The Cervelo R3 and S3

The Cervelo R3 and S3

Trust and manufacturing are two terms that aren’t used together often enough. On the occasions when they are used together, it usually comes as dispositive, as in, “I don’t trust that manufacturer.”  Of the many manufacturers I write about, few have enjoyed as respected a reputation as Cervelo. This spring I was afforded the opportunity to ride both the R3 and S3 back to back. There was a question before me: Would I go for the traditional road frame or would I go for the aero advantage? Two or three years ago the question would have been academic, but the design and execution of aero frames has improved enough that it finally seemed a fair question.

IMG_7923

So I’m going to cover the things these two bikes have in common first, to get them out of the way. Both bikes were equipped with Shimano Ultegra (6800) Di2 components. The R3 sports an FSA bar (Energy Compact) and stem (SLK), while the S3 is built up with a 3T bar (Egonova Pro) and stem (ARX Pro). The seatpost on the R3 also comes from FSA, the SLK, while the S3 uses a proprietary aero post. Both came with a Fi’zi:k Antares saddle, a detail for while I was almost (almost) inordinately grateful. The R3 rolls on Fulcrum 5.5 wheels and Vittoria Diamante Pro tires, while the S3 went a more aero route with Mavic Cosmic Elite S wheels and Mavic Yksion Comp tires. Both bikes came with Rotor 3DF BBright cranks with 52 and 36t rings.

Cervelo’s Future-Proof Cable Management made the routing of brake cables and Di2 leads internally clean and attractive. The system uses a collection of standardized fitting so should you wish to move from a mechanical group to Di2 or swap out mechanical calipers for SRAM’s Hydro Rim brakes, the Future-Proof fittings will accommodate all of those choices without looking like you’ve had to zip-tie your bike together.

IMG_7901

Both bikes use Cervelo’s assymetrical BBright bottom bracket design that allows the bottom bracket shell and non-drive chainstay to be 11 millimeters wider. BBright achieves this by eliminating the outboard cup and making the BB shell wider to incorporate that bearing within the frame. The rationale is that anything you can do to decrease twisting forces at the drivetrain is worthwhile, and because you can’t find more room on the drive side, you might as well use the space available on the non-drive side. Early on the system only worked with Rotor Cranks, but any opposition to BBright due to compatible cranks has been eliminated; you can now use everything from SRAM and Shimano to FSA and even Campagnolo Ultra-Torque.

The bikes weighed in at 16.56 lbs. (R3) and 16.82 lbs. (S3), a difference of roughly 130 grams, a difference accountable in the wheels alone; however, it doesn’t account for the difference in the frame weights—roughly 900g for the R3 in a 56, and roughly 1100g for the S3 in a 56. (Cervelo doesn’t really like talking frame weights on the R3 and S3, but when pressed prefer to say there tends to be a 110g difference between the two; I had to do some research to find published frame weights.) I’d go looking for that 200 grams if it really bothered me; it doesn’t. Better yet, swapping for a better set of wheels alone could make the S3 lighter than the R3.

The two bikes also differ in price. The R3, as built, carries a suggested retail of $5000. The S3 goes for a bit more, at $5200. These two frames, built with Ultegra Di2 components and aluminum clinchers and bars, deliver race-ready performance for less than some similarly-equipped bikes.

The bikes share identical geometries. I rode 56s, each with a 56.4cm top tube, 73.5-degree head tube angles, 43mm-rake forks, head tube lengths of 17.3cm, stacks of 58cm and reaches of 38.7cm. This made replicating my fit between bikes almost absurdly easy, especially as both came equipped with Fi’zi:k Antares saddles.

