Déjà vu all over again: The 2011 Lightning P-38

by Larry Varney
Co-Editor, ’BentRider Online
January 9, 2011

Last year I saw a Lightning P-38 at Fairifeld Cyclery. It was a trade-in, and I knew one thing: I wanted to take a ride on it. This is one bike I had never ridden, and its reputation had always intrigued me. Was it as good as I had heard? After an hour or so on this used one, I had decided: yes. And now I own a lightly-used, component-upgraded, Lightning Cycle Dynanics P-38! I was curious about the age of the bike — it really was in great shape. It wasn’t until I got the word back from Lightning that, based on the frame number, my shiny new red P-38 was a 1991 model! Some components, such as the rear cogs, had been upgraded at some point, but essentially I had a 20-year-old bike! And that got me to thinking: such a nice round number, I wonder what changes there have been in the interim, and how would this old bike compare to a 2011 P-38. I got in touch with Tim Brummer, and the rest is history. Is the new one different? Better? Read on!

When you first look at the two bikes, you won’t see many differences, especially if they aren’t sitting side-by-side. Many of the changes are internal and impossible to spot. Such as: the frame geometry itself has been tweaked over the years. That early model handles great, and while i wish I could quantify any handling differences, it would be nearly impossible to do so — especially if you toss in the fact that the tires and wheels are different on the two. Suffice it to say that while I found that my 1991 P-38 rides smoothly, climbs very well, and handles slow-speed maneuvers in an agile manner, this new one feels even better. I don’t think it’s merely a placebo effect, since I had a couple of friends take a spin on each, and they felt that the new one was better too, and they had no subconscious need to think the old one was just as good.

You may notice that my old model has an odd-looking boom. Evidently a small frame size (new P-38s come in four frame sizes, btw), with a 16-inch front wheel, the boom just wasn’t long enough to fit me. Did that mean I wouldn’t buy it? Of course not! A friend of a friend is a great welder, so in short order I had a boom that fit. Oh, and that wouldn’t be quite as easy in the case of the newer model, as yet another hard-to-spot difference is that the new booms are aluminum, not steel.

Speaking of the frame, the tubing is now tapered or butted, which isn’t a visible difference, but one thing is: just in front of the seat, you’ll notice that the new model has a tube connecting the upper triangle of the frame. This makes it stiffer, which is a Good Thing when it comes to handling in general, and especially in climbing. This may be one of the prime reasons that, while my bike does both of those well, this new one does it even better.

While you are looking at that tube on the top of the frame, you may spot another visible difference, one that makes a lot of difference to some riders. My one complaint about my old P-38 involves the seat, and specifically how its design makes it difficult to mount water bottle cages in the spots provide, one on either side and underneath the seat. Sure, you can put cages there, but the front of the seat frame curves down and effectively means you can use only the smallest water bottles. I like large bottles, and they just won’t fit on my bike. This new seat is designed so that it no longer blocks the cage area. Bring on the big bottles!

Looking further forward, we find other changes. The handlebar and stem are two pieces with a tilt steering option. The cranks are Lightning’s own design, a beautiful carbon setup, with a 2×9 wide-range gearing. I do have to say that while I found those cranks to be lovely, my miserly nature would probably take over and lead me to order a much cheaper option. Great cranks, and if you have the money, buy them.

That goes for the wheels, too. You can, if you are cheap like me, decide on less-expensive components. The cranks are great, and the Velocity wheels add to the eye candy appeal, and like most high-end components, they tend to be lighter. If you want a bike that has visual appeal to match how it rides, get both. I know I got lots of favorable comments on merely the looks of the bike, which matched the opinions regarding the performance after they had ridden it.

For those of you who like to read the numbers about a bike, here are some specifications for you:

Rider height range: 5′2″ to 6′8″ (as low as 4′9″ for the LX and XT models of the P-38)
Weight limit: 250 pounds (XL frame)
Bike weight: 22 to 24 pounds Velocity 2×9 model, 23 to 25 for LX and XT
Wheelbase: 41 to 45.5 inches
Overall length: 60 to 74 inches
Bottom bracket height: 24 to 26 inches
Seat height: 18 to 20 inches
Seat angle: 50 to 65 degrees
Gear range: 27 to 123 gear inches

As for the components used, they are detailed on the Lightning website. As I have mentioned, this particular model used the best that can be found.

I wish I did have some specific piece of data that would show the handling differences between the two, but I don’t. As I mentioned earlier, they both handle great, but I feel that the new one is even better. Climbing is as good as it gets with an engine as old as mine, and the stability at both low and high speeds is reassuring. I was able to briefly ride with no hands without any moments of panic. I would purposely slow down as much as possible, to see when any wobbles would show themselves, and I found that 2 mph was no problem on this bike. At that point, some quick revolutions of the pedals on those lovely cranks, some upshifts on the bar-ends, and I was flying along fast and smooth, with probably a big smile on my face. This bike does that to you!

I have heard some people say they don’t like the feel of the P-38’s seat. Granted, the comfort of a seat is a very personal matter. What suits you may not suit another. I have found that both the old and the new seats are very comfortable — the mesh is cooling, and the angles help get more power to the pedals. I always suggest a test ride whenever possible, just to be sure that you like the feel of anything, especially seats. I suspect that you, like most, will like the P-38 seat, especially this new one and its changes that allow access to larger water bottles.

Finally, while I am very glad that I snatched up that bargain P-38 when I saw it at Fairfield Cyclery, I do feel a bit of envy when I ride it now, knowing that an even better version is available. Don’t wait twenty years to get such a great bike: buy one now!

Lightning Cycle Dynamics P-38 Velocity 2×9

Pros: Comfortable, fast, handles as good as it looks
Cons: Some of the options are expensive (I’m cheap!)
MSRP as tested: $4,200 USD

Reprinted by permission