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Bike Test: Cannondale Synapse Disc

February 19, 2015
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It’s been two years now since Cannondale wow’d the bike world with their entry into the “endurance” category of road bikes with the impressive carbon Synapse that featured highly manipulated tubing to provide added compliance.  The bike even managed to secure some Pro Tour bragging rights when a factory version was used by the Pro team to win some big races in Europe.

Key to the Synapse’s creature comfort is the abundance of SAVE Plus “micro-suspension” frame technology (found in the chainstays, seatstays and fork) that adds compliance to reduce ride fatigue. Of course the word “suspension” has certain connotations that when used in regards to road bikes can be a sketchy ordeal. Whereas Trek (with their Domane that actually has a measureable degree of suspension travel with their Isospeed decoupler) avoids the word like the plague,  for as long as we’ve inquired, Cannondale has been vague (nee unresponsive) in defining the travel/compliance limits of their “micro suspension.”

In short, to best define the Synapse frame technology, either put emphasis on the word “micro” or de-emphasize the word “suspension”. Regardless, in addition to the SAVE Plus technology, in the quest for more compliance Cannondale also went a step further by reducing the size of the seatpost to a 25.4mm diameter (down from the standard 27.2mm).

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Peter Sagan campaigned a Synapse at a handful of “rough” races last year. Photo: Bettini

It’s been a year since we last rode a Synapse and we decided to get reacquainted with the model for 2015. It’s important to note that: A. while any bike could be ridden off-road and B. the Synapse is geared for more compliance than their EVO and Caad 10 frames, C. we wouldn’t rate it as a qualified “gravel bike” as the wheel clearance is just not there for 33c+ tires.

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Cannondale’s own Hollowgram SI aluminum crank is mated to a pair of FSA Compact chainrings

While Cannondale’s carbon Synapse family runs ten models strong (with an accompanying six member aluminum contingent), we set our sights on the $5420 Cannondale Hi-Mod Synapse. As impressed with the bike as we were when it rolled in the door, it was hard to not be distracted by the price/spec ratios of both the lower line Carbon Di2 and Carbon Disc models which sell for $4870 and $3790 respectively. Although lacking the “hi-mod” moniker which brings a 200 gram weight savings and higher level lay-up tuning, these lower priced bikes share all the most important frame features as our test bike and still with solid parts packages, but for a lot less money.

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From nose to tail, the Synapse is one of the shapeliest frames we’ve seen and unlike many previous competitors’ bikes that used shaped carbon tubes solely for aesthetic benefits, the Synapse tubes have all been computer designed to provide an optimum level of compliance.

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Like the chainstays, the SAVE fork is highly manipulated to maximize compliance. We liked the 28c Schwalbe tire spec and Shimano disc brake, but the front was slightly problematic in stopping performance….we’re trying to figure out why.

While we are happy to say that (given all the bikes we’ve ridden) Shimano makes the best performing road disc brakes, for some reason our test bike came away with an imbalance in braking power. Mile after mile, the front brake would slow the bike while with equal lever pressure the rear brake would lock the wheel. The bike had yet to be washed or touched with any lubricants to possibly foul the pads. When we pulled the pads for a look we found metallic pads that were glazed. Once sanded and re-installed, not much changed.

Although the catalog calls for a 160mm/140mm front/rear rotor spec, we were happy to find that our bike ran with the smaller rotors front and rear.

Our 16.8 lb Hi-Mod Synapse was rolling on some new 20mm wide/28 spoke  CZero (Cannondale’s new in-house brand) carbon rims that we had never seen before.  In a sign of recognition of the improved ride quality brought about by bigger tires, we were stoked to see that the Synapse runs with 28c Schwalbe rubber which provided great rough line stability. As one test rider commented, “with these tires I feel like I’m riding a steam roller!”

