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From the pages of Velo: Stiff & Stones

Four endurance bikes put to the test in the laboratory and on the cobbles of Belgium and France

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Editor’s Note: In April 2011, we unveiled VeloLab, our in-depth bike and component testing program that combines objective, lab-based metrics with on-the-road evaluation. In the 14 months since, we’ve tested more than 25 bikes, from sub-$1500 budget road racers to the bikes of the WorldTour. We’ve even given four commuter rigs a spin. We’ve also recently put seatposts to the test and in the July 2012 issue, our tech team runs five aero wheelsets through the lab and over the road. The following cover story first appeared in the July 2011 issue.

It’s no coincidence that endurance bikes and gran fondos have blossomed in parallel. They represent a common denominator across the incredible breadth of cyclist archetypes. From the weekend warrior to the World Tour pro, we all love to just go out and ride. Sometimes fast, occasionally slow; over glass-smooth pavement or dirt roads or potholed mountain passes. It’s all good.

Most bikes skew towards either stiff efficiency or comfort. For most cyclists, the ideal bike is one that does both. This is exactly what the four bikes we tested here purport to do.

Can a bike really be stiff and responsive under power, and yet comfortable over the rough stuff? That’s what we endeavored to find out, through long rides over famous European cobblestones and with vibration and stiffness tests in the lab.

As with all VN Bike Lab reviews, each endurance bike was ridden for a minimum of 30 hours. In addition to plenty of time on our local roads, they were also put through the ringer at both the Tour of Flanders and Parix-Roubaix cyclosportifs, 100-mile affairs on the same rough, cobbled courses where the pros do battle.

The four bikes were subjected to two lab tests, co-designed and performed by Microbac Laboratories, Inc. The first, our torsional stiffness test, is a constant throughout all VN Bike Lab reviews. It measures fl ex at three points on the frame with a 100-pound static pedaling load. The second is a vibration test designed to determine how bumps are transferred through each bike and to a rider.

In concert, the two tests paint a picture of how well each bike performs in the real world.

Each bike is rated in five categories: scientific testing (30 points), ride quality (30 points), value (20 points), user friendliness (15 points) and weight (5 points). We encourage you to look at the scores as distinct characteristics and weigh those against your own preferences.

The Contenders

Endurance bikes have become their own distinct category in the last decade, but the individual components that set them apart are nothing new. Taller head tubes and longer wheelbases have been back-pocket tools of frame builders since the dawn of cycling.

There have always been comfortable bikes, and race bikes. A good endurance bike is both. After much deliberation, we picked four that seemed up to the task: Cannondale’s Synapse Carbon 3, Lapierre’s Sensium 300 CP, Specialized’s Roubaix Comp, and Bianchi’s Infinito.

Long wheelbases and tall head tubes are the norm, with the latter at least 2-4cm taller than each company’s pure race frames. That means a more upright position without a skyscraper of stem spacers.

Details of the geometry and carbon lay-up diverge, though, reflecting the varying ambitions behind each bike. All are built up with Shimano Ultegra and either a compact or triple crankset, and each frame is built with comfort-adding features, from Specialized’s Zerts inserts to Bianchi’s K-VID Kevlar technology. All four fall within a price window of $3,000 to $3,700.

The Testers

VN tech writer Caley Fretz isn’t exactly the target market for these bikes. As an early-20’s Cat. 1 racer, he’s at home with an aggressive position and twitchy handling. Actually, he finds tall head tubes and a smooth ride a bit disconcerting, and compact cranks do nothing but confuse his little racer brain. But that makes him a perfect candidate for evaluating the performance side of endurance bikes.

VN tech editor Nick Legan, in contrast, loves compact cranks. We all love long days in the saddle, but Legan takes it to another level. His next big event, for example, is the
200-mile Dirty Kanza, which is held almost entirely on gravel roads.

In addition to the 136 hours of ride time Caley and Nick put in near the VeloNews offices in Boulder, each bike was subjected to further punishment across the pond under editor in chief Ben Delaney, managing editor Neal Rogers, and friend-of-VN Anthony Carcella. Along with Nick, these three spent a couple of weeks riding the test bikes in Belgium and France, including the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix cyclosportifs.

