The equipment used by professional racing cyclists has long informed the buying decisions of the rest of us, with new developments often requested by pros and debuted in the world’s toughest races, before their arrival on the shop floor where we can all buy the latest bikes and kit.
While weight, stiffness, and aerodynamics have led the design direction of many race bikes over the years, the development that has had a bigger impact on the sorts of bikes that British cyclists are buying in big numbers is that which we’ve seen at the classics and are to do with comfort and endurance. Races like Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, with their cobbled roads, place special demands on the equipment used.
As a result, manufacturers moved to develop suitable bikes designed expressly for tackling these races. So-called ‘endurance’ bikes, on account of their more relaxed riding positions and focus on long-distance comfort compared to out-and-out race bikes, share common features such as wider tyre clearance and frames designed to iron out the bumps. They’ve helped classics specialists like Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara to win races and have been warmly embraced by consumers.
Of course, there are those that would argue that the whole endurance bikes thing has been reverse engineered. Manufacturers want to create a new genre of bike for MAMILs and have used the classics as a marketing exercise, rather than the bikes have been created for the pros and then given to the masses.
Whichever way round it works, what are the features of these bikes?
The key difference between an endurance machine and a more traditional race bike design is the clearance for wider tyres. For a race like Paris-Roubaix, which has the most brutal pave of any of the classics, tyres range in width from 27 to 30mm. Very few traditional race bikes can accept such wide tyres. It’s why in the past we used to see whole teams racing cyclocross bikes.
The benefits of wide tyres have been discussed elsewhere on road.cc, and regular cyclists have quickly cottoned onto their advantages. A wide tyre run at a low pressure, and for a race like Paris-Roubaix we’re looking at about 60-70psi, soak up a lot of the vibration caused from riding over cobbles. The wider tyres also offer increased traction, useful on such an irregular surface, and especially with a coating of dust, dirt or mud over the granite stones. Riding over any sort of rough surface, especially cobbles, impedes progress and can be tiring on the body, so isolating the rider from the impacts means less fatigue and more energy for the decisive break of finish line sprint.
But it’s not just about wider tyres. Many manufacturers have also looked at ways of providing a smoother ride over the rough roads and cobbles by designing frames that can flex in a controlled way to provide additional compliance and dampen vibrations. From actual suspension dampers to special materials added to the carbon fibre, manufacturers have looked at varied ways of designing frames that can flex in a controlled manner to help soak up impacts caused by riding over rough roads or cobbles.
This combination of design features not only makes endurance bikes ideal bikes for racing in the classics, it is also a mix that works brilliantly on British roads. It’s no wonder UK cyclists have warmed to these bikes with many non-racing cyclists choosing an endurance model over a traditional-style race bike, realising the improved comfort from the more relaxed position, wider tyres and frame features are a winning combination.
Five classic Classics bikes
Not all endurance bikes are the same, though. Some manufacturers have gone to great lengths to develop bikes that offer a smooth ride. Here are five good examples of bikes developed for the classics, that take very different approaches to tackling the same problem, and each has been well received by UK cyclists. The other good news is that not all good endurance bikes need cost the earth either. On that bombshell let's crack on with our list…
The Synapse is a good example of a bike designed for classics racing that has been warmly embraced by both consumers and the media alike garnering big sales and a clutch of awards. The standard version was our Sportive Bike of the Year in 2014 while the disc braked version went one better taking our 2015 Bike of the Year title.
The current design of the Synapse first made its appearance back in 2013 and Peter Sagan immediately put it to good use. In the years since Cannondale has added that disc brake version which, while it hasn’t yet been used for racing yet, has become a big seller for Cannondale. Both non-disc and disc versions of the Synapse boast a frame and fork designed to smooth out the bumps, with a taller head tube and shorter top tube than the racier SuperSix Evo, and big tyre clearance.
The big deal with the Synapse though is that Cannondale's designers sought to smooth the ride by combining lots of small marginal gains (sorry) in the tube profiles, shapes and thickness mainly focused around the rear triangle - which they inevitably dubbed 'micro-suspension' in an effort to filter out the worth of the road buzz.
So super skinny seat stays, a skinny 25.4 seat post (and lots of it), and most radically of all a seat tube that splits in two as it meets the over-sized bottom bracket. The theory is you get the best of both worlds a stiff bottom bracket for efficient power transfer, but with the bump-taming benefits of a spit seat tube. And the theory works too. The Synapse is a bike that handles like a race machine, while taking the worst sting out of the roads. Oh, and there's one other good thing - it's available in a range of price points starting at £649.99 for the Shimano Claris equipped aluminium version.
