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Tech-Redux: Litespeed Archon C1

From issue 10 (April 2012)

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Titanium. There, we said it. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s make something clear. Litespeed is a bike company, not a Ti company. The way the cycling world has reacted to their foray into carbon bikes makes one think the company must be called “Lite-anium” or “Ti-speed.” They make bikes, unleash an ungodly amount of craftsmanship on them and for a very long time their chosen material was Ti. Their legacy is more about quality bikes than material choice. There is plenty of precedence for companies that made their names in one material and moved successfully to another: Pinarello, Colnago, Cannondale—and just about every other major manufacturer that has been around longer than 10 years. Don’t expect us to announce Litespeed has finally realized their carbon potential or that that their carbon bikes compare favorably to titanium. They have a history of making great bikes and we expect great things from any Litespeed, regardless of material. For starters, we expect any top-level carbon race bike to trounce even very good titanium when it comes to ticking off a list of the things a race bike must do.

Okay, we’ve gotten that out of our system. Now, the bike, the 2012 Litespeed Archon C1 Dura-Ace. This is the aero road bike the Tennessee manufacturer launched in 2009 and has tweaked ever since to deliver this naked, unidirectional carbon, Dura-Ace version with an internally routed Di2 option for 2012. And while acknowledged Ti experts, Lightspeed’s aero credentials are not as widely known, but are perhaps as respected as other innovative frame manufacturers.

In 1999 Lance Armstrong lined up for 6.8 kilometers through Le Puy du Fou and shocked the world by winning the Tour de France prologue and donning the yellow jersey to begin his reign as the greatest Tour rider of all time.  The bike he rode, while sporting a Trek badge, was actually a Litespeed Blade, and had been Lance’s go-to TT bike since the 1996 Tour du Pont. Created by accident years earlier when a Litespeed engineer accidentally cracked a Ti tube in half and crushed it in a press, the bike helped usher in the era of the aero cross-section tube. Carbon has given Litespeed the luxury of making aero a priority and removing the limitations of titanium. It is a luxury they have indulged to the fullest with the Archon C1.

Aerologic and isolation
Litespeed has crystallized their years of aero experience into a group of features they call Aerologic and those features go from the obvious to the subtle. The deep cross section down tube and seat tube are in the obvious category, as are the rear wheel cut out and deep head tube. In the subtle category we see the forks and stays. The C1 fork is bowed out significantly. In fact, it’s wider than any fork we have yet seen. If narrow is aero, why so wide? What aerodynamicists are starting to understand is the spinning wheel needs to be isolated from the fork blades. If they are both allowed to handle airflow independently they do it with less drag. That fact that Litespeed has been exploiting this for years is evidence to their aerodynamic credentials. This same design principle has been followed at the rear stays. The down tube, while a tried and true deep section airfoil, has another smart, real-world feature at the bottle cage. Instead of a sharp trialing edge that simply ignores the fact that we ride with water bottles, Litespeed has kept the trailing edge wide to let the tube and bottle act as a single shape.

While aero was a priority, Litespeed, a company that has been as synonymous with ride quality, couldn’t just ignore the bike’s road manners. To provide some relief from the deep aero tubes’ notoriously harsh ride, Litespeed created incredibly complex seat stays. Wide, stiff, and aero at the dropouts, they transition to waif-like and flexible at the seat tube. While aero tubes may be stiff front to back, laterally they rarely win any plaudits. Litespeed uses a one and one-half inch lower bearing at the steer tube to create front-end stiffness, and at the rear the down tube flares to a robust BB 30 with asymmetrical chain stays—tall and stiff at the drive side to resist the upward flex of power input but quite svelte on the non-drive side to save weight. They created all these shapes with 40 ton carbon, which was, until recently, the gold standard of carbon modulus. The weight was very impressive for an aero bike. With a Dura-Ace 7900 build, FSA Team Issue bar and stem, Fi’zi:k Airone saddle and Fulcrum Racing 3 wheels, the Archon C1 weighs only 16.3 lbs in an XL. While not the lightest aero bike around, it’s certainly in Cervelo’s league—and aero bikes aren’t really for climbers anyway, now are they?   

