First published 22nd April 2018
The Giant Contend SL 1 is an absolutely spot-on all-day ride. It's a comfortable and versatile sportive/endurance bike with a dependable feel that encourages you to keep going and just do those extra few miles.
It takes whatever it encounters in its stride with an unflappable assurance that's just what you want in a bike for long rides, handling everything from twisty descents on smooth surfaces to tatty dirt roads, Belgian cobbles and even singletrack trails with equal aplomb.
Shortly after the Contend SL 1 landed for test, I had a week's family holiday in Belgium booked, so I took it with me. The rolling hills and vast range of road surfaces of the region provided the perfect testing ground. I was able to ride classic Belgian cobbles, beautifully smooth fresh tarmac, dirt roads through farm country, concrete-surfaced cycleways and even singletrack through woods, thanks to an interesting bit of routing provided by some bike-specific open-source maps.
As I'm a fat git, climbing is my weakness, so let's talk about that first. The Contend SL 1 is a steady, efficient climber. Sit down, hunker into the Giant own-brand short-reach bar and it carries you uphill with calm focus. This isn't a superlight, mountain-conquering race bike, urging you to whizz frantically uphill like you're chasing a Tour podium rival, but it gets the job done without fuss. In other words, it suits my climbing style, which doesn't exactly involve dancing on the pedals at 6W/kg.
When the road surface gets crummy the Contend SL 1's Giant P-SL 1 tyres come into their own. They're fast, thanks to a smooth tread pattern, grippy on everything from smooth tarmac to packed-down soil, and confident, with plenty of cushioning and suppleness to keep the bike on track.
They're not fat enough to fully isolate you from cobbles and the bigger lumps of stony farm road surfaces, but they certainly make rough roads a lot more fun than 23mm rubber. I didn't get a chance to try anything fatter in the Contend, but I suspect it'd be an absolute hoot with 28mm tyres and there's just about enough room.
The Giant D-Fuse seatpost is supposed to help take the sting out of the road too, but I couldn't tell. Maybe my arse just isn't sensitive enough (stop sniggering at the back) but the composite post just didn't seem to move enough to absorb any significant amount of road buzz.
For me, the Contend SL 1's only slight weakness is that its high-speed handling isn't quite as precise as that of a pure race bike. I like to go downhill fast, and I never felt quite as comfortable pushing the Contend into high-speed curves as I do on a racier bike. That said, I've ridden much worse sportive bikes, with front ends so tall and short there's way too little weight on the front wheel to glue it down in turns. The Contend's not a bad descender, it's just not a corners-on-rails 50mph thriller.
The final ride of my holiday took place in Essex and Cambridgeshire. My family dropped me just off Junction 7 of the M11 so they could drive home via a detour to pick up a new addition to the canine pack while I rode.
It was a glorious sunny day and the Contend SL 1 and I had reached that point of man-bike harmony that you achieve after a few weeks' riding if the bike is right. I blatted through the lanes at an average of 19mph, aided by a south-by-southwesterly wind, but I never felt like I was having to exert myself especially hard.
In short, if you've a grand to spend and you want a bike that was born to tap out 20mph all day long, this is it.
Our size ML sample has a reach of 381mm and stack of 586mm. That's similar in reach to many of its competitors and slightly lower. I replaced the 10cm stem with a 13cm unit to get the reach to the handlebar right, but I have a long back.
Bar, stem and cranks are all sized proportionally to the frame across the size range. The cranks on this size are 172.5mm. It's good to see that they go down to 165mm on the XS.
The Giant Connect bar here is 42cm wide, with a relatively short throw and shallow reach. That has pros and cons. The short throw is part of the reason I needed that slightly silly 13cm stem to get the reach to the hoods right, but on the upside, the drops are within easy reach. You don't have to be a gymnast to get into the tucked position, so switching between hoods and drops is easy. I often found myself just cruising along in the drops, especially when I wanted the extra control that position provides to handle rougher surfaces.
