Posted by: Ian | November 12, 2011

Which Cervelo and which Zipps?

I’m getting myself a new bike for 2012. Since I’m planning to spend a decent amount of money on it, I should tour round the bike shops and try out all that they have to offer. But I’m not going to and in writing this I immediately see that my first sentence was wrong: I should have said, “I’m getting myself a Cervelo” because it’s a Cervelo that I want and I otherwise wouldn’t be bothering to get a new bike. Maybe the new Cannondale is better, or maybe, since I’m going to be into serious expenditure, I should get a Storck. Really, I don’t care. I want a Cervelo.

Of course, I’ve been aware of the brand for a long time. I read a lot of reviews and have never seen a bad write-up of a Cervelo. On web forums I’ve yet to find a Cervelo owner who doesn’t love their machine. Quite recently on the Black Rat I cycled past a guy who told me that he was super-pleased with his RS, much preferring it to the Orbea he rode previously. But all this is just so many words. The deciding moment for me was taking Joerg’s RS around the streets of Zurich after we’d finished the Engadin Radmarathon. Despite being too big for me, the RS was conspicuously livelier than my Astraeus on which I’d just done a very satisfactory 100 km up and down the Bernina Pass. My Felt also has something of the same edge to it, but less so. Since then, a part of me has wanted a Cervelo, although with no sense of how I might justify buying it to myself.

One prompt to look at the Cervelos again came in last week’s Cycling Weekly, which had a piece on the new R5 VWD build. There’s apparently a Ltd version of it shipping now with a natty blue flash colour scheme for the same price as the regular R5. The other lure is that I want some new wheels. Actually, I don’t want new wheels (my Mavic Elites and my Fulcrums are fine): I want some Zipps. More specifically, I want a pair of Zipp Firecrest 404 carbon clinchers. I could explain why, but if you’re reading this you probably want some too (unless you’re lucky enough to have some already). Doing Park Loops, we go early enough and it’s quiet enough that it’s very rare for me to be passed by another cyclist. The majority of those who do are riding deep rim wheels: I can hear their distinctive whoosh as they approach me from behind. That’s the noise I want to make.

Why Zipps in particular? Well, they’re called “Zipps” and they say “Speed Weaponry” on them. That might be enough but they also have credible arguments from science. You can google dozens of different review sites and read about the aerodynamic and comfort benefits of the Firecrest rim shape and the special resin they use for the rim surface to stop it overheating and getting grabby. I believe it all.

People will tell me that I should get tubs instead of clinchers. Save your breath: it’s not happening. For example, read p186 of the current (December) issue of Cycling Plus. The C+ Production Editor flew to Tuscany to ride L’Eroica last month. 75km in, her tubular punctured – she had to walk 5km to the next feed stop and then abandoned. I tried riding my Fulcrums tubeless as a half-way house to tubs but gave up and switched back to clinchers. The tubeless ride is nice but doesn’t compensate for the convenience of clinchers and the comfort of knowing that a puncture will only have me off the road for ten minutes.

Last week my desire for the Zipps overcame my reluctance to spend the considerable amount of money required to buy them. In a kind of domino effect of crumbling prudence, I gave in to my desire to own a Cervelo about two days later. After all, if I’m going to have kick-ass wheels, they might as well be on a kick-ass frame. On Wednesday, I went to the Condor shop to talk about frame options; this week I’m going in for a fitting.

To date, only two of my bike buying experiences have been as good as they should have been. The first was in 2006, when I bought my Specialized Tricross from Evans. After reading around for a while and talking to people, I guessed right with the frame size (a 58 cm), found a shop where they had it in stock and bought it after only a test ride around a very short block. It was fantastic – even the fact that I had to go the wrong way down a one-way street on the test ride improved the experience. Riding away on it was exhilarating: it was so much better than the hand-me-down mountain bikes that I’d ridden, infrequently, beforehand. The Tricross was the machine that showed me how great cycling could be, and the gateway bike that ultimately led me to now be at the point of spending as much on a Cervelo as you might spend on a (very) small car.

My other Great Bike-buying Experience was getting my Condor Tempo about three years ago. Again, I read widely beforehand and instead of trying lots of bikes simply chose the one I felt most drawn to. At the Condor shop in Grey’s Inn Road I spent about an hour on the jig getting fitted and selecting the best components I could get for the arbitrary budget I’d set (£800 if you’re curious); and a few weeks later I had my bike. As with the Tricross, I loved riding it from the moment I got on it. I still do.

Other bike purchases have been less satisfactory. When I bought my Van Nicholas Amazon it took way longer to ship than their estimate, and, even after a huge delay, they first delivered a 54 cm rather than a 58 cm frame. And I’ve written about my travails ordering my Van Nicholas Astraeus at length elsewhere on this blog.

Buying my Felt was differently disappointing. I had been keen to get a bike from a real cycle shop. There used to be a guy who had a small shop and did occasional repairs for me whose main brands were Viner and Felt. He was nice and helpful and I asked him essentially to give me any bike he would recommend for me to try/buy. It became like the Monty Python cheese shop sketch: for every different bike that he himself proposed he found a different reason why he couldn’t source it. I began to doubt whether his income was truly coming from bike sales. A few months later he moved (fled?) to France. I think he was the person who first interested me in the Felt brand, although they were then being ridden by Team Garmin (note they’re now Team Garmin-Cervelo!). When he disappeared I approached a few other bike shops to try to get a test ride on a Felt. Evans were the only shop that could offer me one, and, although I liked the bike, they could only supply the SRAM-equipped models and I wanted Shimano. In the end I guiltily bought my Felt Z15 on Wiggle, with the benefit of a 25% discount.

