What’s your ideal number of bikes? Three? Seven? Mine’s more like nine. I also ‘need’ five cars and four houses to cover all possible scenarios, and that’s without being gratuitous about it. But life is about compromise, especially when it comes to the big ticket items like these, so we choose a house and a car that ticks as many boxes as possible for our budget. And that’s exactly how to choose your next race bike if, like most of us, you’re on a budget that won’t extend to covering a dedicated triathlon bike as well as a great road bike for training and hilly events.
Minimising compromise between conflicting design goals – weight and stiffness being the classic example – has always been a big focus for manufacturers and it’s come to the forefront even more with the growth of the aero-road market. Determined development has meant that, for conventional road bikes at least, light, stiff and comfortable is no longer the impossible combination we were once told it was.
Aerodynamics, though, is the great disruptor. Take a road frame made with ‘conventional’ round tubes, sculpt it with the wind into a concoction of aerofoils and it can all go to pieces. Aerofoil shapes are neither compliant nor stiff, so they need reinforcing with more material, which means they’re not light either. This combination of issues meant the first generation of aero-road bikes were flawed machines that were ideal only for a narrow selection of events.
Evolution has reduced their weaknesses, increased their relevance and broadened their scope. Lighter and smoother, they’re now better at tackling the hills and providing comfort for long rides, making them a near constant threat to their un-aero rivals.
How was this achieved? They had their tails docked. The once ubiquitous tear-drop profile tubes of aero-road bikes have mostly given way to truncated aerofoil profiles, otherwise known as ‘Kamm tails’. The Kamm tail profile is cut off square at the back but their precise shaping means that air flowing over them still behaves as if it were following a longer, ‘tailed’ aerofoil. In section, Kamm tail tubes are D-shaped and, being closer to a round tube, they’re much stiffer, lighter and more compliant. It’s no wonder they’ve taken over.
Very much of this new generation, the Canyon Aeroad CF SLX Disc 8.0 Di2, Rose X-Lite CWX-8800 and Ridley Noah SL Dura-Ace are all pitched as aero-road bikes with one wheel in the road race peloton and the other in T1. Along with a common purpose, all three have modern frame shaping, aero wheels and horribly clunky names.
The Canyon is the cheapest here at £4,499 with Ultegra Di2 and 62mm Reynolds Strike carbon clinchers. It’s closely followed by the £4,669 Rose, which includes some of the optional upgrades chosen from the company’s online bike builder, such as the Profile Design 58/TwentyFour DB wheels and Ritchey WCS carbon cockpit to go with the SRAM Red groupset.
Up against these two direct-selling Germans we have the Ridley Noah SL from Belgium, which, as tested, looks expensive at £6,308. But this is a custom build. We’ve totalled up its spec using RRPs but a brief search for discounts shows you could start from the £2,499 frameset and build a bike with this Dura-Ace groupset and Reynolds 41mm Assault wheels for a much more competitive £5,000. Either way, this is a flattering way to test the Noah SL as we don’t like Ridley’s in-house 4ZA components and wheels used on the factory builds
or how their value stacks up.
To the familiar aero-road mix of traditional-looking main triangle and shrunken rear – the seatstays dropped to reduce their frontal area – each manufacturers’ engineers have added their own special touches. The Rose stands out the most, its seat tube and seatpost set at a radically steep angle that’s reminiscent of a full-on tri bike.
The seat tube’s angle is deceptive though as it follows the rear wheel, setting the seatpost back and creating a more conventional effective angle between the bottom bracket and saddle. But because it goes straight up we found that we couldn’t achieve sufficient saddle setback with our 80.5cm seat height. While odd for a road bike, that ‘set forward’ position can be beneficial for triathlon, allowing a more open hip angle than just about any other bike with drop bars. What’s more, the seatpost can be reversed to provide an even further forward position, ready to make use of the tri bars that can be added with Rose’s online bike builder.
You have to look closer to spot Ridley’s F-Split fork on the Noah SL, which was designed to reduce the turbulence caused by the forward rotating upper spokes hitting incoming airflow. Equally hard to spot are the F-Surface grooves along the down tube and seatpost. The latter are claimed to ‘trip’ the airflow and reduce drag by promoting laminar (smooth) flow and increasing the effect of the tubes’ Kamm-tail shapes.
The Canyon relies on a more traditional approach of a reduced frontal area and sleek shaping, most distinctively around the junction between the seatstays and the seat tube. The stays are set low, as they are on the other bikes here, but instead of using a square shoulder to space them out from the rear wheel and relieve the air-pressure hotspot between the stays and spokes, Canyon has opted for the smoothest shape to slice through the wind. It’s a feature that’s improved further thanks to the absence of a rear brake caliper mounted between the stays, which brings us on to the decision
to spec disc brakes…
THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
Ah yes, disc brakes: the elephant in the room. This is not a test of disc versus rim brakes but the subject is unavoidable.
All three of these bikes are available with either disc or rims brakes but the availability of test models dictated that the Canyon and Rose would be brought to a halt by hydraulically operated disc brake systems from Shimano and SRAM respectively. The Ridley Noah SL meanwhile gets conventional rim calipers. In the dry, while the Ridley’s rim brakes feel fine, the disc set-ups are far superior in both power and lever feel. In the wet, the difference is more pronounced: the disc brakes keep working and the Ridley’s rim brakes don’t. At all. At the top-end of the wheel market, manufacturers, Enve especially, have pushed rim braking forwards so it remains a viable option but the Reynolds Assault wheels and pads on the Ridley are old-school and a reminder of why discs have taken off at such a rate.
