It wasn’t that long ago that road bikes were designed solely for the purpose of riding and, primarily, racing on smooth tarmac.
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Today, however, the road bike market is edging ever closer to the segmented landscape of the MTBs market. Where once there was simply road bikes, now there are race bikes, aero bikes, endurance bikes, gravel bikes, cyclocross bikes and monster-cross bikes to just name a few.
To make things even more confusing there are various names for particular types of bike – gran fondo and endurance bikes are one in the same, for example. But if someone identifies a road bike with a label you don’t totally recognise it’s a safe bet they're talking about a gravel bike.
What all this means is that the typical steep-angled, aggressive racers are becoming less dominant and giving way to the various types of endurance machines with taller, shorter geometries that make for bikes that are better suited to the majority of people.
Don’t get me wrong, many riders still love the laser-guided-missile feel of a race bike, myself included (there was a time when taking my 120mm stem away would have only been possible by prying it from my cold, dead fingers). But like many other cyclists, my interests are changing and I find myself drawn towards longer days in the saddle and routes that aren't solely about speed.
It’s on these sorts of rides that slacker angles (which relieve the stress in your neck and shoulders, and shift some weight off your hands), compliant carbon frames and even suspension make an appreciable difference. Those slacker geometries also add a bit of stability to a bike so that when you’re hours into a long ride and tired, you’re a little less likely to be caught out by uneven ground or unexpected obstacles.
The first commercially available endurance road bike appeared in 2004 when Specialized released the Roubaix, which also happened to be the brand’s first full-carbon road bike.
“Back then Mike [Sinyard] noticed that a lot of people were getting bikes custom made, more so than they do now,” Eric Schuda, Specialized's road category manager says. “The number one thing on these custom bikes was taller head tubes and people were increasing the stack.”
"A lot of these custom bikes were fit driven because most of the bikes on the market at that time had classic, Euro, race geometry with a negative-slanting or flat top tube and a super-low front end,” he continues.
Just a year later, Trek brought its first endurance bike to market, the Pilot.
Hans Eckholm, Trek’s industrial design manager who's been with the company since 2004 and helped design both the Pilot and Domane, says that the driving forces behind the Pilot were comfort and confidence.
“We had been focusing a lot of attention on racers and race geometry. The Pilot was our first round of bike geometry focused on riders [instead of] racers. It had a more relaxed body position for longer rides and more stable handling.”
When you look at the original Roubaix and the Pilot, they pale in comparison to their equivalents today, but these frames changed the game because they were the first to step away from race geometry and move towards something that would better suit the ‘everyday rider’.
In 2009 Giant joined the game by introducing the Defy, which, according to Andrew Juskaitis, Giant’s senior product marketing manager, quickly became its best-selling road model and has remained so ever since.
“[The Defy is] designed for road riders seeking one bike that can do it all. It's capable of winning a field sprint one day and comfortably tackling long club rides the next by blending aggressive, precise handling characteristics with endurance positioning and balance,” the 2009 launch press-release said.
Since then, the endurance sector of the market has exploded and now pretty much every brand offers its own version of sporty road bike with all-day comfort. The construction and components of these bikes have also improved during that time, as new carbon layups and aluminium manufacturing processes, disc brakes and even suspension have been added to the mix. But the driving force behind these bikes, the desire to balance handling and comfort, has remained the same.
"Keeping a bike lively, properly weight balanced, comfortable and stable required a lot of prototypes and ride testing. Making sure it was comfortable without being flat or dead-feeling is a difficult trick to pull off," Eckholm explains.
While there have been plenty of innovations in the evolution of endurance bikes, perhaps the biggest step forward came in the form of disc brakes.
Mountain bikers have been riding disc brakes for years, because they offer more power and more modulation than rim brakes, and are more reliable in a wider range of conditions.
On the road, however, disc brakes have been met with quite a lot of resistance, especially on the competition side of things. But, for the endurance rider, the benefits outweigh any downsides, including the additional weight, and today you’d struggle to find an endurance bike that’s not available with discs.
But, the biggest benefit of disc brakes isn't actually their stopping power. It's the additional tyre clearance they allow.
"Disc brakes were a significant advancement for the Defy," says Juskaitis. "When we introduced the 2015 Defy range, we committed to disc-brake only models – a bold move at that time, considering all our competitors were still only ‘dipping their toes’ in the disc-brake waters. By committing our design resources to disc-only models we were able to totally design the frame and fork to take advantage of disc-brake integration, meaning opening the seatstays/chainstays to accept larger tyres and fenders while shaving weight off the chassis as a whole."
Although Trek hasn't quite made the same commitment to discs, the American brand is under no illusions about their benefits.
