An overview of the 2018 Cervelo R3 disc Di2
There comes a time in a cyclist’s life where a new bike arrives - for our breed, where a new machine is usually a source of great joy, this is a major milestone. Such a moment arrived for me in March 2018, when I got delivery of my new Cervelo R3 disc.
I shy from calling this a review: I've not ridden enough bikes to have a rounded and balanced opinion, and I'm obviously biased favourably towards this one. So I'll call it an opinionated overview. My riding history is confined to 5-6 years of enthusiastic riding of road bikes, plus another 30 years of riding for play, fun and general fitness, alongside other sports. I have owned or ridden extensively however a number of frames, so I think I’m approaching what I would call an ‘experienced’ rider.
With this out of the way, here are some facts: This is the 2018 model, which is part of the latest breed of the venerable R-series Cervelo ushered to the public in the early noughties. A lot of course have happened since then; Cervelo themselves pioneered the aero road bike (with the Soloist that later morphed into the S-series), and pretty much every major bike manufacturer has a standard road bike in their range (which is usually their ‘climbing’ bike). And pretty much now everyone is chasing aero gains, integration, tyre clearance etc etc. Cervelo follows suit with all these latest trends with the R-series, which comprises of the R2, R3 and R5.
The focus of these bikes however has always been low weight, responsiveness and great handling, as well as comfort embedded into the carbon layup, as opposed to relying on accessories or add-ons. This time it’s not different. The R3 claims all the above, but keeps a traditional frame shape with a mildly sloping top tube, no dropped seat stays and a geometry that is approaching endurance bike territory. Which is absolutely fine by me - having quite a long inseam I have to place my saddle quite high, and to achieve my desired drop I usually have to employ a tower of spacers under the stem on standard racing frames, but not here. Apart from the aesthetics of it all, I have also noticed that when the top headset bearing is closer to the stem the front end stiffens up a little giving a more reassured character going downhill.
This relatively high stack and short-ish reach (for a race bike) is kept from the previous model (the R5 departs a little now being slightly more aggressive than it was), but this is the only thing that carried over from the R-series of old. The first noticeable difference is a slacker head tube angle, which in a way goes against the sharp character these bikes were known for. Cervelo however did not want to change the handing of the front end dramatically, so kept the trail almost identical (at around 56mm) by tweaking the fork rake. The result of this change is very similar riding character, but with a front contact patch that’s a little further away, effectively increasing the wheelbase. The other change is a slight drop of the bottom bracket, more pronounced in the sizes up to 56, less so in the two larger frames. And the last one is the lengthening of the chainstays, presumably to accommodate larger tyres, and to maintain an acceptable chainline in the disc version, with the increased dropout width of 142mm. In theory all these should make the handing more stable and predictable, but also a little more sedate. Is this the case? Well yeah, but read on in the ride impression further down to find out.
So how about aero? For a performance point of view this the area where the most gains are to be had for any frame, but designing tube shapes with kamm tails and NACA foils, and keeping the ride character, comfort and responsiveness of a traditional frame at the same time is no easy feat. Manufacturers seem to converge here as well, with torture instruments (like the early S series or the Scott Foil) now phased out for bikes that try and blend all these characteristics together. The R3 uses a square oval shape for its tubes or ‘Squoval’ (really), that has these usual marketing claims of grams of drag savings etc etc. But because this moniker has been knocking around for a few years now, they tweaked the design a little and call it now ‘SQUOVAL.MAX’. No, seriously. Anyway, this is not an aero bike. If it manages to save me a couple of watts at high speeds compared to an equivalent traditional road frame is something I wouldn't say no to, but this is not the standout feature.
Cervelo also claims this bike to be stiffer, because you know, stiffer is better, and ‘every ounce of your effort translates to forward motion’ and the like. This claim, even though rehashed a million times, is debatable, but the fact of the matter is that going to thru-axles immediately stiffens the wheel-fork-frame interface. This is quite apparent in this chart, pulled from a Thai site:
The gist of the matter is that, according to Cervelo, this R3 disc is stiffer from all its rim-braked predecessors (including the R5, which may not be so clear from the above), stiffer than the R3 disc from 2016, and only secondary to the new R5 disc. If all this contributes or subtracts from the riding experience is not that clear however.
