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I’d Give It.
10 / 10
Summing it up…
An incredibly well mannered and well specified Time Trial bike that won’t break the bank.
The formula for the correct number of bikes is well known to all cyclists; N+1 (where N is the number of bikes you currently own!). However you cut it, that can be hard to justify – unless, of course, you indulge in multiple disciplines; in this case, ownership of a roadie (winter trainer and, of course, carbon summer bike), mountain bike, commuter and Time Trial bike are all legitimate and necessary purchases. Having recently made a firm commitment to multisports (2014 will be my first full season in Triathlon) I have recently found myself in the position where the purchase of a dedicated Time Trial bike was both legitimate and justifiable under the afore-mentioned formula.
Like many people, however, my funds are limited and once the other necessary items were purchased (swimming gear, wetsuit, running gear, Tri suit, Tri club membership – and, of course race entry fees) the funds available for a TT bike had dwindled significantly. In fact, when I compared the available budget to the average cost of a carbon TT bike, I soon began to realise that finding anything worth having (with the money I had to spend) would be huge ask.
Fear not though, should you find yourself in a similar predicament. The wonders of Open Mould manufacturing and online selling mean that there is a least a couple of options available to you - even after the mainstream products are well out of reach. In my case, a quick Google search threw up options from both Planet X and Ribble.
Let’s begin by looking at the Ribble. Given my meagre budget, I would have been looking at their Aero Carbon TT. At a shade under £1200, this comes with a Tiagra Groupset, Rodi Airline Wheelset and Deda Finishing kit. Whilst Tiagra is a stalwart option, the wheelset did not appeal and a quick look at the frame geometry showed the Seat Tube angle to be in the region of 73 degrees – which many would consider as quite relaxed for a real TT bike. Although Ribble has a good reputation and, in fact, the SMCC’s own Wet Wipe is a devout Ribble fan, I was not tempted by this package. Enter Planet X!
At the time of searching, Planet X was offering their Stealth Pro Carbon TT bike with SRAM Rival Groupset and Vision Team 30 Wheelset for under £1K. Given the spec, the fact that this very frame (albeit wearing a Ridley badge) had been ridden in the Tour de France by none other than Cadel Evans and that the seat tube angle was a much more respectable 76 degrees (so nearer to real TT bike specs) this looked like a no-brainer. Ten minutes later (after a few tweaks to the spec) the bike was in my basket for a smidgen over £1K. Bargain.
Unlike many of the large bike ‘sheds’ Planet X does not keep finished products on the shelf. In fact, every bike is hand built to order. Although the end product probably isn’t a world away from the mass-produced bikes that roll out of bike shops every day, the thought that one man would be responsible for building my bike from start to finish held a certain appeal. Of course, the drawback of this is an extended wait time (at time of ordering, Planet X was quoting 10 working days). But, to be fair, you could wait that long for an off the shelf product to reach your local bike shop – so I was not unduly worried. I paid, sat back and waited.
In my case, Planet X had to push the 10 day deadline a little, owing to stock issues with the SRAM groupset. To ease the matter and expedite production, they offered me a Shimano 105 build. As a long-time Shimano fan, I was not unduly worried by this – so took them up on the offer. It’s worth noting that this bike is currently offered on their website with the same spec – owing to supply chain issues with SRAM components.
A few days later, I was taking delivery of the biggest box I’ve ever seen come off the back of a courier’s van and hastily ripping staples out of cardboard to see what lay inside.
On first impressions, I was both excited and concerned. In it’s chosen Guru Blue colour scheme, the bike looked incredible but the frame did look a tad small for my 186 CM height. After straightening the bars and nipping up the bolts (about the full extent of assembly required) I had the bike gently clamped into a turbo trainer to perform a basic fit. As soon as I climbed aboard, early concerns about size melted away. In fact, right of the box, the fit felt great. Given that the seat stem was currently on it’s lowest setting, I was very much encouraged.
In my case, the only major ‘tweaks’ I undertook before a serious road test were a small change to the stem height (flipped it over for an upward angle and moved it up one spacer on the steerer) and the fitting of my chosen Look Keo 2 Max pedals.
Climbing aboard for the first time was a humbling experience. If you’ve never ridden a dedicated TT bike before, I guarantee that your first ride will feel very alien. The more compact geometry (over a road bike) and TT bar setup make the bike feel nervous. And the fact that braking and gears are now separated does not help that. Notwithstanding this, in just a few miles, I had become at home with relaxing on the Bull Horns for braking and tucking into the clip-ons for increased pace and gear changes. In fact, in no time at all, I was quite happily wafting along on the Bull Horns whilst, at the same time, moving my hand rapidly up for gear change duties. I think it says something about the stability of the platform that it inspired so much confidence.
On the move, the 105 groupset works as 105 always has – flawlessly. The Dura Ace Bar End shifters offer precise changes and the SRAM TT 500 brake levers, combined with 105 callipers deliver smooth predictable braking. My bike is fitted with the Vision Base Aero Bar and upward bend clip-on extensions. This (to my mind) is a very good mix – although not as sexy as some aero bar setups, it’s light, comfortable and actually rather good looking. If you order a Stealth from Planet X today, however, you’ll likely get their full carbon Stealth bar setup with it. In practice this probably doesn’t save a lot of weight over the Vision Alloy setup but it certainly looks sexier – and has been designed for total aero efficiency. In the hunt for those marginal gains we all seek, that can only be a good thing.
