The first few times I rode this Cannondale Synapse, I pulled over to check if my tires were going soft. Even after topping them up immediately before the ride. That's how smooth this bike is.
This particular build, the Synapse Carbon Disc Dura-Ace, is also great value. How many other bikes with Dura-Ace 9120 can you name for under £4,000 / $5,000?
But there is always a catch, right? Following Keith Bontrager's enduring maxim — "light, strong, cheap; pick two" — the Synapse Carbon Disc Dura-Ace achieves an excellent ride, a Dura-Ace group and a great price by using some tanker wheels and a few substitute parts, such as an Ultegra cassette and XT rotors.
That silky ride, though
I'll save you the full spiel on Cannondale's SAVE micro-suspension concept, but I will say that evidence of engineered compliance abounds in this bike. Riding on this bike compared to a normal, rigid carbon frame with the same tires and air pressure is a palpably different experience.
Where the bike shines brightest is at slow to normal riding speeds. Hitting holes, rocks and cracks at 20mph and slower feels muted, like you're watching a movie of the road but actually riding the rollers.
Despite the plush ride, pedal efficiency is high. If there is any lateral flex in the rear triangle, I can't feel it. As noted (below), the inertia of the wheels detract a bit from the frame's snap.
Three primary factors contribute to the buoyant ride: a carbon frame designed to flex horizontally, a skinny 25.4mm seatpost with an even skinnier setback perch, and, of course, the 28mm Vittoria Rubinos.
Cannondale says the seat tube has built-in flex, which it may well have, but it's easier for me to comprehend the give in the whisper-thin seatstays. Cannondale has been using the flattened design on stays for a while with many bikes. The SuperX cyclocross bike uses the concept on the chainstays to great effect, while keeping a solid lateral platform.
The narrow post also has visible give. Standing next to the bike you can lean on the nose or tail of the saddle and watch it move. How much of this is the narrowed upper section of the post versus the whole post versus the entire frame/post package? I have no idea. But the end result is simple — the bike is comfy on rough roads.
I did notice that high-speed bumps weren't dissipated quite as well. On descents, for instance, cracks in the pavement that the bike would absorb at lower speeds sent sharp shocks up through the bike.
The geometry is road endurance, meaning a slightly taller head tube and slightly shorter top tube than an all-out race bike. This set-up fits most riders well.
Almost complete Dura-Ace 9120
Shimano has four Dura-Ace groups now and it's hard to keep track of which is which. The 9120 group employed here is the hydraulic-brake / mechanical-shift version. I generally love most Dura-Ace products, so you won't get many complaints out of me here.
The hoods do have bulbous top ends to them (the 9170 hydraulic / Di2 levers are hard to distinguish from the all-mechanical 9100 models), but the area you wrap your hands around is normal sized.
The Dura-Ace hydraulics are powerful, smooth and reliable. As a tester, going back and forth between bikes with Dura-Ace R9170 hydros and rim brakes — especially on carbon wheels — is eye-opening. And in the rain, it's downright comical.
Shift action is smooth and crisp, with Shimano's one-cog-down, up to three-cogs-up rear shift logic on the cassette. The front derailleur can be trimmed for chain line, and shifts flawlessly on Cannondale's Spider rings.
Speaking of those Spider rings, Cannondale uses its Hollowgram Si cranks instead of Dura-Ace 9100. I don't feel like this is a major setback, more of an aesthetic preference, really. And the 50/34 Spider rings paired with the 11-30t cassette make steep hills and big mountains alike much less daunting.
Cannondale uses an Ultegra cassette, which is cheaper and heavier. I have to say, though, the Ultegra cassettes aren't prone to the creaking that some Dura-Ace models can get at the rivets. (Some Dura-Ace cassettes even cracked between the cogs, but Shimano says this problem has been fixed.) In any event, you're gaining a few grams at the cassette.
Lastly, the rotors are Shimano XT RT81s instead of the full-Gucci Dura-Ace RT900 black models. Just another little cost saver.
Wheels, tires... and room for the future
So, about those tanker wheels. The Fulcrum Racing 500 Disc wheels are perfectly fine, but Dura-Ace level they most certainly are not.
At north of 1,600g with a 26mm rim height, they just don't accelerate like wheels with lighter rims do. The cost for these would probably be in the the £200 / $250 range, but they aren't an aftermarket wheel.
Don't get me wrong, Fulcrum makes quality wheels that will last for a long time. But these wheels just can't keep up with the incredible quality of the Synapse Carbon frameset and Dura-Ace group.
Similarly, the Vittoria Rubino Pro clinchers are good workhorses, but they won't win any awards for low-rolling resistance or supple feel. They will keep you rolling for a long time with a low chance of a flat, though, thanks to the tough puncture protection.
The good news here is that tires are easy to change and that the Synapse has clearance for up to 32mm balloons. Tires that fat on this frame? You'd be floating on cloud nine.
Cannondale and Fabric finishing kit
Besides the Hollowgram crank, Cannondale also does the cockpit. A stem is a stem, and the bars are comfortable enough, although the round tops seem a little quaint in a year when so many brands are embracing the pressure-distributing flattened tops. But the fork and frame do such a fantastic job that a shaped bar isn't needed.
The integrated Garmin mount that comes off the center of the stem, a la Trek's Blendr mount, is a clean touch. However, just like the Blendr mount, the plastic construction is a far cry from a high-end metal product like a K-Edge mount.
It is also hard to tighten the nut down enough to keep bigger computers like the Edge 1030 from flopping down on rough terrain. Great idea but so-so execution.
For the road endurance riding position of this bike, I love the Fabric Scoop Shallow Race saddle.
Its wide tail is supportive without feeling overbearing, and the padding level hits the sweet spot. The saddle isn't ideal for a flat-back racing position, but that's not what this bike is designed for.
Fabric continues to impress me with its cleanly designed and, more importantly, nicely ergonomic saddles.
Bottom line: voodoo levels of smoothness in a high-value, mostly Dura-Ace package
Like many big brands, Cannondale offers bike models at various levels, The Synapse Carbon sits below the Synapse Hi-Mod, using slightly cheaper carbon. But by no means is the frameset a budget proposition — the Synapse Carbon sings on rough roads.
By using modest wheels and a few substitute parts, Cannondale delivers a silky smooth frameset with a premium Dura-Ace hydraulic braking groupset. Even the saddle feels deluxe.
If you're interested in this bike, I'd suggest this test — have the shop set the air pressure without you looking, then ride it and try to guess. My money says you'll be amazed at the answer.