Had anybody showed up back then with the helmets, pedal systems, computers, power meters, integrated shifting, cassettes, clothing, compact frames and aero bars we see today, it would've seemed beyond space age. Heck, I remember using a hammer to nail in my first set of cleats into wood-soled cycling shoes.
The coolest thing back then was upgrading from a 5-speed freewheel to 6-speed for a whopping 12 gears. Today, I hear people complain because they're still riding an "antiquated" 8-speed cassette and haven't jumped to 10-speed.
In the interest of constantly pushing the technology barrier, coupled with my inevitable decline in V02 max and physical strength, I wanted to see if a bike could make a difference.
I've always subscribed to the theory that "it's the motor, not the bike," but, as I get older, the idea of gaining minute savings in weight or efficiency through technical advances has become much more appealing.
Of course there are all kinds of variables -- such as training, rest, nutrition, illness, stress -- that factor into how fast you can ride a bike from season to season. Very few people, especially those with careers and families, can maintain a consistent training schedule.
Because I commute to work, and have been doing the same route consistently for four years, I have an extraordinarily consistent training base and schedule from year to year. My racing has been limited and my 7,000 annual miles, coupled with one strenuous weekend training ride, make me an ideal candidate for testing whether one bike can make a difference.
The plan was to score a top-of-the-line Litespeed Ghisallo and compare it, for several months, to my tried-and-true traditional Litespeed Vortex I've ridden and raced since 1995. For those unfamiliar, the Ghisallo is the compact-version cousin of Litespeed's flagship Vortex. Ghisallo's huge claim to fame is its 1.99-pound frame weight (medium/large size), making it the lightest production frame in the world.
My nearly 25 years experience, in also having owned and raced on steel, aluminum, early titanium and the Vortex itself, gave me a unique perspective on evaluating the Ghisallo.
Campagnolo or Shimano
First, and most significantly, my 2004 Ghisallo came with Campagnolo Record 10-speed and, being that I'd switched to Shimano in the late '80s, my re-introduction to Campy was enlightening.
The Campagnolo vs. Shimano debate is analogous to Microsoft vs. Oracle in the technology world. There are those that swear by one or the other and no rational argument will ever sway their opinion.
I was pleasantly surprised with Campagnolo. Of course everything new is always crisp and responsive, but I found the integrated shifting, especially for the front derailleur, to be superior.
Shimano has a trim feature for the front derailleur that can be cumbersome while Campy's indexing system allows you to micro-adjust the derailleur into several positions through a series of "clicks."
The point of this article isn't to debate Campagnolo vs. Shimano but to simply point out that the perceived and actual differences between the two have greatly narrowed. When I first started riding, Campy was the only game in town. Yet by the early '90s, I was pretty convinced Shimano had the better offering.
Today -- and this has nothing to do with being diplomatic since I have no allegiance or connection to either company -- I truly believe it's a matter of personal taste and aesthetics.
The liberal use of carbon in Campagnolo's 2004 Record group not only lightens the components, but also looks way cool -- especially the carbon cranks. On the other hand, Shimano's new 10-speed group (which I have not tried) has been getting rave reviews and can be had with a little less damage to your wallet.
The Ghisallo (compact vs. standard)
Truly, the biggest argument on choosing a Litespeed Ghisallo, or any compact frame for that matter, is why you'd want or need a compact frame. There are those who argue compact frames came about because it was an easy way for manufacturers not to have to build incremental sizes. The one-size-fits-all mantra could be applied to just a few sizes: small, medium or large. Litespeed, for example, offers five compact frame sizes: S, M, M/L, L and XL.
A compact frame is defined by a downward sloping top tube that produces a smaller, lighter and, some would argue, stiffer frame by reducing the size of the rear triangle. In order to maintain the same proportional distance to pedals and handlebars, a longer, thicker seat post and appropriate handlebar stem lengths (and angles) are introduced to put the rider in the same "cockpit" position as a traditional frame.
While there is very little empirical evidence on whether compact frames are really better than traditional frames or vice versa, the fact is the differences in lateral stiffness and responsiveness can be noted between traditional or compact frames themselves.
Simply stated, there are enough differences in materials, welding techniques, seat posts, and such that the differences one might note between different bikes of the same frame types can be just as significant or negligible as bikes of different frame types.
This is another way of saying the jury is still out on compact frames and much comes down to riding styles and personal preferences.
