Although it weighs more than air and refuses to make your voice go funny when you suck on it, there is no dispute that the Ridley Helium is light enough to justify its name. An all-new frame and fork for 2014 brings the long running Helium model up to speed, and we were amongst the first to swing a leg over this feathery creation from the boys in Belgium.
Ridley has a modest, tightly focused range of high performance road bikes. The bikes are categorised as ‘aero’, ‘stiffness to weight’ or ‘endurance’. This is a description of frame function rather than fit, as the latter two categories share identical geometry and the aero models are only millimetres off. Ridley has refined their geometry, and they are sticking with it!
The wheelbases are compact due to short chainstays and aggressive head angles, but the stack heights are mid-pack and the bottom brackets are on the high side. It’s an interesting combo that lets a range of bodies fit atop the bike, but won’t necessarily ride in a way that suits all. Our Helium was agile and engaging to ride without crossing the line into deadly fast handling, but it wouldn’t be our first pick for less experienced riders. The Helium fits into Ridley’s stiffness to weight category, but the Fenix model (with identical geometry) is classed as an endurance model. See what we mean about the categorisation by function over fit?
The Helium is the slightly chubbier twin of the Helium SL, which was launched in 2013. Both Helium models share the same features and frame shape (which is highly reminiscent of the Cervelo R3) but the base level Helium is constructed of lower modulus fibres. This saves money and adds weight, but at a claimed 880g for the frame you might find that the spare change in your wallet weighs more than this tidy looking unit. To help keep the weight low the Helium frame uses carbon dropouts on the fork and rear wheel, carbon headset bearing seats and a carbon bottom bracket shell. Ridley could easily go lighter, but have opted to simplify manufacturing by riveting on alloy guides for the rear brake and the braze-on for the front derailleur. This traditional approach also extends to the tube shapes, as Ridley has gone for ride quality when designing the Helium. There is no hint of Kamm-tails or chainstay mounted brakes to pander to current aerodynamic fashions.
The Helium is one of a growing segment of light and affordable frames. Sub-1000g frames were the stuff of dreams only a few years ago, but are now available on complete bikes for as little as $4,000. The Helium is flanked by the likes of Cannondale’s SuperSix Evo, the BMC SLR02, Scott Addict and Cervelo’s evergreen R3. These are just a few of the prominent, affordable bikes that are changing the cost perception of lightweight. Our insider info suggests that two of these other brands use the same Chinese manufacturing partner as Ridley.
The new Helium frame has allowed Ridley to integrate current industry trends such as a pressfit 30 bottom bracket shell, and internal cable routing which suits mechanical and electronic drivetrains. The intent of the cable routing is a little puzzling as the rear brake cable runs externally which detracts from the clean lines of the otherwise internally routed cables, even though this is the easiest cable on the bike to run internally. On the flip side of this, running the cables externally is easier to work with and avoids unnecessary friction, but the cables subject to bends are run internally. We can assume that a major motivator for the internal routing is to hide electronic cables, which is fair enough. The frame has no provision to mount a battery (Ridley’s cheaper Fenix model does, however), so electronic users will need to pony up for an internal battery or be left with a battery hunked on top of their down tube. It’s nit-picking, but a battery mount integrated into the bottom bracket cable guide would be simple for Ridley to factor in, and would properly complement the existing internal routing. As it is, it’s kind of half done.
Helium are dominated by the rectangular down tube and lower portion of the seat tube. Similarities with the aforementioned Cervelo continue with the seat stays: flat, and distinctively slender. Neither the fork or rear brake bridge has much clearance for high volume tyres; perhaps this is one reflection of Ridley’s functional categorisation of their bikes, as some 25mm tyres would consume almost all of the available clearance. The Helium is defiantly optimised for a 23mm tyre, which speaks to its intended use, despite its identical geometry to the Fenix endurance bike.
The Helium is available in a range of build options, or as a frame only ($2,399). Our Ultegra test bike is the base level complete bike and sells at $4,499. The price is at the upper-end for an Ultegra machine, but the complete spec doesn’t cut any corners at all, so judging on the groupset alone would not be fair. The alloy ‘Pro’ level 3T bar, stem and post are as good as any on the market. The 3T Ergonova Pro bar is a common sight on Pro Tour bikes and the shape is fantastic. The Prologo Scratch saddle has titanium rails, firm but deep padding and a polite shape, and the Fulcrum Racing 5 wheels are the reference point for decent high-mileage training hoops. Literally every component on the Helium is ‘name brand’ and the touch points are from some of the most highly regarded makers in the game. Even the most hardened bike snob could appreciate the pedigree of spec on this machine.
Ridley class the Helium in stiffness to weight, but this is really their race focused do-it-all platform. The Noah series is all about aero, and the Fenix is heavier and burlier for rough riding as well as price savings. The Helium does the stuff in between, which is what most people are looking for on a daily basis. The weight of the Helium frame is cloaked somewhat by the relatively heavy wheels and cockpit parts. With components of an equivalently light weight, it could build into a ruthless climbing machine. As supplied, the Helium still has a hankering for the hills. The value for money spec includes the Racing 5 wheels and Continental GP4000 tyres, which roll smoothly and help the Helium feel alive when you put in some effort.
