It isn’t every day that someone offers to loan me a bicycle with a nearly $10,000 frameset. But that’s exactly what happened yesterday. Cervélo’s R5CA (California) is one of the most expensive frames on the planet. But does the ride of the frame merit the price tag?
What you get for close to 10 Gs
For $9,800 you get Cervelo’s über-light frame (claimed weight for a 54cm frame with all fittings is around 680 grams), fork and Rotor’s BBright crank with Enduro stainless bearings and a Cane Creek AER headset.
Now $9,800 is an incredible amount of money for a frameset. In fact you could buy three complete Cervélos for less money (at base-model prices an R3 climbing bike, an S2 aero road bike and a P2 time trial bike would cost you $8,800). But the California project is something special.
How rare are these?
The R5CA is not a normal production frame. It’s really more of an engineering exercise. They are actually built in Cervélo’s research facility, not in its normal factories. Because the same engineers that build the R5CA are also busy developing new framesets, numbers are limited by the time engineers have when not thinking up new ideas.
In fact, production is so limited that Cervélo-sponsored teams and athletes don’t get them. I was simply lucky to fit on the 56cm example available.
The geometry is a little tricky to figure out. I normally ride a 56cm bicycle. Generally speaking a 56cm bicycle will have an effective 56cm top tube with nearly parallel head and seat tube angles in the area of 73 degrees.
Cervélo’s R5CA in a 56cm size has a super-long 58.6 cm top tube and a 17cm head tube. The top tube leads one to believe that the sizing is just a little off. You just need to go down a size. But the 17cm head tube corresponds to what many other manufacturers use on a 56cm top tube bike. Puzzling.
So while I fit on the 56cm frame, I probably would have preferred the 54cm size with a longer stem. If you’re already a Cervélo owner, expect to go down a size as well. The top tubes are really long compared to Cervélo’s other models.
How does it ride?
In a word: sublime. That’s the perfect word for the bike. It is by no means the most beautiful bike I’ve ever seen. In fact, its look is strictly utilitarian, bare bones, zero flourish. But the way the R5CA behaves out on the road transcends its ugly-duckling looks.
Whenever you get on a new bike, it’s important to feel it out before pushing your limits as a rider. As someone paid to test bikes, I often find myself on a foreign machine, on foreign roads, next to foreign riders. In those circumstances it’s best to take it easy. Among testers we call it the “80 percent rule.” Once you start pushing beyond that, you’re bound to get hurt.
Maybe it’s because I was keenly aware that I was riding something so expensive and rare. Maybe it’s because I knew I’d only get one ride on the bike. Or maybe it’s because I recently put in quite a few miles on Cervélo’s S3 and loved its handling. Whatever the reason, I couldn’t help myself when I descended Monitor Pass near the Amgen Tour of California’s start in Lake Tahoe. I just had to go. I didn’t touch the brakes once the whole way down.
The spindly seat stays did their job and smoothed the ride over seams in the road. And the massive asymmetrical BBright bottom bracket/crank and Squoval down tube kept every watt I produced (not that many to begin with) going into forward motion.
Every single time I chucked the bike into a corner, the tires hooked up and the high-speed stability of the Cervélo kept me wanting to go faster. Simply put, the R5CA put a grin on my face.
While $9,800 is an obscene amount of money to pay for a bicycle frame (the complete bike as I rode it with SRAM Red and Easton EC90SL carbon clinchers would fetch approximately $14K), the Cervélo is special.
In bicycles, like with most things, you do get what you pay for. The R5CA, though, is definitely a case of diminishing returns. An R5 or R3 will give the average cyclist 95 percent of the ride that the R5CA delivers and with enough money left over to pay a year of your kid’s college tuition.
But as an exploration of what is possible, the R5CA keeps the industry on its toes. Sure, the price is ludicrous, but through this exercise all future Cervélos benefit, and therefore so do we.
Quick look, Cervélo R5CA (California), seat post and saddle
For those of us afflicted with short femurs, this is what our seat post and saddle arrangement has to look like. Photo: Nick Legan
Quick look, Cervélo R5CA (California), Easton clinchers
Easton's EC90SL carbon clinchers kept rotating mass to a minimum. I didn't get a chance to test downhill braking, though — the R5CA inspired me to let it all hang out on the day's descent. Photo: Nick Legan
Quick look, Cervélo R5CA (California), BBright bearing preload
Bearing preload is externally adjusted on the BBright system. Photo: Nick Legan
Quick look, Cervélo R5CA (California), Rotor cranks
Rotor cranks are included in the $9,800 price tag. And they have to be — they're the only cranks currently produced that work with Cervélo's BBright system. Photo: Nick Legan
Quick look, Cervélo R5CA (California), Squoval down tube
The massive Squoval down tube keeps the bottom bracket area super stiff. Photo: Nick Legan
Quick look, Cervélo R5CA (California), bottom bracket cable guide
Even the cable guide under the bottom bracket is slimmer than most. Photo: Nick Legan
Quick look, Cervélo R5CA (California), cable stops
Molded carbon fiber cable stops keep frame weight low. Photo: Nick Legan
Quick look, Cervélo R5CA (California), saving weight
Everything is minimized to save weight on the R5CA. No paint, minimal graphics. Even Cane Creek's AER headset, which uses a bushing on top and a bottom bearing, is brought into play. Photo: Nick Legan
Quick look, Cervélo R5CA (California), minimalist and functional
Cervélo's R5CA is attractive in the way a stealth bomber is: a functional, deadly way. Photo: Nick Legan