We’ve put 10 of the most exciting endurance and gravel bikes to the test on Europe’s harshest terrain. Which bike could best handle long days in the saddle and make for a fun ride in all conditions? On the legendary routes of the spring classics we found the answer.
When the percentage gradient of your next climb exceeds the alcohol percentage of the strongest Belgian beer, when your backside is cursing the Trouée d’Arenberg for the hundredth time while side-winds try to knock you from your bike – that’s when you realise that riding a road bike, in Belgium, is not a game, but a battle. A crusade against the elements and an even harder one against yourself.
You want to win this battle, right? Then you have to be able to suffer and fight it out. But that’s not it, yet. Every successful campaign starts with the right preparation: understanding the technique and choosing the correct bike and equipment.
Not everyone rides on perfectly paved roads with the South-Tyrolean Alps as a backdrop, enjoying 300 days per-year sunshine, tan-line weather, the Côte d’Azur on the doorstep and the explosive power of Tom Boonen in their legs. Riding a road-bike also means sweat, strain and suffering; yes, sometimes riding a road bike really sucks! But it also means happiness and adrenalin, at least with the right equipment.
To answer these tough questions we took on the gruelling weather and wind and travelled to Europe’s hardest location, to put the most exciting endurance bikes through our ultimate test. ‘Who survives Belgium, can also endure the hardships of a long season’ – this was our logic.
The bikes of the group test
With a gulf of € 10,000 between the cheapest and most expensive models in our 11-bike test, different concepts, components and technologies separated the combatants. All of this made for an incredibly exciting time but also gave us some very helpful insights and results.
Why did we decide for such a varied range of bikes in this test? We are well known for looking beyond boundaries and clichés and for trying to break category-conventions. After all, our previous tests have already proven that a bike, which at first glance wouldn’t have been considered for a certain purpose, ends up excelling. Opting for a restricted range of bikes would have been comparable to searching for the best drink in the world by only tasting beers.
|3T Exploro Team||SRAM Force 1||8.34 kg||€ 4,999|
|BMC Roadmachine 01||Shimano Dura-Ace Di2||7.62 kg||€ 10,999|
|Canyon Endurace CF SLX Disc 8.0||Shimano Ultegra Di2||7.69 kg||€ 4,999|
|Focus Paralane Factory||SRAM Apex||8.05 kg||€ 3,999|
|Ridley X-Trail||Shimano Ultegra Di2||8.65 kg||€ 3,499|
|ROSE Backroad-4400||SRAM Force 22||8.46 kg||€ 2,549|
|Specialized Roubaix Expert Di2||Shimano Ultegra Di2||8.39 kg||€ 4,999|
|Trek Domane SLR 10 RSL||Shimano Dura-Ace Di2||7.05 kg||€ 11,999|
|OPEN U.P.P.E.R.||SRAM Force 1||7.34 kg||€ 4,500 (frameset)|
|WHITE Wessex||Shimano Ultegra||8.78 kg||€ 2,599|
What does comfort actually mean?
It might sound similar, but there is a huge difference between feeling comfortable on a bike and a bike being comfortable. On one hand, comfort is about physically perceived characteristics, i.e. compliance, flex or damping, thus reducing physical fatigue (e.g. vibrations or impacts from the road). On the other, it’s about psychologically perceived characteristics, how good does the bike feel? How much confidence does it inspire? If you don’t feel comfortable on a bike, you won’t get the maximal performance out of it.
Never trust a number
Anyone who understands the above paragraph also understands that lab tests and rigid evaluation systems fail to capture the complex reality and true performance of an endurance bike. Lab tests might make sense for quality management and comparing isolated characteristics, but on the road, these numbers and results distort our judgment and disregard the most important feeling that a bike needs to convey: trust.
How can we get the perfect feeling from a bike?
When it comes to design, the black magic of carbon fibre has changed everything. The “Wonder-material” has broken all records for weight and stiffness, giving engineers and designers free reign over creative tube design. However, carbon has a problem: compared to titanium or steel, it is significantly more rigid and features totally different, very distinctive characteristics.
Carbon doesn’t absorb vibrations as well as other more traditional materials do, behaving more like a spring, jumping back into its original position. To provide a comfortable ride, engineers need to develop specific carbon-layups and self-damping solutions. That’s exactly why this test field offers so many special solutions, such as flexing seat posts, decoupled seat tubes or even suspension elements.
Damping, flex or compliance?
“Vertical Compliance” is the manufacturer’s new marketing mantra. Claimed to give their “ultimate super bikes” (everyone builds the best!) the perfect level of comfort combined with optimal amounts of stiffness. But it’s crucial to make a distinction between flex and damping. Those amongst us riding a mountain bike, will perfectly understand how essential the concept of damping is. If you rode a full-suspension bike without damping, you wouldn’t have any control, the suspension would just make you bounce around like a tennis ball. Flex without damping will therefore not only reduce the efficiency of a road bike, but also noticeably lessen its control qualities. A well-damped road bike, hence a bike that absorbs vibrations and impacts, can also be very comfortable without necessarily having loads of flex.
