Adam Hansen, the Australian professional cyclist with more consecutive grand tour finishes than any rider in history, has described the Ridley Helium SLX as the best bike he’s ever ridden. Well he would, you might say, given he rides on a Ridley sponsored team. But Hansen is a thoughtful and technically savvy rider, not prone to simply parroting corporate spin. In recent times the Helium has been ridden to victory on mountains, cobbles, sprint stages and gravel. The bike has proved to be pretty versatile! On Australian roads, however, these Belgian bikes remain a relatively uncommon sight. This might be beginning to change though, and through an unexpected sequence of events a Helium is now stabled at our place.
The last days of Molly Jones
Claire has had a protracted recovery from injury after rising through the ranks in 2017. After winning the Tour of East Gippsland and Mansfield Tour in Women’s B of the Victorian Road Series, she made her debut in Women’s A at Mt Baw Baw where she finished 6th against a strong field in awful conditions (it was snowing!).
It was a shame the 2017 Tour of Bright was cancelled as Claire was flying towards the end of the year. In her last VRS race at the Tour of the South West she placed third in Women’s A after initially putting 2 minutes into Peta Mullins and Sarah Gigante in a solo breakaway. At year’s end, Cycling Victoria awarded her the overall VRS win for the newly created Women’s Masters A category.
Then came a summer frustrated by injury. The best months of road cycling were lost while she recovered. By winter Claire was finding her legs again and ready to race. Riding with both Peak Cycles and the Musettes group had helped prepare her. But on a freezing Saturday morning Peak ride everything threatened to come undone again.
That morning the temperature was sub-zero as Claire barrelled down the Kinglake descent, setting a faster time than most of the guys and feeling good. But as the group came to the Wild Dog descent (named after nearby Wild Dog Creek Rd and also known as ‘The hill before Kinglake descent’) two kangaroos got in their way.
One kangaroo stood in the middle of the road, looking to the next which stood at the road’s edge. The rider in front of Claire pierced between the two animals, but as Claire got nearer the kangaroo on the road looked set to panic. She swerved and lost control at 50kph.
Claire hit her face hard and her much loved S-Works Amira ‘Molly’ took a real hit. A temporary loss of consciousness was followed by a very cold wait for an ambulance. On the hill it was -2 and the ambulance took almost an hour to arrive.
Luckily the Peak bunch are an awesome and talented group of people. Dan, who moonlights as an emergency doctor at the very hospital Claire would be taken to was a fortuitous hand. Even Sarah, the triple National Junior Champion preparing for both Track and Road World Championships risked her own health and stayed in the freezing cold until the ambulance arrived (Sarah has since become the Australian Women’s National Champion).
Amazingly, Claire was essentially uninjured. Roughed up to be sure, but nothing broken. After a night and day of observation in hospital, she was back on the trainer. Sadly, the same couldn’t be said for Molly, the Amira. The frame appeared cracked in several places. The bike was assessed by Peak and then Raoul at Luescher Teknik to be a write-off.
Choosing the Ridley
In 2016 Peak Cycles began stocking Ridley bikes alongside their flagship brand Trek. I considered a Helium frame myself back then as I built my Tarmac but the timing didn’t quite work out.
I like classical geometries and after Specialised changed the Tarmac to a dropped seat-stay design I concluded the Helium was now the most beautiful bike in the pro-peloton. For the most part, when it comes to bikes, Claire shares my aesthetic inclinations.
This might read like advertising copy but it’s worth observing the principle characteristic of the Helium: Whilst the Helium frame is light – a medium comes in at 750g painted with a fork weight of around 290g – it’s design emphasis is on stiffness-to-weight ratio. Ridley engineers had sub-700g frames in testing but achieved a better stiffness-to weight just above this number. The result is a bike which has proven itself across remarkably varied terrains; from mountain wins by Tim Wellens and Thomas De Ghent, to Tiesj Benoot’s win on the unsealed white roads of Strade Bianchi, to Marianne Vos winning on cobbles:
Vos rides what Ridely markets as the Aura SLX – it’s a Helium SLX frame but with a women’s ‘finishing kit’ (ie short reach bars, women’s saddle etc). A Helium by any other name … (similarly, Eddy Merckx bikes, having been bought by Ridley, feature a ‘Stockeu69’ which appears to be a repainted Helium, currently used by Romain Bardet and AG2R).
