Seven endurance road bikes: ridden and rated
Iain Treloar puts seven endurance road bikes through their paces, discovering that there’s a whole lot more to this exciting category than meets the eye.
The temperature is a scorching 42 degrees, and you’re already 80km away from home on a ride out to the middle of nowhere. Your legs are starting to feel heavy, filling with the burn of lactic acid on each nasty hill that rises up out of the dead, scarred road ahead. The frame beneath you is speckled with sweat; each pedal stroke takes you further into the unknown and closer to your physical and mental limit.
This is endurance road riding.
It used to be that road bikes were designed with speed as a single goal – which was fine for the racing cyclist but at times cripplingly uncomfortable for the everyday rider. Partially as a response to this, as well as pro riders seeking a slightly more forgiving ride for long days in the saddle, a formidable new category of road bikes emerged.
At first, these bikes involved a fairly straightforward tweak of race-bike geometry; a higher front end, shorter reach and longer wheelbase, with the idea being that a more upright riding position and increased stability would ease lower-back discomfort and create a more pleasant ride for those unaccustomed to the aggressive geometry of racing bikes.
These bikes are categorised by the bicycle industry as “endurance road bikes”. That term puts a racey spin on what could just as easily, and perhaps more accurately, be described as a ‘comfort road bike’ – but I suppose that wouldn’t sell nearly as well. Don’t fear, these bikes are suitable for a broad range of applications and however they may be labelled, they’re not just for those riding 200km at a time. They’re perfect for those with less back flexibility, and the slightly more upright front end lends itself to improved sight-lines in commuting use as well.
Other common features of the endurance road bike include sensible gearing – all seven bikes here feature a compact crankset (50/34t) and a broad range of gears at the rear (11-28t on all except for the Scott and Lynskey, which have 11-32t). Also commonly found are slightly wider tyres than a conventional road bike – generally 700x25C – which allow for lower pressures, improving grip and making for a slightly more forgiving ride.
As a category, the endurance road bike has seen continued growth and innovation, and rather than just being more approachable road bikes, there is now a bevy of innovative technology being applied to bikes of the style, and occasionally trickling up to the high-end, performance machines. Endurance road bikes are no longer tamed versions of their race-ready siblings, but a category where daring, exciting and forward-thinking ideas are executed, improving comfort and performance for a potentially vast number of road riders.
More so than practically any other bike category, an endurance road bike lives and dies on the merits of its frame – their sole purpose for existing in the first place is to be comfortable, without unduly sacrificing speed and efficiency. In this sense, the components don’t matter all that much in the scheme of things.
To standardise the testing as much as reasonably possible and remove any potential confusion that could come from swapping between groupsets, we asked for each bike in this review to be equipped with the new (and fantastic) 11-speed Shimano Ultegra 6800.
Ultegra has always been very good, but the newest version of it is virtually indistinguishable from the top of the range Dura Ace and comes in at a much more affordable price. Other than appearance, prestige and a few hundred grams, there’s little to separate them, and for most riders it will be more than adequate. Cleverly, the cranks can accommodate a number of different sized chainrings, so you don’t need to get a completely new crankset if you prefer a traditional 53/39t up front. Ultegra’s braking is significantly improved (Shimano claim a completely believable 10% increase in power) and the shifting is lighter, with less lever travel before engagement than the old version. My only criticism of the shifting – and it’s a relatively minor one – is that the half-shift (where you can trim the front derailleur across to access gears at the extremes of the cassette) is harder to find. Otherwise, it was a privilege to ride seven bikes equipped with this groupset.
With the groupset, crank length and gear ratios mimicked across all bikes tested, I was able to concentrate on what’s most important – the frame’s character, and how the bike actually rides. Understandably for the category, the assessment of these bikes slightly prioritises their success at eliminating road-buzz and vibration, as that will be key in most consumers’ purchase decision. Other factors, including wheel and contact point selection, have an important but lesser impact on ride quality, so the merits or otherwise of these will be addressed. But we’re comparing apples with apples, and as such these reviews can be considered as the closest direct comparative test possible of seven current endurance road models available to Australian riders.
