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Cobbles bikes on test head to head: Specialized vs Trek vs Cannondale

James Spender
10 Apr 2017

We test three cobble-bashing bikes on the roads of Roubaix: Specialized Roubaix, Trek Domane, Cannondale Synapse

A ‘circus’ raced by ‘animals’ orchestrated by ‘sadists’ and tended by ‘convicts’, Paris-Roubaix has been called everything from the Hell of the North and Queen of the Classics to ‘bullshit’ (we have Bernard Hinault to thank for that one).

It’s a brutal 260km that sets out from Compiegne, 80km north of Paris, at speeds the late Wouter Weylandt described as ‘a bunch sprint in a major Tour’, traverses the rutted agricultural byways of northern France before winding up in a king-making, often heart-breaking one and half laps of the Velodrome Andre-Petrieux.

If there’s a cycling equivalent to the Grand National, Paris-Roubaix is it. Each year there are busted clavicles, shattered wrists, popped kneecaps and in 1998 Johan Museeuw nearly had to have his leg amputated, so riders and manufacturers have done their utmost to soften the savagery with improvised modifications and specially designed components, giving rise to the term ‘cobbles bike’.

There have been wooden rims, spoke-tying, sandpaper on bottle cages, foam-wrapped handlebars, 60° seat tubes, elastomer damping… the list goes on. 

Innovation reached a crescendo in the 1990s when all manner of suspension technologies were introduced, but those bikes often failed to deliver – or failed altogether – and barring one or two experimental examples, teams seemed content to resume normal service on bikes with wider tyres, double-taped bars and close-ratio gears. 

With the advent of carbon, things briefly ratcheted up in the cobble bike stakes when Specialized presented the ‘Zertz inserts’ Roubaix in 2004, then Trek rebuffed the challenge with the similarly elastomer-damped Madone SPA (Suspension Performance Advantage) a year later.

But while the Roubaix ploughed on, the SPA never went into production. For a time the Cervélo R3 demonstrated that all you needed to win Paris-Roubaix was clever carbon engineering, but eventually Trek rejoined the party in 2012 and kicked it all off again with the Domane, whose rear-damped chassis helped propel Fabian Cancellara to Strade Bianche victory on its first official outing, then conquered Roubaix and Flanders a year later.

The arms race was back on.

Today there’s a slew of bikes that could call themselves cobbles-specific, or at least, cobbles-adept: the Lapierre Pulsium, Pinarello Dogma K8-S, Bianchi Infinito CV, Look 695, Cervélo R3, to name a few.

However, three bikes stood out to us, each for very different reasons. So we thought we’d put them to the test, and what better place to do it than their spiritual home? Bring on the cobbles.

With me on today’s ride are Rob and Sam, both Cyclist staffers, and strapped to the roof of our borrowed Peugeot 2008 are a Specialized Roubaix Pro Di2, a Trek Domane SLR 7 Disc and a Cannondale Synapse Hi-Mod Disc Team. 

Rob’s rationale for choosing the Domane is pretty simple: he rode the original in the Paris-Roubaix sportive in 2013 and wants to see how this new version compares.

Rob recalls how he saw Cancellara at the end of the pro race that same year: ‘Two soigneurs literally had to carry him to his chair.

He looked properly dead behind the eyes. Someone eventually plucked up the courage to ask him how he felt, and he just replied, “I’m f****ing f****ed.” Then they carried him away.’

Cancellara had just won a third Paris-Roubaix, preceded by triumphing in the Tour of Flanders a week earlier.

No wonder he was royally done in, but one can’t help but wonder how much more he would have suffered without the Domane underneath him – and perhaps how much better he would have felt afterwards had he been on this new iteration, which now boasts Trek’s IsoSpeed damping front and rear, as well as disc brakes.

Both my Specialized Roubaix and Sam’s Cannondale Synapse can boast similar winning pedigree, although I can’t help reminding Sam of what it says on my top tube: ‘2008, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2014’, in reference to the number of wins the Roubaix family has notched up at its namesake race. Sam retorts that this new Roubaix model hasn’t actually won anything yet, but still, it would be a foolish man to bet against it this season. 

Specialized has completely overhauled the bike. Gone (almost) are the Zertz inserts, elastomers that sat in various holes in the stays and fork legs, which did very little by all accounts (it’s said it was the holes themselves that added the compliance – the elastomers were just there to stop consumers baulking at the idea of seeing daylight through their tubes). 

Instead, Specialized has introduced the Future Shock, a sprung cartridge that sits between the top of the head tube and the underside of the stem, offering 20mm of vertical travel, while at the rear is its CG-R seatpost, replete with zigzag bend and Zertz insert to allow it to flex by a claimed 18mm.

It’s lengthy too, which it needs to be as the frame is compact and the post is clamped well below the top tube, again for comfort. It’s interesting to note that without the Future Shock (189g), this is Specialized’s lightest-ever frame at a claimed 700g.

Stacked up against the Domane and Roubaix, the Synapse looks positively traditional, and worryingly unsprung. But Sam has reasons for choosing it beyond its 1980s-cool chrome lettering.

