By Tom Demerly.
A Category leader above $5000.
The new Litespeed Archon C1R is not another “carbon copy” carbon fiber road bike. It is something unique that begs to be heard above the din of high end carbon fiber road frames. The people at Litespeed did strong benchmarking when they designed the new Litespeed Archon C1R: They were thinking about the other bikes in the crowded $5000+ super-bike category. They were thinking about how to differentiate themselves from bikes in that category and provide something tangibly unique from those offerings, and at a better value. They did succeed in producing something tangibly different.
One of the people doing the thinking at Litespeed was designer Brad DeVaney, part of a growing crew of bike design and engineering cadre that is shoring up the brain trust at American Bicycle Group, Litespeed’s parent company. It’s a sign that Litespeed is managing the transition from their titanium roots to the carbon age with differentiation and innovation. The Archon C1R is confirmation that Litespeed has arrived as a carbon fiber bike company.
It hasn’t always been so for Litespeed. The company faces the challenge of redefining themselves in the post-titanium, carbon fiber era- an age when every professional cyclist is on molded carbon fiber. Litespeed, as you well know, started in titanium and still dabbles in Ti. Their ability to redefine themselves with carbon fiber bikes isn’t impressive in itself- what is impressive is how strong Litespeed’s carbon offerings truly are, especially at the top end C1R. This is a valid super bike on par with the highest end Trek, Cervelo, Specialized, Colnago, Pinarello and other marquee brand carbon pro team bikes.
They all look the same: Is it Really Different?
The Litespeed C1R is the highest end Litespeed carbon road frame with an MSRP of $3199.95 for frameset alone. It comes from the same molds as the less expensive, lower end Archon C1 and C3 complete road bikes. It uses different carbon lay up for lighter weight, better stiffness and more comfortable ride. Can changing carbon material really make that much difference in the same mold? Considering the same-shape, same-mold Archon C3 has an MSRP of $2999.99 as a complete bike and the C1R lives $200 north of that just for the frame one has to ask: “What really is the difference?”
The Litespeed C1R is T60 Nanotech carbon fiber, a material that Litespeed tells us is only being used in this version “by 5 or 6 manufacturers”. Of those manufacturers, the Litespeed C1R is the lowest price T60 Nanotech bike according to Litespeed. Bascially, T60 Nanotech is better, higher end carbon fiber material. It is lighter, stronger, more impact resistance and reduces road vibration better. It uses carbon nanotubes to strengthen the carbon fiber and improve the lateral rigidity of the layup. This makes the bike less flexible side to side, as under strong accelerations. The way the carbon fiber is applied within the mold also controls your perception of road shock, making the C1R lighter, laterally stiffer and vertically more compliant. The carbon lay-up on the Litespeed C1R is a more precise, labor intensive process than on the other carbon Litespeeds.
The $2-3,000 question is; is it $2-3,000 better?
The problem for consumers is that carbon bikes from the same mold look alike. It is impossible to “see” the difference in carbon fiber, and a parking lot test ride won’t say much about real bottom bracket stiffness and long range ride quality. Can a customer tell the difference between inexpensive carbon and high end carbon?
“I think the answer is yes. You’ve created a different strength to weight ratio.” Says Litespeed Brand Manager Mac McEneaney.
McEneaney went on to tell us, “The average consumer can feel it. A 60-pound overweight rider probably would not be able to. It is a performance advantage for the person who wants a no compromise bike. It competes favorably against the other $5000+ complete superbikes not only on carbon content and lay-up, but most importantly, on design- and that is shared in each of the Litespeed carbon road bikes. They are great bikes, they are great values- different from what else is out there.”
Q: Can you feel the Difference? A: Absolutely.
During rides switching back and forth between a complete Litespeed C1R with SRAM Red and Lightweight Wheels and a complete Litespeed C3 road bike with the same pedals, tire pressure and crank lengths the difference is noticeable.
First of all, the C1R is much lighter owing to frame, wheels and component kit. Over three pounds lighter. That itself will make an enormous difference in ride quality. The C1R is significantly stiffer- first pedal stroke stiffer. As for comfort? I have to bow out of that debate since it is impossible to tell if the more comfortable ride on the C1R comes from a few thousand dollars worth of exotic Lightweight brand wheels with nice tires or from the frame or some combination of the two. It is noticeably gentler on rotten pavement, more spritely underfoot during the first four pedal strokes of acceleration and racier when hanging on for dear life in a corner you just over-cooked.
A Seatmast Bike.
For the 2011 model year the Litespeed C1R retains a molded-in seat mast while the C3 and C1 use conventional adjustable seatposts. The seatmast remains on the C1R to reduce overall frame weight and to improve lateral stiffness and vertical compliance. As an integrated seat mast it is susceptible to all the advantages and shortcomings of the seatmast design: Lighter, somewhat more comfortable, less versatile and in need of cutting to achieve the appropriate saddle height range. This reviewer acknowledges the advantages of seatmast frames, but has not been entirely won over by them, especially for the customer at large. For the discerning buyer, to whom minor details drive buying decisions, the design has merit. Ultimately it may be worth it for Litespeed to retain the seatmast on the high end C1R while choosing the adjustable seatpost for the lower price point bikes aimed at the everyman customer.
