It is the single most popular triathlon bike. The Cervelo P2.
The Kona bike count, polls on forums, results on sales floors around the world: The Cervelo P2 is the bike more triathletes own and aspire to than any other single model. The model and brand are so successful their only real competition comes from within, with the Cervelo P3 frequently being the P2’s greatest contender at Kona Bike Count, reader polls and sales floor numbers.
At the 2010 Kona Bike Count published on the LAVA Magazine website there were 468 Cervelos on the pier in Kona out of 1661 total bikes counted. Fully 28% of the field was on Cervelo. The remaining 72% of the field was divided up among a scattered 51 brands. The consensus bike among triathletes is Cervelo. Why have Cervelo and the P2 in particular been so successful? Does the P2 still measure up against a recent wave of fourth generation super-bikes?
In a very Darwinian way Cervelo’s P2 is a product of evolution. Evolution and refinement are a proven development process for Cervelo and the 2011 Cervelo P2. While most other “aero” styled triathlon bikes have been inspired by Cervelo designs including the P2, the P2 came from the very first aluminum Cervelos and those came from the minds of engineers Gerard Vroomen and Phil White. To understand Vroomen and White is to understand why Cervelo has been so successful.
Both Vroomen and White are engineers. That is where the similarity seems to end. Gerard Vroomen is serious, quiet and sometimes brash. Phil White is gregarious and usually fashionably clad. It isn’t difficult to imagine that Vroomen is the arbiter of data, the man who makes sure the numbers work and compromises are avoided. White is the man who interprets the science into product. Phil White frequently delivers PowerPoint presentations on Cervelo technology to dealers. But when Cervelo returns to the hallowed womb of the wind tunnel, Vroomen seems to take over with his exacting, analytical, uncompromising approach. They are the good cop, bad cop team that has interrogated bike design into submission and brought it to the “sweet spot” that is the P2.
The irony of the P2 is that many people who own it may not understand why. At the heart of the P2 is the Cervelo frame. At the heart of the frame are key technologies unique to Cervelo. Those technologies include:
TrueAero frame shape. Cervelo tube shapes are not wind tunnel tested, they are wind tunnel developed. The difference is tangible. Before Cervelo developed the unique shape and depth to width ratio of the downtube on the P2 and P3 they tested numerous configurations for optimal low speed aerodynamics. The shapes were developed through testing, not developed then tested as most other brands do. As a result, in the seemingly unwinnable contest of “best” in the wind tunnel, Cervelo always tests at least well, if not best. In fact, most other brands’ aero marketing efforts show Cervelo as the high bar to clear.
SmartWall for Carbon. It’s hard to appreciate something you can’t see. If you were to cut a Cervelo down tube in half and look at the shape of the walls on the inside you would see the internal shaping of the downtube is extremely complex. The sidewalls are thicker than the leading and trailing edge. This internal “butting” or reinforcement resists the lateral flew that makes many airfoil styled carbon fiber frames extremely flexible. Cervelo has achieved low drag aerodynamics but Tour de France stage winning stiffness in their aerodynamic shapes with meticulous attention to detail on the inside of their tubes. You can’t see it, but it’s there.
Rear Wheel Cutout. There are two ways to make a frame interact optimally with its wheels from an aerodynamic perspective. One is to locate the wheels in very close proximity to the frame. This also retains more traditional frame design and maintains good handling. The other is the “open wheel” design locating the wheels as far from the frame members as possible. Cervelo chose the former. The rear wheel on the P2 is adjustable for proximity to the aero cutout in the seat tube using the horizontal dropout screws. Cervelo recommends adjusting the proximity of the rear tire close to the frame for best aerodynamics. This is a proven and practical design that works.
Light weight Internal ICS Cable Routing. Cervelo is defined by evolution. One area the company has evolved is with their internal cable routing. It was originally difficult to route the internal cables on Cervelo. Vroomen and White insisted that cable housing not run through the frame, adding weight and cable drag. They wanted bare cable to run through the inside of the frame, saving weight and reducing friction. ICS or “Internal Cable Stops” were the answer. The cable housing stops at the frame. Bare cable runs inside, protected by the frame. This reduces weight and improves component performance.