Rush of blood

Within seconds the full brain-jarring force of the cobbles is upon us and I can see the Domane literally spring into life under Rob’s weight.

Viewed from the side the whole rear end seems to be bending, but a closer look shows it’s actually an illusion. The only thing bending is the back half of the split IsoSpeed seat tube. 

Trek has also applied its IsoSpeed concept up front too, with the fork steerer given room to flex in the head tube thanks to bevelled bearing seats, but it hasn’t forgotten about tweaking the rear IsoSpeed system.

Whereas before the amount of flex was predetermined, the new Domane features tuneable – and greater – flex.

A slider in the seat tube can be repositioned up or down – up for a stiffer rear, down for more compliance. 

Rob has gone in his words ‘full boing’, and it shows, much to his delight.

‘I can barely feel a thing in my backside,’ he says without even a flicker of schoolboy innuendo. 

Sam is in similar schoolboy mood, and his bike choice is revealing itself. Built like a Belgian, he decided he was up for accepting a possible beating in exchange for a quick, lithe machine, and as if to prove his point he moves off the crown of the road – which judging by the oil streaks has claimed more than the odd car underbelly – nips onto the muddied cobbled shoulder and ploughs past Rob with a shout that one can only assume was ‘sucker’, but it is windy.

I give chase and the Roubaix gives plenty back. Everything about me is rumbling, one of my bottles flies out of its cage and yet my upper body, arms and hands feel relatively untroubled by the kerfuffle below.

Heroes and villains

While the Domane wears its tech on its sleeve, the Synapse’s happens under the paint and by way of some interesting tube shapes.

There’s a hollow at the foot of the seat tube, and the stays bend and twist in a design Cannondale calls SAVE (Synapse Active Vibration Elimination).

The top tube slopes significantly compared to its racier older brother, the SuperSix Evo, meaning there’s a large amount of seatpost jutting out to offer flex. Crucially, though, that seatpost is 25.4mm in diameter, much narrower than the 27.2mm or 31.6mm posts that adorn most bikes.

Cannondale says the carbon fibres in the seatstays twist in a helix, which means each fibre is longer than if it just ran straight, and as such vibrations have to travel a longer path into the frame, dissipating much of the energy before it reaches the rider.

Given Sam’s continued progress it seems the Synapse designers have done a sterling job. The section of cobbles we’re on – officially called Beuvry-La-Foret but locally referred to as Marc Madiot after the double Paris-Roubaix champion – was only recently unearthed, then extended, by les forcats du pavé, ‘the convicts of the road’, who repair the cobbles and hunt for new stretches every year. 

Thanks to the convicts’ work, Secteur Marc Madiot is now a 3/5-star difficulty, 1.4km sector with a false flat and some shallow turns, which the Synapse is making look easy.

It’s the lightest bike here so no surprise on the slight ascent, but it’s the ease with which it seems to be holding onto the road as Sam pushes a huge gear through the corners that is surprising. It looks like a pretty normal race bike, but it looks perfectly at home here.

The cobbles finally give way to smooth tarmac, permitting a chance to breathe and take stock. According to Sam, the Synapse is in its element in large part because of the Schwalbe Pro One tubeless tyres.

Both my Roubaix and Rob’s Domane have tubeless-compatible wheels, but only the Synapse came with tubeless tyres. Sam has ridden these roads before too, on a set of clincher Continental GP4000 IIs, and believes the tubeless comparison is like ‘night and day’. 

‘The tyres are 28mm but they’ve come up much bigger because of the wide wheels,’ he says. Rob suggests his 32mm Bontrager R3 tyres are giving him the same level of comfort and grip, but he does concede that on the smooth bitumen they feel somewhat sluggish.

Tyre pressure is undoubtedly coming into play here – both are running sub-80psi, but the difference is the Schwalbes are that much narrower and lighter than the Bontrager, ‘but I can still run them this low without worrying about pinch-flatting’, Sam adds. 

On another bike I might be jealous, but as we thunder onto the climax of our ride, the Arenberg Trench, the Roubaix once again proves it’s not just a fancy lick of paint. 

The big one

At five stars and 2.4km long, the Arenberg is a formidable foe. It may be a stretch to say Paris-Roubaix’s winners are decided here, but the contenders are certainly identified.

Even though for safety’s sake we agreed we weren’t going to race each other today, it seems sacrilege not to go at the Arenberg full bore, so I bite the bullet and hit the drops.

Everything starts rattling and my eyes feel like a pair of those joke glasses with the springs, but once I’m over the shock there’s a glorious moment where I can feel the Roubaix skimming the tops of the cobbles like a ballerina on a building site.

The rear end has come into its own and I can feel it moving in a way similar to the Domane, and while the Future Shock is bottoming out repeatedly, my hands feel solid enough on the bars that I’m able to unfurl a finger to change gear.

The hits become bigger as I lose speed, and by the end Rob has taken me by two bike lengths and I’ve tied for second with Sam.

As we pull up Rob’s doing that maddening casual whistling thing, like it’s been nothing, but I can tell his wrists are bothering him. The front end of the Domane seems no match for my Roubaix in the comfort stakes. 

