Cervelo S5 First Ride

The last few weeks have been crazy enough that I’ve got a few different bike posts I’d planned to have up before Interbike that, well, I’m just now getting around to.


To some degree these are going to go up in reverse order of how the events have actually taken place. First up is the Cervelo S5; it will be followed (shortly) with reviews of the Focus Izalco Pro and Cervelo R3.

The S5 reviewette (new word, you heard it here first) came about as a result of Mark Reidy of True Communications. Mark is handling some endemic media duties for Cervelo and had the bright idea to get a bunch of S5s in different sizes and then host a bunch of writers to an afternoon ride in the canyons of Malibu.

Why more PR/marketing types don’t do this is an absolute wonder. If they did more of this, we’d be less inclined to call them hacks.

We met at the Starbucks that practically sits in the shadow of Pepperdine University (also known as the site of Landis’ Last Stand). Sit here for an hour and you’ll see someone paparazzi-worth. I’ve seen Pamela Anderson, Tony Danza, a Brolin, and scores of minor celebs whose faces I recognized but whose roles were as lost to me as the name of my kindergarten teacher.

In the interest of full disclosure, Mark reminded us to bring our pedals no less than three times. Remember them I did. The shoes? Uh, a cat attempting to escape short-circuited me and I left the shoes behind. That’s not really the disclosure bit; this is: I did the whole ride in Vans and pushing giant downhill-style platform pedals.

The loop we chose had plenty of climbing. They were roads I know well and even though the shoes were wrong, I could tell plenty about the bike from the bar and saddle. The short answer is that I was surprised by my experience.

I’ve spoken with Phil White on a couple of occasions about his company’s designs. When last we spoke the S5 wasn’t yet out, but the S3 was. I’d told him about my review of the SLC-SL, which was the single most unpleasant-riding carbon fiber bike I’ve encountered. I could have more fun in front of a firing squad. White was adamant that the S3 would be a different experience. In riding the S5, I rather skipped a generation of development.

Latigo Canyon Road is a 12k climb and a fair bit of the asphalt is less than perfect. I know how my own bikes feel there. The only detail the S5 shares with the SLC-SL is that both are rather aerodynamic. Where the SLC-SL makes rough road feel like pavé, the S5 leaves it at rough. I’ve ridden other non-aero carbon fiber bikes that were less forgiving.

It was apparent in talking to him that White really favored Cervelo’s aero designs over its popular R-series. Honestly, I think they’d discontinue the R bikes if it wouldn’t hurt their sales. It’s an impression Mark backed up. He told me they don’t understand why someone would choose an R over an S.

Part of this has to do with what they understand about aerodynamics versus what most of us don’t understand about it. I’ve been told by several engineers and product managers that all the significant gains in bike design in the future will be in aerodynamics. The only way to make a bike significantly faster will be to make it more aerodynamic.

My response to the assertion that I should go with an aero road bike has been my regard for my undercarriage. I like it. I want to keep it. I want to avoid unnecessary scar tissue in my nether regions.

Is the S5 as comfortable as an R3? That seems to be the $64,000 question. The short answer is no. It’s not as comfortable. But it’s not the Muy Thai beating that I’ve come to expect either.

That minor loss of comfort was the most apparent difference to the R3 I’ve been riding. It’s difficult to try to quantify the aerodynamic gains; I’d have an easier time getting a feel for that on group rides. Time spent at the front of a group ride is where I get my best feedback on aerodynamics.

The crisp handling I’ve come to revere in the R3 was present in the S5. I was afraid it might not handle well on descents, but given that I did 45 mph coming down Decker Canyon in Vans, I’m going to suggest is indication that I was comfortable with the bike’s handling. I’ve gone faster, but never in sneakers.

You know what I’d really love to try? Either the R3 or the S5 in nude finishes—just decals, no paint. The liveliest carbon fiber frames I’ve ridden feature no paint. That’s for another post, though.