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42 comments

  1. Mike Hare

    Thanks for a great review/comparison. I had the pleasure of being at seminar given by Damon Rinard, basically on the similarities, difference and design philosophy and aero advantages between the new S2/S3 and the new R3. I’m an old guy, 69 is a few weeks and was really looking for validation in wanting and R3, primarily for the comfort. As a result of hearing Damon I bought an S2 instead, but had it upgraded to 9000 components and added a set of C24 wheels I had on another bike. I ride primarily for fitness and exercise and my ride are not too long but this bike is a revelation. It is faster than my Scott CR1 pro and just as comfortable if not possibly more than my Volagi Liscio and with the wheels is a bit lighter the the base R3/105 I would have bought. I’m fresher at the end of rides despite spending a lot more time in the large chainring and in HR zones 4. As a result I’ll probably sell the Scott and am wondering about the Volagi. That would way more than cover a pair of C50s. ;)

  2. MCH

    Great review, and a surprising conclusion. I’ve been a late convert to aero. I’ve known of the benefits from my first ride on a 10-speed 30+ years ago. However, until very recently I wasn’t willing to make the compromises and trade-offs necessary to get it. Your review indicates that, at least with Cervelo, those compromises and trade-offs are significantly less that they once were. This is great news.
    One aspect of aero still does concern me though – performance in cross-winds. As an example, I found that the slight difference in size between Zipp 303 and 202 front wheels resulted in major differences in performance on fast descents with cross winds (typical of many mountain canyons). I’ll no longer ride an aero wheel with a deeper cross section than a 202 in those situations – too scary. So, how do you think a frame with big cross sections like those on the S3 will react in cross winds, particularly in critical situations like a descent at speed?

  3. m:m

    I owned a 2009 R3 and S2 for 3 years. The S2 always felt fast, and was, but the ride was noticeably more harsh than the R3. Every time I switched from R3 to S2, I would find myself double-checking tire pressure because the ride was that much better (I used the same wheel set on both bikes). I loved both bikes, but the R3 was my preferred bike. The S2 has since been sold and the R3 has been upgraded to a 2012 R3 Team, which is noticeably stiffer in the BB than the 2009, but still rides like a dream. Concerning speed, I will say that swapping out my Shimano C24-CLs for Zipp 303s would consistently save me 7 minutes or so over my standard 30 mile training route regardless of whether I was on the R3 or S2. For me, the R3 with 303s is as good as it gets.

  4. 32x20

    I really enjoy your reviews. I think they do a good job of capturing the nuances of the bikes without resorting to exaggerations common in bike reviews. I do, however, feel a need to mention that your downhill test with a buddy doesn’t mean much. Acceleration due to gravity is a constant. It’s all aero and rolling resistance downhill.

    1. 32x20

      Correction: It does mean something…you’re more aero than usual. I guess the intimation that he’s usually faster due to weight is what’s incorrect.

    2. Anonymous

      If the cyclist are riding in a vacuum on a frictionless highway, you are correct. Otherwise, you are dead wrong. Fat boys roll downhill faster.

    3. smithron99

      Have to agree with anonymous. In all my experience, weight is a big cost on the way up and a big benefit on the way down. Or, put another way, force = mass * acceleration. With acceleration due to gravity constant, the most massive rider experiences the greatest gravitational force

  5. kurti_sc

    MCH brings up a good point. Comfort isn’t just in your tush, it’s also in handling which can account for crosswinds. Where I normally ride in the southeastern US, crosswinds are kind of predictable. However, I was recently riding some canyons and such out in Northern New Mexico and those crosswinds where all over the place.
    My bike has a pretty normal profile and I wan’t obviously riding an S3 so this isn’t a comment about that bike specifically, but I can definitely see how some aero tubes could have made those crosswinds more difficult to ride. High speeds with a high pucker factor from crosswinds can make for a quite uncomfortable descent, even with an otherwise comfortable tubeset.

  6. CT

    Having a last year model P1, I understand your experience on the SLC-SL; I have been on roads with P1 which I can barely hold on. So when I was at the Cervelo demo ride couple months ago, I was still a little uncertain (or biased) about trying the S3. I ended up trying the S3, the new P3 and a heavily upgraded R5 (sub-12 pounder). While the R5 was an unbelievably smooth and stiff ride (it ROCKETS forward out of the saddle), I enjoyed the S3 the most. Yes, that feeling of fast! If I were to buy a new road bike now, the S3 (Di2) is NO DOUBT on the top of my list, not to mention it can also be easily converted for Tri races… maybe…. just maybe I will trade in my Giant TCR and P1 for a S3 down the road…


  7. Author
    Padraig

    Everyone: Thanks for the kind words. This was flat-out the most difficult review I’ve ever undertaken.

