Fastest Bike in the World.

By Tom Demerly

The Cervelo P3 ridden by first time Tour de France rider David Zabriskie in Stage 1 of the 2005 Tour de France. It is a racing icon as the (then) world's fastest time trial bike.

2 July, 2005; Fromentine, Vendee Region, Northwestern France. Stage 1, Tour de France.

He climbed the start ramp in anonymity. The “new” American.  His first ever stage in his first ever Tour de France.

Top teams sometimes bring on promising new pros to apprentice in the Tour de France. Most don’t fare well. Over the years the team hopes to nurture their talent, build their confidence. It takes time and hard won experience, usually a few failures too. Maybe someday the new American would develop into a real Tour rider. Maybe.

The next 21 minutes would remove his anonymity and change cycling history.

This was David Zabriskie’s first day in his first Tour de France, but not his first day as a great cyclist. Zabriskie is a time trial specialist. Certainly not the measure of an Armstrong or a Basso they thought, but a credible man against the clock on a national level- which generally means little on the international scale of the Tour de France.

Born January 12, 1979 David Zabriskie started the 2005 Tour de France in Fromentine at the age of 26. He was known for a light hearted, jocular personality off the bike. He would joke with teammates and media, forget to shave and flash a wide grin with his big mouth that looked like the intake scoop on a fighter plane. In a time trial something changed about him. Zabriskie became predatory.

The journalists that were crammed into the press center of the 2005 Le Tour that July morning barely followed the progress of the early starters in the Stage 1 time trial. They looked up at the television monitors as the early riders rolled down the start ramp, but quickly returned to writing their dramatic leads about the hero Lance Armstrong and his upcoming conquest in the 2005 Tour. The 19th rider down the ramp, America David Zabriskie, hit the first time check with an intermediate split that shattered the previous 18 efforts. Zabriskie was committing suicide. He would fade rapidly over the subsequent time checks, having made the common error of a new pro in their first Tour. He went out way too fast. The excitement had gotten to him. He would learn. It’s a long race. The journalists went back to their notes.

At the next time check Zabriskie continued his apparent self-immolation against the course and the clock. He had maintained his pace, even accelerated. This time when the journalists glanced up at the television monitors they did not look away. A few journalists consulted databases with the records: Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault, LeMond, Indurain, Roche, Boardman, Armstrong. The men who rode the fastest time trials in the history of the Tour de France, in the history of cycling. The new American’s average speed eclipsed them all. Was it possible?

Zabriskie on his historic Cervelo P3C in the first time trial of the 2005 Tour de France. Photo: cyclingnews.com
Zabriskie would stop the clock in Noirmoutier En-L’Ile at 20:51.80 for 19 kilometers. He rode 11.8 miles at an average speed of 33.89 M.P.H. The record for the fastest ever Tour de France time trial had been set. Clearly the winds and the course in Stage One had produced something special, and the record would continue to fall throughout the day as the top time trial riders like Ivan Basso, Alexander Vinokourov, World Time Trial Champion Michael Rodgers and Lance Armstrong took to the course. One at a time the riders threw themselves against the bastion of Zabriskie’s time. Vinokourov’s face was a mask of pain at the end of his effort. He fell short. World Time Trial Champion Michael Rodgers nearly came to grief in a corner he over cooked in his attempt to better the time of Zabriskie. He missed Zabriskie’s time by several seconds. One at a time they spent themselves. All fell short. Armstrong came closest to Zabriskie’s time, but missed by a full 2 seconds- an eon at this distance.

David Zabriskie, in his first stage in his first Tour de France, had just raised the bar of how fast a person could ride a bike in the Le Tour. His record remained as the fastest ever time trial ridden in the Tour de France according to many sources.

This photo was likely shot in early 2005. Zabriskie's P3 has its Vision cockpit but is missing the Nokon cables he used in Stage 1 of the 2005 Tour.

