A long-term look at Cervelo's P5X

A year ago we hailed Cervelo's P5X as a game changer. A frank, long-term look at the super bike that took Kona by storm just over a year ago.

| November 3, 2017 | GEAR

Photo >Paul Phillips

A few days after the official launch of the P5X last year I saw Phil White, one of Cervelo’s founders, on Alii Drive in Kona. I’ve known Phil for years – we go back far enough that I can remember the days when he and Cervelo co-founder Gerard Vroomen couldn’t afford to pay for a courier so he used to drive from Toronto to my home in Hamilton to drop ads off for the magazine I was editing at the time.

“So what do you think of the bike?” Phil asked.

“It’s the bike Cervelo had to make,” I said. “It’s the logical next step in the development of triathlon bikes.”

I still believe that. If you can sense the “but” that wants to come at the end of that sentence, it’s there. I was more than impressed with the P5X last year and my reviews of the bike reflected that. Last May Cervelo sent me a P5X to ride for a long-term review. The bike came packed in the P5X-specific Biknd case that is part of the game-changing features of the bike, which made life easy as I was on my way to Lanzarote to cover the Ironman.

This is the first in a series of stories I’ll be writing about the P5X. This story will focus on my experience and thoughts on the bike from a six-month extended review. Over the next few weeks I’ll go through more specific aspects of the P5X that makes it somewhat unique – its storage capacity, fitting capabilities and the like. Today, though, we’ll begin with the arrival in Lanzarote.

Instructions are not evil

“Are there instructions you can look up?” my wife asked. I’d been wrestling with putting together the P5X for over a half hour. It had taken less than 15 minutes to put her bike together – we had arrived at Club La Santa in Lanzarote in late afternoon and were desperate to get out for a short ride before it got dark. I’m a guy, though. I was brought up to believe that real men don’t read instructions.

I reluctantly pulled out my phone and looked to see if there might be something on line that would help me figure out how to put the bike together. (The folks from Cervelo will laugh about this, I am sure, because they did go through the process quite extensively at the launch. What can I say …) Once I looked at a video that was easy to find on YouTube putting the bike back together was a breeze. There’s a definite process to packing and unpacking the P5X, but once you have the bike in the brilliantly designed Biknd bag you will be quite confident that it’s going to arrive at your destination in one piece, I promise.

The ride

Yes, I know. You could care less about my feeble bike mechanic skills. You want to know how it rides. I hope you can bear with me here – this will take a bit to communicate.

The bottom line about the P5X is it’s a rocket. It’s the fastest bike I have ever been on when it comes to descending or riding on the flats. But getting used to it takes a while and climbing … well, that’s a real struggle to get comfortable with.

I’ll start with the rocket part, which is best described with some examples. The first came during the first week of riding in Lanzarote. I was with Danish pro Maja Stage Nielsen and German race announcer Till Schenk. Stage Nielsen was riding a Cervelo P5. We were heading down a long, gradual downhill towards the beach town of Famara with a strong crosswind. Stage Nielsen pedaled the entire descent. I didn’t. And I cruised passed her.

Yes, I hear you. I weigh much more than Stage Nielsen. But that experience was duplicated again and again through every ride I’ve done on the P5X – even with riders who are heavier than I am on speedy bikes and race wheels.

Now, I haven’t done any rides with uber bikers like Sebastian Kienle or Jan Frodeno, but I did spend a bit of time on a ride down from Hawi with Patrick Lange. On one of the descents I managed to duplicate my Stage Nielsen experience – while the German was pedaling, I simply got into a tuck and easily moved up and past him.

I have no stats to go with any of this – all I can relate is my feel on the bike. Compared to anything else I’ve ever ridden, it is, as Cervelo likes to suggest, simply faster.

Photo >Paul Phillips

How about climbing?

Yeah, that would be my next question, too. If I had written this review in June or July it would have been, well, let’s just say, not particularly favorable. On those initial rides in Lanzarote last May I loved the P5X on descents, flats and gradual uphills. Lanzarote is renowned, though, for its tough climbs. I found the P5X was just fine for seated climbs. I wished it would be lighter, but I liked the stiffness at the bottom bracket and the firm feel – you felt like all the power you were putting into the pedals moved you forward. Getting out of the saddle, though, felt horrible. I wrestled with what the issue was, and, finally, decided that it was the weight distribution. There’s just a lot more carbon fiber up high on this bike, and the weight distribution only gets worse when you throw a water bottle behind your saddle and between your aero bars. Trying to throw the bike from side to side simply doesn’t work very well. You can get the job done - I wasn't getting dropped on climbs or anything, it just didn't feel comfortable.