    Damon: I especially appreciate your nod.

    MCH: My sense is that we are a long way from reaching a point of diminishing returns in aerodynamic gains the way we have with bike weight. There is still much to be gained based on the advances we are seeing. The new Zipp Firestrike 404 suggests that we may yet achieve 202 handling on a 404-depth rim.

    Concerning the broader question of wind input on the frame, all I can say about the S3 was that I never encountered high enough winds to drive the frame. My experience is that to really cause a problem a frame needs a lot of surface area and some noticeable torsional twist. The Litespeed C1R had more surface area than any other aero bike I’ve ridden and it was okay in all but high winds on a mountain descent. It’s important to note that the S3 had but one tube that looks aero from the side and that’s the down tube.

    1. MCH

      Thanks for the insight Padraig. Upon reflection, my personal cross-section (ahem) is significantly more than any frame tube. So, as far as cross wind effect on stability perhaps trail and a front wheel’s performance in cross-winds are the more important factors.

    2. Sandy Chapman

      Padraig – great post, as always, I enjoy your insight and honesty in your reviews. I agree that we have yet to see the full benefits of aerodynamic gains. I wanted to add that the new Zipp Firestrike wheels in combination with the S3 does make for a comfortable and highly stable ride (full disclosure – I’ve worked with Zipp since 1988 as an independent rep and also represent Cervelo). I received a set of the FIrestrike 404’s in time for the Cervelo Sales Meeting in VT two weeks ago and have found them to compliment the aerodynamics of the S3 frame. I’ve tackled 50+ mph mountain descents, washboard gravel roads and Hurricane Arthur winds with confidence. The combination is highly predictable at any speed and wind condition.

  8. Ian

    I recently upgraded to the s3, from a 2011 r3, and previous to that a s2, I feel more comfortable and faster. It levels the field in the way its just about fitness, the bike is so good you can’t blame it.

    Thanks for the review, it was an interesting dilemma you were faced with.

  9. Jim

    I own a 2011 R5, weighs in at around 14.8 lbs… After reading this great article I now wonder how my R5 compares in the grand scheme of things????


  10. Author
    Padraig

    MCH: You’re harder for the wind to push than a bike frame, but this is where the perspective of an engineer might help. The front wheel will always matter more (in handling) than the frame.

    Jim: I can’t imagine anyone ever having a reason to regret purchasing an R5. If you’re worried about speed, add a set of aero wheels. You’ve got a fantastic bike, full stop.

    1. Layton Wakatsuki

      The S3 I purchased in 2010, Campy Record, 404 Firecrests, was a revelation. There were moments when it felt like floating. The sensation of speed was thrilling. I’d been following Cervelo engineering for a while and the final product struck me as alchemy. My thought at the time was, “Is it possible to design a better bike?” Four years later and I still feel the same excitement each time I ride the S3. Add the characteristic loud chatter of the 404 freewheel and there’s no mistaking you’re on a machine. The S3 has been comfortable enough for Centurys, climbs well, and is a confident descender. It is not a greyhound out of the box. This spring I shopped for a light all around bike. I started with the R5 > Ridley Helium SL > Cannondale Supersix Evo > Parlee Z5 Sl > and much to my surprise, ended up purchasing a 2015 Tarmac Red (13.5 lbs w/out pedals). This is a light bike that is as stiff as one would want while providing an extremely plush ride. It handles with superlative confidence in every circumstance and it does jump out of the box like a greyhound. The way it quickly establishes and holds a confident line in curves is quite amazing. It does not provide the same sensation of pure speed as the S3. These are a nice pair of bikes that ride very differently, that complement each other very well. They renew the riding experience each time. I also own two fine steel bikes, and I agree with your opinion that steel can only be manipulated in a limited number of ways, while carbon is wonderful putty for the ever inventive and questing minds of engineers.
      (note: The current Tarmacs ship with 52/36 110 BCD and the old SL4 seatpost rather than the one shown on the site. The bike shop changed to 53/39 130 BCD and substituted with the ENVE Zero setback post for me). I enjoy your columns and the thoughtfulness which characterizes most of the Replies. Thanks!

