A few months ago I needed a new frame and I had the choice of purchasing a floor model Photon, or Tarmac SL-3. Having just come off a 2009 Tarmac Pro SL and recently tested several other frames I determined that there was no way the new iteration of the Tarmac could possibly compare. Furthermore, after reading so much about how dreamy the ride of the Photon was I just had to have it.
I was very impressed initially. The bike seemed very stiff, it soaked up road buzz better than the old Tarmac, and it seemed to handle pretty well. It had the 'extra layup' so I assumed it was due to that. I was impressed. The ride quality was far better than I thought was possible and I enjoyed everything about the frame aside from the looks (I think it looks kinda hideous).
I rode the bike from July until this past week. I rode thousands of miles on it in the Alps and Juras, took it on spirited group rides, training races, you name it. Its been through every type of riding that a hobbyist could possibly do. Its had different tubular wheels on it (Fulcrum Racing Speeds, rented LW Gen IIIs, Zipp 404s), tubeless setups, wide rimmed setups, multiple random training wheel setups, several saddles, posts, stem angles and lengths, bars, bartapes, etc. I can say that whatever discrepancies I have with the frame aren't due to bad parts or a bad fit. I've been Retul'ed by a former Masters TT champ and I'm damn confident of my fit on the bike.
I've also tested other bikes in the meantime. LOTS. I've tried a BMC Team Machine, a Colnago CX-1, a Cannondale SuperSix, a Cannondale CAAD10 (shorter ride), a Specialized Allez, a Van Dessel Rivet, several different cross bikes, a Pinarello Prince (shorter test), and a few other short rides here and there. Rating these bikes isn't the point of this review, but I've ridden everything from super stiff to super plush adjusted to the same fit specs and with the same saddle and wheels.
Onto the review:
This frame is stiffer than I'd expect and had a stiff BB, but I found it lacking even with the extra layup. My Van Dessel Gin and Trombones was even quite a bit stiffer at the BB and the front end. When I got Retul'ed I found out that my old fit on my Tarmac had placed me over the front end too much and I found it to be a bit noticeable at times. It wasn't until I actually tried a SuperSix and rode a new SL-3 that I realized exactly how not stiff my Guru was. The Edge fork helps the front end quite a bit, but the bike felt whippy and sluggish in a sprint and out of the saddle climbing/under hard accelerations. I would go so far as to say that I found even the Team Machine to have a stiffer bb/front and reviews claim that that bike is rather plush by modern standards. I feel sorry for the people that didn't get the extra layup. I would easily accept 100 more grams to have a stiffer bb/chainstay setup. It wasn't until I switched to my current bike that I noticed exactly how sluggish the Guru felt in such situations. The front end has quite a bit of whip and the high BB only helps to accentuate this due to the fact that it effects side to side motion in such situations. For something that retails for $4900 I'd say that it underperforms in this category to a pretty big degree.
Ride Quality: 8/10
The Guru did ride smoother than all of the aluminum bikes I rode, the SuperSix, and the Prince. It definitely blew my old Tarmac Pro SL out of the water in this category, but again, it isn't that remarkable. I now own an SL-3 and find the ride to be far smoother over every single possible type of terrain. I'm riding the same parts, on the same roads, and on the same rides and I was almost shocked to realize that the frame wasn't exactly what I thought it was. Also, I will note that when it came back to me sans ISP the ride was noticeably less comfortable then before. Again, I know the SL-3 isn't the be all and end all of frames, but I would expect that a company that is able to handmake its bikes would somehow be able to tune it for a smoother ride than something that is mass produced in a factory overseas. I would normally blame the stiffness for a harsh ride, but this wasn't exactly stiff either. I would honestly say that the stiffness was lacking enough and the ride quality wasn't amazing enough to warrant purchasing this frame over a CAAD10, Tarmac, or anything I've tried in the same general price range (keep in mind I got my SL-3 through a team deal so its the same as buying a non-team CAAD). Yes, I would take an aluminum CAAD over the 'Dream Bike of the Year' almost any day unless I was doing 8 hour per day Gran Fondos.
Geometry is custom so I can't fault them for that and I will say that the geometry was not to my liking. The bike had a 68mm bb drop, a 72.5 degree HTA, a 73.5 degree STA, chainstays as long as my cross bike, and a fairly tall head tube. It doesn't fit my style of riding, but worked well in the Alps when I was doing a lot of touring. I didn't find the bike to be too stable, but I have not let this impact the score since its changeable.
Build Quality: 4/10
I won't delve into the cracking problems I had with this frame too much since thats already been documented all over this forum, however, I will mention that its rather peculiar that I've managed to not break frames from other manufacturers doing the same type of riding/racing at the same weight with the same riding style. I'm not that hard on my bikes. Anyways, the finish is what I would say is abysmal. The Photon logos began to randomly flake off (when it was white logoed) and then the clearcoat started to crack. You could tell the paint job was rushed because there were obvious areas where you could tell they didn't spray the frame evenly and allow it to cure right and there was build up from where the paint pooled on the masking tape. I've seen Fujis from Performance Bike with better paint jobs. When I got the bike back the second time the paint was even worse. It looked like some kid bought spray paint, made a stencil and threw it up real quick. The color didn't match the color guide on the website and the clearcoat was worse than before. It started chipping and flaking after two weeks and seemed to be more dull than the first time. I know people aren't buying this bike because they want a ridiculous paint job-there are Colnagos and Pinarellos out there to satisfy that desire, but the frame costs what it does and shouldn't have such an awful attention to detail. People would be better off ordering it completely raw and riding it like that.
Customer Service: 5/10
Everyone is already familiar with my first set of problems with Guru and after being extensively PM'ed by other Guru owners, I'm not the only one with a problem lets just say that. I realize that Guru is a niche company with a very small production capability, but to have every single thing questioned and have to go through the process of shipping the frame back, having it inspected, and trying to prove it wasn't my fault is rather annoying. The turn around time is pretty long, so if I were to have a problem during race season I'd be without a frame for a month. Since I've already established that the frame has no comparative stiffness or ride quality advantages over any other frames that cost half as much and the paint quality is terrible, then I would hope that maybe the money buys you something in the customer service department. I received extremely prompt service after I publicized my problem, but it shouldn't come to that. Phil was pleasant to deal with and I recommend that if anyone has questions about their frame or potential products to go to him.
This frame doesn't do a damn thing that any commercially available frame doesn't already do and for far less (with the exception of the Prince). A few of the frames I rode were not as smooth, or maybe not as stiff, but several were both, had better paint (a model painted by a 14 year old would have better paint honestly), and much better customer service/warranty reputations. I want a stiff, reactive race frame thats reactive in all senses. Snappy, not twitchy; stiff, but not punishing; and durable. I'm not too concerned about looks, but I'd prefer that I get my money's worth in terms of finish quality. I also would like easy-to-deal-with customer service in case of crashes or frame breakages during the race season. The Photon is batting 0 for 0 on all of these. Make no mistake its not the worst bike I've ever ridden and is still better than the 2009 Tarmac I came off of before that, but I must say that it is not deserving of a dream bike of the year rating unless that award is based on paying a lot for something unique that really isn't. There are a lot of readily available bikes out there that do what it does and far better. Its not a bad bike, but its not great either. I hope that others that get Gurus have better luck and find the ride better.
Final rating: 25.5/40
Don't take me too seriously. GramzStrava