Wednesday, June 20, 2012

TriSports University Showcases the L-series

2012 Litespeed L3 Ultegra.

By Tom Demerly for

Litespeed's "L" Series combines ride quality and stiffness in a proven appraoch to carbon fiber road bike construction.
Litespeed’s newest version to their “L” series bikes includes the 2012 Litespeed L3, an all carbon fiber, Shimano Ultegra 10-speed mechanical equipped bike. The L3 is the anticipated trickle-down beneficiary of technology developed on the Litespeed L1R, a higher end carbon fiber road frame. Both the L1R and the L3 share the same frame shape but differ in carbon lay-up. The L1R uses a higher end “60T” carbon fiber while the L3 Ultegra, Li2 with Ultegra Di2 and mechanical Dura-Ace equipped L1 all use a 30T carbon fiber lay-up.

The differences between 60T carbon and 30T carbon aren’t a simple “good, better, best” progression. And while price seems to reinforce that, some customers report better ride characteristics from the less expensive 30T lay-up bikes than the pricier 60T bikes. Variables that will influence this decision are rider weight, road surface, rider preference for ride characteristics, etc.

What Litespeed has done, without a doubt, is successfully developed carbon fiber frame designs with forward thinking frame shapes that work well with different lay-ups. That the L3 rides much better than its $3499.95 price tag is testimony to that.

Litespeed has divided their road bikes into two categories; the all-around "L" Series road bikes such as L3 Ultegra and the aerodynamic "C" Series like the C1R on the right. 

Litespeed’s carbon fiber road designs track with the themes of another leader in road bikes, Cervelo. Litespeed offers road bikes with a deep section, aerodynamically styled tube shape in the same way Cervelo uses aero road bike shapes developed in the wind tunnel. This theme of offering aerodynamic and ride quality focused frames provides the customer with clear cut alternatives easy to choose between based on their individual riding styles and terrain.

The L3: Front to Back.
Litespeed started the component spec on the L3 with Zipp’s workman-like Service Course cockpit. The Service Course bar, named from a spin off of the term “Servizio Corse’” which translates from Italian to English as “Racing Service”. The anatomic bend bar is a 31.8 mm diameter “short-shallow” bend of heat-treated 7050 aluminum tipping the scales at a claimed 295 grams for a 44 cm width. In hand the bar feels fantastic; stiff, reassuring and still OK on bad roads. A wide center section means you can clamp aerobars on these with ease, but the flat finish means they will take a cosmetic beating from the aerobars being clamped on. The bars angle out slightly to the lower section wrist clearance in the drops.

Zipp's alloy Service Course bar and stem are stiff, have a comfortable anatomical bend and use stainless Torx fasteners. They also work with clamp-on aerobars.

These bars steer a matching Zipp Service Corse stem from heat treated 7075 aluminum with a front-plate stem attached with four stainless steel Torx fasteners clamping with 4 Newton meters of torque. Good luck finding a more robust, dependable handlebar stem. The stem is available in 7 sizes in 1 cm increments from 70 mm to 130 mm and two rises, one a +/- 6 degree and the other a pretty typical +/-
 17 degree. This all aluminum bar and stem combination is dependable, comfortable and economical.

The fork on the L3 gives a nod to aero forks seen on sister company Quintana Roo's bikes with the generous space between front wheel and fork blade. The crown is massive and melds into the big 1.5" lower headset race. This fork goes a long way to giving the bike its nice ride.

The L3 uses a unique head tube with moderate height per frame size. This is worth knowing since some manufacturers, Cervelo as an example, have shifted to higher head tubes on road bikes. No road bike head tube height is optimal for all riders so Litespeed’s trend toward moderate to lower head tube heights contrasts with other brands’ trend to higher head tubes. A 54cm Cervelo R3 has a 148 mm high head tube while the Litespeed L3 has a 130 mm head tube in the 54cm frame size. That’s a difference of about 2 headset spacers. If you have a long torso and short legs this lower head tube geometry on the L3 may appeal to you. Litespeed uses a big 1.5″ diameter bearing on the bottom headset race that melds into the fork crown. The top race tapers down to 1.125″ diameter.

A slightly lower head tube per frame size and the big 1.5" lower headset race make for a racy front end on L3.
Litespeed named this head tube configuration “Zero-Stack” which presumably describes the placement of the top headset bearing low on the head tube. While this is not entirely unique to Litespeed other manufacturers do build an extension above the top tube to house the bearing. It’s probably more difficult to make a mold work with Litespeed’s design, so they deserve credit for going to the extra trouble to be certain the stem can be mounted very low if a long torso/short leg customer wants that set up. This is also a good design for the road bike/aerobar user since bolting aerobars onto drop bars on a higher head tube bike frequently leaves you with a very high front end and no options to get lower. In a word, the “L” series front end is more fit-able.

