Cervelo R3, Part II

The squoval tube shape takes some getting used to, at least, visually.

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.

The FK30 SL fork is Cervelo-designed, but not built, but it is both lighter and stiffer than the 3T they were using previously.

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 head tube length is long enough to fit racers and recreational riders alike and the graphics tie the fork to the frame nicely.

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.

There really is something to these tiny stays.

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.”

 I’m not sure I see the need for an asymmetric frame design to achieve stiffness. If it was the only way to get there, wouldn’t everyone do it?

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.

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  1. Bikelink

    “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.”

    Isn’t this a plus, since just because you are shorter doesn’t mean you want a steeper seat tube angle (assuming your legs/femurs are in usual proportions to your height), that it’s better to keep the angle the same and change the “reach” of the top tube? (I read this on Neavation’s site but it makes sense to me). For chain stays, assuming they pull the rear tire tight to the frame, I’m guessing that you can’t make them shorter for shorter riders then, too, right?

  2. randomactsofcycling

    Nice read Padraig.
    Just a quick note for any potential purchasers: I am running Campagnolo cranks on my R5 with the BB Right bottom bracket. They require special sleeves but these are readily available. They cost about $65AUD.

  3. CaptainH

    I detect a future Kestrel coming. Key people seem to be bailing out, the designer is fixated on aero bikes, and the reports of frame cracks (mostly around the bottom bracket) all indicate to me a lack of focus on the quality of the product. Stick with your SL3.

  4. MCH

    As a rider of a 61 R3, I haven’t had any problems with the shortish chainstays. That said, I’d consider slightly longer chainstays an improvement. IMO, longer stays would provide better heel clearance (big frame = big feet) and perhaps, better shifting. It really shouldn’t be that difficult either. The RS has longer stays and the custom Paris Roubaix bikes were rumored to have longer stays.

    In any case, for anyone considering a 61 R3, don’t let the stays dissuade you. I solved the heel clearance issue by limiting the inward float on my Speedplay Zeros. The shifting is fine with Shimano DA. And most importatntly, the frame is a damn fine performer. Torsional stiffness in a big frame is very important. The R3 has got plenty of it, while also being light and comfortable.

  5. John

    I had a 56cm 2011 R3 for all of three months at the beginning of last year. I really liked the bike’s performance, ride quality, and handling, but what put an end to it was the ridiculously poor customer support from the factory. On the third ride the bottom bracket failed. A month of dealing with an inept local dealer (who ended up giving me Cervelo’s phone number and told me to deal with them directly), then another month dealing with the people at Cervelo who didn’t seem to know what sort of bottom bracket their new BBRight required, convinced me that this wasn’t a brand I wanted to own any longer. On top of that, the freehub failed on the first ride, which was another concurrent warranty hassle. Obviously a lot of thought went in to design and manufacture, but apparently no thought went in to providing support after the sale or making it last. If you want a bike to ride fast for a year or two and then throw away, Cervelo might be right for you; but if you actually want your bike to have minimal problems, be easily serviced when it does need fixing, and to last…well, keep looking.

    1. Author

      John: I’m sorry to hear about your bad experience with Cervelo. I’d like to note that the BB and rear hub weren’t produced by Cervelo; rather, they were supplied to them. I’m not trying to defend them, but it’s important to note that supplier warranty issues hamstring many companies, not just Cervelo. That doesn’t excuse the lousy support, but it does make a good argument for dealing with a retailer who does a lot of business with the brand.

  6. John

    Hi Padraig. I understand what you’re saying. I have come to realize that every bike brand will have problems from time to time, what sets brands apart is how they respond to these problems. Not to bore you with the details, but a 2011 R3 using SRAM takes a particular PF30 bottom bracket for the BBRight, which is something that the inside guys at Cervelo seemed unaware of. Considering how much buzz that Cervelo has made concerning the BBRight, I thought it really odd that their inside people didn’t seem to know anything about it. The first BB that Cervelo sent was actually GXP external 24mm; talk about a swing and a miss! Not even close! The next two BB’s that they sent were wrong too. Rather than being hamstrung by the supplier, it was the extremely helpful people at SRAM who came through for me and saved the day. Cervelo makes a good product, now they need to get their support up to the same sort of quality. If they want a good example of how to do support right all they need to do is go look at SRAM.

    1. Author

      That’s a really tough call. I think I give a very slight edge to the SL3. But the difference between the R3 and SL3 is far less important than the difference between that pair and loads of other stuff out there. The R3 is superior to most bikes I’ve ridden; that’s the takeaway.

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