The Six-Month Test: Litespeed L3 Ultegra
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The titanium masters prove they can do carbon just as well as they do metal.
American bike manufacturer Litespeed built its reputation on high-end titanium. The company still sells plenty of metal—over half its bikes are titanium—but in recent years it has bowed to market pressures and launched into carbon too.
We were at first troubled by that development, fearing that the foray into carbon fiber would dilute the company's message and efforts. The release of the budget-minded M1 in 2011, which we found lackluster, seemed to underscore the point. Based on that experience we nearly didn't even try the 2012 Litespeed L3, and what a mistake that would have been as this new all-arounder turned out to be a fast, no-nonsense road bike that packs a lot of value.
Unlike most manufacturers who have had standard-shaped road bikes for years and then moved into aero, Litespeed, who just jumped into carbon, began the venture with the aero C Series before backing into the traditional shapes of the L Series this year. While I can't deny the benefits of aero road bikes, I still prefer the look and feel of a more traditional bike. It's a personal choice, but that set the L3 and me off on the right pedal from the start. Another sell: The L3 comes from the same molds as the pricier L1—the difference is a slightly lower grade of carbon. That means you get high-end shapes with just a little extra weight.
And there's plenty of shaping to tune this ride. Starting with an oversize tapered headtube up front, both the top and down tubes begin with a boxy shape that fades to flat in the top tube and bulky and rounder on the down tube. The former adds vertical compliance, with testers commenting just how supple the L3 rode, and the latter, when combined with the massive bottom bracket area, made for zero flex even when sprinting. The bottom bracket was indeed unflinchingly stiff, though it did inspire some grumbling. (More on that in a minute.) The chain stays and seat stays are highly assymetric, with shaping and a fair bit of carbon trimmed from the drive side to avoid contact should you drop a chain, and extra carbon in the chain stays to counteract the differing stress loads generated from side to side. The very fine seat stays recall Cervélo's designs, and in fact the overall frame shaping of the L3, as well as its smooth and direct ride, compares favorably against the Candian company's popular R3.
About that bottom bracket: Working with BH, Wilier, and FSA, Litespeed has helped to develop the new bottom bracket standard employed here, dubbed BB386. They claim the wider size and bigger bearings make it even stiffer than standard BB30. Don't get me wrong, this bottom bracket was hyper stiff and power transmission was great. Having said that, several testers (myself included) really wish that bike manufacturers would standardize rather than constantly bring out new designs with small changes that simply complicate consumers' lives. That's less a complaint with Litespeed and BB386 than it is with the state of the industry in general.
The rear triangle has extremely thin seat stays and shaped, assymetric chain stays.
That little diatribe aside, this frame is incredibly well designed and testers felt it on the road. Everyone commented how balanced and stable the L3 felt, especially on fast descents. We could push hard into the corners or take our hands off the bars at high speed, and we never felt the slightest shimmy or nervousness. We did note no small amount of cable slap, especially the rear brake cable on the top tube, which didn't affect performance but was annoyingly noisy on the rough roads around Santa Fe. We suspect it's something that could be remedied with some careful re-cabling and cable stops. And it didn't change just how snappy the frame felt, with several testers noting the L3 struck a fine balance between stiffness and light weight.
The L3 Ultegra is Litespeed's most affordable model of the L3, and it's befitting that such a nice frame gets no lower end components than Shimano's second-tier. There's not a lot to say about these parts: The lever ergonomics feel great in the hand, the shifting is dead accurate, and braking is, if not immensely powerful, very consistent and predictable. One thing that didn't sit well with everyone was the FSA Energy crank, employed presumably because of the proprietary bottom bracket. Several testers felt it was not super stiff and lamented the exclusion of the Hollow-Tech Ultegra crank to complete the groupo.
The other overriding complaint with the bike was the Fulcrum Racing 5 wheels. Clearly these were spec'd to meet the L3's lower pricepoint. And though they rolled well enough and were relatively stiff, the wheels definitely felt portly, especially on steep climbs. Of course, lighter wheels mean extra money, so perhaps these Racing 5s make most sense: they allow more people to ride a high quality bike like the L3, and the riders who want nicer hoops can simply upgrade after the fact.
One other small complaint were the aluminum bars. It's a personal preference and many racers prefer the metal, but we generally like the damping comfort of carbon fiber in the cockpit, especially on an already cushy bike like this one. That's an easy fix, and it was outweighed by the Fi'zik Arione saddle, a high quality and neutral seat that nearly everyone likes.
THE BOTTOM LINE
We greeted the L3 with huge skepticism based on our experience last year, and we walked away very pleasantly surprised. This is a bike that can make a wide variety of riders happy, from recreational roadies looking to upgrade to enthusiasts who put on the miles and want something both fast and comfy for grand fondos and the like. It even impressed the racers in our midst, though both said they'd likely switch to lighter wheels if they were to buy it. And weight was one thing that really surprised us about the L3: Though our medium tipped the scales at a fine-but-hardly-feathery 17.3 pounds, the bike felt more sprightly than that weight suggests.
At $3,500, the L3 is hardly an inexpensive bike. But it's comparable to similarly spec'd bikes of other brands, and it outperforms many of them. Which is to say, should you opt for this understated ride, you're unlikely to be disappointed.