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Postcard from Toronto: The 4 things Cervelo doesn’t want you to know

January in Toronto -- it has no ring whatsoever to it, does it? But when our friends at Cervelo invited us to meet with them at their facility there, nothing in the world could stop us. It’s the sexiest bike brand in the whole industry, with a knack for winning awards that just won’t quit. In December, readers voted Team CSC’s Cervelo Soloist Carbon the best team bike of 2005. And Germany’s Tour magazine recently ran extensive tests of the stiffness-to-weight qualities of 2006′s most anticipated carbon bikes: When it comes to lightness, stiffness, and about a half-dozen other performance metrics the new Cervelo R3 outshone the best bikes from Scott, Look, and numerous other respected carbon-focused brands. Combine these accolades with the unprecedented consumer demand we’ve seen for Cervelo throughout their line, we know 2006 will be an unreal year for sales. We were eager to meet with the top brass in person to fine tune our partnership to perfection.

Upon our arrival the folks at Cervelo explained to us that they’d been working in their new facility for roughly 18 months. It’s in an area of Toronto where endless city blocks of defunct factories are finding new life as lofts and offices. Heavy-duty construction was everywhere, and I was told that Cervelo’s digs were, in fact, part of a former munitions factory. It’s a shame Zipp used the phrase ‘Speed Weaponry’ first, I thought, since Cervelo has the goods and the real estate to back up the claim best.

We had productive meetings, we ate phenomenal tomato soup for lunch, and my wandering eyes spied things that were crystal ball-like in the glimpse it gave me into the future. I write this What’s New entry not knowing what exactly I was and wasn’t supposed to see, and whether Cervelo would prefer for me to stay tight-lipped. So, with no one’s blessing, consider the 4 vignettes below an extended postcard of things you don’t know, and that Cervelo might not want you to know:

1. Cyclocross. Cervelo has never released a cyclocross frame, nor have they ever (to our knowledge) expressed interest in doing so. The fact that they have respect for the emergence of ‘cross culture was made very clear, though, through the presence of a R3 Cross frame I observed in the engineering portion of their facility. It had all the signature features of the R3 road: The insane lightness, the oversized Squoval tubing, even the same decal set. The rear had a slightly beefier appearance, of course, along with canti studs. An argument could be made that weight matters more for ‘cross racing than most road applications since you clean-and-jerk your bike at every barrier. And given that ‘cross is a sport where a frame’s resistance to torsional flex is essential to riders of all levels, the R3′s calling card -- a sub-900g weight matched by an industry-leading stiffness-to-weight ratio -- would make it ‘cross racer’s fantasy bike.

We saw one other interesting ‘cross-specific bike besides the R3. From what we could tell Cervelo employees store their bikes in a locked bathroom/locker area of the building. From across the bathroom I saw an aluminum ‘cross frame labeled with Cervelo decals that -- at a distance -- might’ve been easy to dismiss as a repainted Redline with Cervelo decals or something similar. Looking at it more closely, though, it appeared to have the same Smartwall airfoil downtube as the Soloist Team. It was unquestionably a Cervelo product. Hell, it even had disc brakes.

Will Cervelo enter the ‘cross market? I dunno. But I know if they choose to move in that direction they’ve got two bikes ready to anchor them on either end of the market -- value-packed Alu, or technology-packed carbon. If you’re a ‘cross fan keep your eyes peeled on potential developments at Interbike ’06.

2. R3 Bayonne. Cervelo has made noise about this bike for the last 18 months. It represents their effort to shave every last gram off the R3 while maintaining its stiffness, impact-resistance, and overall durability. Ivan Basso rode a 1st-generation version of Bayonne technology at the Alpe d’Huez time trial in the 2004 Tour de France. Cervelo showed it off on their website throughout 2005, and they poured more fuel on the fire by including materials on it in the 2006 dealer handbook in which they stated they’d gotten its weight down to a mind-blowing 770g (a quarter-pound lighter than the R3 -- believed to be the lightest production carbon bike in the marketplace).

All of this promotion aside, though, our understanding is that nary a Bayonne has been made available for retail sale. It’s easy to speculate on the reason why -- as you shed weight on a frame, you tend to exponentially shed durability and rigidity. Nobody wants a flimsy, fragile bike, even if it is featherweight. Everyone who follows Cervelo surely assumed the same thing: Cervelo was taking their time in releasing the Bayonne in order to maximize each of its vital attributes.

