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Cervelo P3

By Tom Demerly.

Cervelo P3 Triathlon Bike
The P3 joins the P2 as an iconic design in triathlon and time trial that has shaped a generation of bicycles and remains a leader in the industry.

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There may be bikes with a lower drag coefficient- but not by much. There are bikes with more exotic components- at three times the price. There are no bikes with as proven a race record and such advanced design in this price category. The Cervelo P3 strikes a noteworthy balance between “super bike” and “super value”. The Cervelo P3 includes design so advanced it may represent the high point on the bell curve before it pitches over to diminishing returns.

The greatest challenge in reviewing the P3 is maintaining balance. There isn’t much wrong with it. But no bike is perfect for everyone, so read on…

The P3 is long in the tooth, sitting one rung down the Cervelo evolutionary ladder from P4. And like evolution in nature, as something survives and adapts it becomes better suited to its environment. Or it dies. The P3 is a long, long way from dying as a technology leader. It still sits near the top of the food chain.

Like a well adapted species the P3 uses what works: conventional brake mounting and a non-proprietary cockpit. The workman like component spec uses your budget wisely. At $3600 for the complete bike there is room left in most high end tri bike budgets for a disc rear wheel and deep section front along with a one piece tri suit and aero helmet. The only thing you need after that is legs and lungs.

Cervelo P3 Triathlon Bike
The competitive record of the Cervelo P3 is unmatched by any other single bike model. From Ironman triathlons to Tour de France time trials its design has been confirmed over and over.

If you buy a Cervelo P3 at $3600 then add a Zipp 404 front race wheel with a Zipp disc rear you will have $6480 in your race package including a spare set of wheels. With a HED Jet 60mm front and HED Disc rear the price goes down to $5575. This doesn’t include the extra cost of a cogset and tires for the race wheels, or the price of an aerodynamic helmet and one piece tri suit- important aero purchases. It still factors well below the other super bikes from $8K-$10K with plenty of room to buy the important aero extras and a few thousand left over for travel expenses to your “A” race.

“The P3 is the most successful bike in history against the clock.”

A lot of people have figured this equation out since more time trials and triathlons have been won on the Cervelo P3 than any other single model bike in history. And while tabulation of such a claim is less than precise, the order of magnitude that the P3 dominates is so large the claim could be off by 20% and still be true. The P3 is the most successful bike against the clock in history.

Cervelo P3 Triathlon Bike
Cervelo innovated the curved seat tube that follows the radius of the wheel for best aerodynamics. If imitation is the highest form of flattery many other brands have complimented the P3 with their mimcry of the design themes.

The P3 uses a long list of proprietary Cervelo engineering developments. They include the oversized bottom bracket for stiffness on climbs and while cornering, Smartwall for carbon for stiffness and comfort, Cervelo’s “TrueAero” truly aerodynamic frame profiles, the original curved wheel cut-out (perhaps the most copied bike engineering development other than aero shaped tubes) others. What Cervelo doesn’t mention are the practical advantages with the ownership experience of the P3. These include:

Conventional brakes with standard mounting: Easy to adjust, service and pack for flight case and travel by most athletes. Superior braking performance.

Non-proprietary cockpit for widest range of performance and bike fit options.

Use of standard cockpit parts assures consistent parts availability: If a bike that uses a proprietary stem system is discontinued, service parts will be difficult to find and resale plummets.

Consensus that P3 is “best buy” combination of performance and price maintains resale value.

Non-proprietary technologies with brakes and cockpit are easily serviced by most bike shops and most home mechanics: No service bulletins, special classes or unique service certifications required. Almost anyone can maintain and service a P3.

The Cervelo P3 is partially differentiated from the P2 by its visually striking curved seat tube, a feature that has become de rigueur in theme to many designs from Pinarello to Specialized to Kestrel.

Another difference is fit. As the geometry chart moves larger the P3 trends lower in the front than the P2. The P3 is low and long. For a rider like me with a long torso and a not-so-flexible lower back who likes to sit with a very open hip angle (meaning a steep seat angle) this geometry is ideal. The fit differences between P2 and P3 are small- but relevant, there are no differences in the 51cm frame size. The differences are worth considering in size 56 cm and 58 cm. The one concession I’ve made to fit is going from a 51cm P3 to a 54 cm P3 to have an even more open angle from leg to torso. If you find yourself on a 56cm P3 but have to add 3 or more spacers under your stem this may be a great time to think about a P2 with its slightly higher head tube. Chrissie Wellington did in her first Ironman World Championships victories.

Cervelo P3 Triathlon Bike
The differences between P2 and P3 include the visually obvious ones and some subtle fit differences.

The front to back survey of the Cervelo P3 reveals many refinements over its life. The current version has improvements in fit and finish around the seatpost opening. Previous versions had a few minor cosmetic gaps and trouble with small paint chips around the seatpost opening in the frame. Those issues appear to have been resolved in new P3’s even with a number of seatpost removals, adjustments and re-installations. Going back a number of years ago the seatpost head itself has been redesigned to facilitate a wider range of effective seat tube angles. The binder clamp appears to have been updated as well, although the previous versions were entirely serviceable.

