To determine the best endurance road bikes under $2,000, the BikeRadar test team spent weeks riding seven bikes up and down a steep, windy mountain road and around a bumpy test track. Considering the overall ride quality as well as the value for the money, we found the Giant Defy Composite and the Trek Domane 2.3 to be best in class, with the Giant being the liveliest and the Trek being the most comfortable.
[Note: This test was done in 2013, but all of the bikes are available in similar form for 2015.]
While the Giant and the Scott CR1 Comp were the liveliest of the bunch, the Trek and the Specialized Roubaix Elite Apex Compact were better suited for steady and stable riding over rough roads. Meanwhile, the Fuji Gran Fondo 2.1 surprised many with its fun ride and the Felt Z5 offered good performance at the lowest price in his group. Only the Cannondale Synapse Carbon 6 Tiagra was disappointing, as its Shimano Tiagra group and price made it the worst deal of the bunch. (Please note that we have already ridden the redesigned 2014 Synapse, and it is stellar.)
Road bikes come in two major categories these days: race and endurance. Race bikes generally have bigger gears (53/39-tooth chainrings) for more top-end speed, steeper geometry for quicker handling, and shorter head tubes for aggressive aero positions. Endurance bikes have smaller gears (50/34T) on a compact crank for easier climbing, slacker geometry for more stable handling, and taller head tubes for more upright positioning.
At this price point, most bikes came with Shimano's third-tier 105 group or SRAM’s fourth-tier Apex componentry. The two groups are relatively similar in weight and performance, with a different method of upshifting and braking style being the most notable differences. (Of our testers, Shimano fans liked the “stronger” braking, while SRAM proponents hailed the “greater modulation” of their respective favorites.)
Aside from the aluminum Trek, whose remarkable IsoSpeed rear pivot design that provides noticeable comfort, all the bikes in this test have carbon fiber frames and forks.
Total bike weight for the 56cm models ranged from the 18.03lb Giant Defy Advanced to the 20.24lb Trek Domane.
In the quest to deliver bikes at a target price, wheelsets are often a spot where product managers will skimp, and these bikes were no exception. While most performed reliably, they are all heavy. On the upside, however, swapping in a lighter set down the road would make a real impact on acceleration and overall feel. And all of the frames are certainly good for the long haul.
Finally, rubber — it may seem irrevelant, but tire volume and quality make a huge impact on a bike’s feel. Rim width and tires are trending wider these days for greater traction and comfort, and endurance bikes will typical come with wider tires than race bikes anyway. Those in our test ranged from 22-26c.
Read on for a look at the bikes, each tested by BikeRadar staffers, former veteran professional racer Andy Bajadali, experienced bike shop personnel, and everyday riders. And be sure to look through the photo gallery at above right for BikeRadar’s data compilation charts and component photography.
The compact (50/34) cranks on each of these bikes makes for easier climbing
Giant Defy Composite 2 - $1,975
Over the years Giant has developed a reputation for delivering high-value bikes, and the Defy Composite is a great example. Although none of our testers were immediately excited by the looks of the bike, it quickly won everyone over with its performance. Whether up or downhill, on silky smooth pavement or choppy dirt road, and through tight corners or just cruising along, the Defy Composite delivered the best overall ride of the bunch.
“This bike could be taken out for your longest rides and still jump in a local race,” said one tester. “It soaked up the bumps well and was still very responsive to my power output.”
With a SRAM Apex group and house wheels, the Defy Advanced has an 11-28T cassette while all the others come with a 12-30T. Should you want that last, big, bailout gear on super steep climbs, your local shop should be able to assist you but otherwise, we appreciated the extra top end from the 11T cog.
All testers reported feeling very comfortable across all riding conditions on the Defy Advanced. “It’s snappy when sprinting and true when cornering,” one tester reported. “I wish the handlebars had a shallower drop, but I actually like the bike’s overall minimalistic style.”
While most of the geometry is middle-of-the-road for endurance bikes, the Giant has the highest bottom bracket of the bunch.
“The Giant Defy is not the stiffest or the softest, but just right, in a Goldilocks kind of way,” a former professional reported. “It’s very comfortable and predictable in all types of riding. And I love the saddle.”
Trek Domane 2.3 - $1,929
The most radical of the bunch, the Trek Domane has a pivot at the upper seat tube junction that allows the seat tube to move slightly, taking the bumps out of the ride. The design works so well that the still-plush front end almost feels a touch harsh by comparison.
Test riders pointed to the Domane as the most comfortable overall bike for rough roads, with a Shimano 105 group with Trek’s Bontrager wheels and 25c tires rounding out the package.
“The Domane was the surprise of the test,” one tester said. “It’s a super comfy ride with enough feedback to be in the happy-alive feeling.”
