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Climbers' bikes ride test: Cannondale v Trek v Fuji on Mont Ventoux

In-depth
25 Jan 2018
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Words Sam Challis | Photography Juan Trujillo Andrades

I’m feeling a bit unwell. Perhaps it’s a fever – that unmistakeable feeling of being hot and cold all at once. It’s strange, because I was feeling perfectly fine just a couple of hours ago.

Then again, climbing to the top of Mont Ventoux might have something to do with it.

Could it be the fatigue of riding 22km uphill, much of it over 10%? Or could it be the dizzying view south that runs uninterrupted down to the Côte d’Azur some 150km distant? Could it even be the emotion of completing the ascent of one of cycling’s most celebrated and feared climbs?

‘It’s the altitude, combined with the Mistral wind and the fact that you’ve been climbing for two hours. You’ve generated a lot of heat, but the temperature has dropped 20°C, the air is thin and that wind is famous for cutting right through you,’ says Angus Parker, founder of tour company La Vie en Velo and our guide for the day.

It is this combination of factors, and the unusual discomfort they cause, that makes Mont Ventoux a climb like no other and one that should be at the top of every serious cyclist’s bucket list.

The mountain is unique. Unlike its crowded Alpine cousins to the northeast, it stands alone, providing incomparable views as it towers over the almost Mediterranean Provençal landscape.

Ventoux is also steeped in history. All the best climbers down the generations have done battle with the ‘Giant of Provence’, and some haven’t lived to tell the tale.

What’s more, it can be climbed three ways, and each route is just as challenging yet different to the last. That makes it a rather appropriate proving ground to test the mettle of three bikes with climbing pretensions. 

Aero isn’t everything

Unless you ride on pan-flat roads every day, how much mass you have to move around will play a big part in determining your speed.

On the flat, the biggest force acting against you is air resistance, but the more you point uphill, the more that weight becomes the main impediment.

It follows that the lighter you and your bike are, the faster you can ride uphill for the same effort.

There isn’t much a bike company can do about making you lighter, which is why brands pour millions into designing bikes that push the lower limits of weight despite the arbitrary 6.8kg weight limit currently imposed by the UCI for pro racing.

As we’re not pros, that doesn’t apply to us, so the three bikes we are testing today dip below this figure by some degree.

Trek’s 5.97kg Émonda can lay claim to being the lightest mass production bike currently on offer, while Fuji’s 6.52kg SL1.1 is actually heavier than its predecessor (we’ll find out why later).

Cannondale’s SuperSix Evo is the heaviest of the bunch at 6.7kg, but can lay claim to having the most heritage at WorldTour level.

An even tougher question is: who’s going to ride which bike? With me today are Matt, a cat-2 racer from Dorset, and Ewan, a hill-climb specialist from Kent.

We’re similar sizes, and as we stand in the well-appointed bike workshop of our charming Provençal farmhouse-cum-hotel, La Ferme des Bélugues, each of us is unwilling to make the first move toward the gleaming superbikes lined up in front of us.

Pulling rank

Eventually Matt pulls rank as the ‘oldest, wisest and most in need of help’ to take the Émonda, which prompts Ewan to make a dive for the Fuji.

That leaves me with the Cannondale, which I’m secretly pleased about as I think it’s the most elegant of the three and comes with an excellent pedigree.

After a bit of fiddling and fettling, we start our ride with a rolling 10km from La Ferme to Bédoin, the town at the base of Mont Ventoux’s most famous ascent, giving us an opportunity to familiarise ourselves with our chosen partners before the real ‘fun’ begins.

Matt and Ewan immediately put their bikes to work up the Col de la Madeleine (luckily it’s not that Col de la Madeleine – it’s a far gentler hill that merely shares the same name), both praising the acceleration of their bikes.

Wary of the effort to come once we pass Bédoin, I’m content to tap up the rise and soak in the views of olive groves in the early morning sunshine.

Even though I’ve yet to go full throttle, I’m already getting excited about the SuperSix, which feels eager and responsive to even the slightest of inputs, no doubt thanks to having been refined by constant exposure and feedback at the top of the sport with WorldTour team Cannondale-Drapac.

At the top I stamp on the pedals and the bike leaps forward down the twisting road. In no time I’ve caught Matt and Ewan and we roll into Bédoin together.

