The Cycle Life: Cielo Sportif, The Six Month Test
In the thick of review season, when we're testing lots of bikes extensively (think 60 bikes with 20-some testers and dozens of rides per bike), it can feel like speed dating, with not enough time to really get to know a bike. So I've hung onto a handful of compelling products for ongoing appraisal, including the Cielo Sportif road bike from Chris King, which we reviewed earlier in the year. But now I've had the pleasure of beating around on it for over six months.
First, a little history. Though Chris King started out as a frame builder back in the late '70s, he is probably most renowned these days for his bombproof headsets, which are arguably the finest on the market. A couple of years ago, with his business chugging along healthily (he also produces high quality bottom brackets, hubs, and other polished small bits), King decided to return to his first love of making bikes. The line of bikes has filled out since then, but the company's first salvo, the Sportif, still remains as the benchmark.
To understand the Sportif, it's best to start on the company's website, where the description of the bike revolves around a long Portland ride that begins in the bakery and ends in the brewery and the photos depict cyclists in wool jerseys and cases full of French pastries. This is a lifestyle bike, as much about the finer things in life as it is about the performance. This was immediately apparent when we first pulled our test bike from it's box, too, with the classy powder-coated steel tubing, polished touches on the frame, and full run of anodized Chris King parts reminding us immediately of bygone days before mass-produced bikes. All Sportifs are hand-built by either King himself or a small cadre of talented welders, including Jay Sycip, who formerly ran his own custom bike company. The result is incredible and gorgeous detailing, from engraved stainless steel fork ends, rear dropouts, and seat stay caps, to refined head and seat tube collars, and, best of all, the engraved brass head tube badge. One minor niggle: I had a few issues with my rear wheel loosening slightly in the horizontal rear dropouts and had to be very careful to really crank down on the quick release for maximum security. Our tester was mounted up with 28mm Continental Grand Prix tires for an armchair comfortable ride, and the fork and seat stays have plenty of clearance to accommodate more girth for those interested in touring. There are eyelets and lots of space for fenders and racks, as well.
Beautiful as the bike is, however, it's not just an art piece. Though it's built for comfort, with a tall head tube, long chain stays, and classically stretched out positioning, I found that the Sportif could thunder along in a pack just fine. As a testament, though my garage is filled with featherweight carbon bikes, I frequently found myself passing them by for the sublime feel of the Sportif. Of course at 19.2 pounds, it's not the quickest to accelerate or the snappiest handler. Instead, I'd liken it more to a locomotive that steams steadily and stably forward once it's rolling. And the real sell is the bike's versatility. I took it on the most chattery roads in northern New Mexico and climbed long, rutted dirt roads up and over 10,000-foot passes, and felt solid and fast everywhere I went. There's a feeling to riding high-quality steel that you just don't get on carbon fiber: direct, rooted, and hissing smooth. This stability was most noticeable on winding roller-coaster roads and sinuous descents, where the Sportif leaned into turns with the confidence of a motorcycle and blasted through the wind with nary a twitch or shudder.
For the most part, the components lived up to the frame, as well, especially the anodized forest green Chris King bits that perfectly set off the pea green powder coat. Most notable were the hubs, which rolled as smoothly as any I've felt and emitted a distinctive and agreeable buzz when freewheeling. So silky and free of resistance where these hubs, that I almost felt like I had an unfair advantage, though I wished they'd been laced to a bit lighter of rims. My only other quibble with the bike was the SRAM Rival groupo, which performed just fine (though I'm still not won over by the double tap actuation) but simply doesn't have enough subtlety and panache for the Sportif. Since all Sportifs are custom equipped, however, it would be easy enough to pick out something more fitting, such as Campy Super Record.
If you have as much wool cycling apparel as you do Spandex, you appreciate brevets (or even know what that means), and you want a fast bike that you'll be as thrilled to ride in a decade as you will be on the first day you purchase it, the Sportif is for you. Weight weenies and anyone after something on which to hang their power meter should probably look elsewhere, as should those hesitant to drop $1,895 on a TIG-welded steel frame set, which admittedly is a pretty penny. But for that money, the beauty of the production and the enduring ride quality will not disappoint. For my part, I'll miss the all-day adventures on the Sportif, especially because it was the only bike on which it felt wrong to head out on a ride without first stopping at the French bakery for a pain au chocolat and espresso. Au revoir, mon ami!