“Disc brakes have opened up more possibilities for tyre options – this is crucial for the variety of terrain that people are riding their endurance, gravel and adventure bikes on,” Eckholm says. “The limiting factor with caliper brakes in regards to tyre clearance is mainly the diameter of the tyre. Now, with disc brakes that tyre clearance issue is driven by the chainstay length and drivetrain. Also, cable and hose routing is somewhat simplified.”
The original Roubaix came with Zertz, elastomer inserts in the fork and seatstays, that Specialized claimed dampened road buzz – whether they worked or not is still up for debate.
Similarly, the 2006 Pilot featured Trek’s SPA (suspension performance advantage), an elastomer bumper the seatstay wishbone, which was said to offer 13mm of travel but felt like it added rear-end steering. As the suspension technology has improved, though, endurance bikes have become better at balancing the need for stiffness and efficiency in the frame while still being comfortable riding over rough roads.
In fact, some endurance frames are almost as firm, light and stiff as their racing brethren. When the 2015 Defy Advanced SL was launched it was the lightest frameset Giant had ever produced at right around 850g.
But while every brand's endurance bikes share the same goals – balancing sporty handling with all-day comfort – they each take a different approach to incorporating suspension into their designs.
Take a quick look through the bike companies' catalogues and you'll find everything from the decouplers on Trek's machines, to the elastomers seen on Lapierre’s Pulsium and the Pinarello Dogma K-8. Not forgetting the Future Shock seen on the front of Specialized's Roubaix or the D-Fuse seatpost slotted into Giant's Defy.
With so many methods of providing comfort we're seeing more and more technology being integrated into frames, but where does it end?
"If you make a full-on suspension bike by putting a shock on the rear or a suspension fork on the front, you're adding a ton of weight. For a road bike it kind of takes away from what makes a road bike feel like a road bike – that direct connection to the road – and no matter what we do, we still want to maintain that connection," Schuda says.
Will gravel bikes kill the endurance platform?
The divisions between the different types of road bike used to be clear. Anything that prioritised stiffness or tubes with any sort of aerodynamic profiling were for racing, while anything that emphasised frame compliance and comfort was for endurance riding. But then came gravel bikes, which embraced developments such as disc brakes, greater tyre clearances, tubeless tyres and 1x drivetrains, and in doing so added to the already increasing amount of crossover between 'traditional' road bike categories.
For example, Trek's Madone is now an aero bike that incorporates an element of suspension: 3T's Exploro is a gravel bike with aero touches to make it faster on flat, smooth roads.
So does the rise of gravel bikes – with their upright, rider-friendly geometries, comfortable/suspended ride characteristics and capability over a wider range of surfaces – mean the days of the endurance bike numbered? Schuda doesn't think so.
“We think about this stuff all the time in terms of product development and segmentation… [Regarding] the capability thing, you’re right, Specialized's gravel platform, the Diverge, has more tyre clearance and you can swap wheels around, and that all resonates with a lot of people, but I think there's still room for both [endurance and gravel bikes] ” Schuda says.
“One thing I do wonder about, however, is if the endurance bike steals from the classic road race bike at some point. Or does it go the other way – do you have endurance bikes and open road/gravel bikes, and race bikes become less popular? Or does it go full-race bikes to gravel category,” he continues.
Eckholm offers a similar sentiment.
"There is a need for the ultimate racing machine (in our case the Madone) and a bike for an all-day ride. Versatility and performance are now the balancing act. Gravel has made that even more relevant,” he says.
Specialized has already added suspension to a road bike and short of adding pivots and a trunnion mount shock to the back it would seem there’s not a whole lot else they can do.
“The biggest concern we had adding front suspension to the road bike was the weight gain that comes with it and making sure that we don't rob the rider's efficiency,” Schuda says. "So for us, the future is [looking at] how can we take that to the next level – how can we continue to improve the comfort and the efficiency of the bike without adding weight or taking away that snappy fast feeling that a road bike has. That's the biggest challenge: figuring out how you do that right”
For Giant, Juskaitis says the brand is looking into greater versatility, meaning increased tyre size options and improved compliance, both from the front and rear of the bike but without losing lateral stiffness or adding overall weight. He said electronics and dropper post integration are also on Giant's radar.
Trek was a bit more tight-lipped as to what its plains are. “We believe our endurance geometry and ISOspeed work well in a variety of situations – for a race bike over gravel or cobbles, or on an all-day adventure. The level of versatility necessary is rider and location dependent. We have to provide options that fit our riders' needs. And we continue to evolve with them.”
BikeRadar would like to thank Brittany Ferries, the Commune of Peille, France, and Kieran Page at La Maison des Activities de Pleine Nature de Peille for their help and support during our Headline Bikes test.