Cervélo’s £3,500 R5 frame is already one of the lightest, stiffest, most innovative and most prestigious road frames available. However Cervélo’s own design engineers hand-build this limited-edition Project California (Ca) to take their design and tech skills to the limit. Can it be worth £7,500 just for the frame and fork?
Given its murdered aesthetics and cost-no-object price tag we were shocked by the longhaul comfort slant of Cervélo’s R5Ca, but considering those who will buy it, it’s also a smart choice. Its ethereal climbing efficiency, surefooted descending and sublime fatigue-fighting ride quality sets it apart.
Ride & handling: Superbly surefooted, sprint-bustingly quick
First rides of serious exotica such as the Cervélo are always fraught with not only fear of breakage or accidental damage, but also a real sense of reviewing responsibility. From a cynical point of view most people will buy an R5Ca precisely because it’s so insanely expensive, regardless of ride. However in professional review terms it’s a surprisingly fine line between swallowing too much “Emperor’s new clothes” hype and being decidedly underwhelmed.
In Cervélo’s case sizing is crucial, and while we totally understand the whole high head/dropped stem argument the low saddle Sportive feel is still initially a big shock on such an otherwise performance-perfected superbike. Get used to the position and the R5Ca soon begins to sink its seductive charms into your synapses.
If you keep the power down the R5 just surges forward in a surreal crescendo of speed and rock-solid crank support. It’s even more obvious on climbs, which amplify the super-low weight and suck the top of the climb towards you without vacuuming all the air out of your lungs like normal. Even with the big rings we found it easier than normal to stay seated and spinning up serious pitches, with only proper vertical sections forcing us out of the saddle, where the bike squirts forward like wet soap with every pedal push.
While the thought of a 270g fork is unnerving when hitting dales cattle grids and wet descents at 60kph, the handling is superb too. Road feel is flawlessly precise, but never harsh and chattery, and you have to scream it through corners to detect any difference in the way front and rear halves handle themselves. The thin stays make a difference to comfort too, and while tubular tyres have a slight edge in terms of comfort, the Cervélo still felt sublime when we switched to clinchers to double check. It only appears in those little floated, buoyant freewheel moments into and out of corners or a stretch of pedaling Zen where the bike glides serenely as others rattle, but it all adds up to create a remarkable thoroughbred.
With only the fork providing a tangible performance upgrade, you’d have to be insane to spend the extra £4,000 on an R5Ca frame compared to a standard R5. In terms of owning a piece of state-of-the-art technology that’s both breathtaking and breath saving it outrides anything else we’ve ever tested.
Frame & forks: Clean, thin-walled finish for ultimate weight-saving
The matte black “murdered” frame might take constant cleaning to avoid it looking grubby, but it saves weight and marks out the R5Ca as special straight away. Looking inside the frame when it’s stripped for weighing shows a much cleaner, thinner walled finish inside than normal production frames, with not a trace of excess resin or rippled carbon lay-ups.
The down tube uses an oversized square ‘Squoval’ section and butts on to the Cervélo-innovated BBright bottom bracket shell. This asymmetric design uses an oversized offside bearing for maximum frame and crank stiffness as well as compatibility with most conventional and BB30 cranks. There’s a massive box section behind the bottom bracket for stiffness too, while thickset stays taper quickly away to the dropouts.The seatstays are terrifyingly thin, but the scariest part is undoubtedly the THM fork. It looks beefy enough, but the full carbon steerer plug and kevlar wrap mean it weighs around 30% less than most super light forks.
The down tube cable bosses and front mech plate are fully carbon and the Cane Creek AER headset uses a synthetic bushing rather than a conventional bearing to minimise weight. You still get a replaceable alloy hanger for the rear mech to reduce the chance of a total frame write-off if you drop it on the driveside.
The most radical aspect of the R5 is its shape. For a start our 56cm was bigger than most 58cm bikes. Cervélo also use a tall head tube and front end for extra stiffness. It also makes sense because many of these bikes will end up under sit-up-and-beg style rich recreational riders, with bum up, head down racers catered for by a 17-degree drop stem option. It’s worth checking fit though.
Equipment: Frameset build-up deal
As it’s a frameset build-up deal, discussing the kit on our test bike isn’t really relevant, but we’ve certainly no complaints about the full Dura-Ace suite. Be aware that the slack 72-degree seat angle is designed to compensate for the lack of set back on a super-light straight-up seatpost like the 3T fitted to this.
This article was originally published in Triathlon Plus magazine.