Ridley Helium SLX
The Belgian brand updates its lightweight racer
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.
Words JACK ELTON WALTERS
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.