Cervelo R3 SL

While Carlos Sastre was riding his R3 SL to victory in the 2008 Tour de France I was riding Bob Cabot's around the coast of Jersey.  I didn't have  a yellow jersey and Sastre doesn't have a dodgy accent (for our global audience listen to the Beatles talking!) but the one thing we did have in common was a bike of supreme quality.

The Frame
Where do we start?  Weight?  The first thing that anyone does when they see someone else's bike (well they do in Jersey) is pick it up.  What does it weigh?  In this day and age, who cares.  My first race bike weighed 26lb, my second 22.  Now those were the days of weight saving! 

Cervelo don't publish the weight of their frames; but I'll tell you now they're bloody light!  This was the lightest bike I've ever ridden and it wasn't particularly that tricked up.  Even with a PowerTap wheel in place it still came in under the UCI limit of 6.8 kilos.

The first thing that grabs you about the R3 SL is those impossibly thin seat stays.  What's all that about?

It appears that they're only there to provide a hanger for the rear brake calliper.  And to be honest, it's not that much of a hanger; they are so thin.

Due to the monstrous strength of the squoval chain stays the seat stays can be trimmed down to the minimum required to provide a brake mounting.  The added benefit of this is that compliance can be engineered in to their compression to allow for a comfortable ride without sacrificing strength or back end comfort.

The urban myth has it that the frame doesn't need seat stays because the chain stays are that strong.  They really do look the part but it's not just their external beefiness that gives them strength.

You'll have noticed the phrase "squoval tubing" appear above.  Yep, it's another of the fancy marketing, made up, terms that plague our sport like it does my daytime job.  IT I'm afraid!

Dark Forces
Squoval tubing has gone through the design process of maximising the strength to weight ratio of each particular tube depending on the application to which it is being put and the forces acting on it.  Round tubes are good, but square tubes are best.  However, square tubes don't like forces acting on them in a certain plane because they can easily buckle. 

Different forces acting on the same materials give different results dependent on the direction of that force.  Seems highly complicated but here's a demonstration even my mum would understand.

Get a drinking straw and holding it like a magic wand, hit it over the back of your hand, as hard as you possibly can.  A slight tickle.  Please don't do this next bit!  If you were to hold it like a dagger and place your thumb over the hole at the top, then stab it in to the back of your hand, there's a chance it would penetrate the skin.

See; different planes of force, same materials two very different results.  Back to the frame...

The top tube is pretty much the same, squarish at the two ends to resist lateral forces and ovalish in the middle to resist torsional loads.  If all this wasn't enough, there's Smartwall design engineering going on to further enhance the tubing properties.  High and ultra-high modulus carbon fibre is placed at the furthest points from the centre of the tubes to further resist lateral forces.

Big is Beautiful
The bottom bracket area on Cervelo's has to be the biggest of any of the bike manufacturers on the market.  It's huge beyond all comprehension.  And the R3 SL's is no different.  All these squoval tubes feed in to the area so it's no surprise it has to bulk out to manage and distribute the forces.

I've held one of these frames, bare, straight out of the box.  The frame tubes look huge when there's no kit hanging off them.  But as soon as you hold it in your hands, you cannot believe that this featherweight frame could be built in to a bike to support a rider's weight.

The box it came in was heavier, but I wouldn't like to descend a mountain pass on it.  The biggest issue you have with a Cervelo is that how can anything so light be strong enough to cope in a competitive environment.  Let's find out.

The Ride
Seeing as Cancellara and O'Grady have taken the SL's bigger brother, the R3, to two victories and a second place in Paris Roubaix we shouldn't be overly concerned about the R3 SL's ability to do the job.  Especially as Cancellara is no lightweight at 80 kilos.  So that's that issue cleared up.

I rode the bike with Campag Record and Zipp 404's hanging off it.  And it was evident before I left the drive, that this was going to be a good day.  The lightness of the bike was immediately evident.  I was planning a quiet recovery ride after a three hard week training/sportive block.  But as soon as I'd warmed up I felt I had to find a hill to test out this featherweight climber.

The term "climber" doesn't do the bike justice.  The ride was firm but comfortable, no doubt that's the spindly seat stays, but the whole bottom and back end just felt as one unit.  Hard accelerations and sprints out of the saddle showed no sign of lower end movement, which is as you would expect from an old vet riding a pro's mount.

The massive front end, with it's boomerang build (the carbon fibres run seamlessly from top to down tube) make for a lively ride.  This bike feels like it will turn 90 degrees in it's own length!  I'll stop short of saying it was nervous but you need to be in complete control of your thoughts all of the time. 

Stay on your game otherwise you could find yourself drifting off line or turning too tight in to the corner and hitting the apex.  It really is that light and lively.

Nervous Thoroughbred?
To be honest I'm not sure I'd enjoy doing a seven hour sportive on it, but for a crit or a road race there's few bikes better equipped for the rigours of racing.  It will change direction in the blink of an eye.

The compact frame design just enhances the feeling of flightiness from the frame.  It feels and looks like there is nothing between your legs; where have I heard that before? 

You look where you want to go, you dip your shoulder and you breath on the bars and the bikes already where you want to be.  Make sure you have your wits about you if doing an Alpine descent on this bike because it will catch you out.  It's that fast at changing direction.

The 3T Funda Pro front fork was clean, solid and showed little sign of flex or twisting.  But on my, "don't brake and hang on" corner test, the Cervelo did drift about six inches wide.  It could have been flex in the wheels. But when quickly changing direction when climbing out of the saddle, I couldn't get the wheels to flex again. 

So the conclusion is; when pushed to the limit, which most people won't, the fork does appear to give a controlled run wide at the front.  Nothing a bit of front end braking wouldn't bring under control, but try as I might I couldn't physically pull it back under the line it wanted to take.

Frame stiffness is a relative concept anyway.  The forks may appear to flex because the back end is so solid.  It may just be that the front is less stiff than the back.  All those lateral cornering forces have to go somewhere and the solid middle, attached to the girder like chainstays means the frame ain't going to absorb any of it.  But strangely none of it is fed back to the rider as road vibration.

When sprinting, climbing, cornering and braking you can just forget about the back end.  The back just looks after itself.  No drama, no fuss, no worrying about positioning yourself correctly over the back wheel, seat post, bottom bracket area, as appropriate to what you are doing at the time.  You just stand and stamp on the pedals.  What you do have to watch is the front end.  As I said before, it's a lively little beast but then speed always has a price.  You wouldn't want to do the school run in an F1 car. 

Tech Spec
Cervelo produce six sizes that they believe, due to ingenious geometry manipulations, covers twelve sizes of "normal" manufacturers.  Who am I to dispute it, everyone who has one is more than pleased with theirs.

Conclusion

So there you have it.  The fastest, lightest bike out there?  To be honest, it's not as comfy as my Colnago Extreme-C and it wasn't "as together" as the Felt F1 recently tested.  But as an out and out race bike that climbs, sprints and corners with the best of them there can be little equal.  Pound for pound the R3 SL punches way above it's feather light  weight.  It does all things well, and lightness better than most.  Speak to them nicely at Pedal Power or check out their 53x39 website as they have them in stock for 2,045, not cheap but look at the value not the cost!

This year Cycling weekly had the Felt F1 and the Cervelo R3 SL as the top two in their Race bike of the year tests.  Either one of them is a winner, as with all things this good, it's down to personal choice.  If in doubt just flip a coin, you wont be disappointed either way.

The Tester
What makes me think I'm qualified to write articles and critique bikes? Click here and I'll try to explain.