That chart also lists weights. Of course these are the weights of the frame (in an undisclosed size - 54? 56? Who knows?) and not of the frameset (i.e. no fork included), so we’re talking grams. Still a frame weight lower than 900g for a disc version is pretty remarkable. How does this compare to the 82,000 grams of flesh and bone I tend to carry around while riding? Well, from a physics point of view not much, and I’d take a well engineered bike any day over a lighter one that may be cutting corners (financial, functional or from a safety standpoint). But - lighter bikes feel different, especially when climbing. And by different I mean better.
The R3 wears the new Shimano Ultegra R8070 Di2 throughout with pride, including shifters, cassette, rotors, brake calipers and chain. The chainset is also Shimano, and this is a departure from the ROTOR stuff found on Cervelos until very recently, which were the only manufacturers to offer a native compatibility with that weird BBright standard, presumably now using a converter to make the 24mm spindle diameter work on what is essentially an extended BB30 shell. Who knows why? I for one, am very happy with this since I got to keep my 4iiii precision power meter by simply swapping the left crank arm to my older 6800 that had the sensor on. The chainrings are 52/36 mated to an 11-30 cassette, which is pretty much perfect. I could, perhaps, have wished for a gear that’s even lower than that 36/30 combo for the really steep Cypriot ramps, so I’ve stashed a 34-tooth inner ring that I may use if and when needed.
Suffice to say that Di2 shifts are phenomenal to the point that they become invisible - and this I think is the closest to being the pinnacle of shifting evolution. This will certainly irk the purists, but shifting is gradually relegated to a lower cerebral process as opposed to the slightly stressful actuation from cables because, as cables stretch, the derailleurs move ever so slightly out of position. This is not noticeable at first, and not noticeable at any given ride because these are trace amounts of movement we’re talking about but they’re there, and eventually (without proper and frequent maintenance) they degrade shifting quality. So much actually, that after a good tune-up I had been thinking ‘how on earth have I been riding this thing like that?’. I also use the synchro-shift, even though i was not so keen at first, mostly to avoid cross-chaining by programming the auto shifts close to the two ends of the cassette.
Wheels are from British brand Hunt. They are of course British in the sense that they engineer the wheel design and assemble the components, but they do not really manufacture anything there - most of it sourced from Taiwan or China, including the rim which is an open-mould design. Being a small company with limited resources does not allow them to do extensive aero testing of their rims (but they are getting around to it lately). My experience has been of a responsive, stiff and fast wheelset, but with some nervousness coming from crosswinds, because of its generous 50mm depth. I have no way of comparing them to the Enves and Zipps of the world, which I believe are better, but they are also on average three times as expensive, like-for-like. Weight for the Hunts is also very respectable. Officially 1,500g, I measured mine at 1,600g sharp, without valves, but with rim tape on. Until very recently these were tubeless-only wheels, but the new design accepts all clincher tyres. I run the Schwalbe Pro Ones (at 25c) and they are great, but putting them on is easier said than done. Myself and my LBS dude had to summon a sizeable gamut of expletives until they went on.
Oh, and that freehub body is loud. It's as if a swarm of buzzing insects is flying around every time I freewheel, and I suppose this is good from a safety standpoint, but it's - admittedly - quite annoying.
Wheels and tyres need a separate review treatment, but here's a sidenote about the tyres: Do not run them at high pressures - and when I say high I mean anything over 65psi (that's 4.5 bar) is simply too much. Over that they feel wooden and kind of dead, but let some air out and let them sing: Fast, grippy and comfortable. Let go of you preconceptions of rock-hard road tyres, running tubeless does away with the risk of pinch flats (hey, no tube) and delivers a superb ride quality, with no detectable loss in speed.
The rest of the kit is a shift towards own-branded kit, kith some old stalwarts still hanging on. Stock stem is now aluminium and Cervelo own-branded. It looks good, is stiff, and its ±8 degrees angle is a seamless extension of the top tube angle, which I’m sure the bike designers thought about. It is also curiously half a mm longer than the printed length, but it's heavy. It came in at 191g, including bolts. A small tank, that, so was swapped out for a Kalloy Uno, as pictured. That is less stiff and has a strictly traditional silhouette, but it's lighter by some 80g. Seatpost is now Cervelo own branded again, carbon and oh-my it’s firm. I opted for the zero-setback option for fit reasons, but turns out this bend in their design of the ones with positive setback indeed injects some comfort, which is not so much the case here. Despite this, I very much enjoy the efficiency. Handlebars on the other hand came from FSA, and it’s the energy compact model - something used again and again by Cervelo in the past. Not much to write about them, they were swapped out for a Ritchey WCS II streem carbon bar, but my wrists are still undecided if they agree with the change or not. Stock saddle is a Fizik Antares R7, which did not last more than a few seconds on the bike - was immediately replaced with my trusty Specialized Power.
