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Litespeed Cherohala SE review

14 Jun 2018
Verdict:

Can’t match the weight and punchy feel of carbon equivalents but comes into its own on the rough stuff

Cyclist Rating: 
Price: 
$3,315 (approx. £2,400) frame, fork, headset. As tested $5,850 (approx. £4,250)
For 
Robust and durable, compliant enough for all-day off road forays
Against 
Heavy, comes up short of delivering a one-bike-for-all performance

Litespeed has been making titanium race bikes for more than 30 years, and the family-run company can boast a client list that features some of cycling’s biggest names, including Greg LeMond and Lance Armstrong (although in the latter’s case you may not have known it at the time, as the bikes were rebadged to avoid upsetting sponsors).

The American brand truly hit the mainstream in 2002 thanks to its sponsorship of pro team Lotto Adecco. Australian sprinter Robbie McEwen took no fewer than 17 victories on his Litespeed Vortex, a cold-worked 6Al/4V titanium masterpiece.

He piloted it to multiple stage wins at both the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France, while teammates Peter Van Petegem and Mario Aerts won the cobbled Spring Classics Omloop Het Volk and Flèche Wallonne respectively earlier that same season, proving the bike’s versatility.

Buy now from Litespeed

Thanks to the advent of carbon, the perception of titanium bikes has shifted, with many customers seeing them as plush, prestige bikes for sunny Sunday cafe rides, but Litespeed is determined to keep titanium at the cutting edge of bicycle design.

‘We still make elite-level race bikes’, says Litespeed’s chief product developer, Brad DeVaney, from the manufacturer’s factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

‘There are only two elite race models now, but we still do pretty well with them in terms of sales. But in our line it’s definitely gravel bikes that are thriving.’

Litespeed previously had the T5G as its gravel offering, which then evolved into its next generation model, simply named ‘Gravel’, but DeVaney felt the brand needed to offer something more refined.

‘The Cherohala project was about blurring the lines between an elite-level race bike and a utility bike,’ he says.

‘I wanted to create a single frame that would give you more options to ride however you wanted, whether that’s riding on dirt, touring, or hanging with a group ride.

‘Our goal was to create a frame under 1,500g and with the Cherohala we finished up at around 1,400g, and that’s for a bike that has great tyre clearance, flat-mount disc brakes and still enough chainstay clearance to run a 53/39 chainset if you want.’

The Cherohala takes its name from the Cherohala Skyway, one of the most popular national scenic byways in North America, a mixture of gravel and asphalt that winds its way through the Cherokee National Forest in eastern Tennessee and the Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina.

Fittingly, then, I began my testing of the Cherohala in a national forest too – the New Forest in Hampshire. 

In search of speed

The Cherohala came specced with Continental 32mm road tyres, so for much of my early riding I stuck to tarmac, although I soon realised that despite what DeVaney had said about his aspirations to deliver elite-level road performance, I wasn’t going to enjoy this bike at its best on fast-paced chaingangs.

On the road, at least in this test guise, it felt lethargic, displaying a tardiness in responding to my accelerations and holding speed, forcing me to dig deep to match my usual pace on regular training loops.

Being slightly heavy at 9.29kg was undoubtedly a factor in the bike’s lack of sprightliness, but it wasn’t just about the weight. The frame didn’t seem to have the snappy feel that would allow me to consider it as an accomplished performance road bike.

In this respect, the Cherohala failed to live up to its racy aspirations, but one small change would have me seeing it in a whole new light.

I switched the road rubber for some 35mm gravel tyres and went off to see what the Cherohala could do off-road. Immediately the bike was transformed.

As soon as I ventured away from the tarmac, the Cherohala’s solid build became a real benefit. Its weight felt like less of an issue – in fact, it actually helped give it a reassuringly planted feel as I darted down trails and bridleways.

I felt fully able to push the pace through muddy, rutted tracks and clatter over tree roots and rocks, with the Cherohala at all times feeling balanced and ready for anything.

One of the great things about titanium as a frame material is that it’s tough as nails, so hearing stones flick up off the trail and ping off the underside of the down tube is no cause for alarm, as it might be with a carbon bike.

Plus, this frame will potentially look as good as new in 10 years, no matter how many adventures you have on it.

The own-brand 31.6mm titanium seatpost wasn’t as comfortable as I was hoping it would be, however. It seemed to do only the minimum in absorbing bumps and vibrations and wasn’t as good as many similarly purposed carbon posts I’ve used.

That said, the post on this build had an inline clamp, and I suspect swapping for the offset version may make it more effective.

If I assess the Cherohala as specced, with 32mm road tyres, I would say it’s in danger of languishing in good-but-not-great territory.

That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t make a decent day-tripper/commuter/tourer, but it just isn’t the race-level speed machine it aspired to be.

But if you approach it as a gravel/adventure bike, it has a lot to offer. It’s versatile and fun, and would be even more so if you switched to a 650b wheelset, with even bigger, knobbly tyres.

The front mech is a band-on too, so it can easily be removed if you want to build the Cherohala with a 1x set-up. But versatility is one thing, and do-it-all is something else entirely.

That subtle distinction needs to be reiterated, as I still firmly believe there is no such thing as do-it-all.

Despite what some manufacturers would have us believe, you simply can’t have elite level road performance and a hardy gravel/adventure bike in the same frame, as one necessarily precludes the other.

Buy now from Litespeed

Specification

Litespeed Cherohala SE
Frame Titanium
Groupset Shimano Ultegra R8000
Brakes Shimano Ultegra R8000
Chainset Shimano Ultegra R8000
Cassette Shimano Ultegra R8000
Bars 3T Ergonova
Stem 3T ARX II
Seatpost Litespeed Titanium
Wheels Easton EA70 SL wheels, Continental Grandsport Race 32mm tyres
Saddle Prologo Nago Evo
Weight 9.29kg (size ML)
Contact shop.litespeed.com

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