Bianchi Infinito Ultegra

By Caley Fretz

Bianchi’s aesthetic attention to detail is phenomenal. The celeste theme trickles from the frame to the stem and seatpost all the way down to the housing’s rubber paint protectors. It’s the prettiest bike in our group, and I figured it would be all show, no substance. I was quite wrong.

Scientific Testing: 20 of 30 Points
The Infinito did well in the lateral stiffness test, pulling numbers akin to those seen by the top frames in our April aero frame review. In the vibration test, though, it was unduly hurt by poor tire choice.

The 23mm Vittoria Rubino Pros are not bad tires, but this is the wrong application for them. We tested and rated each bike with its stock tires and wheels, but we also tested the bikes with a normalized set-up of 25mm Specialized Roubaix Pro II tires and Fulcrum Racing 4 wheels.

In the normalized configuration, the Bianchi rated second best, just a tick behind the Specialized. But the stock tires are small and not particularly plush, which helped send the Infinito straight to the back of the pack in our vibration test. Bianchi should know that this bike is more Bentley than Lotus, and should send it out the door with tires that match its personality.

Subjective Ride Quality: 21 of 30 Points
Traditionally, a “neutral” front end uses around 56mm of trail. Bianchi engineers went with a quite large 61mm trail, slowing the handling significantly and adding an “auto-correct” feel to the front end, particularly when out of the saddle. Throw the bike around and it seems to spring back into a straight line, almost disconcertingly. That stability is fantastic on rough roads, when just cruising along and for high-speed sweeping bends. But try to get the Infinito around a hairpin at any sort of speed and you can feel the bike tugging itself back into a straight line — not exactly confidence inspiring.

Acceleration isn’t quite up to the par set by the Roubaix. In an all-out sprint the frame feels stiff and lurches forward nicely, but dance on the pedals uphill and the Infinito feels a bit sluggish.

Comfort, when I put a good pair of 25c tires on, was fantastic. But the stock 23c Vitoria Rubino Pros don’t offer a very supple ride, and larger bumps like those found on our local dirt roads were quickly and effectively transferred straight into my hands and back end. Regardless of tire choice, the Infinito seemed to excel on smaller bumps, soaking up poorly chipsealed roads with aplomb. Whether that’s Bianchi’s K-Vid Kevlar inserts doing their job, it’s hard to say. But the result is good regardless.

User Friendliness: 11 of 15 Points
There’s nothing unique about the Infinito’s build, but that makes it very easy to work on and live with. It loses a few points for internal cable routing, and because the brake cable in the toptube would occasionally ping on rough roads, but that problem is easily solved with a cable liner. The Jagwire mid-cable micro adjusters also cracked in my hands while trying to turn them.

Like most of the bikes in this test, Bianchi went with a standard bottom bracket, avoiding the urge to jump on one of the dozen bogus BB bandwagons now currently circling the industry. For that, we thank them.

Value: 15 of 20 Points
The Bianchi is the second-most expensive endurance bike in our test. The ride is good but not the best. But, aesthetics are wildly important when purchasing a bike, and if the Infinito’s celeste livery appeals to you, it could justify the cost.

Weight: 4 of 5 Points
The Infinito was the second lightest in our test.

Vibration Station

The four manufacturers in this test all make claims about the comfort of their bikes, so we set out to measure just how well they handled vibration. In collaboration with Microbac Laboratories, we created a new test to measure the bikes’ responses to bumps.

We wanted to see how the bicycles reacted to a rough chip-seal road as well as a larger rumblestrip-like surface. To accomplish this, we purchased two sets of Kreitler rollers. We used 4.5-inch rollers on the rear and a 3-inch roller on the front of both sets (to keep the bumps on the rollers out of sync). We then welded a 1/8-inch bump along the width of the front two drums on one set of rollers for our small bump test. The second set received 1/4-inch bumps to simulate the rougher road.

Accelerometers were attached to the bicycle at the front and rear dropouts, the top of the steerer tube and the seatpost just under the saddle. These measured acceleration in Gs (G is acceleration measured in units of gravity. For example, 2 G = 2 times the acceleration of gravity). The lower the g number, the better the bicycle was isolating the rider from the vibration of the rollers.

