Cervelo C3 Review – An Adventure Bike with Race Genes

Cervelo C3 Review – An Adventure Bike with Race Genes


cervelo-c3-ultegra-sideA few months ago we posted an article about the new Cervelo C5, Cervelo’s top-of-the-line entrant in the hydraulic disc brake endurance/adventure bike sweepstakes, and we mentioned that there was soon to be a lower priced Cervelo C3 model available. Well, we now have had a substantial number of Cervelo C3’s pass through the shop, and we have had a chance to give them a good look.  Like the C5, the C3 is more than deserving of a description and brief impressions, so here is our review of the Cervelo C3.

The Cervelo C3 is a full carbon fiber hydraulic disc brake bike, designed to handle dirt and gravel roads (as well as paved roads).  The Cervelo C3 and the Cervelo C5 share common frame geometry across all frame sizes, but the frameset of the C3 differs from the C5, in that the C5 uses higher modulus carbon fiber in both the frame and the fork.  The Cervelo C5 as it comes from the factory is also outfitted with top-of-the line components, i.e. Shimano Dura Ace, while the Cervelo C3 steps back to Ultegra. As you would expect, the Cervelo C5 is therefore lighter, a bit stiffer laterally, and offers a bit better quality of ride than the C3. However, this does not mean that Cervelo C3 is meager in any of these departments. The C3 shares Cervelo’s BBRight design, featuring a wider, asymmetrical bottom bracket and asymmetrical chainstays, for better power transfer and less frame flex.  It also shares the lithe, slightly arced seatstays featured on the C5, to help dampen road shock. The similarities in ride quality between the C3 and the C5 are more pronounced than the differences.


The cable shifting version of the Cervelo C3 is equipped with Shimano Ultegra 6800 mechanical 11 speed derailleurs, coupled with the Shimano ST-R685 hydraulic brake levers/shifters. The rear cervelo-c3-rotor-crankderailleur is the 6800GS model, with the medium length cage, able to handle cassettes with 32 tooth cogs.  Even though the bike has the capacity to handle a larger cassette, it comes with an 11-28, from the factory we wish it came with an 11-32 as this is what most people seem to want. Maybe this is because we are in Vermont and, unlike some other parts of the country, our dirt and gravel roads can get seriously steep.

The crankset found on the ’16 Cervelo C3 is the Rotor 3D30 BBRight, with 50/34 gearing – it is the same crank found on many other Cervelo models. We normally prefer an Ultegra crank on an otherwise Ultegra bike, but the Rotor 3D30 BBRight is designed to work with the frame without adapters and it is plenty stiff to match up with the rest of the components and frame. The handlebars and stem on the ’16 Cervelo C3 are alloy units – FSA Energy and SLK respectively.  The seatpost on the ’16 Cervelo C3 is the FSA SLK and features a carbon fiber body and bonded aluminum alloy head. We wish it had a zero set-back post from the factory, but changing out parts like this before the rider takes delivery if it is needed for fit reasons is part of what makes a Rider Matched Cervelo C3 froshimano-flat-mount-disc-caliper-cervelo-c3m Fit Werx a different bike than one from many other Cervelo dealers.


The hydraulic brake calipers found on the Cervelo C3 are Shimano’s BR-R805, clamping 140mm Shimano Ice Tech center lock rotors.  The brake pads have cooling fins to help keep temperatures down, and the rotors are scalloped to increase air flow and thus cooling. The Ice Tech rotors are a sandwich, with an alloy core between two steel outer plates.  Aluminum alloy transfers heat better than steel, so this alloy center alloys for better heat dissipation than an all-steel rotor.  The cooling fins on the brake pads are also aluminum alloy, again for faster heat dissipation. The Cervelo C3 frame is designed to the latest Shimano flat mount standard and uses the latest flat mount hydraulic brake caliper design accordingly. As with the brake levers, these calipers are the same ones found the top of the line Cervelo C5 for ‘16.


