Women’s road bikes for triathlon: 3 of the best reviewed
With bike brands devoting more energy into female-specific road bikes, it was time for us to take three aero endurance bikes, at two different price points, on the roads to discover the best racers for tri. And an impressive bunch they are, too
For female triathletes looking for a race bike, a widening range at the performance end means a satisfyingly tough choice. The latest race-focused road bikes to hit the market show an increasing investment into female-specific builds, alongside an emerging contrast to gender-tailored geometry: a new unisex approach that treats everyone as (gasp!) just people of different sizes.
Simultaneously, the gap’s getting plugged between the endurance and all-out aero bikes on offer for women. The result is seriously light builds made for serious speed, that still have the appearance – and comfort – of thoroughbred road bikes.
The upshot is you’re no longer forced to choose between comfort and speed. While the additional race-specific TT bike once felt the best option, pointing a consolidated budget at a training-to-race investment is looking ever more appealing. Here we test three ‘just add aerobars’ contenders that all promise to not only see you through the training distance – but when it comes to tri race day, do the training justice.
Specialized S-works SL6
For a bike that morphs from training companion to pack-leading performer, Specialized’s S-Works Tarmac is an obvious contender. Known for its Grand Tour prowess, the Tarmac is now on its sixth generation and, this time, female athletes are invited to join the party. The overhauled 2018 release of the top race bike includes its first women’s version, effectively replacing the popular Amira which powered Jorgensen to gold – and Britain’s Non Stanford to fourth – at the 2016 Olympics.
The all-new women’s Tarmac is also the first women’s bike from Specialized that doesn’t feature female-dedicated geometry. Instead, developed with their Rider-First engineering and data from thousands of bike fits, it’s crafted to hit the sweet spot between a men’s and women’s frame with a slightly higher stack height and a shorter reach than Specialized’s previous ‘unisex’ version.
Built for the battle
Powering Brit ITU racer Sophie Coldwell through this season (and Boels–Dolmans during the Women’s Tour), the Tarmac is continually developed with the toughest racing conditions in mind. The all-new version features a series of aero refinements including dropped seatstay, D-shaped seat tube and new fork shape to calm harsh angles, all without compromising its weight, stiffness or head-turning looks, and that’s just for starters.
The Tarmac is created with Specialized’s latest and greatest FACT 12r carbon. After the stunning satin looks with a subtle acid-purple-meets-rocket-red logo, the second thing you’ll notice is the weight – or lack of. This bike is supremely light. To shave off grams, Specialized spent six months bettering the frame (working alongside McLaren) resulting in a more complex carbon layup and a 20% reduction in weight from the SL5, down to just 6.34kg – even the minimal finish is rendered with weight-saving in mind. The result? Compared to rival models, 45 seconds sliced off over a 40km Olympic-distance bike leg. Basically, if Jorgensen were still competing in tri, she’d probably be swapping her Amira for an SL6.
Twinning its light weight with a razor-sharp focus on stiffness distribution, and aided by its TT-esque shorter wheelbase, the SL6 responds before you even realise you’ve put the power down. While its ballerina-nimble handling errs a little toward the twitchy side, by the same note it’s easy to manoeuvre; on the climbs the problem won’t be the gradient, but the riders in your way. Handy, then, that the drivetrain and gearing have your back for those late gear choices because, as we’d expect for the top-dollar price tag, the componentry is at the top of its game; it doesn’t get much better than a Shimano Dura-Ace 11-speed Di2 groupset. And stopping has never been this much fun – the direct-mount rim brakes provide an experience so satisfyingly smooth, that even a velvet sofa can’t compete.
Beauty of the ride
The beauty of opting for the Tarmac over a dedicated TT bike, such as Lucy Charles’ S-Works Shiv Pro, is its ability to morph from lightning-fast race build into all-round road bike in seconds (or as fast as it takes you to remove your bars) and thus the ability to spend once, not twice. Bolstering its race-day-to-training-and-back-again credentials is the super-light (440g) dual-sided +/-1%-rated power meter nestled on the carbon cranks and a pair of Roval CLX carbon aero wheels – among the lightest out there at 768g – with 50mm rims; two fewer things to think about
for race day.