Trek Domane 5.2
$3,799 / www.trekbikes.com
92% – Best in Test
Where many endurance bikes have a background as tamed race bikes, the Domane boasts a pure race heritage – Trek developed it with Fabian Cancellara as his bike for the long, demanding cobbled classics, before adding it to their range alongside the racier Madone. The most distinctive feature, and greatest success, of the Domane is what happens at the junction of the seat- and top-tubes; they’re not connected. Instead, you get what Trek call an IsoSpeed decoupler – an integrated pair of cartridge bearings and a pivot point, allowing fore-aft sway in the seat-tube. It’s an ingenious design and works astonishingly well, making for the most comfortable rear end of any road bike we’ve tested.
The cobbled origins of the Domane give a hint as to the terrain the Isospeed works best in; the hard, sharp shocks of large ruts in the road are absorbed with ease, and whilst you’ll still know that you’ve hit a bump, it enables you to stay in the saddle and continue pedalling where on other bikes you may be bounced off your perch. At first, it’s great, but over a long ride it’s outstanding; the road’s larger imperfections are smoothed, and it becomes a much less full-bodied exercise not constantly supporting yourself out of the saddle. Over 100km +, the benefits of the Domane’s cushy rear end really add up. When putting the power down at higher cadences, there’s a little bit of bounce which is initially disorienting, but it’s a worthwhile trade-off and quickly stops being bothersome. Paired with the stiff, broad bottom bracket area, it’s easy to see why the Domane is Cancellara’s go-to race machine – it’s firm under acceleration, whilst soaking up the really rough stuff better than any of its competitors.
The remarkably absorbent back half of the bike can’t possibly be matched up the front, although it’s not bad there either. Without access to a fancy pivot point, the fork does its best to soak up hits from the road, with a large amount of sweep and dropouts positioned at the rear. This keeps the wheelbase relatively tight, improving handling precision and allowing for slightly more give, but does make for a slightly binary ride quality, with the front end appreciably more jarring than the rear. However, any disappointment here is tempered by remembering that the back half is so remarkable that any road bike innovation in existence would feel harsher alongside it.
The 5.2 tested is in the middle of the range, and at $3,799 is competitively priced; for those on a budget, the lower-grade 4.7 ($3,099) swaps the distinctive seat-mast for a more traditional post also features Ultegra. If we’d tested that, it may well have won the ‘Best Value’ commendation too.
$4,999 as tested / www.bikepro.com.au
Function – 37/40
Quality – 36/40
Price – 8/10
Appearance – 9/10
The only non-carbon bike on test is this titanium beauty. Lynskey is a name with a long association with this most prestigious metal – the Lynskey family founded the revered Litespeed in the mid-‘80s, before forging a new path under their own brand name. All their immaculately welded frames continue to be made in Tennesee, and the R255 is nicely detailed with gorgeous rear drop-outs, an etched clover on the rear brake bridge and a lovely headbadge. I wish the branding was etched as well – the white decals look a little budget – but that aside, it’s a stunner.
Compared to the stock bikes elsewhere in this review, the Lynskey is sold as a frame and specced up to your preference by local distributor, BikePro. There’s a lot to be said for this process. It lets you set the bike up – stem length, bar width, etc. – exactly how you would prefer. The build BikePro provided for us was fairly high-end for its $4,999 asking price, with classy inclusions like a Chris King headset and Thomson seatpost; the only thing I’d change would be to add a full-carbon fork, rather than the alloy-steerer model included here.
The R255 is one of the more traditional looking frames in Lynskey’s road range, with unshaped, triple-butted round tubing and a sloping top-tube. It’s billed as their ‘do-everything’ road frame, with clearance for tyres up to 700x28C and a relaxed but sporty character. It lives up to that billing, although the skinny tubing makes it look sedate alongside the oversized, beefy carbon frames it was tested against.
I was expecting to jump on the Lynskey and find it mannered and a little conservative. Not even close. I love the way titanium rides, and the R255 is a superb example of what can be achieved with this material. Although it can’t possibly be as good at absorbing large bumps as a bike with a pivoting seat-tube, titanium has a lovely, lively ride with just a hint of spring to it that’s more engaging than carbon, and feels less disposable.
The hidden strength of the R255 is its marvelous handling. There are a number of factors that combine to make up a bike’s handling characteristics – the geometry, wheels and tyres all have their part to play – and the way they combined on the Lynskey was impossible to fault. On sharp 90 degree corners at speed, the R255 carved a line so tight I half expected carnage, but at no point felt anything other than perfectly balanced and controlled. For a bike that’s sold as a relaxed, sportive-ready all-day ride, it handles with a low-slung, joyful precision that completely shatters expectations.
