THE ESQUIRE SL
The Roadie Clydesdale
Unsolicited bike review: Johnson Esquire SL 56cm and Featherlight Elysian Wheelset
At first I thought it was silly to write a bike review. I am 42, overweight and it’s been a long time since I raced so who would be interested I thought?
Then it dawned on me that it really is a small percentage of riders that actually buy a bike with the intention of racing. Most are in a similar position to me in that they enjoy riding for the social banter and health benefits if not for the occasional mass start fun ride.
I have been riding bikes for around 30 years. I have raced road, track and triathlon at a reasonable level and on reflection ridden a LOT of different bikes, components and terrains all over the world. So although I don’t claim to be an expert, I guess I have the benefit of not being aligned to any brand or set up other than an unashamed love for Eddy Merckx bikes! I currently own steel, carbon and titanium bikes across road, cyclocross and track breeds- some of which are genuine pro ‘team bikes’ from the 80’s, 90’s and current day.
I will declare that I have previously owned a Johnson Esquire SL- it was one of the first models in a 58cm with Super Record Campagnolo, Bora Ultra wheels and Enve cock-pit and seat post. However I reluctantly parted with this rig when a mate broke his bike and needed a loaner. Long story but he ended up buying it off me with my intention to replace it with a 56cm. 12 months on I still haven’t quite replaced it.
Now I find myself in Noosa getting back on the bike after a long hiatus (good paddock some say) and enjoying the awesome local rides. I have brought my Eddy Merckx EMX 525 with me. A very special machine, but in hindsight a little ‘race bred’ for my current form and local roads. However by this stage I have had 2 ½ weeks of riding and I am in the groove. So why not call Ben Johnson and see if he will part with a 56 Esquire for me to ‘test’ while I am here.
Ben Johnson is a local, his family has run the Noosa Bike Shop for over 30 years and the man himself is a former World Tour Professional and decorated cyclist. So without going into his full palmares, he knows bikes.
BINGO! In usual Benny J style my call is met with immediate positive feedback- “just let me know when you want to have a ride mate and I’ll build one up for you”. WOW- he’s letting this hubbard loose on a new steed!
Ben and I share a love of cycling. Of old bikes, tradition, old school stuff like watching Greg LeMond winning the 1989 Tour de France by 8 seconds on VHS. He has forgotten more about new cycling technology than I’ll ever know so as we banter while he is building up the new Esquire SL I admit to being out of my depth. His passion for his product is evident in the detail of the manufacturing process, the recent changes to both his frame and wheel production and his giggle at my ‘old school’ set up on my Merckx that he is taking measurements from.
The Johnson Esquire SL that I am drooling over is the latest release. Ben has taken painstaking attention in applying subtle changes to the carbon lay-up in the chain stays and head stem from my original frame. There is also a marked improvement in the overall finish of the frame, every detail has gone up a notch. Given it is a size smaller than my previous bike, I am anticipating a stiffer road feel but Ben assures me that the improved design will be consistent with his original design principles of traditional feel coupled with responsiveness and stiffness that new carbon technology delivers.
Ben has built the frame up with Campagnolo Chorus mechanical components and his latest Featherlight Elysian 50 wheelset with White Industry hubs with Vittoria tyres. It’s a fine build in anyone’s books.
I have been looking forward to riding the Featherlight Elysian’s for a while. Ben is super passionate about his product development and assures me that these are the ‘Ducks nuts’ of new wheel technology.
Build complete, millimeter perfect set up. I’m ready to roll at 5.30 am. My local ride is with a great bunch of mixed experience and fitness with a few holiday-makers thrown in.
I roll down to Noosa Junction from Sunshine Beach with some twists and turns, speed humps and a punchy little rise down into Noosaville. The Esquire feels ‘nimble’ straight away, like its more aggressive in seat tube angle than it actually is. The wheels feel stiff and lively as I spin down to meet the bunch. I am careful to form any early views given the hot mix road under the rubber and a downhill/flat terrain- the ride ahead has some patchy roads at best so I know that we are in for a much more realistic test. But, it feels really good given that I have come off a World Tour set-up on the Eddy Merckx EMX 525.
The ride today is on rolling roads out towards Boreen point. The surface is average with heavy chip in the road and a few dodgy pot holes. The back of the course is worse and this is where the short punchy climbs and rough surface take any rolling momentum away and you find yourself out of the saddle trying to keep a reasonable pace or in my case, trying to stay in the group!
