The Bike List

Cannondale SYNAPSE CARBON 6 APEX 2012

Tested by Oli Laverack


Designed for tackling demanding terrain such as the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix and Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders), the Synapse series of bikes are built to offer comfort without sacrificing speed. For the typical UK rider the Synapse range will appeal to those looking to cover big distances on events like Sportives as well as being suitable for shorter, faster outings such as club and training rides. The 2012 range includes three aluminium framed Synapse models and six carbon fibre framed models, with the top three carbon models using a stiffer and more expensive Hi-Mod (High Modulus) carbon fibre. The Synapse Carbon 6 Apex on test is the entry-level carbon bike priced at £1,800 with the range-topping Synapse Hi-Mod 1 Dura Ace coming in at a wallet-denting £4,899.

The geometry of the 2012 aluminium framed Synapse bikes is very similar to that of the carbon fibre models but does differ very slightly in places such as the chain stays. Out on the road this difference is indistinguishable – last year I tested the 2011 aluminium framed Synapse Alloy 105 (£1000) which offered virtually the same ride characteristics as this year’s carbon fibre Synapse. As well as giving the 2011 Synapse Alloy 105 a thorough test in the UK it was also the bike I chose to tackle the inaugural Paris-Roubaix Challenge (April 2011) which included 15 sections of bone-shaking cobblestones or ‘pavé’, up to 3k in length. Being a descendant of the Synapse carbon bikes that are ridden by many of the pros on the most challenging Classics such as the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix, the event was the perfect testing ground. The 2011 Synapse Alloy 105 impressed me throughout testing and was a great all round performer, also coming out on top in the group test it was part of. I was especially impressed with the level of comfort over the pavé as I was expecting the aluminium frame to offer little in the way of vibration absorption.

This year (2012) the amateur versions of both the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix Challenge fell on the same weekend. Having had such a great experience with the alloy framed Synapse the year before, I was keen to test the carbon Synapse on this gruelling and even tougher back-to-back cobbled Classics challenge. To prepare the bike for this teeth-rattling event I made only one key addition by wrapping some Lizard Skins DSP bar tape over the existing tape to help absorb some of the harshest vibrations. When the bike arrived the carbon seat post also needed cutting down to size due to the ovalised design of its base. Unless you have a carbon fibre saw it makes sense to employ the services of your local bike shop to cut this down to get the right length and a perfectly straight cut.

Not having ridden the Ronde van Vlaanderen before I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had heard it was a tough race so I was prepared for the worst. The Synapse with its more relaxed geometry seemed like the ideal bike for a long ride over some of the most testing cobbled roads in Europe. By the time we’d conquered the first few sections of cobblestones I knew that it was going to be a good weekend. Although nothing short of full suspension can absorb the vibrations that you endure for up to 2-3km at a time, the Synapse was soaking up the vibrations from the pavé better than expected. This made it easier to maintain a consistent speed – especially on longer sections. Having completed one Classic, it was time for the next, so we left Belgium and headed to France for the Paris-Roubaix. This time the Cannondale would be tested to its limit with the gruelling French cobbles being considerably more fragmented and harder to navigate. The most severe sections like the Arenberg Forest caused the bike to buck beneath me as if it were a bull. Over less harsh sections where comfort could be more easily measured, the carbon framed Synapse offered noticeably more vibration absorption than the alloy frame had done the previous year. The carbon seat post also helped absorb some of the road buzz generated from the rear end. This combined with the back-friendly geometry made this one of the most comfortable bikes I’ve ridden. Often comfort comes at the cost of performance but the Cannondale Synapse strikes the balance between comfort and speed brilliantly.

Not long after the gruelling cobbled Classics the bottom bracket / crank area started to develop a consistent creek when putting any power through the crank. On inspection, this turned out to be nothing more than an accumulation of grit, and after removing the FSA Omega Compact crank and bearings, and cleaning and re-greasing everything, the issue was resolved and hasn’t reoccurred since. Other than this minor issue, the super stiff, press-fit bottom bracket has been very smooth.

On British roads the Synapse has seen action on a number of long days as well as many shorter, higher-paced club rides. Comfort has continued to be the Cannondale’s strength, soaking up rough sections of road brilliantly as well as offering a ride position that’s easy to maintain for long periods. I’ve also tested the bike in a number of shorter 20/30 mile races, and although it’s not a dedicated speed machine I had no trouble maintaining high speeds at the front or within the peloton and accelerating hard for finishing sprints.