The wheelset deserves a special mention. A custom option built in-house by BikePro, their traditional appearance disguises a sub-1,500g, stiff and durable wheelset that’s more than most riders will ever need. Mating Pacenti rims to hubs of BikePro’s own design – the freehub on the rear is satisfyingly noisy, if that’s your thing – they’re well worth bypassing the big brands for.
Bianchi Infinito CV
$5,499 / www.solasport.com.au
Quality – 37/40
Price – 6/10
Appearance – 9/10
There are few brands with a heritage to match Bianchi – they’re the oldest continuously trading bike manufacturer in existence, and in their trademark celeste colouring, are instantly identifiable in any bunch.
The Infinito CV is a new version of their highly-regarded endurance geometry road bike, featuring a new carbon fibre layup and some innovative new technology. The CV stands for ‘Countervail’, and it’s effectively a vibration cancelling material that is placed at key points in the frame to soak road buzz and reduce its transmission through to the rider. Bianchi make some ambitious claims about their Countervail, asserting that there’s up to 75% less vibration going through to the rider with this treatment. Understandably, we were excited to see if the reality was as good as the marketing hype.
Coming off the Trek Domane and expecting a super-cushy ride, my first impression was of mild disappointment. As time went on, I realised the wrong-headedness of this gut reaction. You see, it’s important to qualify what type of vibration the Infinito CV excels at dampening. The Domane is superb at handling the big hits, where the Infinito CV is the master at soaking up niggling, high-frequency vibration from the road. They’re two different approaches which are both excellent at what they do, but they’re solving two different problems. The Infinito CV arguably has the broader appeal – there are more bad roads than really bad roads. On a buzzy, but not awful, surface like Melbourne’s Yarra Boulevard, the Infinito CV came into its own and cancelled the little niggles, leaving me feeling fresher after a few laps than I otherwise would be. Even after several hours on the Infinito, there wasn’t even a hint of lower-back discomfort or undue fatigue.
I didn’t like the execution of the Infinito’s internal cabling, which is routed in such a way that there’s a fair bit of rattle at the front end on rougher roads; it tricks the mind into undervaluing the absorbing properties of the frame, because it sounds like it’s transmitting more vibration than it actually is.
The Bianchi felt the raciest of the bikes on test, with the shortest headtube and lowest front end, which helped highlight its handling characteristics. ‘Nimble’ isn’t a word you’d often associate with bikes of this category, but is an excellent descriptor here.
The very capable Fulcrum Racing 5 wheels and colour-matched Fizik and FSA components round out a high-quality build. However, at $5,499 for its base-level Ultegra build, it’s the priciest bike on test, and a couple of grand more than many of its direct rivals. Smart innovation comes at a premium, and whether it’s worth it to you is an argument to have with your bank account. If I was in the market, however, I’d take a really close look at the Infinito CV.
Giant Defy Advanced 1
$3,199 / www.giant-bicycles.com/en-AU
Function – 33/40
Quality – 34/40
Price – 9.5/10
Appearance – 7/10
83.5% – Best Value
There are few brands to have revolutionised the bicycle industry quite like Taiwan’s Giant. From humble beginnings, they’ve grown into the biggest manufacturer in the world. They produce bikes that have pushed boundaries, like the TCR that trailblazed the now-standard compact geometry, and have done so on a scale that allows them to be one of the great value propositions of the market.
The Defy takes the TCR as its basis, stretching the wheelbase slightly, shortening the top tube and adding a couple of centimetres to the headtube. Like Trek’s Domane, it’s a bike that is extensively used in the longer, rougher one-day races on the European cycling calendar, finishing second in last year’s Paris Roubaix.
The Defy forgoes decouplers or elastomers to smooth its ride, and is for the most part an endurance bike by geometry rather than technology. That’s both good and bad. The more upright geometry of the Defy is a back-saver for less flexible riders, enabling an all-day riding position, but there’s less compliance through the frame. Of the seven equivalently sized bikes tested here, the Defy’s whopping 19cm headtube was the longest, putting me in a more upright position than I prefer even with the stem slammed down the steerer. With the front end up as high as it was, the Defy didn’t feel particularly zippy. That’s mostly an illusion; there was no appreciable drop in average speed over my favourite test routes.