I am used to riding 44 cm bars and today I am on 42’s which accentuate the road feel but I am impressed with the overall ride and road ‘feel’ that the Esquire is producing. There is no harshness coming from what are super stiff one-piece carbon rims nor from the beefed up rear chain-stays. The front end of the frame feels robust yet forgiving over the rough surface and there is a great compliment in the rear end of a stiff wheel and compliant performance of the ‘thinstay compliance’ carbon technology applied to the seat-stays. The front end of this build feels very similar and just as good as my S-Works Tarmac and frankly they make a great World Tour level frame- although at a significant premium to the Esquire SL. Coming off a super stiff frame like the Merckx the combination of acceleration and stableness from the beefed up chain-stays coupled with the ‘Thinstay Compliance’ is a truly sublime ride.
Rolling back towards Noosaville we travel through some beautiful smooth roads in a more built up area that includes a couple of roundabouts at good tempo and some little rollers easily attacked in the saddle. Once again the cornering and stability of the frame comes to the fore. This is a bike tricking you into feeling comfortable while at the same time tempting you to push its boundaries! Descending down through Gyndier Drive (between the bollards on Strava) the geometry and balance of the frame gave me cornering confidence particularly with the weight transfer through the head stem and forks. Rock solid ‘race’ feel with no slop or obvious flex. Oh and those wheels are as good as I’ve ever ridden. Given my day-to-day ride is on Campy Bora Ultra’s I had expected a less impressive ride performance.
The combination of rigidity (like Liteweights) and responsiveness out of the saddle is a beautiful balance. Remember, at over 100kg, I am pushing the performance of this frame and wheel combination more than most manufacturers would normally like or warrant. I have never been hard on equipment but this is a fairly aggressive test for a very light frame (sub 900 gr) and race bred wheel package. I remember buying some Zipp 404,s a few years ago and they were like jelly compared to the Featherlight Elysian’s that I am on.
At no stage in the ride have I felt any flex in the wheels, no soft front end that in some cases is the wheelset compromising for the over stiff frame of other manufacturers. At all times the Elysian’s were stable, responsive and yet compliant given the rider and road surface. Although I don’t like the white wall finish on the Vittoria clinchers Ben has set me up with, they are a beautiful rolling tyre and I was super impressed with the ride they gave, even if they’re a little ugly!
The 11sp Campagnolo Chorus was smooth as silk- not Super Record EPS smooth but at less than half the cost of the top end grouppo, the chorus was just as responsive and the shifting was faultless.
I have always had the view that ultimately the frame/fork and wheelset is what drives the performance of the overall package. Generally speaking the drive-train and components make little difference other than long term wear and tear, weight and ‘bike porn’ Insta responses! Unless you’re competing at the highest level or have buckets of cash, put your money into your frame and wheels - you’ll thank me for it. It will keep the overall performance high and cost of the build much better for the bank manager’s blood pressure.
Also remember that the cockpit (bars and stem) can make a big difference in comfort. In this case I was on a super stiff 3T cockpit with narrow bars and it felt super stiff on the rough stuff. Depending on the overall build, a good bike fitter or store will work with you on the best combination for your physique, wallet and type of riding you do.
Rolling in for coffee after 80km I am feeling excited about this bike. It has been everything I could have asked for at a price point that is so bloody affordable that you question why we spend so much on other well marketed brands.
The closest comparison that I can make is to the Cervelo R5 or Specialized S-Works Tarmac. These are world class bikes that have won many bike races around the world but I don’t feel that it is unfair to make the comparison. It’s fair to point out that I have not raced any of the bikes but true to my introduction, not many reading this will.
The overall balance of compliance and performance of the Johnson Esquire SL and Featherlight Elysian wheelset combination is as good as anything I’ve ridden. It’s clear that Ben’s passion for bike riding and not just racing lives in the frame set and his racing days live on through the Featherlight package.
So for anyone looking for top end performance and world-class manufacturing finish, you have to look at the Johnson range. It wont cost you a kidney and you will get more looks out on the road that any mass produced, over hyped, globally marketed machine. Go on, be different!
- Greg McDonald (Gmac)
JOHNSON ESQUIRE SL
David Kemp (born 10 April 1984) is an Australian former professional road bicycle racer who competed with the Belgian Veranda's Willems-Accent professional team in 2011, his final season. Kemp secured the contract at the last-minute, after the collapse of Chris White's ill-fated Pegasus Racing/Fly V project.