After my tweaks the riding position was focussed – but not extreme. This suits my style well. Of course, if you have the build (and prowess) of Messrs Cancelara and Martin, you could always dial in a more extreme position – in fact, I would say that the geometry and finishing kit allow a good margin in this respect. Even with the fairly relaxed settings I’d dialled in, the bike still felt taught, responsive and…well…..fast!
Settled into the cruise on the clip-ons the feeling of Lycra rippling behind my neck showed just how efficient the position really is – the ‘dirty’ air spilling off the back of my lid and neck. In this position, I could not believe how efficiently I was moving through the air and, in fact, a quick comparison with my regular road bike rides showed me to be a full 3 mph (average) faster over the initial 8 mile warm-up to meet a mate for our Saturday morning ride. Given that a standard TT is somewhere around 10 miles, that’s a margin worth having!
Over the next 30 miles, I was able to test the handling, comfort and climbing abilities of the bike and can report that, in all departments, it delivers admirably.
Although the frame is taught enough to provide fantastic power transfer, it never feels jarringly uncomfortable. That taughtness, however, does make itself know when you stamp on the pedals – really it feels like not a single Watt is wasted. Progress is both swift and efficient without feeling harsh or un-refined.
The handling characteristics are very sweet – quickly inspiring confidence and making this feels like a bike I’d ridden for years, after just a few miles. Having said this, please bear in mind that this is my first TT bike. In this respect, I’d resigned myself to the fact that the Stealth would certainly be livelier that any of my roadies – and it didn’t disappoint!
Personally, I’ve always considered that good handling is that sweet spot between stability and rapid change of direction. The Stealth ticks both of these boxes; inspiring confidence through the corners from both the clip-ons and the Bull Horns. After just a few miles, I felt confident enough to take tight bends tucked into the extensions and after a few miles more, found myself happily whipping a hand away from them to indicate potholes to following riders. It probably took me longer to ‘gel’ with my carbon roadie than it’s taken me to become settled in to the Stealth and I think that says a lot about it’s character.
Of course, all the sweet handling characteristics in the world count for nought if the bike leaves you crippled after just a few miles. Whilst riding position and handling will undoubtedly have some bearing on this, they count for nought if you are perched upon the saddle that Satan reserves for the most damned and clinging to bars that the Spanish Inquisition would have labelled as inhumane!!! Finishing kit is, of course, one area where a manufacturer can make those critical savings in the quest to hit a certain price-point. It would be a lie to say that this is not the case with the Stealth. Both the San Marco saddle and Vision Aero Bars are clearly base options. Having said this, I think it’s equally true that some base options can (in practice) be better than higher-end components.
I have to be honest, after reading online reviews of the saddle, I wasn’t expecting much. And, when you consider that this saddle can be purchased for less than the equivalent cost of a few inner tubes, I was certainly thinking that it would be top of the post-purchase upgrade list. The real measure of a saddle is not that you step off of the bike and enthuse about it’s feather-bed like comfort; rather that you step off the bike and don’t really think about it. After a full-bore 40 mile test, this is exactly where I was. I found the saddle both comfortable and ergonomic. Of course, much might have to do with the specific shape / size of my derriere but you speak as you find and I find it plenty comfortable enough for any distance up to middle distance bike segments.
The Vision Base-Bar and Clip-On setup supplied as Original Equipment with my bike is another area where I thought I would quickly be looking to make a change. But, truth be told, I really can’t justify it. This combination is neither unduly weighty, nor lacking in comfort. When you add to that the fact that (in my opinion) it looks great, then you are on to a winner. It’s true that this particular cockpit does not provide for much in the way of adjustment – it comes pre-fitted with the raiser kit, which lifts the armrests by a meagre 12.5mm and the clip-ons are not adjustable for reach. But, having said this, the armrest pads can be reversed to allow a degree of tailoring and I know of much more expensive Aero Bar setups that offer a similar range of adjustment. In practice, I’m very happy with the OEM cockpit and happier that it’s not just another thing begging for me to throw more cash at.
The standard Vision Team 30 wheelset supplied with the bike is more functional than focussed. In fact, in my head, I was resigned to removing these hoops as soon as I’d pulled the bike out of the box. Again, I have to eat a slice of humble pie here. The standard Team 30 wheels are genuinely a respectable training wheel set. It’s true that you’ll probably not want to race on them (if funds allow) but as a solid, well made, good looking, nicely handling set of budget wheels go – you’d be hard-pressed to find a better option. Clearly, those Planet X folks know their stuff and demonstrate that here by selecting a ‘budget’ option that still delivers in both the looks and performance departments (please note that the bike as pictured here is wearing my very best 58mm Carbons).
There are a few tweaks that I think Planet X could make, which would make the bike even better. To begin with, the ‘customise’ option on their website only allowed me to select Conti Ultra Sport tyres. Although these are a reasonable enough budget option, I’d personally be prepared to pay a little more for a GP 4000 or Ultremo DD etc. as my training tyre. Equally, although I’ve been very complimentary about the Vision Aero Bar setup, I’d have liked the option to choose an upgrade to Planet X’s own Stealth Aero Bar – or perhaps another option.
Ultimately, though, these are just nit-picks! This bike delivers undeniable value, which is almost too good to miss. Currently, Planet X is offering this very frame set, with a Shimano 105 build, Stealth Aero Bar setup and Shimano RS 501 Wheel Set for under £1K. To be honest – no matter how hard you look – you’re really not going to find better value than that. When you consider that you’re also dealing with people who really know bikes and who treat you like a real person, that’s really a winning deal.