Cervelo P3 Triathlon Bike
The conical head tube and hour glass frontal profile of the P3 are the beginning of the aerodynamic design features.

The P3 frame starts with a moderate “nose-cone” aerodynamic shape developed in the wind tunnel along with the rest of the frame shape. The aerodynamic development theme continues with the consensus fastest top tube configuration in the industry: The top tube is parallel to the boundary layer of air surrounding the bike at speed. Down tube is Cervelo’s TrueAero shape in SmartWall for Carbon, the wind tunnel developed, genuine airfoil shape for bicycle-speed aerodynamics. A more robust bottom bracket on the P3 than the P2 shores up frame stiffness for great climbing out of the saddle. The curved seat tube is the P3’s visual signature- the first thing you notice. It is designed to work synergistically with a very deep section or disk rear wheel to optimize aerodynamics.

Cervelo P3 Triathlon Bike
The main frame features a horizontal top tube for minimal frontal area and lower drag than a sloping top tube.

The details on the P3 are where it shines with only a few small notes. Brake mounting is entirely conventional. A plate bolted to the rear stays retains the rear brake, a functional and elegant solution. The binder bolts need some attention to torque and to verify they are threaded equally into the frame. One minor criticism is that, if the threads inside the frame are damaged, you may have a frame return issue. Use reasonable care with the binder assembly. It is marked for 4Nm of torque. The newer version rear clamps are labeled “P3” suggesting they are specific to this bike. Keep this area clean and corrosion free for best durability and performance. The seatpost clamp on the P3 can “grip” very securely into the post itself due to some knurling on the female/left side. This means quick adjustments of saddle angle may not be so quick. I frequently have to dismantle the seat clamp and gently tap the clamp out of the seatpost then re-orient it. The alternative may be to have a different design that slips. I’ll take the former. Dropout screws on the P3 are what we are accustomed to from Cervelo, they are small but effective and, like all good racing equipment, require the correct tool for adjustment and benefit from occasional inspection. The rear dropouts have undergone a similar cosmetic upgrade to the seatpost with better paint treatment and less chips.

Cervelo P3 Triathlon Bike
Mechnical details: Simple, lightweight mounting of conventional brakes. Refined seat post area and binder bolt assembly.

Using the rear facing dropouts is easy once you learn a simple technique. If you don’t practice, expect to fumble.

Ride quality on the P3 brings two things immediately to mind: The tight rear triangle means this bike goes up hills well, a rarity for an aero bike. The long-ish front end means it is stable and comfortable. I have done many century distance rides on the P3 and the comfort is very good. Running off the bike is fine. For a long torso-ed rider this bike is a strong choice. I love the bike’s climbing and descending, and the solid stability. It’s not a criterium bike so allow room for cornering, turn in early and allow sweeping lines on the exit from turns. In exchange you can drink from the aero position with full confidence.

Cervelo P3 Triathlon Bike
The compact rear triangle improves frame stiffness and aerodynamics. The variable geometry seatpost facilitates a wide range of effective seat tube angles. The bottom bracket is designed for exceptional stiffness for an aerodynamic bike.

Component kit on the latest version is the latest version of Ultegra controlled by Dura-Ace bar end shifters turning an FSA Gossamer crank around an FSA bottom bracket. You stop on FSA Gossamer Pro brakes actuated by the latest version of Vision Aero brake levers- the little gripper pads included. Cockpit is Vision base bars with either Vision or 3T aerobars. This spec recommendation is listed on Cervelo’s site at $3600 USD with a Dura-Ace version at $4500 USD and a frameset at $2900. Remember that Cervelo specification suggestions will vary occasionally on complete bikes.

Cervelo P3 Triathlon Bike
The component suggestion from Cervelo includes an Ultegra kit at a new price point with an adjustable aero cockpit for accurate sizing. Component suggestions can and do vary from Cervelo, and this is one example of several possible configurations.

If you need to find a drawback to the Cervelo P3 then blame genetics. It fits a lot of people, but not everyone. The best P3 rider will have an average to long torso, the majority of us. Short torso riders may be a P2 candidate due to the slightly higher head tube orientation in some sizes. It is heartbreaking to see a P3 ridden with a stack of headset spacers under the stem since it compromises front end aerodynamics and even handling. If you are a high front end rider this may not be a good choice for you.

Cervelo P3 Triathlon Bike
Since the P3 was introduced as an aluminum bike I have raced on it. Given my choice of any triathlon bike- the P3 is my personal favorite. I've raced it to PR's at every distance around the world.

Once you put in time and racing on the P3 the true elegance and performance of the design manifests itself. It is a special bike. The P3 captivates an industry and influences design around the world. From the Ironman to the Tour de France time trials it has won age group titles and set Tour de France records. There may be bikes now with a lower drag coefficient- but the question remains- are there any better bikes?

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Cervelo P3 Triathlon Bike
The 2011 version of the P3 is the most refined to date, retaining the proven features combined with tangible refinements. It is the best P3 Cervelo has produced to date.