We normalized accelerometer position, bicycle position, rider, rider position, tire pressure, speed and gear used. We intentionally kept the stem and handlebar out of our test. Bars and stems are often changed, and size and material have a big impact (see our May issue Tech Report). Instead, we focused on how the frame, fork, wheels and seatpost performed as a system.

Our ride testing was done blind, meaning that no lab data was divulged to testers until the bikes were returned. This is vital in maintaining the validity of the not only the lab data and its interpretation (by Microbac), but also in order to avoid coloring our impressions of the bikes in the real world.

By testing each bike eight times, we collected and processed over 2.8 million data points over the course of the vibration test. We distilled the data down to the graphs here. —NICK LEGAN

Cannondale Synapse Carbon 3 Ultegra

By Nick Legan

For me, “Cannondale” conjures images of Mario Cipollini winning Tour de France stages, and Tim Johnson sliding around cyclocross courses. I don’t instantly think of epic gran fondo rides aboard a bike from the Bethel, Pennsylvania company. But it’s time to adjust that thinking. The Synapse is an exceptionally good bike.

Scientific Testing: 22 of 30 Points
The Cannondale was third in the torsional stiffness test, but interestingly it was stiffer than the Cervélo S3 we tested in our last round of bikes (April). The Synapse loses points here, like the Lapierre, because the Specialized Roubaix is the stiffest bike we’ve ever tested. (We have only tested nine bikes thus far, so it’s not a huge sample size.)

Cannondale gained ground in the vibration test, excelling over smaller bumps and coming out second overall.

Subjective Ride Quality: 21 of 30 Points
The bike’s SAVE micro suspension seems to do as Cannondale claims, soaking up irregularities in the road.

Although it is raced by the Liquigas-Cannondale team, the Synapse is better over the long haul than it is sprinting out corners.

The BB30 bottom bracket seems plenty stiff, but the longer wheelbase and more upright position lends itself to taking it nice and steady. The Synapse is not a flexy bike, but its easy handling characteristics bled over into its perceived acceleration.

One tester, three hours into the Tour of Flanders cyclosportif said, “we’re halfway through this ride and I forgot that I have never ridden this bike before.” That’s a good thing. The Synapse disappeared beneath him, even on a long ride with tough cobbled climbs.

User Friendliness: 11 of 15 Points
The Synapse was the only bike in our test with externally routed shift cables. I’m not sure why the industry seems to be heading towards internal cables, but I prefer the easy install and serviceability of external cables.

The SAVE seat post was a real pain to adjust. It uses a U.S.E. clamp and making small adjustments was nearly impossible. Because you can’t substitute a different post on the Synapse, a buyer is stuck with it. Once it was set up though, it never slipped even over some seriously rough roads in Belgium. It is also offered in both five and twenty millimeters of setback. (A seatpost change is in the works, though, as we saw in Europe under some Liquigas-Cannondale riders.)

Value: 17 of 20 Points
You get a lot for $3,200. The Ultegra group works well, with especially fantastic brakes. The full carbon frame and fork are light. FSA bars and stem and fi ’zi:k saddle (not shown) are all name brand and their quality is assured.

However, the DT Swiss R-1700 wheels were a bit of a disappointment. The rear wheel had a very noticeable seam in the brake track that was disconcerting under hard braking and just plain annoying at slow speeds. But the DT Swiss wheels did handle the cobbles with aplomb, never coming out of true.

While one tester wasn’t a fan of the triple chainring, the shifting always worked well. The triple also helps avoid big gaps in gear developments that a compact crank and large cassette have.

Weight: 3 of 5 Points
The Synapse weighs 17.16 pounds, placing third in our test. Bear in mind that it’s only 150 grams heavier than the Specialized yet costs $500 less.

Lapierre Sensium 300

By Nick Legan

French bikes used to dominate the peloton. My first racing bike was Peugeot and to this day I have a fondness for Gallic bicycles. When the Lapierre arrived at the VN offices I was keen to get on it, just as soon as I finished my baguette with Camembert…

Scientific Testing: 18 of 30 Points
Rating fourth in stiffness and third best in our vibration test puts the Sensium a bit behind the other bikes. But it’s worth delving into these results, especially those from the vibration tests.