While it’s primed for fast and furious sprints and Olympics, for a bike this serious about winning it’s surprising how comfortable the Tarmac is – delivering a smooth ride over cattle grids and hole-dappled country lanes, too. Given Specialized have opted for a frame-for-all geometry, the comfort of the SL6 (aided by its Turbo cotton tyres, that serve up a mean corner-grip and dashing tan sidewall to-boot) is a triumph. Add a female-focused finishing kit – an Oura Pro saddle and carbon shallow drop bars – and the result is a fast-yet-comfy loyal companion ideal for both short- and long-distance events; with energy-savings that’ll keep legs fresher, serving up gains all the way to the finish line. The Tarmac is undoubtedly a big investment, so it’s a bonus that you can try one of the five sizes on offer before you buy. Specialized is widely distributed and their concept stores are evenly dotted all over England.
Overall, the Tarmac S-Works SL6 has all the makings of the bike world’s version of an F1 car – time-slashing speed, rapid response and enviably good looks. So the additional aero properties for 2018 on an already demon-fast build make this new women’s version a serious contender for triathletes looking for their best performance in 2018.
Buy the Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL6 from ww.tredz.co.uk
Over 200k brand tags from Instagram users is no mean feat, but Liv’s dedication to growing the women’s bike market is hard not to love. While Giant’s sister brand officially launched a decade ago, its rebrand in 2014 was the rocket ship that transformed Liv from obscurity to global recognition with a dedicated following (which includes Britain’s two-time ITU world champion, Helen Jenkins). And it’s not hard to see why.
Liv’s fairly-priced range, with an attention to design that sets it apart, covers every corner of the cycling market from city to cross – and new for 2018, pro performance already gaining podium points with Sunweb Women. With their all-new Langma Advanced Pro Disc, Liv continue to fly the flag for women’s geometry while other brands, like Specialized, make a U-turn. Langma’s arrival is intended to match the purpose of its male-focused stablemate, the TCR, which is ridden by the pros to World Tour jersey-bagging success.
It’s the climb
Before Langma, there were two choices for a Liv bike that you could rock up to T1 with: the Envie, with its pure aero focus and flattened tubing, and the thing of beauty that is the TT Avow. While all three boast wind-slicing speed, the latest offering has its sights firmly set on Queen of the Mountains, too. Tested in Somerset’s hilly Mendips, climbing felt nimble and invited ‘what can I climb next’ style behaviour, making it a contender for the growing trend toward hilly, tough events – while doubling-up as your Alpine training (or almost anywhere in the UK) companion.
It’s not in Liv’s aero-specific category, but the Langma features a series of wind-defying innovations: super-sleek forks, a D-shaped down tube, which tapers toward the post, and a dramatically-tapering top tube that’s worthy of attention. The resulting aesthetic is a lithe race-winning look that still says purebred road bike.
The carbon composite frame, which sparkles like blood orange San Pellegrino and defies predictable paint jobs, is crafted through larger, thus fewer, sections of material to reduce bulk without compromising its strength. As a result, while the Canyon on test overleaf sneaks into the lead on low weight at this price point, it’s a seriously featherweight build for its class at just 7.84kg.
The Liv’s weight is particularly impressive given the addition of Shimano Ultegra hydraulic disc brakes – a key consideration if you’re after all-weather stopping confidence without the weight penalty. When it comes to putting the power down, the compact geometry – narrower bars, shorter reach and a shorter wheelbase – together with a saddle optimised for forward positioning inspires hard, fast riding, although immediate acceleration didn’t feel razor sharp.
The Pro Advanced Disc on test is out-specced by the top-end Langma SL with SRAM E-Tap but, for savings of up to £7,o00, the compromise in groupset performance is marginal. The full Shimano 11-speed Ultegra groupset produces a super-smooth drive and shifting, while the Giant SLR-1 carbon Disc WheelSystem with a 25mm tubeless Giant AC1 set-up, removes weight and massively lowers mid-race puncture risk, but it’s clincher-compatible as well.
Drop it like it’s hot
Though the Langma’s marketed as the mountain goat, it’s the nimble handling, aided by the oversized head bearings, that really shone on our test rides to grin-inspiring proportions. A comfy fit beckoned when riding on the drops, while the ease of switching from hoods to drops and back again encouraged harder flats and audacious downs, although a jitter detected when riding in the wet increased the brake feathering at times.
The comfortable ride quality is a clear advantage for triathletes racing without bars or looking to switch up position over a long, hilly course. Available in three sizes, the Langma can be tested via an online Liv/Giant form so you can be as sure as we are, before you part with your money, that this bike is the perfect storm of frame technology, fit and finish that’s testament to Liv’s continued investment in the world of women’s cycling.
For a brand leading the way on pedalling a confidence-meets-sheer-joy-of-cycling message, it’s great to see that the Langma lives up to the philosophy; it’s great fun to ride, but serious about performance too – particularly over longer-distance races serving up hills. Ironman Wales, anyone?