During his multi-year tenure with the incredibly successful Fly V Australia team - winning over 100 races - Kemp worked primarily as a domestique despite winning the silver medal at the Australian road championships in January 2010 around the tough Bunninoung course. He then went on to finish third overall in the King of the Mountain classification at the Tour Down Under that same year.
"After I retired from racing my bike a couple of years ago I said to myself that when I bought a bike it would have to be classy yet not lack in performance…
After talking with Benny about his new bike venture and taking his bike for a little spin I knew that the Johnson ticked all the boxes that I wanted!
I purchased this bike in December last year and have really loved every second of riding it. The Esquire SL is amazingly balanced, having just the right ratio between stiffness and comfort giving it the smoothest ride - yet all the responsiveness needed under pressure, through corners and when pushing the bike to its limits.
Adding to the amazing ride is Benny’s Featherlight Zephyr wheels - the best carbon wheels I've experienced to be for all conditions. Despite being considerably deep at 60mm, the toroidal shape design is the only wheelset I've been comfortable using in all conditions. I have actually never taken them out! They're too good. It's definitely worth chatting to benny about the technology and testing behind them... it's pretty impressive stuff.
Utilising the best brands in the business for bar and stem combination just adds more class and performance to the already high standard of the bike.
Through my time as a pro I had the chance to race many different types of bikes and I must say that this bike is right up there with the top of the market yet so very reasonably priced for what you get!
I recommend this bike to anyone who wants a bike that is unique in its design and has the performance of a bike that the top pros in the world ride! I would've actually loved this bike when I was racing in the pro peloton..."
- David Kemp (ex-professional)
BICYCLING AUSTRALIA MAGAZINE
Johnson Esquire SL Disc
WHILE THE GLOBAL BRANDS ARRIVE WITH SLICK MARKETING PITCHES AND THE COST BENEFITS OF MASS PRODUCTION, THEY CAN ALSO BRING A LEVEL OF HOMOGENOUS ANONIMITY. LUKE MEERS HAS SPENT SOME TIME RIDING THE ALLURING ORIGINAL JOHNSON ESQUIRE SL DISC, AND SHARES HIS THOUGHTS.
IT IS DIFFICULT FOR A BIKE to distinguish itself from the myriad of other high end carbon bike on the market these days. It seems every manufacturer is claiming to be improving weight, comfort, aerodynamics and rigidity simultaneously. While this
is likely true to some degree due to the ever evolving nature of technology and manufacturing, as consumers it presents a monotonous marketing spiel. Johnson, a Noosa based company provide a small range of bikes, but in their short history have earned a good reputation. The Esquire range of frames in the line-up reflect owner Ben Johnson’s desire for a bike that performs similarly to the top tier of race bikes but gives riding sensation more akin to a quality steel bike. Their latest release is the disc brake equipped Johnson Esquire SL; a bike which manages to stand out from the bunch without resorting to gimmicky features or overly loud design. Rather, it is the refined and measured nature of the bike which sets it apart. There is very little to fault in the bike, from simple, clean aesthetics to fantastic wheels and a well thought out specification list. The whole bike provided little to no ammunition for critique, but was a joy to ride and review.
The Esquire is a beautiful designed frame in terms of geometry and tube profiles. The head tube is noticeably shorter than many of the current endurance style frames. This allows for an aggressive and aerodynamic position on the bike when required. Despite this head tube, much of the rest of the geometry lends itself to comfort, such as the spindly seat stays and reasonably conventional geometry. This balancing act seems to work. I felt immediately at ease on the bike, confident in the handling. I like an aggressive position and the lower front end allowed a suitable seat to stem drop. The paint work is faultless and hugely appealing. I haven’t had so much positive feedback when out riding with the bunch about the look of a bike, or the name either actually.
A light frame (about 1000g), it takes the 886 gram frame of its non-disc-equipped brother but with strength added to the stays, head tube and forks to accommodate the extra loading incurred with disc brakes. The only criticism is that under heavy braking, the bike felt marginally less stable than what I’m used to when riding non-disc bikes. The solid bottom bracket area, despite not being as obviously oversized as many
current frames, provides more than adequate stiffness, with little noticeable flex under heavy accelerations. Johnson designed frame with “box shaped” tube section at the critical junction points and high load areas in order to provide maximum lateral stiffness. As far as could be ascertained during this test, it appears to have worked very well. Herein lies the great appeal of the Johnson; firstly it looks fantastic, and secondly, it delivers all round performance to rival framesets of the big name brands. This is no small feat for what could be described as a boutique company. Despite the level of performance, aesthetic appeal, and limited production volumes the Johnson range of bikes seem quite competitive in the price stakes.