The Lapierre was the best bike in our test on smaller bumps. And this was backed by my impressions out on the road. It is silky smooth over chip-seal roads and small seams. This performance could be attibuted to the elastomer insert just above the rear brake bridge.

But the French bike lagged significantly on the bigger bump test, and this was experienced in the real world, too. Ben Delaney rode the Lapierre at the Roubaix cyclosportif and felt that “it wasn’t the right tool for the job.”

Subjective Ride Quality: 23 of 30 Points
From the first ride on the Sensium I was contemplating buying one. I loved how effectively, even with stock tires, it and its elastomer insert smoothed out seams in the road and absorbed road buzz on chip-seal surfaces. On that first outing I rode with Delaney up a local canyon into a headwind. We really slogged our way up the climb, but with the compact crank I was able to maintain the higher cadence that my stick legs prefer.

Once at the top we flipped it and headed back down. The Sensium loved the flowing turns of the canyon road. The stability of the bike won me over. With subtle input the Lapierre would happily turn in. At the same time, putting on a vest while rolling downhill was not a worry.

Make no mistake, like all the bikes in this test, the Lapierre is no criterium machine. You have to coax the Sensium through tight corners, but through high speed turns it is rock steady, never flinching even over rough surfaces.

Acceleration is the only place where I felt the Lapierre lagged behind, and the torsional stiffness test results confirmed this impression. The Sensium smoothed out imperfections of the road, but it also mellowed my jump. Part of that could be due to the fairly heavy wheels and tires.

User Friendliness: 14 of 15 Points
I’m a huge fan of “normal” bikes. By this I mean bikes that don’t require brand-specific seatposts, stems, headsets, etc. While designing a bike as an integrated system and not the sum of readily available parts may result in slightly increased performance, it doesn’t help most riders when it comes time for service. With a 27.2mm seatpost and a normal English threaded bottom bracket, the Lapierre is “normal” in the best sense of the word. (Listen up, industry! We’ve had it with new bottom bracket “standards.” Enough already.) The internal cable routing worked well, even if it did rattle a bit over the cobbles. No complaints during build or subsequent adjustments.

Value: 18 of 20 Points
For a carbon frame bicycle with Ultegra components, Mavic Aksium wheels and a sensible cockpit, the Lapierre justifies its $3,000 price tag. It rides and looks beautifully, with nice touches like white cable housing.

Weight: 2 of 5 Points
As the least expensive in the test it isn’t surprising that the Sensium is the heaviest at 17.45 pounds. And really, 17.5 pounds isn’t heavy.

Specialized Roubaix Expert

By Caley Fretz

The Roubaix instigated and has continued to define the endurance bikes category. It’s the only frame in this test that has conquered the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix three out of the last four years, under Tom Boonen in 2008 and 2009 and Fabian Cancellara in 2010. But despite its pedigree, the heavy influx of competition made its success here anything but assured. Nonetheless, it ended up outclassing all comers. We were impressed with its handling and stiffness, akin to a good race bike, as well as its comfort over the long haul and on the harshest surfaces you’d ever ride a road bike. The Roubaix, quite simply, continues to lead the class it created.

Scientific Testing: 30 of 30 Points
The Roubaix dominated in the lab. It achieved the stiffest bottom bracket deflection number of any bike we’ve tested so far, including the aero race bikes in the April issue. Total deflection was a full 2mm less than the second-place Bianchi. Yet somehow the Roubaix was also the best of the bunch at eliminating vertical vibration. With wheels and tires normalized, it narrowly edged the Lapierre on the 1/8-inch bump rollers and crushed all three contenders on the 1/4-inch bump. While it may pain us to use the well-worn phrase, the Roubaix truly is “stiff yet compliant,” in the lab and on the cobbled roads.

Subjective Ride Quality: 24 of 30 Points
Handling is sharp and receptive, with a front end set up identically to Specialized’s thoroughbred Tarmac SL3 and Venge frames except for a taller head tube. The same 56mm of trail provides neutral handling — a good balance between twitchy and stable. Specialized makes its concession to comfort with wheelbase, adding a centimeter to the chain stays and a full 2.4cm to the wheelbase compared to the SL3.