Cervelo has also adopted the Focus RAT thru-axle system, presumably due to the fact that the two manufactures have the same parent company (PON holdings). It's an elegant system that's truly very quick to understand and master, and it takes less time than a traditional quick release to dismount and - especially - mount a wheel back on. Interesting for the racers I suppose, not so critical for me, and it comes with a curious drawback: The rear derailleur hanger, being proprietary, does not allow to mount the bike on a trainer and needs to be swapped out with one with traditional threads, but this is not included, neither mentioned by Cervelo. But by doing so you cannot use the RAT thru-axle anymore in the rear (unless you plan to change hangers every time you take the bike out) which kind of defeats the purpose of having it. I bet the majority of owners of such bikes nowadays use them on static indoor trainers as well, so why the incompatibility?
As much of a stellar bike that is, there are a few additional irksome points here and there: For starters, that junction box. It’s 2018 for goodness sake, eTap has been around now for ages, and Shimano themselves have these semi-acceptable solutions of bar-end plugs and frame cutouts to put this junction box in. And here we are again, with this posterior matchbox dangling under the stem, held by a rubber band. This cannot be an tolerable way to integrate it into a frame anymore, it looked like a beta-testing joke back when it was launched, and it still does today. Bike manufactures are mostly to blame here; sure, they’ll cite higher costs for handlebar integrated solutions (which Cervelo has implemented in the R5), but we should be talking peanuts here, and this - I think - is not a good look for a bike that costs thousands. I partially take heart however from the fact that other mainstream brands still use this solution even for their high end models, that costs twice as much. Sigh.
Another missed opportunity is tyre clearance. From the looks of it (because I have not tried) the space between the rear chainstays is the limiting factor, to possibly 30c tyres, even though the official is 28c. Mind you, there is room to park a bus in the space offered at the rear bridge and fork. The R3 is not a gravel bike, the theory goes, and if you want to run such wide rubber get one of the C-series. But why not offer the opportunity? It could be an engineering reason, trying to extract stiffness from an area of the bike that really benefits from overbuilding, but I’m sure if they got to it they’d find a way.
I also read a lot of online reviews with star ratings that refuse to offer a product what the reviewer thinks it should for superficial reasons, such as cheapo saddles and meh tyres. It’s true, the Antares R7 is a cheap saddle, and those Mavic tyres that come with the wheels should be swapped out sooner or later. But this is something very easy, and not too expensive to remedy, and it would be unfair to damn the bike for reasons such as these; they were swapped out, end of story.
So where is it?
Taking the bike out for its first spin has been an exercise in frustration: Cervelo announced the bikes in the summer of 2017, sent their catalogues to its distributors shortly after, and instructed them to accept orders just with the break of autumn, at least here in Europe. But where were the actual bikes? Having gone through the experience of owning a Canyon, I wanted to get a bike from an LBS where, among other things, delivery would be taken care of by them and would be prompt and seamless. Well, I was wrong. Cervelo apparently delayed and delayed the shipment for reasons sometimes clear, sometimes not, the latest being that the waited for ‘delivery of the fork’. I mulled with the idea of pulling the order but persevered nonetheless, taking delivery a full 6 months after I had placed a deposit. Luckily the LBS I work with (the Limassol Cycling Centre) and the Cyprus Distributor (CYCLO in Nicosia) were actually excellent in how they treated the case, answering my calls promptly and - most importantly - supplying me with a replacement loaner bike until my order arrived. What was that? A 2017 R3 Di2 in my size, and I challenge anyone to say that this was not a good deal (this bike actually appears on the site quite a bit as we did some filming and photoshoots during the time I was riding it). I therefore had the perfect direct comparison of frame geometry changes and the progression of this model for rim to disc, so here’s the lowdown:
First thing to notice with both the R3s I’ve ridden is the immediate urge the frame gives when pushing the pedals, and how stiff and controlled it feels. This is the most immediate, but also enduring sensation when riding these bikes compared to anything that I had ridden before. Even though the adrenaline rush slowly fades with every ride, it is a wonderful - and addictive - feeling.
