Last year I reviewed the Cervelo R3. I spent three months riding the bike over all my favored terrain and on my usual group rides. When the time came to pack the bike up, I did so with the reluctance of a child heading to his first day of school. For those who missed it, part I is here and part II here. For those who want the bottom line, I can tell you it’s a seriously amazing bike, one of the best I’ve ridden.
But here’s the strange thing about the R3: It’s not Cervelo’s top-drawer stuff. While it compares favorably to bikes like Specialized’s S-Works Tarmac SL3 and even preferable to the Focus Izalco, which I liked a lot, there’s still the R5 to consider. For a while, the R5 was only available as the R5ca, the nearly $10k wonder bike made in California that had been ridden by so few people most of us were left wondering just how good it was. Now there’s an Asian-produced R5VWD (Vroomen White Design) that goes for $4900, half what the R5ca retails for.
Okay, so let’s talk about what differentiates the R5ca from the R5VWD from the R3. They all share tube shapes and geometry. Put another way, the heart of the bikes is the same. They handle the same and offer essentially the same performance characteristics in terms of stiffness. The R5ca and the R5VWD share the same molds, but the R5ca is made by hand here in California while the R5VWD is made in Asia—also by hand. What they don’t share are materials. Well, they share some materials, but not all. The R5ca gets Cervelo’s best-of-the-best materials while the R5VWD receives a mix that’s a little less fussy. While Cervelo wouldn’t go into detail, my previous experience in talking with engineers is that there are varieties of carbon fiber that are super-light and ultra-stiff (not to mention stunningly expensive). They are also wicked-pissa-brittle. They have to be handled carefully and placed just-so in order to result in a useful contribution to a frame.
The R5s both get a one-piece front triangle, but they aren’t quite the same. The R5ca does have an interesting feature to it. The mold to make its one-piece front triangle isn’t exactly the same as the R5VWD. Once the engineers at Cervelo were convinced they’d gotten the geometry right for the R5, they fixed the saddle location and then slackened the seat angle to enable them to achieve the same saddle position while using a lighter zero-setback seatpost. That is why if you look at the geometry chart for the R5ca and the R5VWD, you’ll see they have the same reach, but the R5ca has longer top tubes at each size.
By contrast, the R3 has completely different molds and is made using some less expensive materials than the R5VWD. The R3 has a separate BB that is then bonded and over-wrapped to the seat tube, down tube and chainstays. Laying up a one-piece front triangle is considerably more difficult, especially at the bottom bracket. However, the extra time and work required result in a frame that is just as stiff as the R3 but 10 percent lighter. The R5ca realizes an even greater gain: a 56cm R5ca weighs in at 650g.
Everything else about the R3 and R5VWD is the same: same size run, same geometry. Though not the price. And honestly, the price is the great separator between these bikes. The R3, at $2200 for frame (complete bikes start at $3150) is less than half the cost of the R5VWD. The obvious question is whether the R5VWD is twice the bike. And the answer is … sorta.
The challenge presented by these super bikes (and ultra bikes in the case of the R5ca) is that the gains that are possible over a bike as good as the R3 are really incremental. The difference between a Schwinn Varsity from the 1970s and an R3 might be several orders of magnitude (Varsity < ’70s Colnago < current custom steel < 1kg carbon frame < R3 … roughly). And what I mean by order of magnitude is that you can put a non-cyclist on a 1kg carbon frame—a decent bike by any standard—and they’d be able to appreciate how much nicer the R3 rides. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of the difference between the R3 and the R5VWD. To most riders, I think you’ll notice the difference, but it’s not of the mind-blowing difference between hanging out in the garage listening to some neighborhood kids play AC/DC and actually seeing AC/DC live.
So if they are just as stiff torsionally and vertically and have the same geometry, what’s the fuss? That’s easy—less mass. If you look at the R5VWD as the same bike as the R3 but lighter, you’ve missed the real point of this bike. Weight isn’t the reason to buy this bike. In reducing the amount of material in the bike, Cervelo moved an important step closer to the point I keep making in review after review: Less material results in a livelier ride. This point was driven home for me in an unexpected way when I was up in Geyserville in May and we did some rides over rather rough roads. To take the sting out of the combination of stiff bikes rolling on deep-section Easton wheels, we pumped the tires up to only 80 psi. Most bikes I’ve ridden feel pretty dead at such low pressures because the tires soak up so much of what’s happening with the road surface. I was surprised by just how great a sense of the road I continued to have even at the more forgiving pressure.
The R5ca continues to intrigue me. It has a much more minimal finish than the R5VWD, and in my experience, what often makes the biggest difference in feel between bikes in the sub-900g range is paint. If you’re going to take 100g of material off an 850g frame, I’m more interested in dropping the nonstructural paint than I am structural carbon.
I rode this thing like crazy while I had it, even putting a final ride on it the day I had to pack it up and ship it out. Today’s garden variety carbon frame is so much better, performance-wise, than the stuff most of us cut our teeth on, it can be difficult to convey just what a cut above a bike like the R5VWD is. Think back to the ’70s, ’80s or ’90s and how nearly every steel bike of quality (let’s leave out the crap, straight-gauge 4130) out there was made from Columbus, Reynolds or True Temper tubing. It was a good, but exceedingly limited, palette. Today’s builders have far more powerful tools at their disposal. So while the cheapest open-mold Chinese carbon fiber bike found on eBay performs better in a sprint than anything built with Columbus SL, the very best work being done by a company like Cervelo is difficult illustrate. The best analog, or perhaps the easiest analog, is to be found in the automotive world. Few of us have driven a car as nice as a Ferrari. Few of us can afford one as well, but those who have had the experience describe it as unlike more run-of-the-mill sports cars. And that’s where the R5VWD sits. It’s a luxury. You can get an amazing bike for half what this costs. But the bikes we ride aren’t just transportation, they are expressions of passion and when I get on a bike, I want an affair to remember. Trust me when I tell you, I’ll not soon forget this bike.