The world changed when the bike industry moved to carbon fiber for fabricating most high-end bicycle frames. The shifts were myriad. Many of the bigger companies began employing engineers for the first time ever. Most of the bigger companies either started producing what was effectively their own tubing for the first time or had someone else produce tubing for them, to their spec. The way marketing materials were written changed as they sought to attempt to both hide what materials they used even as they tried to pitch the objective advantage their materials offered the buyer.
It was a helluva change.
Think back. For those of you who went through a steel frame or three before buying a first carbon fiber frame, you’ll recall that bike companies, as well as small framebuilders, all touted just whose tubing they used. So much so, they put a sticker on the seat tube announcing just what they used. It was anything other than a secret.
How companies like Trek, Specialized, Felt, Zipp and others deal with their materials is very different. They effectively create their own alloy by buying carbon fiber from different mills and blending it within their frames as they see fit. To make matters worse, when you try to talk to the folks charged with media relations, one will talk about sourcing from Toray (one of the big mills), while another will talk about modulus and tell you the source doesn’t matter, while another will say modulus doesn’t matter, compaction and resin are the issues. It’s maddening.
Without the benefit of that tubing sticker, bike companies go to great lengths to check out the work of their competitors. They have two primary tools at their disposal. The first is the saw. They will cut frames apart to see what’s inside. They can get a look at exactly what fibers are being used. The other method involves baking. A frame can be put in an oven and baked apart; all you have to do is exceed the resin’s cure temperature. What it yields is a bunch of sheets of carbon fiber. You can see the exact shape and position of ever sheet used. Unfortunately, this method of investigation comes with a downside. You can’t tell what any of the sheets of fiber were; there’s no telling if they were intermediate modulus, high modulus or ultra-high modulus.
I’ve long admired Cervelo’s work, even if I have found some of their designs less than attractive, or comfortable. The SLC-SL remains one of the most unpleasant to ride bikes I’ve ever swung a leg over. But with a pair of Zipps, it was a very fast bike. I found myself constantly scrubbing speed inside the group. What was more impressive about the bike was its torsional stiffness. The bike, despite its aerodynamic-profile tubes, didn’t twist to any appreciable degree. I’ve been on many similarly shaped frames that would twist under a hard acceleration even while firmly ensconced in the saddle.
What elevated my regard for Cervelo’s work a few years ago came not from anything their PR people told me, not from a big win aboard one of their bikes and certainly not from some bike magazine review. An engineer for one of their competitors had baked apart a frame and told me of the sophisticated layup they were using. That there were places where he’d have loved to know what fiber they were using to achieve the stiffness and strength they managed at the bottom bracket. The frame was too light, too stiff and too strong to make the answer easy or obvious.
This guy was unimpressed with some of the work he was seeing from the big three. He talked about how you’d see stacks of fiber maybe five or 10 sheets thick grabbed and placed. Maybe with decent care, maybe not. In his view it was the downside of having to achieve the production numbers they needed. He said with Cervelo you could tell that each sheet was placed individually. You can’t make frames as quickly that way, he told me. But they break less often and usually offer the rider better quality and improved stiffness because the sheets are perfectly oriented for their intended role.
The conversation (actually, I’ve had a similar conversation with two other engineers not employed by the Canadians) made me sit up and take note of Cervelo in a fresh way. It also gave me a new perspective on my previous experience with the SLC-SL. Maybe some of that incredible stiffness was due to great care. Huh.
Since then, I’ve ridden every Cervelo I can get my hands on. I’ve had a day on the S5 (I wrote about that here) and a couple of days on the old R3 SL. This spring Cervelo sent me the new R3. I rode it through the spring, summer and into the fall.
I didn’t want to send it back.
Tomorrow: Part II