In a picture-perfect example of why speculation is oftentimes a lousy idea, I picked through some frames hanging alongside the engineer’s drafting tables and I pulled down the one closest to me. I immediately recognized it as a Bayonne thanks to its slick black finish. Holding it in my hands, it appeared to be built to the exact same tubing specifications as the R3 -- the shapes and the diameters seemed identical. What amazed me, though, was its near-weightlessness. I’ve held my share of R3′s and Litespeed Ghisallos and the like, but the Bayonne felt worlds apart.

3. Soloist Team. My visit to Toronto was one day after Cervelo co-founder Phil White returned from Tuscany where he took part in a weeklong Team CSC training camp. It was an ideal time for team members to dial in the fit and sizing on their new bikes, and they logged their monster miles and tweaked their positions on their Soloist Team frames.

For those who don’t follow such things closely, the Soloist Team is Cervelo’s workhorse aluminum race frame. Tyler Hamilton won Liege-Bastogne-Liege on one in 2003, and Bobby Julich won Paris-Nice and Criterium International on his in 2005. The aerodynamic shapes of the tubing and its geometry served as the template for the Soloist Carbon, and to this day it serves as a training bike (and occasionally as a race bike) to many on CSC.

Phil took time at camp to discuss the technical details of Cervelo bikes with new CSC team members. As he approached Stuart O’Grady -- arguably Australia’s most accomplished cyclist ever -- Stuey all but tackled him and said ‘All bullshit aside, this is the best bicycle I’ve ever ridden.’ He raved about how the fit and the handling stood worlds apart from any other bike he’d ever raced on -- mind you, this is a guy who’s won Tour de France stages, who’s worn the yellow jersey, and for fun he snagged the Gold in the Madison at the Sydney Olympics. He knows bikes, and he was so effusive about his Cervelo that Phil felt compelled to double check that he was riding the Soloist Team, not the Soloist Carbon. Indeed, he was on the Team.

Phil’s anecdote about O’Grady underscores an alarming reality about the Soloist Team -- and it’s this reality we’d like to emphasize: We’re selling them at a pace far more torrid than even our most optimistic forecast. The same is holding true for Cervelo on a company level. They told us in plain terms that their entire year’s production of Soloist Team frames is already spoken for by their dealers. They expect to have no open stock in 2006. When a dealer sells through their allocations, they won’t be able to get more. Furthermore, there was a subtext to our conversation that its $1,200 retail frameset price is considerably too low. Given that it out-performs (and out-looks) aluminum bikes that cost over $1,000 more, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a meaningful price increase in 2007.

Long story short: If you’re tempted in the least by a Soloist Team, you need to commit sooner than later. By the time you see Basso fighting towards a Tour victory in July, dealers across the country will have only spotty inventory at best. Given its humble place in the Cervelo line-up, it seems strange to say this, but it’s true: The Soloist Team is the single hottest frameset at Competitive Cyclist. Given its cost, its ride quality, and its race-day performance, you can’t go wrong.

4. Cervelo knows how your bike will break. Cervelo’s facility is two stories. Upstairs are the offices, conference rooms, and engineering space. Downstairs is their warehouse, shipping/receiving, bike assembly area, and testing facility. When they gave me the grand tour, they were clearly most proud of their testing equipment and testing protocols. There were shelves upon shelves of clearly marked crates full of frames that went through torture tests in which Cervelo attempted (and generally succeeded) in breaking them. Cervelo tests the daylights out of their own frames -- and those of their competitors -- in order to study modes of failure. By understanding how frames break, they can proactively design their own frames to resist similar weakpoints.

Most of their stress testing seemed to take place on three machines. The first was a beastly chamber in which a frame is bolted in place at the fork, headtube, BB shell, seat tube, and rear dropouts. A system of hydraulic pistons (and I use that term as a layman to the field of engineering) wrenched the daylights out of the frame in a loud, violent, numbingly repetitive motion intended to mimic a lifetime of aggressive riding. This was their most strenuous fatigue test, they explained, and it is quite similar to the system used by Germany’s EBFE laboratory, considered by most to be the world’s foremost experts in bicycle frameset durability. The EBFE standard is 100,000 cycles. If a frame makes it there, it’s considered more or less unbreakable in normal use by a racing cyclist. 100,000 is the gold standard, and Cervelo expressed great pride at the fact that the Soloist Carbon exceeds 400,000 cycles.