Often there is one component on the specification list of a bike that seems out of place, a mismatch of quality, weight or design. The Johnson Esquire however, seems very well thought out in terms of componentry. The Ergonova bars and 3T stem are comfortable and performance oriented without being over the top. The SRAM red hydraulic groupset does have pros and cons. It is lightweight and good value for money. It offers crisp responsive shifting, giving good level of feedback but could be criticised for requiring too much force to shift, potentially reducing the life of the shifter internals and the cables. The hydraulic discs brakes are powerful, which is fantastic but quickly expose the limits of the rubber, especially for those of us more used to the braking power afforded by average rim brakes. The discussion around discs does not need
to be delved into in too much detail here. In previous reviews I have been vocal in criticising the need for discs on road bikes. Whilst my opinion on this is largely the same, the Johnson Esquire did its utmost to convert me, and was nearly successful. My criticism of discs on road bikes is not so much about the braking but about the compromise on weight and wheels required to accommodate them. Enter the Featherlight Elysian wheels.
These wheels were possibly the highlight of the bike. For the first time riding a disc brake equipped bike, there was no obvious sense of being slowed during climbs and accelerations. The Featherlight wheels can claim most of the credit for this; the tubeless ready carbon clinchers were very lively and felt quick in all conditions. The people at Johnson are quite proud
of what they have achieved with their latest crop of wheels. Whilst keeping their cards relatively close to their proverbial chest, Johnson did reveal that a lot of work had been done on the latest release of wheels. This includes developing a unique high temperature resin as well as new moulds and fabrication methods. The intent was reportedly to set these wheels apart from competitors in a market that is very full of carbon products and spurious claims. The result; a wheelset that is absolutely lovely to ride. The 26mm wide, torroidal shaped, 38mm profile rims felt stable in all the wind conditions encountered during the review. The wheels would best be described as all-rounders and even afford the use of disc brakes without unnecessary bulk at the hub.
In short, the Esquire SL Disc really delivered on the self-imposed brief of Johnson bikes. It rides with the easy going comfort and sense of fun that one would associate with rolling around on an old school steel frame. Yet the wheels and frame dynamics give the sense that the bike is ready for any accelerations or racing loads that us mere mortals could throw at it. For those wanting to venture into the world of disc brakes without needlessly compromising performance, this may well be the bike for you.
Johnson Esquire SL
Johnson Bicycles launches the Esquire SL - It means business...
We first heard about Johnson Bicycles through one of the first Shop Talk’s we did here at Cyclist. We rang Ben Johnson at Noosa Bike Shop and, to our pleasant surprise, he offered to send us a test bike of his all-new, self-titled bike brand. The day it finally arrived, we were like a bunch of kids on Christmas morning – except instead of a red tricycle with a bow on it, we got ourselves a black-and-white speed machine.
As we unwrapped the Johnson Esquire SL it created quite a stir at Cyclist HQ. Everyone in the office – including the IT guys from downstairs – came up to have a look at and ask questions about this bike. The simple black-and-white paint job combined with the mid-depth Featherlight Empyrean wheelset make this bike hotter than a cat on a tin roof.
The idea for Johnson Bicycles and Featherlight components came to be because Johnson was unhappy with the range of cycling gear the big name brands were producing. He realised that most cyclists aren’t chasing a world championship, but still want a bike that performs like they are. Johnson wanted to design a frame that performed like a race bike, but was still comfortable, and didn’t break the bank.
The first thing I noticed about this bike on my inaugural test ride was the Empyrean carbon clinchers. Before I made it to the end of my street I could feel how well these wheels roll, and knew I was in for a good day.
Spinning up remarkably fast, and holding their momentum once you reach about 30 km/h, the Empyreans roll along effortlessly. This may be due
in part to the 25mm width of the rim. The wider rim allows the tyre sit flatter, eliminating the ‘bulge’ you get with a skinnier rim. This incorporates the tyre into the aerodynamics of the wheel, making the wheel as a whole streamlined.
The past unreliability of carbon clinchers is not something Johnson took lightly when he was designing the Empyreans. The potential for the rim to overheat and the tyre to blow is not only dangerous but something that scares riders away from carbon clinchers; it is also an issue that Johnson may have solved.
