The Bike List

2015 Cervélo R3 Ultegra Di2 £3900

Tested by Oliver Laverack, tester for The Bike List

Initially introduced in 2006, Cervelo's R3 has built itself an admirable reputation. The model hit the market with a bang as that same year Fabian Cancellara, the swiss time trial specialist and cobble smasher, rode the R3 to victory on possibly the toughest races in the calendar, Paris-Roubaix (aka 'Hell of the North').

At that time the standard R3, which was the model Cervelo claim was used in the race, was the lightest frame in the peloton, and Cancellara was claimed to be the heaviest rider in that edition of the race, weighing in around the 82kg mark. Fairly heavy for a 6ft 1in pro rider, but extra weight is reportedly an advantage when riding over pave as heavier riders bounce less and presumably find it easier maintain traction over the uneven cobblestones that typify the race.

Since then it has been on the podium six times, including three wins, one of which I managed to see in person in April 2011 as the 6 foot 6 Flandrian giant Johan Vansummeren claimed victory aboard his 61cm Cervelo R3, made even more impressive by the fact that he rode the last three miles with a flat tyre after managing to break away on his own 10 miles from the finish.

About the frame

The 2015 model is the third generation of the R3 and is derived from the award- winning, super lightweight RCA (947g for a 56cm frame, forks, hardware and paint combination!) frame which first launched in 2010, and which retails for £6500 for the frame and forks alone!

Using the basic principle that certain shapes are better at resisting forces such as bending and twisting, Cervelo have developed tube shapes that are structurally resistant to unwanted forces whilst also being aerodynamic. Cervelo call their combination of square and oval tubes shapes 'squoval' and the R3 shares the same 'squoval 3' tube sections as the R5 and RCA.

Testament to improved aerodynamics is the fact that the new R3 is claimed to save 7.4 watts aerodynamically compared to the old R3. The weight is about the same, however, at roughly 980g for a 56cm fully painted frame only (no forks). Unfortunately we're unable to verify this as our 58cm bike came as a complete build.

Since 2006, the number of carbon-fibre lightweight frames has increased significantly. Other newer lightweight models include Trek's Emonda (690g for a 56cm frame, not including forks), Scott's Addict SL (1kg for frame and forks together, size not specified), Canyon Ultimate CF SLX (790g for a medium frame, plus 295g for the forks) and Boardman's SLR Elite Series Frameset weighing 798g for a medium frame and 360g for the forks.

Whilst Cervelo claim that the R3 is lighter than many other manufacturers' lightest frames there are now plenty of frames that are lighter, most of which do however also command a premium price tag. Whilst I suspect this claim is probably true, in the majority of cases it is also very difficult to prove without extensive wind tunnel testing. Any aerodynamic improvement is of course a plus and with Cervelo's heritage of wind tunnel testing and aerodynamic performance-based models we have no reason to doubt their numbers.

Cervelo also claim that compared to last year's 2014 Tour de France winning frame (Specialized's S-Works Tarmac) the R3 is around 30% lighter. Comparing price, the cheapest 2015 S-Works Tarmac bike will set you back £6500 or £2800 for the 2015 frameset. Cervelo's argument is sound, yet another comparable rival, the Canyon Ultimate CF SLX frameset, which is roughly 190-200g lighter than the R3 for the frame alone, is available for £1589 and the price also includes a headset, stem and seatpost.

A feather in the Cervelo's cap however is that the cable housing stop clips can be replaced with different ones to suit your groupset choice, mechanical or electronic, and will even accommodate Magura's hydraulic rim brakes which team Garmin Cervelo had been reportedly using last year. This type of future-proofing is what we'd expect at this level but isn't always guaranteed.

