The world changed when the bike industry moved to carbon fiber for fabricating most high-end bicycle frames. The shifts were myriad. Many of the bigger companies began employing engineers for the first time ever. Most of the bigger companies either started producing what was effectively their own tubing for the first time or had someone else produce tubing for them, to their spec. The way marketing materials were written changed as they sought to attempt to both hide what materials they used even as they tried to pitch the objective advantage their materials offered the buyer.
It was a helluva change.
Think back. For those of you who went through a steel frame or three before buying a first carbon fiber frame, you’ll recall that bike companies, as well as small framebuilders, all touted just whose tubing they used. So much so, they put a sticker on the seat tube announcing just what they used. It was anything other than a secret.
How companies like Trek, Specialized, Felt, Zipp and others deal with their materials is very different. They effectively create their own alloy by buying carbon fiber from different mills and blending it within their frames as they see fit. To make matters worse, when you try to talk to the folks charged with media relations, one will talk about sourcing from Toray (one of the big mills), while another will talk about modulus and tell you the source doesn’t matter, while another will say modulus doesn’t matter, compaction and resin are the issues. It’s maddening.
Without the benefit of that tubing sticker, bike companies go to great lengths to check out the work of their competitors. They have two primary tools at their disposal. The first is the saw. They will cut frames apart to see what’s inside. They can get a look at exactly what fibers are being used. The other method involves baking. A frame can be put in an oven and baked apart; all you have to do is exceed the resin’s cure temperature. What it yields is a bunch of sheets of carbon fiber. You can see the exact shape and position of ever sheet used. Unfortunately, this method of investigation comes with a downside. You can’t tell what any of the sheets of fiber were; there’s no telling if they were intermediate modulus, high modulus or ultra-high modulus.
I’ve long admired Cervelo’s work, even if I have found some of their designs less than attractive, or comfortable. The SLC-SL remains one of the most unpleasant to ride bikes I’ve ever swung a leg over. But with a pair of Zipps, it was a very fast bike. I found myself constantly scrubbing speed inside the group. What was more impressive about the bike was its torsional stiffness. The bike, despite its aerodynamic-profile tubes, didn’t twist to any appreciable degree. I’ve been on many similarly shaped frames that would twist under a hard acceleration even while firmly ensconced in the saddle.
What elevated my regard for Cervelo’s work a few years ago came not from anything their PR people told me, not from a big win aboard one of their bikes and certainly not from some bike magazine review. An engineer for one of their competitors had baked apart a frame and told me of the sophisticated layup they were using. That there were places where he’d have loved to know what fiber they were using to achieve the stiffness and strength they managed at the bottom bracket. The frame was too light, too stiff and too strong to make the answer easy or obvious.
This guy was unimpressed with some of the work he was seeing from the big three. He talked about how you’d see stacks of fiber maybe five or 10 sheets thick grabbed and placed. Maybe with decent care, maybe not. In his view it was the downside of having to achieve the production numbers they needed. He said with Cervelo you could tell that each sheet was placed individually. You can’t make frames as quickly that way, he told me. But they break less often and usually offer the rider better quality and improved stiffness because the sheets are perfectly oriented for their intended role.
The conversation (actually, I’ve had a similar conversation with two other engineers not employed by the Canadians) made me sit up and take note of Cervelo in a fresh way. It also gave me a new perspective on my previous experience with the SLC-SL. Maybe some of that incredible stiffness was due to great care. Huh.
Since then, I’ve ridden every Cervelo I can get my hands on. I’ve had a day on the S5 (I wrote about that here) and a couple of days on the old R3 SL. This spring Cervelo sent me the new R3. I rode it through the spring, summer and into the fall.
I didn’t want to send it back.
Tomorrow: Part II
The last few weeks have been crazy enough that I’ve got a few different bike posts I’d planned to have up before Interbike that, well, I’m just now getting around to.
To some degree these are going to go up in reverse order of how the events have actually taken place. First up is the Cervelo S5; it will be followed (shortly) with reviews of the Focus Izalco Pro and Cervelo R3.
