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Best of the best: Cyclist’s favourite endurance bikes

In-depth
1 Mar 2021
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They might look like road bikes, but with a few subtle tweaks here and a wider tyre there, endurance bikes will take you anywhere. This is our pick of the bunch

Photography: Rob Milton

Six hundred kilometres in one go. Consider how that might feel. You’d better be wearing your comfiest bibshorts. Now imagine those bibshorts are in fact woollen plus-fours, your bike is made from pig iron, the wheel rims are wooden and you only have one gear.

That’s because your name is George Pilkington Mills, born in 1867 in Middlesex, and you’ve just won the inaugural 1891 Bordeaux-Paris in a time of 26h 36min 25sec. Impressive as that is, back in 1886 at the age of just 19, you stamped your name on a record that had stood for 133 years, Land’s End to John O’Groats on a penny-farthing, 1,450km in five days, 1 hour and 45 minutes. So you call that 8kg disc brake bike with the slack head tube an endurance machine? My dear child, it has 32mm tyres. That’s a hovercraft!

Pilkington Mills also used to carry a revolver in his pocket to ward off stray dogs, so it’s a stretch to compare his Victorian exploits to those of this year’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège winner, Primož Roglič, who had nothing more dangerous than a banana in his jersey. Yet there is something relevant to Mills’ story here, in that it begs the question, ‘Just what is an endurance bike?’

By definition, isn’t any road bike an endurance bike if taken on the right ride? To a degree this is true, but in 2004 the definition of the term changed irrevocably when Specialized released the Roubaix.

In a sense the Roubaix looked like a lot of road bikes of its time, but closer inspection revealed a much taller head tube, longer chainstays and room for up to 30mm tyres. It even had suspension in the form of ‘Zertz inserts’, elastomers placed in gaps in the seatstays and fork legs – although it’s said these just plugged holes, and it was the flexible tube shapes that provided damping.

At any rate, Trek followed a year later with its similarly pitched Pilot, and Giant in 2008 with its Defy. Endurance was now a category, not just a moniker, and its raison d’être was to provide comfort over long distance and poor terrain.

Longer, slacker geometry remains the primary jumping off point today, but added to that are disc brakes, suspension systems and tyre clearances that would make cyclocross blush. And that’s before aerodynamics, high stiffness and low weight creep in, all things that start to make an endurance bike look like a race bike again. But there remains a primary difference, and it’s the way bike engineers try to meld speed with versatility and comfort.

A lightweight bike is not designed with the Arenberg Trench in mind any more than an aero bike is aimed at climbing the Stelvio, but an endurance bike is designed to make a decent fist of both, on the same day, whether that day is 30km long or 300km.

The endurance bikes of today would have made George Pilkington Mills a faster rider. Here are the four we would have recommended him.

Cannondale Synapse

As chosen by editor-at-large Stu Bowers

Read our full review of the Cannondale Synapse here

Before we get down to the nitty-gritty, a quick bit of cycling trivia to impress (or bore) your mates with. What was Cannondale’s first full carbon road bike called? That’s right, it was the Synapse, released all the way back in 2005 and made entirely in the US too. Anyway, moving swiftly on...

Thanks to Google continuously tracking everything anyone does, we now know that the Synapse is one of the most searched for bikes on the planet. There is, of course, a perfectly good explanation for this, and it’s nothing to do with guerrilla marketing.

Historically the Synapse has set a high bar in the endurance sector. Cannondale’s engineers have done a great job of delivering traits that middle-of-the-bell-curve riders (in other words, most of us) find desirable. More relaxed fit? Check. Comfy? Check. Lightweight? Check. Clearance for wide tyres and mudguards? Why not?

And since this latest generation, released in 2017, disc brakes too. Look back through my reviews of the Synapse, and those written by any cycling journalist worth their salt, and you’ll find heaps of praise and scarce criticism.

I’d argue that Cannondale, as it often has been, was way ahead of its time. Component integration, internal cabling and features such as a hidden seat clamp were present on the Synapse as far back as its second generation in 2013, a bike that Peter Sagan had one of his most successful ever spring Classics campaigns riding.

Some brands are only just getting on board with stuff like that now, and I’d wager if we pitched that near-eight-year-old model against a good number of bikes released in the past couple of years it would still fare favourably.

And yet as I write this I can’t help but ponder what might be in the pipeline from Cannondale. The fourth-generation Synapse is approaching its fourth birthday, and if we know one thing from our industry it’s that bikes rarely make it to five.

An update is almost certainly on the way, and arguably can’t come soon enough. The Synapse’s rivals are threatening like never before. But I’m not here to speculate on what isn’t, rather to tell you why I’m voting for what is.