Litespeed makes a C1R version of the bike that utilizes a higher 60 ton modulus carbon, which results in a slightly stiffer and lighter frame. It also employs nanotubes, a technology that helps bind the carbon together by giving the resin itself some structure. While these are all good things, in all honesty they may be outweighed by the C1R’s integrated seat mast. This is a feature that limits the bike’s fit options and transportation ease—a feature we think is on its way out.

The endurance/aero/race bike
The first feature that becomes incredibly apparent when you ride the bike is the geometry. It provides a fit we can’t call anything other than cramped. The wheelbase is short, the head tubes are tall, and for a race bike it doesn’t feel anywhere near long and low enough. Our XL test bike, which translates into a 59 cm, had a head tube of 21 cm. While only slightly taller than some other bikes, the incredibly short chain stays, only 39.5 cm across all sizes, leave a lot of your weight over the rear wheel and in the saddle.

After sliding the seat all the way back and getting too far behind our pedals and then trying a 140-cm stem, which didn’t agree with the tall 73º head tube, we changed our thinking. We allowed more weight in the saddle and sat a little more upright. It’s a fit that feels much more endurance-oriented than race ready, a position that puts us on top of the wheels not between the wheels. But once we made that change we could really begin to appreciate the bike’s other qualities. We did, however, wonder how much our upright position was negating any of the frame’s gains in aerodynamics.

Litespeed has done a fantastic job of creating stiffness out of aero shapes. The bike reacts to power crisply, and the higher the speed and bigger the power, the happier it is. While not quite as lively as some pure race bikes, it is much livelier than most aero bikes. Of course, the flip side to this equation is compliance and once again Litespeed has done an incredible job. It’s a stiff ride to be sure, which again makes the endurance-oriented fit feel a bit odd, but the rear end and those bowed forks take the curse off many an impact and the large volume of the head tube really dampens high frequency. To take advantage of the bike’s powertrain, the folks in Tennessee wanted to make sure you get to the finish line of the longest races with fresh legs—and they have succeeded.

During hard cornering or technical descending, the bike takes a bit of management. Again, that tall head tube and rear weight distribution can give the bars a bit of a vague feeling as you close in on the limit. The secret is to slide way forward, putting a bit more weight up front. The bike reacts to this by acting like a bike with a stiff fork and sub-100-cm wheelbase should—it will rail happily around death-defying corners. But, to achieve this is to venture into cramped position territory again. That low position does allow you to take full advantage of the bike’s aero credentials. While definitive numbers are impossible to get, a few of our riding partners, gapped while descending, will attest to its slippery nature.

Litespeed has indeed done what we hoped. They have created a bike that is a true original. While their choice of material may concern some, if those riders step back and appreciate the bike they will see Litespeed DNA throughout: the aerodynamics, the commitment to ride quality, the sublime craftsmanship.  Litespeed has been known for making great bikes, we expect nothing less and experienced nothing less with the Archon C1, material choice and country of origin be damned. Just be sure the fit philosophy works for you; luckily you should be able to tell on a quick test ride.

The rider
You’re looking for aerodynamics, but not at the expense of ride quality. You appreciate the craftsmanship of an American original, but aren’t hung up on material choices. You’ve had enough of riding low and long with your tongue in your spokes and are ready to sit up and relax a bit.

The Bottom Line
Price: $5,600 (complete); $2,400 (frameset)
Size tested: XL
Weight: 16.3 lbs. (without pedals or cages)
Frame: 40 ton carbon Aerologic C1
Build: Shimano Dura-Ace 7900 with FSA BB 30 and SLK light cranks, FSA Team Issue carbon bar and stem, fi’zi:k Arione saddle, Fulcrum Racing 3 wheels