The Domane has lowest bottom bracket and most relaxed head tube angle of the bunch, which combines with a long wheelbase for an ultra-stable ride when riding in a straight line. The bike isn’t in its element for fast, hard corners, though.
“I enjoyed the combination of comfort and stiffness,” said one tester. “In the saddle I was able to get the power down, but standing up it felt like my accelerations were slowed a bit.”
While some testers found the look (nevermind the aluminum frame) to be a bit dated, others like the “geometric look.”
Scott CR1 Comp - $1,999
Despite having the same 50/34T cranks and 12-30T cassette as the rest, the CR1 Comp is far and away the raciest of the bunch thanks to its aggressive geometry and super-stiff frame. On the far opposite end of the spectrum as the Trek Domane, the CR1 Comp drew comments like “aggressive,” “snappy”, and “power is instantly transmitted.”
"For the weekend warrior looking to race occasionally, this might be a good bike," said one tester. "But it may be a bit agro for an all-day century rider."
Scott employs a mix of Shimano 105, Tiagra, and non-group R565 parts with unmarked brake calipers.
The Continental Race tires are marked 23c, but measure 22mm across when mounted on the Syncros Race 28 wheels.
For having such a stiff frame shod in such skinny tires, the CR1 is surprisingly comfortable on rough roads. And although the angles are steeper than others in this test, the CR1’s head tube is still taller than the company’s Foil aero race bike for a more upright position.
Fuji Gran Fondo 2.1 - $1,949
With a carbon frameset built up with Shimano 105 parts and house brand Oval Concepts cranks, wheels, and cockpit, the Gran Fondo surprised many testers — in a good way.
"This bike is a blast downhill. I could really push it due to good brakes and the stable feel of the bike," said one tester.
The fat Vittoria Zaffiro Pro Slick 25c tires were also cause for testers' celebration, both on bumpy dirt roads and descending smooth and windy pavement. Riders tossed out phrases like “stable and planted but still agile," "confidence-enhancing", and "great bump absorption."
For a few riders, though, the toe overlap on the front wheel was a deal breaker.
Finally, the sculpted carbon frame is stiff, but not super-forgiving. "The bike felt more racy on the dirt than the Specialized and others," said one tester. "Energy transmission was good, but quite a bit of chatter on the real rough stuff."
Specialized Roubaix Elite Apex Compact - $1,900
Specialized may not have created the endurance category, but the Californian company certainly has planted its flag there with the Roubaix, a bike built for long rides over any road.
Our testers loved this bike on rough roads and easy rolling rides. "It is very plush front and back," one tester said. "While not as buttery smooth as the Trek in the rear, it felt better balanced with a similar amount of road feedback coming through the handlebars and the saddle."
"I felt at home on gravel - very stable," another tester said. "Every little bump seemed to disappear instantly, even with 100psi in the tires." (We tested each bike with 100psi in both tires.)
Thanks to massive chain stays and a rotund down tube, the lateral stiffness of the bike is quite high, which translates to quick and efficient power transfer.
The front end handling is designed for stability, which is great when hitting the errant rock or pothole in the road. But our one common gripe was how this handling translated on high-speed winding descents, where "the bike felt like it was trying to remain upright."
"I would recommend this to someone looking to do flat or rolling terrain and/or ride on rougher road surfaces," one tester said. "I wouldn’t recommend it for someone who likes to do a lot of climbing and fast descending."
Felt Z5 - $1,795
If $2,000 is a bit too high for your budget, then consider the Felt Z5, which offers a full-carbon frame and a competitive weight.
Shimano Tiagra sits just below Shimano 105 in the Japanese component giant's hierarchy, and it is what Felt specs this bike with along with an FSA crank, house-brand hubs, and Mavic CXP-22 rims.
For newer riders, the Tiagra shifters offer a gear indicator right on top, whereas with all the other groups in this test you either have to just know what gear you're in or look down at the drivetrain.
"This bike was surprisingly comfortable," one tester said. "I would put it just below the Trek and the Roubaix, but not as quick to accelerate."
Cannondale Synapse - $1,999
Here's the deal with the Synapse: it's a great bike but it's overpriced. The frameset is excellent, and there is nothing wrong with Shimano Tiagra. But as all the other bikes above illustrate, a $2,000 machine should come with higher-end components.
"This is my favorite frame," one tester said. "It's very well balanced, it has excellent pedaling efficiency and great-fitting geometry."
"The Synapse is super stable at all speeds," another tester said. "The bike has a heavy feel, but the frameset is great. Super fun to ride."
We should also note that Cannondale completely revamped the Synapse for 2014. Both our UK and US testers who got a sneak-peek rides on the bike loved it for its plush-yet-lively characteristics.
This particular model, though, while a good bike, isn't quite up to snuff for the asking price.