Last week I was in Las Vegas and had the opportunity to take a brand new 2015 Cervelo S3 out for a 90km ride through the rolling and undulating terrain of the Nevada desert. I was out with Eric from Las Vegas’s Pro Cyclery who I rode with for the day. The entire crew at that shop is phenomenal and if you’re ever in the area I strongly encourage you to pay them a visit and get out for a ride on the roads or in the mountains. The ride took me through rapid winding descents, long climbs, some of the best pavement I’ve ever ridden, and some of the worst pavement I’ve ever ridden.
If you don’t know much about it, the S3 was the bike ridden by Thor Hushovd at the World Road Race Championships in 2010 and has a long history as a thoroughbred racer and a product of Cervelo’s aerodynamic pedigree. The model took a brief hiatus after Cervelo introduced the aero-or-bust S5, but brought it back a year ago, much to the delight of solo breakaway artists and sprinters alike.
I’ll share a few of my thoughts on the bike with you all here. For the record, I do ride a Cervelo S5 as my main road rig, but have a few other bikes that I currently and formerly owned to reference against.
If you take a look at the bike you’ll notice a few key things. First and foremost, the bike makes full use of the aerodynamic approach to bike building that has become Cervelo’s core competency. The aero fork, head tube, downtube, seat tube, and seat post would be the envy of many time trial bikes. Cervelo states that the S3’s slippery profile picks up a lot of its cues from the P5 and S5.
Cervelo acknowledges that the S5 still maintains a marginal edge over the S3 in terms of aerodynamics, but just by a paltry four watts. Comparing the two side by side you’ll see that the S5 is essentially a TT bike with road bars, while the S3 looks more like a road bike TT elements.
Where the S3 really differentiates from the S5 however is with the ultra thin seat stays that borrow from the Cervelo RCA, which is Cervelo’s pro-tour road frame. This makes a huge difference in terms of compliance over the S5.
You can ride over something written in brail and read it letter for letter with the amount of vibration and feedback the S5 transmits through the frame and its inch wide seat stays. This can definitely lead to rider fatigue on rough roads surfaced with compounds like chipseal. This is in stark contrast to the RCA and Paris-Roubaix bred RS, which literally make you wonder about your tire pressure when you first ride them thanks to the amount of vertical compliance they provide. Given the choice between the two for longer rides on varying surfaces, the S3 has the advantage over the S5 by borrowing from the RCA and RS.
What I like about the S3 is that they put aero up front where it matters, while keeping the bike stiff and compliant through the rear triangle where turbulent airflow minimizes the aero penalty with minimized conventional tube shapes.
On the topic of stiffness, according to Cervelo, the S3 is 23 percent stiffer in torsion at the head tube and 19 percent stiffer at the bottom bracket than the S5. I can’t honestly say that I’ve ever had complaints about the S5 in terms of stiffness and power to the road, but on some of the short punchy climbs and quick sprints I did feel a more direct power transfer to the pedals. But that can always be placebo effect.
Talking weight, the 990-gram S5VWD edition frame is 110 grams lighter than the 1,100-gram S3 frame. However, the standard S5 frame weighs 1,200 grams, for a 100-gram penalty over the cheaper S3. If you’re out frame shopping though, the S5 frame is $4900 versus $2500. So it’s a pretty expensive 100 gram difference between the two.
The S3 I rode was outfitted with the standard componentry that comes on the Ultegra version of the bike. That is, 11 speed Ultegra 6800 with a Rotor 52/36 crank, and Mavic Cosmic Elite S wheels.
I really liked the 11 speed Ultegra groupset. I’ve been riding 11 speed 105 on my cyclocross bike for a few months now and the step up to Ultegra gave a slightly more solid shift feel that’s more mechanical than the 105 set, which feels a bit smoother and more buttery. Between the two, it’s sort of a personal preference thing whether you like more fluid feeling shifts, or more mechanical feeling shifts.
Another step forward for Shimano with the Ultegra 6800 is the inclusion of a trim feature for shifting which allows you to ride a wider range of gears on the rear cassette without the noisy feedback of cross chaining. This feature has been around with SRAM for a little while now and straight out of the gate Shimano’s Di2 components had features to address this, so its good to see the mechanical Ultegra catch up with this feature.
I wasn’t a huge fan of the Rotor crank simply because its so noisy. One of my biggest gripes with Cervelo has always been that they always go a different way than the groupset with the crank. While Rotor is an improvement over the FSA Gossamers that they used to spec, I’d rather see them go with cranks that match the rest of the group, the way that Trek has done. I suspect Cervelo does this because of their BBRight bottom backets, but I still don’t like it.
I did prefer the gearing of the crank however, the intermediate compact 52/36 gearing was a welcome change versus 50/34’s that come standard on many road bikes these days.
Lastly, no complaints with the Mavic Cosmic Elite S. Without tires these hoops tip the scales at 1770 grams. So while they aren’t featherweights, they’re great training or crit rims.
