The Ridley Helium SL has been around for four years, and with pictures of its successor emerging from the last Taipei International Cycle Show, it’s likely that the 2016 Tour de France will be its swansong. A lot has changed in those four years and you might wonder if the Helium SL could still be superbike material. We think it is.
Recipe for success
The recipe is a simple one: a svelte carbon frame with simple, angular lines, plus the usual modern trappings of a chunky press-fit bottom bracket, semi-internal cabling (not for the brakes) and a tapered fork. It’s not just any frame – claimed average weight is sub-800g. With a frameset coming in at a feathery 1050g or so; these are still highly competitive numbers.
There’s a pleasing restraint to the whole thing in a world where the drive for striking aesthetics sometimes seems to overwhelm engineering common sense. Granted, the chainstays are fat and asymmetric as on every other high-end racer, but the flattened top tube is arrow straight, as are the dainty seatstays – there’s nothing you could accuse of being gimmickry. The ensemble is elegant and understated; this is not a bike with something to prove.
Our test subject isn’t in full WorldTour guise, with Shimano Ultegra and modest Fulcrum clinchers standing in for team Lotto-Soudal’s posh Campagnolo componentry. (The retail spec is slightly different again, losing the Rotor chainset and giving you Racing 5 wheels rather than Quattros.) The frame is the very same one the pros ride, however, and hasn’t failed to impress.
Aggressive ride character
Despite feeling almost delicate in the hand – one imagines a firm squeeze might crack its paper-thin tubing – the Helium is positively weapon-like on the move, with road manners that reward and encourage aggressive riding. It’s easy to see why a professional would appreciate it.
This isn't a floaty endurance machine, nor is it the stiffest bike we’ve tested. Rather, it’s a sublimely good compromise, with a hard edge to its ride quality that enhances the sensation of speed and connection to the road, without wearing you down.
The Helium SL doesn’t have any rough-road pretensions. There isn’t room for tyres bigger than 25mm, and everything about its design is focused on going quickly on tarmac, preferably either up or down the biggest mountain you can find.
Like many Ridleys, the sizing is a little weird: our small test bike had a 545mm top-tube (giving 385mm of reach), and a 145mm head-tube, numbers that would make it a medium in some brands. Ridley’s rider height recommendations seem pretty spot on however, with this 174cm-tall tester feeling right at home.
In some ways the Helium SL feels quite old school. It’s a firm-riding racer beloved of the Lotto-Soudal pros, a machine that’s at home in a world of 120psi tubulars and cassettes that stop at a muscular 23 teeth.
Yet despite this conservative streak, it’s a poised and delightfully balanced bike, one that’s truly a pleasure to ride. When its successor finally appears, it will have a lot to live up to. In the meantime, we’re bidding a fond farewell to this flyweight favourite.