Triathlon bikes have evolved a lot over the last decade, with the growth of the sport meaning brands have more cash to plough into tri-specific projects that do away with the UCI rules that time trial bikes are restricted by. Extreme frame designs and integrated storage now feature heavily even on entry-level versions of bona fide superbikes, including all three of the bikes on test here from Cervélo, Quintana Roo and Ribble.
£2,000 triathlon bikes: 3 of the best reviewed
What’s the difference between a triathlon bike and a time trial bike?
What's the difference between a triathlon bike and a road bike?
A number of new bikes were launched at Kona 2018 and, in what would have been unthinkable even five years ago, all of the main attractions featured disc brakes. Quintana Roo’s PRFour was one of those, offering an affordable take on a disc brake tri bike. Cervélo’s P3 and Ribble’s Ultra Tri both stick with rim brakes, with the former still one of the most popular tri bikes of all time, in its latest guise, more than 15 years after it was first launched.
The Ultra Tri is a completely new project from Ribble, and the frameset on test is the same as that ridden by Joe Skipper to an impressive seventh-place finish on the Big Island.
Whether you’re a novice looking for a faster bike split next season or are already competitive, all three bikes on test look like serious upgrades compared to a road bike, so which will offer the greatest advantage?
With their rep for low prices, Ribble’s new Ultra Tri shows the brand is committed to offering cutting-edge technology as well as value, investing heavily in the R&D phase in an attempt to produce a bike that’s up there with the fastest around.
Recruiting national TT champion and aerodynamicist Dan Bigham, (who also worked on Huub’s new Anemoi suit reviewed on p54) prototypes were tested against the bike Bigham rode to a national TT title in 2017 as a benchmark, using Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) analysis. Ribble calculated that the Ultra TT frame, without the tri accessories, could be up to 23secs faster than the benchmark over a 25-mile course at 29mph. And, with the addition of tri-specific hydration and accessory packs, compared to the Ultra TT with aftermarket storage accessories, the Ultra Tri demonstrated a 30.1% total drag saving.
While the stats impress, visually the Ultra Tri also looks rapid, if not a little aesthetically unusual, with every small detail taken care of to ensure maximum drag savings. The integrated stem sits flush with the top tube storage box and all the wires are routed neatly through small gaps either side of the stem. The directly-mounted front brake, meanwhile, sits behind a fairing that has an aero-shaped hydration pack slotted onto it. The rear brake mounted at the bottom bracket area also has a fairing in front to provide further wind shielding.
Our test bike came with an Ultegra Di2 R8050 groupset with 53/39 crankset – a large enough big ring for all but the most powerful riders. The concealed Di2 junction box does mean some disassembly to charge it, although this is only a once-every-six-month job. The geometry is aggressive, with the wheelbase and chainstays both short at 97.8cm and 38.7cm on our medium frame. The seat angle can range from 76° to a sharp 79° and the head tube angle is 73°.
The specially-designed bars came with an array of spacers to bolt on Zipp’s Vuka aerobars, and to alter your stack there are a number of metal rods that slot through and tighten with hex bolts. Our bike came set up aggressively with an 8cm stack between the base bars and extensions (with two spacers) and the aerobars set up narrow. That might be fine for pro Joe Skipper, but we found that single spacers with the aerobars widened slightly created a less twitchy experience and easier access to the brakes. This is worth considering for less experienced tri-bike riders, as the spacers won’t quite give you the extra stiffness and stability you’d get with a taller head tube (the Ultra Tri’s is just 10.7cm on a medium).
After some bedding in, the bike is just as described: fast, responsive through corners and stiff when putting out maximum power. At 9.6kg it’s not the lightest, but the impressive stiffness in the rear triangle helps to concentrate your efforts on climbs.
Zipp’s excellent 302 mid-depth carbon wheels and Vittoria Corsa tyres make it ready to race and, for courses where wind is an issue such as Lanza and Kona itself, this build is ideal. For fast and flat riding some may want to go for deeper rims, which you can spec on Ribble’s online BikeBuilder. A lowlight is the braking, which didn’t feel quite as sharp as those on the Cervélo P3 tested here. The rear brake is a pain to work on because it’s so hidden, and will prove a headache for many home mechanics.