A Great Frame, an even Better Bike, a Valid Value.
Out test Archon C1R complete bike had a build kit I would have spec’ed myself: SRAM Red, Fizik Arione Saddle, Ritchey cockpit and Lightweight wheels. Lightweight is the German company that made wheels for Jan Ulrich and others during their Tour de France campaigns. Their wheels have always been exotic, expensive, light as the name implies and difficult to source. A pair of luxurious Continental tubulars finished the pro level spec.
For overall ride quality The Litespeed Archon C1R with this build kit is a pro team level bike. It’s a bike you’d see in the Tour de France. That begs the question, why aren’t any pro teams using it? Mac McEneaney of Litespeed/American Bicycle Group told us, “We haven’t spent the money. It’s that simple. A big part of what you pay for when you buy one of the pro-team bikes is the cost of the sponsorship of a pro team. That cost is built into the price. Our bike is less expensive because we don’t have that cost. It’s that simple.”
“A big part of what you pay for when you buy one of the pro-team bikes is the cost of the sponsorship of a pro team. That cost is built into the price. Our bike is less expensive because we don’t have that cost. It’s that simple.”
When you evaluate Litespeed and McEneaney’s claims about pricing strategy it is easy to divine about what the cost of a pro team per bike may be. Consider the Cervelo S3, a roughly comparable bike to the Litespeed Archon C1R but without the nanotube layup: The Litespeed is nicer carbon. The Cervelo S3 has a frameset MSRP of $4500 without T60 Nanotube carbon, while the T60 Nanotube enhanced Litespeed Archon C1R is $3199.95 MSRP. It appears as though roughly $1000 of the Cervelo price may be devoted to research and marketing costs associated with their pro team. If the value of a pro team sponsorship is important to you as an end user- and it may be- then the roughly $1000 premium may be money well spent.
The Technical Details: What Makes it Different.
The Litespeed Archon C1R is a bike of details. Beginning at the head tube, the bike uses a 1&1/2” oversized diameter lower bearing race for the headset and a 1&1/8” upper race. The oversized lower race distributes bearing load and improves front end stiffness by making the bottom of the head tube/fork crown interface wider and improves ride quality by making disbursing road shock over a wider area at the lower headset/fork race.
Perhaps even more significant is an innovative design hidden in the front end that improves ride, steering and fit. The head tube height of each of the sizes is relatively conventional. The height of the fork crown- the upper portion of the fork where the fork blades come out- is much greater than traditional designs, raising the front end of the bike and reducing the need for round head tube spacers. This is a good design as it achieves the multiple agendas of a higher, more comfortable head tube, better front end stiffness, better overall aerodynamics according to Litespeed and an admittedly cleaner, racier look than a stack of cheap headset spacers. This reviewer can verify that the feel of the front end on the Litespeed Archon C1R is among the best- if not the best- of the front ends in the industry. The head tube is notably hour glass shaped to enhance front end aerodynamics.
The fork is also unique with a bowed design that allows air to move more easily between the front wheel and the internal surface of the fork blades according to Litespeed. The outward bow of the fork blades also enhances ride quality by absorbing shock.
Moving back on the frame the shape of the down tube is extremely complex, actually changing slightly every millimeter of its length. The frame uses the aerodynamically faired bottle mounts that improve frame aerodynamics with a bottle mounted in the cage on the down tube.
The bottom bracket is a new ultra-large diameter BB30 format for complete bearing integration into the frame, improving bottom bracket stiffness.
Cable routing is external, a practical consideration for real-world race bikes were routing the cables on the outside makes maintenance faster and easier, making it more likely that the consumer will actually do maintenance since they can get to the cables. Changing a rear derailleur cable is simple and fast with this design: no access panels or fishing cables through the down tube and bottom bracket.
The seat tube of the frame uses a cut-out to improve claimed wheel aerodynamics and is airfoil shaped as it transitions to the seat mast above the top tube.
The chain stays are asymmetrical to enhance drivetrain stiffness. The right, drive side chainstay is extremely deep while the left is a more traditional depth. Seat stays also change shape almost constantly over their length moderate the conflicting agendas of aerodynamics and ride quality/stiffness. The rear dropouts are a simple affair that lack adjustment making tire selection above 25 mm a hit or miss proposition.
Litespeed set out to build a category-leading road platform with the Archon C series bikes in each of their widely spaced price categories with the unique frame shape. Each version resides at the top of its price range due to the nice layup and changes in carbon fiber construction. The result is a category of bikes at different price points with unique design, features and benefits. The C1R lives at the top of that range.
The super road bike category is a crowded one with many valid entries. The C1R joins that fray but does so above the anonymous din of carbon copies. There are unique and valid aspects to the Litespeed Archon C1R that spate it from the high end carbon clones and that is refreshing and exciting. No survey of the $5000 + carbon road bikes is complete without a close examination of the Litespeed Archon C1R.