Posted by: Travis | June 4, 2010

Raving and Ranting Part 2: Cervelo gets silly in California

Photo from VeloNews.com

Cervelo has always been an interesting bike manufacturer to me. They’re kind of like the band Radiohead – i’ve always respected  them a great deal, but never really loved their work, but the people who do love their bikes really love their bikes, to the point of being almost obnoxious about it.

They burst on to the scene in the late 90’s to sponsor the CSC team (now Saxo Bank) run by the notoriously meticulous about gear, Bjarne Riis. Their business model was different from other bike makers like Specialized, Trek, Giant, etc, in that they were only going to design bikes to be raced by pros, and if people wanted to buy them, they were going to get exactly what the pros got. But they weren’t going to mess around with mountain bikes, or entry level bikes designed for recreational riders. Every bike they produced was meant to used and abused by pro riders.

Their line of bikes filled out. The aero aluminum soloist got remixed as a carbon frame (SLC). The R2.5 got remixed as the R3 – a bike that was lighter for climbing and had thin seat stays for a more comfortable ride over cobbled roads in the spring classics. Then they expanded the line to include lighter ‘SL’ (so light) versions of the Soloist and the R3. Then the S3 came out for the Beijing olympics, which was kind of a fusion of the SLC-SL and the R3-SL, still aero tubing but with a little bit more forgiving ride and a light frameset.They also had a line of time trial bikes that were ridiculously popular in the triathlon world, but still, the bikes were developed to race TT’s under the CSC team.

Up until this point, every bike was used regularly by their sponsored riders.  Cervelo was ‘blowing up’ as a bike company, and you would see Cervelos all over the place when riding around here in Silicon Valley. Then Cervelo changed directions a little bit. In 2008 they debuted a bike called the RS. It was still carbon and was similar to the R3, but with a more relaxed geometry and a cushy ride. It was also cheaper than their other frames and designed to be built up with components that weren’t top of the line. It was the first Cervelo bike that was designed for the customer, not the pro rider. Sure, it was ridden by 1 or 2 guys on the CSC team in Paris-Roubaix, but i suspect that was because the company wanted in ridden (so that they could claim it had been ridden in a pro race) rather than the pros wanting to ride it. Can you imagine the meeting where riders draw straws to see who has to ride the new bike?

A few months ago Cervelo released a video on their website detailing a new effort called Project California. It was secret R&D facility in Garden Grove, CA (Cervelo is based in Toronto) where they could do some test manufacturing and have more control over the carbon lay up process for their frames, instead of sending designs to a factory in Asia that makes bikes for a bunch of other companies.

So far, so good. I know that designing a frame and sending it to Asia makes sense economically, but i’ve always wondered how much control bike companies have over manufacturing when it comes to doing the layups. Then there was the kicker: the goal was to build as light a frame as possible, preferably under 700 grams (most high end carbon bike frames weight about 1000 grams).

The UCI (cycling’s governing body) has a weight limit on bikes to ensure safety for the riders. As with most things the UCI does, it isn’t very well thought out, but the rule is that all bikes must weight 6.8kg (about 15 lbs) or more. This is to make sure that riders aren’t riding super-light bikes that are prone to break under them as the descend a mountain road at 6omph. From an engineering standpoint you want to design the bike frame so that when built up with components and wheels, it hits that 6.8kg weight limit on the dot. By removing material from the frame, thus making it lighter, you give up strength and stiffness, so why not figure out how much a frame should weight to hit the UCI weight limit, calculate how much material you have to work with, and design the stiffest, strongest frame you can at that weight? Because gram counting weight weenies the world over don’t have to adhere to the UCI weight limit, they spend a lot of money on bikes, and they want the lightest stuff possible (pay no attention to the extra 5lbs hovering around their mid section, that extra bottle of liquid in the second bottle cage, or all of the stuff they carry in their pockets).

During the Tour of California in May, this article popped up on Velonews about how the bike is going into (limited) production, will be called the R5ca, and will retail for $9,800 for the frame and fork (so no components, no wheels, no saddle, no handlebars, etc).  That’s pretty rich in it’s tone deafness and departure from the normal Cervelo way of designing bikes, but my favorite part is this caption from a picture attached to the article:

At around 700-715 grams depending on frame size, the new Cervélo R5ca will push the boundaries of the UCI’s weight limit. At the Tour of California, Team mechanics had to drop a hefty cylindrical weight down the seat tube before stage 8 just so Brett Lancaster could ride it legally.

Really? Are you kidding? That’s not something to brag about from a design standpoint. They don’t say how heavy the weight was, but to say that it was ‘hefty’ indicates it was more than a few grams. That weight is the definition of dead weight. That’s weight that could have been used adding extra material (and we all know carbon fiber is ridiculously light weight, so a little goes a very long way) to make the frame stronger and stiffer.

I’m not sure if this is Cervelo just flexing the muscles of a new R&D facility (700 gram frame is impressive), or an attempt to go after the money-is-no-object weight weenie market, but from both a weight and price stand point, this bike is totally impractical, especially as a pro race bike, which has been Cervelo’s bread and butter for a very long time.

Is Cervelo jumping the shark? Only time will tell.

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