Cervelo R5

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.


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  1. Wsquared

    Padraig, before reading your review, I had developed a theory that the R3 is a just a little bit more compliant than the R5, my reasoning being that as far as I could tell from TV & pictures, the Garmin riders who rode R series bikes in the cobbled classics all picked the R3, not the R5, even though some ride R5s in the grand tours. Some reviews have characterized the R5 as being a bit stiff & skittery on broken pavement (RBA for one), something I haven’t encountered on my R3. That sounds contrary to what you experienced. Your review is thorough and convincing. I haven’t ridden an R5 myself but I’m still wondering why the R3 is the Paris Roubaix bike. Thanks!

    1. Author

      Wsquared: There’s a simple reason to ride the R3 at Roubaix. Crashing. With more material, the R3 is going to be a bit more durable in the event of a crash and you want riders to be able to go down, get back up and climb back on their bikes, not picking up shards of carbon. It doesn’t hurt that they’d also be killing a less expensive frame, but that’s not the reason to choose it.

      I double-checked with Cervelo to make sure there wasn’t any intended increase in compliance with the R5. That said, the increased rider feedback you experience with the R5 could lead a great many riders to conclude that the bike is stiffer, but that’s a misinterpretation.

      MCH: Ooh, that’s a toughy. Wheels do so much for a bike I would be inclined to choose an R3 with 303s over the R5 and a lesser set of wheels. I also suspect that the current R3 would be a bigger step up from your existing R3 than the R5 is from the current R3. You’d realize quite an improvement.

  2. MCH

    First – thanks for the review. I’ve been waiting for this one for a while, as I’ve been curious about the difference between my 5+ year old R3 and the R5. While my R3 and the current version are (quite?) different, the review provides the insight needed to put the question to rest.

    Being perhaps a bit too practical, I can’t help but make the following mental price comparison: is an R5VWD better than or equal to an R3 + Zipp 303 wheelset. As with Ferraris though, if you have to ask….

    Thanks, as always, for the insightful review.

  3. Hautacam

    Wait, you mean my Columbus SLX frame/fork from ’89 isn’t the bees’ knees anymore?

    Shoot. I may have to try one of these here crabon viper bikes.

    Does the R3 still require a weird bottom-bracket setup?

    PS(i). 80 psi? Yikes! Sounds like puncture city to me. But good on you for making it work.

  4. randomactsofcycling

    I’ve been on an R5 for about 15 months. I am interested to know what is the difference between the std R5 and the R5VWD?
    Compared to my previous LOOK 595, it is stiffer in both the bottom bracket and the head tube. Despite the rather tall head tube, it’s much more of a race bike than a Gran Fondo bike, if you know what I mean. Unforgiving in one sense, but very giving in others. Not an ounce of effort is ever wasted.
    I have fitted Mavic Open Pros, with Vittoria Open Tubular 24mm tyres. I use this set-up for training. This seems to have found the right balance between rigidity, road feel and comfort. In fact I rate these tyres very highly. I also use Campagnolo 11 speed.
    I love this bike.

  5. Jon

    Padraig, thanks for the write-up. Purely from reviews and word of mouth, the R5 VWD or the Cannondale SuperSix Evo are the top two contenders in my mind as my next (purely theortical, according to the wife) bike purchase. As I’ve yet to be able to test ride these two bikes, how would you compare the two, as it seems like you have had a chance to ride the Evo as well? The SuperSix Evo seems to have a slight edge in both price and compliance (again, from reviews). But I currently ride a Cervelo S3, so brand attachment (whether right or wrong) certainly plays a role in determining my preferences as well.

  6. jorgensen

    The write up does help a bit. I am looking at a new bike, and one of the Cervelos is on the short list. A reward for maintaining my target weight this year. In comparing my current long time set up to the differing geometry of the R5 and R5ca… I was left with the economic problem that the Ca was the better design for me. Thank goodness for an individual checking account.
    And its made in California.

  7. Wsquared

    Bigwagon, I am truly shocked to learn that the guy on the most expensive biike doesn’t always win. Are you sure about that?

  8. bigwagon

    Wsquared: I’m not 100 percent sure. Personal experience says it’s true, but magazine ads make me question myself.

  9. Alex TC

    Hmmm… Now I know why I feel twice as bad when I drop guys on a $1500 CAAD10 bikes with my dentist carbon rig. Yet feel good when the opposite happens. Should be the opposite I guess. Apparently a paradox.

  10. Alex TC

    BTW, another good post Padraig, thnx. I bought back my 2010 SL3 after switching it for a new SL4 (4 months) and spending a couple of months on a R3. All excellent bikes but maybe I just like the SL3 better. Or maybe I just spent too much time on it. I’m also considering the EVO for next bike. Also liked the Venge (after a couple of weeks testing abSWorks) but maybe C’dalle struck a better balance of aero, light and comfortable with the EVO – not to mention price.
    But then… I guess it’s hard to really go wrong at this level.