In addition to the full 2004 Campagnolo Record group -- boasting a generous sprinkling of carbon fiber material in the brake levers, derailleurs, cranks and brakes -- my test model Ghisallo was outfitted with a Reynolds Ouzo Pro front fork and Mavic Ksyrium SL clincher wheels. I could only imagine what the boys would have thought if I showed up with this sweet ride back in 1980.
Ride comparison and characteristics
After riding the compact frame Ghisallo, and interchanging and comparing with my Vortex, I find Ghisallo's shorter wheelbase and lighter weight allows me to accelerate faster and be more nimble. The shorter wheelbase also makes for incredibly responsive steering, much like a high-performance sports car.
The Ghisallo was introduced in 2002, and the 2004 model I tested boasts a new oversized Easton carbon seat post, which greatly reduces any lateral flex under extreme power transfer. I found the frame to be incredibly stiff and, as previously mentioned, extremely responsive.
One standard comparison I use to compare bikes and wheel stiffness is a steep, sharp downhill curve -- which I've repeated well over 1,000 times and is part of my daily commute. On my Vortex, the fastest I've felt comfortable holding a line through the turn is 35 mph. I can comfortably take the same turn on the Ghisallo at 37 mph. For my comparison, both bikes were outfitted with Mavic Ksyrium SL wheels, albeit the slightly newer and lighter 2004 set on the Ghisallo.
Speaking of descending, the Litespeed Ghisallo, with Mavic Ksyrium SL wheels, is absolutely flawless at speeds over 50 mph. I have never noticed any frame wobble, nor been remotely concerned about hitting very high speeds on steep descents.
For climbing, it goes without saying, the lighter-weight Ghisallo scores a big advantage, simply on weight. At just under 16 pounds, I've shaved nearly two pounds off my old Vortex and, as mentioned earlier, I can respond to accelerations easier with the lighter bike and shorter wheelbase.
The first time I hit a tough climb with the Litespeed Ghisallo, I couldn't help but muster a wry smile as I noticed others breathing heavily and struggling with the effort. I felt like I'd scored the ultimate climbing machine. Now it would just be up to whether I have the legs or not. Seems my biggest problem now is I have no excuses.
The Ghisallo's nimbleness has even helped me avoid a pretty good pileup. On a recent group ride, where several riders crashed literally right in front of me, leaving me nowhere to go but up, I'm convinced the agile Ghisallo allowed me to instinctively bunny-hop the crash and pedal over a fallen rider without putting myself on the ground.
Does Ghisallo make a difference?
Has the Ghisallo made some difference? I would argue, yes. On very tough climbs, with some of the strongest riders in San Diego, I feel like I can hang, whereas a year ago I would be literally hanging by a thread, ready to snap and be shelled like a circus peanut at the slightest acceleration. My only qualifier to this statement is every year, since moving to San Diego, I've been riding smarter and stronger and have recently incorporated more flexibility exercises into my routine.
As I mentioned upfront, it's next to impossible to isolate one particular piece of equipment, training method or nutrition supplement. That said, the psychological impact of a lighter, slightly stiffer and more responsive bicycle goes a long way to hanging on and suffering just a few moments longer where you might otherwise be dropped off the back.
If there's a negative to the compact Ghisallo, it would be that it's not as comfortable of a ride as the longer wheel-based Vortex. On a five- or six-hour ride, I'd probably opt for the traditional frame and its slightly longer wheelbase.
One other point that bears mentioning is that a compact frame may not necessarily suit larger riders. I happen to be 5'9" and 155 pounds, which allows me to dial into a medium frame very nicely. The long, oversized (31.6) carbon seat post gives me plenty of lateral stiffness where I'm not so sure the same could be said for a much larger rider.
It goes without saying, especially when considering the price tag, the Ghisallo is not a bike you'd purchase for general touring but it would be very capable for centuries or triathlons. In fact, if I entered a triathlon, I'd be more inclined to slap a set of aero bars on my Ghisallo instead of worrying about getting used to, and comfortable with, a different position on a time trial specific frame.
Bottom line is the Ghisallo is a high-performance climbing and racing machine that's going to feel more twitchy than your average high-end bicycle, but it will respond like a finely tuned musical instrument in the hands of an experienced bicycle racer.
At a MSRP of $7,735, outfitted with Campagnolo Record 10-speed, or $6,865, with Shimano Dura Ace 10-speed, you're looking at some serious coin to treat yourself to one of the finest bicycles on the planet.
For complete details on the Litespeed Ghisallo, or other Litespeed offerings, visit www.litespeed.com or call (800) 743-3796.