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road.cc Sportive Bike of the Year 2014/15

The 10 best sportive bike we've tested in the past 12 months

Welcome to the first ever road.cc Sportive and Endurance Bike of the Year Awards. Last year we we picked out one bike in this category, this year due to the number of bikes, and the high quality of bikes in this sector, we’ve expanded the award into a top 10, recognising the best sportive and endurance road bikes we have tested in the past 12 months and counting down to our winner at number 1.

It’s been a big year for sportive bikes and the most notable development has been the widespread adoption of disc brakes. Giant shocked many and gave a clear indication of their commitment to discs when they released the latest carbon version of the Defy - a bench mark setting sportive bike - as a range of disc brake only bikes.

Disc brakes do make a lot of sense on this sort of bike machines that will be ridden in a wide range of weather and road conditions often in large groups of riders with mixed abilities and handling skills. Plus, as we’ve seen with the new Defy, adding discs frees up what the designers can do to provide a more comfortable frameset.

What is a sportive or endurance bike?

The definition of a sportive bike does vary quite a bit from manufacturer to manufacturer and some now prefer the term endurance bike, but generally it’s accepted that a sportive bike is one designed to offer more comfort than an out-and-out race bike. While race bikes have traditionally been built purely for speed with little concession to comfort, sportive bikes offer much of the same performance and speed, but with geometry designed to offer increased comfort - typically with a taller front-end and shorter reach. That's good for beginners, non-racers and distance cyclists. The lines have blurred to some degree in recent years as bike designers and the pros have recognised that there can be performance benefits to a comfortable race bike and that not everyone wants or needs a super-upright positon on a sportive machine. 

As much as we’d like to think we have the flexibility that comes from spending 30-hours in the saddle every week like the pros do, the truth is that we just don’t and the more upright position of a sportive bike is very appealing. These days though not all sportive bikes have that tall a head tube - it's just not as low as an out and out race bike. Last year's Bike of the Year the Bianchi Infinito CV is a good example of this sort of bike, as is the Canyon Enduroad and these sorts of newer sportive bike are the ones that their makers tend to tag as endurance bikes.

It's not just height and reach that sets sportive bikes apart from race bikes, another area where they vary from the race bikes they’re often loosely based on is the option to fit wider tyres - some sportive bikes allow you to fit 28mm tyres, in some cases even 30mm tyres. Some of these bikes have been developed by the manufacturers for the professional teams to batter over the cobbles of northern France, and it’s this focus that makes them really well suited for the vast majority of cyclists. Wider tyres boost comfort, even going from 23 to 25mm makes a big difference.

If you’re not racing, and ride for fun, escapism, adventure, fitness, then you might find you’re better served by a sportive bike. As well as the increased comfort, both from comfort-boosting features to a more relaxed and upright riding position, these bikes often offer more versatility and some are fitted with mudguard eyelets, making them ideal candidates for winter riding and commuting, where mudguards can keep you much drier and cleaner than without them.

Without further ado, let’s take a look at our Top 10 Sportive and Endurance bikes of the year…

10. Vitus Venon £1149.00

The Vitus Venon from Chain Reaction Cycles provides a cracking ride that is fun and comfortable over longer distances, and doesn’t cost the earth. It’s amazing to see how far road bikes have come that you can now get a carbon fibre bike for this sort of money, and fortunately the Vitus Venon doesn’t disappoint in the all-important ride and performance stakes. It’s the sort of bike that could easily turn its hand to a 100-mile sportive then have you lining up for some crit racing action, followed by riding to work on Monday morning.

Some cheaper carbon frames can feel pretty lifeless and dead, a bit like riding a barndoor. Not so with the Venon. It has a decent turn of speed and quick handling, both factors which combine to put a smile on your face every time you head out onto the open road.

Not all sportive bikes are equal, as this list of bikes here will demonstrate, manufacturers come at the category with their own ideas and influences. That means there’s a bike for everyone. The Venon isn’t quite your classic sportive bike in terms of the geometry, it’s not particularly high at the front or short in the top tube, but that didn’t prevent us from finding it a comfortable ride. The wider 25mm tyres, the minimum width any decent sportive bike will be fitted with these days, certainly go some way to smoothing out the ride.

