Words: Liam Friary
Images: Cameron Mackenzie

Back in 2017, I spent some time astride the Cervelo S3 – the first S3 to introduce disc brakes to the range. This was accompanied by a few tweaks to the #aerogains of the bike to keep it slippery and smooth. I was a fan of the ride quality, erring more on the composed side of the spectrum with plenty of raw speed. When the 2019 update rolled into the shop, I was keen to see how far Cervelo had come.

So here it is, in all its neon yellow glory. Seriously, it’s hard to miss in a crowd. The updates are more than just a luminescent lick of paint though; Cervelo reckon you’re buying your way to 13 watts less drag and 68g of weight lost, compared to the previous frame design. Furthermore, there’s some fine tuning of the relationship between stiffness in the bottom bracket and headtube, so they feel more congruent and balanced with each other. That’s a fancy way of saying “the bike rides more gooderer” compared to the old one.

They’ve stuck with offering both disc and rim brake models, something that will be a win for those still holding onto a mortgage deposit worth of a wheel collection, but an afterthought for many others. More excitingly, in my humble opinion, is that the stays can now accommodate 25mm tyres! The previous generations’ restriction of 23mm only was a real sticking point in an otherwise solid bike, so I’m over the moon to see it has been addressed.

There are a few more tweaks to the frame shape, such as the fork being more tightly integrated into the headtube with little flared trailing edges, while the wheel cut-out seat tube and aero post of yesteryear remain. Cervelo have gone all in with integration for this generation, sporting a unique stem and steerer unit that allow full internal cable routing for one of the cleanest looking front ends on the market. It’s not as ‘Starship Enterprise’ looking as its big brother the S5, but speed is certainly not lacking. It also comes with spacers that can unclip from the steerer without having to remove the stem itself, making bar height adjustments easier. Will it make a difference for most riders? Probably not. Is it hella cool? Definitely.

Much like the outgoing generation, this S3 has a visibly oversized bottom bracket (now going by the name BBright and cross compatible with most crank systems) however the seat stays appear to have thickened up a bit in the last few years. Interestingly, the geometry is almost 100% identical – which puts the updated S3 in a unique position; any differences in performance are almost undoubtedly attributed to the updated carbon layup and tube shaping. It’s as close to comparing like with like as you’re ever going to find. As the saying goes, if it ain’t broke…

Unless you’re going the custom-built route, all S3s ship with some variation of an Ultegra-based build kit; in my case, the top spec Di2 edition. I’m happy to report that the hydraulic disc brakes have stayed on for another generation, this time around getting the fully-branded Ultegra models rather than the unbranded versions on my previous test bike. The build is rounded out with a set of Novatec R5 50mm aero clinchers; while not the first brand to jump to mind when thinking of top spec wheels, Novatec have been an industrial powerhouse for years (especially when it comes to hubs) and look right at home on the Cervelo.

Of course, all that’s for naught if it doesn’t ride well – but being a Cervelo, that’s almost a given. I praised the previous generation for its sense of calm and composure, feeling very familiar to me after jumping across from my more endurance-oriented personal bike. With almost identical geometry, much of that sentiment remains with the 2019 edition, including the just-right stack height and comfortable posture in the drops. That said, I wouldn’t have minded a shorter stem and given that a proprietary model is used to facilitate the internal cable routing, that does limit your options.

My test route is a tried and true one; with plenty of traffic light sprints, poorly maintained chip seal, blustery cross winds, rolling hills and hard out flats – and every single one of those things made an appearance at some point during testing.

Handling is right where I would expect; sure-footed, stable, confident. Pulling away from a standstill is as much of a joy as it has ever been, as is working my way down a winding country road, tucked down in the drops with the wind rushing through my helmet vents. Much like the old one, this bike is a joy to ride. I buy into Cervelo’s claims about increased stiffness; the bike does feel firmer under the pedals than ever before. I certainly had no complaints beforehand, but in a world of increasingly marginal gains, every little bit counts.

Cross winds are manageable, although the spring weather certainly tried its hardest to prove otherwise. With 50mm rims and flattened tubes the S3 is never going to match a more svelte bike when the weather goes full broadside, but comparing like with like it holds its own comfortably.

The flat-top bars are slippery to the air but not to the hand, and the shape of the drops is good but not my absolute favourite. My Di2 edition had been set up with Shimano’s Synchro Shift, which automatically shifts the front derailleur to keep an optimal chain-line and reduce wear and tear. This took a little getting used to and personally I could live without it, it has a tendency to try to shift right as I’m trying to put some power down with unpredictable results. For riders with a more predictable cadence and less of a predilection to standing up and mashing pedals on the hills than I have, it will work well, but I’d personally prefer more manual control.

The most noticeable difference comes with the less tangible realm of ride quality, something the previous S3 really shone through with, despite the skinny tires and aggressive proportions. The S3 has remained a very smooth sailor for an aero bike, as an all-rounder it’s hard to beat. But when I compare it back to back with the previous generation, I can’t help but feel that some of the fine-tuning to the ride quality has been traded in for extra speed; this is despite bigger tyres and updated carbon layups. Part of this may be due to some of Cervelo’s pro riders opting for the S3 rather than the S5, with Cervelo adjusting the bike to cater accordingly. Rather than seeing the S3 as the model below the S5 in the hierarchy, it’s moved to being more of a valid alternative, with slightly different characteristics to allow riders to go for the one that best suits their needs. Those riders are in the business of going as fast as possible and the S3 aims to please.

Where does that leave the S3? As a bike, it’s still targeted as a sort of quiver killer: the one bike to rule them all. It’s always been a blend of the aero silhouette of the S5 with an injection of the ride quality of Cervelo’s R-series bikes, that much is a constant. The current generation errs more towards the S5 than before, with a focus on increased stiffness and integration being the name of the game. It’s still the same sure-footed bike as before, with just an ounce of overall comfort traded for a fair share of stiffness and aerodynamics in return. It’s less a quantum leap into the future and more ‘a few steps’ of hard-fought ground in the never-ending war of attrition that is bicycle design. The S3 remains an excellent choice for the privateer racer looking to go from criterium to classic and everything in between; for that purpose it gets the thumbs up from me. I look forward to seeing what Cervelo do next!

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