Who builds the lightest, stiffest and most aerodynamic bike? When it comes to race bikes most brands will try and woe consumers with facts and figures, citing F1 technology and WorldTour podiums as proof of performance. But what really constitutes the best race bike, and how do you truly quantify real-world riding?
Over winter we headed to Girona to test twelve of the most exciting race bikes on the now legendary training routes of the pros. Rocacorba, Els Àngels and the coast road between Tossa del Mar and Sant Feliu de Guixols… For the discerning road rider amongst us, just the sound of these names is enough to make your heart beat a little faster! Ex-pro Christian Meier put The Service Course at our disposition for the group test base and we grabbed the chance to ride with a host of ex-pros, engaging in some brutally honest tech talk with them – away from the watchful eye of their former team press officers. This gave us the opportunity to try and answer a question that has long been nagging at us: what really makes a good race bike?
The ‘best time’ vs a ‘great time’
Performance and speed are essential ingredients of any race bike. But they need to be somewhat aligned with your expectations too: first and foremost, where and how are you going to use it? Not everyone with a race bike thrives on pinning on a number on a regular basis, so if winning races (and chasing the ‘best time’) isn’t your ultimate goal then you can take a few straightforward measures to ensure you have a ‘great time’ instead. These are the riders with an excitable grin: the more fun you’re having, the more you’ll be motivated to get out and ride. Each time going further and riding longer. But are the terms “great time” and the “best time” mutually exclusive or can we really have them both?
We’d challenge you to uncover a product presentation, attend a sponsors’ meeting at the Tour de France or listen in to a pro team training camp that doesn’t mention ‘marginal gains’. Castelli even refers to them as ‘unfair advantages’. In cycling, nothing goes untouched. The industry is famed for jumping on the most abstruse reasons to convince consumers: “Buy this! There’s Formula 1, aerospace or at least the top-notch pro-technology in here – and it will make you ride faster.” But does a Tour de France victory really mean that this bike is the fastest one you can buy?
We know from our own racing days – when we had sponsorship deals ourselves – that obligations from sponsors often mean you have to sacrifice certain bits of equipment that you’d really rather use. After all, they’re the ones footing the bill for your competitive lifestyle.
Two percent stiffer, five percent lighter and seven percent more aerodynamic compared to last year’s model – is it true that the lowest weight, the best wind tunnel results and the most impressive stiffness values makes that particular bike the fastest on the road? You can guess the answer. We believe that a bike owes its success to its overall concept and not to individual factors, lab stats or purely its choice of components. Remember the Lapierre in last year’s race bike test in Mallorca with the flexy Zipp carbon handlebars that ruined how the bike handled? Or the ‘old’ BMC Teammachine from the same group test, whose inadequate brake-wheel combo forced us to brake ten metres ahead of each corner? Not idea for anyone’s confidence. So, what really matters then?
Those with the fortune to have driven a Porsche will know that speed can sometimes feel incredibly slow. On the motorway you appreciate the plushness of a sports car and that reassuring sense of confidence it inspires when compared to a basic town car.
Precise and predictable handling, a perfectly balanced chassis and a superb braking performance help you build trust. And it’s precisely this feeling of confidence that allows most racing car drivers to push their cars much faster than they’re actually capable of.
Responsiveness is essential for building speed, tackling decisive sprints and accelerating out of tight turns. In order to achieve this you need an efficient frame with quick-rolling tires on a smooth running set of hubs on a rim with a low rotating mass. But be careful: some wheels might be light and fast but can’t maintain speed. The Lightweight Meilenstein wheels of the Corratec are testament to this; despite being the lightest wheelset on test and making a great impression on climbs they struggled to accelerate and failed to inspire the right amount of confidence on descents. It all goes back to their wide and wind-susceptible carbon spokes, slim rim profile and excessive stiffness. Choppy, rather than smooth when cornering. High quality bearings – like the CeramicSpeed – reduce friction and make a bike noticeably smoother, more efficient and just faster. In this regard the Speedvagen Custom Road and the Specialized Tarmac stand out in our test field.
