Two-wheel drifting through the corner of a rutted and gravel strewn road, clouds of white dust billowing up around me and stones pinging off the granite wall just a couple of feet to me right, I instantly know this new Cannondale Synapse Hi-Mod is something special.
Cannondale’s new Synapse made its first public appearance when some of the Cannondale Pro Cycling team raced it at the Strade Bianche race in Tuscany a few weeks back - a tough race that takes in rough roads cut through chalk. That's why it's called the Strade Bianche - White Road. It's an ideal test for an endurance race bike. What better place to launch the bike to the world’s cycling media than on those very same roads that weave through the rolling hills interlaced with vineyards?
Strade bianche is to Italy what pavé is to Belgium. They’re all public roads, though not heavily used, and are essential country lanes that the Italians never got round to covering in Tarmac. Good job because they’rejolly good fun to ride. I’ve never ridden a road bike on such roads, but I'll save that for a blog.
We covered the technical aspects of the new Synapse Hi-Mod in our piece on the launch last week. Suffice to say that it is a major redesign of the previous version. More than just a simple model refresh, Cannondale say they have spent the last three years developing this new bike. It's certainly impressive to ride, but it's up against stiff competition from Trek, BMC and Bianchi all of whom have launched their own endurance race bikes in the last 12 months in the shape of the Domane, GranFondo, and Infinito CV respectively. And then, of course, there's the Specialized Roubaix, the daddy of them all, which itself has evolved in a more performance-oriented direction.
Endurance road bike? It's the new buzz phrase for a rapidly emerging new segment in the road bike market. It’s essentially a race bike for those who don’t race. It’s a Maserati GranTurismo to a single seat race car - fast but comfortable over long distances. So you have the ride characterises, stiffness and lightness of a race bike, but with more comfort dialled in through the geometry. Such bikes have been popular on the Continent for a long time, where GranFondo’s are often raced, and similarly with the explosion of the sportive scene in the UK in the past eight years.
It’s also about handling, and the strada bianche are an ideal, if extreme, place to demonstrate the Cannondale's capabilities. The roads are rough and covered in gravel. In some places they are fast and firm where the gravel has been washed away, leaving a very rippled washboard surface. Transition to the edges of the road and there’s deep swathes of gravel that can catch your wheel and have you drifting off line. The steep Tuscan descents (the hills around here have ferocious gradients) are often covered in braking bumps caused by cars and trucks, that make the bike jump and jolt violently, so much so that we lost several water bottles on one ride.
After two days of riding these roads, and about 170km (106 miles) in total, I had found out that the three years Cannondale spent developing this bike weren’t wasted. Cannondale have created a very fine handling bike that deals with irregular surfaces with assured confidence. Considering I jumped straight on to my demo bike and hit the gravel roads for the first time ever, I felt very comfortable and confident on the Synapse.
The ‘micro suspension’ features of the frame really do seem to work. They're not so noticeable that you feel them straight away - certainly not when riding on smooth roads. Instead, it’s the way the bike handles the rough gravel roads that demonstrates how effective the frame and fork are at responding to high frequency vibrations. It’s phenomenally smooth and handles the multiple surface variations with stunning ability. Cannondale had fitted the bikes with 28mm Schwalbe Ultremos and while it's fair to say they must have added to the smoothness, they were not by any means the whole story from what I could tell.
You can detect the frame response on the smaller washboard surface. Road chatter is reduced and the violence of the impacts that reach the saddle is muted. It’s not like riding a magic carpet though; there’s still enough feedback that you’re able to sense the surface underneath the tyres, so you can feel the level of grip and exploit it. The point is that the harshness has been removed. Mat and Tony reported a similar ride feel from their time on on the Bianchi Infinito CV a few weeks back, a bike which in many respects sounds like it is coming from a similar place as the Synapse Hi Mod.
There’s the same level of vibration damping occurring no matter your position on the bike. It works when you’re seated or standing on the pedals. This was most well demonstrated on the corners of the gravel roads. In places there’s a lot of camber, and the inside of the corners are the fastest way to link up the turns, by using the banking. But in some places there’s deep swathes of gravel, while in others it’s been washed away and it’s a ruinous line of braking bumps, cracks, holes and rocks.