Say what you want about the looks of the Ultra Tri, but it’s fantastically designed with no stone left unturned. It’s easy to adjust so you can grow into it as you improve and seek a more aero position over time. Although it took some time to dial our best fit, we were able to hit serious speeds on the Ultra Tri. In short, Ribble’s exhaustive R&D has created a top-draw speed machine that’s also more affordable than most of the competition.
MORE OR LESS OPTIONS: RIBBLE
The Ultra Tri starts from £2,199 with a Shimano 105 groupset and Vision Team 35 wheels. The Elite build, with Shimano Dura-Ace Di2 shifting, Zipp 808 wheels and the sleek Vision Metron aero crankset comes in at £6,999.
Cervélo have continued to cater for those wanting something more conventional and less expensive than their aesthetically-divisive (yet very fast) P5X beam bike since it launched in 2016. And undoubtedly many of the 487 bikes they had represented at Kona among the age-groupers will have been the hugely-popular P3.
This version comes with a mid-compact chainset, a Shimano Ultegra R8000 mechanical groupset (with Dura-Ace shifters) and lightweight Mavic Cosmic Elite wheels, the latter helping to bring the complete bike weight down to a respectable 8.85kg, making the P3 the lightest bike on test.
With clip-on bars and standard post-mount rim brakes, the P3 is arguably the most ‘analogue’ of the three bikes on test, with no proper storage features built onto it apart from a rail added to the saddle to fit a bottle cage. There are also bolts on the top tube to fit a storage pouch.
The high-quality carbon frame is built to cheat the wind, with the seatstays shaped to shield the rear brake caliper where they meet the down and seat tube cutaway, which are built to fit precisely around the rear tyre. Cervélo have also worked to optimise stiffness in the head tube and bottom bracket area to increase efficiency so none of your efforts are wasted. Cervélo’s RailAdjust seatpost can be altered to shift your seat angle from an easy-going 75° up to a steep 79°, so the P3 is suited to those who want a well-balanced ride that’ll get them through 180km quickly and comfortably.
When setting up the front end, we were disappointed with the lack of adjustment of the 3T Vola Team Stealth base bars. The width of the extensions is fixed and the only way to get them narrower is to angle them in, which gets you nowhere near the aero positions favoured by pro triathletes. Granted most P3 customers won’t require such a highly-aggressive set-up, but we weren’t quite able to achieve the bar width that we have on our own bike.
In terms of height, the 11.3cm head tube creates a stack that most athletes will favour without needing spacers, and this again improves the stiffness and handling of the front end with only a small distance between the bars and extensions.
In use, the P3 is stiff and comfy over long rides and with predictable handling. The ISM PS 1.0 is a great saddle with its pressure-relieving, noseless design that allows you to settle in the TT position. Shimano’s latest Ultegra combined with the Dura-Ace shifters is just about the best mechanical gearing you can get, and the braking is fairly sharp paired with the brake surface of Mavic’s Cosmic Elite wheelset. We found the shallow alloy rims didn’t bring the best out of the frame in terms of raw speed and we would choose a better race tyre over the Mavic Yksion Elite, so it’s worth noting that most triathletes looking to be competitive would need to spend further to get the very good frame race-ready.
We can understand why the P3 continues to be so popular for its user-friendliness and ride feel. But some of the finishing kit and lack of proper integration is starting to make it appear a little out of date in the fast-moving world of triathlon bike design.
More or less options: Cervélo
Cervélo’s P2 entry-level tri bike (£2,299) has a Shimano 105 groupset and still gets the same carbon frame as the P3. Their flagship P5X starts at £10,499 with an Ultegra Di2 groupset, going up to £13,499 with Sram Red eTap shifting and Enve SES 7.8 wheels
The brand new PRFour Disc was first revealed in Kona in October, built to answer the demand for a disc brake tri bike for the masses. It comes in at £2,299 for the frame-only version (full build prices are TBC), and there are plenty of features that have trickled down from Quintana Roo’s top-of-the-range PRSix disc and PRFive.
The frame is the same geometry and shape as the higher-end versions but made with a lower module of carbon, and while you lose some front-end integration you do get Profile Design’s chunky Wing base bars and long T4+ extensions, which offer plenty of adjustment to suit your reach and bar width preferences. An instantly-noticeable feature is the huge non-driveside chainstay, which QR say makes the bike stiffer and more efficient by balancing out the weight of the driveside.
