An invitation to test the Cervélo Soloist while joining a luxury two-day training camp with Vélo Classic Tours, taking in the famed climbs of Alpe d'Huez and Mont Ventoux, sounded like an opportunity too good to miss.
So, with the thought of putting the Soloist through its paces up and down these fabled climbs, photographer Pete and I headed off with eager anticipation. There was one problem, however. The bike had not arrived. Meaning I had no bike to test up and down the Ventoux, and Pete had no pictures to take for our regular section in the magazine. All in all, it was not looking good.
Later, just as we were wondering what we could do, the bike turned up. The next problem was that it was midday, and we had to try to assemble the bike, get out and about, get some pictures, and get back to our hotel before the sun went down.
Fortunately, the climb we used, up to Chamrousse, was only a couple of hundred metres away from the hotel we were staying in at Uriage, near Grenoble. Not quite as fortunate was the fact that I had to try to assemble the bike faster than a team mechanic!
I managed to get the bike together, and off we went, chasing the last rays of sunshine at 8.20pm. Pete drove the van as I sat in the back, tightening all the bolts on the handlebars. We climbed for about a kilometre before we found some sunshine - and it only got better from there - which wasn't really hard, as I was a little car sick on the way up... must have been Pete's driving!
Once out of the van I was straight on the bike and on my way onwards and upwards. On the road, with all of the stress of putting the bike together forgotten, I was able to relax and enjoy the Soloist... and it instantly produced a positive feeling.
The Cervélo frame, to start with, felt quite stiff, and because it was quite a small frame, I even had a toe overlap on the front wheel! This should be fun when I'm thundering down the slopes, I thought. The huge bottom bracket area provided really good stiffness when climbing out of the seat - no power was lost by flex - and I really liked the aeroshaped tubes.
At Cervélo they like to make everything as aerodynamic as possible, so much so that even the derailleur cables disappear into the down tube. This not only looks really slick, but with all of the hours the CSC boys have spent riding at the front this year, they might even have had some benefit out of it. How this affects changing cables, I don't know, but how many times do you need to anyway?
As I came to a tight switchback, Pete was standing on top of the van. "A few ups and downs," he shouted. So I went past the corner for a while, then did a U-turn and screamed back into the corner, trying to stop the bike as fast as I could, before turning back around to go back up again.
This almost brought an abrupt halt to our day. While pulling the right brake lever a bit more than the left, I didn't feel the response I envisaged, so I pulled it a bit more. With that my back wheel started to push me up and out of the saddle. I quickly let go of both brakes, then realised that they were mounted the opposite way around to what I am used to. Front was right and back was left - and yes, they worked very well!
With a bit of adrenalin still pumping through me, I shot up the climb again and again, negotiating the same corner about 15 times. This enabled me to get a good feel for the geometry and handling of the bike.
Really direct, but not super stiff in the head tube were my impressions, with the Wolf carbon fork a good match to the frameset. "Let's go further up," Pete shouted, as he disappeared again. I threw the chain into the small ring for the first time, and only then did I realise that it was a compact! After five hours of driving to the Ventoux and back, plus climbing it during the day, I was more than happy to have it! With an 11-23 at the back I was sure to get up whatever was in my way.
With the vast range of different designs and performances FSA offers on the crankset side, even people who wouldn't like this specific design will find something to match their taste. Another notable aspect of this bike is the number of other FSA parts mounted. The bars were very stiff, comfortable for climbing in and out of the saddle, while the K-Force stem really showed its inherent strength.
Despite weighing only 160 grams, it delivered extreme stiffness. Even the four-bolt front clamp was made of carbon, which gave it great looks on top of impressive performance - but that is nothing new to those who know FSA products.
New to me were the FSA wheels. The RD-600 came with deep section rims and a threeflange hub. Six of the 18 front wheel spokes, and eight of 24 out of the back wheel go straight from the middle of the hub into the rim. This gives them very good aerodynamics, as these spokes are "sheltered from the wind", according to the FSA website.
I don't know if this really is the case, but they did transmit the pedal power very well on the road without any flex, while in the fast downhill section I enjoyed towards the end of the test, I could feel that they were fast and aerodynamic.
Were you to calculate the STW (stiffness to weight) ratio on these wheels, they would easily make the top rack of the wheel market - and they are so different to the others on offer that you can be assured of owning something special.
The Vittoria Open Corsa CX tyres are definitely the type of tyres you want on a machine like the Soloist Carbon. They always give you a secure feeling, and make that little whistling noise going into sharp corners... I love it!
At our next photo stop, I told Pete about the bike details I wanted to have shot, and it was then that I realised that the seatpost was a plain black carbon seatpost. I don't know whether or not it was an FSA, as there was no branding on it. While we were shooting the details, it reinforced my view that Cervélo do make an effort to try to make everything as aerodynamic as they possibly can.
All of the tubes are so slick, that by just looking at the bike you know it will go fast... well, it will downhill at least, if you don't have Carlos Sastre's legs. And that was what I had planned to finish my ride - not Sastre's legs, but eight kilometres of downhill, flying on a great speed machine.
I clicked into my pedals again, and dived down towards Uriage, always keeping the 'reverse' brake set-up in mind. Cornering was fun, the acceleration after the switchback turns was great, and even the saddle, which I used no more often than on the way up, was on the comfy side. The white handlebar tape got a little dirty from my sweating, but if you're a pro you don't really care - if you're not, make sure you give it a good wash straight away when you get home.
The paintjob was nicely finished and looked quite flash. However, the other riders on the VCT trip felt Cervélo should consider a paintjob without the CSC logo for those who like to wear a different team kit. It's a small detail, though, on what was a superbly set up bike.