And so it begins

The red and white striped mast of the weather station atop Ventoux looks impossibly distant on this clear day, and as we leave Bédoin the road rises immediately, albeit at a sociable gradient. We slip into single file with Ewan on the front.

His SL1.1 is Fuji’s top-flight race machine, which uses a host of technologies in an attempt to keep things stiff and snappy at a frame weight of just 695g.

Chief among them is Fuji’s ‘High Compaction’ moulding, which the brand claims eliminates wrinkled bits of carbon and leftover gobs of resin that would otherwise increase weight.

Yet the SL1.1’s predecessor was just 5.11kg – so Fuji apparently added weight to improve stiffness and ride quality, as well as speccing slightly less exotic finishing kit to make the bike’s price more competitive (the previous SL1.1 had a Reynolds RZR 46 wheelset, which retails at £4,000 on its own).

Fuji’s design decisions have certainly paid off, according to Ewan, who remarks on how responsive the bike feels as he punches forward from out of the saddle.

Matt is still singing the Émonda’s praises for how impressively it goes downhill as well as up, and taking a look at the geometry chart of Trek’s bike it’s not hard to see why – a BB drop of 70mm and chainstays of 410mm suggest a low, stable back end while the stiffness of the front end delivers snappy steering.

The ascent of Ventoux from Bédoin is the one used most often by the Tour de France, so there’s no shortage of detailed documentation exposing every inch of the climb.

And all the literature speaks in reverential tones about the left-hand bend at St Esteve. This is where the ascent really bares its teeth – the bend that caused the big Italian domestique Eros Poli to say, ‘I thought I was dying,’ and the bend that served as the catalyst for Ferdi Kübler’s total implosion further up the climb and subsequent race abandonment.

The French describe it as un petit enfer, a little hell. As the gradient doubles and the road disappears into Ventoux’s forested lower slopes, I’m inclined to agree.

Despite Matt’s age-related protestations he’s a gifted climber so it quickly becomes clear that he and Ewan (to hear him tell it, riding uphill is all that he does) will be ascending at a different pace to me.

I ‘allow’ them to drift into the distance and my attention becomes more introspective as I begin to assess the attributes of the Cannondale properly.

Making a frame more compact by designing the top tube to slope down from the head tube is a favoured ploy by manufacturers searching for a light frame, as evidenced by the designs of the Émonda and Fuji, because the effective horizontal length of the top tube remains the same but the tube itself can be slightly shorter.

Less material for less weight. Yet Cannondale resolutely eschews that thinking and with the SuperSix proves a climber’s bike can be created from a more regular geometry.

Cannondale puts it down to its ‘System Integration’ concept, where the frame, fork and components are designed to work together. It allows a number of features such as the fork’s crown race-less design to be incorporated, which Cannondale says saves a lot of weight while keeping the famed ride characteristics, subtle aerodynamics and stiffness required for the bike to compete on the WorldTour.

I praise the ingenuity of Cannondale’s engineers as the gradient starts to take its toll. I have to alternate between sitting and standing to keep my momentum, and note that around this point on the climb in the 2016 Tour Chris Froome was probably running faster than I am currently riding.

I take heart in the fact that regardless of whether I’m standing or seated, flex remains undetectable at the bottom bracket or head tube, so very little of my effort seems to be going to waste. 

Not over yet

The Bédoin ascent has only one true hairpin, the Virage du Bois, so I can often glimpse Matt and Ewan up ahead. I notice that Matt has barely sat down at any point, which is in stark comparison to the way he tells me he usually climbs.

‘It’s this bike,’ he says when we regroup at Chalet Reynard. We’re at that point on the ascent where we know the worst is over, but also that there is plenty still to be done. Now we’re out of the forest we’ll be at the mercy of the mercurial Mistral wind and the viciously temperamental weather conditions it causes.

‘I tried riding in my normal style, yet that just made the bike feel as if it was straining at a leash. I had to get up and push a bigger gear because I kept finding that the more I put in, the more I got out.’

I’m sure Trek would be happy to hear that, especially as the company put this latest Émonda through tens of thousands of iterations in computer modelling software to refine the carbon layup schedule in search of the perfect balance of stiffness, comfort and weight. The finishing kit from its components brand, Bontrager, is also pretty accomplished, making for a highly desirable overall package.