There’s plenty of speed on tap with the Venon and it’s a real joy to ride fast, but it has the comfort and stability that many will seek in a sportive bike. The Venon just nudges closer to the race bike category than some of the others. That may suit you well, but if you want a taller front-end on your sportive bike, you might be better served by one of the other bikes in our top ten list. If you do think the Venon fits the bill though the good news is that it's currently reduced to £829.99.

But it here.

9. Volagi Liscio £1595.00 (frameset)

Disc brakes, if you hadn’t spotted (but only if you haven’t been a reading road.cc for the past couple of years) are big news in the road bike market, but Volagi were one of the early adopters with the Liscio, well before most of the big boys, and even more boldly they didn’t offer a rim brake version. From the outset the Liscio's frame was designed solely with disc brakes in mind.

That set the Liscio apart when it first launched, but now many new road bikes are being offered with disc brakes. So, what really sets the Liscio apart are the unique aesthetics, with the swooping tube tube flowing seamlessly into the curved seatstays.

The curve isn’t just for style though, the Long Bow Flex Stays, as they call them, are designed to provide comfort - as you can see in the picture the seat stays actually pass around the seat tube and connect at the top tube. The stays flex just enough to take the sting out of vibrations and impacts, but not to the detriment of performance, because the Liscio certainly provides plenty of gusto when you desire it.

Another appealing aspect of the Liscio is the option to fit up to 28mm tyres and mudguards, making it a really good all-round bike.

Find out more.

8. Ridley Fenix Classic Ultegra £2500.00

Like the Trek Domane, the Ridley Fenix Classic is another bike born on the cobbled roads of northern France and Belgium, and it provides a comfortable, well-mannered ride that doesn’t lack for speed at all.

Unlike the Domane, with its IsoSpeed Decoupler, Ridley have concentrated on the carbon fibre layup to soften the ride, using a lower tensile grade of carbon fibre to inject the comfort sportive bikes need to offer in comparison to stiff no-compromise race bikes. It works, The Fenix Classic is a comfortable ride and copes well with the broken roads and cobbles it was designed for, taking the sting out of harsh and bumpy surfaces, the sort that are very common around the road.cc office and testing grounds.

Given its professional racing development (it’s common for racers to use 27mm tyres in the cobbled Classics) the Fenix Classic will cater for up to 28mm tyres, though the stock bike comes fitted with 25mm tyres, so that’s an easy way to add a bit more cushioning if you need it.

Find out more.

7. Trek Domane 2.0 £900.00

The DNA from this bike can be traced to the same bike that Fabian Cancellara used to win Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders, and away from the rigours of racing the Domane is a versatile all-round platform that places an emphasis on comfort. It achieves this using Trek's unique IsoSpeed Decoupler, a device in the top tube/seat tube junction that effectively separates the seat tube and allows a small range of rearward movement. Hit a bump, and the seatpost flexes back, helping to dampen the harsh vibrations caused by bumpy road surfaces.

Trek offer the Domane at a wide range of prices, in both carbon fibre at the higher end and aluminium at the more affordable end. At £900 the aluminium Domane 2.0 costs a fraction of the bike Cancellara uses but it doesn’t lack in the performance department, offering a smooth ride thanks to the novel IsoSpeed Decoupler, while it doesn’t have the same sensitivity of the carbon Domane, you really notice it on bigger impacts. It’s certainly a smoother ride than most regular aluminium frames as a result of the design.

Trek top the frame off with a good value build comprising a Shimano Tiagra groupset with a triple chainset, something you do see on the more affordable sportive bikes - if you live someplace hilly or are just starting out in cycling, the extra low gears a triple chainset can be a very welcome addition. The Domane 2.0 is finished with durable Bontrager components, wheels and tyres, and that last part, the tyres, was the only blemish on an otherwise excellent package.

Buy it here.

6. NeilPryde Zephyr £2899.00

Never heard of NeilPryde? They’re a relatively young company but they arrived in the cycling market a few years, and brought their windsurfing carbon fibre design and manufacturing experience with them, the Zephyr is their first a sportive-orientated model.

It has the relaxed geometry required of a sportive bike, but it follows the Canyon Endurace school of bicycle design in that the front-end is a smidgen higher than their race bike, but it’s not as high as most other sportives bikes, like the Specialized Roubaix to pick one example. As well as the taller head tube, the top tube is a little shorter than NeilPryde’s race-ready Bura SL. That brings the handlebar closer to you which combined with the extra front-end height, makes it more comfortable.