Buy Liv Langma Advanced Pro Disc from www.rutlandcycling.com
CANYON ULTIMATE WMN CF SLX DISC 8.0 CSR
Weighing in at just 7.38kg and specced up to the (near) max with an 11-speed SRAM Force groupset that’s beautifully simple to shift, the Canyon Ultimate WMN is designed to race. It’s developed alongside the pros, yet also spot-on for those hard, hilly training rides.
While Specialized are dropping female geometry in a move toward the right bike for the right rider, the major German brand Canyon (home of Ironman world champions Jan Frodeno and Patrick Lange, and top German racer Anne Haug) instead turns to female-specific with its WMN range.
In 2017, the mail order-only company teetered on the edge of gender specifics with only contact points geometrically setting the models apart. A year on, their women’s range boasts attention to detail with its Sport Pro geometry serving-up a higher stack, shorter reach and adjustable seat angle.
With a wide range to analyse, plus five frame sizes to pick from, catering from 4ft 9in to 6ft 1in, an
out-of-the-box fit is a likely scenario, which is handy because that’s the only way the Ultimate WMN comes. Lucky, then, that upon arrival the cockpit and saddle is more intuitive than is sometimes the case to set up, making that critical time between your box-of-joy moment and the start of your maiden voyage minimal.
Combine Canyon’s female-focused Sport Pro geometry with a full SLX carbon frame and fork – plus DT-Swiss PR 1600 wheels with aero spokes – and you’re ready to slash your bike split. Canyon say the frame is one of the stiffest on the disc market and our acceleration test agrees. Putting down power feels responsive and race-ready, especially when combined with the aggressive-yet-snug feel delivered on the drops.
And while snug might sound contradictory for a bike that’s slick enough to strike fear into the hearts of your opponents, the Ultimate WMN serves up a notably comfortable ride. The adjustable San Marco saddle has a generous cutaway and gel padding, while the ride quality is as smooth as leading Brit pro Jessica Learmonth’s
catch and pull.
Equipped with Canyon’s ‘leaf spring’ technology, the seatpost soaks up lumps and bumps so you don’t have to, and the hub is totally silent – excellent news for sneaking past opponents for a tactical advantage, and hearing traffic on training rides.
Not too hot to handle
The Ultimate WMN inspires confident handling, which is a serious advantage for race performance, especially on technical courses. Agility ruled on ascents thanks to the low overall weight twinned with a hearty 11/32 gear ratio, yet for a bike this light, it feels impressively planted.
For training days encountering sneaky corners or damp descents, an extra serving of stability is granted by the 25mm Schwalbe Pro One tubeless tyre set-up, which is reassuringly grippy, even on drizzly riding days. Add to this the flat-mount SRAM Force hydraulic discs, and you’ve got peace of mind for
year-round training programmes and unpredictable weather courses, from Bolton to the Brutal and the Ballbuster Duathlon.
Of course, there’s usually a weight penalty with discs, but the Ultimate WMN eats compromise for breakfast; it’s lightest at this competitive price point with a hydraulic braking system. What’s more – and thank you Canyon for doing this – the ergonomic alloy bars are fitted with reach-adjusted brake levers that make it refreshingly easy to squeeze in the drops, as it should be. The end result? Peace of mind and the performance bar raised to cut-off-smashing confidence.
So it’s this light, stiff build that zips on the ups and stays planted on the downs – with agile handling that’s further complemented by the simplicity of SRAM Force shifting – that beckons athletes looking for next-level performance at the mid-price bracket.
Buy Canyon Ultimate WMN CF SLX Disc 8.0 CSR from www.canyon.com
The overall verdict
With over £5,000 between our test bikes, it could be like comparing apples and pears when it comes to dishing out the crown. But every one of this stand-out trio offers a fusion of weight, advanced materials and a geometry and build that won’t fail to impress on race day.
At £8,500 it’s no surprise that the striking S-Works stands out. Jaw-droppingly good looks aside, it gets the award for responsive acceleration – perfect for hard, shorter races. But, even if money’s no object, for riders looking for confidence-inspired performances, Canyon’s Ultimate WMN is a podium contender, serving-up a responsive-yet-robust ride quality. And while the Langma is perfect for hilly races, it’s the comfort and handling that really shone; a true contender for distance racing.
Overall, the podium top spot goes to the bike that made us feel like a better rider and inspired race-day confidence: the Canyon Ultimate – truly the bike that has it all… except the whopping great big price tag.
Janine is an Ironman triathlete, GB Age Grouper and an Ironman Certified Coach who has raced multi-sports since 2013. You can follow her @janinedoggett