Before testing the R3, I always viewed the frameset as a mid-level offering but with a high end price tag. This perception has come about due to high cost of the frameset which admittedly has steadily dropped over the last few years. This perception has changed the more I have discovered about the bike. Back in 2011, the frameset would have set you back £2200 but since then has dropped a hundred or so pounds each year. Our test bike is equipped with Shimano's second generation Ultegra Di2 6870 electronic groupset and priced at £3900. Cervelo also offer a mechanical Ultegra 6800 version which is identical in every other way and priced at £3000, or a frameset (frame and forks) option priced at £1900 but you can get your hands on one for around £1700 online. A quick note on price here as Cervelo's pricing structure seems a little flawed. The frame seems like reasonable value when compared to similar frames. However when you consider that for an additional £1100 you can purchase a complete bike with Shimano Ultegra the frame seems expensive. Then when you consider that an Ultegra Di2 upgrade should in theory cost around £400-£500 extra the £3899 price tag of the Ultegra Di2 version seems expensive. So, the best value of the three options is the complete bike with mechanical Shimano Ultegra and if you really want Shimano Di2 then you could in fact buy the complete 6870 11-speed groupset for around £900 as well. This of course requires some changing around of parts which would be a bit of hassle but you would be left with a number of Ultegra parts that you could transfer to another bike or sell.

The ride

Geometry-wise the R3 has the same proportions as my 2014 Cervelo S5 so I knew what to expect position wise. (It's worth noting that the 2015 Cervelo S5 geometry has been updated and is now different to that of the 2014 S5.) The big difference that I was immediately able to feel was the level of comfort whilst riding over my local roads. Even with the standard 23mm Vittoria Diamante Pro Light tyres the ride is noticeably more forgiving than the S5, as you'd expect. Unfortunately the Vittoria Diamante Pro Light tyres were ill-equipped to handle a UK winter and after a few early punctures I was forced to swap them. My tyre of choice was a pair of 25mm Michelin Lithion 2, which are very reasonably priced and have yet to puncture despite over at lest 1000 miles in some very mixed conditions on rides ranging from 30-90 miles. Including an early race in January around Redbridge cycling circuit where flint caused half of the field to retire early with some riders even puncturing their second wheels that they had swapped to. Measuring the tyre shows that the Michelins are actually 27mm when sat on the rims of the Fulcrum Racing 5.5 wheels. Whilst that may seem overly wide to some I have found this combination to offer a brilliant compromise of grip, comfort and speed. In summer I will change for a lighter Michelin tyre but with the same width. I would have no hesitation in using the R3 for any 100-mile-plus ride and if that's something you regularly do and you live in a hilly area then the R3 should certainly be on your 'to consider' list.

It's easy to see why professional riders tackling any of the cobbled classics would choose the R3. The comfort is up there with the most comfortable road bikes I have ridden, in terms of position on the bike and also the level of vibrations that travel up from the road, through the frame. Where often you'd expect a lack of agility or speed as a pay-off for improved comfort, the R3 appears not to be compromised in this way. Even with wider tyres the R3 offers race ready handling and weight with our 58cm test model weighing in at a very respectable 7.9kg with 25mm Michelin Lithion training tyres (approx 260g each) and no pedals.

One moment of glory that really highlighted the potential of the R3 for me was when I managed to drop a very talented local rider on a long climb for the first time in the history of riding with him. This is undoubtedly thanks in part to my solid training this winter but equally the bike had its part to play and it was great to hear the, "you only managed that because of the bike" remark, which brought a wry smile to my face. For me, it's moments like these that have helped convince me that the R3 is a bike I'd like to own.

Whilst some may argue that the geometry isn't as aggressive and low as some other race-ready or capable bikes, that's also what makes this bike so versatile. It can easily be a super-capable winter steed, something I put to the test very thoroughly this winter. It will tackle the odd section of rough gravel and dust-covered roads that you'd find on the Strade Bianche. Admittedly the clearance between the fork and tyre is a little tight and does catch the odd stone or bit of mud, but clearance at the rear is fine even with 25mm (actually 27mm wide tyres). I have also used the R3 competitively on six criterium races so far in 2015 and it has performed well and may become the reason I retire my Cervelo S5. I've come to realise that the style of riding I do all year round requires a much more versatile bike than the S5, as the 2014 S5 has very limited tyre clearance, especially at the rear. (Note, the 2015 S5 tyre clearance has improved to allow for 25mm tyres.)

