From the outset of this review, indeed, even from our first conversation about the review last fall at Interbike, there was always the goal of doing more than a comparison and contrast of the two bikes. I was being charged with arriving at a verdict. Remaining agnostic to these two bikes is a luxury I’m not allowed.
I’ve done dozens of rides on both of these bikes. Long rides, short rides, easy rides, sufferfests and the odd dirt road just to keep things surprising. By the time I’d finished rides on each of the bikes I knew I was in trouble. I thought both bikes were terrific. This would be like trying to choose between a vacation in Tahiti and one in Tuscany.
What was most helpful to me was rolling out for a long ride in the morning after making sure the tires on both bikes’ tires were fully pumped to the same pressure. I’d do a long ride on one bike and then return home to switch bikes and do five to ten minutes on the other bike. Sometimes I rolled out on the R3 first, sometimes the S3.
This has been the most challenging review I’ve ever written. The differences between these two bikes are distinct, but they aren’t huge. I could get myself in trouble in a hurry if I tried to portray the differences as dramatic. In doing a long ride on one bike followed a short ride on the other, I was afforded the opportunity to get familiar enough with one bike that I could forget about it and then in switching, the differences between the two became more apparent.
If I did a ride on the S3 first, my experience upon getting on the R3 began with the comfort at the saddle. The difference wasn’t big, but it was always there. Every time I switched from the R to the S, the increase in comfort was apparent. Also apparent was that the R was just a bit livelier under big efforts, gave back just a bit more when I was out of the saddle.
When I’d ride the R3 first and then take the S3 out, I was continually amazed by how the S3 was never as harsh as I’d expect. It’s as if I was expect to get back on the SLC-SL, but instead found myself on something like my Felt F1 or the S-Works Tarmac SL3. Similarly, when I’d make a jump from a stop sign, the bike performed better than expected. I never found myself thinking the bike wasn’t stiff enough for the effort I was putting out. I might have felt differently if I weighed 180 lbs., but I don’t.
When I consider other bikes I’ve ridden in the $5k range, the Cervelo R3 ranks as one of the best bikes in the class, if not the best. Improving the bike would require no paint, and component upgrades like better wheels. For most riders, purchasing this bike would be a revelation in cycling performance, the sort of bike no one regrets buying.
One question on my mind was the difference in aerodynamics between the R3 and the S3. Was it enough of an improvement to matter? I wondered if the S3 was the midpoint aerodynamically between the R3 and the S5. It turns out, it’s not. Taking the S5 as the baseline, the R3 is 11 watts slower, while the S3 is only 4 watts slower. The S3 is 7 watts faster than the R3, but more importantly to my thinking, the S3 gives roughly two-thirds of the aero benefit you get from the S5, when compared to the R3.
And what of the S3? As I mentioned earlier, the way a bike descends can trump all other features. If I can’t get a bike out of the mountains, no other feature or constellation of features can redeem a frame. On all but rough pavement the S3 was indistinguishable from the R3. I did what I could to try to find some difference between the two, but even on the rough and broken pavement on the lower turns of Latigo Canyon, I could barely identify any difference, and while there was a difference in how the bike tracked over that rough stuff, I can’t say it compromised the bike’s performance. With unlimited time (and fitness), I’d do the descent of Latigo a dozen times on each bike. I suspect that any time I lost by braking a bit more for the rough turns I’d make up with the bike’s aero advantage on other stretches of road.
For weeks on end, perhaps the better part of two months, I did my best to remain open-minded about which was truly the better bike. And yes, that’s how I considered the question—which was better. Given my demonstrated preferences, there was no real shot at fooling myself; I figured that there was a high probability that I was going to ultimately determine the R3 was bike, not just for me, but for any person who wanted the best-performing bike.
But a funny thing happened. I found myself going out on the S3 with increasing frequency. With four other road bikes to choose from (two other bikes arrived for review during this time), the S3 became my automatic first-choice, especially any time I wanted to be fast. And when my legs were thrashed and I wanted the most comfort possible? I rolled out on the R3. I rather expect putting that into print will make Phil White smile and his sales force groan.
Previously, when I’ve ridden aero road bikes they’ve all suffered from performance limiters. A bottom bracket as easily pushed around as a shy third grader, a rear end mean as a pro wrestler, frame weight as heavy as … some very expensive carbon fiber bikes—aero always makes a frame suffer.
Well, that is until now. If I were making the purchase today, I’d take the S3. Sure, there are differences, but but the single biggest difference between the two frames isn’t the 200g penalty the S3 pays. And as I noted when comparing the weights between the two bikes, adding a great set of wheels could make the S3 lighter than the R3 and if those wheels were something like Zipp 303s, the bike would be even more formidable against the wind. And that—the wind—is the big difference between these bikes. The S3 is a faster bike and going faster is rarely not more fun.
The S3 has set a new standard for aerodynamic achievment without slaughtering comfort in the name of race performance. Any company hoping to produce an aero road frame that claims to offer an enjoyable ride will be forced to benchmark against the S3. It’s that good.