I like the way Cannondale interprets the needs of the endurance sector differently to its competitors. While for many the prefix ‘endurance’ means sky-scraping head tubes, elongated wheelbases, flexy parts and/or actual boingy bits, Cannondale’s slant is that bike riders are all united by one thing: we all want to ride fast.

Can’t shake the speed

Speed is the measure by which all cyclists compare. So whether it’s giving our mates a kicking up a climb, achieving a gold time at a gran fondo or simply getting to work faster, we want a versatile, agile and fast road bike.

Which is exactly what the Synapse is. Save for a 10mm higher head tube, it is but a hair’s width away from its racier sibling, the SuperSix Evo. In fact it’s hard to decide whether the Synapse is a comfortable race bike or a racy endurance bike.

It hits that sweet spot so well that I chose a Synapse when I wanted to build a proper year-round mile-muncher. I like its no-fuss approach. The lack of any moving suspension parts keeps maintenance seldom and easy, plus it gives the bike a really clean silhouette.

The super-skinny 25.4mm Save seatpost deals with the bulk of the vibrations and bumps well, although most of that work is already being done by the tyres, the Synapse being one of the first road bikes of any kind to really push the tyre clearance envelope.

Getting on board with wide, tubeless tyres (with the Synapse catering for 32mm) and much lower pressures (like 55-60psi) means frame engineers, who have scratched their heads for years over ways to deliver more compliance, can now take a breather. Let’s all hear it for disc brakes!

Thus the frame doesn’t need fancy ways to suspend you when these modern tubeless wheel/tyre combos can do that far more effectively and without compromising performance and weight. Cannondale was quicker to realise this than most, and I’m excited to see where its engineers take the Synapse next.

Learn more about the Cannondale Synapse here

BMC Roadmachine

As chosen by deputy editor James Spender

Read James's full review of the BMC Roadmachine here

I have ridden 250km sportives on aero bikes, and 160km gran fondos on custom tube-to-tube bikes, and commute thousands of kilometres a year on a piece of aluminium from the early 2000s, and ultimately I have found them all palatable. But they are not endurance bikes, says the industry.

And I guess the industry is right, since the aero bike needed wider tyres, the custom bike warranted kid gloves and my commuter? Well that just requires wings, prayers and the odd new bottom bracket.

Endurance bikes exist because they come predisposed to long miles and crap surfaces. You don’t have to hold their hand as you walk into a shop to buy their first 11-32t cassette. So after much deliberating I plumped for the BMC Roadmachine.

For me, BMC has always held serious appeal. Despite the fact that the initials stand for Bicycle Manufacturing Company – could you get more uninspiring or more Swiss? – BMC the company stands for sharp geometry, light weight and ass-kicking stiffness. An endurance bike made by BMC? You’d have better luck upholstering a pub bench.

But bless BMC, it tried. The Granfondo GF01 (clue’s in the name) set out the original stall back in 2012, and with some success. It looked like a BMC, it got raced at the right races – namely that year’s Roubaix when the cameras were looking – and it was one of the early pioneers of the dropped seatstays now ubiquitous from aero to gravel.

The GF01 was good but it failed to find much traction alongside the lauded Teammachine, and when the disc update came in 2015 it fared no better. That bike was heavy, its geometry stately and the stiffness manifested less in buzz kill than buzz kill.

But just like how your first pet slowly grew older then conked out while you were busy playing with the new kitten, the GF01 slipped quietly away when the bombastic Roadmachine entered.

The original top-spec Roadmachines were only available in primary-colour yellow or green, cost the earth – nearly nine grand in 2016 anyone? – and punched like Tysons.

Goodness they were stiff. I remember nabbing Stu’s test bike one weekend and ended up grateful to be on a Wilier Cento10 Air that month instead – an aero bike that was actually more comfortable.

But the Roadmachine was also great fun and did have all the endurance bike traits: a go-anywhere feel and the more upright position that debuted on the GF01. There was still something missing compared to other hitters in the category, but it charmed me.

Coming of age

It’s now July 2019. Grumpy Cat has died, Brexit is in full swing and Boris is on track with his plans to destroy Britain. And BMC has released its updated Roadmachine, and the endurance gods are pleased with all they have made.

The top-spec 01 models are lighter but just as stiff in the right departments, boast 33mm tyre clearances, fully integrated cockpit, hidden cables and finally a decent amount of flex thanks to a retuned rear end and D-shaped seatpost. There’s even a set of mounting points on the top tube for a bag.

Swing a leg over and smash it across a rutted surface and this bike feels robust and stable, but alive like a road bike should. Yes, that longer wheelbase and low BB tells out, but the geometry is surprisingly similar to the Teammachine.

It’s a touch longer, a touch taller and has a slightly lower centre of gravity, but the Teammachine’s assured descending is present, if not quite the same level of responsiveness through quick turns.