In fact all three bikes have been finished with a generous smattering of in-house products, and none are the worse for it.

The SuperSix’s Save 25.4mm seatpost is a brilliant bit of engineering, adding a level of comfort to an otherwise rigid frame; the SL1.1’s Oval Concepts 928 wheels are stiff, light and offer good braking; and a highlight on the Émonda has to be the Speed Stop Pro brakes, which offer clearance for 28mm tyres and great modulation for their meagre 95g weight.

It isn’t long before we spin past Tom Simpson’s memorial, nestled in the scree of the Ventoux’s upper reaches. It’s the 50th anniversary of his death this year, and the memorial is well stocked with offerings of bidons and rocks that have been carried up the mountain in remembrance of one of Britain’s greatest Tour de France riders. Seeing the spot where he fell is unexpectedly powerful.

If his heart could have lasted just five minutes more he might  have crested the summit and been able to recover on the descent.

In an effort to shake off the melancholy, we take one last opportunity to make our bikes earn their keep by riding an Armstrong/Pantani-like duel up to the summit.

I end up taking the role of Armstrong, claiming to lose the battle to win the war, and let Matt and Ewan know as much when I catch them at the base of the weather station. At least their scoffs are gentler than Pantani’s rebukes were to his US Postal rival.

Those feverish symptoms convince us not to linger up here. In an attempt to avoid fisticuffs in our debate back at La Ferme I’d suggested we could swap rides during the day, but as each bike has served us so well we’re unwilling to trade, despite each promising a different experience.

It goes to show that regardless of design, geometry or technology there is more than one way to skin a lightweight cat.

With our minds made up, there’s only one way to go.

The bikes

Cannondale SuperSix Evo

A classic design that is still proven at WorldTour level

Model: Cannondale SuperSix Evo Hi-Mod eTap
Groupset: Sram Red eTap
Gearing: 52/36t chainset, 11-28t cassette
Wheels: Cannondale HollowGram SL Carbon
Tyres: Vittoria Corsa G+; 700x25c
Finishing kit: Cannondale Escape Hanger Carbon bars, Cannondale C1 Ultralight stem, Cannondale Save Carbon seatpost, Fizik Arione R3 saddle
Weight: 6.7kg (56cm)
Price: £6,399
Contact: cyclingsportsgroup.co.uk

Sam's summary:

The SuperSix isn’t billed as a stereotypical climber’s bike, which played on my mind before we got going, as did the mid-compact chainset (52/36), but once I started the first bit of real ascent on the Ventoux – around the left hand bend at St Esteve – my fears of riding at a disadvantage were allayed.

Any weight the SuperSix ceded to the out-and-out climbers’ bikes of my riding partners was more than compensated for by how efficient the frame felt.

Whether I was tapping up the steep tree-lined section in my lowest gear or out of the saddle trying to muscle through the final kilometres after Chalet Reynard, the SuperSix rewarded my efforts with a flattering amount of forward motion.

While I was initially wary of the gearing, using it successfully on such a stern ascent convinced me that a 52/36 chainset with an 11-28 cassette is – on a bike as accomplished as the SuperSix – that Goldilocks combination: enough range to winch up steep climbs yet not spin out going down the other side.

That was a boon because the SuperSix was also a blast to descend on.

Trek Émonda

This latest iteration is the lightest production bike on the market

Model: Trek Émonda SLR 9
Groupset: Shimano Dura-Ace Di2
Gearing: 50/34t chainset, 11-28t cassette
Wheels: Bontrager Aeolus 3 D3
Tyres: Bontrager R3 Hard-Case Lite, 700x25c
Finishing kit: Bontrager XXX bars, Bontrager Pro stem, Bontrager Ride Tuned Carbon seatmast, Bontrager XXX saddle
Weight: 5.97kg (56cm)
Price: £8,500
Contact: trekbikes.com

Matt's summary:

Most of my time is spent aboard an aero machine in the shape of Canyon’s Aeroad CF SLX, so to move from a bike where weight isn’t top priority to one of the lightest bikes money can buy was a interesting experience, to say the least.