Road bikes are subject to an enormous amount of multidirectional forces. Riders always expect the maximum amount of comfort with both harder knocks and the typical fine vibrations induced by the road surface. As a consequence, the right combination of flex and damping is extremely important. In an ideal world we should be able to adjust this, as different types of riders, with similarly distinctive and aggressive riding styles and body weights, will be using the same frame sizes. Luckily, nowadays we can achieve a lot with the right carbon layup and component choice, without having to rely on complicated, special frame features.
Factors like the correct tire-pressure, tire-volume and damping properties, riding position, wheel design and the rider’s weight distribution all hugely influence riding comfort of a bike.
Therefore, a lab-test, which only identifies individual factors, only makes sense to a limited extent. After all, a disastrous component choice (see comparison test # 004) can totally ruin a bike’s performance – no matter how perfect the frame might be. Findings we confirmed again in this brutal group test in Belgium.
What’s the best tire?
From a thin 26 mm road bike tire to the 27.5″, 47 mm wide road plus tire, our test included a wide range of tires. Slick or with profile? Decisions are complex, tires have to be able to cope with all sorts of weather and terrain conditions, depending on the application.
That’s why tire pressure and tire/rim-combinations are crucial elements, as these have a huge impact on the actual tire size and rolling resistance as well as cornering capabilities.
In our test, we really liked the Vittoria Corsa for their longitudinal tread pattern offering incredible grip, confidence and safety when cornering. Also the 27.5″ WTB Horizon Road Plus is an excellent choice in terms of grip and comfort, but proved sensitive to pressure changes.
Are disc brakes essential on endurance bikes?
Yes, they are. If you want to be prepared for the occasional gravel stint and if you generally like the idea of a more efficient braking performance in all conditions, you really want to get disc brakes. The good news is, the Shimano Direct Mount is the new standard and things are moving rapidly as far as development of road-bike brakes goes; better and lighter models are to be expected over the next few years.
Actually, what exactly is an endurance bike?
To be honest, it was extremely difficult to get the entire fleet of test bikes of this group test under one common nominator. With names like Backroad, Roubaix, X-Trail or Exploro some of the bikes already pointed clearly into a specific direction, but effectively giving us false expectations as our test will show. This proves that even manufacturers are struggling to categorise their own all-round bikes and their intended use.
Anyone reading these words will probably assign the word “endurance” a different content and value; and that’s ok. Between the definitions granfondo, allroad, endurance, backroad and gravel, there is enough room for interpretation to find your very own personal bike, one that’s not uncompromisingly designed for racing and speed, but can also offer a good level of safety, riding comfort and pleasure.
Therefore, it is very important not to let the name of a bike lead you to wrong conclusions. We suggest you test the bike yourself before buying and of course, trust our judgment and recommendations!
Tops and Flops
Often small details can make a huge difference: seamless integration, first-class ergonomics and carefully selected parts. Easier said than done – here are some of the tops and flops from this grouptest.
What’s the best endurance bike of 2017?
What’s the best endurance bike of 2017?
The BMC Roadmachine. This question was quickly answered, but the explanation is more complex: riding performance, a well thought-out design, self-damping qualities, ride-feel and a touch of exclusivity made the € 10,999 Swiss bullet the undisputed favourite among our test-crew. And this won the bike the coveted test victory. With a similar performance, a love for detail and an unbeatable price (less than half of the BMC!) the Canyon Endurace CF SLX 8.0 Disc is our best value recommendation in this comparison test. For the passionate roadie who is chasing the ultimate race-performance, the outrageously expensive Trek Domane RSL will surely be an uncompromised choice. Rebel roadies with an inclination to off-road will be drawn towards the U.P.P.E.R. and its fine and harmonious overall concept. Those searching for an honest bike at an unbeatable price, but are not too concerned about the highest standards of comfort, will be more than happy with the Rose Backroad and will be able to follow our tuning tips when using the Rose online-configurator.
All bikes in test: 3T Exploro Team | BMC Roadmachine 01 | Canyon Endurace CF SLX Disc 8.0 | Focus Paralane Factory | Ridley X-Trail | ROSE Backroad-4400 | Specialized Roubaix Expert Di2 | Trek Domane SLR 10 RSL | OPEN U.P.P.E.R. | WHITE Wessex
This article belongs to the GRAN FONDO Issue #005. For the full interactive experience we recommend reading it in our magazine app for iPhone & iPad – it’s awesome – and free!
Words: Benjamin Topf, Manuel Buck, Robin Schmitt Photos: Julian Mittelstädt