While Greg LeMond had previously ridden a time trial in 1989 at 54.55 KPH (33.82 MPH) for 15 miles and Chris Boardman had gone 55.15 KPH (34.19 MPH) over 7.2 kilometers those marks had been excluded by most record keepers since LeMond’s effort into Paris in 1989 was a net elevation loss over the course- it was essentially downhill- and it was fractionally slower.  Boardman’s effort was in the “Prologue” stage, a short aperitif to the main event and not a long distance road time trial. By popular accounts Zabriskie was the new fastest time trialist in the Tour de France. That he did it off his very first pedal stroke in Le Tour made it all the more sensational.

When Jason Losey of Cervelo showed us Zabriskie's record setting P3C as it was set up that day in 2005, I couldn't believe my eyes. It is the best kind of cycling archeology.

12 October, 2011; TriSports.com parking lot, Tucson, Arizona, USA.

Jason Losey of Cervelo showed up at TriSports.com in Tucson, Arizona with his big red, white and black Mercedes Cervelo van. As usual, it was packed with delightful new Cervelos. When Losey rolled back the door on the big Benz he told me, “Listen, I have something special…”

Losey rooted his way to the back of the van and rolled a 2005 Cervelo P3C out the side door. I recognized the bike instantly. It was Zabriskie’s bike: The “Fastest Bike in the World”. Cervelo had kept the record setting bike in its exact condition when it was retired from the CSC team at the end of 2005. It was an artifact, a time capsule. The bike was scratched from frequent packing and the occasional crash that Zabriskie was also known for. But there it was: The fastest bike. Like a sarcophagus containing a volume of history the memories of Zabriskie’s incredible day flooded back to me. I gripped the handlebars. It gave me chills. It was this bike…

There are, of course, no “Fastest Bikes”. People on internet forums debate the minutiae of weight and aerodynamics ad nauseum. It’s the rider, not the bike that wins races. But the fact is more timed races have been won on Cervelos than any other single brand. Cervelo’s aerodynamic lineage is unlike any other company. And now we had a look at the (then) fastest Cervelo.

Zabriskie’s P3C is a “stick in the water” that marks the evolution of what makes a bike fast for a fast rider. We’ve moved past some of what Zabriskie used to better cockpits and more advanced drivetrains with Di2 but few manufacturers have approached the aerodynamic performance of the P3C (now called the P3) without substantial and complex component integration. The Cervelo P3 remains the most copied aerodynamic bike in history and perhaps the second most copied bike ever after the original mountain bike design of Sinyard, Ritchey and Fisher, et al.

Zabriskie's unusual cockpit set-up was the precursor to better control integration of shifters and brake on aerobars. Note the forward facing third brake lever on the aero extension.

From the front Zabriskie’s Cervelo P3C featured an oddly configured cockpit with straight aero extensions and a third brake lever installed backwards on the right aero extension. This brake lever was, in a way, a precursor to Shimano’s idea to duplicate controls on the aero extensions and the base bars. Shimano has done it with shifters on their Di2; Zabriskie did it with his brake to maintain control, especially during the team time trial events.

Zabriskie’s cockpit is- like the rest of the bike- heavy, made entirely of aluminum, and was built as a one piece unit with base bar, stem and extensions. His extensions had a wrap of adhesive skateboard grip tape. Zabriskie wore gloves in time trials and the grip tape improved his grip and leverage. The early versions of the Vision “crab claw” brake levers were extremely narrow. Some recreational users complained they were uncomfortable to squeeze under frequent braking. Vision has since redesigned the leading edge for greater comfort.

The compression-less Nokon metallic cable housings improved component performance, especially with Zabriskie's unusual brake lever configuration.

A notable addition to Zabriskie’s bike is Nokon cables. These aluminum, segmented cable housings are compression-less and have the ability to route cables better around tight corners than polymer housings. They are tricky to work on since each small segment is a separate piece, strung like beads onto a low friction inner cable liner.

Brakes on the Zabriskie record bike are conventional Dura-Ace calipers with Corima carbon fiber specific brake pads and no extra brake cable showing as is common with pro team mechanics. One of the reasons I’ve always favored the Cervelo P3 is conventional brakes that are dependable, easy to adjust and maintain and travel with.

