RBA Test: Litespeed L1

It’s a truism in the bike industry that many brand names can become synonymous with a specific segment of the market, a sponsored athlete or even a frame material. Such is the case involving the latter and Litespeed. Founded in 1986, the Tennessee-based bike company has become one of the industry leaders in titanium frame technology. But, over the past decade, the company has expanded its horizons to include carbon fiber bikes as well. Why, exactly, did a company whose history was so synonymous with titanium elect to enter the carbon market in the first place? ‘We went to work on carbon in the early 2000s,’ says Litespeed’s head of product development Brad DeVaney. ‘There came a point in time when we had to ask ourselves, ?Do we want to be a high quality frame company, or a high-quality bicycle company?’ And to be a respectable bicycle company these days, I think you have to acknowledge what a great bike you can make from carbon fiber.’ So, how does Litespeed’s carbon offering stack up?

THE FRAME
The monocoque L-series frame is crafted in Asia, and, at first glance, our eyes were immediately drawn to the massive bottom bracket area. ‘I wanted a wide bottom bracket shell with a 30mm spindle, so we went with a BB386EVO system, which I helped co-develop with BH, FSA and Wilier,’ says DeVaney. ‘BB386EVO ensures that the bottom bracket remains symmetrical as opposed to, say, BBright, which offsets its bearings in an asymmetrical configuration. Symmetry in this location is ideal for creating and maintaining pedaling to power efficiency because the rider is a symmetrical being. But, the L-series features a lot of asymmetry in the frame in order to appropriately distribute the weights and loads of pedaling forces onto the frame because the drivetrain is positioned on the right-hand side, and I think that not having any kind of asymmetry in this regard is crazy.’

Asymmetrical tubes on the L1 include the downtube, seat tube and chainstays- everything that is connected directly to the bottom bracket shell. The non-drive-side chainstay is a good 7mm wider than the drive side’s, for example. Both the downtube and top tube feature Litespeed’s Quadrilateral System, a unique tube profile that is triangular at the head tube junction and becomes rectangular as it moves away. Litespeed claims that this ensures a premium balance of both lateral and torsional stiffness. Other details include a tapered, 1 1/8- to 1 1/2-inch head tube, carbon dropouts with integrated metal skeletons for extra durability, and size-specific tubing for each of the five frame sizes in the L series.

THE PARTS
Unlike their titanium bikes that are only available as framesets, select models of the carbon L-series bikes are available as complete bikes. The L1 is the mid-priced option of these three bikes at $3600, and features a Shimano Ultegra drivetrain, Zipp’s Service Course aluminum bar and stem, and Easton EA50 Aero aluminum clinchers wrapped in Vittoria Rubino Slick tires (size 23c). The other two complete models in the L series are the Li2, which sports an Ultegra Di2 electronic drivetrain for $5000, and the L3, which comes with Shimano 105 and sells for $2600. All three of the complete L-series bikes feature the same frame. A top-line L1R frame with higher-grade carbon is available as a frameset for $3000.

THE RIDE
‘We built the L series for the broadest swath of the bike market, meaning that it performs as a great all-rounder that can sprint, climb and descend very well,’ says DeVaney. ‘Also, we come from titanium, so we weren’t going to tolerate making a fragile carbon bike.’ Those two ideas are evident when you first approach the L1 because, at first glance, the frame design appears rather subdued, its matte-white finish masking the subtleties of the unique frame shapes. Due to the bike’s weight, we found the L1 to lack the quick acceleration and snappiness associated with many lighter bikes or those with more agile front ends. But the massive bottom bracket and accompanying proprietary tube shapes yield a bike that puts down the power better than most of its price-point rivals. And despite plenty of stiffness on tap, the L1 rarely wants for additional comfort. The L1 shouldn’t supersede any comfort-oriented options on your shopping list of endurance road bikes, but it is a bike with which most riders will enjoy spending several hours of saddle time.

Although its steering isn’t what we would call ‘light,’ once up to speed, the L1 serves up consistently predictable handling. During high-speed switchback descents, the L1 doesn’t rapidly flick from side to side as more agile bikes do; it requires a bit more forethought, yet still rewards the rider with ample smoothness.

THE VERDICT
The L1 has a few setbacks, namely a few extra pounds and a matte-white paint job that, although eye-catching, is difficult to keep clean. But those minor flaws are nothing that some lighter components and a little elbow grease can’t solve. We had some difficulty seeking out other aspects to nitpick, but concluded that the L1 is a good bike with plenty of stiffness for racer types and a smooth ride quality for everyone. In a market that is continually forcing bike-makers to manipulate carbon fiber to create frames optimized for very specific types of riders and conditions, the L1 has plenty of mass appeal. And, the L1 comes from a brand that may be more closely associated with its titanium heritage, but that has proved its chops in the world of carbon.

PUNCH LINES

? Stiff, but on the heavy side
? Terrific all-rounder
? Ultegra Di2 and 105 builds also available

STATS
Price: $3600
Weight: 18.1 pounds
Sizes: S (tested), M, ML, L, XL
For more info: Litespeed

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