The S5 reviewette (new word, you heard it here first) came about as a result of Mark Reidy of True Communications. Mark is handling some endemic media duties for Cervelo and had the bright idea to get a bunch of S5s in different sizes and then host a bunch of writers to an afternoon ride in the canyons of Malibu.
Why more PR/marketing types don’t do this is an absolute wonder. If they did more of this, we’d be less inclined to call them hacks.
We met at the Starbucks that practically sits in the shadow of Pepperdine University (also known as the site of Landis’ Last Stand). Sit here for an hour and you’ll see someone paparazzi-worth. I’ve seen Pamela Anderson, Tony Danza, a Brolin, and scores of minor celebs whose faces I recognized but whose roles were as lost to me as the name of my kindergarten teacher.
In the interest of full disclosure, Mark reminded us to bring our pedals no less than three times. Remember them I did. The shoes? Uh, a cat attempting to escape short-circuited me and I left the shoes behind. That’s not really the disclosure bit; this is: I did the whole ride in Vans and pushing giant downhill-style platform pedals.
The loop we chose had plenty of climbing. They were roads I know well and even though the shoes were wrong, I could tell plenty about the bike from the bar and saddle. The short answer is that I was surprised by my experience.
I’ve spoken with Phil White on a couple of occasions about his company’s designs. When last we spoke the S5 wasn’t yet out, but the S3 was. I’d told him about my review of the SLC-SL, which was the single most unpleasant-riding carbon fiber bike I’ve encountered. I could have more fun in front of a firing squad. White was adamant that the S3 would be a different experience. In riding the S5, I rather skipped a generation of development.
Latigo Canyon Road is a 12k climb and a fair bit of the asphalt is less than perfect. I know how my own bikes feel there. The only detail the S5 shares with the SLC-SL is that both are rather aerodynamic. Where the SLC-SL makes rough road feel like pavé, the S5 leaves it at rough. I’ve ridden other non-aero carbon fiber bikes that were less forgiving.
It was apparent in talking to him that White really favored Cervelo’s aero designs over its popular R-series. Honestly, I think they’d discontinue the R bikes if it wouldn’t hurt their sales. It’s an impression Mark backed up. He told me they don’t understand why someone would choose an R over an S.
Part of this has to do with what they understand about aerodynamics versus what most of us don’t understand about it. I’ve been told by several engineers and product managers that all the significant gains in bike design in the future will be in aerodynamics. The only way to make a bike significantly faster will be to make it more aerodynamic.
My response to the assertion that I should go with an aero road bike has been my regard for my undercarriage. I like it. I want to keep it. I want to avoid unnecessary scar tissue in my nether regions.
Is the S5 as comfortable as an R3? That seems to be the $64,000 question. The short answer is no. It’s not as comfortable. But it’s not the Muy Thai beating that I’ve come to expect either.
That minor loss of comfort was the most apparent difference to the R3 I’ve been riding. It’s difficult to try to quantify the aerodynamic gains; I’d have an easier time getting a feel for that on group rides. Time spent at the front of a group ride is where I get my best feedback on aerodynamics.
The crisp handling I’ve come to revere in the R3 was present in the S5. I was afraid it might not handle well on descents, but given that I did 45 mph coming down Decker Canyon in Vans, I’m going to suggest is indication that I was comfortable with the bike’s handling. I’ve gone faster, but never in sneakers.
You know what I’d really love to try? Either the R3 or the S5 in nude finishes—just decals, no paint. The liveliest carbon fiber frames I’ve ridden feature no paint. That’s for another post, though.
The aero road bike was a screwy idea five years ago. It was still bleeding edge two years ago. Today, I think the idea has come of age. There’s still a weight/torsional stiffness penalty with these bikes, but they are so much better than they used to be bikes like the S5 really don’t deserve to be compared to creations like the SLC-SL.
I’ve got to give White and his partner Gerard Vroomen credit. They have really taken a stand on aerodynamics. The aero road bike is something of a mission for them. They really don’t care what you think; they believe you’ll be faster on an aero bike, and from all appearances, they care more about your speed than your opinion.