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Buyer’s Guide: The balancing act of endurance road bikes

Endurance bicycles walk the line between comfort and racing performance — a balancing act that has gone on since day one.

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Envision a pendulum, swinging back and forth across an invisible divide. Just as the pendulum reaches one apex, the pull of gravity yanks it in the opposite direction.

Such is the dynamic within the endurance bicycle category. Over the course of its relatively short lifespan, bike design within this genre has swung between two opposing ride characteristics: racing performance and comfort.

In the early 2000s, the original generation of endurance bikes favored comfort, with upright riding positions, extra-large gear clusters, and even elastomers to dull the thud of the road. The target customer was the aging road cyclist who was looking for a bicycle to take the sting out of cracked pavement and bumpy roads.

As gran fondo races surged in popularity, the next generation of endurance bicycles received racing makeovers. Frame materials stiffened and became lighter, angles became steeper, and high-end racing components replaced the budget shifters and brakes. The belief was that the same aging road cyclist also wanted to pin on a number a few times a year. So why not give him (or her) a comfortable bicycle that wouldn’t get laughed at within the pack?

In ensuing years, manufacturers have spent millions to strike the correct balance between the two poles. Brands have released technological innovations such as sloping seat tubes, lowered seat stays, and even suspension systems. Other companies have tackled this balance with flat and thin handlebars, wider tires, and various gear combinations.

The endurance bicycles of today aim to evenly straddle this divide with technology that caters to both ends of the spectrum.

“There is much more influence coming from the race side of things,” says David Devine, senior product manager at Cannondale who helped design the latest version of the company’s longtime endurance bike, the Synapse. “Going forward, we see the category being influenced more by racing and less by comfort.”

In 2017, the category saw two major innovations. Trek unveiled its Domane SLR, which integrated its tried-and-true IsoSpeed Decoupler — previously found just in the bike’s rear end — into the steerer tube. The technology was hidden within the head tube, giving the bicycle a classic look.

Not to be outdone, Specialized then released its newest Roubaix Pro, which utilized a spring-loaded steerer tube, called Future Shock, that grants two centimeters of front suspension.

Later that year, Cannondale released a new edition of its popular Synapse, one of the earliest bikes within the category. The Synapse Hi-Mod features a 25.4-millimeter seat post and an integrated SystemBar handlebar design, both of which are intended to temper bumps with their carbon layup and shape.

Devine believes the next influence in the endurance bike category will come from gravel cycling’s popularity. He predicts additional innovations in suspension to drive the technology. He also says customers want a bike’s design to integrate with modern technology.

“Riders want to know how a Shimano Di2 system can be integrated. They want cleaner cable routing, and a mount for a computer,” he says. “They want visibility features like integrated lights.”

And, like other customers across the road cycling world, they want disc brakes and extra wide tires. The newest Synapse has enough clearance to accommodate up to 32-millimeter tires.

The pendulum has swung again. It’s unlikely it will reverse course on this technology in the foreseeable future.