Considering its strengths it’s kind of amazing how hard it is to come by detailed reviews of the bike. Short copy-written pieces on the usual click-baity sites can be found but these are practically useless; ‘It’s light and I didn’t much like the tyres it came with’ etc. It makes you realise the advantage Specialized have with their marketing clout. You can barely swing a virtual cat without hitting some long-form review on the vagaries of the Tarmac. Specialized has an estimated revenue of $490m whilst Ridley has an estimated revenue of $6.3m. So the Belgians are punching above their weight with the quality of their bikes, but some money towards the writers might see more of them on the road (look what we’re willing to do for nothing!).
Local riders might ask the question – if Claire was considering a bike through Peak, why not a Trek Emonda? After all, it’s an undoubtedly beautiful bike with a relatively classic geometry. There are two answers to this, and they’re the same two I gave in my Tarmac build post. Firstly, my judgement is coloured by DJ Connel’s blog post which shows the Emonda’s weight savings are cancelled out by its aerodynamic penalty (and my judgement is probably influencing Claire’s) and secondly, the Australian Trek distributor doesn’t do frames, only complete bikes, and Claire was only chasing a frame. The first concern might be misplaced – for example we’ve seen no evidence the Helium is definitively more aerodynamic, but there are probably confirmation biases lurking here without much need for reinforcement.
Testing the competition
Of course Claire was going to shop around and it made sense to test the new S-Works Tarmac given she was coming from an S-Works. Aaron at the Ride Cycles has been selling us our race tyre of choice at aggressive pricing, so we went there to test a Tarmac. We spent an afternoon riding around the back streets behind the shop. Claire accidentally took two QOMs and she looked good on the bike. This was complicating the decision!
Peak rider Andrew S then generously loaned Claire his Helium for a ride. A five hour ‘test ride’ through the Dandenongs with her Mussettes friends proved she could ride the Helium just as happily as the Tarmac. Specifically, concerns about handling were allayed. Some reviews, like this one in French, suggest the Helium is less inspiring on mountain descents than the Tarmac or Emonda. One online comment even says some people feel the bike is like a ‘nervous horse.’ Claire felt it handled well though, and as I show below the head tube angle, whilst steeper than Claire’s older Amira, is the same as on the 2018 Tarmac anyway.
So how to make a decision? In some ways, given Claire rides with Peak and given Sean had helped since the crash she would need a good reason not to buy a bike from him. But after all the trauma of injuries and cycling discomfort she has faced, bike fit proved to be the deciding factor.
Claire has spent thousands working out the right fit – from a RiderCC fit to a Retul fit to her current physio’s alterations. She booked an appointment with the physio to discuss the geometry of both the Helium and Tarmac. To make things easier I plugged all the geometry data into a spreadsheet to work out the relative differences of each frame to her old Amira:
Had the physio said go with the Tarmac Claire would have gone with the Tarmac. But he said go with the Helium, albeit a size up from the one she had test ridden. The decision was made.
Customising the build.
Before Claire had even chosen the Helium I did something rash which would help complete the build. I’d secretly gone and bought her a SRAM Red eTap groupset. She’d been interested in electronic shifting for a long time. After the crash she started talking about it as an appropriate moment to invest in the change. I guess I wanted to indulge her after seeing her in hospital. I was about to buy myself a new computer anyway so I just took the money for that and threw it at the groupset!
One friend asked why we are seemingly so rusted on to SRAM. Simply put, we like the feel of double tap shifters on mechanical groupsets. So the step to electronic shifting built on a positive experience. Claire uses a Quarq power meter too which, as a SRAM owned brand, would look out of place with Di2. Plus the completely wireless eTap system is arguably the most advanced electronic system available (or was a the time of purchase!).