The Contend SL 1 gets its fine ride from a carefully designed aluminium frame made from the 6011 alloy that Giant calls ALUXX SL. It has the full suite of modern features: tapered head tube and fork steerer; internal cable routing; extensive use of tube shaping and butting to tune the ride and save weight; and a wide bottom bracket shell with press-fit bearings.
The seatpost is held in place by a concealed internal wedge clamp. The seat tube and post have a D-shaped cross section to keep the saddle aligned. All very tidy-looking.
There are also mudguard mounts front and rear if you want to stay drier when it rains, and Giant offers a clamp for the seatpost so you can fit a rack if you want to carry stuff.
Shimano provides the Contend's shifting, with 105 brake/shift levers and derailleurs popping the chain between 50/34 chainrings and across an 11-32 11-speed cassette. The 34x32 low was welcome on the short but steep Belgian bergs, but despite my affection for going downhill fast I don't think I ever needed the 50x11 top gear.
When the 105 group was first released, our Stu called the shifting 'spot on' and I can't disagree. Trimming the front mech remains slightly tricky, though.
Giant's used the cheaper, solid, five-arm RS500 crankset instead of the four-arm hollow 105 crankset. Aesthetically that's slightly disappointing, but there's no significant difference in function.
The brakes are also a departure from the full 105 group, being Tektro R540. They're not bad at all, but they still don't have the authority of Shimano's brakes. An upgrade to Shimano R55 pads would make a substantial difference for not much money.
I'm ambivalent about the seatpost's D-shaped cross-section. On the one hand it means your saddle is always straight, which is a nice faff-reduction feature, and it makes for a tidy but internal frame clamp. But it also means nobody else's seatposts will fit and I can't imagine a spare being easy to find if Giant stops using the design.
Wheels and tyres
Like many manufacturers, Giant specs own-brand wheels and tyres, and there's a surprising amount to talk about here. At 807g for the front wheel and 1088g for the rear (with rim tapes), the PR-2 wheels aren't light, but those are perfectly respectable numbers for wheels with 23.5mm rims and 24 Sapim Race spokes front and rear.
Despite battering the Contend SL 1 over all sorts of challenging road surfaces, I had no problems with the wheels and they're as straight now as they were when they came out of the box. That's testament to the strength that comes from wider rims, and as a non-svelte rider I'll cheerfully put up with the extra weight to get improved dependability.
The wider rim has another advantage too: it fattens up the nominally 25mm Giant P-SL 2 tyres to 27mm across, improving their already good grip and cushioning. Giant says the front and rear tyres have different rubber compounds, but there's something else going on here too, because the rear tyre is heavier than the front: 258g v 238g.
The tread turns out to be about half a millimetre thicker on the rear tyre. That's smart thinking. Rear tyres wear quicker because they slip very slightly when you pedal, so a bit of extra rubber will extend the tyre's life.
I suffered just one penetration puncture while riding the Contend, when a centimetre-long thorn went through the tyre at the edge of the tread, apparently sneaking past Giant's Deflect 2 anti-puncture strip. My annoyance at having to stop and fix it was alleviated by the discovery that the tyres can be taken off without tools.
That's no small boon. The ETRTO (Eurpoean Tyre and Rim Technical Organisation, the standards-setting body for tyres) seems to have lost control of the way bike tyres and rims are supposed to fit together. It's a complete crapshoot whether any random combination of tyres and rims will be easy to fit, and some of the worst pairings are almost impossible to deal with in the field. It's reassuring to know that when you get a puncture you can easily change a tube.
You might want to buy a second set of lighter or more aerodynamic wheels for events and other special rides, but for everyday training and especially for commuting, the stock wheels are excellent.
You have a vast range of choice at this price. Cube's Attain SL has a slightly taller stack (despite being billed as a race bike) and 105 brakes and chainset, but no provision for mudguards, and skinnier wheels than the Contend SL.
If you want something racier, then the Trek Emonda ALR 4 would be hard to go past, even though it means a step down to Shimano's Tiagra group, and if you want something more rugged you have lots of disc-brake-equipped choices like the GT Grade Al Tiagra. And if you want something very similar but with discs, Giant has you covered with the Contend SL 2 Disc, which is why I'm not going to blather on about disc v rim brakes here.
