How Toronto bicycle company Cervélo designed its new, $16,000 triathlon bike
On Sunday, Belgian triathlete Frederik Van Lierde won gold at the Ironman in Cozumel, Mexico, leaving more than a few people wondering, “What the hell is he riding?” His bike, the P5X, looked a little more Tron-ish than any of the others on the course. The model is less than two months old and goes for $16,000. Why the hefty price tag? Three years of research, a newly engineered frame, and brakes and gears that operate via wireless signals instead of cables. The futuristic bike is made by the Toronto-based cycling company Cervélo, so we stopped by their North York warehouse to find out what went into its creation.
In an Ironman—a four-kilometre swim, a 180-kilometre bike and a 42-kilometre run—few athletes use bikes specifically designed for triathlons. Instead, they ride models meant for shorter distances—which prioritize aerodynamics and speed over comfort and storage space—and tape tools, water bottles and food (things short-distance riders don’t need) to the frames of their bikes.
When Cervélo designer David Killing began working on a triathlon-specific bike three years ago, he wanted to figure out exactly what triathletes were carrying on their bikes, and where they were carrying it. His team spent a year interviewing and shadowing pros; travelling to Ironman events in France, Austria, Kona and beyond; and taking 15,000 photos of triathletes’ set-ups:
When Killing and co. sat down and analyzed the images, they found a wide variety of bike models, saddle heights and positions, 688 different storage configurations, and a whole lot of tape keeping things in place. “Visually, that’s not so nice,” he says. “But also aerodynamically, it can’t be good.” With the new bike, he wanted to create something that catered to all those different set-ups without sacrificing speed.
Killing’s team then began designing the frame of its new bike. Because races like the Tour de France have strict rules about the shape of competitors’ bikes, most of the models end up looking nearly identical. Ironman regulations are less rigid, so Cervélo reimagined the shape of the frame. Using software, they simulated placing differing amounts of pressure on a frame—simulating the weight of a rider while sitting or sprinting—to determine which parts of the bike provide essential structural support (the section between the handlebars and pedals, for example) and carve away everything else (like the section between the saddle and pedals). They combined those findings with their research about storage space to come up with these sketches:
The final product has a carbon fibre frame, manufactured by a Minnesota company called Hed. The saddle, made by ISM, sits on a post that slides down through the top part of the frame. The full set-up weighs about 10 kilos:
Most elements of the front end were created by a Utah company called Enve. Riders can switch gears using two buttons at the ends of the upper bars; the lower bars are reversible, meaning they can curve either down or up depending on the rider’s preference. Instead of cables, the brakes and gear shifters connect to a wireless transmitter that sends an electronic signal to a receiver near the pedals:
The bike uses hydraulic disc brakes; rim brakes, the more traditional option, typically sit on a part of the bike frame that doesn’t exist on the P5X. Buyers can choose a cassette, derailleur and chain made by either Shimano or SRAM:
The P5X’s uppermost storage space extends into the frame and can be covered with a semi-rigid rubber cover. It has side pockets for food and a pill tray, for when those 180 kilometres start to catch up with your muscles:
A detachable plastic case has space for tools, tubes, food and other gear, plus a water bottle mount. Another storage compartment, built into the frame, is pictured at the bottom right:
Here, Killing and industrial designer Stuart Munro disassemble the front end of the bike. The handlebars fold down on both sides for easy packing, and the rest of the bike can be taken apart and packed into a custom bag within 15 minutes:
An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated the price of the P5X as $20,000.