The single big story on L3 and all “L” series bikes is continuously variable tube shape. The shape of the frame sections changes as their requirement for lateral and vertical compliance changes. While this is a common theme in carbon fiber bike design Litespeed’s execution on the “L” series is unique and somewhat radical. You see this frame design most conspicuously in three areas; The change in shape of the down tube over its length, the asymmetrical orientation of the bottom bracket and the asymmetrical chain stays. Each of these designs were dictated by detailed FEA analysis to determine the optimal shape for the individual frame section.

The complex, assymetrical multi-shape structure of the "L" series frames is trickled down onto the L3 from the highest end "L" series frame. The green line on the right photo provides a visual reference for the offset orientation of the bottom bracket shell relative to the head tube. 

The bottom bracket on the L3 is the new-ish BB386 configuration. This bottom bracket uses press-fit cups and a flush, aero looking integration of the bearings into the frame. Since the frame surrounds the entire bottom bracket the entire area is more robust further adding to frame performance. While there is no such thing as a bottom bracket “standard” anymore this one is becoming common enough that crank and compatibility with drivetrains is not a challenge. That said it likely explains the use of the FSA Energy crankset on the L3. In previous model years we had to make excuses for FSA crank specs but the new machined chainrings deliver great shifting especially from small ring to big when used with a beefy BB386 bottom bracket rig.

The BB386 bottom bracket configuration allows a wider, stiffer frame that surrounds the bottom bracket. It also looks clean and integrated, a nice touch. 

Litespeed used very conventional slotted, external cable guides on the L3. It’s a good, basic design that makes fast cable changes easy. There is a small rubber plug on our test bike in the downtube next to the letter “L” in the Litespeed decal. This is the entry port for a Shimano Di2 control wire. It’s a nice idea since it future proofs the bike if you decide to go to Di2. The seatpost matches the cockpit furniture with a Zipp low setback, micro adjust alloy seatpost clamping my favorite Fizik Arione saddle, an excellent flat profile, 30 cm long road saddle. The seatpost clamp on the bike is alloy and uses a single bolt adjustment, very conventional.

There is conventional external cable routing for rear brake and front derailleur. The Zipp seatpost matches the bar and stem and holds a proven Fizik Arione saddle. 

The drivetrain on our bike was a 130 mm bolt pattern, 53/39 chainring FSA Energy alloy crank with machined chainrings and an Ultegra 6700 front and short cage (RD-6700-SS) rear derailleur. It turned a Shimano CS-6700 12-25 10-Speed cogset with an FSA CN 910 S10 10-speed chain with a quick link feature controlled by a pair of Shimano Ultegra ST-6700 10-Speed STi levers.

A conventional, dependable drivetrain with Ultegra and FSA components. It's not cutting edge, but it will be serviceable for years to come. 

The back of the bike features a modular, replaceable derailleur hanger. If you’re not clear on why this is a nice feature imagine a bad crash where the rear derailleur hits the ground hard bending the derailleur hanger. With the commonly used replaceable design you simply unbolt the bent hanger after removing the rear derailleur and then bolt on a new rear derailleur hanger. There is even an online specialty store that sells replacement rear derailleur hangers for nearly every frame available, including the Litespeed.

Since we’ve made it to the back of the bike its worth mentioning the Fulcrum 2:1 rear hub configuration. This design doubles the spoke count on the portion of the hub that receives the most torsional stress making the wheel stiffer under heavy load. An added benefit is claimed to be the dispersal of drive forces more evenly over all spokes. We’ve had good luck with this wheelset and these hubs so the claims appear to have merit.

The two-bolt rear derailleur hanger is durable and modular in case of a catastrophic crash. The Fulcrum hub o the rear wheel uses Fulcrum's special spoking pattern to distribute drive force over the entire hub flange on each side.
Litespeed trickled down the advanced frame design of their high end L1R frameset to a price point complete bike with the L3 and equipped it with a solid component mix. This is more than a component shopper’s bike, although its component spec is top notch. The result is a nice bike with advanced frame design for $3499.95. Also in this category is Cervelo’s Ultegra equipped R3 at $3800, another strong performer but about 10% more expensive and with different frame geometry, notably the higher head tube.

If you’re a road bike customer in the mid-$3000 price range the “L” series bikes are worthy of research. If your fitter tells you that a mid to low head tube frame is best for your torso to leg length ratio (probably the majority of riders) then the L3 becomes an even more attractive candidate.

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