  11. Richard

    Many thanks for a great review Padraig on the comparisons. I’m in the market for a road bike, having only ridden two Cervelo tri bikes – a Soloist and P2C. My first ride was the R3 and I think I had a smile on for the two hours of climbs and descents! My LBS has an S3 for me to try and I committed to not making a decision until I’ve tried both. I’m keeping an open mind and glad to have such a well researched and documented comparison of these two great bikes.

    1. Ctkeebler

      please keep us posted. im in the same delimea but also looking at the giant defy in addition to the s2 r3

  12. Nelson

    I’ve been fortunate to be an owner of a R5 and struggled in my quest for an aero frame. I tested a S3, Felt F1 and a Neil Pryde Nazare/Alize. I bought an Alize based on comfort, weight and probable equivalent aero advantage. While not the ultimate in stiffness, it has struck a great balance. The review has pinpointed the advancements made in the past few years with aero frames and the convergence that we are seeing in a market segment.

  13. Damon Rinard

    Mike, glad you liked the seminar.

    MCH – Side force is indeed slightly higher with broad frame tubes, but it’s negligible. As Padraig said, the wheel is key: high side force *and* it twists the wheel, steering the bike. Even so, it’s not hard to develop your reflexes if you want the speed an aero wheel gives you. If not, choose a low profile rim and enjoy the easy steering.

    @M:m – You should try the new S3. ;-)

    @Kurti_sc: Exactly. I was Race Engineer for the Cervélo TestTeam and recommended 404s even in medium mountain stages, until Andreas Klier mentioned the crosswinds while descending fast switchbacks. Hit the brakes once, and you’ve potentially lost contact with the group, which can be deadly when you’re trying to make the time cut. They rode 404 rears, 202 fronts.

    Cheers,

    Damon

  14. Stefan

    Great review. I have the S3 Di2 now for 3 months and loving it. I excanged the wheels for aero (Edco), mad the battery internaly and got myself an 3T aerobar and auro Q-rings blades.
    Love every minute on it

  15. Lachlan

    I’ve ridden the same original R3 (2005 black and red) for almost a decade now and not only does it blow my mind every spring after the winter, but even though I’m often tempted to update it, I have the very real impression, both emotionally and rationally looking at it on paper, that short of dropping $15K+, i am not going to feel any difference in the exceptional ride it still gives me. Best investment I ever made.

    I would definitely consider one of the S series were I racing these days, but for aesthetics and feel I would think I’d stay with the R if I was going to upgrade.

    That the S series has caught up in the feel and comfort stakes while furthering its aero performance is great. But for me the spiritual successor of the R3 that was (is), is really the RCA. That represents what the R3 in its heyday did… unfortunately with a price tag to make it unlikely for most of us.

  16. Lachlan

    PS – Wheels alternate between Zipp 404 (most days) and a pair of 850g RARs (envie+tune for big climbs) – at least giving me the illusion of up grading the R3’s aero performance for most days out… but I’ve never seen a good explanation of whether aero wheels on a frame as boxy as the R series is a waste of time or not! Not even by Adrien Gontier over at Roues Artisanales.

  17. Pingback: Beyond the Forum | RKP

  18. Carlos

    Hi Padraig! Latigo Canyon road (climb) is 9.2 miles to the tippy top, or the second crest. It has almost 2,000 feet of elevation at roughly 4.1% average. It is spectacular, but I am afraid that 9.2 miles is more than 11k, unless you meant the first crest. Latigo is in my back yard and I absolutely love it (my legs hate it). By the way, I switched from an old Trek 5900 a few weeks ago (with Enve wheels) to the new Pinarello F8, wh=ich claims to be “aero” as well. The comparison is not valid, given the age difference between bikes, but still it was Strava-measured after and much more comfortable (using the same wheels). Maybe the bikes are way different, but I am now inclined to believe that they can make comfortable aero bikes.