Other key technologies on the P2 include an oversized bottom bracket area on the frame and deep, square chain stays for climbing performance and overall drivetrain stiffness. This also improves drivetrain performance and shifting. The aerodynamic shapes of the seatstays work synergistically with the rest of the frame and with the rear wheel. The unique hour glass shape of the head tube uses standard sized, easy to find bearings but optimizes aerodynamic performance. Even the seatpost clamp is parallel to the boundary layer of air flowing over the bike, reducing drag.
The result has been a convergence of subtle, refined technologies. The combined effect is greater than the sum of its parts. All the details that make a P2 work, work even better when combined. It is a bike of fine details inside and out.
In keeping with the theme of details the 2011 Cervelo P2 is the most refined version of the P2 ever produced. Consider the lineage of the bike back to 2006 and beyond. Cervelo has made tangible improvements in frame design and component spec since it was introduced.
For 2011 tangible improvements include a nice job cleaning up the area where the seat post goes into the seat tube of the frame. Early model year P2’s were forgiven for paint chips around the entrance to the seat tube in exchange for the superior aerodynamics. This is largely a cosmetic improvement, but a pleasing one.
Cervelo’s aero seatpost has consistently improved. New versions include a plug that closes the hole in the seatpost head improving aerodynamics and appearance. The two position seatpost provides the same wide range of effective seat tube angle as when it was conceived. The simple angular and fore/aft adjustment of the saddle requires only one wrench. If you’ve adjusted other designs, you will appreciate the simplicity of Cervelo’s.
Cervelo has stayed with a blissfully conventional bottom bracket design making servicing easy and dependability better than press in designs. The bottom bracket area is massive and stiff, providing good front shifting from small ring to large, great climbing and enough surface area to help absorb road shock.
The rear dropouts on the 2011 Cervelo P2 are the same adjustable design originally innovated by Vroomen and White but with greater improved precision, feel of adjustment and even better paint finish for less chipping in the area around the dropouts.
The component spec on the 2011 Cervelo P2 shows similar refinement. Cervelo starts with the Cervelo FK26 fork, a carbon steer tube, narrow fork crown design that steers and rides oddly well for an aero fork. The carbon fiber steer tube uses a glue-in metal liner for the top cap anchor nut. This design allows Cervelo to use a relatively thin wall steer tube, reducing weight and improving ride quality.
Brakes on the 2011 Cervelo P2 are another improvement over previous versions. The FSA Gossamer caliper replaces previous private label brakes with a caliper that looks nicer, has alloy (not plastic as with Shimano and SRAM) barrel adjusters and alloy brake shoe holders.
Cervelo made a cockpit change to the UCI legal Vision alloy base bar with a shot peened finish to add strength- an important feature in a base bar when clamping aero bars on. The bend is pleasing and works nicely with the new, refined Vision aero brake levers. This brake lever started life as a little too narrow for some users and has since evolved to include a nice polymer cover for better comfort and great grip with cold, wet hands out of a long swim.
Aerobar and cockpit specificatons on the P2 will vary with each shipment a dealer receives and Cervelo’s specification sheet on their website depicts this, refering to the specifications as a “suggestion”. Therefore- the aerobar (and other) spec is subject to change at any time during the year. Some recent versions in current shipments are 3T equipped, some are Vision aerobar equipped. The specifications vary even within a given shipment of bikes.
The most recent aerobars reflect Cervelo’s engineering and distribution relationship with 3T. There are several notable features. The bar is adjustable for extension length with no excess bar protruding behind the clamp as you have with Profile Design aerobars. The extension is cut to length then slid into the clamp for an exceptionally clean, lightweight configuration. Mounting hardware on the 3T aerobars are all low torque, lightweight fasteners. There are only 5 bolts per side, a triumph in elegant design. The 3T clamps can accept different extensions with the same tubing diameter.
Elbow pads on the 3T aerobars flip up for climbing with your hands on the tops of the base bar. Scott and Profile Design have tried this design and never really got it right. The 3T pads stay where you put them and do not rattle- the failing of the other brands. This is a thoughtful and convenient detail especially on hilly courses.
Stem on the 2011 Cervelo P2 is a conventional Vision Sizemore with two bolt front plate design, great for travel and flight case use. It has two positions for effective handlebar height, another nice detail for tuning fit.