Once I’d adapted to the upright geometry, the Defy started to reveal its quiet pleasures. There’s a certain fuss-free quality to the ride of this bike – not found through the bump- and buzz-killing efficiency of some of the other bikes, but in the polite way that it allows you ride for a few hours without anything in particular drawing attention to itself. Again, good and bad – I couldn’t truthfully characterise it as hugely exciting, but it’s trouble-free, reliable and stable. The frame doesn’t sacrifice much that you’re putting in, and with the upright position you can shift down into an easier gear on long climbs, isolate your lower body and comfortably spin your way up to the top from the saddle, without being stretched out and down.
Finishing kit on the Defy is mostly Giant’s own in-house componentry. Although lacking a little in prestige, it’s good stuff – titanium bolts on the stem are a nice, rust-proof inclusion, and the wheels, with DT-Swiss made hubs, are smooth and sturdy.
The Gulf Oil GT40-aping colour-scheme of this model is polarising. I’m on the fence – I think the colours are great, but the graffiti-like graphics on the top tube will quickly date. That said, the appearance of the Defy is the least sensible thing about this very sensible bike, and in just about every other respect, it’s a reliable bike for the everyday rider. A bike purchase is a battle between head and heart, and what the Defy lacks in thrills it more than makes up for in its broad appeal, attainable price-tag and fuss-free refinement.
Scott Solace 20 Compact
$3,899 / www.sheppardcycles.com
Function – 34/40
Quality – 32/40
Price – 7.5/10
Appearance – 7.5/10
Piloted to some famous victories by the riders of Orica-GreenEDGE, the Swiss brand Scott has a special place in the hearts of many Australian cycling fans. Scott has always pushed the boundaries at the race end of the spectrum, with super light, super stiff frames, and the Solace is their brand new attempt at the endurance road bike category.
Fittingly, they’ve not gone about it by following the status quo. At the heart of this bike is what they call a Two Zone concept. Imagine drawing a diagonal line from the top of the headtube to the rear dropouts. Everything above that line – the ‘Comfort Zone’ – is best placed to handling shock-absorption. Everything below it – the ‘Power Zone’ – is designed to maximise efficiency, limiting flex in the bottom bracket and headtube.
That makes sense, but the way that Scott has tackled this concept is striking. The rear brake is hidden away down behind the bottom bracket, and there’s no bridge connecting the seat stays. It’s not a new concept – it was tried on early mountain bikes (for mud clearance), is widespread on time trial bikes and is used by Trek on their higher-end Madones (for weight savings and aerodynamic advantage). Scott’s approach optimises the seat stays and lack of brake bridge for compliance through the back of the frame.
If it’s a little surprising to look at, it’s a little scary to get your mitts around. Squeezing the seat-stays together with one hand shows just how much give Scott built into the frame; the seat stays flex almost 10mm each way, leaving you heart-in-mouth wondering whether you’re about to cause fatal damage to almost $4,000 of road bike. You don’t, of course, and when you’re out riding on the Solace you’re impressed at what those clever Swiss engineers cooked up, because it works a treat.
The highly absorbent seat-stays pair with a skinny 27.2mm seatpost, which further takes the sting out of road (skinny posts flex more than fat ones). In vibration absorbance, it’s well-rounded – not as assured on big hits as the Domane (nothing is) and not as good at soaking up buzz as the Infinito CV, but a very capable middle-ground.
The Power Zone is – mostly – a success, too. The broad downtube flattens out to a wide bottom bracket, and when stomping down on the pedals there’s no hint of flex, pushing the bike forward with great efficiency. But whilst it works well in and of itself, there are some minor flaws to be found when you add a drivetrain to the mix. There’s a chain-catcher fitted, but the chain still found a way to derail into the frame on a down-shift. Furthermore, in the biggest couple of gears, the upward-curving chain-stays bring the chain perilously close, leading to a surprising amount of chain-slap.
Lapierre Sensium 400
$4,199 / www.lapierrebikes.com.au
Lapierre bikes are a fairly uncommon sight in Australia, but they’ve got a heritage stretching back over 60 years in their native France. They’re best known as the bike supplier of FdJ, and as a teenaged fan guided into a love of cycling by the July exploits of Brad McGee and Baden Cooke, I always had a bit of a soft spot for the brand.
Their endurance bike, the Sensium 400, comes in a striking matte white and black colour scheme, with a super glossy yellow section extending from the bottom bracket along the chain stays. The finish is excellent – apart from some slightly sloppy paintwork under the bidon bolts – and the internal cable routing is super tidy, and buzz-free.