Just to be sure, Rob and I swap bikes and hit the cobbles again. He concedes the front end of the Roubaix is significantly more forgiving, and I try to convince myself that makes me the true winner.

But aboard the Domane I just can’t shake how incredibly smooth the rear end is. It is simply without compare.

In the interests of fairness we both offer our bikes up to Sam, but he declines. Apparently the Synapse is all the bike he reckons is needed for rides like Paris-Roubaix.

‘It’s just quick and racy, and with the tyres I reckon it’s comfortable enough. I’m not sure I’d want to ride it here if I owned it though. No matter what you’ve got, new bikes get old quickly on the cobbles.’ 

Trek Domane SLR 7 Disc, £4,800

Rob’s summary

‘I rode the original Domane in 2012 on the Paris-Roubaix sportive. That bike was awesome on the cobbles, and this new one is even better.

'There’s more flex at the rear and it’s tuneable, so you can make it stiffer for normal road riding. I wouldn’t want it any less than on maximum boing-setting for Roubaix, though.

'Hovering slightly to pedal, like the pros do, is difficult, whereas on the Domane I could just sit and spin happily. If there’s a downside it’s that the rear is so effective it highlights the harshness of the front – it’s more comfortable than before thanks to the IsoSpeed in the head tube, but the damping isn’t in the same league as the rear.

'Despite that, of all the bikes here the Domane makes the most sense to me.’

Model: Trek Domane SLR 7 Disc
Frame: Domane 600 Series OCLV Carbon
Fork: Domane Full Carbon Disc, E2, thru-axle
Groupset: Shimano Ultegra Di2 6870
Shifters: Shimano R785 Di2 hydraulic 
Brakes: Shimano RS805 hydraulic
Chainset: Shimano Ultegra, 50/34t
Cassette: Shimano Ultegra, 11-32t
Wheels: Bontrager Affinity Comp Tubeless Ready Disc, alloy
Tyres: Bontrager R3 Hard-Case Lite, 32mm
Handlebars: Bontrager Pro IsoCore, carbon
Stem: Bontrager Pro, alloy
Saddle: Bontrager Affinity Elite, titanium rails
Seatpost: Bontrager Ride Tuned carbon seat mast
Weight: 8.33kg (size 56cm) 

Specialized Roubaix Pro Di2, £6,000

James’s summary

‘The Future Shock suspension meant the initial ride feeling was very different to anything I’d tried before and, to begin with, not entirely to my liking.

'On flat roads the Roubaix felt a tad mushy up front. Hitting the cobbles, though, it all made sense as the Future Shock filtered vibrations from big hits like someone had swaddled both of my arms.

'The back half of the bike was less forgiving (although still more compliant than a normal road bike), which made the bike feel disjointed at first, but I got used to the sensation and was left marvelling at just how effective the Future Shock is.’

Model: Specialized Roubaix Pro Di2
Frame: Roubaix Future Shock, thru-axle
Fork: Roubaix disc, thru-axle
Groupset: Shimano Ultegra Di2 6870
Shifters: Shimano R785 Di2 hydraulic
Brakes: Shimano RS805 hydraulic disc 
Chainset: Specialized Pro 50/34t, carbon
Cassette: Shimano Ultegra 11-32t 
Wheels: Roval CL 32 Disc, carbon, tubeless
Tyres: Specialized Turbo Pro 26mm
Handlebars: S-Works Hover Carbon
Stem: S-Works SL, alloy
Seatpost: Specialized CG-R, carbon
Saddle: Specialized Phenom Expert GT, titanium rails
Weight: 7.83kg (size 56cm)

Cannondale Synapse Hi-Mod, £6,000

Sam’s summary

‘The Synapse shows you don’t need gimmicks – just a bendy seatpost and tubeless tyres. I’ve ridden these cobbles before on 28mm clincher tyres, and the ride quality was far better on tubeless.

'Still, you can’t take anything away from the frame. I’d put money on the tube shapes as being the Synapse’s real assets  – having ridden one without tubeless tyres and with alloy wheels the bike is still far more comfortable than, say, Cannondale’s all-round racer, the SuperSix.

'It couldn’t compete with the plushness of the Domane’s rear end or the bounce of the Roubaix’s front, but the Synapse was more agile and responsive than the other two.’

Model: Cannondale Synapse Hi-Mod Disc Team
Frame: Synapse Disc Hi-Mod Save Plus, quick release
Fork: Synapse Disc Hi-Mod Save Plus, quick release
Groupset: Shimano Dura-Ace Di2 9070
Shifters: Shimano R785 Di2 hydraulic
Brakes: Shimano R785 hydraulic, 140mm rotors front/rear
Chainset: Cannondale HollowGram SiSL2, 50/34t
Cassette: Shimano Ultegra, 11-28t
Wheels: Cannondale HollowGram Si Carbon Clincher Disc
Tyres: Schwalbe Pro One tubeless, 28mm
Handlebars: Cannondale C1 Ultralight, alloy
Stem: Cannondale C1 Ultralight, alloy
Seatpost: Cannondale Save, carbon
Saddle: Fabric Scoop, titanium rails
Weight: 7.65kg (size 56cm)

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