What NeilPryde have tried to create with the Zephyr is a bike that is ready to race the longer races, without the same extreme position as a fully fledged race bike, but it’s not so upright that you don’t have an aero efficiency when in the drops giving it the full beans.

Find out more.

5. Rose Xeon Team GF-3100 £1733.64

The Rose is one of only two aluminium bikes to make our sportive bike top 10 and the only one in the top 5. Carbon fibre is without doubt a desirable frame material for its weight and stiffness ratio, but aluminium still has plenty to offer, and this Rose Xeon Team GF-3100 is a very good demonstration.

With less money tied up in the frame there’s more room for a higher spec, and German company Rose, who sell direct to the consumer much like Canyon, outfit the bike with a Shimano Ultegra Di2 groupset, making it a stunning package for the asking price - yes, we're going to deploy the phrase 'bangs per buck'.

Aluminium might not be a fashionable material but the Rose offers exactly the sort of ride anyone looking for a sportive bike demands. Firstly, the frame has a longer wheelbase, providing extra stability whether pootling along or going like the clappers, and the head tube is taller to raise the handlebars.

Something we really liked about the Rose is the easy adjustability of the handlebar height: instead of regular steerer tube spacers there are large aluminium spacers that screwing into the top of the headset, and are available in 2 and 4cm heights. That gives a nicer look to the frame if you need to raise the bars, and provides less loss of stiffness than having a large stack of narrow spacers under the stem.

The frame is well finished too, with internal DI2 and brake cable routing, a tapered head tube and a PressFit86 bottom bracket providing plenty of stiffness when you crank hard on the pedals. It’s right on-trend with a chainstay mounted rear brake and this frees up the seatstays to be a very narrow diameter tube which helps with the comfort. With bikes beauty is always in the eye of the beholder, but the Rose got pretty much a full house of compliments when it arrived at the office for testing.

If you want the best specced bike for the least amount of money, there are few bikes that rival the Rose. A commendable choice.

Find out more.

4. Verenti Insight 0.3 £996.00

A sportive bike should offer good handling, a nice turn of speed and a comfortable riding position. The Verenti Insight 0.3 from online retailer Wiggle delivers on all three counts, and does so at a really attractive prize. Just under a grand for a clean carbon fibre frame and Shimano 105 groupset is good going.

It’s a thoroughly modern frame. A tapered head tube with a carbon fibre fork, but they’ve avoided internal cable routing the the gear cables are routed outside of the down tube, which certainly makes life for the home mechanic much easier. The geometry plucks a nice balance, with plenty of room in the longish top tube and the tall head tube ensuring you don’t crick your neck reaching for the bars, and making the drops fully accessible even for the most inflexible cyclist. The short wheelbase, unlike typical sportive bikes which stretch out the wheelbase, keeps the handling nippy and engaging, this is a bike you can really chuck around much liek a race bike. You could race it if you wanted, it’s plenty stiff and fast enough.

It’s a well appointed bike with Shimano’s excellent 105 groupset (10-speed) in all the key places, including a compact 50/34t chainset to help you up the hills - most of the sportive bikes in this feature come fitted with low ratio gears, and that includes a compact chainset. It gives you plenty of help on the hills.

Buy it here.

3. Giant Defy Advanced SL 0 £7999.00

On to the podium and the only bike that really pushes our winner close in terms of comfort is the excellent new Giant Defy, a brand new version of a much loved model from the biggest bicycle company in the business. The only thing Giant kept from the old Defy is the geometry, if it works why change it, and that means the Defy offers brilliant handling, stable for long rides yet enticing the racer out of you when the desire and legs allow.

Key to the Defy’s comfort is the new D-Fuse seatmast, a d-shaped tube section, repeated in the top tube, and super skinny seatstays that meet the seat tube much lower down than previously, providing up to 11mm of deflection according to Giant. You can really feel it when you’re riding as well, though the ferocity of the impact dictates how much it deflects. It’s just enough to really take the sting out of the road, it doesn’t isolate you, but provides just enough feedback. The 25mm tyres are another measure to provide comfort, and there’s space for even bigger tyres.