Hence I’m buying my new Cervelo from the Condor shop.

Turning, finally, to the title of this blog post, I’m a bit uncertain about which Cervelo to get. Joerg’s RS is no longer in the catalogue and the nearest equivalent would be one of the R’s. These range in price from expensive (the R3), through very expensive (the R5) up to WTF?? (the R5ca). A defining characteristic of buying a mid-life crisis bike is that cost is (excluding absurdities like the R5ca) almost immaterial: I could buy an R5 if I wanted to and I have, with my ever-amplifying sense of possible morbidity and certain mortality, a dangerously diminished inhibition against doing so. But Cervelo really aren’t playing along. Here’s how they describe the R3 and its advantages over last year’s model:

Listed there are some good reasons to buy this particular bike, notwithstanding that you undoubtedly already own a carbon race bike, which might possibly even be the 2010 R3.

Now, here’s what they say, on the main part of their site promoting their 2012 bikes, about the R5:

The important thing you need to know is that the R5 frameset is one thousand pounds more expensive than the R3 frameset. And their entire rationale for you (me!) spending an extra £1,000, the best their Marketing pro’s could come up with, is the single word, “Lighter”.

Wake up Cervelo! Help me to help you!!

Pete at Condor says that it’s 200g lighter, for the £1,000, and also less comfortable. 200g is less than the weight difference between the saddle that I use on my Tempo and my Astraeus (an old Specialized Avatar) and the Fizik saddle that I first had on the Astraeus and that’s now sitting around in my bike room while I think of something worthwhile to do with it.

Given that Cervelo themselves have made the R5 unchooseable, the real alternative to an R3 is the S5.

The differences between the two are not subtle. Here’s the R3:

It looks like a regular road bike with compact/sportive geometry. The high head tube, sloping top tube and spaghetti-width seat stays promise a comfortable and compliant ride, notwithstanding all the stiffness in the front-to-back and side-to-side dimensioning.

By contrast, here’s the boy-racer S5:

Doesn’t it look as though it wants to bite someone!

If you spend any time at all online it’s clear that this is the bike Cervelo want me to buy. I have no doubt that it’s faster than the R3, even for me. The downtube, the rear wheel and the back brake are almost invisible to oncoming air. The main tube profiles are virtually 2D, yet cunningly shaped to slip through crosswinds. Physics tells you that it must work. Approximately 100 out of every 100 sincerely enthusiastic words from company Cervelo are about this bike. Which is the same price as the R3 (if we ignore the white R3 that has worse forks).

The benefit of aerodynamics are obviously less compelling on the rides that I do, where 10 to 20% gradients are commonplace, than on flatter terrain. Even so, I’m guessing that the 200g extra weight that the R3 packs relative to the R5 puts it into the same ballpark as the S5 so there is little weight penalty to the S5 compared to the R3 on the hills. Also, despite being an ultra-aero frame, the S5 doesn’t stretch you out over the top tube. In fact, although you can clip on tri-bars and tip yourself forward, the default geometry is identical to the R3’s.

I don’t have a case-closing reason for preferring the R3. One factor is simply taste. I don’t agree at all with those people who find the S5 ugly but it does make a statement that I don’t want to make. While it’s fine for ex-World Champion Thor Horsovd to ride the S5 in the Tour, his intention and capability of winning are incomparably higher than mine. The S5 doesn’t look like a bike for riders who want to enjoy the scenery and are happy to come home a third of the way down the field.

Apart from the aesthetics of it, I’m even more concerned about comfort. Although the S5 doesn’t guarantee you the geometrical-skeletal discomfort of a TT bike, the back end worries me. Where the R3 has those springy, pencil-thin seat stays, the S5 looks as though it’s going to jackhammer every detail of the road surface right through the saddle. The review feedback is mixed but look at it: how can it not?

While I may yet change my mind, my current disposition is to choose the R3, loved by every owner and reviewer over years, over the possibly greater but more uncertain benefits of the S5.

The choice of which Zipps to get is easy: I want the 404 Firecrest carbon clinchers. I do, though, think that they would look better on the S5. Although Cervelo show the R3 in deep-rim Lightweights, the Zipp 303 looks a more natural match. If you were 100% serious about the benefits of the 404’s you’d cosset them like the S5 does. The apt wheel for the R3 or R5 feels as though it ought to be the lighter one. But I don’t care. Unless I change my mind in the next week or so I’m getting an R3 with 404’s. If anyone reading this thinks this is the wrong choice please let me know why before it’s too late!



  1. […] line, waiting in the over-long registration line, I queued next to someone with a Cervelo R5. As I’ve written before, I don’t understand the rationale for choosing that particular frame but I’m […]

  2. […] thoughts were that Paula should look at an aero bike. Maybe one of the Cervelo S series (when I was comparing the R3 to the S5, Paula’s instincts were towards the S5), which will always be hard to beat. Maybe a Felt AR: […]

  3. […] writing my last post (Which Cervelo and Which Zipps?), I posted the following question to Cervelo […]

  4. On the benefits of saving weight, this extract from Wikipedia’s artice on Bicycle Performance “For instance, lowering a bike’s weight by 1 lb (0.45 kg) … will have the same effect over a 40 km time trial on flat ground as removing a protrusion into the air the size of a pencil.” This thought is subsequently qualified with “Less weight results in larger time savings on uphill terrain.”

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