If you have read any of my bike write-ups, you know my opinion of most factory-spec’d wheels.  Most manufacturers send their bikes with wheels that are two or three levels of performance below the rest of the bike.  In my experience, most bikes in this price range come with wheelsets that would normally retail in the $200-$300 price range. Contrary to this norm, the standard wheels on the C3 are of surprisingly high quality: HED Ardennes Plus GP, a $700 retail set.  These wheels have 25 mm deep tubeless ready alloy rims with an internal width of 21 mm, so they are wide.  These wheels weigh in at 1,680 grams and it wasn’t all that long ago that 1,680 grams for a set of rim brake alloy clincher wheels was a good weight. Now we have disc brake wheels with heavier hubs and more hardware at that weight. The front and rear wheels have 12mm thru axles to match the Cervelo C3 frame. These are great wheels on a bike of this level, featuring strength, lateral stiffness, and a comfortable ride, and they compliment the rest of the bike very nicely.

hed-ardennes-gp-disc-front-wheelThe HED Ardennes Plus GP on the ’16 Cervelo C3 are mounted with Continental Grand Sport Race tires, at an advertised 28 mm wide.  However, on the HED rims, these tires actually measured to be 31.2 mm wide. The Cervelo C3 can take a tire that, when mounted, measures 32mm, maybe 33mm.  Interestingly, I recently mounted a pair of Schwalbe Marathon tires, listed by the manufacturer as 700 X 32, on a pair of these same wheels, and low and behold they measured 32mm.  Not all tires expand the same amount and who knows what width rim the manufacturer used when listing the width. The lesson, oft repeated here, is do not rely on the width stated on the tire sidewall, but on the width when it is mounted to the desired rim.  They can be very different, or exactly the same, just depending!

As with the Cervelo C5, the C3 is not designed to be a bike used with the tires that are sometimes used at the broadest end of the adventure road bike category.  For example, the Parlee Chebacco comes with 40mm wide tires, and the Moots Routt 45 can handle up to a 45mm wide tire.  If you want to go really wide, a Cervelo C3 is not going to be your ride. While some may consider the relatively limited tire width on the C3 as a disadvantage, it really all depends on where you are planning to ride and your comfort level.  The Continental Grand Sports tires look much like a road tire, meaning that they do have a knobby tread, but rather the tire is smooth with only a hint of tread.  They are just wider than typical road tires.  By comparison, the Clement Explor MSO tires that come on the Chebacco are not only wider, but have a more aggressive tread design.  The Clement Explor tires, while being able to handle rougher and softer surfaces with more aplomb than the Continentals, simply will not give quite the same level of speed performance and handling as a 32mm smooth tread tire on smooth, hard dirt surfaces and pavement.

Of course, tires are not married to a bike. You can mount whatever tire you want, smooth or aggressively treaded, so long as they fit in the frame. A consumable, such as tires, should not play a part in your choice of bike, but the bike’s tire capacity should. If the dirt and gravel roads you plan to ride are well maintained, you likely will never need more width than the Cervelo C3 offers. If you are riding softer and bumpier conditions regularly, you may want a bike that can accept something wider.


cervelo-c3-downtubeAs I mentioned before, the geometry of the Cervelo C3 is the same as the Cervelo C5.  It shares the same longer fork span, taller headtube, slacker headtube angle, lower bottom bracket, and longer chainstay (compared to Cervelo’s R and S bikes) that you will find on many other adventure bikes. For example, on the 56cm Cervelo C3, the headtube is 180.1mm long, while the R3’s headtube is 173mm. When combined with the long 390mm fork span, slacker head tube angle and lower bottom bracket height, the Cervelo C3 has an effective stack that is almost 2cm taller than the R3 in the same size.  Outside of widening the fit window for many riders (arguably making the Cervelo C3 and C5 the most “fit friendly” bikes for the average rider in Cervelo’s road line), these geometry differences (and others, like longer chainstays) also make the C3 more comfortable, and more stable, than a road bike such as the Cervelo R3 or S3. These are all good attributes on rough roads, as well as providing clearance for wider and taller.

