Cervelo P4 – A Chequered Career

With the incipient release of the Cervelo P5 the P4 will be superseded and apparently dropped from the product line. So it seems appropriate to review the highs and lows of the model before it is overshadowed by the dawning of a glorious new age (if the hype around the coming P5 is to be believed).

My relationship with this bike did not start well. But I’m married to a woman who initially thought I was an arrogant know it all (she doesn’t think I’m arrogant anymore), so obviously I’m not deterred by early setbacks and keep trying till I get what I want.

Already cracked for its first photo

The P4 was released in late 2008, finally putting an end to the speculation about the P3s successor. Early reviews were positive but issues quickly arose with cracking seat tubes and complaints about the fiddly and somewhat ineffective rear brake. The integrated bottle was also a polarising issue as there was nowhere to carry a standard bottle on the frame. The P4 shared the chainstay design of the S3, which caused a lot of angst by preventing the use of a variety of popular wheels.

The seat tube weakness was addressed first in mid 2009. Then for 2011 the P4Evo was released with a revised brake, down tube that would allow the use of a normal bottle (with minimal aero penalty) and a multitude of minor refinements to make the bike subtly faster and easier to work on. The chainstays never changed, though in my opinion that was a non-issue as the wheels that wouldn’t fit were not fast and therefore not appropriate for this bike.

On the Race course the P4 has had some notable successes, the Garmin-Cervelo team won the team time trial in the 2011 Tour de France and their specialists (Millar, Zabriskie) are always in the mix. On the Triathlon side Cervelo doesn’t sponsor any big name males for Ironman but Team TBB did collect a few good results in races around the world.

My Own Experience

My first frame was from the June 2009 run, the last of the weak seat tube production (July was when they fixed the seat tube lay up). I managed to expose this weakness when I built the bike up for the first time – there was an unpleasant popping noise as I was halfway to the recommended torque on the seatpost binder. A quick test ride confirmed my worst fears.

Up to that point things were going well. The first impression on unwrapping the frame was of an incredible step forward from the P2/P3 or any other frame. The shaping and integration of components showed a new level of detail. And of course, there is a certain thrill in knowing that you’re holding the state of the art. The build was not particularly difficult, the downtube cable stops were a nuisance but not hard to deal with and the rear brake seemed easy to set up.

But the considered risk that we had taken in deciding to order a version that might have the seattube issue did not pay off so the thrill of having the state of the art did not extend to actually going for a ride.

The replacement on an unusually sunny morning in Taranaki

When the 2010 model replacement arrived I approached the installation of the seatpost with a degree of trepidation. But I made sure to test that first before I started on actually assembling the bike.
Once on the road I felt it was worth the wait. Of all the bikes I’ve ridden over the years this was the first that had a notable difference in ride quality. Given that I’d swapped the parts and wheels/tyres from my P2 that I’d ridden only a few days prior I was extremely happy with the smooth sensation over familiar rough roads. The next time I rode with my brother we swapped bikes and he confirmed the impression of smoothness compared to his P3 (while I was reminded of what I’d left behind).
It also felt fast, though I didn’t put a great deal of faith in that impression as spending a lot of money does rather incline one towards thinking that the new equipment is faster than the old.

The new frame still had the old seatpost binder though, which did not hold the seatpost with the tenacity I’d have liked. Even at maximum torque and diligent application of grit paste I was not finishing rides with the same saddle height I started at.

In due course Cervelo supplied the revised binder assembly and this problem went away.
Which left one more problem to solve – the rear brake caliper. Painstaking effort was required to get it to touch the rim on both sides. So most of the time I rode it without the rear caliper operating.
Eventually I decided to take matters into my own hands and modify it to make it work. The addition of a few washers sorted the offset that couldn’t be corrected with spring tension and I had a rear brake that worked consistently for the first time in over a year. It took a while for that novelty to wear off…

At that point the P4 settled into being as trouble free as the P2 before it, but faster and smoother.
Initially I’d built it with Sram R2C shifters and Force Derailleurs. Which was a pain as we had six Campagnolo bikes and one SRAM, but I considered it worth the hassle to have the R2C shifters (the Force fr derailleur was quickly replaced with a Shimano one though). When Campag released the Back2Zero shifters I quickly swapped the kit on this bike which had the dual benefit of no more wheel incompatibility and a far nicer shift action than the R2C.

I also changed the bars to 3T Aura in order to avoid having spacers on the fork and have a UCI legal setup. They also allowed me to set the extensions a little longer for better comfort.

A lot of people love to hate the integrated bottle, claiming it is unusable. Not only do I have no problem using it but I enjoy knowing that I have the only bike that is faster when carrying a bottle.

In its final guise, Aura bars, Power2Max, Campag, 1080/Disc, 54T TT Ring

Since the introduction of the P4, just as the case was with the P3, a lot of competitors have come up to challenge. Some designs surpass it in high yaw situations  but trade that for reduced performance in low yaw. In any case, it is still among the very fastest designs despite a lower level of integration (no special fork or bars) than many of the competitors.

It’s a little bit sad that there is a common perception that the P4 was a failure on Cervelos part -especially given that there are so few on the road that few of the critics can be speaking from experience. It did have teething issues but they were revised and refined. While I too am keen to see what the P5 is like, I think that the P4 deserves recognition for being a truly stunning bike.


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