Ri­d­ley Helium SLX

The Bel­gian brand up­dates its light­weight racer

Cyclist - - Bikes -

I’m see­ing more and more Ri­d­ley bikes on the roads when I go out rid­ing. Thanks in part to its con­nec­tion with World­tour team Lotto Soudal, the Bel­gian brand is con­stantly ex­pand­ing its pres­ence out­side of its home mar­ket, not least on Bri­tish week­end club runs where rid­ers look­ing for high-end ma­chines are in­creas­ingly will­ing to pay premium prices.

Ri­d­ley’s pop­u­lar­ity is also down to the fact that it makes ex­tremely good bi­cy­cles. I tried out the slightly lower-spec Helium X ear­lier this year, and be­came rather at­tached to it when it car­ried me through a gru­elling day of low tem­per­a­tures and driv­ing rain at the LiègeBas­togne-liège sportive. So when the top-of-the-range Helium SLX landed in the Cy­clist of­fice I made sure to be first in the queue to give it a full test.

The fact that I was fa­mil­iar with its Ul­te­gra-dressed cousin, how­ever, im­me­di­ately raised a neg­a­tive point about the SLX. As it’s quite pos­si­bly the only neg­a­tive, I’ll get it out of the way now.

There is a £2,000 dif­fer­ence in price be­tween the Helium X and the Helium SLX. For this sig­nif­i­cant ex­tra wedge the SLX comes with the new­est Shi­mano Du­raAce groupset rather than Ul­te­gra, and it has an im­proved frame­set that saves 150g (about the weight of a smart­phone) com­pared to the Helium X.

So far, so good, but here’s my gripe: both bikes come with the same Ful­crum Rac­ing 5 wheels, which re­tail at un­der £200 on­line. They’re a de­cent set of ro­bust worka­day wheels, but they suit nei­ther the look nor the ride feel of a bike such as the Helium SLX, which sits at the higher end of the race bike spec­trum.

When I ques­tioned Mike An­der­son of UK distrib­u­tor Madi­son about it, he re­sponded by say­ing, ‘There’s the as­sump­tion with th­ese high-end bikes that the per­son buy­ing may well have a set of race wheels al­ready, and so will pre­fer to save a grand on the pric­etag rather than end up with an­other set of higher-end wheels that they might not even want.’

It’s true that fit­ting lower-spec wheels al­lows brands to hit cer­tain price points, de­liv­er­ing top-drawer frames and groupsets to a wider range of bud­gets. But my ar­gu­ment would be, in that case, don’t bother with the wheels at all and give me £200 back.

Ri­d­ley is far from the only com­pany to do this, but it presents a prob­lem. Do we test the bike ex­clu­sively as pre­sented, com­plete with bud­get wheels that might un­der­mine a fine frame? Or should we fol­low An­der­son’s sug­ges­tion and swap in a set of more ap­pro­pri­ate wheels? For the Helium SLX I felt it was only fair to do the lat­ter, so af­ter a few weeks on the Rac­ing 5s I swapped in a pair of Shi­mano Dura-ace C35s clad with Spe­cial­ized Turbo clinch­ers (with tan side­walls, nat­u­rally).

The ef­fect was im­me­di­ate. This build sud­denly rode like a dream and the C35s made what is al­ready an at­trac­tive bike look amaz­ing.

Test on the Alpe

Sur­rounded by bub­blewrap and packed into a bike bag, the Helium SLX made its way with me to Alpe d’huez for a sportive, and here showed its qual­ity re­gard­less of the gra­di­ent. There are lighter bikes out there, but at 7.21kg (fac­tory stan­dard) it’s also far from the hefti­est. The stiff­ness of the frame­set, a qual­ity Ri­d­ley is known for, which was im­proved by the Dura-ace wheels, meant that whether on the flat or the more test­ing ramps of the Alpe, all power – how­ever much or lit­tle I could muster – was trans­lated into for­ward mo­tion.

Ri­d­ley says its SLX frame­set uses a com­bi­na­tion of car­bon fi­bre tows, in­clud­ing uni­di­rec­tional, to

I’m strug­gling to think of a bike I’ve rid­den that han­dled bet­ter on de­scents

make it as strong, stiff and re­spon­sive as its cousin the X, but at a lower weight: tip­ping the scales be­low 750g rather than 900g.

In ad­di­tion to its abil­ity on the way up, I’m strug­gling to think of a bike I’ve rid­den that han­dled bet­ter on the de­scents. The as­sured cor­ner­ing and han­dling – aided no doubt by those cot­ton tyres from Spe­cial­ized – was very wel­come in the high Alps and also on the less im­pos­ing de­scents of my reg­u­lar loops around Sur­rey.

I was also taken by the whole aes­thetic of the bike. The com­bi­na­tion of grey, black and orange made it look un­der­stated (helped no end by the re­fresh­ing lack of gar­ish logos), yet also al­lowed it to stand out from the mass of plain black frames that crowded the slopes of Alpe d’huez.

The big pic­ture

Dur­ing a con­ver­sa­tion with a Cy­clist col­league, we agreed that re­view­ing bi­cy­cles is be­com­ing harder and harder, as man­u­fac­tur­ing and tech­nol­ogy have pro­gressed in such huge strides that set­ting one bike apart from an­other is in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult (es­pe­cially at the top end of the mar­ket). It usu­ally comes down to a sin­gle as­pect of de­sign or per­for­mance that ren­ders a bike ei­ther ex­cep­tional or dis­ap­point­ing. And this is where I had trou­ble as­sess­ing the Ri­d­ley Helium SLX.

I knew it was a good bike – a great one, even – but I couldn’t put my fin­ger on ex­actly what it was that made it such a plea­sure to ride.

There is no one standout fea­ture that el­e­vates it above its peers. It’s not the light­est, nor the most aero­dy­namic, nor the most com­fort­able, nor the most hi-tech bike on the mar­ket, but it has a com­bi­na­tion of qual­i­ties that blend to­gether to make it greater than the sum of its parts.

As an over­all pack­age it is hard to fault, and the ride qual­ity is sec­ond to none. Once it has had a wheel up­grade, of course.


DURA ACE KIT The SLX comes specced with an Ul­te­gra cas­sette hid­ing within the Du­raAce groupset (be­low), but you’d never guess from the ex­cel­lent shift­ing, while the Dura-ace brakes of­fer ex­cep­tional stop­ping power (right).

CHAIN­SET The mid-com­pact 52/36t chain­set is spot on for this bike, re­quir­ing lit­tle com­pro­mise when climb­ing but giv­ing a big­ger top-end gear for flat-out sprints.

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