Despite a couple of niggles, the Giant Contend SL 1 is a great bike for £1,000. It has a fine balance of long-ride comfort and assured, sustainable pace and it refuses to be fazed by annoying trivialities like crummy road surfaces.
It's also a bike that hits a target with amazing precision. It's fast enough and comfortable enough for long days in the saddle chasing sportive and audax personal bests, while its ability to take mudguards, and tyre-expanding wide rims mean it'll point and laugh at bad weather and it eats potholed streetscapes for breakfast.
As I said in our Just In, the Contend SL 1 is what we used to call a fast road bike. It's not 100 per cent racy, but it's quick and versatile in a way that makes it spot-on for club riding, audaxes, long commutes and adding the lovely swish of bike tyres to the sounds of the countryside all year round.
Balanced and assured aluminium endurance bike equally suited to long rides at pace and commuter pothole-bashing
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road.cc test report
Make and model: Giant Contend SL1
Size tested: M/L
About the bike
State the frame and fork material and method of construction. List the components used to build up the bike.
Welded aluminium frame with a carbon fibre fork that has an aluminium steerer. Giant calls the aluminium ALUXX SL-Grade; it's extensively shaped.
Sizes: S, M, ML, L, XL
Frame: ALUXX SL-Grade Aluminium
Fork: Hybrid Composite, OverDrive Aluminium Steerer
Handlebar: Giant Connect
Stem: Giant Sport
Seatpost: Giant D-Fuse Composite
Saddle: Giant Contact Forward
Pedals: Wellgo Clip and strap type
Shifters: Shimano 105
Front Derailleur: Shimano 105
Rear Derailleur: Shimano 105
Brakes: Tektro R540 dual pivot
Brake Levers: Shimano 105
Cassette: Shimano 105 11x32
Chain: KMC X11EL-1
Crankset: Shimano RS500 34/50
Bottom Bracket: Shimano BB-RS500 press fit
Rims: Giant PR 2 Wheel Set
Hubs: Giant Performance Tracker Road, Sealed Bearing
Spokes: Sapim Race
Tyres: Giant P-SL 1, Front and Rear Specific, 700x25mm Folding
Tell us what the bike is for, and who it's aimed at. What do the manufacturers say about it? How does that compare to your own feelings about the bike?
For ambitious road riders aiming to take it to the next level. Longer, faster rides and more fun around every corner.
This new all-rounder road bike is engineered to take aspiring road riders to new heights. Utilising lightweight ALUXX SL aluminium technology, the all-new Contend SL blends quick acceleration with stable handling and a smooth ride quality. Giant's proven OverDrive tapered steerer tube and PowerCore bottom bracket technologies deliver precise handling and maximum pedalling efficiency. The D-Fuse composite seatpost dampens road vibration to minimise fatigue and improve the overall ride quality.
Frame and fork
Tell us about the build quality and finish of the frame and fork?
It's very tidily made and finished. I love the blue!
Tell us about the materials used in the frame and fork?
The frame is made from Giant's ALUXX SL aluminium, of which Giant says:
Extremely lightweight framesets featuring high-performance strength-to-weight ratios
Predominantly features 6011 alloy for a high-performance strength-to-weight ratio
Double butting results in lighter weight without sacrificing strength
Features PressForming, WarmForming (advanced manipulation of tubeset shaping via an injection of high-pressure air) and FluidForming in select models
Features both Standard (double-pass weld technique without finish sanding/filing) and Smooth welding techniques for outstanding strength and weight
Tell us about the geometry of the frame and fork?
The Contend SL's layout is a shade racier than a typical upright and short sportive bike, but it's still very much an endurance bike.
How was the bike in terms of height and reach? How did it compare to other bikes of the same stated size?
It's slightly lower than many sportive bikes, but has roughly the same reach.
Riding the bike
Was the bike comfortable to ride? Tell us how you felt about the ride quality.
Very much so. This is a bike you can cheerfully ride all day. It's a steady and straightforward ride, aided by the cushion of a very nice pair of 25mm tyres.
