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On test: Lapierre 999 X-Lite FDJ Team Replica, November 8, 2005
Sell your children
The Lapierre 999 X-Lite is the Francaise des Jeux team's weapon of choice, and its ProTour heritage is reflected in both its ride and the attention to detail that went into its design. Chris Davidson is impressed.
Lapierre may be a new name in North America, but it's extremely well established in its native France. The company started making bikes in 1946 and was one of the first French bike builders to jump aboard the mountain bike boom of the 1980s and 90s. But no French bike maker with any pride is going to neglect road bikes, and for the last few years Lapierre has been the bike sponsor of Marc Madiot's Francaise des Jeux ProTour team. For the last two of those years, FdJ riders such as Baden Cooke and Brad McGee have been riding this bike, the all-carbon 999 X-Lite. This machine is now also available to riders in the US and beyond; Lapierre's top-of-the line machine, it's the French company's attempt at the ultimate road racing bike.
The 999 X-Lite FDJ Team bike comes in four sizes with sloping top tube geometry. According to Lapierre USA's Andrew Shepherd, the entire FdJ ProTour team rides the sloping bike on one of the four standard sizes. The frame is a one piece design that is constructed of Lapierre's proprietary 0.9C high modulus carbon fiber. The bike is designed with a great deal of material in the BB area and generous flaring of the tubes around all the main junctions - according to Shepard, it's designed to be very stiff and efficient. But not at the expense of light weight: our '52 sloping' size test bike, (56.5cm effective top tube) was under the UCI weight limit when built up. Only adding my own pedals and bottle cages brought the bike over the 6.8kg threshold. Impressive for a production bike out of the box.
The parts specification on this bike is equally impressive, leaving little room/need to go anywhere with upgrades. Stock on the 999 is the full array of Ritchey carbon parts, including a carbon-detailed internal headset, all carbon WCS fork, oversized WCS carbon seatpost, WCS carbon flat-topped 'Streem' handlebars (though our test bike came with an aluminium WCS handlebar), and WCS aluminum stem. The rest of the major components are all Shimano Dura-Ace, including the extremely-rare-for-a-stock-bike Dura Ace carbon tubular wheels fitted with Vittoria CR tubular tires. On top of the seatpost is the final light weight piece, a 135g Selle Italia SLR saddle.
Total weight, bone stock, for the '52 sloping' Large bike was 6.68kg (14.72lbs). For all this high tech, lightweight, race-proven technology, the US retail price is a hefty $7200. So how does it measure up?
Dialing it in
For my test riding I added a pair of Speedplay pedals and adjusted the seatpost (as it happens I had to raise it right up to the max line to get the saddle height right) and rotated the handlebars up a tad on the 12cm stem to get everything very close. Then I clipped in for the first time. Instant reaction: just rolling forward along the street in front of my house to check the fit, this bike felt distinctively light, noticeably stiff and direct, yet very smooth and confident. I had to admit, with the feather light weight of the complete bike as my preview, I was expecting a somewhat flexy, mushy ride. I was wrong. The first time I got up out of the saddle the bike caught me off guard as it seems to leap forward. I quickly U-turned to get some cycling clothing; time to get serious about a test ride.
Over the next few weeks I rode this bike on a variety of terrain covering everything from dirt roads to paved climbs up to 9000ft. I even commuted to and from school on it to get a measure of its handling mixed up in the odd situations that present themselves with vehicular traffic.
What distils from riding is that this bike excels in a number of areas:
Useable rigidity (Stiffness when climbing, sprinting, powering the flats, etc.) This bike was impressively stiff. When climbing, both seated and standing, the Lapierre feels like it goes forward with all of my effort. Combined with the light weight, this bike made me feel like I could always attack on the climbs; like any extra energy and effort I could squeeze out would make me shoot straight ahead of my riding partners. In this respect the bike gave me a lot of confidence when climbing. The Dura Ace carbon wheels also helped out here. At 1310gms for the pair, their combination of stiffness and the lightness of the carbon rim made the wheels really responsive when I got on the gas.
Responsiveness, handling, agility (Ability to chose a line, maintain it and do it effortlessly) The reward for the climbing comes on the 50+ mph descents . After reaching 8700ft at the top of Big Cottonwood Canyon, pointing the 999 X-Lite downhill was as equally impressive as the performance on the ascent. The Lapierre is very stable, both in a straight line and when leaning it over in the curves.
As I continued to countersteer the bike closer to the ground in the corners, it inspired confidence with its smooth response. The Ritchey fork's performance also deserves note here as well. The worst scenario when really cranking a bike over in a corner is an imperfection in the road that would cause the fork to flex backward and react forward again, disturbing the steering and sending you way off line (and potentially stripping the chamois). The Ritchey was stiff and smooth when off angle, allowing me to countersteer the bike with new levels of confidence. The Ritchey fork is perfectly matched to the properties of the frame. I also liked the longer (read: not short) wheelbase and steering geometry on this bike. This bike felt agile and responsive without being twitchy or every feeling unstable. I ascribe the agility and response to the stiffness and light weight, while the reasonable geometry gave the bike a distinctive sure-footedness.
The rim/brake combo is the only thing worth noting as far as responsiveness. The carbon rims mated with the Dura Ace cork pads provide very good modulation, but give up a little pure stopping power versus standard pads and on an aluminum rim. A small price to pay for the light weight wheels, but something to keep in mind on a 50+mph descent.