The aero road bike was a screwy idea five years ago. It was still bleeding edge two years ago. Today, I think the idea has come of age. There’s still a weight/torsional stiffness penalty with these bikes, but they are so much better than they used to be bikes like the S5 really don’t deserve to be compared to creations like the SLC-SL.

I’ve got to give White and his partner Gerard Vroomen credit. They have really taken a stand on aerodynamics. The aero road bike is something of a mission for them. They really don’t care what you think; they believe you’ll be faster on an aero bike, and from all appearances, they care more about your speed than your opinion.


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  1. velomonkey

    Cervelo is an interesting company. I don’t know anyone who didn’t “want” an SL or an R3 back in the CSC days when they were all on 7800 and Jens wore Yellow and Fabian was coming of age. I rode both an SL and R3 for a week and I have to say – unimpressed. I liked the SL better and the R3 I really wanted to like, but it felt too much like my CAAD Dale. It was stiff, sure, but it was a sloppy and dead ride. I also think their quality of materials is uninspiring. This is why you probably don’t see a nude finish. A nude colnago EPQ or C59 and a nude, say, parlee Z3, are two completely different finishes – they share almost no traits. However, a colnago is a colnago – you are paying for the artisan – and a parlee is a parlee, it’s for the rider who wants a tool for a job. Cervelo as a company is in between – it’s a made in China like a Parlee, but it’s not priced like a Parlee. I’m not sure aero and BB right are enough to justify the price difference. I will say this, they came in small into market and with them and Riis and the riders they got big quick and for that they should be commended.

  2. todd k

    I continue to struggle with functionality over form as we move into the more aerodynamic age of carbon fiber. From an aesthetic perspective I really dislike this bike. The flow (or lack of) in the rear triangle turns me off. I feel shallow for shelling it based on that alone, but the general appearance just does not speak to me and that impression is so strong that it really challenges me to give fair shake to the performance benefits this design offers.

    Certainly if I was only racing a given road bike, I would give nod to any performance gain I could get my hands on with respect to frame, frame material, frame geometry, frame desigin, etc…

    But when I think of day in and day out riding a given bike and walking into my garage each day, a lot of these modern aerodynamic carbon fiber frame designs leave me cold. They do little to inspire me to ride them. Ride them for fun, or training, or in a fondo/century? Given a choice, I would tend to choose something a lot more traditional with respect to design. Even if I *knew* the more modern bike was superior from a metric perspective.

    Not a knock on Vroomen or Cervelo. I love reading Vroomen’s blog posts and he has compelling principals that I often share. From a race perspective they are probably spot on in the direction they are going.

  3. naisan

    I am really interested in the exact sensation details between the r5 and s5 for instance: how much of a beating did it give you and would you choose one bike versus the other for x or y?

    I have a r3sl that is developing cracks around the BB, and it’s just a matter of time before it fails and I have to choose a replacement.

  4. George

    I ride Cervelos! I have 3 bikes, two of them Cervelo. If Cervelo made a Cross bike, the third one would be a Cervelo as well. I am not a hugely experienced rider, but I had the Soloist, the RS, the S3, and now the 2011 R3 and the 2010 P3. I don’t even look at other bikes. My R3 and I are a team.

    Would I replace my R3/P3 Combo with an S5? I don’t know. I’ve never ridden a “Road Type” bike in a triathlon. Plus, I like having more than one bike in case something happens to that bike.

    Cervelo has it right.


    hi padraig,

    pretty impressive poste here – i envy you having the chance to testride your S5. i agree – it must be a very impressive bike.

    but – i think as long as there are 3 unsolved “penalties” – as you call it – aero-bikes like the S5 wont reach the hearts of the riders: stiffness, weight and emotion.

    i think the S5 marks a clear step forward in terms of a truly unique, new design (until now, every aero-bike looks the same / well, except scott´s foil) but when you browse the blogs and forums or even talk to people – it does not really reach their hearts.

    look at the R5 VWD – this is a bike that touches people. that really moves hearts and minds.

    besides, as long as the so called “aero-advantages” cannot be underlined with facts, aero will remain a marketing-gag, not a sstep forward as it is considered by most people now.

    i love cervélo.

    i ride one.

    but if i had the money, i would definetely get the R5 VWD.

    riding (and buying) a bike is a state of mind.

    greets from germany.