The equipment

In terms of the groupset, I was a big fan of Ultegra Di2 the first time round and the updated, second generation has proven to be equally good, weighs less and the rear derailleur now looks much more like a standard mechanical one and less like something R2D2 might have made. The older rear derailleur looked a bit bulky and even the new front derailleur has been trimmed down in size and weight. Shifting is instant, precise and smooth and you have the added benefit that comes with electronic groupsets of not having to replace gear cables, plus the self-trim function, which automatically eliminates chain rub. My only criticism of the Di2 levers was that over winter I did occasionally change gear by accident when wearing thick gloves. The buttons that allow you to change gear up and down are very close together which is great when you have thinner or fingerless gloves on, but as soon as you put on bulkier winter gloves you lose the dexterity and accuracy that's required for efficient gear shifting. One possible solution would be to add Shimano's (R600) shifter switch, designed for climbers, on the top of the handlebars to provide an additional shifter for when you struggle to find the gear you want but somewhat defeats the point of having electronic gears in the first place. Another aesthetic improvement is the hidden battery that is situated inside the seatpost. Whilst this is a great improvement on the slightly ugly older-style batteries that sit externally on the frame, it does mean you forget that there is a battery sometimes. This caught me out on one very cold ride when the front derailleur, which uses far more juice than the rear due to the powerful motor, stopped working mid-ride. The specification suggests that the battery can provide between 1000 and 2000 km of ride time, and I suspect I was approaching the 1000km mark (if not going over it) when the front derailleur stopped working. The weeks of riding in sub-zero degrees may have impacted the battery life somewhat but other than this I have experienced no problems since. Perhaps if you are considering the R3 as a year-round bike, and don't like the idea of having to charge you bike, then the mechanical Ultegra groupset is the one to go for. Having said that, for me the advantages outweigh the disadvantages and I have really enjoyed the quality of shifting especially during races when reliable shifting is paramount.

The wheels are Fulcrum Racing 5.5 wheels, which appears to be a wheelset specific to Cervelo, making them hard to place a approximate value on. They look very similar to Fulcrum's racing 7 wheelset, which would make them an entry-level wheelset and a good place to save weight and improve acceleration by upgrading at a later stage. Whilst we'd hope for more at this price point it's fairly common to find a cheaper wheelset on a bike at this price.

The finishing kit is pretty much what you'd expect at this level: an FSA SLK 110mm alloy stem with carbon front plate, and FSA Energy 44cm wide alloy compact handlebars complemented by an FSA SLK seatpost and FSA bottom bracket.

The only component I haven't mentioned yet is the Rotor 3D30 BBright 52/36 chainset. The 58cm frame comes equipped with175mm crank arms which you'd expect on a bike for riders over 6ft. The chainset itself features Rotor's standard round chainrings but there is always the option to upgrade to Q-rings later down the line. We reviewed the Rotor 3D30 crankset not that long ago, giving it 9/10 for performance as we were impressed with how well engineered and stiff it was. There's also the added benefit that Cervelo collaborated with Rotor to develop the original 3D crankset back in 2009 so the two items have been designed to work together. Currently, Rotor ( see review of 3DF / 3D30 cranks here) are the only company that make a 30mm axle crankeset with a long enough axle to fit Cervelo's BBright PF-30 bottom bracket standard, but other options are available with bottom brackets that covert different standards.

At the time of publishing this review the paint scheme on the R3 has been updated to a grey and white combination which looks great. Personally I really like the black and blue one we've had on test and a number of people have commented on it, too.

Having tested numerous superbikes and owning a Cervelo S5 I have since decided to buy this bike and may even sell my S5 if it doesn't get much use over the summer. To date, this is the single best all-round bike I have tested and for that reason I have to award the R3 10 out of 10 for performance. For value I would have given the R3 nine or even 10 out of 10 had I tested the mechanical Ultegra version. However, the Di2 doesn't stack up quite as well.

If the R3 is anything to go on the R5 is likely to be amazing and the RCA mind-blowing but both of those are for the reserve of the wealthy. And that's where the R3 really does continue to impress. The best value for money model is the mechanical Ultegra bike at £3000, which with an upgraded wheelset would be suitable for a TdF entry. The bike on test is not as good when it comes to value for money, but if you have between £3500 and £4500 this bike should certainly be on your list of bikes to try. You could always also buy the frameset, Di2 and a better wheelset for around the £4000 mark, buying yourself a big-hitting bike that could hold its own in almost any situation.

At a glance

Verdict A lightweight on the hills and a heavyweight on the cobbles, this race-capable bike is a great all-rounder that offers comfort and performance in equal measure.