The Émonda had a noticeable effect on my riding style – I spent a lot more time standing up because stamping down on the Émonda’s pedals felt so addictively spritely. I couldn’t get used to the amount of acceleration it afforded even when the road was above 10% in the last couple of kilometres on the Ventoux past Tom Simpson’s memorial.

I’ll confess, though, that there was another reason I took to standing – the shell of Bontrager’s XXX saddle, seemingly just shaped out of a single layer of carbon, was pretty unforgiving.

That being said, for all the frame’s stiffness the sloping top tube left plenty of seat tube exposed above the tube junction.

I’d say this was the reason the bike was comfortable too – there was plenty of length to flex and soak up the road surface on those rare occasions when I couldn’t muster the energy to keep riding out of the saddle.

Fuji SL 1.1 

Plenty of carbon wizardry went into making this superlight frame

Model: Fuji SL 1.1
Groupset: Sram Red eTap
Gearing: 52/36t chainset, 11-28t cassette
Wheels: Oval Concepts 928
Tyres: Vittoria Corsa G+; 700x25c
Finishing kit: Oval a 910SL Ergo bars, Oval Concepts 777SL stem, Oval Concepts 950 seatpost, Oval Concepts X38c saddle
Weight: 6.52kg (56cm)
Price: £7,299
Contact: evanscycles.co.uk

Ewan's summary: 

I’m a bit of a hill climb specialist so the UCI-illegal SL was right up my street. As a rider keen to not to miss an opportunity to shed weight I particularly liked the Fuji’s finish.

Aside from being utterly beautiful when the different tows of carbon caught the light in the direct sun, simply lacquering over the SL’s unidirectional carbon tubes definitely weighs less than a standard paint scheme.

It should be said that despite the finishing kit and wheels all being supplied by Fuji’s in-house brand, Oval Concepts, I thought none of it undermined the performance of the frame.

Braking performance was good, and although the rims were pretty voracious in their appetite for the brake pads, otherwise they seemed smooth and stiff.

The cockpit was similarly rigid, yet the unusual ergonomics of the bars left a bit to be desired for me.

The seatpost and saddle made a comfortable perch for the whole day and provided a little counterbalance to the uncompromising frame – the SL is one stiff bike. It’s compact in every sense; I found the sloping top tube and short wheelbase made it feel really taut, ideal for punchy accelerations when I was trying to drop Matt. 

Kit picks

Etxeondo Orhi bibshorts | £145, etxeondo.com

Ewan says: ‘A day on Mont Ventoux is always going to be a big one so I was really impressed by the quality of Etxeondo’s Urakki chamois in these shorts.

It stayed comfortable no matter how long the gradient forced me to ride in the saddle. And the design includes hardly any seams so the shorts fit like a second skin.’

Giro Prolight Techlace shoes | £349.99, zyrofisher.co.uk

Sam says: ‘You’d be hard pushed to find better footwear for climbing a big hill. The sole is stiff, the upper is breathable and the Techlace straps are comfortable.

Best of all they’re half the weight of a lot of rivals, so as a rider who needs all the help he can get going uphill, Giro’s Prolights were very much appreciated.’

Shimano S-Phyre jersey | £189.99, madison.co.uk

Matt says: ‘You wouldn’t know this was Shimano’s first foray into road performance clothing – it competes with established brands straight off the bat.

The jersey was a standout: its fit is racy and it’s really breathable, yet seems more substantial and premium than other mesh-based jerseys that can leave too little to the imagination.’

Thanks...

There’s no doubt this trip wouldn’t have been as successful as it was without the help of La Vie en Velo’s Angus Parker, who transported all of our bikes and luggage down to Provence in one herculean drive from Kent that included picking Cyclist up from the airport en route.

La Vie en Velo (lavieenvelo.com) runs specialist cycling tours for small groups to iconic destinations around Europe and takes care of all the logistics. All you have to do is turn up and ride.

Thanks also must go to Spencer and Karen for their amazing hospitality at La Ferme des Bélugues. As well as laying on food fit for kings, both are a font of knowledge on the local area and are handy riders to boot.

Their beautiful chambre d’hôte is ideally situated almost equidistant between two of Ventoux’s climbs, but is pleasant enough to make you think twice about cycling at all – you could just as easily spend time by the pool or sample the region’s local wines in comfort on the terrace.