I loved the way the S3 felt, handling was quick and slightly more responsive than the S5. I felt especially confident on some great winding descents, and never had any issues with understeer that you can sometimes get when you really lean into the corners.
Power transfer was direct, and stiffness in the bottom bracket area made acceleration and out of the saddle efforts feel solid.
Finally, along the route we had some issues with torn up pavement. About 30 miles of torn up pavement in fact. Myself and the other riders I was with had no idea why on earth the Nevada State Parks Department would rip up mile upon mile of pristine asphalt, but it turned a big part of our route into brutal Roubaix rough road. The S3 definitely isn’t a Roubaix bike but most of the fatigue and vibration came through the front of the bike, rather than the rear, which was slightly more compliant. Take that for what its worth. Know that if you decide to ride for 30 miles on garbage roads your bike won’t break and you won’t die.
If there’s one thing that I’m not in love with, it’s the price. Cervelo has moved a little upwards in terms of pricing over the past couple years and at $4350 CAD, today’s S3 is about $500 more than what I bought my S5 at in 2012. Granted my S5 was originally sold with SRAM Rival, but it’s still a lot of dough to shell out. Even today’s S5 costs a jaw dropping $6100 CAD, meaning the price increases are way more than inflation and I don’t know that the improvements to the bikes over the years can account for that much of a price increase.
Giant will get you into aero road bike territory for $2649 CAD with the Propel Advanced 1, fully kitted with Ultegra components and leaving you with $1700 for toys like Garmin Vector Pedals or Zipp 404 wheels. Or if you want to go the way of the weight weenie, $3600 CAD will put you on Trek’s Emonda SL6 which is a 16lb climber, also with full Ultegra. While I haven’t had the chance to rider either of those bikes, I know a lot of shop guys who are all over those two models.
With the S3 you definitely get a lot of bike but at the price point, you should definitely be shopping around.
If I had to summarize my thoughts on it, the S3 is the perfect bike for crit racing that you can take out on club rides for the weekend. It handles great and transfers power to the road really well in the sprints. In addition, of course the aero profile of the bike will make it great on long descents or solo breaks.
- Cervelo is still the king of aero, and the S3’s aero profile is just a hair off of the benchmark S5
- RCA inspired rear triangle provides great compliance for long rides and rough roads
- Great all rounder that will be fast in the descents and breaks, and solid in the sprints
- Premium price, means a lot of other great options in the price range that you ought to look at
- Cervelo continues relentless pursuit of selling bikes with the noisiest cranks on the market
Post Script: It occurred to me shortly after I wrote this that the noisy Rotor crank is a safety feature implemented by Cervelo. The S3 is a crazy fast bike, so Cervelo wanted to make sure people would hear you coming as you come up to pass them.
Enjoyed your review of the Cervelo S3. I am looking to upgrade my 2012 R3 and think this might be a nice transition. Since your review, are there any other bike which you might recommend or would you stick with the S3 or S5? I really enjoy riding with faster groups in the flats and wind of Florida and also need a bike for the hills of northern Ohio.
Hey Jon, thanks very much for the comments! For riding with groups and in the the wind of FL, I’d definitely recommend the S3 if you’re looking to go for an aero bike. I really like the S5, but if you put some deep dish wheels on it, depending on how windy it is, you may find the ride getting a little twitchy in the wind. You’ll also probably find that the S3 is just a little more of a more well balanced bike for riding with others and getting into the hills. If solo rides were more your thing or wind wasn’t really something that exists where you live (it was enough of a consideration for you to mention it), then I’d lean more towards the S5.
Right now I’m riding a Trek Emonda SL6, which is probably the first bike in a while that I can honestly say I won’t be replacing anytime soon. Its more of a traditional road bike and probably a little closer to the R3 in terms of the bike’s intent, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t recommend you at least give one a test ride.
I’m torn. Just test rode both the 2015 S3 (there’s still one left available in my size, on sale for CAD$3120!) and the 2016 Emonda SL6 ($3300), but only for about 15 min each so far. More to come tomorrow. I’m pretty new to road cycling so I feel like I’m not a good judge of the bikes yet. The geometries feel very similar and seem perfect for me. The Emonda was definitely livelier but maybe that’s just because of the different chains/cassette which I didn’t remember until after the rides.
I’m also testing out the Synapse, Roubaix and Domane soon but my main goal is sprint triathlons and I live in Regina so I don’t think an endurance bike with good climbing capabilities are of much use to me. I love the look of the S3 although the Emonda looked surprisingly nice in person compared to online. Not much difference in quality of components. The LBS carrying the Cervelo is the more well known shop and the owner lent me the S3 to try for the week, whereas the Trek shop was much more strict.
Any arguments about any of my thoughts from your riding both bikes, with my goals in mind? Advice? Thanks!
