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Cannondale Synapse 2018 First Ride - has Cannondale made the best endurance bike yet?

David puts the new Synapse through its paces around Lake Como

It hardly seems like four years ago that I was in Tuscany riding the then all-new Cannondale Synapse, but time flies in the road bike industry and so a few weeks ago I found myself once again in Italy, this time the equally beautiful Lake Como, to put the revamped 2018 Synapse through its paces.

The Synapse needs no introduction. It’s a bike that has proven to be very popular for the US company in the increasingly popular endurance class, winning many fans and plaudits; it won's bike of the year award a few years ago. The endurance category to which the Synapse belongs is maturing nicely with ever increasing and advanced options, and some interesting solutions being developed by some companies in an attempt to offer more of the key selling point of these bikes, namely comfort.

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You can read all the tech details about the new Synapse here, and there's a revealing interview with the designers behind the new bike that you can read here. A quick recap though, the new Synapse is 200g lighter, stiffer, more comfortable, takes 32mm tyres and has mudguard eyelets, only comes with disc brakes and features a new SAVE Systembar handlebar. With that out of the way, let's deal with the important stuff, like how it rides. 

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While some brands have gone down the route of adding suspension, Cannondale has instead opted to refine its SAVE micro suspension concept and focused on reducing the overall frame and fork weight, as well as adding more stiffness. Cannondale is gambling that cyclists shopping for a bike in this category will want comfort but not at the expense of performance and liked the simplicity and looks of the previous Synapse. It’s a gamble that might have just paid off. Two days riding around the very scenic and picturesque Lake Como is not enough to fully get under the skin of the new bike and make a thorough assessment - that’ll wait until we get a test bike here in the UK - but it was abundantly clear that the decision to build on the solid foundations of the previous Synapse and enhance its strengths and smooth out its weaknesses has resulted in a fast, comfortable and dynamic handling endurance bike, yet with the familiarity of the old bike that won many fans.

Before I go on, I have an admission to make. As much as I’ve always liked the Synapse, I’ve actually always favoured the SuperSix Evo (I’ve had one since 2012) because I felt it better suited my racing aspirations. I love its handling and its comfort, impressive considering the racing focus. But as someone who doesn’t really race that much anymore and isn’t exactly getting any younger, the Synapse is, on paper at least, the bike that suits my riding better. With the changes to the new Synapse, it might just be time to retire the SuperSix Evo. Why? Well, the new Synapse is faster, stiffer, more agile and responsive, wrapped up with a geometry that lets you get a reasonably low position if you want it, yet has the silky smoothness to not batter you into submission on a long ride. There's little concern that performance has been sacrificed for comfort with the new Synapse. And there's room for mudguards for winter grinding, a practicality you really only fully appreciate with the passing of years...

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Comfort in a bike comes down to two factors, the geometry and the position is provides, and the ability of the bike to smooth rough roads. With the Synapse, the comfort factor has definitely been dialled up several notches. There’s noticeably more seated comfort and you can feel the saddle moving backwards when you hit a sizeable hole or bump in the road, thanks to the newly designed seatpost that retains the same skinny 25.4mm diameter of the previous bike. The Fabric Scoop saddle that Cannondale specs on the new bike is a good choice, with the shape, padding and base flex all contributing to the comfort.

More noticeable is the front end comfort. While I couldn’t detect the new Systembar handlebar actually deflecting up to the 6mm that Cannondale says it can during the limited time on the bike, it was noticeable that the front of the bike was transmitting fewer vibrations to the hands and arms. I’m not normally a fan of one-piece handlebars because I typically find the aero shaped top section too wide to grip, and the fixed nature of the design limits fit adjustments. The Systembar, however, has slender shaped tops that my fingers easily wrap around and are a comfortable place to rest your hands, and the stem can be swapped for a longer or shorter one as your fit requirements dictate. I'm not sure the Garmin mount on top of the handlebar is the most attractive solution, however.

