The road bike is dead.
That is to say, the concept of a road bike without some sort of preceding adjective is dead. Today, you can get an endurance bike, an aero bike, an adventure bike, a race bike, a gravel bike or a climbing bike, to list a few.
As the definitions of road riding continue to splinter and brands battle to carve out territory with specialised bikes, our list of adjectives gets longer. Will we reach a point where these various streams converge? Not any time soon.
While we have seen some convergence with things like helmets — consider Giro's evolution from the more-vents-is-better Atmos to the full-on, aero-nerd Air Attack to the middle-ground Synthe — road bikes are another matter. Just look at the name for Specialized's new off-the-beaten-path road bike, the Diverge.
Used to be, a rider would just buy a road bike. Then came endurance bikes, then aero bikes, pulling at the definition of a road bicycle from both ends. The endurance bike has a distinct sales pitch: go long, be comfy. The aero bike has one, too: go fast! So why would you buy something in between? Is 'light and stiff' still enough of a reason? Or, looked at another way, why can't we have it all with one bike that is aero, fast, efficient and comfortable? I put these questions to some of the big brands.
Specify your fun
Specialized, Trek, Felt, Scott and others build around three basic road platforms: endurance, race, aero. Cannondale notably isn't buying the aero thing. "Aero road frames add weight and compromise performance and comfort!" Cannondale's Bill Ruddell says. Unlike its competitors, Cannondale has two platforms it calls endurance road and elite road (read: race). But all companies embrace the general notion that specifically designed bikes perform better for their chosen task than a one-size-fits-all model. Indeed, a race machine with aggressive geometry and quick handling offers a fundamentally different ride than a relaxed and stable endurance bike.
But geometry aside, why can't you have it all in terms of aerodynamics, comfort and weight? The answer is tube shapes, says Scott's Nic Sims. "Tube shapes for aero by design don’t flex in the direction of a compliant bike, just as a round tube gives good compliance for a comfy ride but gives up the subtle aero advantage," Sims says.
A good example of this can be found in seatposts. Quick glances at the large, snub-nosed Scott Foil seatpost versus the Cannondale Synapse's miniscule seatpost speak volumes about the intentions and the road feel of each.
At Felt, the AR aero series builds upon the race geometry of the F series, gaining aero advantage and weight. "With the AR we incorporated the addition of aerodynamics as a priority characteristic, but by having tubes that are anything other than round — including much larger junctions — means we must use more material to achieve the lateral stiffness required to be an effective, crisp-handling race bike," says Felt's Doug Martin. "So the weight goes up a bit."
At Specialized, road category manager Mark Cote says the Californian company has always believed in "a nucleus of a road race bike" from which variants like aero or endurance or gravel can drift into greater specificity of purpose.
"The Tarmac is the most dialed for every single rider; I’d say that’s the best nucleus," Cote said. "It has enough compliance, enough steering responsiveness and a baseline of aerodynamics in a light, efficient chassis. From there, you can determine what you’d like more of."
Moving towards the edges in one direction means compromise in another. But this isn't necessarily a bad thing. A time trial bike doesn't exactly have the suspension of a downhill bike, but that's not the point, right? Speaking of mountain bikes, Cote says we're getting closer on the road side to the specific delineation by ride type we have for mountain biking. "We're not too far from mountain bikes now in that we have specific products for the rider. The beauty is, the rider has the choice now. It’s not, which is better? It’s which is better for the ride?"
Trek has forged ahead perhaps the farthest with ride-specific bikes, splitting off the endurance/race/aero variants without confining riders to geometries traditionally associated with each of the three. Normally, endurance means upright and slack, while race and aero mean low and aggressive. At Trek, the lightweight Émonda and aero Madone come in two geometries, while the bump-absorbing Domane comes in three different geo configurations. Trek hopes this can help avoid the pigeonholing that can follow narrowly focused design.
“For example, you can buy a Domane in the Koppenberg with full race wheels and at the UCI minimum weight, or you can buy a Domane with Endurance Geometry,” said Trek’s Michael Mayer. “Or you can buy an Émonda in a H2 geometry and put on really big tyres for gravel — this is what I am racing at Dairy Roubaix — or buy an Émonda H1 with 23mm tyres for a great riding race bike. We try not to call the Émonda a climbing bike, or the Madone a crit bike, or the Domane a non-race gentlemen’s bike. They each can do all of those things.”
While the choices can be bewildering initially, the end result of ride-specific designs have largely improved road cycling, in all its various forms. The trick is discovering what type of riding you love, and a bike that fits the bill.
If you have been riding one bike for a while, I encourage you to throw a leg over another type of machine, whether by renting from a shop or borrowing from a buddy. All road bikes are no longer created equal. And that's a beautiful thing.