Control and trust
Speed is nothing without control. If you want to ride fast you have to feel confident and trust your equipment. Good brakes and predictable handling are imperative for your own safety and help you to build trust in your bike. Unfortunately, it is often the case that bikes originally designed to work with rim brakes have only been given a basic facelift with minimal modifications to make them disc brake compatible. This can cause the bike to feel less direct and more difficult to control than bikes with rim brakes. The main reason for this are the bigger forces and the greater leverage of disc brakes compared to standard rim brakes. After we’d been so stoked with the rim brake version of the Canyon Aeroad, we had high expectations for the Aeroad Disc, so its sub-par performance came as a bit of a letdown.
Handling is a matter of personal taste and is heavily influenced by your riding style. Lively and agile or smooth and composed? If you’re an experienced rider a nimble bike will give you far better chances to attack, taking advantage of gaps in the final sprint and having more fun. But if you’re after a more composed, confidence-inspiring ride and you don’t consider yourself a Sagan-standard bike handler you’re better off picking a more forgiving bike. Trust us, after an exhausting 200 kilometres you’ll be glad to be sitting on a bike that runs smooth in a straight line rather than twitching nervously under your hands.
If you’ve ever blasted down the rough tarmac on torturous Spanish switchbacks you’ll appreciate the advantages of a bike that absorbs the vibrations and stays connected with the road. A higher level of comfort not only allows you to ride further but also to enjoy each kilometre more intensely.
Race bikes can be harsh, stiff and uncomfy. Strictly designed in the pursuit of speed, and not necessarily having fun. We believe that once you’re at ease and happy on a bike, you’ll not only want to ride further, but you’ll also want to push harder.
What do you expect from a race bike?
The test field – what’s the best race bike?
In order to give you an overview, revealing the strengths and weaknesses of the concepts, we decided to include not only the most popular models but also certain exciting ‘underdogs’ that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to see in this test field. Within a price bracket of € 6,600 to € 12,000 you’ll find anything from thoroughbred aero racers – that wouldn’t be amiss at Ironman Hawaii – to classic pro rigs and even a select trio of steel racers. Since disc and rim brakes are still hotly debated we included representatives from both faiths and put them through the ultimate test. As you see, our test fleet is just as colourful as the beards of our test riders!
|Bike||Weight (without pedals)||Frame material||Brakes||Tires||Price|
|3T Strada||7.71 kg||Carbon||Disc||700 x 28 mm||€ 6,950|
|BMC Teammachine SLR 01 Disc Team||7.01 kg||Carbon||Disc||700 x 25 mm||€ 11,499|
|Canyon Aeroad CF SLX Disc 9.0 Di2||7.52 kg||Carbon||Disc||700×25 mm||€ 6,999|
|Corratec EVO eTap Konfi||6.51 kg||Carbon||Rim||700 x 25 mm||€ 9,499|
|Fuji SL 1.1||6.46 kg||Carbon||Rim||700 x 25 mm||€ 7,999|
|Rose X-Lite 6 eTap||6.36 kg||Carbon||Rim||700 x 25 mm||€ 8,164|
|Scott Addict RC Ultimate Disc||6.82 kg||Carbon||Rim||700 x 28 mm||€ 9,999|
|Specialized S-Works Tarmac 2018||6.38 kg||Carbon||Rim||700 x 25 mm||€ 9,499|
|Speedvagen Road||7.82 kg||Steel||Rim||700 x 25 mm||$ 12,150|
|Standert Triebwerk Mach 3||7.91 kg||Steel||Rim||700 x 25 mm||€ 7,299|
|Trek Emonda SLR 8 Disc||6.89 kg||Carbon||Disc||700 x 25 mm||€ 7,099|
|Wilier Superleggera SL||8.55 kg||Steel||Rim||700 x 25 mm||€ 6,600|
Aluminium is dead? Of course not! We had originally planned to include the Cannondale CAAD 12 aluminium cult racer but unfortunately it didn’t arrive in time for testing.
Why did we set such a diverse test field?
We are well-known for thinking outside the box, smashing boundaries and crushing categories. After all, a particular bike that you perhaps wouldn’t initially consider for a specific purpose could turn out to be perfectly suited for exactly this purpose. A test field that is set too narrowly would compare to tasting only beers when looking for the ultimate after-work drink – and it wouldn’t just be his Martini that James Bond would be shaking here.
Tops & 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 group test.
As no self-respecting group test of race bikes can be carried out without an actual race, we staged the inaugural GRAN FONDO Race Session. Swipe to find out more and get your competitive juices flowing.
