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Road test: Fondriest P4 Carbon
Just can't get you out of my head
By Anthony Tan
Just like Aussie pop icon Kylie Minogue's song about her infatuation with a special someone, countless road bike fanatics have never been the same since the day they wandered past a bike shop that teasingly displayed the ultimate in bicycle exotica - a carbon-fibre frame.
And as we've seen recently at Le Tour, full carbon-fibre frames are the dish of the day, with names including Fondriest, De Rosa and Giant getting in on the act, competing with old-hands such as Colnago, Look and Trek. It's not because the cost of producing bicycles has come down - carbon as a raw material is still very expensive - it's more to do with the fact that professional cyclists are demanding so much more out of their two-wheeled machines.
Not one, but two to choose from
Fondriest's latest carbon-fibre number is the P4 Carbon. Generally the costs involved in the design and development of carbon-fibre frames (not to mention the final retail price to the consumer) preclude manufacturers from bringing out more than one model of carbon frame. However for 2003, Fondriest has added another glamour to its stable, the P4 Carbon, which sits below their pièce de resistance, the Top Carbon.
So what's the diff? Well apart from US$1,100, the Top Carbon is a monocoque (one piece) frame while the P4 Carbon's carbon-fibre tubes are bonded to Dedaccai U2 aluminium lugs. The Top carbon also uses a Formula 1 grade Mitsubishi carbon, whereas the P4 Carbon uses a Hexcel carbon that has a slightly lower modulus of elasticity. However the big advantage of the P4 Carbon is that it allows for greater flexibility in frame construction. The Top Carbon construction uses a fixed mould for each frame size, which precludes its use for the riders on Team Lampre, who all require custom frame geometry.
Generally speaking, a monocoque frame will be slightly lighter and stiffer than a similar bonded frame, but most of us mortals would probably not even notice the difference between the two - nor have the cash flow to find out. When the P4 rocked up on our doorstep, I really thought all my Christmases had come at once. The reality check comes when I have to send it back.
Out of the big smoke
It's sad that the majority of Sydney's motorists had no idea (or for that matter care) that the world's greatest cycling race was going on while I was out testing the P4.
How do I know this? Because they were all still driving just as close to me, hooning by at 70 to 80 clicks an hour; with the golden oldies slapping away on their horns like it was the double-up feature on their favourite pokie machine at the local RSL. So on that note, I'm blowing this popsicle stand - and off I go again to the more sedate seaside city of Wollongong to find some peace and tranquillity.
It's only been a few weeks since I last visited the sleepy coastal town, which for nine months of the year is flooded with pimple-faced university students with way too many hormones. Yes - I was one of them, and at the time, I had troubling understanding why the locals disliked hearing Oasis being played at 100 decibels until 2am every night of the week.
I decide to head north, along the famous coast road to Stanwell Tops and back to the Gong. A fairly tame ride of 75 kilometres, but hey, it's the weekend!
The first thing you will notice about a quality carbon-fibre frame if you've never ridden on one before is its incredible ability to absorb road shock - there really is a distinct difference when riding on carbon compared to any other material. And as I make my way to Bulli, meandering through the sleepy towns of Fairy Meadow, Corrimal and Woonona on an early Saturday afternoon, the P4 obediently whirrs along - there's no twang, ding or ker-ching when you hit a small pothole or a cateye - just a reassuring thud, with minimal transfer of shock back to your bum and hands.
It feels super-light - because it is.
The second thing that's almost immediately noticeable is the weight. I know there's heaps of people out there claiming that their new fandangle machine they've just bought is ever soooo light, but the P4 really is: I weighed this baby without pedals at 6.92 kilos (15.23 pounds), which barely passes the UCI's minimum weight restriction of 6.8 kilograms.
As I pass through the town of Bulli that will take me on the undulating Coast Road to Stanwell Tops, the memories of training like a madman, doing repeats of the Bulli Pass climb come flooding back. Yeah - those were the days - young, dumb and full of Bundy rum from partying too hard the night before. No wonder I had so much trouble understanding the lecturers...
I'm on the coast road now. The Zipp 303s allow the P4 to roll along effortlessly, and the seaside towns of Austinmer, Wombarra and Scarborough glide by. I swoop through the corners like a magpie during mating season, though I wish I was on my Classics Pros - the combination of a super-stiff, super-light bike with a set of wheels that weigh not much more than one and a half kilos feels a tad frisky for my liking, with the P4 skipping out on a couple of occasions as I give it some stick round zee bends.
I descend from Coalcliff to the base of the climb that will take me up to Stanwell Tops. The hill's no Ventoux or Galibier, but it's enough to sufficiently test the ol' climbing legs after my recent arthroscopy. I wind my way up along the delightfully smooth road, and after four kilometres of solid climbing, I reach zee crest of zee climb (sorry, I've been reading way too much of the Podium Girl diary of late).
Laps up the miles faster than Thorpey
The P4's low weight and laid back geometry comes to the fore once again while climbing. You definitely feel more comfortable when climbing in the saddle for longer stretches. If you want to climb à la Virenque, the P4 is more than happy to oblige: the rigidity of a full carbon frame is immediately obvious, and the bike laps up the miles faster than superfish Ian Thorpe in the 1500.
I watch in awe as a flock of paragliders effortlessly hover in the air in what seems like suspended animation, bouncing off different wind pockets, and contemplate riding further. That's enough thinking - time to turn around. And off I go, swooping down the descent on my armchair ride back to the Gong with the wind behind my back.
This is easily one of the finest bicycles I've thrown the leg over.
It's safe to say that the majority of die-hard roadies out there who don't own a carbon-fibre bike crave one, and for good reason. I still remember the day I walked out of the Mapei training centre near Milan with Daniele Nardello's Colnago C-40, and from the very first moment I rode it down the start ramp (read: my driveway), I was in love.
The P4 Carbon is just as likely to cause your other half to think you're having an affair. The P4 is all class, a bike that is designed for road racing purists: a fairly relaxed seat angle of 73.3° means you'll stay comfy in the saddle all day long, and a slightly steeper head tube gives precise but not twitchy steering (the head angle is kept secret, although I'm thinking around the 74° mark).
The additional bits and pieces are worth mentioning before you go and kit yourselves out with this gear. While they're awfully light, I found a fair amount of flex from the Deda Newton bars, and wasn't at all keen on the shallow drop - a style that rarely features in the pro peloton these days. The Zipp 303 wheels were also in the super-light but not super-comfy category, though you can get away with using a stiffer pair of wheels when you're perched on a comparably more compliant frame. My ass however, wasn't as tolerant - I switched saddles from the Selle San Marco Era Composite to my Fi'zi:k Aliante after the second ride, since I'm still thinking about having children in the not-too-distant future.
So you want to emulate Bertogliati in Luxembourg or Rumsas up Mont Ventoux? Better start saving your biccies - the P4 Carbon will be in-store around mid-August in the US, and January 2003 for those of us who don't happen to live in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
What do you think of the Fondriest P4? - Tell us your thoughts