Cervelo R3, Part I

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.

 The R3′s tiny seatstays play a big roll in the bike’s ride quality; it’s a design feature that has been widely copied.

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.

Cervelo touts its “squoval” tubing shape, which is a cross between oval and square which they say is better able to withstand twisting forces.

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

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13 comments

  1. Malcolm

    Wonder what this will do to the ‘made in China’ talk since Cervelos, except for the California, roll out of a factory in Shenzhen, just a little ways from where I live. Wish that meant they were cheap here, but a riding buddy bought his S3 in Canada because it was less. I’d love one of those Giro specials.

  2. James B Miller

    I look forward to your review as I am eyeing the R3. I have a few trepidations as they changed the geometry and I might be a tweener?

    Anyway, I rode and raced the R3SL for 2 years and it was by far the best bike I have ever ridden and that includes the current Trek Madone 6.9 SSL. It was an unbelievable climber and and sprinter. I podiumed no less than 10 races on that thing!

  3. Randomactsofcycling

    I’ve had my R5 for the best part of this year and I love it. It’s definitely a race bike: extremely stiff and rewards every watt of effort.
    A riding friend is now onto his 2nd R3. He’s super strong and he loves them.

  4. AMR

    Good article. Explains it all!
    I rode the R3 for three years… Fantastic!
    Riding the S2 for the last two… Super fast!
    I would love to get hold of the R5…

  5. Clark

    Looking forward to Part II. I’ve been exceptionally happy with my 6 Series Madone, but I’ve also developed quite a bike crush on the R3…

  6. Adam

    In the last 5 years I’ve seen more warranties with Cervelos than with any other brand. In fact just yesterday during a tune up I found a crack on an R3 as the aluminum insert for the BB shell was seperating from the frame. The shop I work for now dropped Cervelo for this very reason as we employed a person whos sole responsability was sending their broken frames back to them, and the mechanic at the shop I called to refer yesterdays warranty to joking referred to it as an ABC, another broken Cervelo. To Cervelo’s credit, they generally stand by their warranty with out too much fuss.

  7. Sam

    You sure know how to end on a cliffhanger, I can’t wait for part two now!

    I too haven’t been a fan of the aesthetic of the Cervelos though the R series has since grown on me. And the generally great reviews help too.

    However I’ve heard of quality issues as well. A mate just went through a half year process to get a cracked frame replaced. But being upgraded from an S3 to an S5 in the process didn’t hurt!

    Perhaps these higher incidence of quality issues are the price paid for Cervelo’s sophisticated carbon layup?

  8. MWT

    I not a mechanic who has dealt with warranty issues like Adam, but my perception from reading bike forums (Serotta, VSalon, Weight Weenies, RBR) is that Cervelos break a lot – especially around the bottom bracket. I assumed that they were well engineered, but poorly manufactured.

  9. A Stray Velo

    You said the “new R3″ as in new 2011 or 2012? From the photo it looks like a 2011. It would say “Team” near the junction of the top tube and seat tube on the drive side. Just curious. Rumor is that the new R3 Team is the 2011 R5…with different paint.

    I too have taken the time and ridden just about every bike in the Cervelo lineup. The S-series bikes are fast but not for me. I wouldn’t call them smooth or comfortable for that matter. The R-series bikes on the other hand are magic between the legs. I found the R3 to be one of the most stiff, comfortable and stable bikes I’ve ever ridden.

    I can’t wait for Part 2. I was always wondering if you’d do a review on a Cervelo R series bike and what you thought of it.

  10. Patrick

    I’ve enjoyed my 2011′ R3 so much that I don’t even glance at other bikes now. Can’t say that about much of any other part of my life.

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