The new R3 is also an expert climber. This does not mean that it transforms me suddenly to Nairo Quintana - my power-to-weight ratio is the same as it was, and because last time I checked there was no hidden motor anywhere, my times up my familiar climbs are similar, with my enthusiasm of course propelling me to a couple of Stava PRs. There are a couple of things to note about its climbing prowess however: The geometry of the front end provides a stable, reassuring platform to put the power down without needing constant corrections of the handlebars (it’s called ‘wheel flop’). You may think this is not an issue in modern road bikes with steep HT angles, but an older steel Peugeot I still have exhibits plenty of this, and I tell you it is very annoying. Other contemporary bikes may manifest this behavior too; not here. The shoulders relax, the grip is light, the pedalling platform is reassuring. Ahem, effortless climbing.
The other characteristic comes from that frame stiffness: I find myself willing to stand a lot more compared to other bikes, because I seem to tire less while doing so. I don't have a scientific reason as to why this is, but it’s something I very much enjoy. Despite this, the front rotor seems to rub slightly every once in a while when in out-of-saddle efforts, but my understanding is that this is part and parcel of disc brakes on road bikes. The effect is accentuated after long descents, as the rotor and hydraulic fluids themselves are expanding a bit (due to heat buildup), but it goes away very quickly.
There’s a flipside to all this sturdiness though. By lengthening the frame and relaxing the angles the bike is a smidge less playful than the outgoing R3, which had the tendency to bring out the inner hooligan a little more. There is also the fact the the new bike weighs about a kilo over that other R3, which combined with the geo changes, results in a slight bluntness of its responsiveness.
Point the thing the other way however, and those extra grams are quickly forgotten. It corners as if on rails, with only a modest tendency to understeer, at least until you get the hang of the geometry changes and adapt. There are so many variables at play when going downhill, such as frame and fork stiffness, BB drop, wheelbase, weight distribution, trail etc etc. How many bikes have you ridden that give you the confidence to let go on twisty descends on the very first ride? This one did. And that confidence grows every time I’m on board, aided by those disc brakes. Those brakes by the way: Yes, they are good. Yes they work well. But I'd be lying if I said that they are the best thing since sliced bread as the industry would like us to believe - I am dead certain that they are a safer option than using caliper brakes on carbon rims, but compared to a clean aluminium track? Not so sure.
On a flat road the new, slacker HT angle has the effect of calming the front end a lot, and riding with no hands comes without much effort. It also feels faster than most of the bikes i’ve ever ridden, aided for sure by those deep section wheels and any aero properties the frame has. But remember, it is not an aero frame. If straight line speed is your thing, there’s a multitude of other options on the market.
Comfort is a subjective matter as I've found since our bodies tend to adapt over time, but to a degree. However much adaptation I may allow, a road bike cannot be as comfortable as a mountainbike with suspension for obvious reasons. The R3 is quite a bit firmer than what I was expecting, but well within the boundaries of a 'compliant road bike'. The switch back to tubeless tyres and the lower pressures thereof actually create a more palatable combination of stiffness and bounciness than an overly mushy frame. 100km rides are ticked off with ease, without sore neck, shoulders or back, but I would not classify the ride quality as 'soft', especially what concerns that seatpost. It's certainly firmer than the Canyon Endurace and the Trek Domane, two preeminent endurance road bikes that I happened to ride very recently.
Subjective as it may be, looks is one damn big reason to want to ride your bike. The Cervelo design team has had some stellar success in the past, and some less disticitive efforts. The previous iteration of the R series with a different coloured top tube (red in the R5, white for the R3) was a square 'meh' for me, but older colour schemes - especially that silver on black of 2013 - were simply gorgeous. This time I think from all the colour combinations of the newer models the navy blue - red is the best looking, and by some margin. I'm not a fan, and never have been, of fluoro accents (like in the the new R5), never mind covering the whole bike with safety vest paint (the other R3 colour offering). The R2 in its vivid red overalls also looks class. But obviously, to each their own. In the end, forget all the engineering, weight and componentry, does it urge you to mount it? It sure does it for me. It looks modern and classic at the same time, and I’m really proud to be riding it.
The Cervelo R3 disc di2 2018 is a bike built by engineers for enthusiasts who appreciate the refined ride it's able to deliver. It’s expensive, yes. But as with almost all consumer goods, higher-end models don’t give insane speed, or guaranteed happiness or monumental virility etc etc. What you get is a bike that wholeheartedly delivers superb ride quality, stunning good looks and a confident and stress-free riding character for any type of road riding. Am I a victim of modern marketing? Do I try to cast a favourable light on it to justify my purchase? Have I been just scammed by falling prey to one of the multiple cognitive biases in existence?
Perhaps, but oh boy, what a superb bike this is.