A few years ago I had the opportunity to go for a ride with some Cervelo staffers and a bunch of my colleagues, all of us aboard Cervelos. On the ride, I had the opportunity to chat with Phil White for a while. White is an interesting guy. Thoughtful, deeply rational, but also possessed of an ideology that drives his work. Ideology is a funny thing. It can lead to fiction like Thomas Pynchon’s, or it can lead to the hare-brained belief that a corporation is a person.
I tend to be careful around ideologues.
That said, White is a pretty delightful ideologue. I was riding an R3, he an S3; I decided I’d just level with him. I told him that while I loved the R3, my experience on the SLC-SL, easily the most aerodynamic bike I’d ever ridden, was also the single most unpleasant bike I’d ever ridden, from a comfort standpoint. I wasn’t sure how he’d take the statement, so I tried to be both polite and cordial. The conversations I like best are the ones where all the cards are on the table and everyone still manages a genuine smile.
White, to his credit, didn’t flinch and responded with, “Well you should try our S3.”
What the hell do you say to that?
“Yeah, I probably should.”
The problem I’d had with aero road frames was my perception that comfort and aerodynamics didn’t enjoy a directly inverse relationship. My experience, at least until recently, was that if you improved a bike’s aerodynamics by 20 percent, you didn’t get a 20 percent reduction in comfort. No, comfort seemed to fall off at twice that rate, more like 40 percent, and it may have been that the aero seatposts have been a big contributor. So if I wanted a bike that cut aerodynamic drag by 50 percent, then the bike would be twice as stiff vertically, which struck me as an exercise in pointlessness.
Even if my perception of that ratio was off, there was no denying that I had yet to ride an aero bike that enjoyed a reasonable ride. The aerodynamic shaping was counterproductive to bottom bracket and overall torsional stiffness, so all that extra carbon fiber deadened the feel of the frame in addition to making it stiffer vertically. Not quite a selling point.
The rest of my conversation with White was remarkable for what he confessed to me. He believes Cervelo has made a very clear case for the benefits of a more aerodynamic bike. He’s right. The company has made a very clear case. What he couldn’t fathom was why their R-series bikes still outsold their S-series bikes. It made no sense to him. Funnier still, I had the impression that if he could, he’d guide all their consumers into their aero models and simply discontinue the R series.
I don’t think I’m being unfair when I write that I’ve never met a man less in love with his own product that White was with the R-series bikes. What makes this geniune and not cynical, and even kinda sweet is that his belief in the superiority of the S-series bikes stems from a desire to help his customer achieve what most of them are seeking—more speed.
So when the S3 arrived, I was more than a little curious. I disliked the SLC-SL, not matter how fast it made me. My one experience on the S5 was that it was stunningly fast but still lacked comfort and was wooden enough that it wasn’t really the aero analog to the R5.
The S3, however, can be said to be Cervelo’s effort to split the difference between the S5 and the R5. The S3 uses the same top tube, seatstays and chainstays as the R5. What I was amazed to learn from Cervelo’s head technologist, Damon Rinard, was that a sloping top tube didn’t make an appreciable change in aerodynamics, so sloping a top tube to reduce weight and increase sizing options didn’t penalize the bike in the wind.
My first ride on the S3 was up into the Palos Verdes Peninsula, a place where climbs start from roughly sea level and ascend to 1300 feet or so. Not huge climbs, but ones that vary enough in pitch to keep things lively. Out of the saddle, it was stiff enough that my accelerations enjoyed the spunk of youth rather than the sloppiness of a hamoc. It wasn’t until a buddy and I began a descent back to the coast—one where the road remains wide open and with the exception of one light about half-way down—you can really let a bike rip, that I got the sense of the bike’s speed. My riding partner had a good 30 lbs. on me; by rights he should have rolled away from me instantly. We both dropped into tucks and he only began to pull away at the steepest portion of the road, when his gravity-assist module gave him the greatest advantage. It was the closest I’ve stayed to him on that drop.
A few weeks later on a long solo run up the coast I enjoyed what felt like unusually good form. This is a common reaction I have when I get on aero equipment. I’ll frequently be seduced into thinking I’m having a good day, at least, until I have the good sense to look down. I returned home with an average speed more than a mile per hour higher than usual. Better yet, I felt fresher than I usually would for having done that loop solo. As scientific method goes, that assessment won’t hold water, but I’m comfortable with it because of how familiar I am with my own performances. I know how I should have felt and I know the typical range of average speeds I’d see, and no, there wasn’t a massive tailwind taking me home.
I also visited that climb I mentioned earlier, Latigo Canyon, with the S3. It was a solo ride there and back, roughly 80 miles, and again, I arrived home feeling reasonably good and with an average speed higher than I expected, but this time by a bit less than a full mile per hour. I’d recorded my fastest ascent of Latigo in a few years, and while I don’t think the bike could have helped much given the pace I was climbing, I do think I arrived at the base fresher thanks to the bike.
But what of the descent? If I can’t have fun on a descent, every other sellable feature to a bicycle becomes a moot point.
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