, if the 2012 version were to have a SRAM Force shift kit and Vision's new clip-ons with replaceable extensions, I'd consider this a slightly more user-friendly bike.

The wheels on this bike are Shimano's bomb-proof R500, a perfect training wheel for anyone's tri bike.

What's the overall verdict on the P3 Ultegra? As noted, it's one of the most innovative TT frames in history and, while it isn't light years ahead of the competition the way it was when originally introduced, it still holds its own admirably. It's got an updated fork, and the spec is ingenious at times while playing it relatively safe. It is ready to ride out of the box. Still, you might have to wrestle with its front end to get it match your fit coordinates exactly, unless you have a bit of luck and nothing needs to be cut and no cables rerouted.

In 1968 Bob Beamon stunned the world by moving the long jump record to an astounding 29'2". He was only 22 years old. Have you ever wondered what it must be like to produce a result you haven't a prayer of ever again equaling? Beamon not only never again jumped 29 feet, nor 28 feet, he never again jumped 27 feet.

The P3 was Cervelo's Beamonesque effort, but Cervelo has done well in its encore efforts. Certainly the P2 has been a big success, and the P4 continues to find its marketplace legs. The point? This bike may be long in the tooth as models go, but it's still a top-rung tri bike. Only last month a rider (Emma Pooley) won a world time trial championship aboard a P3 (on a 650c version, no less). The P3 is a familiar sight sitting underneath those who've won this title. Heck, the P3 is just a familiar sight. This will be the first TT bike ever to wear out its molds.