The flipside is that the Roadmachine tanks along in the way the Teammachine can’t, the refined layup and the redesigned fork with its spindly legs smoothing the road while offering responsiveness and feedback.

There’s lots of grip too. In these things the Roadmachine fulfils the brief, and offers a bike that is both different to, and more capable in certain areas than its siblings.

But then – and this is the thing I love about all BMCs – everything just feels premium and well put together. It feels lean yet strong, like it wants to go for miles. It feels like you could never break it. But crucially, it finally feels pretty comfortable.

For more on the BMC Roadmachine, see here

Open Min.D

As chosen by tech editor Sam Challis

Read Sam's full review of the Open Min.D here

As tech editor Sam eats, sleeps and dreams cycling kit, and is in charge of selecting which bikes get reviewed in Cyclist each month. As such he has some very distinct opinions on what a bike should offer

My choice for best endurance bike is the Open Min.D, a bike that has reinvigorated a category that in recent years has ceded more and more ground to its neighbours.

Lightweight race bikes are encroaching on one side, their disc brakes and tyre clearances now providing much of the control and comfort endurance bikes once boasted uniquely. Gravel bikes are muscling in on the other, their frames now as lightweight and efficient as many endurance bikes but also offering the capacity to explore terrain that endurance bikes cannot.

With those two categories calling into question the need for endurance road bikes at all, several brands now find themselves relying on complicated devices to augment or differentiate the ride characteristics of their designs.

Call me a purist but I think double-decker handlebars and suspension cartridges in steerer tubes are a misstep in terms of both performance – they tend to come with a weight penalty – and serviceability.

By contrast, the Min.D relies on simple, logical features (indeed its name is a pseudo-acronym of the term ‘Minimal Design’) to create use case-appropriate attributes.

If that rationale sounds familiar it’s because the person behind the Open Min.D is responsible for the 3T Strada, which was my pick in our ‘best aero bikes’ feature (issue 105). That person is Gerard Vroomen.

‘If I come up with an idea and it is aero I go to the CEO of 3T, Rene Wiertz. If it isn’t I go to my Open co-founder, Andy Kessler,’ Vroomen says.

The idea was to take everything Open had learned from its innovative work in the gravel discipline and apply it to the road. As a result Open made well-educated choices in the geometry to achieve an endurance bike’s bread and butter attributes: an attainable ride position and stable handling.

That manifests chiefly as regular stack and reach figures, but married to a slightly slacker head angle. This lengthens the bike’s trail and front-centre to achieve stability, but by pairing that with super-short 405mm chainstays, Open ensured the bike doesn’t have the turning circle of a cruise ship.

For comfort the Min.D simply maximises the area with most potential for absorbing vibration – the tyres – by designing around 32mm tyres. Further cushioning is afforded by the continuous seat tube, which is a scant 25mm in diameter.

A normal seatpost is 27.2mm across, meaning the seat tube that houses it tends be at least 28.6mm. By building them as one Open cleverly swerves this limitation to get extra flex.

A happy by-product of the frameset’s simplicity is an uncommonly low overall weight. That isn’t a top priority in endurance bikes, yet I think it plays as much a part in the enjoyment of riding as comfort does, given how tangibly it affects ride feel.

Open claims a medium frameset comes in at around 1.2kg, making it easily possible to achieve builds near the UCI’s 6.8kg weight limit (not that this bike is intended for racing).

Falling into love

I’ll admit it, before my time aboard the Min.D my passion for road riding had dimmed. Charging down a busy road on a race bike staring at inevitably disappointing power numbers had begun to lose its appeal.

By contrast, the tranquility and safety of gravel riding had started to hold more sway over my riding agenda, but then along came the Min.D and a pleasing middle ground arose.

Its combination of characteristics made the bike a delight to ride around the narrow, technical lanes I’m lucky to live amongst.

The Min.D was light enough to make their 20% gradients manageable and stable enough to pilot down twisting, narrow descents with confidence. Plus the often broken road surface was no match for the bike’s big tyres.

In short the Min.D opened up new avenues and in so doing made riding a road bike a pleasure once again. To me, Open has proved that when done right the endurance genre still has plenty to offer. And considering the level of refinement and versatility in bike design nowadays, that’s no mean feat.

Giant Defy

As chosen by editor Pete Muir

Read our full review of the Giant Defy here

Any bike-buying decision is a battle between the heart and the head. The heart says you should go for an Italian brand with oodles of heritage. The heart says you need the same bike as ridden by that guy who won the Tour de France. The heart says you should go for a futuristic bike with blade-like tubes and hi-tech integrated thingamajigs, like Batman would ride. That cape though, hardly aero.

But your head? The Giant Defy is the bike your head would choose.

