The R3 is one of those rare bikes that changed the conversation. In this regard its forebears are less previous Cervelo models than bikes like the Trek 5000 OCLV and the Kestrel 4000. Those were bikes that redefined what we thought was possible in carbon fiber. Those tiny seatstays were the stuff of nervous laughter and more than a few jokes initially. To say that those stays seemed impossibly small, too small not to compromise the bike’s durability, is a slight understatement. People wondered when they would fail. And yet, the R3 went on to rack up three wins at Paris-Roubaix and another three podium finishes, and all that in just seven starts. Sure, it helps to bet on the right horse, but if the bikes had been substandard in any way, they’d never have made it to the finish.
As a result, the R3 ushered in a new era of weight-shaving and set new standards for strength-to-weight ratio. Competitors’ seatstays began to shrink in diameter, as if the world’s bike manufacturers all joined the same anorexia-inducing sorority. Similarly, the Squoval tube shapes, which are essentially squares and rectangles that have rounded sides came about in Cervelo’s search to find tube shapes that would resist twisting and in turn cut down on a bike’s bending in torsion. While not everyone shapes their tubes the same, we’ve seen the industry move to larger-diameter tubes with roundish-cross sections.
Representatives from other companies have told me of their experiences at baking apart R3 frames. Competitors, in an effort to gain insight into a frame’s makeup, will bake a carbon fiber frame in an oven. The process breaks down the epoxy and allows engineers to dissect a frame one sheet of carbon fiber at a time. It allows them to know the layup schedule, but the process of baking the frame destroys the fibers so they unable to find out the modulus of the fibers used. The answer is a bit like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Except that there’s no process to find out what fibers were used. In baking those frames, other engineers told me that what they learned was that Cervelo was taking bike layup to a whole new level of complexity. Where some manufacturers previously had layup schedules that detailed a couple dozen steps, Cervelo’s layup schedule would go on for more than 100 steps. Frames in high demand from the biggest manufacturers might have a stack of sheets laid down in one spot, but not so with the R3; each sheet of fiber was laid down one at a time.
So even if wins by pros at everything from Paris-Roubaix to the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France mean nothing to you, the R3 has registered a lasting impression based solely on the way it has affected how the competition designs and builds bikes. It’s not too much to say the competition’s bikes are better because of Cervelo.
Compared to other 900g frames I’ve ridden, the R3 really does continue to surprise me. I’ve ridden frames in this weight class that are comfortable (Felt’s Z-series is seriously underrated in this regard) and I’ve ridden other frames that were shockingly stiff during out-of-the-saddle efforts. However, there are only a handful of bikes on the market that come close to this balance of stiffness under power and comfort in the saddle. Cervelo says that compared to the previous generation of the R3, this one is 24 percent stiffer at the head tube (in torsion) as well as eight percent stiffer at the bottom bracket. I’ve no way to verify those numbers, but my experience is that this bike is closer to the performance of the R5VWD that I rode two years ago than it is to the previous R3.
One of my favorite climbs in the Santa Monica mountains is an ascent called Latigo Canyon. It’s a roughly 12 kilometer climb. As a descent, it’s got a bit of everything: sweeping turns on great pavement, a few off-camber corners and a couple of switchbacks to force you to brake hard, not to mention the single most decreasing radius turn I can ever recall. There are a few right-hand turns near the bottom that sport rough and broken pavement that begins only once you’re in the turn. If a bike is too stiff, the wheels will chatter across the asphalt and force me toward the yellow line. The R3 was unusual in how smooth it was across those sections of pavement. If a bike is too stiff, picking a precise line across broken pavement can be difficult, at least at my weight, which is just a nick below 160 lbs.
I was impressed that Cervelo found ways to improve the aerodynamics of this frame without turning it into an aero-ish bike. They say this R3 saves seven watts compared to the old R3. That’s an impressive improvement, especially as the ride quality hasn’t suffered. In many ways, my interest in lightweight frames isn’t to have a light bike that goes uphill like a helium balloon to the ceiling. Those frames that come in at 900g and less are delights because they are lively both in the saddle and out. You gain a much greater sense of the road surface and the inherent spring to a frame is greater when there’s not an overabundance of carbon being used to nail down the bottom bracket.
Every now and then I get on a bike and my abiding reaction is that I like the bike so much I want to keep riding it. I don’t want to send it back. Worse, on occasion, I think about just not reviewing any more bikes until I run across something I like better. The R3 was like that. Dear God, don’t let me ride an Rca.
(Click the link for the next page.)