Ribble SL road bike with Shimano Ultegra R8000 - review - Road Cycling UK

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Ribble SL road bike with Shimano Ultegra R8000 – review

Ribble's 840g frame launched earlier this year, now it's time for us to find out how it rides

Ribble Cycles announced the SL back in February, with the 840g frame entering as the lightest in the Lancashire brand’s extensive road line-up. That low weight combines with with an extremely stiff carbon fibre frame to ensure the SL is a race-ready machine eager to attack climbs, providing an exciting, seat-of-your-pants ride in the process, but the aggressive design places less emphasis on comfort.

With brands these days producing more frames that are best described as ‘all-rounders’ (check out the supremely well-balanced BMC Roadmachine, or even the latest Specialized Tarmac and it’s take on the lightweight, aero race bike), and hitting the mark in terms of outstanding performance across the board that genuinely rivals more specialist machines, the Ribble SL has a challenge on its hands to rank alongside them.

The British brand has some aces up its sleeve, however. First up is the level of spec customisation available using Ribble’s online bike builder (subject to stocked parts), meaning you can create the exact machine you’re after rather than relying on a brand managing speccing the frame to hit a price point. The company also keenly prices its bikes to a level that only direct-to-consumer brands can begin to approach. And, of course, it’s a British brand which assembles its bikes in Britain, which will appeal to some, even if they are not made here.

The SL is Lancashire-based Ribble’s 840g race frame

The frame – light and lean

The first thing to note about the frame is its lightweight credentials: weighing a claimed 840g in a medium. It’s in the general ballpark of what’s currently achievable in a race frame without risking compromising aspects like stiffness, and is well, well below the 1kg marker.

  • Specification

  • Price: £2,464 (in tested spec)
  • Weight: 7.32kg (56cm)
  • Sizes: 51, 54, 56.5, 59cm
  • Website: Ribble Cycles

You may argue that the likes of Trek have gone one step further with claimed weights of 640g for the latest Emonda SLR frame, but it’s worth noting Trek is a big international brand capable of big investment in its frames, with costs to match.

However, for any lingering doubters of the quality of Ribble’s frames, the company itself says they are manufactured in the same region as those of Trek and its competitors, carefully choosing ‘the most reliable manufacturers and processes’ to create the frames.

And, since July 2016, Ribble has offered a six-year warranty against any manufacturing defects. That’s a guarantee that measures up to industry standards, and you can’t say fairer than that.

Back to that weight then, and 840g isn’t too shabby at all. Plus, it also has features suggesting it’s not just designed to float up climbs. Central to this is a squared and flared bottom bracket area that hints towards the intention for the bike to feel solid as a rock beneath you whatever the terrain. That BB sits within a short wheelbase (986.1mm in the large, 56.5cm frame size we have on test) for sharp handling.

The tubes throughout mimic the squared profile of the bottom bracket – in fact, they’re some of the squarest tubes we’ve ever seen in a frame, especially in the downtube and toptube. The former significantly shrinks as it meets the headtube, while the latter tapers to a smaller cross-section at the seattube.

Our large test bike weighs 7.32kg in a size large with Shimano Ultegra

The headtube itself measures 171.1mm on our frame – relatively short, generally speaking – and houses a fork that protrudes with virtually no visible deviation from the headtube angle, almost guaranteeing a direct response from the front end when quick steering is required.

Towards the back, super-thin and flattened seatstays that meet at the toptube-seattube junction are there for claimed benefits in compliance, while keeping unnecessary bulk at bay, while the seattube is a far more standard affair, housing a 27.2mm seatpost and flaring horizontally towards the bottom bracket area.

Ribble SL road bike and Shimano Ultegra R8000 groupset
Ribble SL road bike and Shimano Ultegra R8000 groupset
Ribble SL road bike and Shimano Ultegra R8000 groupset

Continuing the theme of the frame, the chainstays also hint at a simultaneous approach to low weight and stiffness: they flare in a squared fashion (similar, to our eyes, as we saw in the BMC Roadmachine) towards the bottom bracket, but where they differ from that bike is just how thin the stays become towards the dropouts, helping to give the SL a svelte figure.

The frame also comes with the capacity to switch between mechanical or electronic groupsets, all of which are routed internally. Entry and exit ports are clean and tidy, and there’s no rattle anywhere on the frame, which hints towards a decent finishing quality.

Also, at this point it’s worth pointing out the frame sizes on the Ribble website are a little confusing. I’m 6ft 2in (188cm), and a large comes in perfectly for me, despite the 5ft 10in maximum height recommendation from Ribble. Bottom line is: if you know your specific measurements, it’s best to follow these.

The ride – stiff and sharp, but lacking finesse

One thing’s for sure, the SL is a super-stiff bike that’s able to really manoeuvre underneath you as you give it the beans. Whether you’re ascending a short and steep climb or on a more gradual gradient where big ring power is called for, it’s a properly rewarding machine when you rise out the saddle and throw it around, looking for those elusive watts.

The power delivery isn’t in the mould of a Cannondale SuperSix or even a Canyon Ultimate, which are very responsive yet seemingly always under a shroud of control – an impressive level of smoothness and composure. Instead, it’s a raw, visceral experience, much like the Rose X-LITE in the exotic build we saw that particular bike in.