The result is a stable ride both on the road and the rough, but a bike that feels a bit slow to get around tight corners. I normally ride my bars quite low, typically about 2.5cm lower than I could get them on the Roubaix, even with a -17°, 13cm stem. This shifted my weight off the front end and degraded my confidence in fast, hard corners. Those who ride higher positions, however, will notice no difference.

Acceleration is spectacular for a bike not specifically designed for racing, but still felt slightly sub-par compared to those with a more singular focus on speed. The snap it does have is undoubtedly thanks to the race-level stiffness numbers, and the neutral front end feels solid under power both in and out of the saddle.

The comfort I felt on the road was confirmed by our testing, although interestingly I didn’t find it all that impressive on small bumps in the real world. Bad chip-sealed roads, which induce high-frequency vibration, were not smoothed out as well as I had hoped. Larger bumps, like the cobbles in its namesake race, were tangibly less jarring with the Roubaix than on the others.

User Friendliness: 11 of 15 Points
Specialized makes a number of smart component choices, including big, soft 25c tires and plush bar tape, both of which do wonders for ride quality. However, the internal cable routing is a bit of a pain. A good set of sealed cables will last longer and are easier to swap when need be.

Value: 18 of 20 Points
At $3,700, the Roubaix is the most expensive in the test, despite a similar Ultegra build as the other bikes. But the results speak for themselves: the Roubaix is simply a better bike. It tested so well, on the road and in the lab, that the cost premium doesn’t seem beyond the pale.

Weight: 5 of 5 Points
The Roubaix is the lightest bike in this test at 16.86 pounds.

Where The Rubber Meets The Road

If there is one thing we have learned from our endurance bike testing and our years of talking to pros and mechanics at the cobbled classics, it’s that tires are supremely important to comfort over rough roads.

After lab testing each bike with its stock tires, we then did vibration testing on each using the set of Fulcrum Racing 4 wheels that came on the Specialized Roubaix, including the Specialized Roubaix Pro II 25mm tires. The supple 120tpi tires with the larger diameter (most of the bikes came with 23mm tires) changed the results on the large-bump roller test significantly. The Lapierre went from 3.03G down to 2.68g and the Cannondale dropped from 2.76G to 2.38G.

We settled on testing each bike at 90psi in the stock and normalized tests after riding the bikes at 100psi produced peaks that maxed out our accelerometers.

After extensive ride testing in Colorado using the stock tires, we shipped the four test bikes to Belgium with 25mm Michelin Pro Optimums installed. Between the four test riders, we didn’t experience a single flat during the cyclosportifs of the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, using pressures of 70-90psi. (Nick did flat once bombing back down the Oude Kwaremont on our photoshoot day when he hit a particularly gnarly patch of partially upturned cobbles.)

This year at the real Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, we took a close look at what the pros chose to ride over the cobbles. Most ran tires at least 25mm wide, with many selecting 27mm options for Roubaix. Leopard-Trek rode 27mm FMB handmade tubulars and Saxo Bank chose Specialized-branded Dugast tires that were stamped 27mm but looked even wider when inflated. Tire pressures varied by rider, of course, but most selected something under 80psi. Race winner Johan Van Summeren, for example, ran 65 and 73psi, front and rear — and he weighs 170 pounds.

If a new bike is not in the cards for you this year, the takeaway from all this is simple: When you want a more comfortable ride, put on bigger tires and go easy on the floor pump. —BEN DELANEY

Torsional Stiffness

The torsional stiffness test we co-developed with Microbac Laboratories, Inc. measures how a bike moves at three different points while subjected to a simulated pedaling force. Here’s how it works.

The front fork is fixed. The rear dropouts are mounted to a dummy axle that pivots on a eyebolt, allowing the rear of the bicycle to twist and move laterally. A chain is connected from the large chainring to the dummy rear axle to transfer the pedaling force through the rear triangle.

Dial indicators contacted the bike at the center of the drive crankarm’s face, at the top of the head tube and at the top of the seat tube. Two 50-pound dumbbell weights were hung on a spindle screwed into the left crank positioned horizontally forward and the values were recored on the three dial indicators. —LENNARD ZINN

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.