  6. Jarvis

    Padraig, as I have said before, I don’t know anyone who does a better bike review than you. All that is left is to hand frames over to an engineer to carry out stiffness & flex testing…

  7. randomactsofcycling

    I’ve been riding an R5 for six months now. It’s my first Cervelo after spending 7 years on LOOKS of various carbons. It’s also my first monocoque frame. I remember being amazed at being able to truly feel the difference the first time I rode the Cervelo. I swapped all my old components over, so it was a straight comparison.
    To summarise my experience, everything about the Cervelo is to make you faster. Screw comfort. It’s not an uncomfortable bike by any means (I previously rode a LOOK 595 and it was luxe) but I always feel like it wants to go fast. And it feels better the faster I go.
    However, given how much frontal area a rider presents I question whether investing money in engineering an aero ‘road’ bike is really going to get good returns…..but I suppose bike development has to go in some direction.

    1. Author

      Wayne: Wander by the post I composed last night: “Just What Is Road Feel?” http://bit.ly/oABflY

      Vman455: I need to ask the folks at Cervelo why they aren’t doing it currently. Though the R5ca has a matte finish, it’s still covered with paint, just less of it.

  8. Vman455

    velomonkey, Cervelo has used nude finishes in the past. I have a 2007 R3SL that looks really cool when the light hits it right, because you can see the carbon plies under the clearcoat.

  9. Vman455

    I would be interested in the answer to that. I understood it was a weight-saving measure, based on several reviews I read before buying the bike. Granted, it wouldn’t save much, but that combined with the looks would be a strong argument for leaving it bare, I would think…

  10. DJTempo

    Well gang… I’ve ridden so many bikes over the last 20 years, I’ve lost track. I’ve worked in 2 different bike shops, and am friends with everyone working in all the other shops in the Dallas area. So, I can “borrow” just about anything I want for a weekend.

    The single biggest leap in riding performance I experienced was going from (everything before it) to the Trek 5500. After that, it was all the other TT/aero bikes to the Trek Team Time Trial. Then it was the TTT to the P4 (which I now own). Riding the S5, I have the same reaction I felt when I first went to the 5500… like it was in a class of it’s own, comparable to nothing else.

    I created a term: “pre-emptive acceleration” when I test rode an S2. You think about the bike going faster, and it just goes. It more-so applies to the S5. Purely a subjective opinion, but I felt like the S5 was a sports car, and everything prior to it was a mini-van. It was quick, VERY responsive, and handled well. Enjoyed it so much, I got back from my second test ride (tried a pair of Specialized’s over the weeks in between), and put a deposit on a frame that won’t be in stock for a couple more months. I’m collecting the parts in the mean time.

    I’m very content to have 2 Cervelo’s in the garage now (one pending). I feel like I can’t do any better.

  11. DJTempo

    Oh… and I wear Vans every day. But I think I’d have to try the test ride again if I had to wear them for an actual test-ride that was going to print. Can’t even begin to subjectify BB stiffness and frame flex unless you’re clipped in. Just sayin…

  12. marvo larvo

    the science behind aero frames (even rims to a lesser degree) is realy shaky, no way to truly compare products in real life settings

    believe the theory, fall for the hype, drool over the pictures and spend the money

  13. DJTempo

    Marvo… I’d have to disagree, to an extent. It’s all about the way a bike rides in “real life settings” that amounts to the changes we seek and what we’re spending our money on. I’d seriously consider the result from a lab test, but until I actually get it out on the road and see how it feels and responds, I’m not going to make a purchasing decision.