As a result, it’s a fantastic platform for a no-compromise hill-climbing bike – and in the supplied build (which I’ll expand on below) with Shimano Ultegra and mid-range Mavic Ksyrium Elite hoops, it’s more than capable of helping you to trouble your uphill personal records.

The frame is characterised by boxy, squared-off tube profiles

Naturally, this raw ride has its downsides. While it’s immensely rewarding to ride hard with, it’s also got a habit of nipping you if you’re not fully concentrating. To give an example among a few I can recall, when rising out of the saddle and naturally placing more weight over the front end (with that direct headtube-fork design), the front wheel can almost run away from you with excitement as you lay power down into the drivetrain.

It’s not dangerous or hazardous by any means – some would even call it exhilarating – but it is an indicator of how ‘on-the-edge’ the SL can feel when really tested. It took a few rides to acclimatise to the SL, and it set the trend for the rest of the test period, too.

Downhill, the short wheelbase means the steering feels very lively so turns are best dealt with a feathery touch to get the most out of the bike. This is a machine designed to have the razor-sharp instincts of a race machine and, when riding in a group, only requires a soft hand to navigate, while I generally felt myself getting down lower on the bike and further back in the saddle than I’d normally do to push the bike through corners.  

The toptube tapers to meet the seattube, close to the junction of the skinny seatstays

Still, for all its knife-edge responsiveness, there’s prowess on the flat too. Despite the Ksyrium Elite wheels – an excellent, if mid-range alloy wheelset – I found it a willing partner when riding at tempo for longer periods of time. The squared-off but svelte tubing also means the bike as a whole is excellent at dealing with blustery conditions, while winding the bike up to speed is dealt with efficiently by the the rigid bottom bracket.

However, outings on the SL are set against a level of stiffness that places the bike in the uncompromising bracket, and it’s an assault on the senses that can sometimes come across as harsh. This means that, through both the bars and saddle, the SL is almost over-informative, transferring nearly every bump and crevice into your body. On a smooth criterium race circuit, I can see why this could be desirable, but it’s a little bit much to deal with on every single ride on regular British roads. 

The squared-off but svelte tubing means the bike as a whole is excellent at dealing with blustery conditions, while winding it up to speed is dealt with efficiently by the the rigid bottom bracket.

The end result is plenty of shake in the arms as you naturally brace against the bike, as well as a pretty harsh amount of input through your sit bones, notwithstanding the very good Selle Italia X1 saddle that our test bike was supplied.

There’s clearance for 25c tyres here, although the Mavic hoops don’t maximise it with tyres that come up slightly narrow due to the rim width. That said, swapping in a set of 25c tubeless-shod DT Swiss PRC 1400 wheels (which do make the most of it) bore fruit in terms of ultimate comfort when given a run out over some very familiar roads. It’s definitely an improvement over the setup of our test bike, helped also by the superb Schwalbe Pro One tyres on those DT Swiss wheels, but the bike still remains a bit short of compliance over grainy tarmac and ruts compared to some of the most rounded bikes we’ve ridden.

This is the first test bike we’ve received with Shimano Ultegra R8000

The build – Ultegra R8000 with customisation

As I mentioned at the top, Ribble’s online bike builder allows customers to spec the SL with a range of components, including groupsets from Shimano Sora all the way up to Shimano Dura-Ace Di2. Our test bike came with Shimano Ultegra R8000 – our first bike to feature the new Ultegra in mechanical guise. We’ll have a full review of our experience with it, but the bottom line is this: it’s very good indeed, just like its predecessor. The improvements made over the existing Ultegra, including the beefed up chainset and Shadow rear mech, are marginal, but improvements nonetheless.

The bike builder allows a great level of customisation, down to the size of the chainrings and cassette. This is no more evident on our test bike in the slightly odd decision to marry a compact chainset with a small 11-25t cassette – not really hitting the sweetspot for either climbers with that 25t sprocket, nor racers or keen sportive riders with the compact chainset.

If you’re not entirely comfortable with component selection, it will pay off to do a little research before plumping for a particular bike part or groupset. But once you know what you’re after, the bike builder gives you the option to carefully choose everything. Buying online isn’t for everyone, but at least this way you have greater control of the bike that arrives at your door.

Ribble SL road bike and Shimano Ultegra R8000 groupset
Ribble SL road bike and Shimano Ultegra R8000 groupset
Ribble SL road bike and Shimano Ultegra R8000 groupset

This stretches, of course, to wheel choice. Mavic Ksyrium Elites are an excellent choice for the money here, but more performance can be harnessed from the bike if you were to stretch your wallet further on a premium set of hoops.

Needless to say, you don’t get anywhere near as many options as you do on the open market, but you have the options of choosing one of the pricier on the bike builder, or sticking with a basic wheelset and upgrading at a later date.  Ultimately, the best way to understand how the bike builder works, and the options it offers, is to have a go yourself.

Conclusion

The Ribble SL has a lot of potential as a climbing bike, given the speed and aggression with which it can climb in this 7.32kg test build (for a size large), despite the relatively simple mid-range Mavic Ksyrium wheels. Put simply it’s a very capable bike when you put the effort in to ride it quickly, and it’s customisable to the build you want it in, too.

Of course, this is the point of the bike, but that performance borne of a lightweight, stiff and direct-handling frame results in a ride that is ultimately harsh. In this era where fast aero and lightweight climbing bikes are becoming more comfortable and well-rounded, the SL seems to offer a more one-dimensional ride.

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