Of course, there had to be some component compromises for QR to get the bike down to this price point, with TRP mechanical disc brakes used as opposed to sleeker hydraulic options. Yet TRP’s Spyre system is perfectly reliable and easy to adjust, while QR have still opted for 12mm thru axles and a flat mount system. They claim thru-axles actually improved the speed and stability of their bikes during testing, so it was deemed worth it over a quick-release system across the disc range. Elsewhere, an FSA mid-compact chainset is paired with the Shimano 105 drivetrain, and the shifters are courtesy of MicroShift.
The PRFour has all the impressive and practical storage features of the higher-end bikes in the PR Series, with the rear ‘QBox’ compartment to house tools and built-in top-tube storage pouch. The Qbox even has a rear light attached, and it’s just big enough to hold two inner tubes with a CO2 canister and tyre levers. It’s also well integrated at the front end, with the shifter cables routed neatly halfway down the aerobars and then disappearing through a hole in the bike’s stem.
THE ROLLS OF TRI BIKES
Right from the get-go, the PRFour felt like an old friend and is just so easy to ride. There’s no twitchiness and the smooth ride feel is remarkable; for us, this is the Rolls Royce of tri bikes. Quintana Roo’s Steve Dunn attributes the extra comfort and vibration dampening to the huge non-driveside chainstay that balances out the weight, and also the extra stiffness from those thru-axles. Looking at the geometry chart, we suspect the slightly taller head tube at 11.5cm on our 52cm frame plus a longer wheelbase than most tri bikes (99.5cm) will be contributing to that smoothness.
Going over potholes and rough road it almost feels like you’re riding a gravel bike, and the extra confidence you get from such a well-handling ride also makes descending a breeze. The longer geometry does make it a little more difficult to navigate through tight bends, thouhg, and the weight of over 10kg is quite noticeable on climbs. The 53/36 chainset paired with an 11-28 cassette will provide enough gears to get an experienced rider through some sizeable hills, but if your idea of fun is exclusively racing Ironman Wales then this might not quite be the bike for you.
Another disadvantage for those at the sharp end of the pack will be the Shimano RS170 Disc wheels, which are perfectly reliable and roll nicely but have no aero benefits. For an extra $1,000 you can get the PRFour Race with carbon deep rims – which would be this tester’s preference if we were to buy it – but for those who want to get used to a tri bike with a view to add race hoops at a later date, the Shimano wheelset will serve you very well.
Overall we were hugely impressed with the PRFour, and with the rise of disc brakes finally catching on in the triathlon world, it’s about time a disc tri bike was introduced at an affordable price point. With their lengthy heritage as the creators of some of the first triathlon-specific wetsuits and bikes, it’s quite fitting that Quintana Roo have delivered it, and we can see this being a hugely popular option for first-time Ironmen/women and seasoned triathletes alike when it’s available to buy in December as a frame only or full-build option.
More or less options: Quintana Roo
The PRFour is the least expensive disc brake tri bike Quintana Roo offer, but you can get their entry-level Kilo tri bike with rim brakes and Shimano 105 shifting for £1,440. Right at the other end the PRSix Disc with Dura-Ace Di2 and Reynolds Aero65 wheels comes in at £9,516.
Buy from quintanarootri.com
Which was the best triathlon bike?
All three triathlon bikes on test have plenty of positives, and the P3 from leading Canadian triathlon brand Cervélo isn’t a bad proposition at all. But the limitations of the front end and training wheels for the price make it underwhelming compared to the other two fantastic bikes on test.
The Quintana Roo PRFour is a great addition to the tri-bike range of one of the original multisport brands, providing a stable and comfortable ride with the added stopping power of disc brakes. Put simply, the braking on the other two bikes doesn’t come close.
Non-drafting triathlon racing isn’t all about the braking, though, and for that reason Ribble’s new Ultra Tri narrowly takes our Best on Test award thanks to its clever wind-cheating features and fantastic range of adjustment. Yes, it’s an aggressive ride however you set it up, but there’s no trickle-down tech here. The frame is the real deal and the bike as built is ready to race, all for an excellent price considering the quality of the components. In the Ultra Tri, Ribble have launched a rocket, and it’s a proper British triumph.