  19. Paul Hollands

    I’ve tried safari, my iPhone and iPad….but the links to later pages (i.e. anything other than the first page) of this review appear not to be there now……

  20. Victoria Williams

    @Paul Hollands

    I was experiencing the same issue on my handhelds. You can only access the entire article via computer or laptop.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      We had a temporary glitch with the links. It’s been fixed and you can read the full review now.

  21. MY

    Having ridden both an S-Works Tarmac SL4 and the new Cervelo S3, if you were “forced” to choose one bike to use as an “all-around” bike, which would you choose? I ask because I’m currently riding a 2014 S-Works Tarmac, but I’ve always wanted an aero bike. Plus, my very first road bike was a Cervelo, so I’m quite partial to them. Based on your review, the S3 is quite capable of climbing as it’s plenty stiff.

    Your thoughts would be most appreciated.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      MY: My decision would be influenced by where I live. So long as I remain in SoCal and not in Sonoma county or New England, I’d go with the S3. I’d also make sure to add some aero wheels, like the Zipp 303s or 404s. Any time where comfort isn’t my first consideration, I’m going to be choosing aero equipment. However, any time that staying comfortable is my first priority, I’m going to be making different choices.

  22. Andreas Wangsanegara

    Nice article Padraig. This whole article makes me think would there be SCA (yep that’s an “S”) down the pipeline? It would be amazing if Cervelo develop ultralight aero frame.

  23. kikis

    Thanks for the review. Quite helpful to me. My first Cervelo bike was a 2010 R3 then 2012 R3 and now the 2014 S3. I couldn’t be any happier. On climbs, it’s just as capable as my previous R3’s. I can feel the difference on the flats though. I seem to exert less effort for the same speed. The 2014 S3 is pretty awesome! :)

  24. lqdedison

    I just wanted to say thanks for the great review.

    I have a 2012 R3 Team and I’ve been thinking for months now about selling it for the new R3 or an S3. I can’t say after reading this my decision has become any easier but, wow, some great reading.

    I think I’ll personally end up on a R3 again because I live in Northern Europe where rough roads and cobblestones are a pretty common thing. Yet if I think back to your comments about speed and how you over time were choosing more for the S3 than the R3, I’m reminded of how addictive fast bikes are. Then the decision isn’t so easy.

    The one thing they cannot measure, ride quality, is where I think Cervelo has an edge over some of the other brands. I’ve ridden a lot of bikes and for me nothing compares to how a Cervelo rides. I don’t know how they found that holy grail of comfort and stiffness but it’s what keeps me from riding anything else.

  25. Robert

    I am so happy I came across your review. I’m in the market for a new road bike, after a 2-year hiatus of only riding in the dirt, and am looking at the S3. I owned an R3 in ’09/’10, before moving into an S-Works Tarmac SL3. I have fond memories of the R3 and looking back at my last two bikes, I decided I want to move into a Cervelo again.

    I know that aero frames have improved over the past several years, and since I’m not looking to buy/build a “pro-level” bike, the S3 seems to be the ticket. My hesitation has been, whether I am losing any of the fantastic characteristics of the R3 by cheating the wind a bit. Doesn’t seem like I am, and since I’m used to the SL3 (by memory) and ride an HT on the dirt, I’m not concerned about losing much comfort.

    Thanks for the great review!

  26. Brad

    Very interesting article.

    What do you think the outcome would be if you compared the 2014 R5 vs the S3? I’m curious to know your thoughts, especially since this is the choice many of the Garmin guys were faced with for each race. Thanks.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Brad: Whatever differences there are between the frames, I’m confident that they’d be too minor to A) tell a difference and B) change my opinion.

  27. ucc_peter

    I had a chance to weight my 2014 R3 frame set with all accessories and found its weight is far from 900 grams. It is a shocking 1010 grams frame set. Bear in mind my frame size is 51. a 56 might be something like 1050 g…….

    Peter

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