Like most riders I’m very susceptible to romantic notions of Grand Tours and the rich history of the sport, and a seductively curved stay or a covetable head badge can easily divert my attention. But, like most riders, I also need to take a hard look in the mirror and remind myself of the rider I actually am, not the one I’d like to be.

I have to accept I’m not going to win the Tour de France, or any other race for that matter, so I don’t really need a bike that will shave a fraction of a second off my 10km time. Nor am I likely to be bothering the upper echelons of the Strava leaderboard for classic climbs, so it doesn’t really matter if my bike isn’t as light as a helium balloon.

Of course, I don’t want a slow bike, or a heavy bike, it’s just that these things are no longer the absolute priority. When I ask my cold, analytical brain what I should be looking for in a bike, this is what it tells me.

First, the bike needs to be comfortable. Who wants to come back from a ride with bruises from wrestling a jackhammer and a back aching from trying to maintain a position designed for aerodynamically efficient 22-year-olds? Not me.

The Defy has got this nailed. Its geometry is more upright than Giant’s pure racer, the TCR, making it forgiving without actually turning the bike into a stately cruiser.

Add in 32mm tubeless tyres as standard, plus the shock-absorbing D-Fuse bars and seatpost, and you couldn’t ask for a more polished ride. And not a bouncy suspension gizmo in sight.

Secondly, the bike needs to handle beautifully. After all, even if it’s not a race I still want to feel in control and I want the ride to be fun. That means being able to fling the bike into corners with abandon and descend hills with a grin rather than a grimace.

Again the Defy delivers in spades. That massive head tube and tight frame shape help to keep the bike stiff in the right directions, making for responsive handling, while a relatively long wheelbase and trail ensure stability at speed.

Ruthless efficiency

On top of all this my robot brain wants the best possible bike for the cash at my disposal. My head loves a bargain.

Giant may be a faceless behemoth – the biggest bike brand in the world – but that comes with certain advantages. It makes bikes for other brands such as Trek, Scott and Colnago, so it has all the technology and experience that those brands have, and more. In a sense its understanding of materials and how to make those materials into bikes is those brands’ technology and experience.

Giant can command the best talent in composites; it can test and refine products in-house more easily than other brands; it makes every component bar groupsets – recently resurrecting its Cadex brand to create high-end wheels to go with its tyres – so it can design and build bikes as a unified whole. Then, too, it has the economy of scale.

It’s not the sexiest brand in the market but I’m pretty certain it would be impossible to find a better-constructed frame, or a more complete bike, for the money. The equivalent Sram Force-specced Specialized Roubaix costs an extra £2,000 on top of a Defy, and my head tells me that the money would be better spent on a complete set of fancy cycling kit and a long weekend in Mallorca.

The dispassionate me knows the Defy is the bike I need; the bike I will enjoy riding the most. It’s the sensible choice. It’s my head’s choice. But once I pull it from the box, run an eye over its elegant lines and drink in its sparkling blue paintwork like the Mediterranean in the moonlight, my heart will be pretty happy as well.

Read more about the Giant Defy

And the winner is…

Which bike deserves a ceremonial cobble? Step forward the Synapse

There was at least one thing we agreed on here, quite by accident, and that’s the existential question of endurance bikes. Do they exist? How are they different from – in Sam’s words – that encroaching threat of lightweight bikes and gravel bikes, which seem to be drifting inexorably towards each other, despite starting poles apart.

But there’s a difference, at least for now, because try as they might there is no bike from any other category that can match what these bikes do, and that’s to make fast comfortable. It’s to make robust lightweight.

It’s to make the classically highly strung racer truly hardy. And it’s the Cannondale Synapse that trumps them all, receiving one first place and two second-place votes in our proportional representation voting system. But before we delve into why, it’s interesting to note the joint second place finishers: the Trek Domane and Specialized Roubaix.

When the big reveal came, we were all astonished that the Specialized and Trek hadn’t been anyone’s top choice considering the brands’ endurance bike heritage and the quality of their offerings today.

But when brass tacks were examined, we each realised that while clever active suspension designs – Trek’s IsoSpeed and Specialized’s FurtureShock – looked so enticing a few years back, time and tyres have put them in the shade.

Yes, maybe if you lived in the Arenberg Trench you’d want those bikes, but for the rest of us – and for a bike that holds real-world versatility as a core value – those bikes’ design elements look overly complex and overweight.

Each of the four bikes here ticks all the endurance boxes with the minimum of fuss. But not only does the Cannondale Synapse possess the tyre clearance, the shock-absorbing layup, the skinny flexy seatpost and racer-style geometry, it was also the first to take these elements and blend them into a bike that is comfortable, versatile, easy to live with and fast. It does it with simplicity and efficiency. Oh, and it also does it at a pretty affordable price.