One could easily argue that the P5X isn’t really designed for that type of riding, which is quite true. Anyone forking out US$11,000+ for a bike will no-doubt have a lightweight roadster they’ll take for tours to the Alps. But there are triathlon events that require climbing to go along with fast descents and long, flat stretches where an ideal aero position is critical. (Ironman Lanzarote, for example. Or Ironman France, Ironman Switzerland … the list could go on for a bit.)

Which left me in a quandary. I like to have one bike for all my riding and I really wanted to figure out if the P5X could do that. When it came time to pack a bike up for a trip to Europe, where I’d be climbing in the Austrian Alps, I chickened out and threw in my trusty open-mold Aquila Chrono Pro, a tri bike with a relaxed 76-degree seat tube angle that provides a nice balance between tri and road geometry.

Part of that trip was in Hamburg, where I did some Aerotune testing to dial in my position. On the dead-flat roads in that part of Germany I really regretted not having the P5X, especially when the Aerotune folks figured I could shave upwards of 15 minutes off my predicted Ironman time simply with a better frame and the improved position the P5X allows.

So, on my return to Canada I committed to giving the P5X a real go. It would be my one and only ride until Kona.

By August my mindset was changing. I was getting more and more comfortable climbing on the P5X. Cornering was also becoming much more intuitive. I started to like the disc brakes more and more every ride as they offered the ability to brake later into corners and were much more reliable in the rain. I absolutely loved the position I was able to get into on the P5X and couldn’t believe how comfortable I was staying in an aero tuck for hours on end.

During the last few climbing sessions I did with some of the athletes I was preparing for the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Chattanooga I started to feel like the P5X was living up to the lofty expectations I had placed on it when it was launched. In addition to all the things that I liked before, I was now starting to feel much more comfortable climbing on the bike, too, whether I was sitting or standing.

While I haven’t specifically asked any other pros about their experience with the P5X, I have a feeling they have found the same thing. Frederik Van Lierde won Ironman France riding the P5X. Heather and Trevor Wurtele have been ripping up courses throughout Europe on the thing. And James Cunnama has been on fire on his P5X – winning in Hamburg, Lanzarote and taking fifth in Kona.

Photo >Paul Phillips

Speaking of Kona

The P5X made the trip to Kona with me, a fitting return (I am pretty sure my demo was one of the bikes from the launch in 2016) for the bike. By the end of my 10-day stint on the Big Island I was convinced that the P5X was a fantastic choice for the Kona course: being able to carry three round aero water bottles without compromising aerodynamics, the stability while riding in the aero position and the sheer speed – especially with cross winds, which is almost a given when you’re riding down the Queen K, make it a great choice for the world championship.

Final thoughts

The reason I told Phil White that the P5X was the bike Cervelo had to make and was the logical next step for the company was because the P5X marked a real change in the attitude and approach of triathlon bikes. Yes, other companies make tri-specific bikes, but, with the P5X, Cervelo was going “all in” on that front. The entire premise of the bike to design something from the ground up that reflected what triathletes needed.

To really hit the mark, though, there are a few things that Cervelo will need to do, in my mind. It has to be lighter. Weight isn’t everything, for sure, but I can’t imagine how hard it is to sell one of these things for US$11,000+ in a store filled with high end bikes. I don’t know about you, but the first thing I always do when I am looking at a bike is pick it up. BMC’s Time Machine or Canyon’s Speedmax, Felt’s IA or … you pick a super bike - I can almost guarantee it’ll be lighter. That’s got to be hard to get past when you’re trying to sell one of these things. Also, as much as I like the disc brakes, they did loosen up considerably through the review and required tightening up a few times. I have SRAM’s new HRD brakes on the way, which everyone tells me are a dream to use.

You don’t lead the bike count in Kona for 13 years in a row unless you are way smarter than I am, which means that the folks at Cervelo are no-doubt working on ways to improve the P5X and take care of those issues. The HRD brakes are now available and I envision that we’ll see a lighter version of the P5X come out at the premium price point, with the current model sitting at a lower price.

Even if you had to “settle” with that version of the P5X you’d hardly be wanting. Just over a year ago I wrote that the P5X was going to be a game changer. After six months on it I’m comfortable reporting that I was right.

Stay tuned for more on the P5X.