This is the first time I’ve been convinced by disc brakes. Both the Shimano and SRAM systems delivered fine control equal to their impressive power. And neither could be heard howling when the levers were pulled, nor rubbing when they weren’t. There’s no reason why these bikes should be less prone to those issues than others using the same parts, and that inconsistency remains a concern, but there’s no arguing with their performances here.
A NO BRAINER
The choice of disc or rim brakes for the Canyon and Rose is further clarified by their wheels. The Canyon runs Reynolds Strike DB wheels, while the Rose rolls on a set of Profile Design’s 58/TwentyFour DB hoops. In rim-brake form, both are terrible in the wet so unless you plan on mixing in some road racing with your triathlons, the disc-brake versions are a no brainer. Freed from the rim-brake performance drop-off in the rain, these are good wheels. The Profiles are stable in gusty conditions and feel quick, if a little heavy; the Reynolds Strikes move around more in the wind but never give cause for concern and respond more crisply. The lighter, shallower Reynolds Assaults on the Ridley are, as you’d expect, the most stable and accelerative but don’t have anything like the braking performance to match.
All three wheelsets come wrapped in premium racing rubber, though the Rose’s Continental Grand Prix tyres are a small step down from the Continental GP4000 S II 23/25mm pairing on the Canyon. The skinnier front tyre, once inflated, is a more aero match to the Strike rim’s 25mm external width; at the back that’s less of an issue so Canyon fits a more comfortable 25mm tyre. The Ridley is on tubeless Schwalbe Pro Ones, a fast, smooth, grippy and puncture-resistance set-up that’s really appealing for triathlon use.
The Canyon’s 23mm front tyre might gain it a little speed but it comes at the cost of some comfort. Two millimetres might not sound like much but it equates to a lot of volume and means you need more air in the front tyre, decreasing its grip and comfort. There’s little give in the one-piece cockpit, either, so the front of the Canyon feels firm and the rear only marginally less so thanks to the bigger tyre. The Ridley is a purposeful ride, too, and it’s unsurprising seeing as it’s designed to win road races. Its 25mm front tyre gives it an edge over the Canyon but there’s little to choose between them. Neither beats you up like, say, a Cervélo S3 and we happily did four-hour-plus rides on both. But they don’t let you forget that they’re road-race bikes first and foremost, keen handling and voracious power transfer being the pay-offs for their stiff platforms.
On that last point, it’s notable that the switch to disc brakes and a bolt-through axle has meant the Aeroad has lost its clever Rake Shift feature from the fork. The rim brake version has switchable drop-outs that change the fork offset and, with it, the steering character from between two positions accurately labelled Agile and Stable. The latter has always been our preference, lending a calm neutrality to the handling that befits a triathlon bike. This disc fork has a conventional 43mm rake that bisects those two options and replicates that of Canyon’s Ultimate. The outcome is that, like the Ridley, the Aeroad Disc is up on its toes and eager to attack corners.
ROSE BLOOMS IN TRI SOIL
The Rose is on a different tack. It isn’t a particularly good aero road race bike as it’s less agile and less stiff. It feels heavier than the Canyon (despite being about 300g lighter) and that’s down to the inferior stiffness in both the frame and fork. It’s less fun to ride hard than the other two, but that isn’t what triathlon bike legs are about and, in that context, the X-Lite is a stronger proposition. It’s blessed with unflappable high-speed stability; the bit of flex under a sprint effort is all but irrelevant compared to the outstanding compliance. Where the others rely on 25mm rear tyres to filter out the worst road noise, the X-Lite’s frame provides a second filter and the difference is marked.
The groupsets warrant relatively little comment, all three are brilliant and choosing between Ultegra Di2, Dura-Ace or Red is down to personal preference. An electronic groupset does open up the possibility of adding bar-end shifters should you fit tri bars but not with the Aeroad’s one-piece Aerocockpit – Canyon doesn’t even make a Garmin mount for it, let alone clip-ons. On top of that, the unusual 1.25in steerer limits your options for swapping stems and
the Aerocockpit comes with the frameset, so there isn’t an efficient way to buy around the issue.
The conventional handlebars of the Ridley and Rose are far more adaptable. The latter, combined with the bike’s reversible seatpost, is able to get you into a really good race position. It’s just a shame that the Rose never sparkled on the road. It always felt as if the speed had to be dragged out of it and the other two delivered faster rides for the same power.
We didn’t get to run these bikes in a wind tunnel, but the subjective feeling and the average speeds set against power data and years of experience made it clear: as they stand, the Canyon edges out the Ridley for sheer speed (largely thanks to its deeper wheels) and the Rose trails behind.
THE OVERALL VERDICT
The Ridley Noah takes the win but only by the tightest of margins. It gets the nod because the frameset performance is fantastic and this custom build really lets it shine. We’re less fond of Ridley’s factory builds, though, as we’d want to change so many parts on them that the only sensible way to buy a Noah SL is as a frame. The Canyon Aeroad is another brilliant bike – searingly fast, accurate and responsive.
The cockpit is limiting but, if you’re happy to race without tri bars and you’re not looking for sofa-like comfort, this is a fantastic bike that’s ready to race out of the box. The Rose X-Lite CWX-8800 scores lower because we think it’s the perfect bike for fewer riders. The idea of a compliant aero road bike that easily converts into a tri bike is appealing but the Rose never quite feels fast enough and it lacks the sharpness of the other two. Still, for its comfort and tri-friendly seat angle, not to mention a mega build kit for the price, it deservedly scores highly.