  11. Dave J

    Around my parts, Cervelo is the quintessential yuppie cliché bike. A superbike in performance perhaps, but completely lacking any sense of cachet whatsoever, which IMO is one of the primary reasons why you’d pay premium over that CAAD10. Let’s face it, none of us actually need the level of performance provided by the R5, so why not spend the extra cash on something that better feeds our emotions and egos.

    In upholding the elitist nature of our sport, when I drop guys on CAAD10’s, or better yet, C59’s and Dogma’s, I prefer to do it on something distinctive, and that they’ve likely never heard of.

    If I’m throwing $5K at a frameset, I’ll take a Crumpton, IF or some other domestically handcrafted small-shop production.

    1. Author

      Dave J: That’s an impressive job of raining on other people’s parades. Bike purchases are largely emotional, so while Cervelo might not work for you, it certainly works for other people. And do us a favor and spare us the lecture on what we need; that can be extrapolated ad absurdum until we realize we don’t need bikes.

  12. Wsquared

    When I see guys on other bikes out on the road, I often wonder what it would be like to ride what they’re on and would enjoy the chance. That includes everything from single speed lugged steel junkers to astronomically expensive team machines. That’s because I love bikes. (My wife has never understood why I need more than one.) Oddly enough, I’m not sitting out there thinking, “what a loser that guy is on that piece of garbage,” or “what a poser that guy is on that mega buck super bike.” I also have learned over the years that no matter how hot you think you are or what you’re on, there are days when you’re going to get your ass thoroughly kicked.

  13. ChrisC

    RE: People riding “more bike than they need”

    I only question whether folks I see on a Dogma2 with Zipp 404s in a Gran Fondo or local charity event is really riding the correct bike for their preferred type of cycling. It is their money and their choice, but I fear that some newcomers to the sport get taken in by marketing hype and spend far more than they need to when they might be even happier riding a lower priced carbon (or aluminum) bike with more comfortable wheels.

    Can they really notice the subtle difference in ride quality between a $6k Pinarello frame and a $2k Ridley or a $700 Giant? Possibly, but I would wager that those who can are few and far between… Still, if the shiny and expensive frame makes them feel better/stronger/faster and makes them want to ride more, it’s all good!

  14. Full Monte

    It is sad when even something as cool as this bike gets turned into a class warfare debate.

    Stop for a minute and turn off the rational side of the brain.

    Just look at this bike. Imagine what it must feel like when you pick it up off the car rack and set it down. Think about what the first pedal strokes communicate. Fantasize about taking it on a two-hour ride through your favorite route — how it makes every mile feel new again. Picture the Cervelo hanging in your very own garage.

    Alright, you can wake up now. Yes, your bank account argues: “No.” Yes, your talent level suggests: “I don’t really need/deserve it” (my talent level fairly shouts this). Yes, your wife says: “No way, buddy.” And no, none of this is very enjoyable to contemplate.

    I’m going to go back to re-read this article and return to dreaming about this bike and bikes like it. Because they’re cool. Desirable. Beautiful. Passionate. Come on with me. Let’s celebrate that bikes like this exist instead of arguing who it’s “for” or if it’s “worth it.” Such discussion misses the point.

  15. Anthony F

    The biggest dorks in all of cycling? The guys who inevitably come out to claim that

    ” I dropped some _____ (dentist, accountant, lawyer, actor …) on a ____ ( Dogma, C59, S-Works … ) on my _____ ( Caad xx, steel bike, downtube, 36 spoke blah, blah, blah …)”

    That line is so tired.

  16. A Stray Velo

    “…it can be difficult to convey just what a cut above a bike like the R5VWD is.”

    I agree. I’ve ridden a lot of bikes and every time I threw my legs over a Cervelo I felt a difference that I’d never felt in any other bike before.

    What’s interesting is the review and the previous one have no mention of the R3 Team, which is what I think the smart buy between all the R series bikes. It’s essentially an R3 with lighter paint and a lighter fork. If you see the weight difference between the R3 Team and the R5, it’s pretty minimal. So for just a little bike more than the base R3 you can get a frame that is pretty close to the R5 in terms of weight but minus the larger price bump.

  17. bigwagon

    Anthony F: What’s actually a tired line in cycling is the constant obsession over equipment. The beauty of cycling is that it’s really not about the bike, which is usually lost in breathless bike reviews touting the latest wonder bike.

  18. Wsquared

    I’d add to Stray Velo’s point that even with the “base” R3, which costs less than half the price of the R5, you’re still getting a helluva bike.

