Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Cannondale Synapse Disc Impressions

 Let's be honest, I'm really really fortunate in that I get the opportunity to ride some really nice bicycles. It isn't by chance. I am very critical of what I ride and what I buy with my hard earned money. You won't see me buying a bike that I feel is not a front runner in the market for which it was designed. That said, I don't have unlimited financial resources and although I'm fortunate to have more leeway than many when it comes to bicycle purchases, cost is always a factor.

For the past few years, Cathy and I have been doing more and more dirt and gravel road riding and less and less traditional paved road riding. Part of the issue is the traffic, especially in the urban area where we have historically done most of our riding. Part of the reason is that we are spending more and more time in rural areas that have a far greater quantity of unpaved roads. Another part of this equation is that there are more and more really good gravel based race events taking place, which have a vastly different flavor and feel than traditional road races, one that we have become enamored with.

Up until now, Cathy and I have been riding and racing our slightly modified cyclocross racing bikes for riding and racing gravel. This bikes are the Cannondale SuperX disc, a bike that is perfectly adept at riding road and gives little or nothing up to the emerging, purpose built gravel or endurance road bicycle segment. With the shift from strict paved road to more open, endurance road and gravel, coupled with a pair of really nice road bikes that spent most of their time hanging in the corner virtually unused, I started thinking that a more versatile solution may be a better idea. I'd looked at, and built up a few of the Cannondale Synapse bikes at the Bikeway Source over the past couple of years and thought that they looked interesting. I'd also raced against a few of them on gravel, getting to see their performance first hand. That said, I wasn't certain that the subtle changes over a normal road bike and vs. the SuperX would warrant the switch.

Finally this late fall I decided to move forward, first with a new 2016 model Cannondale Synapse Carbon Disc Ultegra Di2 (2x11 speed) bike. We got the bike in the heart of cyclocross season so it didn't get much use. Cathy did get out on it a few times and although very different what with the Di2 vs. SRAM that she was used to, she liked it. The shifting was exactly as hoped, spot on and bombproof once setup. The brakes were awesome as well with great feel, modulation and stopping power from the fully hydraulic discs with 4" IceTech rotors.

The Shimano setup works very, very well, albeit at a bit of a weight penalty over SRAM. I did upgrade the wheelset from the stock Mavic One disc which although a stout and very reliable wheelset, was also a bit chunky. We went to a HED Ardennes Plus SL disc wheelset, which was a little wider and a little lighter. For tires, we swapped from the stock 28c slicks to a Clement X'Plor MSO 32c 120tpi tire. These tires have more tread which affords better traction in the loose terrain as well as puncture resistance on rocky terrain, both of which we experience often riding dirt roads in Vermont. They fit the frame and fork fine with enough clearance for safety but are just about the biggest tires that will work. I also used the Vittoria XN Pro 32c file tread, which fits well. The Kenda Happy Medium 32c did not fit as it had too much side know though. That's it and with that, the bike is awesome, according to Cathy.

Back in November, as the CX season was winding down and I was starting to think ahead to what comes after, I started looking at a Synapse for me as well. Based on availability, I decided to go with a 2015 model Synapse HiMod SRAM Red disc bike. This bike has the full high-modulus carbon fiber frame, and slight upgrade over the normal modulus carbon fiber of Cathy's bike, and used SRAM Red 22 (2x11 speed) with full hydraulic disc brakes. Setup on the bike is stock save what is actually a downgrade on the wheelset, from the stock, superlight Czero carbon clincher wheelset, to a pair of HED Ardennes Plus SL disc wheels. My thought was that a slightly beefier build may be better for my weight and riding style for the type of riding I will do with the bike.

The bikes come stock with long cage rear derailleurs and the new wide ratio drivetrains. Can I be the first to say that I love this! In back we have 11 speed cassettes with an 11-32 range and up front we have 50/34 chainrings. This makes for an excellent range for virtually everything we do, save the longest, steepest climbs such as the access roads to Burke or Radar Mountains. Plenty of range for strict paved road riding as well save for all but the biggest downhill descents, most of which in New England are too sketchy to push much bigger of a gear on anyhow. I'm flabbergasted by the trend toward 1x systems for gravel riding. For CX racing I get it but for gravel? That seems a really limiting choice for a discipline that likely sees super steep, extended and often loose climbs as well as extended downhills. If ever there is a place where more is indeed more, the gravel segment is it, IMHO.

Over the past few weeks I've had a chance to get in some good solid rides on the bike. In general I've got to say that I'm amazed. The subtle changes in frame design over the SuperX like the curved and shaped stays are huge. I never felt that the SuperX was harsh on the gravel but the Synapse is so smooth. Staying seated through the chatter it is amazing how much of the impact and vibration is absorbed by the frame. the tiny little 25.4mm carbon seatpost diameter helps this as well as it absorbs some of the shock also. Add to that the highly shaped fork blades and the front end is also dead stable.

A relatively long headtube and setup that is more aggressive (handlebar height lower) than the CX setup on the SuperX but not quite as aggressive as on my SuperSix road bike and the bike feels comfortable and familiar yet fast and stable. Short chainstays compared to the SuperX get handling back inline with a traditional road bike, adding to that predictable stable feel both up and down. Make no mistake, when you stand on the pedals and sprint there is no hint of flex. As with the SuperX and the SuperSix, the bike is efficient with very little power loss due to flex. Point the bike up and it likes to climb, retaining traction even in the loose stuff, even better than the SuperX with comparable tires again, thanks to the stays.

On a group ride in VT a couple of weeks ago a few of us had some spirited climbs throughout the ride. These climbs were on roads that I'd done before, ones that I'd had other spirited efforts up as had some others. When we finished the ride and I downloaded my GPS data, I was shocked to see that I'd gotten a couple of Strava KoM's on some of the tougher segments. These were solid climbs and aboard the new Synapse on a 35 degree day in late December, which I was dressed appropriately for (lots of extra clothing) I was able to beat my best effort set in the middle of this past summer atop my SuperX, when conditions were just about perfect. I'm not saying that it was all the bike but I can say for certain that the bike did not hurt one bit.

In general, the bike is the best of both worlds. It is more than competent on paved roads and is fast, light and smooth when paired with narrower slicks. I actually look forward to testing the bike more on choppy springtime pavement to see how the bike rides. As for the gravel roads that we spend most of our time on, the bike is perfect. Sure, if your thing is to do more rugged ClassIV roads or trail riding which would require bigger tires than the SuperX or better yet, the Cannondale Slate, which I'm hoping I can test out at some point, might be a better idea. For us though, we can now leave the CX bikes in CX mode and pare down the unused road bikes.

One in, one out. It's the unfortunate law around these parts, at this point. Whoever said you can't have too many bikes needs to visit my basement.

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