Although the frame’s angles are fairly relaxed, there’s little that screams ‘endurance’ about the look of the Sensium; its head tube length is middle of the pack, and there’s still a reasonable drop from the seat to the bars. For me, this felt like a nice middle-ground from the outset. That said, if you’re after a very upright position, the front of the Sensium may yet sit a little low.
Last year’s Sensium was touted as a visionary advance in comfort, by virtue of an elastomer ‘Eraser’ built into the seatstays. For reasons unspecified, that’s gone for 2014, leaving the Sensium a comfort road bike that’s had its most obvious selling-point taken away from it. We didn’t get a chance to ride the Eraser variant, but found the ride quality of the Sensium to skew a little more than expected toward ‘race’ rather than ‘endurance’. That glossy yellow bottom bracket area stubbornly resisted undue flex under hard acceleration, and whilst it would be at the comfortable end of the spectrum for a race bike, it lacked in forgiveness compared to the top performers in this test. Part of the blame for this needs to go to the narrow, unyielding Selle Italia X1 saddle mounted on a Ritchey alloy seatpost. When we swapped both of these out, comfort went up and weight went down, and it’s a great place to start the upgrades.
The next obvious change to make is the wheelset. Mavic’s entry-level Aksium is reliable but weighty, and seeing as this bike comes in at $4,199 it’s not that impressive an inclusion for the price.
So with a couple of likely upgrades on the horizon, and a middling price-tag, the question is whether the Sensium is worth the hassle. The answer for me is a tentative ‘yes’. It’s quite light at a claimed 7.7kg – and trust me, you could lose half a kilo of that pretty easily – as well as lively, good-looking and relatively nimble. However, it’s a fence-sitter, never completely committing to the category it’s ostensibly a part of, and despite its many merits that’s not quite enough to make it an unqualified success.
Avanti Cadent ER2 3.0
$3,249 / www.sheppardcycles.com
The closest thing to a hometown hero in this test, New Zealand brand Avanti have made great strides to increasing their prestige over the past few years, investing heavily in new technology and releasing some truly top-notch bikes.
In a stealthy, slightly-grainy-to-the-touch matte black, blue and white, the Avanti Cadent ER2 3.0 is a speedy looking bike. The nice finish of the frame extends to the finishing kit, in large part supplied by Avanti’s own in-house brand, Zero. The stem, carbon seatpost, bar and saddle are all good-lookers, with flashes of white that elevate them above the normally generic level of own-brand parts in a very nice, albeit 3T-derivative, way. Even the bartape – perforated faux leather with blue highlights, finished with a metallic blue expandable end cap – was thoughtfully executed. It’s the little things that count, right?
All that would come to nought if the bike didn’t ride well, but luckily Avanti have done their homework here too. For the style, the Cadent has quite a direct ride. With a press fit BB86 bottom bracket, power transfer is both direct and instant. Early impressions were that the bike was a little rough in its shock absorption, but it was more a matter of learning how to adapt to its quirks. If you trust in the stable handling of the Cadent and lightly unweight the front end of the bike, it cruises over rougher terrain, changing the character of the bike markedly. The rear proved relatively effective at absorbing vibration, with the slender seat stays providing a fair degree of comfort, without being class-leading.
However, it wasn’t all peaches and cream. I found the Cadent’s sizing to be a little off. The medium/large sized bike we had was a 56.5cm effective top tube, towards the longer end of the bikes on test. Oddly enough, however, it felt the smallest. The lever’s position on the bars is a likely culprit, as they were installed high on the curve of the bar, reducing the effective reach to the levers and making for an awkward, cramped cockpit. Reach from the tip of the saddle to the bar was a full two centimetres less than on my own bike, which actually has a shorter top-tube. If you’re considering the Cadent, make sure you get a test ride in first, because the fit isn’t quite what you’d expect from the measurements.
Like the Lapierre, the Cadent is equipped with a Mavic Aksium wheelset, although as the Avanti is almost $1,000 less it doesn’t seem like such a bad value proposition. They’re still a potential upgrade, but it doesn’t feel like you should deserve more for your money at this price. However, despite being better value, the Avanti lacks a little in personality, sacrificing some points to the Lapierre in fit and lack of infuriatingly endearing French perverseness.
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