Ribble Ultra SL R: Speed for all

Years of extensive testing went into creating Ribble’s stand-out aero machine, the Ultra SL R. Rouleur’s Rachel Jary becomes the first female journalist to put the bike through its paces, finds out about the women involved in the design process and understands how this is a machine which sees bike and rider considered as a single entity

This article was produced in association with Ribble

“The world’s most aerodynamically advanced road platform.” It’s a bold, big claim from the British bike manufacturer, Ribble Cycles. However, this is a brand that has never been afraid to be brave, break the norm and redefine what people’s expectations are. The  Ribble Ultra is a shining ex- ample of this: it is audacious, eye-catching and turned heads when it was released in 2021. Two years later, it still remains a trailblazer as a pure aero bike that is focused solely on speed in an industry which  is becoming increasingly tailored to bikes that serve as all-rounders.  

This is exactly why the Ultra caught the eye of Swedish professional rider, Hanna  Johansson. For the first time in her career, the 38-year-old found herself in a position to choose her own bike to ride for the 2023 season. The Ribble Ultra was at the very top of her list. Why? “It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to ride a pure aero bike,” Johansson says. “This was one of the fastest frames that I could think of.”  

Ribble’s own research and white paper gives evidence of this alone. Wind tunnel tests show that the Ribble Ultra SL R saves approximately three minutes compared to the brand’s already race-proven Endurance SL R model on a typical 100km ride with average yaw conditions.  This is a signifi cant saving and would only be accentuated the faster a rider was travelling, which they would be in the type of races Johansson is competing in. For those unconvinced by the numbers, rider performances go a long way to prove the credentials of the Ultra, too.

Former World Hour Record Holder Joscelin Lowden was essential to the development of the bike. “She confirmed we had got everything right – otherwise, we would have had to have a rethink. Feedback from our female factory team riders and female athletes and pro team riders was also vital,” Jamie Burrow, head of  product development and design at Ribble, explains.  

Johansson’s performances this season on the ultra speak for themself too. She recently won the Queen of the Mountains jersey at WorldTour race RideLondon Classique after placing herself in a breakaway of over 100km on the opening stage to scoop up points. Johansson claims that the savings she got from riding an aero-optimised frame over such a long period of time only gave her more energy to go for the intermediate sprint points along the route.

“There were no mountains in that race, but the bike was perfect for such a long breakaway in the headwind. I haven’t looked into science and compared the speeds but I just feel faster on the Ultra,” Johansson says. “On my last team, I didn’t ride an aero frame and it felt like a brick in the wind compared to the Ultra which just  goes with the wind.”

So how has Ribble done it? Creating a bike which creates the ride-feel that Johansson describes – fast, responsive and stable, while also maintaining the aero advantages that the Ultra is famous for, is no easy task. Burrow explains that the  process of designing the Ultra spanned three years with an uncountable number of tests to ensure that the bike worked for riders of every body shape.  

“It was an incredibly exciting, inspiring and educational process. We started with something we initially liked the look of and then saw how that transformed across every rapid prototype, CFD, wind-tunnel and real world testing process,” Burrow says. “That process continually challenges you and the design, usually resulting in something completely unimaginable and incomprehensible from where you originally started – like our Ultra Aero handlebars.”

“For continuity I was the test dummy, but Joss Lowden played an important and integral part in the process,” Burrow adds. “I had to ensure successful results across multiple body shapes in unison as bike and rider in the wind tunnel. Joss was riding for our team at the time and was a tester. Her results always indicated a positive trend which illustrated that regardless of size you definitely would be faster on the Ultra.”

Burrow mentions the unique aero handlebars that sit at the front of the Ultra, which are one of the biggest talking points of the bike. The bars feature bulges with a truncated aerofoil shape which creates a space for the rider’s legs to sit in. It’s not about making the most aerodynamic handlebars as a standalone piece – the Ultra is all about working in harmony with a rider’s body shape to get the most efficient  results. Rather than considering just the bike’s aerodynamic  profile, Ribble is thinking about the benefit that being behind it passes on to the rider.

