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Cervelo trickles RCA technology down to new R5

Cervélo’s all-new R5 is stiffer, lighter, and more aerodynamic than ever. That’s because it is, at its core, an exercise in trickle-down engineering: an Asia-built replica of the company’s top-tier, $10,000 RCA.

The new frame will take the exact same form as its hyper-priced sibling, popping out of identical molds a few thousand miles across the Pacific Ocean from Cervélo’s small California manufacturing base. The only differences between the RCA and the new R5 are beneath the surface: slight alterations in layup and material usage that result in a small weight increase and a bit less stiffness.

And, of course, there’s the difference in price tag: the R5 lops 50 percent off the astronomical price of the RCA. Framesets will be available for $5,000, and full builds with Shimano Dura-Ace 9000 or SRAM Red 22 will retail for $7,000. A Di2 version is priced at $9,000.

That’s still far from cheap, but the R5 has always been Cervélo’s top-tier consumer frameset (the short-run, high-priced California frames, the R5CA and RCA, barely qualify as consumer models). It won’t be sold with anything below Dura-Ace and Red — if you want something cheaper, keep an eye out for another announcement from Cervélo as we head into tradeshow season.

Relative to the RCA, the R5 is a bargain. Riders get far more than half the technology for the half-off price; all of the improvements in tube shaping and most of the advanced layup design that brought the RCA down to 670 grams and lopped off 7.4 watts of aerodynamic drag at 50 kph are transferred to the new frame.

The R5 benefits from the hours spent on RCA development, and each one of the 93 different digital frame iterations and 293 FEA and CFD evaluations that the California frame went through. It has the same thinner seatstays, turned 90 degrees to present a smaller frontal area and decrease drag, and the same Squoval3 tubes, which add a small nose to the company’s trademark, bulging tube shapes to further improve aerodynamics. The head tube is thinner in the middle, hourglass shaped, to maintain stiffness while reducing drag.

The fork has been improved as well, providing more lateral stiffness while increasing fore/aft deflection, improving comfort. And the R5, both frame and fork, will now accept 25mm tires with ease.

What the R5 is missing is a few of the RCA’s high-zoot materials. “Some of the areas on the RCA use technology we’ve simply kept in California,” Cervélo co-founder Phil White said. “We haven’t gone to Asia with it for two reasons: either it’s too difficult to make in Asia, or it’s just proprietary technology and we want to keep it here.”

Gone are 3M’s nano-tech Powerlux, which improved sheer strength in key areas, and the Nanovate coating used on the RCA’s fork to improve steerer strength. The former is simply too expensive and the latter can only be applied in Canada; the company that does the coating for Cervélo is concerned about having its intellectual property stolen if it sends the technology overseas.

The combination of traditional construction techniques with the engineering knowledge gained during the RCA’s development results in a frame that is about 140 grams heavier than the RCA (670 grams vs. 808 grams for the new R5), but 20 grams lighter than the previous R5. The new R5 fork drops a bit of weight, down to 315 grams.

Aerodynamics is identical to the RCA, as both frames use the exact same shape, down to the cable guides. Both the RCA and R5 are 7.4 watts faster at 50 kph than the old R5 in the wind tunnel, Cervélo claims.

Torsional stiffness is 15-percent better than the old R5, and bottom bracket stiffness is sees an improvement of nine percent, according to Cervélo. Both figures are still slightly off the RCA, of course.

First ride

It’s impossible to get a true feel for a bike with only a few hours’ ride time on unfamiliar wheels, tires, and roads. But here we go anyway with some first impressions.

We lauded the RCA in our recent WorldTour Bikes VeloLab test (Velo magazine, August 2013) for what I like to call excellence of the intangible. White papers are all well and good, and goodness knows Cervélo has plenty of them, but at the end of the day, a bicycle and the forces running through it make up a massively complex system, one that is completely impossible to perfectly replicate in a lab. We’ve recognized this in our own testing, matching up qualitative with quantitative scores.

Cervélo always lab tests well, both in our testing and in their own. But that excellence of the intangible is what we are feeling for on the road. The R5 has it, just like the RCA.

Some combination of geometry and stiffness in the right places (the “right places” bit being exceptionally important) provides a ride quality that is simply one of the best in the industry. The products the Canadian brand puts out have only rarely disappointed me, and I was certainly not disappointed this time. The new R5 feels like an RCA, but is half the price. It’s hyper-stiff when out of the saddle, but not punishing over bad pavement.

To borrow a rather obtuse phrase that pro racers are fond of uttering, the sensations are good.

For more on Cervélo’s 2014 lineup, check back during the Eurobike tradeshow next week.

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