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Part of the Synapses attraction for some riders is the higher hand position provided by the tall head tube and 30mm headset spacer. Try as we might we couldn’t get used to the high hand position afforded by both so we 86’d the spacer. Yes, internal cable routing as you’d expect.

If there was one frame attribute that defined the industry-wide embrace of the “endurance” road segment, it would be a higher hand position that provides a more upright seating position. To make that happen, the headtube on the 56cm Synapse measures 7.25″ tall  (almost 2″taller than that found on the racier Evo).

One of the more novel accessories that Cannondale introduced along with the Synapse was a miniscule front light system that mounted on the steerer tube below the stem (also available as an accessory item).

Taking the place for the headlight on production bikes is a 30mm tall spacer that can be replaced by the light without impacting hand positioning. The problem we had is that we didn’t run the light and didn’t care for the high hand position that was difficult to change due to the tall stem spacer. Luckily, underneath the 30mm spacer (which we thought doubled as a top cap) was a flush top cap that allowed us to pile on a short stack of 5mm spacers as needed.

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As attractive as it is to spread the myth that the split seattube &PowerPyramid bottom bracket were designed to maximize the bikes aero qualities, nothing could be further from the truth.

Without a doubt one of signature frame attributes of the Synapse is the split seattube design that makes up the PowerPyramid bottom bracket. The split design was used to accommodate the wide bottom bracket while also minimizing the stress (and potential for cracking) on the joint.

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One thing we noticed was a difference in ride quality between the new disc brake version and the caliper brake version (above) we  first rode. It seems like the bike has become slightly more rigid – we’re guessing maybe it was the carbon wheels or possibly that both the left side fork blade and chainstay have been beefed-up to compensate for the added forces of the disc brake. There are four levels of carbon Synapse that run standard caliper brakes – with a $3140 price point being the next model down.

As we find with most mass produced, monocoque carbon frame these days, the overall frame construction here is first rate. There are no glitches and the paint work is very impressive – although for us, the Synapse is close to the edge of the NASCAR graphic syndrome with an abundance of brand messaging that takes away from the otherwise attractive paint scheme.

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Cannondale’s best “gravel bike” offering would have to be the SuperX which can run up to 35mm tires, which not ideal, is still far larger than the Synapse is capable.

TO GRAVEL OR NOT TO GRAVEL
After a few hundred miles on the Synapse, the bike showed it’s strength as a more than capable endurance road bike. While the tall head tube is too high for any aero minded road racer, it provides the sort of upright positioning that can bring more comfort and also put the rider’s eyesight at a safer level in traffic.

Sure, the disc brakes and “micro-suspension” certainly seem to beckon the aspiring gravel rider, but again, the Synapse is really best positioned as an endurance road bike. Yes, any bike can be ridden off-road, but if your leaning towards the “performance gravel” (yes, a new category!!!) of things, we’d say look to the SuperX cyclocross bike (above) that not only has more ample (and crucial) tire clearance, but a longer and more stable wheelbase (102.6cm vs. 100.5cm).

While fast roadies quickly ran out of high-speed gear inches with the compact chainring and big spread of rear gears, there was never any climb too steep that the Synapse couldn’t handle – perfect for the target audience.

Between the upright positioning, big tires, climbing gears, and compliant ride, the Synapse makes for an ideal commuter and/or performance oriented recreational bike. One rider thought the Synapse made for a great commuter, the only thing missing were rack and fender eyelets (although varieties of both exist that don’t require eyelets).

As “pro” looking as our test bike was with the carbon wheels, we couldn’t help but keep looking over our shoulders at the $3790 disc model that runs with alloy Mavic Aksium wheels. That’s a sharp looking bike at a really solid price.

WITH REALLY NOTHING TO DO WITH THE SYNAPSE, BUT….

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Noting the “CZ” in the new wheels from Cannondale, some of us at RBA couldn’t help but think back to the CZ motocross bikes of old…like this CZ 360 campaigned by the legendary Roger DeCoster back in 1965.

 

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