    When testing frames, I always use the same wheels and saddle, and generally do the same course/ride with the same people. If I’m intrigued, THEN I take it out on my own (same wheels/seat) for some additional “testing”.

    There is no way to quantify ride quality. That is up to the individual.

  14. Dan P

    I second Todd K’s sentiments. Since I don’t earn my paycheck from racing and instead “pay to play,” I need more from my day to day bike than pure performance – especially if those minor advantages come with the aesthetic costs that aero bikes often do. If your bike is to some extent symbolic of your cycling lifestyle then shouldn’t it be a thing of beauty (for some people maybe that’s an S5…)?

    Think about it, as an amateur, once you spend 3-5k on a frame, the performance increases you’re getting by getting y frame instead of x frame because y frame supposedly is z% more aero…PALE in comparison to the performance increases you get by A) riding an hour or two more of focused training per week, B) losing a little weight, or even C) optimizing your riding position…..I’m getting off topic, but my point is simply that form is a very important aspect of cycling (imo).

    1. Author

      All, thanks for you comments … that said, I feel a need to do a little push-back here.

      I firmly believe that a better bicycle yields a better riding experience and if you start to string a bunch of better riding experiences together, you wind up with a better life. I don’t see the point in admonishing riders to train more or lose weight. I ride as many hours in the week as my schedule, neck and legs will permit. I try to eat smart, but I refuse to forego wine except in the off season (when does that occur again?) because I like to enjoy myself. And even if I did those things, I lighter me or a better fit me doesn’t change what a new bike can change. I assume that if you drop more than $3k on a bike you are also dropping some cash to get a good fit. I respect that the comment regarded the importance of form and wasn’t directed at the writer, but I suspect that I’m not alone in my life constraints. We are, each of us, the most rider we can be. Changing the bike, no matter who you are, can change the experience.

  15. Chip Tredo

    Dan… I LOVE the look of the S5 (and my P4). It’s all up to the individual in that arena.

    And I state again (the previous times might not have been on this site) that if you are judging the S5 based on it’s looks, you need to take it for a ride (Cervelo, and it’s dealers, offer FREE test-rides). THEN, and only then, will you understand. It’s worth every penny of the $3k frame cost to me. I’m just a “recreational” rider (only do a couple races a year, mainly to gauge my fitness), but I do appreciate a “properly designed” race bike. One that works to make my efforts more productive, rather than to hold me back.

  16. J-Go

    i can’t stand it when people say just train harder rather than spend money on the latest advancements. i don’t know anyone who is presently racing who would train less if they got an S5 or Scott Foil. i think everyone trains as much as their family, job, social life will allow. during the season. i’m at 10% body fat, train 6-7 days a week, it’s hard to imagine training any harder without quitting my job. why not get a bike that might help?

    i’m very skeptical of Cervelo’s claim of requiring 30 watts less to ride at 30mph as compared to a round tubed bike. it might be true but i am assuming they are comparing the S5 to a steel tube framed bike so as to put the S5 in the best possible light.

    having said that, i’ve read the propaganda, listened tot he salestalk, seen the videos, and even talked to the Cevelo rep 1st hand, and i’m starting to come around and believe that aero is the way forward in cycling.

  17. Oahu Joe

    I just got my S5 team built with RED 2 days ago. I did 40 miles on rolling roads in NorCal this am. Quite frankly, the ride is smoother than the SLC I used to own. On the climb, I do really feel that the bike is more sluggish than my FOIL.
    Acceleration is a bit slower too, compared to the FOIL. On the plus side, in the headwind the S5 is nicely stable. It corners quite well too. Just my 2 cents, thx for reading. I will have to ride it some more and take it up some cat 1 and cat 3 climbs around here. If anyone were to own buy just one bike, I would steer him/her towards the FOIL for sure.

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