Conventional, easy to service brakes make the P3 a real-world bike with dependable braking performance. Few new "superbikes" with integrated brakes have the same stopping power. Note the super short cable length, Corima brake shoes and clean tubular tire glue job- a calling card of a pro-team assembly job.

Zabriskie used a rear Zipp disk wheel with tubular tires and a deep section front Zipp 808 wheel. It was difficult to tell if the hubs had been refitted with a different bearing or if they ran stock Zipp bearings.

The cranks are FSA aluminum arms turning a carbon-finished 54 tooth solid disk big chain ring with 42 tooth small ring, seldom used by Zabriskie. The massive 177.5 mm crank arms seem in contradiction to Zabriskie’s style which is not as heavy as an Ulrich. Zabriskie turned these long cranks at a spritely cadence, questioning the merit of the current short crank trend.

Size does matter: Zabriskie turned massive 177.5 mm long crank arms. At his 6'0" height these cranks trend long by today's standards. Despite their length he pedalled with a spritely cadence in time trials.

The remainder of Zabriskie’s drivetrain is indicative of the era, a Shimano Dura-Ace front and rear changer serviced by more Nokon housing from the shift levers. The inner cables belie the professional mechanic’s penchant for cutting cables to precise length- little extra cable is left showing.

Zabriskie's drivetrain was a stock Shimano Dura-Ace 10 speed kit using Nokon compression-less housings and driven by a sold-disk 54 tooth large change ring turned by his massive 177.5 mm crank heavy aluminum arms.

Another professional oddity is the cut-off Selle Italia saddle for compliance with UCI rules. The UCI’s “Definition of a Competitive Bicycle” specifies the nose of the bike’s saddle must reside at a specific proximity from the center of the bottom bracket as measured horizontally. The rules mean the saddle has to be farther back than you or I would use on a triathlon bike. As a result, the nose of Zabriskie’s saddle is missing. In photos of Zabriskie at speed on later time trial bikes he sits more like an Empfield-ian, F.I.S.T. positioned triathlete than a bicycle racer, sliding well forward on the saddle with minimal remaining contact between him and the saddle, seemingly perched on its nose. It’s no wonder Zabriskie has his own line of saddle comfort products called “DZ’s Nutz”.

The modified saddle changes perceptions of saddle comfort. Note the cut-off nose to comply with UCI time trial bike requirements.

Additional cues to the bike’s professional countenance are its spotlessly clean drivetrain and meticulous tire gluing job. The name decal on the top tube help mechanics identify each rider on the team’s bike for transportation and help the fans recognize their favorite riders.

Zabriskie in a more recent photo on a Cervelo P4. D: The UCI mandated position of Zabriskie's saddle and resultant seat tube angle. A: The green line represents Zabriskie's actual, effective seat tube angle, a very "Empfield-ian" F.I.S.T. type open saddle angle. B: Zabriskie's humerus bone in his bicep area supports his torso on the cockpit with his skeleton. Notice how relaxed his back and triceps are. C: The cockpit extensions put his shifters in his hands, he does not have to move his hands at all to shift.

Cervelo spent years developing the P3, P3C and the current P3 family from which the P4 was extrapolated and now, rumors of a new “X-P?” aero bike are circulating. The interesting thing about the P3, and Zabriskie’s 2005 P3 exemplifies this, is that the P3 is still an enduring design that is an advanced design. Cervelo got this bike very right on the first try and it still beats many recent “superbike” introductions on mechanical convenience and integrity, ride quality, fit, performance and aerodynamic. Cervelo set the bar very high in 2005 with the P3C like the one Zabriskie rode in Stage 1 of the Tour de France. Few other bikes have cleared that bar even 7 years on.

The latest version of the Cervelo P3 is a refined version of the original P3C with an improved seatpost, carbon lay-up, better dropouts and fork and other subtle refinements. The P3 still leads the superbike category at an every-bike price that is easy to maintain, has good mechanical reliability, great ride quality and aerodynamics that still rival new superbikes.

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