It isn’t all good news though, as the Shimano R510 wheels are relatively low-end and while durable, they are heavy. With 1.33kg on the front (inc tyre, tube and skewer) and 1.89kg on the back (with tyre, tube, 299g cassette and skewer) they can sometimes feel a bit sluggish, especially when accelerating from a standing start. Admittedly Cannondale is not the only manufacture to have paired their bike to a lower-end wheelset, but at this price point I’d like to see lighter wheels even if that means compromises elsewhere. I’d keep the Shimano R510s for training or winter riding and invest in lighter wheels for events. Impressively though, the R510’s have held up to months of heavy use and abuse without a single complaint, so while the weight may affect your acceleration, the durability offered does at least give you peace of mind. The slightly wider (25c) Schwalbe Lugano tyres are a good match for this bike and stood up to the most testing terrain any road tire can be expected to suffer without a single puncture. The extra air volume from the increased width offered a bit more comfort without having any noticeable effect on rolling resistance. Back in the UK in rainy conditions, the tyres offered plenty of grip, too. If you’re after a performance gain though, then a set of premium, lightweight wheels such as the American Classic Sprint 350’s (£500) or Shimano Dura Ace C24’s (£750) would really transform the Synapse and would be a smart first upgrade for the more serious cyclist.

On a more recent trip to the Alps I was able to test the Synapse’s mountain climbing and descending abilities as well as the wide-ranging 20-speed SRAM Apex gears. Settling in for an hour’s climb it was easy to get comfortable and grind my way to the top. The shifters, front and rear mechs and 11-32 cassette were well suited to many of the famous climbs such as Alpe D’Huez (1,860m), Col du Galibier (2,645m) and Col du Glandon (1,924m) and were especially useful on long mountain passes with plenty of double-figure gradients. On the way back down from the dizzy heights of some of France’s most famous cols it didn’t take a huge amount of effort to reach speeds of up to 50 mph. On these long winding descents the Synapse felt stable even at the highest speeds. On the sharp hairpin turns the Synapse cornered very predictably, inspiring confidence all the way from top to bottom. SRAM’s Apex brakes were also tested to their limit on a number of 10-15 minute descents. They too inspired confidence on the approach to the hairpins and allowed for late braking and the ability to react quickly and safely to oncoming traffic (and any surprise rocks lying in the road).

Having tested the Synapse on a huge range of terrain it’s clear that the frame and fork are the real backbone. Both the tapered top tube and oversized down tube are connected to a long-ish, back-friendly head tube (200mm on 58cm frame). An aerodynamically shaped seat tube completes the front triangle along with an oversized BB30 press-fit bottom bracket. Both the seat stays and chain stays are elegantly curved and even attracted a couple of comments from fellow club members. The curvature isn’t just for show though, as the shape of both the seat and chain stays has been carefully designed to help absorb road vibrations – and they do it well. For everyday runs in the UK this translates to a superbly smooth ride on even the worst road surfaces. If at some point in the future you plan to ride the cobbles, then the Synapse will also double as perfect tool for the job.

I’ve also been testing Giant’s Defy Composite 2 (£1,500 – 8.67 kg for size XL frame without pedals) alongside the Cannondale Synapse. Both bikes offer a very similar ride and have almost the same specification but the Giant is £300 cheaper. There are also plenty of other carbon bikes priced around the £1,800 mark such as the Trek Madone 3.5 (£1,800) or the Vitus Venon (£1,700) which both use more expensive groupsets. So the Cannondale isn’t a great value option in terms of spec alone. The frame makes the difference, though, and it’s this that’s worth paying a premium for. The 58cm model on test was an excellent fit for my 6’2” frame and the complete bike weighed in at 8.71 kg without pedals. Beauty as always is in the eye of the beholder but the comments I received while riding the Synapse suggest its classic looking black and white colour scheme and frame design are universally appealing. The white SRAM Apex shifter hoods, rear and front mech and brakes are also nice finishing touches that really help this bike stand out aesthetically.

Supplier: Cycling Sports Group UK01202 732288,

At a glance

Verdict A classically stylish bike with a superb, back friendly frame ideal for tackling Sportives, cobbled Classics, cols, big days out in the saddle or even the odd race.

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