My favorite bikes are of a piece. They’ve got sharp handling. They have enough stiffness in torsion that when I stand up at the foot of a short hill they yield the sense that not a watt is wasted in flex. They also impart a tactile sense of the road surface. That’s not to say bikes that fall outside that particular style are bad, but if I’m plunking my money down, that’s what I want out of the experience.
It’s fair to ask why and the why is rooted in my sense of a good time. My favorite rides are 70- to 90-miles long and head north to Malibu. Generally two ascents, but sometimes three. And on the descents I do all I can to brake not at all. That’s really only possible on four of the descents in Malibu. On the others I’m late and hard and for that reason I want maximum feedback from the road. I want to know as clearly as possible what those tires are doing.
As I see it, the difference between a bike like the Tarmac SL3 and, say, a Time VRS is the difference in feel at the steering wheel between a BMW 3-series and a Lexus IS. Time works to dampen vibration and shield the rider from as much high-frequency vibration as possible. This is no sport-tuned suspension.
The R3 offered a similar sense of road feel to the Tarmac, though not quite so crisp. I can’t say exactly what factors contributed to the difference, but the fact that the frame was painted played into it. What we’re talking about here is a very minor difference.
That I liked the handling is no real surprise. In my size, the bike has the same head angle (73.5 degrees) and fork rake (43mm) as the Tarmac, resulting in the same trail, 5.59cm. BB drop is almost identical. Same for the front center and top tube length. The chainstays on the R3 are 2mm shorter (40.5cm) and the head tube is 6mm shorter (19.9cm). These bikes, at least in my size are virtually identical. Little wonder I liked the handling and could rail descents on this even if I’d just switched back to the R3 after I’d spent a week on the Tarmac. The biggest difference between the two bikes in my size was the longer head tube (6mm longer) on the Tarmac SL3 (though 1cm shorter on the SL4).
As you continue to examine the geometry of the R3, the similarities to the Tarmac continue. The R3 is made in six sizes, just like the Tarmac. The top tube lengths are within a half centimeter of the nearest size of the Tarmac.
The point here isn’t to say, “See, the Tarmac is a great bike, so the R3 is a great bike.” Rather, if you’ve been interested in an R3 and haven’t been able to ride one, because the geometries are so similar, a ride on a Tarmac will give you a feel for both the sizing and handling of an R3. Honest to blob, I’ve never switched between two bikes so seamlessly. It’s enough to make me think there’s industrial espionage going on between the two companies. Okay, not really.
Cervelo lists the sizes for the R3 as 48, 51, 54, 56, 58 and 61cm. The jumps in top tube length run mostly 15 or 16mm. The biggest jump is the 17mm spread from the 53.1cm top tube on the 51cm frame and the 54.8cm top tube on the 54cm frame. I’m in the camp that believes very few people really need a custom frame and while I love custom stuff, frames as advanced as the R3 simply aren’t available in custom, are they?
Each size of the R3 features a 73-degree seat tube angle and 40.5cm chainstays. I’m sorry, but using one mold for the rear end of every frame strikes me as a bit lazy. I am suspicious that this approach could cause some problems for riders who might be considering the 48 or the 61.
When I was in high school and really sucking at math, my parents hired a tutor for me; he taught me a lesson that helped me pass Algebra II and remains useful today. I’m more grateful for the latter than the former. He taught me that once I thought I had the solution to a problem to plug in some huge variables and the answer should pass the sniff test if I had the equation right. If it was wrong, it would look wrong right away. I’ve found it’s much the same way with bikes.
After spending more than a month on the R3 I had an opportunity to get on a friend’s SLC-SL for a ride around the block. His was a 56, so it was a bit smaller, but it was the perfect opportunity to remind me just how stiff the rear end of a carbon fiber bike can be. The rear end of the SLC-SL was the ridiculous variable that illustrated the point.
I’ve been on a mechanical bull and that was a good deal gentler (and funnier) than the SLC-SL. Look, I know that experienced cyclists are exceedingly skeptical of the “torsionally stiff, vertically compliant” claim that is as standard equipment to the bike review as the water bottle cage is to the bike. That said, those crazy small seatstays on the R3 have a distinct effect on the bike’s ride.
I’m aware that if I write that those stays absorb shock two things happen. First, I’ve said something that simply isn’t accurate. Second, you head for rec.bicycles.gassbag to flame me for saying something so stupid. But the simple fact is, riding an R3 isn’t like riding some other bikes out there. Lacking a better, more objective term, I’m going with “gentler.”
Okay, so I should mention BB Right and the Rotor Crank used with the frame. I was suspicious that I’d notice the odd Q-factor, but I didn’t. I flat-out don’t like the asymmetrical design, but that’s a bias, nothing more, nothing less. It’s like looking at a slug. It gives me the creeps, but for no truly objective reason. I don’t like that you are limited in your choice of cranks, but this was a 15-lb. bike, so it’s not like I can complain that the Rotor crank turned a vesper into brick. I’ve encountered riders with short-ish legs who have Q-factor issues if their feet move too far apart. I wonder if this could be a problem for some riders, but as for me and my 32-inch inseam, I didn’t have a single issue. I didn’t notice a thing as I was riding. Guess I need to shut up about that.
Perhaps a bit more worth discussing is the fact that Cervelo just entered a financing arrangement with Pon Holdings BV. Pon is a gigantic Dutch conglomerate with some 11,000 employees and owns Derby Cycle, which includes Raleigh, Univega and Kalkhoff brands. The financing came with a string—should Cervelo ever sell, Pon has an exclusive option to purchase the company. It’s basically a right of first-refusal. It’s possible this is fallout from the drain the Cervelo Test Team put on the company. Or it could be an infusion of horsepower that could transform the company for the better. Time will definitely tell.
Here’s what amazes me. Whenever I talk to Phil White at Cervelo (all five times), he wants to talk about the company’s aero designs. I really can’t get him to show any excitement about the R3. WTF? One could be forgiven for getting the impression that the company is less than bullish on anything non-aero. It’s strange. The R3 is better than most of the bikes I’ve ever ridden.
And that, dear reader, is why I keep reviewing bikes. The chance to get on a new bike and be surprised, to be enchanted, to feel that holy whoosh and be transported back to when I was six and tearing down the sidewalk with no assistance, that, that right there, that opportunity to make cycling fresh is why a new bike is a legitimate purchase.