Leaning into the corner, banking the bike over, outside pedal in the six o'clock position, the Synapse is able to track a controllable line. Sure, you're still being jolted about - this is a rough road after all - but, crucially, because the bike isn’t being flung about by the impacts and not bring thrown off line, you have the confidence to stay off the brakes, hold your line through the bend and stay on the pedals. The Synapse offers tangible traction benefits in such situations, as essentially the tyres are in contact with the ground more of the time.
This is the interesting aspect about this bike. It’s not out-and-out as stiff as a race bike, but because there’s a degree of deflection afforded through the frame, the bike is faster over rougher terrain. Which means you can stay on the pedals and keep your speed up. It was this ability to remain composed and stable over such rough ground that most impressed.
The strade bianche is an extreme place to test a bike, Cannondale admitted as much but it only takes a short leap of the imagination to envisage that all the benefits on these roads are going to translate to roads less rough. There are plenty of roads on my local patch that are just horrible on very stiff and light race bikes, as they skitter and scrabble for grip.
Like the Roubaix pavé, the Strade Bianche sections are quite short - the longest we rode was 10km. It was a monster, though, with more climbing than is fair on a day when the temperature climbed to 31°C [okay, no need to rub it in - Ed].
These sections of gravel road, all used in the L’Eroica event, are linked by regular roads. In most places, these are gloriously smooth, but Italy has its fair share of potholes and cracked surfaces too.
There’s not a flat road in the area either, it’s all up and down. Steep ascents, swooping downhills, tight hairpins - it’s a heady mixture if you like riding a road bike fast and pushing to the limits on the corners. On these roads the Synapse displayed a level of competence and speed that closes the gap to its full-on race SuperSix Evo stablemate. It devours the miles, ticking off climbs with thrilling tenacity. There really appears to be little compromise on the road when riding hard and fast.
On the short ,sharp hills, out of saddle efforts revealed the Synapse to be quite stiff under load. There isn’t much twist or undesired deflection to note. It tracks through the sweep bends with grace and speed, the handling light and responsive. My only complaint with sportive bikes is a personal one related to fit, and that is that they’re usually too high and a bit short, and that was the case with the test bike. I solved it by spending more time in the drops. That’s the upshot of the taller head tubes on this type of bikes - people that perhaps lack the flexibility of Peter Sagan can at least reach the drops without crippling themselves.
Our ride finished with a sprint to the hotel, a straight road flanked by beautiful tall trees and with a graceful curve that ramps up progressively towards the entrance. In the big ring, on the drops and giving it some power, the Synapse delivered real speed. I can see why Sagan has been so willing to ride the bike, and has been so successful on it. “Where’s the compromise with this bike?” was the question on my lips as I rolled to a stop.
If there are any compromised they weren't visible. Of course, this is just a first impression - I haven't had the chance to live with the Synapse yet and get to know it more. We’ve got our name down for one of the first demo bikes in the UK so I’ll be very keen to see how the bike's handling characteristics translate to more familiar roads.
Shifting is incredibly crisp and precise, with a very light lever action. I had a 53/39 chainset with an 11-28 cassette which gave me a wide enough range to spin up the steepest hills.
You can even cross from big chainring to big sprocket with this transmission, with no problems. It works fine. There is a little more noise in this combination, though. The front shifting was the most impressive. It's as quick as Shimano Di2 with a very light and crisp action.
The only departure from the SRAM groupset is Cannondale’s own Hollowgram SiSL2, which wil be shipping on some models. It’s a 484g chainset with a hollow two-piece clamshell design and 10 redial spider arms to increase the stiffness. They told us it was inspired by looking at the wheels of racing cars. Shifting performance was excellent, with good stiffness when pedalling.
