Monday, 23 June 2014

The new horse; Cervelo R5


“ ’Twas Mulga Bill from Eaglehawk that caught the cycling craze.  He turned away the good old horse that served him many days.  He dressed himself in cycling clothes, resplendent to be seen.  He hurried off to town and bought a shining new machine.  And as he wheeled it through the door, with air of Lordly pride…he quietly wondered whether it was going to live up to the hype”.

OK, I made the last bit up (with apologies to Banjo), but that’s probably what most of us ponder at some point during the transaction of sale.

The good old horse, of course, was a Chinarello masquerading as a Wombat.  After carrying me for 3 years and 44000 km I thought it time to put it out to pasture.  Maybe I’ll keep it stabled for rainy day commutes.

The shining new machine was going to be something more matte-finish and comprising mostly element 22 (that’s Ti, for you non-chemists), but ultimately budget ruled such exotica out (for now, at least).  So I opted for element 6 again, but stuck with a non-glossy finish in the form of a Cervelo R5, 2013 vintage, kitted out with Ultegra 6800 11 spd bits, Rotor crankset and Fulcrum Racing 5.5 wheels.  Unusually, for this color challenged individual, I preferred the 2013 finish (grey with red highlights), to the 2014 R3 at a similar price point (gloss finish and blue highlights).  The 2014 R5 (which is only sold with Dura-ace) was about $3000 out of reach.

A few of you likely to be reading this are in the market for new rides, so I thought I’d share my thoughts.

Weight.  Light, but perhaps not as featherlight as expected.  Without pedals, cages, or paraphernalia we are talking 7.2 kg (versus ~ 7.8 for the equivalently stripped down Wombat).  I should disclose that this was with a temporary 400 ml seatpost comprising element 13, which post weigh-in has been swapped for a 350 ml version constructed from element 6.  The main contributor to weight, however, is a Clydesdale wheelset.  Just shy of 1700 g for the rear wheel alone (including rubber, QR and cluster), which is despite being shod with paper thin Vittoria Diamante Pros (lipstick on the pig) .  That's even heavier than my handbuilt 32 spoke old-faithful shod with heavier Contis.  The wheels are certainly the standout weakness of the package, but should serve nicely as bash-about commuters.  I’ll save the HEDs for weekends once I acquire cluster number 2.

Ride quality.  I was expecting the bike to have a bit more pep than the Wombat, but I honestly wasn’t expecting the package to be quite this good.  The snap, out the saddle, is astonishing.  One profound difference is the stiffness in the front end.  The Wombat wasn’t sloppy by any means, but stiffness-wise, the front end of the R5 might have been caste from iron (element 26!).  That said, the handling is weightless yet not jumpy, there is zero road buzz, and the whole experience is soft on the hands, even though the flat-top bars (3T ErgoNova Team – element 6) are much thinner than the mega plush ITMs I’m used to (element 13 wrapped in element 6).

Accompanying the rigidity of the front end is what’s happening (or not happening) under your feet.  Mega stiff, in spite of the fact that there must exist squirm in the wheelset. 

This stiffness is due to some engineering advances that trump the outboard bottom bracket format I’ve been riding.  To my mind stiffness is heavily influenced by both the diameter of the crank axle and the width between the bottom bracket touch-points that interface frame and crank.  The standard crank axle diameter used by Shimano is 24 mm.  The diameter of the Rotor axle is 30 mm.  Fatter diameters should make for stiffer axles

The outboard bottom brackets found on most bikes (until more recently) are typically set 68 mm apart (the 68 mm standard!), symmetrically positioned about the central axis of the frame.  Some bikes maintain the 68 mm spacing but swap outboards for press-fit bearings, fattening the frame and stiffening the ensemble in the process.  This is the direction Cervelo have gone, using oversized press-fit bearings housed 79 mm apart, but asymmetrically biasing them to use all of the available space on the LHS of the bottom bracket area – the space which on the drive-side is taken up by clutter in the form of chainrings.  The result is the so-called BBright standard.  Hence, not only are the contact points 11 mm further apart, the fame itself is 11 mm wider on the non-drive side than one utilizing outboard bearings.  Both contribute to extra rigidity. Additionally, whilst the crank spider on a Shimano groupset curves inwards to place the chainrings back over the top of the outboard bearing shells, the Rotor rings project straight out, perpendicularly, from the axle (again, lighter and stiffer – so they say).

I was initially a bit peeved that I wouldn’t be carrying the complete Shimano  Ultegra 6800 groupset (the 11 spd progression from the 6700 10 spd version I’ve been running), but I was advised not to opt for the adapters and stick with the Rotor crank and axle assembly.  Now I feel why.

