The Ridley Helium SL is the Belgian brand’s lightweight climbing machine with a heavyweight pedigree, having been piloted to fourth in last year’s Tour de France by Jurgen Van den Broeck of the Ridley-sponsored Lotto-Belisol squad.
We dropped by the team’s final pre-season training camp in Benicassim, Spain, and took the opportunity to log some miles on a non-team issue Helium SL, which it revealed itself as a stunning machine, combining stiffness and low weight with razor sharp handling.
The area surrounding Benicassim, an hour north of Valencia, provided the perfect test arena, with fast, flat roads along the coast and through the orange groves, and a series of climbs rising close to 500m . Despite such varied terrain, the Helium SL performed admirably throughout.
Our test machine was equipped with Campagnolo Record and a mid-range Cirrus aluminium clincher wheelset from Ridley’s in-house componentry brand 4ZA, who also provided the finishing kit. The Helium SL is available in the UK in two builds: with a SRAM Red or Shimano Dura-Ace groupset, Fulcrum Red Wind wheels, and 4ZA finishing kit for £6,390.
The Helium has been a fixture in Ridley’s range for a number of years but the frame went on a diet in 2012. It previously weighed in the region of 950g so, while no slouch, it wasn’t in the super-light category. The new Helium SL’s claimed frame weight, however, ranges from 750g for a size small to 850g for size extra large. That’s very, very light.
It’s no surprise, then, that the Helium SL is the bike of choice for Lotto-Belisol leader, Van den Broeck. We took a closer look at his team issue machine while in Spain.
Ridley managed to drop the frame weight by revising the carbon layup, switching the intergrated seatmast for a 27.2mm seatpost (in the process building in a little more comfort and usability) and swapping in a press fit bottom bracket in place of a threaded BB. The frame is also paired with a new Helium Ultralight fork which weighs a claimed 310g.
The Helium SL has something to shout about, but that’s not reflected in the simple, clean aesthetic. The straight tubes give the Helium SL an understated look, even in the matt white of our test model (it’s not to our taste, but Ridley offer a range of stock paint jobs as well as a full custom programme), and it doesn’t scream at you like Ridley’s aero bike, the Noah FAST, with it’s curving top tube, heavily sculpted tube profiles and integrated brakes.
Ridley adopt a ‘form follows function’ design philosophy and that’s reflected in the distinct differences across the three bikes to be used by Lotto-Belisol in 2013: the Helium SL; the sprinter-friendly Noah, ridden to victory by Andre Greipel on stage one of the Tour Down Under; and the Classics-specific Fenix.
Otherwise, the Helium SL has all the features which now come as standard on a top-of-the-range frame: an oversized downtube which squares off at the junction with the bottom bracket to create a beefy BB area, skinny and flattened seatstays to add some comfort to the rear end, chunky chainstays to drive power through the back wheel, a steerer which tapers from 1-1/8″ to 1-1/4″ to add front-end stiffness, internal cable routing compatible with mechanical and electronic groupsets, and stainless steel dropouts for a little more durability.
The Helium SL is not short on technology but how does that translate when you swing a leg over the top tube, clip in and head out on the road? Quite simply, it’s superb.
We didn’t have the opportunity to weigh our test machine in Spain, but the Helium SL is very quick under foot: sharp off the mark and always ready to be pushed when up to speed. While we’re on the subject of weight, Ridley have managed to get the Helium SL as low as 5.8kg with a super high-end spec (SRAM Red groupset, Zipp 202 wheels and top-end 4ZA finishing kit) and are selling 58 limited edition models for €7,999.
Ridley have set about creating a machine which matches low weight with stiffness, so, while not the stiffest frame out there, it’s has more than enough in that department for you, me, and Jurgen van den Broeck. Speaking of which, as you’d except from a frame ridden to a top five finish at the Tour de France, the Helium SL climbs very well. We tested it on three ascents of a steady seven kilometre climb above Benicassim, where it was rider, not machine, that limited speed. We’d love to swap in a pair of really light wheels and see how the Helium SL moves.
The Helium SL’s best feature, however, is its handling, which is razor sharp and incredibly accurate, but never twitchy and doesn’t require baby sitting a like some race machinery. It’s a confidence-inspiring ride and the Helium SL carves through corners quickly and accurately, helped by a super-stiff front end.
Spain’s largely smooth roads aren’t the best arena in which to determine a bike’s comfort but, on the few rough sections encountered over the course of eight hours riding, the Helium SL did a good job of removing the worst of the road buzz. We’d like to get the bike back to the UK to see how it fares on the bone-juddering, potholed surfaces of our usual south-east test loops.
This final observation is perhaps the greatest complement we can pay the Ridley Helium SL after an all-too-brief acquaintance: it left us wanting to pack it in our suitcase and bring it home.