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2011 Amgen Tour of California tech: The $9,800 Cervélo R5CA frameset

  • By Nick Legan
  • Published May. 14, 2011
  • Updated Jun. 17, 2011 at 6:06 PM EDT

Cervélo's R5CA is attractive in the way a stealth bomber is: a functional, deadly way. Photo: Nick Legan

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.

Fit

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.

Conclusion

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.

FILED UNDER: Amgen Tour of California / Bikes and Tech / Road TAGS:

Nick Legan

Nick Legan

After graduating from Indiana University with honors and a degree in French and journalism, Nick Legan jumped straight into wrenching at Pro Peloton bike shop in Boulder for a few years. Then, he began a seven-year stint in the professional ranks, most recently serving for RadioShack at the Tour de France and the Amgen Tour of California. He also worked for Garmin-Slipstream, CSC, Toyota-United, Health Net and Ofoto. Legan served as the VeloNews tech editor 2010-2012 before sliding across the line into public relations.

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