This thing is amazingly responsive – you can hear the rear tire suffering against the road surface, even with el cheapo wheels in tow.  I can’t imagine you’d want the thing any stiffer, although the spin doctors claim that the 2014 version is 20% stiffer again.  How easily one would notice this difference on top of what is already super stiff is another question.

But, as is often the case, there are a few problems.  All that stiffness is also going to be sampled by ones posterior.  And that is certainly the case.  Whilst at speed I do indeed get the impression that corrugations are dampened, I was expecting the bike to be a tad more comfortable, given its cobbled-classic pedigree.  I’m just glad I didn’t pick up a second hand S5 a year ago, as the S5s are meant to deliver a considerably harsher ride than the R series (Chris affectionately calls his, “The Boneshaker”)

In its defense, there are some reasons for harsh ride.  Firstly, while the guys at the shop were adamant my anatomical dimensions fit the “54”cm frame (vs the 51 or 56), this required swapping out the heavily set-back FSA seatpost supplied to a straight post in order to get the position I wanted.  In recent years I’ve moved my road position forward to match that of my MTB, and there are all sorts of advantages in XC racing to having ones arse in a more forward default position.  Even though the post diameter is a relatively compliant 27.2, and at an angle dictated by the compact frame geometry (73 degrees), a straight post is never going to afford the generous flex inherent in a set-back post.  Perhaps the ride will be kinder now that the carbon post is installed, although I’d be surprised if this alone makes much difference.

Second reason.  I was glad that the bike came with a Fizik saddle of choice.  I opted for my favoured Arione (long and flat).  What I didn’t realize at the time was that such saddles no longer come in simply 2 options – rails made of element 6 or 26.  Now there are about 10 different versions.  This particular Arione  (element 26 rails) is branded “CX”.  I’ve since discovered that this means they started with an Arione, removed most of the foam stuffing and then sewed the thing back together.  Not happy, and if my sit bones fail to acclimatize to such minimal padding I’ll be ordering one of the less racy versions.

Whilst the excellent handling fills one with confidence, one point of difference in the handling department is a bit of “toeverlap”, courtesy of the wheelbase being 1 cm shorter than what I’ve been used to.  Should only be an issue navigating footpaths.  I’m yet to pilot the R5 on proper sustained descents just yet, although at no point has the handling felt twitchy.

Whilst on quibbles – one last one, and potentially it’s a biggy.  In my humble opinion, the frame has an entirely preventable and very disappointing flaw. 

The last 2 frames I’ve ridden have been low end, admittedly, but they had, what I viewed as poorly designed rear drive-side dropouts.  That is, the bit that holds the derailleur hanger.  The hanger (element 13) bolts directly to the frame, and the QR skewer clamps over the top of this.  The axle, by contrast sits flush against the other side of the carbon dropout.  When the QR skewer is tensioned, flexion in the carbon dropout results in subtle movement in the derailleur itself, most pronounced at the bottom derailleur pulley.  To my mind, at least, if you want bombproof shifting, having a rock-solid derailleur position would be paramount.

Fully aware of what I didn’t want, I opened and closed the QR on the bike on the showroom floor.  No movement.  That was all I wanted to see.  When I got it home, however, and applied QR tension I’m accustomed to, movement was present.  Not happy.  All that engineering and they can’t seem to get this part right?  Was it just my frame in question?  Appears not.  Same dropout for both the R and S series, including top-end 2014 models. Apparently, Cervelo doesn’t consider it to be a problem nor limitation as the dropouts have remained unchanged for years.  Maybe I’m overreacting.  When I mentioned this to the guys at the shop they just shrugged and said that the Cervelos have always had “soft” dropouts.  They then asked me whether I was having any trouble with shifting.

Groupset.  I don’t know what impresses me more – the superb ride quality or the simply stunning shifting.  Actually it just might be the shifting.  The 11 spd Ultegra is just sublime.  As well as going from 10 to 11 spd, the most striking difference between 6700 and 6800 series is the redesigned front derailleur.  Throwing to the big ring requires almost no effort at all.  And I love the new feature of being able to trim the big ring position to accommodate spending more time with bigger cogs on the back.  I’ve gone from 39/53 rings and 25/12 cluster, to 36/52 and 28/11 – an expansion at both ends of the gear spectrum.  Necessarily I’ll be spending more time in the big ring and the trim features of the front derailleur make this easy peasy.  Love it!  600 km in and despite the rear wheel having gone in and out half a dozen times (with no doubt variable clamping tensions), the shifting has not missed a beat.  Just stunning.

So, that's about it.  Sublime machine in spite of what I perceive to be a sub optimal rear dropout.  The real proof, however, will be how “sensations” are after 10000 clicks.  By that stage I might even have another 3peaks under the belt.  Can’t wait.