The eye-watering price of this range-topping Defy, with Shimano Di2 and Zipp 202 carbon fibre wheels prevented what is without doubt a great bike from challenging for the very top spot in this category. Like Cannondale, Giant use virtually the same frame throughout the range, and it’s a big range of bikes. Lower down models drop the seatmast in favour of a regular seatpost which will please some people, but it remains to be seen how much deflection it offers in comparison. We are keen to test one of the more affordably priced models in the range - thinking in these parts is that had we tested one this year, the battle for top spot would have been very close indeed.

You can only buy the carbon Defy models with disc brakes - Giant have made the biggest commitment to disc brakes of any of the main brands, and the Defy is their best-selling model, so they’ve obviously confident customers won’t be put off by the brake change. We can only applaud Giant for the decision, the bike benefits so massively from the hydraulic disc brakes that really, there is no good reason to want traditional caliper brakes over these discs.

Find out more.

2. Canyon Endurace CF 9.0 SL £2506.15

The Endurace is an all-new platform from German direct-sales business Canyon, and fills a much vacant slot in their range, which up until this point was predominantly focused on out-and-out race bikes.

This bikeis a good example of how there is no standard sportive blueprint, just a general set of guiding principles. It’s taller in the head tube than their race bike, to place the handlebars higher so there’s less strain on your neck if you’re not a racing snake, that much is true, but it’s not as high as many, indeed most, bikes in the sportive sector. It’s taller in measurement than their Ultimate and Aeroad race bikes, but lower than the majority.

For people that find themselves caught between the desire to have a low front-end of a typical race bike and put off by some of the extremely tall head tubes on sportive bikes, Canyon gets the balance just right with the Endurace.

Geometry aside, the frame has been treated to some of Canyon’s VCLS technology, in the fork, rear stays and that unique seatpost, with the intention of providing a smoother ride. Canyon have smartly not just focused on the frame, but given all the bikes in the Endurace range wheels with wide rims and 25mm tyres, that due to the wider rims balloon up to 27mm. We found this contributed hugely to the smooth ride the Endurace, but it’s a crisper more alert feeling frame than say the Cannondale Synapse which definitely edges it on pure smoothness.

Find out more.

1. Cannondale Synapse Carbon Ultegra Disc £2499.99

For the ultimate endurance road bike, you need look no further. The original Cannondale Synapse Carbon Ultegra walked off with our inaugural sportive bike of the year award last year, and the disc brake upgrade this year yet with the same price tag made it the standout sportive bike of the past 12 months.

Disc brakes have been the big talking point in the past 12 months and it’s clear, from riding the Synapse, that they’re perfectly suited to sportive bikes. Someone buying and riding a sportive bike isn’t worried about whether disc brakes are UCI legal or not, they’re more interested in all-round performance, and disc brakes provide a wonderful advantage in the wide range of riding conditions a typical sportive bike is going to be used for. For many people this is their one bike, and in the depths of the winter on muddy lanes and in the height of the summer, there’s not a situation when disc brakes don’t offer a tangible benefit.

These new Shimano RS685 hydraulic disc brakes with mechanical Ultegra shifters are fantastic. They’re cheaper than Shimano’s first generation Di2/hydro disc brake for a start, and the performance from the 140mm disc rotors provides wonderful reassurance in all riding situations.

If there’s a disadvantage it’s in the weight increase the Synapse has sustained in the disc brake upgrade - it’s evident this is new technology and the wheel weight will come down with time. But here’s the thing, the weight wasn’t a detractor throughout the test, it rode lighter than the weight on the scales suggested it should, and having solidly reliable brakes on the descents easily compensated for the slight extra baggage on the ascents.

Cannondale have done a great job of designing the Synapse around the disc brakes, and it’s a great looking bike, better that last year’s bike. The bike retains all the key features that made the Synapse such a hit last year, and providing flawless comfort over rough roads. The frame has some heavily manipulated tube profiles and shaping, specific carbon fibre layup and a skinny 25.4mm seatpost, which all combine to make it a smooth performer.

There’s space for big tyres too, and the bike came specced with big 28mm tyres. These are a smart choice, they’re incredibly comfortable, rough roads pass unnoticed beneath the tyres, and they’re no slouch at higher speeds either. Everything about the new Synapse is just spot-on and that's why it's our Sportive & Endurance Bike of the Year.

Buy it here.

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.

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