GRAN FONDO Race Session – Let’s Go Racing Baby!
It didn’t end after eight days, the exhaustion of six test riders and the clocking of thousands of kilometres! In addition to our conventional testing, we also arranged a timed session to find out which bike is the meanest and fastest on descents.
The GRAN FONDO Race Track
A 1.4 km long, wind-protected downhill run with an average gradient of over 7 % was the perfect setting for our race track. While you might presume a longer track would have been a better choice, this would have inevitably increased both the risk of riding errors and the rider’s fatigue, therefore considerably affecting the results. This one was long enough to reveal significant differences yet short enough for a consistent riding performance and reproducible results. Including all of the typical features of a real-life downhill scenario, the rough tarmac, sharp corners and good gradients set theideal conditions to test trust, control, comfort and confidence.
1. Flying Start
2. Braking Bad Point: First 90° corner and first braking point on our race track. Depending on the bike we were able to brake sooner or later. Here we identified major differences in braking precision. Some even swayed on the rough tarmac while others remained composed and stable allowing for a better line choice.
3. Curved Paradise: Tight sequence of turns on a light off-camber gradient with some sharp changes in direction. The end of this section featured an extremely tight hairpin.
4. Switch Off Your Brain Section: high speed on rough tarmac with small potholes. A stable and predictable bike gives you confidence in this section. But if that’s not the case stay in the saddle, grab onto your handlebars and bite through it!
5. Kamikaze Section: High-speed measurement (Vmax) before the next braking point ahead of the next corner.
6. The Südschleife: final corner on impeccable fresh tarmac. Again, stability and predictability will allow you to maintain your ideal line.
7. The Beerless Line: Finish line – Our biggest oversight was forgetting to pack any beers to celebrate the end of the GRAN FONDO Race Session. Damn!
Each bike and each rider were allowed four test runs. Pedalling was not permitted in order to rule out the ‘watt’ factor. Taking cues from motorsport competitions we opted for a flying downhill start, whereby each rider rolls in from a stand and crosses the starting line at low speed. All the riders had time to study their ideal line in a number of previous test runs; in the actual test they were required to ride the same line while keeping within their comfort zone. For the timing we relied on Sportident’s professional timing system.
In order to guarantee a fair race the bikes that were tested at the beginning of the GRAN FONDO Race Session were sent back to ride the track once more at the end of the session. This way we were able to verify the times we clocked at the beginning of the session. We also wanted to rule out the risk of lap times improving due to increased confidence, or getting worse thanks to fatigue. Small but frequent snacks and drinks were provided (alas, no mid-ride beer or bacon butty).
The results the GRAN FONDO Race Sessions
*Time: The average of all valid timed runs performed by all riders. Individual runs from a rider who deviated significantly from his own average on the same bike were not included in the average timings.
**Vmax: The top speed measured upon exiting the designated high-speed section.
The Specialized Tarmac placed ahead of the BMC Teammachine with an advantage of 1.27 seconds. Even in the top-speed measurement the Tarmac performed extremely well placing second. This means it even managed to prevail over some of the aero specialists such as the Canyon Aeroad Disc.
The BMC Teammachine demonstrated super balanced and confidence-inspiring handling, although it suffered due to the grooved Vittoria Corsa tires that forced it to run wide in the ‘Braking Bad Point’ and ‘Curved Paradise’ and affected its precision. Although these tires were our absolute favourite all-rounder in this test they cost the Teammachine precious milliseconds.
With its steel frame the Speedvagen Road inspires lots of confidence, feels composed and claimed the third spot in our test.
The Scott Addict came fourth, demonstrating the most precise handling and great braking power and modulation with the SRAM Red disc. Experienced riders will love the razor-sharp handling but unfortunately the comfort and cornering grip of the Continental GP 4000 S II leaves something to be desired. On our winding course the 3T Strada felt anything but precise and failed to inspire confidence while the excess of lateral flex even caused it to twist when braking hard. However, this super aero-optimized racer dominated the top-speed contest – peerless speed on the straights! Sixth went to the second steel bike in our test. With its good natured, confidence-inspiring handling and first-class Campagnolo brakes it knows how to inspire confidence while clinging safely to the road. The Wilier flattened out our “Switch Off Your Brain Section” but never felt particularly fast – ‘consistent riding’ is the motto of this Italian beauty!
In ‘Braking Bad Point’ and ‘Curved Paradise’, the Canyon Aeroad was at its limit with a lack of precision that could be deemed scary by some when braking sharply. The fact that it exited this section slower than the competition meant it had nominal chances to take the lead in our top-speed ranking. Those poor Mavic Yksion Pro UST tires affected our riding confidence and compromised safety.
A break from the norm in eighth place, the Corratec CCT Evo with its super light Lightweight Meilenstein wheels struggled and couldn’t seem to get going on descents. The slowest bike in the high-speed section, this means you don’t have to brake as much and can carry more momentum through corners. Despite feeling rather unsafe on descents the Corratec benefits from a consistent speed, and there’s little need to use its adequate brakes much.
Unfortunately the Rose X-Lite couldn’t fully unleash its potential. The main reasons were the Zipp tyres that struggled on corners, the loud brake squeal – which can subjectively affect confidence and safety – and the slightly-nervous front end.
The Trek Emonda featured the more upright H2 geometry and doesn’t claim to win races. With a very low weight and predictable handling it performed well on downhills but unfortunately only placed 10th in the overall ranking! With its steel frame the Standert Triebwerk feels surefooted. However, with such direct handling it feels a little unpredictable and the loud brakes had an undefined bite point that affected the overall riding confidence – a pity because we see a lot of potential in this bike! As a true climber and an absolute lightweight, the Fuji SL lacks the requisite rigidity to descend sublimely and failed to inspire confidence. While it didn’t manage to keep up with the competition and clocked the slowest time, it delivered a fine (albeit slower) performance.
If we were to transfer our results onto the legendary Tour de France mountain pass Col du Tourmalet – which also features technically demanding and winding sections with an average gradient similar to our test track – then the differences would become more tangible. On the Specialized S-Works Tarmac the same rider would be sipping an espresso in the valley bar over a minute earlier than if he had ridden the Fuji SL. And sixteen seconds earlier than with the second fastest bike – the BMC Teammachine. That’s a serious difference!
What’s the best race bike?
But are the fastest bikes necessarily the best ones? After all, we’re not all signing up for races, dreaming of city limit sprints or hunting virtual friends on Strava. So which bike is the best race bike?
Our test has one distinct winner: the Specialized S-Works Tarmac. With the most complete overall package it impressed the entire test crew and addressed the whole spectrum of needs. No other bike inspires this much confidence and offers such a superb mix of responsiveness, efficiency, confidence and riding pleasure. This is both your weapon of choice for a fast-paced lap time chase and a loyal companion for long adventures in the saddle: Best in Test!
A steel bike with a retro look and a weight of 8.55 kg doesn’t necessarily sound like a thoroughbred race bike. However, none of the other bikes on test made our hearts beat faster than the Wilier Superleggera SL. With impeccable, forgiving handling, a decent portion of style and a more than respectable 6th place in the GRAN FONDO Race Session, Wilier have proved that there’s no expiry date on vintage. A great choice for those who are looking for comfort on long rides, confidence and style. The bike isn’t fond of aggressive sprints but one thing is for sure: With the Superleggera you will stand out, whether you’re on the startline of a gran fondo or at a coffee bar. Our Best Buy Tip!
For riders looking for something special, then it’s worth casting your eye over the Rose X-Lite, a top-flight, lightweight bike with an affordable price tag. You can enter the high-speed-world of the X-Lite 6 top-model with Ultegra Di2 at an appealing € 4,299.
To make your very own dream come true, take a closer look at the Trek Emonda Discs Project One. For an additional fee the American brand have myriad possibilities to realize your personal dream in the shape of individual components, colourways and finishes.
All bikes in the test: 3T Strada | BMC Teammachine SLR 01 Disc Team | Canyon Aeroad CF SLX Disc 9.0 Di2 | Corratec EVO eTap Konfi | Fuji SL 1.1 | Rose X-Lite 6 eTap | Scott Addict RC Ultimate Disc | Specialized S-Works Tarmac 2018 | Speedvagen Road | Standert Triebwerk Mach 3 | Trek Emonda SLR 8 Disc | Wilier Superleggera SL
This article is from GRAN FONDO issue #008
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Words: Manuel Buck, Robin Schmitt, Benjamin Topf Photos: Noah Haxel