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Shootout: Cannondale Versus Trek, A Clash of Comfort

August 30, 2015
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Trickle-down technology-you hear about it all the time from the bike manufacturers and even here in the pages of RBA. It’s the act of taking high-end product developments and reshaping them to suit the needs of lower-cost options. By and large, most bike companies have been quite successful at it. But can that success be duplicated when adapting top-of-the-line comfort technology originally designed for carbon frames into a more affordable aluminum alternative? And- gasp!-can it be considered ‘suspension’ road bike technology? Cannondale and Trek believe that it can.

Rarely in RBA shootouts are there two bikes that are as closely matched in component specifications and intended use as these two. Designed as endurance road bikes, both the Cannondale Synapse and Trek Domane have more relaxed geometries than the racier models in each brand’s respective line. They are also both aluminum, a material that is experiencing a resurgence in popularity due to improved manufacturing technologies and its longstanding ability to create a functional and enjoyable riding experience at an affordable price. To top it off, our test Synapse and Domane are both spec’d with Shimano 105 shifters and derailleurs, compact cranksets, aluminum cockpit components and 25c tires mounted to aluminum clinchers.


TREK DOMANE 2.3

Like other endurance road bike debuts, Trek chose to unveil its latest endurance road platform, the Domane, during the cobble racing season. But that was back in 2012 at the Tour of Flanders, when the Domane was given to the mighty legs of marquee rider Fabian Cancellara (unfortunately, the Swiss racer crashed out, spoiling a dream debut for the Domane). Shortly thereafter, Trek launched its 2-Series aluminum models of the Domane for the 2013 model year. Now we’re into 2014 and the Domane line is still racking up impressive sales figures on the dealer floors, and several pro racers have been contesting events- cobbled or otherwise-on top-of-the-line carbon Domanes. Aluminum fans, along with those simply on a budget, can rejoice, because Trek is offering the Domane, complete with its signature IsoSpeed decoupler and fork technology, in two models: the 2.0 ($1429.99) and the 2.3 ($1919.99), which we’re testing here.

The Domane 2.3 frame is crafted from Trek’s 200-Series Alpha aluminum, and its selection of tube shapes is reminiscent of its carbon counterpart, including a flattened top tube, triangular-shaped downtube and arching seatstays. But the most noteworthy feature is, undoubtedly, the IsoSpeed decoupler, which, in Trek’s words, ‘isolates the seat tube from the rest of the frame.’ In other words, because there are moving parts within the decoupler setup, it suspends the rider from rear-end impacts, thus giving it more credibility to be considered true ‘suspension’ road bike technology. Trek engineers also brought the higher-end Domane’s IsoSpeed fork technology to the 2.3’s own carbon fork, which offers more offset and sweep. The Domane runs with a non-tapered, 11/8-inch head tube, rack and fender mounts, a selection of house brand aluminum components and a Shimano 105 drivetrain. Trek also offers its other road bike, the Madone, in a 2-Series aluminum version, but says that the Domane is intended ‘more for those looking to go for longer rides’ and who want to benefit from the IsoSpeed technology for added compliance. The Domane 2.3 can also be had in a white/red paint scheme.


TREK DOMANE 2.3: THE PARTS

Shifters: Shimano 105
Front derailleur: Shimano 105
Rear derailleur: Shimano 105
Cranks: Shimano R565, 50/34
Cassette: Shimano Tiagra, 12-30
Wheels: ‘Bontrager-approved’ alloy rims, alloy hubs
Tires: Bontrager R1 Hard-Case Lite, 25c
Stem: Bontrager Race Lite
Handlebar: Bontrager Race VR-C
Seatpost: Bontrager, 27.2mm
Saddle: Bontrager Affinity 1
Brakes: Shimano 105 rim calipers


CANNONDALE SYNAPSE DISC 5 105

After select members of its sponsored pro team raced the redesigned Synapse during the Spring Classics season, Cannondale officially rolled out the new bike back in the middle of 2013. The new high-end Synapse’s radical combination of tube shapes, including a split seat tube design, garnered plenty of attention, and we found it to be a strong new entry into the ever-expanding comfort/performance debate. But, the bright minds at Cannondale quickly realized that many design elements of the carbon Synapse would be beneficial for not only cobble-racing specialists, but the vast majority of cyclists who slog through heretofore uncomfortable rides over rough roads. Along with these potential customers, Cannondale has designed the aluminum Synapse for the ‘consumer who is making their first real investment in a road bike,’ so the pressure’s on to deliver a quality first time riding experience for novice and entry-level cyclists. Entering 2014, Cannondale has now made its latest Synapse technologies available in seven carbon models and five aluminum models.