The relative measures of stiffness and weight are especially relevant when riding the Helium. We know the weight is low, and stiffness will have some relationship with this metric. The Helium feels light and tight in the rear triangle, really nice to dance on the pedals as the road heads up. The other side of the coin is the front end of the Helium, which is not nearly as assured. The tubes of the front triangle are much larger than the rear triangle, but they’re far from large when compared with many modern bikes. The Helium has nice proportions and is more ballerina than body builder. It’s an uncommon combination of ride feel: the rear is planted and solid as we expect of a modern design, and the front is slightly springy in a way that reminds me of many steel frames (albeit much, much stiffer).
The Helium doesn’t jar your body on dead roads, which is admirable. It took me several rides before I stopped second-guessing tyre pressures – the Helium feels like it’s running five to 10psi less than it really is. For a bike that the maker chooses to market around weight rather than comfort, the Helium is incredibly supple. With more relaxed geometry it could be sold as a comfort oriented bike, but instead it’s a very light, very smooth performance bike.
The Helium SL is lighter due to the grade of carbon used, and it would be interesting to compare stiffness with the Helium. For Grand Tours the Lotto Belisol team riders use the Noah FAST or Helium SL frames. The regular Helium would be on the soft side in the front compared with the bikes of most high wattage pro riders, but the higher modulus carbon of the SL model quite probably boosts stiffness in this area. Andre Greipel uses the Noah almost exclusively, which suggests that the Helium is not as stiff (but, we are talking about the Gorilla here…). The base level Helium will be fine for us mortals, but there are definitely stiffer bikes available in the same price point for riders that desire sprint power before KOM ability.
Descending on the Helium is great for the most part, and is a perfect example of a group of parts working in harmony. The GP 4000 tyres are grippy in all conditions and the combination of Shimano’s Ultegra brake callipers and machined alloy Fulcrum rims makes for predictable braking. The Ultegra levers and Ergonova bars put your hands in precisely the right place to descend and brake with confidence. The smooth ride that the frame offers means that the Helium feels like it can glide and swoop down the hill. The types of corners that fluster most bikes, that being tight and steep, especially under brakes, are also bogeys for the Helium. It’s especially important to brake ahead and to plan your line if you want to tackle technical descents on the Helium, as last-minute changes highlight the limitations of the frame. I’ve also mentioned that the Helium has a tight wheelbase, so you need to pay attention as the road gets steeper and faster.
The Helium’s defining attributes are light weight, smooth ride and lively handling. I got to log an exceedingly generous amount of time on this test bike and enjoyed every moment. A case of the right tool for the job, no doubt. I’m lanky – mostly arms and legs – and I’ll never be a sprinter. There are several riding mates I can think of that would not have matched this bike as well as myself, be it due to weight, power, or riding style, but that’s one of the great reasons that there are so many bikes out there to choose from. The supple, almost springy, ride of the Helium was quite unexpected and highlights how incredibly stiff some bikes are these days. Neither aero nor super stiff, the Helium shows that a bike can still be high performance, modern and fun without a fancy bar graph, wind tunnel or physics degree.
As a complete bike the Helium is pure class, right down to the tyres. Frame finish is clean, understated and crisp. A wheel upgrade would lift the Helium another notch.
The groupset on the Helium is Ultegra and there are no generic parts on this bike. Still, the Helium has some very steep competition in this price point and many will look past it. Riders looking for a genuinely light frame and completely name-brand spec will appreciate the complete Helium.
There are no weak points in the Helium’s components. The touch points are excellent, which makes riding the Helium a pleasure. It’s light and climbs accordingly, although it’s itching for lighter wheels to reach its full potential. Large framed riders and sprinters may find the Helium’s frame to be underbuilt.
Admirably light and smooth, the Helium is a classy machine. The comfort level is high, but this bike handles as a performance machine should – it’s no sportive cruiser. Experienced riders that are looking for a smooth, engaging and lively ride that eats hills should take note.
Frame: 30t – 24t unidirectional carbon
Fork: 30t – 24t unidirectional carbon, tapered
Stem: 3T ARX Pro
Handlebar: 3T Arx Pro
Saddle: Prologo Scratch Pro Ti
Seat Post: 3T Stylus Pro
Shift Levers: Shimano Ultegra 6800
Brakes: Shimano Ultegra 6800
F Derailleur: Shimano Ultegra 6800
R Derailleur: Shimano Ultegra 6800
Crank: Shimano Ultegra 6800 39/53
Cassette: Shimano Ultegra 6800 11-25
Chain: Shimano Ultegra 6800
Wheels: Fulcrum Racing 5
Tyres: Continental GP4000
Distributor: FRF Sports
02 9559 9000