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So yes the new Synapse appears to offer extra comfort and smoothness over the old model. It is not however in the same league as the Specialized Roubaix which with its Future Shock providing 20mm of suspension really does iron out bumps at the front. Seated comfort, however, is on a par with the Canyon Endurace CF SLX and not that far behind the new Trek Domane with its new adjustable Isospeed decoupler, or the Roubaix with its lowered seatclamp and large seat tube around narrow seatpost design. The market is splitting, with brands like Cannondale, Giant, Merida opting for optimised tube shapes and carbon fibre layup, while Trek and Specialized have gone down the road of engineering suspension solutions. It means more choice for consumers with bikes catering for different needs and tastes.

Bigger tyres play a big part in adding more isolation from rough roads. The new Synapse takes up to 32mm measured tyres and the 28mm Vittoria tyres at about 65-70psi provided a nice cushioning ride that helps the bike to float along rough roads. It was my first ride on these tyres and I was impressed, they appear to roll along efficiently and have a supple feel with plenty of grip to exploit in the corners. I’ll be requesting some of these for a separate review for sure.

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Where the Synapse really shines is when you increase the pace and demand more from the bike. Cannondale has improved the stiffness of the frame and reduced the weight, and in doing so has narrowed the gap to the SuperSix Evo, the company’s flagship race bike.  As a result, the new Synapse is much more engaging and exciting to ride, especially on the fast descents that are the reward after lung-busting climbs such as the famous Madonna del Ghisallo climb, an icon of the Il Lombardia season-ending classic.

On twisty roads, it’s remarkably adept. The Synapse flows between the corners with more precision, the tyres tracking the surface irregularities more faithfully and lending the bike a more sure-footed characteristic. That's especially when useful riding new roads for the first time. It feels like it can be pushed harder through the turns. It's more responsive and sensitive to your inputs, whether through the handlebars or pedals, and the excellent braking of the SRAM eTap hydraulic disc brakes keep you out of trouble while the new Hollowgram carbon clincher wheels impressed with their stiffness when pushed into demanding situations.

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All the changes that Cannondale has made to the new Synapse, and they are subtle, have come together to create a bike that feels sportier than the previous model, and sportier than many of its rivals. Some of that also comes down to the geometry, the other critical aspect that separates an endurance bike from a race bike. The only thing that unites all endurance bikes is a taller stack and shorter reach, but the numbers each bike brand goes with vary wildly.

With the new Synapse, it’s less sit-up-and-beg than many of its rivals and more aggressive than most. Cannondale says it strikes the ideal balance between pure race position and upright comfort. Stack and reach on the new Synapse are 590 and 386mm respectively, compared to 567 and 393mm for the SuperSix Evo. The Synapse is shorter and higher, with a similar proportion to the Canyon Endurance CF SLX that I liked a lot earlier this year. The 995mm wheelbase and 410mm chainstays contribute to keeping the Synapse at the snappy end of the handling scale.

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It’ll take some time to really get to know the new Synapse and there’s a test bike with my name on it arriving soon. The first signs are good though. In evolving every little detail of the new Synapse, Cannondale has created a bike that surpasses the benchmark set by the previous bike. It's faster, more comfortable, offers increased tyre clearance and versatility, and best of all, is more engaging and fun to ride, whether you're going flat out or cruising. 

The Synapse range starts at £2,199 for the standard carbon frame with Shimano 105 gears and brakes, increasing through another eight models to the £7,799 Hi-Mod Dura-Ace Di2 range-topper. There are also two more bikes built around last year’s frame costing £1,399 and £1,599. The bike I tested wasn’t quite a regular production bike, and had a SRAM eTap with a HollowGram Si chainset and Cannondale’s own HollowGram carbon clincher wheels.

David worked on the tech team from 2012-2020. Previously he was editor of and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds, and you can now find him over on his own YouTube channel David Arthur - Just Ride Bikes

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