  19. mburdge

    I think we can assume, that even having an opinion about a Cervelo makes a person a bike dork; arguing about authenticity and dropping dentists or hairy-legged dudes on basic bikes places a person in the same camp as comic book collectors or Fantasy Role Playing gamers. I don’t ride a super bike because I can’t afford one, but when I ride with friends who do, it is the terrain and the conversations I remember, not whether or not the Di2 beat the 9 speed 105. To do so would be like arguing whether it is better to be a wizard or a dwarf.

    1. David Walls

      Of course it’s about the bike. If I ride my £300(second hand) Bianchi via Nirone and then swap for my Sram Red equipeed Cervelo R5 with Dura Ace wheels, then I’m convinced straight away. I wouldn’t even stand up on the Bianchi, on the Cervelo I can stand for ten minutes, everything is of the miraculous on the R5, while on the Bianchi I’m constantly praying for one, all the time knowing my prayers will only be answered when I mount the obvious choice and fly!! Oh and I got the R5 for £2150 with used wheels and 400 miles on the frame, not a scratch, plus brand new sub 6.1 kilo equipment, I’d never have bought it for 6 grand. So yeah, it’s all about the money, the less the better.

  20. J-Go

    i’m on a caad 10 (chorus) and i drop all sorts of higher and lower priced rides- and guess what? i get dropped just as many times. there’s always someone faster bigwagon- no matter what bike they’re on.

  21. Bill H-D

    What are we all arguing about? These are bikes, not boats. Now there’s an expensive toy. And plenty of guys I grew up with have blue collar jobs, bass boats with trailers and an F-150 to pull them around. My bike – ok bikes – are cheap by comparison.

  22. Robert

    It seems a little odd that one would come to this site, consciously choose to click on an article about a $4,900 “super” frame, and then chastise the very existence of such frame.

    You either choose to spend your time reading a review of a product you are already predisposed to judge as pretentious/unnecessary/lame (choose your adjective) or… deep down inside you actually ARE interested in products like this and just haven’t accepted it. In either case, follow your heart, wherever it leads (whether to reviews of Richard Sachs frames – nothing wrong with that – or to acceptance of your inner -uber carbon freak).

  23. anoony mouse

    Do you think the dentist reference is because your teeth/fillings are being jittered out on the CAAD 10?

  24. Dan C

    Padraig, you really need to add a “like” button to the comments section. Some of youz guyz are hilarious!

  25. Steve

    In the beginning I was not a Cervelo fan. Everyone had one. I stayed to the Euro bikes mainly and enjoyed them. Then I was talked into riding an R3 and an R5! Well I became a believer. There was something about the first generation R5 that I truely enjoyed more than the R3 on a test ride and bought the R5, can not put my head around it for sure it just felt quicker. So after purchasing the first generation R5 the VWD version came out with the CA already on the market. I loved the first R5 so much I sold it and bought the VWD. Again I felt a noticeable difference in ride quality, acceleration and over all comfort. So I thought if this is that much a jump from the first generation, what is the R5CA like. Well I sold my VWD and bought the CA. Again, the best bikes I have ever ridden are from Cervelo, I am now a true believer and the way the CA feels is absolutely amazing! I do think there is a jump from each of the bikes in comfort and all around ride quality. I am a bigger guy and maybe that has something to do with it, but that BBright system and the Cervelo Engineering! I am a true fan now! The CA is the best bike I have ever been on.

  26. Mark S

    Well Padraig I finally took the plunge, after 6months of test rides and deliberating I just took possession of my new R5 VWD. Unfortunately it has coincided with winter finally hitting the West Coast here in Vancouver. I look forward to adding my riding experiences here in a few months. Thanks for such great reviews, it was the tipping point in my purchasing decision.

    Merry Christmas all you bike lovers out there.

  27. Phil V

    Last weekend I happened to be on a European show where I was able to test 7 superbikes on a nice 10 km hilly loop. Prices ranged between 4000 (BMC GF01) and 7000 euro (Merida Scultura Team). I never fancied a Cervélo but after recently reading a rather favorable review about the R5 (not the one above) I gave it a go. All 7 bikes were very nice but the R5 is in a class of its own. There is not a shade of doubt in my mind that this bike is worth every penny of its hefty price. This thing is supremely responsive, balanced and smooth. Every inch of the road one has the feeling of riding something exceptional. The bike has jewel-like qualities. It expresses a love for self-propelled movement that I haven’t experienced before. I’m going to do everything I can to get the R5 in my possession asap.

  28. Phil V

    Meanwhile I have a few thousand kilometers on my new R5 and I’m happy to say I have found no reason at all to review my earlier, glowing assessment!

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