Comfort (Ability to put in long miles without undue fatigue) My experience was very positive here. The bike is definitely stiff, but the carbon frame, fork, bars and seatpost due a great job at smoothing out the road. The 135g Selle Italia SLR saddle is not only light, but is minimal construction adds a degree of flex that also is forgiving for the 5+ hour rides. (Saddles of course are intensely personal and I'm aware that some people just don't get on with this seat, but it works for me.)
I did not get a chance to try the new Ritchey Streem carbon bars that will come stock on this bike, but they too should offer additional comfort over the WCS O/S aluminum bars that were fitted. The Streem bars will offer an aero section on the tops which should provide more surface area for the palms of your hands.
Overall, 5+ hours in the saddle was no problem, leaving me fresher than with most other bikes I have ridden recently.
The Shimano Dura-Ace parts worked spot-on the entire time, as you would expect from Shimano's best. Their functionality is so seamless I almost forgot to mention their performance. However it is worth noting that the parts were 100 percent Dura-Ace with no substitutions, save the cork pads for the carbon rims. Some high end bikes use components from a mix of manufacturers in a quest for the lightest combination. Weight was not an issue on this bike, so it was good to see the complete group.
As a mechanic as well as a bike racer I am sometimes dismayed at some of the mechanical aspects of bikes that make them a nightmare for mechanics to work on and deal with, even if they ride really well. There are a couple of points about the Lapierre that are worth noting if you are your own mechanic.
No lawyer tabs on the fork. I was surprised to see that the Ritchey fork came without 'lawyer tabs' on the bottom of the fork tips. Odd for a production bike, but a bonus if you are taking this bike to the races.
Tire clearance. Sometimes high-end bikes have minimal room at the fork/chainstay/seatstay bridge for various reasons such as short wheelbase, tight tolerances and so on. However I appreciate a bike that allows you to fit 700X25 or 700X28 tires in the winter (or for Paris-Roubaix). Sometimes a dirt road is the best way to go! The Lapierre has big clearance throughout, allowing for the whole range of tire sizes. Good thinking here.
Front derailleur mounting. On the seat tube of the Lapierre frame there is a dimple in the carbon tubing behind the place where the front derailleur mounts. This is a design feature that allows mounting of a triple FD with enough range to cleanly shift down to the smallest chainring every time. Bikes without this modification can be almost impossible to get a triple FD to work correctly, especially if the seat tube is oversized. Not an big deal for most riders, who'll never use a triple, but if you want to use the 999 X-Lite as a 'credit card tourer', your mechanic will be grateful.
Seat tube reduction. The 999 frame uses an oversized (31.6) seatpost, meaning that the seat tube is big. Really big! However, Lapierre tapers the seatube OD down to 31.8mm just above the area where the front derailleur mounts. This, in combination with the seat tube dimple mentioned above, assures that both the double or triple front mechanism work 100 percent. These last two design elements really will make your mechanic happy.
Removable seat collar. I have mentioned this before, but it is worth mentioning again. A removable seat collar on any bike is a huge asset if you ever travel, race or ship a bike. Sooner or later the seat clamp is going to strip out, so it is best if it in not permanently attached to the frame. I like the one on the Lapierre because it also has cylindrical nut for the seatpost binder bolt to relieve the stress of an overtightened seatpost bolt.
Overall there were a number of design elements of the Lapierre that made the professional mechanic in me happy.
Ups and downs
On the positive side, the Lapierre 999 X-Lite has an incredible ride. Its almost illegal weight and impressive stiffness makes for a world class ride, at the top of the best bikes I have ever ridden. Surely this bike gives FDJ one of the best weapons in the peloton. If you are looking for cutting edge performance, you will not be disappointed. And the attention to detail of the design shows that Lapierre has built a bike for FdJ's mechanics as well as its riders.
With enough said on the positive side, where does it fall short? There are a couple of issues, albeit small, that are worth mentioning. They may not affect all potential riders, but will be a problem for some.
First, the bike only comes in four sizes. This is probably not an issue for 85 percent of the riders out there, but I seemed to be one of those other 15 percent. Ideally I would ride the frame size exactly between the Large (52 sloping) and the X Large. Our test bike was a little on the small side - no enough to be a big problem, but not ideal. Depending on what size bike you ride, only having four options might be a problem.
Second, the tires. The bike comes with the tubular Dura-Ace carbon wheels, some of the lightest, faster wheels available: full on race ready out of the box. However the tires specced on the bike were the 220tpi Vittoria Corsa CR, rather than the top of the line 290tpi Corsa EVO CX. A small point, but for the money you would hope for the top of line everything, everywhere. I had no problems with the tires that I rode, but for $7200 I would hope best tires from the particular manufacturer.
Last, the price. This is only a problem in that everyone who wants one of these bikes may not be able to afford one. Sad, because this bike really is an amazing ride. And with that I think that is a good value: great parts, awesome ride and top shelf race wheels from the start. The only additional purchase I would make before walking out of a shop with this bike is a set of clinchers to train on. Save the tubulars for race day.
None of these niggle detract from the superb ride, handling and mechanic-friendly details. It's definitely worth thinking about a second mortgage.