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3 of the best road bikes under £3,000 head-to-head

The £2,000-3,000 road bike category is a hugely competitive minefield of speed and endurance. So which of these contenders from Specialized, Cannondale and Fuji will be your ultimate training and triathlon racing machine?

Depending on both the width of your shed and the size of your pay packet, the ultimate combo for your triathlon training and racing armoury would be a road bike and a triathlon-specific machine.

The best road bikes for triathlon

The best triathlon bikes reviewed

The road bike will offer comfort for long training sessions and versatility if your race-day course is hilly. The triathlon bike, meanwhile, will provide aero gains via its tri-bar cockpit and plenty of comfort if you’re going long over 70.3 or full Ironman race distances. But is there a bike that offers versatility, comfort and racing prowess for both your tri training and racing? Step forward the Cannondale SuperSix Evo, Specialized Tarmac Comp and Fuji Gran Fondo 2.1.

All of the bikes on test this month have carbon frames, all fall into the same competitive £2,000-£3,000 price bracket and all – to a greater or lesser extent – have Shimano Ultegra groupsets. All three are road bikes that are intended for riding at relatively high speeds for relatively long periods of time, so how different can they really be? Is it just a case of using  racing and recreational baggage to split hairs between what are ultimately very similar bikes or are there substantial differences to the ways these bikes ride and race?

With its upright positioning, the Fuji leans more to the endurance end of the spectrum than the racey Specialized and Cannondale. But there’s something else that marks it out from the other two: it has disc brakes. Shimano RS805 hydraulic disc brakes to be specific. Upping the ante even further is that any differences and similarities between them will be down to the frames and tyres, since all three bikes here share the same groupset.

 American background

As well as strong racing heritages, another thing all three of these bikes share is an American background. Cannondale and Specialized are both American brands that began in the early 1970s. Fuji, although far older (the company was founded in 1899) and Japanese, began by importing American bikes. It didn’t take long for Fuji to grow into an international concern – by the 1950s Fuji-manufactured bikes were being sold in America. The Gran Fondo here has no racing heritage but Fuji has seen success in elite triathlon, with both Sarah Haskins and Matty Reed riding them to victory at both Olympic and 70.3 distances.

Cannondale and Specialized have crammed a lot into their relatively short histories. The most notable Cannondale rider has to be four-time Ironman world champion Chrissie Wellington, while Specialized have been ridden to glory by five-time ITU world champ Javier Gomez and double Ironman world champ Chris McCormack.

All of which is to say that there are deep wells of knowledge and experience behind each of these brands. But with trends and technology changing so fast, the accepted conventions when it comes to designing and speccing bikes are being challenged. Ideas that were once taken for granted – such as thinner, higher-pressure tyres are faster – are being ripped up and overturned.

 Big tyres, bouncy ride

Wider tyres have become the norm on race bikes in recent years and the SuperSix Evo and Tarmac are on trend with the expanded standard sporting 25mm Mavic Yksion and 24mm S-Works Turbo tyres, respectively. The Fuji, however, is shod with balloon-like 28mm Vittoria Zaffiro Pro rubber. 

That 3mm difference may not seem like much on paper, but on the road it’s massive. It gives the Gran Fondo the sort of bouncy, roll-over-anything feel of a monster truck, allowing you to deal with potholes and broken roads without a second thought. The Tarmac and SuperSix feel almost delicate by comparison, especially in the case of the SuperSix and its Mavic Yksion tyres. Mavic began making tyres to match its wheels and anecdotal evidence suggests the French company’s early efforts have catching up to do in terms of wet-weather grip.

The Fuji offers a forgiving ride although it feels like it’s those big, beefy tyres doing more of the shock absorbing than the frame. There’s certainly flex tuned for comfort in the Fuji’s chassis but it’s difficult to detect. On other endurance bikes, for example Lapierre’s Xelius or the BMC Gran Fondo, you can feel the frame bending underneath you as it reacts to the bumps. On the Fuji, you just can’t. 

It makes for a ride where the emphasis is more on having fun than going fast. But it’s not that the Fuji can’t be ridden fast. It can; it’s just that it doesn’t feel as naturally inclined towards constantly searching for speed as the Cannondale and Specialized do.

That’s due to the Fuji’s geometry, in particular its front end. The 23.5cm head tube on the 61cm frame tested here is 2.5cm longer than the Specialized’s (21cm on a 61cm frame) and 4.5cm longer than the Cannondale’s (19cm on a 60cm frame), which puts you in a considerably more upright position than on the other two. And that’s before factoring in whatever arrangement of spacers you may choose to run.

 Halfway house

The Specialized is the halfway house in terms of front-end ride height in this test. With its 21cm head tube, you’re not propped up as high as you are on the Fuji but, without substituting the specced bars and stem for lower-drop and longer  alternatives, it doesn’t let you get as far down as you can on the Cannondale. Yet the Specialized is easier to accelerate than both the Fuji and Cannondale.

Whether it’s the slightly higher position, the Specialized just responds better to being grabbed by the scruff of the neck and wrenched up to speed. The Cannondale is no slouch, not by any means, but it feels slower off the mark. But once you’ve got it up to speed, the Cannondale outshines the Specialized. It revels in high-speed cruising, and the faster you can get it to go, the more it maintains your forward momentum.