Hey Michael! Thanks for the comment! Thats a tough one because they’re two awesome bikes. It sounds to me like you’re leaning a little bit towards the S3, which is a great choice. The only place where I think the Emonda has a bit of an advantage over the S3 is on rougher pavement. I’m from Calgary and I’ve never been to Regina, but I can only imagine that you guys have some rougher pavement over there similar to ours. I would suggest feeling out both bikes in an alleyway or something rougher to give you an idea of how each performs on that type of terrain. Drawing from other’s experience, I had a client come in to the shop last week who has an Emonda SL8, a Cervelo S3, and a Specialized Roubaix. His preference of all three is the Emonda and he’s probably going to replace the S3 with the new Domane SLR. He finds the S3 to be a bit harsh, and the Roubaix to be not quite as exciting to ride. The Emonda is also my rig of choice that I won’t be replacing anytime soon… Unless I can bring some pennies together to get the new Domane SLR (I rode one yesterday and its amazing, but it comes at quite the price!)
Of the other bikes you’re trying out, I’ve ridden the Domane 4.5 and Roubaix. I’ve always found the Roubaix to feel a little muted, or dead, which is a function of its design, to absorb vibration from rougher road surfaces. I think when the Domane came on to the scene it showed that you could have a lively bike without sacrificing those dampening capabilities.
All in all, if your goal is sprint triathlons and you have a really good relationship with the Cervelo LBS, I do think you should go with the Cervelo. The 52-36 crankset is perfect for what you’re doing, the aero profile of the bike is ideal for tri and you can throw some aero bars on there, and its a solid performer overall. Plus, you can use that $200 you saved on an aero road helmet like a Bontrager Ballista, or save it towards a Stages Powermeter (you’ll thank yourself for either of these two things!) You can’t go wrong between a Trek Emonda or a Cervelo S3 though, so go with what you’re more stoked on! Let me know what you end up with!
Thanks for the quick reply, saw your comment before heading out yesterday. Went for a 10K ride on the S3 on my usual bike path, loved it. Felt more nimble than I’d thought the first time, and I just love the look of it. Then to the Trek/Cannondale LBS, spent 2 minutes on the Synapse and felt no joy. Domane was surprisingly fun and the charcoal colour with red accents make it my favourite looking bike with the S3 close behind. If I hadn’t ridden the Emonda previously I may have fallen for the Domane right there, but at this point I just can’t see myself buying a true endurance ride. Plus I realized during the ride that the stem was slammed so there’s nowhere to go from there, and I’m sure I’ll want a more aggressive position for triathlons. While waiting for a pedal change to the Emonda I called the Cervelo/Specialized LBS and said not to bother getting the Roubaix set up to my fitted measurements. It’s a two horse race now.
Last up was another go on the Emonda. They have the red 2015 in my size which after getting rid of the white saddle and bar tape I’d like the look of even better than the 2016 and I assume it’ll be cheaper (price pending). Unfortunately it wasn’t ideal weather and I didn’t have the S3 with me for a back-to-back comparison, but oh man that ride is just blissful. It just seems like magic how amazing the ride is on that bike. I get giddy now even thinking about riding it again.
So I think I’m leaning towards the SL6 at this point.
S3 Pros: looks nicer, more aero for triathlons and more reputable LBS
SL6 Pros: more responsive, more comfortable ride, drop bar shape nicer for me, better BB
Snowing today, next chance to ride will be Tuesday morning, so I’m hoping to do a full back-to-back then and decide. Super happy that all my research and testing has gotten me here, really can’t go wrong at this point. I’m either getting a super sweet looking bike that rides great, or a really nice looking bike that’s an absolute dream to ride. Thanks again for your help!
Back-to-back this morning:
– S3 first, felt really nice, thought to self “I think I’ll be getting this one, it looks amazing and I don’t remember the SL6 ride being that much nicer”
– SL6 started out nice, still thinking S3 not that much worse, then up a little hill and over a rough section, the differences became more obvious, then through a technical section, it handled much more easily. Ride quality and responsiveness just blew me away once again. No question, I can’t say no to this bike.
SL6 wins!! Will be a proud Emonda owner tomorrow when I go make the purchase and bring my baby home.
Awesome! You won’t regret going with the SL6! Glad to hear you found those differences between the SL6 and the S3 because they’re definitely there. I’ve said in a bunch of other comments, the Emonda SL6 is one of the few bikes that I can honestly say I don’t see myself replacing anytime soon.
I’d love to hear some of your comments on in over the next few weeks/months, so definitely keep in touch!
I planning for S3 soon reason because of price factor and an all rounder to be able to ride in comfort for long 178km distance from q fellow feedback of S3 user and to be capable to climb up slope easily . The stiffer S5 is nicer but is way too expensive.
My wife comments the S5 (2016) look so cheapo… As compare to the S3 (2016). Read so many review… The main difference is tat 4-6watt of power transmission for the bike to be faster….
I am not into racing… I decided to take S3 (2016) for my favourite concept #Antman
Decided btw xrx2 Bianchi too… The frame is light.. But I am heavy… A friend told me.. Don’t break the frame…