In an airy bungalow in Malibu last week, a handful of employees from Canadian bike manufacturer Cervélo gathered to unveil their latest, high-end offering. The company has been a small but influential player in the bike market since they launched in 1996 with a pair of aero bikes. Aerodynamic considerations in bike frames are commonplace now, but at the time it was a radical concept, and by following up their initial launches with a string of bikes driven by research and engineering, Cervélo earned a reputation for innovation and speed. When they announced that they’d be showing off something groundbreaking in California last week, a handful of journalists, myself included, took note and made the trip.
CEO Phil White greeted our group early Wednesday morning, and though there was coffee and an informal breakfast, everyone’s attention was on the bike in the corner beneath a Christo-like shroud. The reveal came soon enough, as designer David Killing swept back the drape and White presented the Cervélo RCA, a 667-gram frame that the company claims marries incredible lightweight, unprecedented stiffness, and aerodynamic properties—as well as a dizzying $10,000 price tag for the frame and fork alone.
Some context is needed to digest those numbers and understand why exactly a bike can cost this much. The RCA is the second in Cervélo’s California Project, an enterprise the company began in 2010 to work with Orange County-based carbon fiber specialist Criterion Composites to engineer the highest quality frame possible. The first bike launched under this umbrella was the R5CA, a $10,000 696-gram frame that Garmin-Sharp’s Ryder Hesjedal rode to overall victory at the 2012 Giro d’Italia. It was the lightest, stiffest frame available. And though the company’s proprietary Squoval-shaped tubes (imagine a cross between a square and an oval) tested to have less drag in the wind than standard round tubing, the one place the company felt the frame was lacking was in aerodynamics.
“I went to the engineers and told them we had to make a bike that was just as stiff as the R5CA, but that was both lighter and more aero,” White remembers. “They all looked at me as if I were crazy. They honestly thought it would be impossible. That’s how good the R5CA was.”
This is where Cervélo’s technical savvy—and that exorbitant price tag—come into play. Starting with some design cues from the aero S-series bikes grafted onto the R5CA frame shape, Killing and a team of engineers “built” 93 separate frames with detail after detail tweaked, from the shape of the tubes to the twist of the seatstays. They tested each one for 15 parameters, honing the forms and whittling the weight as they went. “It was a groundbreaking process for us because everything was done on the computer, from modeling to testing,” says Killing. “We were able to do full trials on nearly 100 bikes in two months.” By comparison, White says that when the company launched the P3 back in 2004, it took the same amount of time to design and test just one frame because the company had to physically build the frame and run tests in a wind tunnel.
The resulting RCA frame is an understated and interesting creation. Cervélo calls the tube shape Squoval 3, a brand new form that’s more wind-cheating than what was used on the R5CA. Interestingly, it bears a close resemblance to the truncated airfoil shape used in the Scott Foil and the new Trek Madone 7 Series. Other innovative features include bulkhead dividers inside the bottom bracket, chainstay, and headtube area, which add rigidity and thus allow for thinner tubing without reduced performance, as well as a costly nano-level nickel coating on the fork steerer and nano-silica resin used sparingly in key stress points, both for increased sheer strength. The RCA frame weighs just 667 grams, about the same as a full 21-ounce water bottle, and it’s said to have 7.4 watts less drag than the R5CA.
After the presentation, we took the new bikes out for a ride in the hills above Highway 1. It was hardly a comprehensive test, especially because the temperature plummeted to the low 40s and the rain clamped down on us about halfway up the climb, making for icy hands and not the best sensitivity. Unsurprisingly however, my 54cm RCA, built with new SRAM Red components and Zipp 303 tubular wheels, felt incredibly light and deft on the nine-mile climb up Yerba Buena. What I couldn’t have predicted was how solid it also felt. It has the immediacy and stiffness of the R5CA, but it’s a little less harsh. Most impressively, on the long, wet, cold descent back to town, I definitely had the impression that, unlike other featherweight bikes out there that climb great but get nervous descending, the RCA was rooted and very sure. Though this is the lightest production frame you can buy, it rides with the confidence of a great all-arounder.
Back at the bungalow, I sat down with Phil White to chat about bikes, especially why prices have become so astronomical of late. “First of all, bikes are just getting that much better,” he says. “Even our budget bikes, like the R3 and the S2, are so much more advanced and better to ride than the most expensive bikes were five and 10 years ago.”
More importantly, White stresses, Project California isn’t about selling bikes, it’s about learning and process. To that end, no cost was spared in creating the best bike. Cervélo will produce only 325 of the RCA frames, and though the company expects to sell them out (as they sold out all 400 of the R5CA frames), they will still lose money on the venture. “This bike in particular has been about developing a process that combines aspects of structural engineering and aerodynamics engineering that we can implement to make better bikes across the line,” White continued. “We can now use the modeling and test process to improve everything we make.” He points out that the R3, a bike that can be purchased for $2,600 complete, has undergone a series of performance-enhancing changes thanks to technology from the R5CA.
So even if the idea of a $10,000 frameset makes you roll your eyes, it could well change the way you ride in the years to come. Cervélo, which has more capital for investment since it was acquired by Pon Bicycle Group last February, says they have a couple more innovative launches scheduled this year. In the meantime, we’ll soon be taking possession of an RCA for long-term testing to see whether the ride lives up to the marketing and engineering hype.