 Racing comparisons

The easiest way to think of it is to picture these two bikes as track athletes. The Specialized is a 200m sprinter; it’s lightening quick out of the blocks and always looking to accelerate. The Cannondale is an 1,500m runner; slower to start with but capable of maintaining that high pace once it’s got going. 

For the Fuji, imagine it as a smiley runner in well-cushioned trainers who’ll have a go against the frowning, focused athletes in spikes, and you begin to get an idea of how it measures up. It’s capable of mixing it up with the other two when it comes to racing but is missing the fine-tuning that makes them more suited to that task.

Whether it’s the tyres, the frame or a combination of the two, the Fuji provides the most comfortable ride of the three bikes here. You don’t feel punished when you finish riding it at a triathlon race-day pace and, crucially, your body will be fresher for the run leg of a multisport event. Your legs may ache from pushing the pedals and you’ll be generally fatigued from your efforts, but your body feels fine because it hasn’t been forced to hold an aggressive position or battered by a harshly stiff frame.

As for the race bikes, there’s not much in it, but the Cannondale offers a cushier ride than the Specialized. The same stiffness that makes the Specialized so quick out of the blocks is what makes it harder on your hands and hindquarters. The Cannondale, meanwhile, manages to balance its speed with more suppleness to give a ride that’s as smooth as it is swift, and feels easier on your post-ride body than the Specialized.

So the Fuji comes out on top in the comfort stakes. But that’s no real surprise – being an endurance bike, you’d expect that. And being that the Fuji also has disc brakes you’d expect it to be at the top of the pile in terms of stopping ability, too. It is, but the difference between these bikes’ stopping performances in good conditions isn’t as marked as the difference between their ride characteristics. At least, not on the aluminium wheels the two race bikes are specced with.

On dry roads the Fuji stops quickly and powerfully but so do the Specialized and Cannondale. There’s more of a delay before the race bikes’ Ultegra callipers really start to bite but they bring you to a halt almost as fast. Had the two race bikes come supplied with carbon rims, the Fuji’s disc brakes would have distinguished themselves more emphatically. 

The bottom line is that, although it’s good to have the disc brakes (especially in the wet), the difference they make isn’t dramatic if you’re riding on alloy wheels in good and dry conditions.

In terms of those alu wheels on the Specialized and Cannondale, upgrading the wheels would help them both. Deeper wheels on the Specialized would certainly make it easier to cruise along at high speeds. And some aero hoops (with bladed spokes) would turn the Cannondale into a rocket. The Mavics it currently has are shallow and  have a lot of round-gauge spokes. A wheelset with depth would add even more spark to its performance. Yet, obviously, this means spending considerably more money.

Visual differences

Where the difference in these bikes is most pronounced is looks. The Fuji epitomises endurance bikes: it’s tall at the front, has slim seatstays at the back and has those disc brakes hanging off its axles.

Disregarding aero-road bikes, the Specialized looks like a modern road race bike: its bottom bracket shell is beefy and its tubes are big, broad and shaped into all manner of muscular-looking profiles. But, in this size (61cm), it’s also pretty ugly. That curved top tube makes the bike look hunchbacked and the flared tube junctions on the back of the head tube give its front end a swollen bulbous appearance. 

The Cannondale, meanwhile, has classic good looks. Its tubes are straight, its top tube is flat and every junction is in proportion. But its paint job is hideous. Silver and green make it look like a bottle of toilet bleach. The Specialized’s frame might look as if it’s been taking steroids but its colour scheme is easier on the eye.

Tailored to your needs

The question posed at the beginning of this review was will one of these bikes provide both your training and triathlon race-day needs? The Specialized and especially the comfortable yet swift Cannondale can easily be do-it-all bikes for tri training and racing, and, with the exception of any events that prohibit the use of disc brakes (i.e. ITU draft-legal races), the same could be said for the  Fuji.

While they’re better off being used for sprint and Olympic-distance courses, there’s nothing to stop them from easily covering longer distances. Aero concerns will push you towards bolting on aerobars and playing with the saddle and seatpost to move you further forwards and open your hip angle, but all three will have no problems going long. But would you be faster on a tri-specifc bike over an Ironman bike leg? Very probably. Yet it’s not as if  any of these three bikes is incapable of posting a decent time on a 180km course. Again, it comes down to a matter of specificity. A tri-specific bike is a bigger advantage on a tri course, just like the two road bikes here have the advantage in a road race over the Fuji. But those suitabilities are more a question of margins rather than exclusive capabilities.

So if you’re looking to enjoy training rides and triathlon race day, all of these bikes can tick both boxes. But the harder you push them towards any of those specific purposes, the more obvious those differences become.

Overall verdict

So which one of these three bikes is best?
If it’s all-day comfort and all-weather practicality, you should choose the Fuji. If it’s a rapid and responsive race machine you’re after then it becomes trickier when it comes to choosing between the Cannondale and the Specialized. 

Both are great. But if you’re in the market for a triathlon race bike, your body dimensions and flexibility will be the best way to determine which one you’d be better off with. 

If you prefer a higher front end and a slightly sharper ride, you’ll be better off with the Specialized, although you’ll have to put up with the hunched and bulbous frame. If you’re happier stretched out long and low aboard a
frame with classic lines, opt for the Cannondale. For my money, it has to be the Cannondale (despite the paint job). It’s a top-quality ride and costs £600 less than the Specialized.

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