The bars don’t feature traditional handlebar tape either for additional aero advantages, instead the base is covered with a grippy layer on the carbon to ensure that a rider’s hands don’t slip. “We tested the rider and bike together as a whole package. Often bikes are tested in isolation which can lead to some stunning results but then put a rider on the bike and everything changes. Furthermore, trends tend to look towards the track – track bike profiles are shaped and designed for straight line speed in a controlled environment.

Naturally, this does not work on the road when there are multiple changes of riding conditions and you are competing with ever changing crosswinds,” Burrow says.

“We meticulously tested and aero optimised each and every tube profile across the frame, which led us on to our handlebars, the most standout design feature and key indicator of rider and bike in unison. The Ultra Aero Handlebar has been ergonomically designed and optimised to ensure every element manages airflow upstream of the rider. We dispensed with the industry standard brake lever design which previously limited all handlebars to a conventional shape. In doing so, this gave us freedom and allowed us to come up with something completely innovative and very different. Our Ultra Aero bars wake-generating design creates a DRZ  (drag reduction zone) for the riders legs to sit within, which results in a net drag reduction of around 2.1 per cent for both bike and rider – and in turn translates to an average 23.2 second advantage over a full yaw sweep. The design is optimised for riding on the hoods and drops and allowed us to get away without bar tape – which is totally un-aerodynamic.”

There’s no denying that the bars have a very different look and feel to standard road handlebars, and that they encourage  an aerodynamic and aggressive position with their low profile and narrow width. This could raise questions about their comfort over a ride spanning multiple hours, but Johansson, who is regularly competing in races well over the four-hour mark, is quick to silence any doubts.

“I’m impressed by how well it handled. It feels really fast. It feels almost like a TT bike but I have no problem handling it in the bunch,” Johansson says. “I am also very comfortable with it. I got the bike only a couple of days before racing in London and I had no trouble at all, I instantly felt at home on it.”

Elsewhere on the Ultra, the aerodynamic considerations are clear, too. The truncated profile of the downtube is explicitly designed to work with a water bottle, with Ribble claiming it is actually more effective with a bottle in place than without.  In fact, all of the optimised truncated aerofoil tube sections of the Ultra have been designed to ensure that the airflow remains attached to the surfaces for as long as possible through the entire sweep of yaw that a cyclist will encounter, in turn reducing the drag generated.

At the front of the bike, the forks have a uniquely wide stance with a deep, blade-like shape, helping to shield the legs and disc brakes from the wind with the disc rotor sitting inside the front fork. Ribble also experimented with the width of the truncated rear edge, running simulations through CFD before verifying them in the wind tunnel. Using the Silverstone Sports Engineering Hub wind tunnel, Ribble quickly found considerable aerodynamic gains compared to the Endurance SL R.

Aero aside, the Ultra stands out for its signature style, too. The iridescent paint glimmers in the sun and takes centre stage, and it’s hard to even defi ne what colour the Ultra is. In some lights it looks grey, some purple, some pink, some green. It’s in the eye of the beholder to decide what colour the bike is, which is, perhaps, an apt representation of the ethos behind the Ultra. It has been designed on the basis of extensive research, development and aerodynamic testing, as well as an impressive amount of data, but it still is something that can suit everyone.

As Johannson herself mentioned, she can ride the Ultra comfortably over long distances, she can win QOM sprints with it, she  can pull fast turns in a breakaway, finesse corners quickly and she can use it to put big miles in between race days. The Ultra has been designed with the rider in mind, tested extensively on both men and women of differing shapes and sizes at the speeds of casual cyclists and a seasoned WorldTour racer.

As Burrow explains: “The Ultra is a pure performance bike designed for riders who are looking for uncompromised speed.”  

It doesn’t matter what your targets are, what your gender is, what your size is, the Ribble Ultra SL R is a bike that’s made for pure speed. “To put simply,” Burrow says, “if you want to ride fast, ride this bike.”

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