The possibility of a custom finish made the decision to go with the Helium all the more fun. The Ridley website offers a customisation interface which will output an image of the finished product, albeit with the finishing kit they sell. Claire played with customisation page and I searched Instagram and other sites to see what others had come up with. At one point I struck upon a Ridely CX bike in a dark metallic green. Claire was sold on this bike’s finish at first sight.
To see how it might look for Claire I took the image produced by the Ridely customisation page and manipulated it to include her equipment; her new eTap, her quarq power meter, her Fulcrum Zeros with tan wall tyres, her Bontrager saddle and Tune bidon holder, even the silver iLink brake cables which would be the icing on the cake:
As an upshot to this effort I now have a graphics program template for the Helium frame. So if any local riders are considering buying one from Peak and want to see what their gear would look like on it, I can produce another mock-up easily.
This particular paint scheme, with ultra-minimalist branding, is called ‘Purest’ by Ridley. Claire’s frame would be the first ‘Purest’ Ridley in Australia, with the initial stencils produced by the painting facility just for this build.
The order was placed. The waiting began. Claire returned to racing, using my old Roubaix (which she said felt like racing a bus). In her first race back she was brought down in a bunch crash which took out five riders and broke her hip!. She was desperately due for a bit of luck!
Thankfully Aldo, the bike whisperer at Peak Cycles, did a great job on the build and soon the anticipated moment of revelation arrived:
Even nicer than we were expecting from the mock-up. Perhaps this is due in part to the use of Vittoria Corsa G+ tyres which have a paler tan than the S-Works Cotton tyres we normally run on our race wheels, complimenting the green with silver accents more subtly. The stem will come down on the front gradually as Claire recovers from her injuries.
Here are some images speaking for themselves:
More recently Claire has replaced the black chain rings with ‘Falcon Grey’:
The Helium at 3 Peaks
Claire rebuilt her fitness little by little on the bike and after riding the Adelaide Hills in January 2019 settled on a new target. As a break from some of the stresses of racing Claire took on a training goal of setting a strong time on the Three Peaks Challenge. For weeks she got up at 4am and rode 100km before work, readying for the 235km / 4000m event. A time of 9 hours was an ambitious target, and I know she harboured hopes of an even faster time. On the day Claire came in at just over nine hours, the 5th placed woman with the 4th fastest combined climbing time.
Given the difficulties which had preceded this it was a good outcome. Only a few minutes too many at the rest stops cost her the sub 9 hour finish, but the bike performed flawlessly and drew plenty of attention. There is every chance she’ll thrash it around the course for a faster time in 2020.
What’s in a name?
Lastly, we always name our bikes and have a history of naming them after Beatles songs and characters. We’ve had Molly Jones, Desmond Jones, Maxwell Edison, Martha, and Helter Skelter. At some point we’ll run out of options – but not yet! This bike seemed so auspiciously beautiful Claire gave it a name of regal significance, ‘Her Majesty’ from the 23 second song of the same name which closes Abbey Rd. Or ‘Maj’ for short.
|Frame||Ridley Helium SLX (Medium)|
|Wheelset||2017 Fulcrum Zero c17|
|Powermeter||Quarq DZero Carbon GXP|
|BB Adapter||SRAM PF30 – GXP adaptor|
|Shifters||SRAM Red Etap|
|Rear Derailleur||SRAM Red Etap Short cage|
|Front Derailleur||SRAM Red Etap|
|Chain Rings||SRAM Red 50/34|
|Chain||Duraace 11 Speed|
|Brakes||SRAM Red Aerolink|
|Brake Pads||Swiss Stop BXP|
|Bars||S-Works Carbon shallow bend 40cm|
|Seatpost||S-Works Carbon 27.2mm|
|Bidon holders||Wasserträger 2.0|
|Tyres||Vittoria Corsa G+|
|Bartape||Lizard Skins DSP Race|
|Computer||Garmin Edge 520|