Did the bike feel stiff in the right places? Did any part of the bike feel too stiff or too flexible?
No complaints in this department.
How did the bike transfer power? Did it feel efficient?
No complaints in this department either.
Was there any toe-clip overlap with the front wheel? If so, was it a problem?
How would you describe the steering? Was it lively, neutral or unresponsive? Neutral.
Tell us some more about the handling. How did the bike feel overall? Did it do particular things well or badly?
It's steady, tracking well on straights and reluctant to be fazed by crappy surfaces. Its only slight weakness is that it's not as precise into fast corners as a pure race bike.
Which components had the most effect (good or bad) on the bike's comfort? would you recommend any changes?
The fast, slick 25mm tyres are almost certainly the main determiner of the Contend's frendly feel and handling, especially given the extra width that results from the wide rims.
It's a sportive bike. You need to wind it up to get it to go fast.
This is where the Contend SL excels: it's a bike for tapping out 20mph all day.
This is the Contend SL 1's one slight weakness compared with a pure race bike, but it's one only silly descenders like me will find to complain about.
Steady as she goes!
Shifting is quick and easy. The low end that comes from the 11-32 cassette is very welcome, but I don't believe anyone really needs a 50x11 top gear.
Tell us some more about the drivetrain. Anything you particularly did or didn't like? Any components which didn't work well together?
It's sightly disappointing to see the non-series Shimano FC-RS500 chainset rather than the lighter and better-looking 105 chainset, but it works well enough.
Wheels and tyres
They're not light or aero, but the rims provide some very welcome extra width to the tyres.
They've taken a beating on bad roads and cobbles and shugged it off.
They're not light, but the extra width is worth the grams, and anyway, wheel weight is fetishised out of all proportion to its importance.
No significant wear, and there are wear indicator dots so you can replace them before they get dodgy. The extra rubber on the rear tyre is an excellent idea.
105 brake/shift levers fall to hand nicely and work well.
Did you enjoy riding the bike? Yes, a lot.
Would you consider buying the bike? Yes
Would you recommend the bike to a friend? Yes
Use this box to explain your score
I actually want to score the Giant Contend SL 1 somewhere between 'very good' (praise that's a shade too faint) and 'exceptional' (in some departments it is, but not right across the board).
It's exceptional in being one of very few bikes with its combination of features, handling and versatility. It'll take mudguards along with the fitted 27mm-wide tyres, but it's not a plodding commuter. Rather, it has plenty of friendly, assured pace and excellent on-road manners in most situations.
The things that pull it down half a notch from 'exceptional' are the non-series chainset and Tektro brakes, and the fact that a couple of small detail changes would provide room for even wider tyres, making it a super-versatile bike for those who prefer rim brakes.
About the tester
I usually ride: Scapin Style My best bike is:
I've been riding for: Over 20 years I ride: Most days I would class myself as: Expert
I regularly do the following types of riding: commuting, touring, club rides, general fitness riding, mountain biking
Acknowledged by the Telegraph as a leading cycling journalist, John Stevenson has been writing about bikes and cycling for over 30 years since discovering that people were mug enough to pay him for it rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work.
He was heavily involved in the mountain bike boom of the late 1980s as a racer, team manager and race promoter, and that led to writing for Mountain Biking UK magazine shortly after its inception. He got the gig by phoning up the editor and telling him the magazine was rubbish and he could do better. Rather than telling him to get lost, MBUK editor Tym Manley called John’s bluff and the rest is history.
Since then he has worked on MTB Pro magazine and was editor of Maximum Mountain Bike and Australian Mountain Bike magazines, before switching to the web in 2000 to work for CyclingNews.com. Along with road.cc editor Tony Farelly, John was on the launch team for BikeRadar.com and subsequently became editor in chief of Future Publishing’s group of cycling magazines and websites, including Cycling Plus, MBUK, What Mountain Bike and Procycling.
John has also written for Cyclist magazine, edited the BikeMagic website and was founding editor of TotalWomensCycling.com before handing over to someone far more representative of the site's main audience.
He joined road.cc in 2013 and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.