Wheels were Vision’s brand new Metron 40s. These are available in tubular or as carbon clinchers; I rode the latter. It was developed using CFD and tested in a wind tunnel, and has a 40mm deep rim with a new wider and bulbous rim shape. The wheel weight is a claimed 1,200g. I didn’t spend enough time on them to form a verdict, but I was impressed with their braking performance, which proved to be measured and progressive, with no snatching at higher temperatures.
Mounted to the rims were 28mm Schwalbe Ultremo tyres. I’ve only ridden such wide tyres on a touring bike, but they proved impressive on the gravel roads. They were inflated to 90psi front and rear and gave good grip and no doubt contributed to the ride of the Synapse. It will be interesting to test the bike with 25mm tyres or narrower on UK roads. The most interesting thing about the fat tyres is that they didn’t feel sluggish on the Tarmac roads at all, and traction through the bends was great.
Finishing kit was all from FSA, including a carbon handlebar and matching seatpost, and a Fizik Aliante saddle.
We covered the tech details of the new Synapse in our launch article, but here’s a recap. Cannondale have developed a three pronged approach to dealing with the high frequency vibrations that can cause a stiff and uncomfortable ride. It’s called SAVE+, a combination of an advanced carbon fibre layup, shaped chainstays, seatstays and fork, plus a curved seat tube and narrow seatpost
For the first time on the Synapse platform, they’ve used the BallisTec carbon fibre from the SuperSix Evo, laid in a way to maximise inter-laminar shear in order to dissipate high frequency vibrations. They then tune the stiffness and comfort characteristics of the frame by placing strips of ultra- and high-modulus carbon fibres throughout the frame.
Next is the shape of the seat stays and chainstays, which have been carefully designed to absorb vibrations. The twisted helix seatstays increase the length of the fibres – the fibres are longer than the actual seat stays – meaning that vibrations take longer to travel up the stays. This damps out more of the high frequency vibrations. You can think of the seatstays as like a section of a spring pulled from end to end, and they also twist and compress.
And then there’s the shaped seat tube and skinny seat post. The seat tube has an unmistakable scalloped shape on the trailing edge to allow it to bow fore/aft.
The seat tube accepts a narrow diameter 25.4mm seatpost, and by integrating the clamp into the frame, they’ve increased the amount of available post that can deflect under impacts.
Cannondale didn't give any figures on the amount of vertical deflection this provides. They were keen to stress these ‘micro suspension’ features are designed to work in unison to dampen high frequency vibrations to make for a more comfortable and smooth ride, whether you’re seated in the saddle out standing up on the pedals. They wanted to design a bike that offers you the benefits of the extra compliance in all situations. They're trying to get away from the concept of a bike just designed to offer seated comfort.
Weight wasn't a number one priority with the new Synapse; that's the Evo's arena. Even so, a 56cm frame weighs a claimed 950g, which compares to 720g for an Evo in its lighter configuration.
Cannondale are an innovative company and they have come up with a novel alternative to the stack of spacers that blight many bikes on the road. A silicone housing encases three small LEDs with an integrated battery. It is colour matched to the frame, so it blends in, and is said to offer better battery life than a similar Knog. They’re working on a matching rear light as well. I like it. If you are going to have your stem high you might as well make better use of the space filled by spacers. It looks better too.
First impressions are good, but the real test will be riding the Synapse on familiar UK roads. We’re down for the first bike in the UK so we’ll be able to bring you that test fairly soon. What is clear is that the Synapse is a potential game changer. We’re seeing a lot of new bikes in this sector. There’s the all-conquering Trek Domane, Merida’s Ride, the new Bianchi Infinito CV that Mat rode recently, plus others from BMC and Specialized. There’s a lot of choice.
Such a bike is a balance of stiffness, weight and ride comfort - with a lot of emphasis on comfort. From this first ride it appears that Cannondale have got it just right, producing a bike that is capable of winning professional road races yet offering a sublime ride that excels when the going gets rough. Plus, it doesn’t compromise on the smooth and steep roads.
If you don't safety pin a number to your jersey every weekend but still enjoy pushing yourself hard and fast, then this could be the bike for you. The endurance bike category is really starting to heat up, and the Synapse is a serious contender for the crown.
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.