Some of the resins that are used to make carbon wheels could not withstand the heat needed to bring the bike to a stop without threatening the stability and strength of the wheel.
To overcome this, the Empyreans use a high proprietary TG (glass transition temperature) resin that can withstand excessive heat. This resin is rated at TG 220, which is 30 per cent higher in temperature than what is described as high TG resins from other manufacturers. This, combined with a ceramic break pad that limits heat to 80 degrees Celsius, allows more heat to be put into the rim, producing a much more effective and consistent braking performance.
The ingenuity, however, does not stop there. The bead wall, an area of the rim which is under tremendous pressure, is reinforced with titanium rods underneath the carbon. This prevents the rim walls from folding out like a wet taco shell after extended periods of braking.
Featherlight is not just changing the way we look at carbon wheels; our test bike was fitted with the Featherlight Contour bars. At first glance these look like your standard ergo-shaped handlebars. However, Johnson has taken what he has learned from his experience as a bike fitter and applied it to the Contour.
At the hoods the bars measure 38cm across, while at the drops they are 40cm. This keeps the rider’s shoulders compact and aerodynamic while riding in the hoods. The wider grip in the drops combats the common complaint bike fitters get from riders not being able to breath in the drops. Although it doesn’t sound like much, an extra 2cm opens up the chest just enough to help you breath deeper while also making the brake levers more accessible. Although it is only 2cm, the difference is noticeable and takes some getting use to. When I first set off riding in the hoods it felt more like my hands were on the tops, and every time I transitioned from the drops to the hoods it felt slightly precarious.
The Esquire SL frame is extremely lightweight, fast, and comfortable. Thinline carbon-compliant seat stays are designed to bend and flex without sacrificing any lateral stiffness, making for an extremely comfortable ride. However there is no loss of power transfer due to the square carbon tubing, which all comes together at the cranks. The mass of carbon surrounding the BB30 bottom bracket ensures there is no power lost due to flex.
A testament to the performance of this frame, on one ride I managed to break 38 personal bests on Strava segments and get a KOM (which I am sad to say was beaten shortly after we sent this bike back). This bike is a refined machine that would be comfortable in any criterium, road race, or a lazy spin on a sunny afternoon.
The Esquire SL combines the performance of an all-out race bike, with the comfort every rider wishes a race bike had. Even built up with a full Campagnolo Record 11-speed groupset and Featherlight Empyrean carbon clinchers, this bike does not break the bank.
Coming in at $6,499, the Esquire SL gives you more bang for your buck than any other bike we’ve tested so far. It’s no wonder Olympic gold medallist and Australian national team coach, Bradley McGee, has one on pre-order. I might just join that list.
- Colin Levtich (Cyclist Magazine)
I knew of Ben and Johnson Bikes from spending some time around Noosa, so when I began looking for a new bike I sought more details on what he could offer. I wanted something that I could throw around a crit, race once a week and use to climb mountains the next. I basically wanted a bike that did it all. It seemed like a tough ask - there's usually something you have to sacrifice... But The Cavalier was exactly the right bike choice!
I love the bike's has a minimalist aesthetic - it turns heads on any ride I do. Perhaps the first sign I knew I had made the right choice was experiencing the responsiveness when I put power down out of a tight corner - descending has never been more fun! The bike is stiff where I want it to be and remains comfortable all day long. Coupled with the faultless Dura Ace group-set, it is a bike I can see myself riding for many years.
Ben had been talking to me about all this knew development for his new Featherlight wheels... I could tell it was perhaps the most exciting thing he was working on. It seemed the Elysian wheelset would suit that all round ridability I was looking for. Just the specs sounded incredible. And more than what other manufacturers seemed to be doing... One of the first rides I did on them was a wet day in the Dandenong Ranges and that was enough for me to agree they were something special! I’ve done plenty of racing on tubular wheelsets and in my mind that is the only thing that has come close to these for effortless accelerations and stiffness. The best thing is, I don’t feel like I have had to compromise anything for convenience, safety or braking performance for the privilege on riding clinchers. The way the tyre sits on the rim, at 26mm they ride like tubulars - they even look like tubulars!
All together the Johnson/Featherlight package is superb. These bikes have a classic look and the technology behind them is fascinating and clearly well refined. If you need to squeeze the most performance out of your dollar I can’t recommend Johnson Bikes enough.
- Dylan Nankivel