Manufacturers have gone in different directions with their classics bikes, and the Infinito CV from Italian bike brand Bianchi is a very interesting bike.
While Cannondale has smoothed the ride with cleverly shaped tube profiles Bianchi has sought to do it via the frame material itself. The Infinito CV's carbon layup incorporates a layer of a CounterVail material - which Bianchi licences from its US manufacturer and the details of which it keeps a closely guarded secret. It serves to reduce the high frequency vibration passing through the frame to the rider, to make the ride smoother. It works, too. Bianchi launched the Infinito at Paris Roubaix a few years back and the launch included a ride over some of the most brutal sections of cobbles.
The Carrefour it has to be said, bears about the same relation to high frequency road buzz as a pneumatic drill does to a power tool. Even so, afterwards a couple of the Belgian journos who rode those sections regularly claimed they were noticeably less harsh on the Bianchi - something our own Mat Brett seemed to bear out by riding part way along the Carrefour no-handed. Show off.
No surprise than that the Bianchi Infinito CV was our Bike of the Year in 2013/14.
The Roubaix was one of the first bikes designed to provide a more comfortable position and ride than the race bike it was loosely based on. Now in its fourth generation, it has continued to be a common sight at the front of the peloton in the spring classics (the one below was Niki Terpstra's) and has been ridden to victory on numerous occasions.
Specialized’s big thing with the Roubaix is the Zertz inserts located in the skinny seatstays and slender forks, designed to allow both to flex when the wheels encounter a bump or hole. It’s the shape and cutouts in the carbon tubes that actually contributed to the compliance. The geometry is also far more relaxed than the Tarmac race bike, with one of the tallest head tubes in this category. Specialized has added several disc brake models to the Roubaix range.
While some manufacturers rely on shaped tubes or special materials added to the carbon layup, Trek has taken a more radical design approach with its Domane. The frame features a novel contraption in the top tube - a decoupler that allows the seat tube to flex back and forth under impacts. This being the bike world Trek haven't settled for calling it a decoupler it's an Isospeed decoupler. Trek soft-launched the first version of the Domane at the Strade Bianche back in 2012, and followed the same recipe this year when we got our first sighting of the latest version of the Domane when Fabian Cancellara piloted it to victory over the tough white roads of Tuscanny.
In 2016 Trek launched the Domane SLR which introduces an adjustable rear IsoSpeed decoupler, as well as a front IsoSpeed. Trek has also massively increased tyre clearance, with the non-disc version taking up 28mm tyres and the disc version ramps this up to 32mm, all while still accepting mudguards - via hidden mudguard mounts.
As Cannondale have done with the Synapse, Trek also have trickled their terrain taming technology right down through the price points - and beyond the confines of carbon only frames too with aluminium models, (check out our review of the aluminium Domane 2.0 above). The cleverness of both Trek and Cannondale's designs is that they lend themselves to this approach - whereas with a bike like the Bianchi, it's the expensive material that actually makes it work.
One other thing worth noting with the Domane - at least in its original incarnation, while it was and is very much a bike designed for the classics (and the latest version is probably going to be capable of tackling all sorts of terrain where road bikes normally don't go) it has been Cancellara's bike of choice for every race since its launch - it was also the bike Andy Schlek favoured too.
Relying on flex in a carbon tube only gets you so much compliance, the next step is to add some suspension. Pinarello took inspiration from early 90s mountain bikes with the development of its Dogma K8-S, launched this time last year. It uses a small suspension damper, with a simple elastomer spring, positioned at the top of the seatstays. Instead of a pivot, Pinarello has designed the chainstays to flex, providing a small amount of vertical rear wheel travel. Pinarello doesn’t tell us how much suspension travel is actually available, but it’s only a small amount, probably no more than 10-15mm.
Pinarello is developing a version of the K8 that does without the suspension damper. Team Sky's Luke Rowe has been testing this new K8 at the cobbled classics this year, so expect to see it coming to a bike shop near you soon - though don't expect to see the Dogma K8-S at dropping down through the price points. Interestingly both versions of the K8-S seemed to be on offer - our man on the spot suggested that the newer non-elastomer version seemed to be finding favour with the riders.
David has worked on the road.cc tech team since July 2012. Previously he was editor of Bikemagic.com and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds.