If you had your pick of any dream bike in the World, which one would you choose? To help you make a decision, we packed our van with some of the most exciting race-bikes of 2019 and headed to Girona, where we pitted them against each other in an exclusive group-test. Innovative solutions, clever concepts and plenty of carbon bling – but as you know, only the best is good enough! So, what exactly does “the best” mean?
For the second time in two years, we were guests in one of the pros’ favourite training grounds, the beautiful town of Girona. This time, our mission was to find the best racing bike of 2019. Legendary places like Rocacorba, Els Àngels and the coastal roads of the Costa Brava provided a breath-taking backdrop and optimal conditions for our test-crew to do what they do best – munch through miles, analyse, debate and discuss the bikes for days on end. One thing was clear right from the start: the whole test fleet exhibited an elite level of performance! We had asked the manufacturers to send in their absolute top-end bikes and they didn’t disappoint. Budget limitations? None! Spec? As bling as possible! And that’s how, a few weeks later, we ended up with a test-fleet made up of some of the finest and most exciting race-bikes money can buy. But not all that glitters is gold! Reassuring marketing mantras, hefty price tags and never-ending patent lists, all promise top performance and premium quality. However, that’s not necessarily a guarantee for a coherent overall concept. So you might be asking yourself “What is it that really matters, then? How can you possibly compare a bunch of bikes that are totally different from each other?”
Why we don’t test bikes in a lab
The key question is, what’s the fairest, most accurate way to assess and evaluate the overall performance of a bike? How can we provide the clearest guidance possible for our readers’ purchase decisions? Does it make sense to award points based on a strict scoring system for individual parameters such as spec, weight and isolated, lab-compiled data, to draw up a final score based on just numbers?
Since we’re talking about race bikes, these are important considerations – after all, it’s all about speed, aerodynamics and weight. It goes without saying that we’ve given these aspects a lot of thought, gathering experts’ opinions and evaluating a couple of test labs with the latest measurement technology. All our experimentation brought one sobering realisation. Despite being relatively easy to measure, parameters such as bottom bracket-, head tube- or fork-stiffness are usually taken out of context and measured in isolation. While at first glance this approach might seem useful – with the data allowing for impressive graphs and diagrams – it usually gives a very distorted, sometimes even unfair picture of reality. As riders, we shouldn’t look at an abstract agglomerate of individual, measurable parameters, but rather at the ready-to-go, overall concept of a bike that we actually end up riding on the road.
Trying to form an opinion based exclusively on lab-data would be a bit like playing Top Trumps. You look at the horsepower and max-speed of your car, but you still don’t know how it actually handles. That’s okay as long as you’re playing a card game, but in real life, you want to know how well the car handles its horsepower and, most importantly, how good the braking performance is — something you won’t figure out just by looking at numbers. After all, braking is just as important as accelerating, if you want to feel safe and in control while blazing down the street at full throttle.
And even laboratory measurements can be performed in many ways, following different procedures and protocols. A few examples: Was a measurement taken dynamically or statically? What type of loads were selected and why? Where’s the point in having a super-stiff bottom bracket, if this doesn’t harmonise with the components and overall compliance of the frame? Therefore it’s difficult (and quite frankly pointless) to unconditionally award points for specific criteria without looking at the overall picture. To offer a practical example: we’re often faced with the situation where a high-quality, but much more compliant carbon bar really dents the overall handling of an otherwise well-balanced bike. In this case, a cheaper (and supposedly harsher) aluminium-bar would be the better choice and would harmonise better with the characteristics of the carbon fork. This, or the opposite, can happen with all components and combinations! Therefore, we prefer to focus on the overall, ‘ready-to-use’ concept. In other words, it’s not about the degree of stiffness of isolated components, but the degree of compliance of the overall system. It’s not about the weight of the bike, but rather the optimal weight-distribution. It’s not only about understanding how the aerodynamics of a frame respond to artificial airflow inside a wind-tunnel, but how a rider and his bike cut through the air on the road, in real life. All of these elements have a strong influence on each other! That’s why a less-aerodynamic bike, which in turn provides an excellent and more comfortable riding position, could, in fact, be faster in the long run. Why? Because it allows you to keep an efficient riding position for longer while using less energy. After all, the actual rider constitutes around 75% of the total aerodynamic-drag.
Another issue is that proprietary solutions such as Trek’s IsoSpeed damping-system can’t really be systematically and fairly tested in a lab by using a point-based evaluation system. Such novel systems don’t really fit into a predefined evaluation-pattern and it’s exactly these distinctive features and abstract concepts that many potential buyers are attracted to. In our opinion, the only thing that counts is what you feel for real. In other words, the decisive factor is ultimately the flesh and blood of the human being, with all its strengths and weaknesses, with its unique riding style and individual needs.
You see, not everything that can be measured counts, and not everything that counts can be measured. That’s why in all our tests we rely on the practical feedback of our well-versed and experienced test crew. We’re not trying to make unconditional statements, but rather to determine which bike-concept offers the best performance with respect to its application field and target group.
So, what does it all come down to? The most important qualities of a race-bike
The road-bike market offers absolutely everything, from super-light climbing rockets to aerodynamic TT superbikes. The demands and requirements of potential customers are just as diverse as the options available. Yet, there seems to be a recurring pattern: at sportive races, you’ll always see the best bikes both at the front and the back of the peloton, and that’s exactly the beauty of our sport! Top-end kit isn’t just for top-end riders. Even the passionate weekend-warrior who rides just 1.500 km per year and perhaps signs up for the occasional Gran Fondo has the opportunity (and privilege) to ride “the best“ material. You might as well call it ‘911 syndrome’. Originally designed for the most experienced pro-drivers, Porsche’s most iconic racing car is becoming increasingly popular amongst commuters and other everyday users. As a result, every new series of Porsche’s classic racing-car gets more and more everyday features.
We’re currently experiencing a similar development in the race-bike industry. Here, for example, gaining insight into the latest medical findings from the pro-sector is just as important as having a realistic understanding of the needs of everyday users. In our opinion, the “best race bike” has to be a well-balanced, complete all-rounder that meets both the high demands of experienced pro-racers and those of enthusiast weekend-warriors.
Our ideal race-bike is fast and offers perfect handling while inspiring tons of confidence. To decide which bike comes out on top, our experienced test riders assess and evaluate the test-field according to the following criteria:
1. Acceleration and speed
Whether you’re showing off your acceleration-skills outside the pub, sprinting out of corners or to the finish line for the top spot on the podium, in crucial situations a nimble bike gives you a significant advantage. Light-footed bikes combine a low system-weight with clever weight-distribution and low inertia of the rotating parts. However, the efficiency of a bike on the flats is equally important. The key question is how good a bike is at maintaining its speed? In this regard, despite their heavier system-weight, aerodynamically-optimized bikes offer clear advantages. The lower aerodynamic-drag combined with the higher inertia of slightly heavier and deeper rims helps maintain momentum. This, in exchange, is detrimental to the acceleration of the bike. A perfect road-bike has a balanced character that suits both scenarios.
In David Millar’s own words “To me, a bike has to handle well. If it doesn’t handle well then it doesn’t matter if it’s a kilo lighter or stiffer […] because it’s in the handling where you can lose races. […] If a bike handles like shit, it is a shit bike to me.” We have nothing more to add! With respect to the handling, we evaluate the agility of a bike on a scale from lively/playful to composed/sluggish. How accurate is the cornering behaviour? How well are the front- and rear-end harmonising with each other? How accurately does the bike respond to steering inputs? These are all questions that we examine in this context.The top bikes in this test strike a perfect balance between agility and smoothness, inspiring confidence and trust through their predictable cornering behaviour, without ever feeling restless or spongy.
3. Control and trust…
…are, in our opinion, all too often underestimated. No matter how light, stiff or aerodynamic a bike may be, if it’s not easy to control and doesn’t inspire confidence, it will make you feel unsafe and vulnerable. At this point, all the technical features become meaningless. Furthermore, unpredictable or unsafe handling is a total waste of energy and concentration. Why? Simply because you’re subconsciously keeping busy re-adjusting your line. Only if you really trust your bike, will you be able to push yourself to the limit and beyond, and feel safe doing it. Riding on open roads is dangerous as it is, we don’t need even more stuff to worry about! After all, we all want to get back home to our families and friends in one piece. The best bikes in our test are like loyal companions with a predictable character that helps us push our limits in a controlled fashion. The bottom line is that only riders who can fully trust their equipment will be able to give everything they’ve got.
Since most of us can’t afford to hire a private physio after each ride, comfort is one crucial aspect which is also becoming increasingly important in the pro-sector. A comfortable, aerodynamically-efficient riding position makes you faster for longer, and puts less strain on your body. A comfortable bike is characterized by a well-balanced overall system-compliance. Yet comfort is not just achieved through a choice of individual parts, but rather through the interaction of all components. Both high-frequency vibrations and large hits have to be dealt with efficiently. Since contact points like bar-tape and saddle are entirely at the mercy of subjective preferences, we’re not going to consider them in our evaluation.
5. Riding fun
Do we really have to explain this one? 😉
If you take a closer look at our test-fleet, you won’t find a single bike with rim brakes. Why are there exclusively disc-brake models in our test? Or should the question be, why not? Jokes aside, our 2018 reader survey revealed that 79% of our readers want their next bike to have disc brakes – a trend which we cannot but welcome!
|Argonaut Road Bike||Shimano Dura-Ace Di2||Enve SES 3.4 Disc||6.85 kg||€ 13,500|
|Basso Diamante SV 2019||Campagnolo Super Record||Campagnolo Bora One Disc 35||7.51 kg||€ 10,290|
|Bianchi Oltre XR4 Disc||Shimano Dura-Ace Di2||Fulcrum Racing Quattro DB 40||7.48 kg||€ 11,499|
|BMC Timemachine Road 01 TWO||Sram Red eTap||DT Swiss ARC 1400 DICUT db 62||7.95 kg||€ 9,999|
|Canyon Ultimate CF SLX Disc 9.0||Shimano Dura-Ace||DT Swiss PRC 1400 SPLINE 35||6.91 kg||€ 5,399|
|Cervélo S5||Shimano Dura-Ace Di2||Enve SES 5.6 Disc||7.57 kg||€ 10,999|
|EXEPT Allroad Classic||Shimano Dura-Ace Di2||Enve SES 4.5 AR Disc||7.13 kg||€ 13,250|
|FOCUS IZALCO MAX 9.8||Sram Red eTap||DT Swiss ARC 1450 DICUT DB 48||7.55 kg||€ 7,999|
|MERIDA REACTO DISC TEAM-E||Shimano Dura-Ace Di2||DT Swiss PRC 1400 SPLINE db 65||7.45 kg||€ 9,499|
|Specialized S-Works Tarmac Disc SL6 Disc||Shimano Dura-Ace Di2||Roval CLX 50 Disc + CeramicSpeed||6.58 kg||€ 10,799|
|Trek Madone SLR 9 Disc||Shimano Dura-Ace Di2||Bontrager Aeolus XXX 6||7.63 kg||€ 11,499|
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.
What is the best race-bike of 2019?
It’s time to let the cat out of the bag! Towards the end of our testing sessions, our group-test became a head-to-head fight between the Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL6 Disc and the Trek Madone SLR 9 Disc. With a perfect balance of speed, comfort and safety as well as superbly-balanced handling, the Specialized bags our best-in-test badge by a narrow margin. Its harmonious overall concept and consistent spec make it the ultimate riding-fun machine for all skill sets!
Right behind comes the Trek Madone, a super-fast racer with cutting-edge comfort technology. The slightly stiffer front-end can’t quite keep up with the comfortable IsoSpeed system at the back though. Furthermore, when the road gets steep, the Trek doesn’t feel quite as agile as the Specialized. If you’re not planning on chasing the steepest mountain-pass KOMs in the world, the Madone offers a very thoughtful and coherent concept, packed with fascinating and clever gimmicks!
If you’re after a unique custom-bike and want to fulfil your dreams without compromising on geometry and spec, you should take a closer look at the Argonaut Road Bike. Provided you can spare the cash, you’ll get an exceptional bike with wonderfully-balanced comfort features. With its good-natured, precise handling and timeless appearance, the Argonaut stands out from the crowd. A tailored-suit with top performance.
Beginners, who are looking to buy a high-end racer should check the website of German mail-order specialist Canyon. The Ultimate CF SLX Disc 9.0 offers an unbeatable price-performance ratio. If you change the wheelset, the Ultimate becomes a timeless and incredibly-comfortable all-rounder.
All bikes in test: Argonaut Road Bike | Basso Diamante SV 2019 | Bianchi Oltre XR4 Disc | BMC Timemachine Road 01 TWO | Canyon Ultimate CF SLX Disc 9.0 | Cervélo S5 | EXEPT Allroad Classic | FOCUS IZALCO MAX 9.8 | MERIDA REACTO DISC TEAM-E | Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL6 Disc | Trek Madone SLR 9 Disc
This article is from GRAN FONDO issue #011
Words: Benjamin Topf Photos: Valentin Rühl