Chief among the bits of Synapse frame tech is the SAVE PLUS micro suspension system, which is made up of helix-shaped seatstays and fork blades, and flattened chainstays, all of which were slightly altered from the carbon version in order to optimize the aluminum material’s potential for stiffness and compliance. Since there are no moving parts at play in the frame, you might wonder, is the term ‘suspension’ truly applicable? In fact, ‘deflection’ may be more appropriate. Cannondale has long been the biggest proponent of aluminum technology among the big bike manufacturers, so it’s no surprise that the aluminum tubes were designed with incredibly specific wall thicknesses, which gave engineers the ability to finely tune the ride quality for balancing comfort and performance. A BB30 bottom bracket carries over from the carbon model as well, while the Delta-shaped seat tube loses the split design but still tapers upward to a 25.4mm seatpost, a new standard that Cannondale co-developed with FSA specifically for the latest Synapse. The aluminum Synapse Disc 5 105 also runs with a non-tapered, 1 1/8inch head tube to handle steering duties, while rack and fender mounts give it some added versatility as a commuter or touring bike.


CANNONDALE SYNAPSE DISC 5 105: THE PARTS

Shifters: Shimano 105
Front derailleur: Shimano 105
Rear derailleur: Shimano 105
Cranks: FSA Gossamer, BB30, 50/34
Cassette: Shimano Tiagra 4600, 12-30
Wheels: Maddux RD 3.0 Disc rims, Formula hubs
Tires: Schwalbe Lugano PP, 25c
Stem: Cannondale C3 alloy
Handlebar: Cannondale C3 Compact alloy
Seatpost: Cannondale C3 alloy, 25.4mm
Saddle: Cannondale Stage Ergo
Brakes: Promax Render R disc, 160mm (front) & 140mm (rear) rotors


THE RIDE

Despite all of their similarities on paper, our test bikes offered noticeably different riding experiences. The Synapse, for example, is simply a wonderful example of engineering with its set of functional tube shapes. Upon first glance, the assortment of twisty, helix-shaped fork blades and seatstays, tapering top and seat tubes, and thin chainstays seem randomly assigned. But, the sum of these parts equates to a very compliant ride quality, particularly when it comes to smoothing out all of the little road vibrations. Large cracks and the occasional pothole still produce a jarring effect that will run up your spine and arms, but on the whole, the Synapse smoothed out general road chatter better than any aluminum bike we’ve tested in this price range. Best of all, with its predictable handling and reasonably stiff chassis, the Synapse isn’t lacking in performance. It makes a great companion on long rides where a few quick bursts of speed pop up.

The Promax mechanical disc brakes provided plenty of stopping power for our test riders in the sub-150-pound weight range, but may not be as ideal for larger riders as, say, a set of Avid BB7s. The Domane, too, offers a very compliant ride; in fact, more so than many other aluminum bikes we’ve tested in recent years. But it doesn’t smooth out the high-frequency, low-impact road chatter as well as the Synapse. Like its costlier carbon cousin, the aluminum Domane 2.3 serves up an impressively comfortable ride by isolating the rider via an actual rear-wheel suspension system (their proprietary IsoSpeed decoupler). Those large cracks and potholes that the Synapse couldn’t quite subdue meet a much more formidable opponent in the Domane. And, it’s the same story with the bikes’ respective front ends. The Synapse’s SAVE PLUS fork smooths out the chatter best, while the Domane’s IsoSpeed fork offers more comfort when it comes to larger impacts.

Performance-wise, the Synapse is a capable fast-ride contender, but the Domane is better suited for racer types who are shopping for a bike that, in addition to being comfortable for long rides, can be used in crits on the weekend. Its steering is stable but a touch lighter than the Synapse’s, while also being noticeably stiffer for out of the saddle efforts.


THE VERDICT

Our initial thoughts about the Synapse and Domane focused on their similarities. But, ultimately, they are two different bikes that are ideally suited for two different types of riders. One glaring difference is that the Cannondale uses disc brakes versus the Trek’s standard caliper binders. While the former aren’t overly complex by any means, they aren’t as all-around simple as the Trek’s brakes. Overall, the Domane was preferred by our test riders largely due to its better performance characteristics. But, it also retails for an additional $349.99 over the comparably equipped Synapse, which not only equates to a 22 percent markup but gets it closer to the $2060 price of a carbon Synapse. That’s a significant price difference and one that leads us to consider the aluminum Synapse as the better value. If you’re willing to spend a little over $1900 and you’re looking for a bike that will be comfortable over long distances while still possessing some handling and sprinting credentials, then the Domane 2.3 is the bike for you. But if your budget is a bit lower, or if you prize a greater, across the board comfort during any type of ride, then you’d be hard-pressed to find a better deal than the Synapse Disc 5 105. Ultimately, both bikes remind us that aluminum is as viable a frame material as ever, and that’s a boon for us all.

PUNCH LINES

? Synapse offers all-day riding comfort
? For more performance, opt for the Domane
? Proof positive that comfort tech need not break the bank

STATS

Cannondale Synapse Disc 5 105
Price: $1570
Weight: 21 pounds
Sizes: 48, 51 (tested), 54, 56, 58, 61cm
Info: Cannondale

Trek Domane 2.3

Price: $1919.99
Weight: 20 pounds
Sizes: 50 (tested), 52, 54, 56, 58, 60, 62cm
Info: Trek Bikes

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