The 2011 Cervelo P2 is ostensibly an “Ultegra” bike since it uses Shimano Ultegra front and rear derailleurs changing gears over an alloy FSA Gossamer crank with machined chain rings and pick up rivets. The FSA Gossamer crank has taken criticism on forums but I will defend this specification as solid. The new machined chainrings shift well from small ring to large. Also, the bike is box-stock with a 50/34 compact crank which further improves shifting. Before you turn up your nose at the compact crank spec, consider this: With a 130mm bolt pattern 53/12 combination you will pedal 169 revolutions to travel one mile. With a 110mm bolt pattern 50/12 you will pedal 178 times to travel that same mile. That is a total of about 9 pedal revolutions difference per mile in the highest (largest) gear. For most triathletes this is likely the better choice over 53/11. At the low end the lowest gear with the compact crank, 34/25, is about 9% lower than with a standard 53/12 combination. Bottom line: climbing is 9% easier for a cost of about 5% off the top end/highest gear. Other benefits of the compact crank are lower weight and better shifting from small chainring to large. In the real world it means if you are doing Canada, Wisconsin, Lake Placid or any other long, hilly race this gearing will be an advantage. On a flat course the higher cadence trend toward the top end may mean your legs are fresher for the run. For most triathletes the compact crank is the better specification. The entire drivetrain rotates on a conventional bottom bracket for ease of maintenance and reliability.
The drive train is still shifted with the proven Shimano Dura-Ace index bar end shifter, the same shifters Lance Armstrong used to win all those Tour de France time trials.
I’m a fan of the Fizik Arione Tri 2 saddle and have done two Ironmans and countless other races on it. Saddles are an individual choice to a degree, but most saddle comfort problems are not a matter of saddle choice. The Fizik Arione Tri 2 is a 30 cm long saddle optimized for sitting in the triathlon position. It has enough padding and a wide enough shape to provide good support in the triathlon riding posture where most of your weight is on the nose of the saddle with hips rotated forward. The additional length of the saddle further facilitates a wide range of fit and position.
The wheels on the 2011 Cervelo P2 are Shimano R500’s, a serviceable albeit unspectacular training wheel. This is your everyday, high mileage wheel. Part of the wisdom of the P2 is that, at $2400 for the complete bike, there is still some spending room left for a nice set of race wheels. A P2 with a $2000 set of race wheels is likely more aerodynamic and faster than most $4500 complete bikes and maybe faster than some $10,000 super bikes. The tires are the Vittoria Rubino Pro Slicks, 700 X 23c. The tire provides nice ride quality but is short on durability. You’ll be replacing these after a few flats. Do your dealer a favor and don’t ask him to swap these tires out- he already has too many. Simply ride them until you’re good at changing flats, then switch to Continental Gator Skins. If there is one good thing about these tires in addition to ride quality, they’ll help you learn to change flats.
Ride quality? I’ve ridden Cervelos in races all over the world. The P2 is a venerable favorite of mine. The Smartwall for Carbon tubes provide a frame that is laterally solid and steers well. Some aero frames feel disconnected from front wheel to back, as though you are towing a trailer when you steer. The P2 doesn’t do that- front and rear are one piece. They cooperate. Climbing is great, descending as good- a rarity in a triathlon bike. In summary- I don’t find fault with the ride at all- or anything that rides any better. At any price. It’s part of the reason the P2 is so prolific.
Chrissy Wellington got her Ironman World Championship start on a Cervelo P2, winning Kona on the bike in 2007 and 2008. It is a World Champion worthy bike. This begs the question: Why the P3 then? The primary differences between P3 and P2 are in head tube height and seat tube configuration. The P3 will always have slightly better aerodynamics with a rear disk wheel. For people who are going to add more than two headset spacers, which are most customers, the P2 is likely the better choice since the head tube trends higher in sizes above 51cm. If you ride with your cockpit low, few or no headset spacers and have a long torso and shortish legs you may be a P3 customer- but you are already a P2 customer. For most customers the P2 flushes out as the better alternative between the two designs.
The P2 has earned its prominence among triathletes with a subtle mix of important attributes. It is the “sweet spot”, the convergence of features in proportion to their importance. Cervelo has earned their popularity and race lineage. They are an impressive brand built on proven, solid, well conceived designs. The P2 leads that ethos. As such, the consumership has rewarded them with strong sales. There may be a segment of the population that wants a bike different than what everyone else is riding, and if there is a bane to the P2, it is its popularity. Wanting something “different” is a tangible motive for not buying a P2, as long as you’re willing to spend more for something potentially slower. The people have voted with their dollars, and it doesn’t take a 2500 word review to figure out the Cervelo P2 is a category leading best buy in triathlon bikes.