Let me be the first to state that my walk through their test facility wasn’t something akin to Republican Guard-escorted UN inspectors searching for WMD in Iraq circa 2002. I saw plenty of broken Cervelo frames -- P3′s with mechanically-smashed headtubes, R2.5′s with mangled chainstays, not to mention frames of countless other brands that looked victim to a grenade attack. Breaking things: It’s what Cervelo does, and every Cervelo owner is better off for it.

While the 1st machine they showed me was for fatigue testing, the next machine dealt specifically with impact resistance. In understanding how a frame reacts to this dreadful circumstance, Cervelo can build frames that’ll stay in one piece when you endo at 25mph in a pile-up at your local training crit.

In using this machine Cervelo faces a frame upwards so the headtube is parallel to the ceiling. They bolt it in place in a jig by cinching down the rear dropouts and they bolt down the fork in a similar fashion. In the place of a front hub is a cylindrical hunk of steel between the dropouts. The ‘Japanese Industrial Standard’ (JIS) is when you take a 50lb weight and position it 180mm above this hunk of steel. The test is simple: Drop the weight on the hunk of steel and see if anything breaks. <.p>

When you watch the test in action, it’s an amazing display of what really happens to your frame when you plow into something at high speed. Most people (including me) possess a mortal fear of having their downtube snap off their headtube at impact. What you learn in testing, though, is that your frame has equally frightful vulnerabilities elsewhere. At the moment of impact the upper half of your headtube is violently pulled forward, and in reaction your top tube bows into an arc trying to stay connected to it. This bowing, of course, puts spectacular stress onto the top tube/seat tube juncture, which as a consequence thrusts the seat tube forward with the BB shell acting as a pivot point. Phil pointed out to me that without special attention being given to the front portion of the seat tube where it mates to the BB shell, a frame is highly likely to break there in a frontal impact.

Just as Cervelo wasn’t satisfied with the industry ‘gold standard’ when it came to fatigue testing, their approach is the same in terms of impact resistance. For starters, they replace the carbon fiber fork used in the JIS test protocol and replace it with a rigid steel fork. Why? It’s because a carbon fork will absorb some of the force of the 50lb weight. They want every iota of violence to get through to the frame, and the steel fork gets this done. Secondly, after dropping the weight from 180mm, they increase the height of the weight by 50mm then do it again to the same frame. Then they raise it another 50mm and test again, and then raise it another 50mm and do it again. According to their calculations, their frames can withstand impact forces 4 times greater than the ‘passing’ grade of the JIS standard -- a very reassuring fact in our sport where crashing is more or less inevitable.

The final sizeable machine in their testing facility was probably the most interesting of the three, and I say this for one reason -- it wasn’t there explicitly to destroy things, but rather to quantify attributes of a bike that you feel when you ride it. An example would be this: Does your frame feel whippy in a sprint? Does it track poorly on technical, high-speed descents? Cervelo has developed tests to assess the stiffness values of specific areas of a frame in order to serve as a predictor of its ride quality under power and stress.

Cervelo illustrated the process by bolting down a widely advertised, featherlight titanium frame manufactured by a competitor into a testing jig. It was positioned onto its side, with the BB shell and rear dropouts bolted down tight. A hydraulic press with an increasingly greater load slowly pushed down onto the lower portion of its headtube. The test measured the amount of headtube deflection for a given amount of load. The real-world relevance of this test is rather straightforward: The greater the deflection of the headtube for a given load, the less able a bike is to maintain tracking between the front and rear wheels under violent accelerations and descents. In other words, every frame is adequately stiff when you’re soft-pedaling on a rest day. Where individual frames distinguish themselves are in race situations under explosive power and speed.

The titanium frame Cervelo tested has an advertised weight of 770g -- a logical frame for a consumer to compare to an 880g Cervelo R3. While the 110g weight difference is an easy fact upon which to fixate, a more elusive and more important truth was made clearly evident in testing. In order to achieve the equivalent amount of flex, the R3 required 2 to 3 times as much load as Ti. For example, it takes 7kgf of load to cause the Ti headtube to bend 2.0mm. It takes 17kgf of load to cause the R3 headtube to bend 2.0mm. It takes 15kgf of load to cause the Ti headtube to bend 4.0mm. It takes 35kgf of load to cause the R3 to bend 4.0mm. The real world translation of this data is this: When you talk about stability at speed and rigidity under power, a Cervelo is engineered to provide a better ride. Proof is in the data, and it’ll be apparent, too, the first time you twist down a mountain descent at 40mph+.