This being said, each rider is an individual and there is no frame or bike that fits all riders well. This is why it is crucial to put the most important part of the bike (you!) first and foremost when it comes to bike selection. Get a Rider First Bike Fitting before buying so that we can make sure that the Cervelo C3 matches your needs well without guessing!


cervelo-c3-top-tubeSo how does it ride?  While not quite as quick feeling as the higher modulus carbon Cervelo C5, the Cervelo C3 is still admirably responsive and very smooth. I would equate the differences between the C3 and the C5 to the differences between the Cervelo R3 and the R5 – similar and just matters of degree between them. The Cervelo C3 is a great riding bike, no question. It is very stable, but at the same time offering quick handling and responsiveness typical of Cervelo bikes.  It is not quite as quick or quite as responsive as a narrow tire only road bike like the R3, again as expected due to the geometry differences, but it is by no means slow or sluggish.  Cervelo makes performance bikes, and the C3, like its big brother the Cervelo C5, carries that performance over to a bike that is also designed to be ridden on dirt roads as well as pavement.

It seems that I have said this about a number of high quality adventure bikes I have built of late, but I could comfortably live with the Cervelo C3, and not just as a great adventure road bike. The Cervelo C3 is very much a road bike at its heart, but a road bike that can handle rougher surfaces, so it will perform very well on paved roads and gravel/dirt roads.  The “limited” tire width to a width in the 32mm range makes this bike an all-purpose machine, but not one that is designed to be taken on the roughest of “ancient” unmaintained Class IV roads we have here in New England. For those that are not looking to ride on such rough roads, the Cervelo C3 makes it so that there is no need to decide when you head out whether you are going to ride dirt or pavement; just turn onto whatever road, paved or dirt, that your whim chooses on the C3.


The smallest Cervelo C3 we have in-stock is a 48cm and it weighs 17 pounds 9 ounces. A 56cm Cervelo C3 that I just finished building came in at 17 pounds 14 ounces (8.10 kg) while a 61 cm C3 we recently delivered came in at just over 18 pounds.  An adventure bike in the high 17 – low 18 pound range and coming in under $4500 is doing very well indeed.       


The Cervelo C3 is available in three component configurations from the factory for 2016.  The cable shifting Ultegra 6800 equipped bike is priced at $4,300; the electronic shifting Ultegra 6870 Di2 bike is $5,500; in-between these two is a SRAM Force 1X system, featuring a single (replaceable) 44 tooth chainring, no front derailleur, and an 11-36 cassette, selling for $4,500.  SRAM offers a wide variety of sizes of 1X chainrings, so you can tailor the gearing to your particular riding tastes.  Finally, the Cervelo C3 is also available as a frameset for $2,300, so we can build one with the components of your choosing and to meet your exact needs. The Cervelo C3 comes in six sizes:  48, 51, 54, 56, 58, and 61.

The Cervelo C3 has been available for several months, but it has quickly become the fastest selling Cervelo here in our Waitsfield, VT shop.  I previously said that the Cervelo hit a home run with the C5 and that means that the C3 is a stand-up triple at a much lower price. It has certainly struck a chord with our clients. With the continued increasing interest in adventure road bikes, the Cervelo C3 is an excellent choice for many riders that it lines up well from a fit perspective. It offers road bike levels of performance, high level components, forward thinking frame design and features, comfort, agility, and dirt road capability all in an attractive package.

Contact us to talk more about whether a Cervelo C3 makes sense for you!




About Jim

After almost thirty years as an attorney, Jim became the service manager at Fit Werx in Vermont. He held this post for almost ten years. Having retired in 2019, Jim still likes riding, working on and writing about bikes and bike equipment.


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