Specialized | Tarmac SL6 Sport
$3,500 // 17.9 LB (56CM)
With Specialized now on the Tarmac SL7, the SL6, as the name implies, is the previous—and still excellent—iteration of one of our favorite road platforms. All it’s missing are some aerodynamic aspects and integration, which also means fewer headaches for the home mechanic. The SL6 uses standard-fit parts like a round seatpost, separate bar and stem, and mostly external cable routing versus the wind-cheating refinements seen on the SL7. What the two have in common is nearly identical geometry and the excellent ride quality that has been the Tarmac’s hallmark for years. If you’re looking for the absolute cutting edge, the SL6 might not appeal, but riders looking for the ride and feel of a high-end bike without the matching price tag will find it here.
Cervélo | R5 Force
$8,400 // 16.7 LB (58CM)
Cervélo’s product team readily admits that the Jumbo-Visma professional road team was its main customer when redesigning the R5. Engineers retained the best parts of the previous version (geometry and handling), sampled heavily from the all-road Caledonia-5 (hidden cables and cockpit), and then spent the bulk of their time honing ride quality and tweaking the details. Those efforts paid off, with Belgian Wout van Aert and American Sepp Kuss taking mountain stage wins in the 2021 Tour de France.
We quickly fell in love with the R5 beyond the sparkling paint and top-notch parts spec. This bike feels more comfortable the longer into a ride you get. With race frames on the market becoming increasingly stiff each year—whether purposefully or as a byproduct of added aerodynamic features—finding a purpose-built race bike that is enjoyable for mere mortals on longer rides seems rare. The slightly taller stack measurement of the frame positions you well for climbing by keeping you a little more upright. Combined with the R5’s light weight and low gear range, climbs are a bit easier, even pleasant.
With predictable handling and a calm demeanor out on the road, the R5 holds a line well through corners without much extra input or correction. As an elite-level road race bike, the R5 is most at home on smooth asphalt. But over sections of milled pavement and light gravel, the R5’s ride quality and feel remained comfortable, with the tubeless tires and carbon cockpit helping to dampen much of the vibration.
Trek | Émonda ALR frameset
$1,150 // 16.7 LB (54CM)
Cycling equipment changes. Today’s bikes look different, with different features and technology, than the bikes did when you might have started riding. Our story about the death of the aluminum road racing bike with mechanical shifting and rim brakes touched a nerve, especially with the vocal contingent who say that’s what they want, even as high-performance bikes today are almost universally carbon-framed, with disc brakes and electronic shifting.
For those still longing for that bike, there are few choices remaining from any of the larger brands. But Trek still sells a rim brake aluminum Émonda ALR frameset ($1,150 with full-carbon fork), and Campagnolo still makes its mechanical-shift, rim-brake Chorus 12-speed group (about $1,200). Add a decent set of rim-brake wheels—many options still exist—some aluminum cockpit parts and your favorite saddle, and the result is a most excellent bike. Plus, there’s nary a battery to charge nor a brake to bleed.
The Émonda’s almost luxuriously smooth ride—thanks to direct-mount brake calipers, it easily cleared 30mm Challenge Strada Bianca tubeless tires—flies in the face of the “aluminum is harsh” trope. Coupled with a slightly tall front end and graceful handling, it feels more gran fondo than criterium. Still, it is direct and responsive in the way a performance bike should be, and with mechanical shifting and rim brakes, the experience is more engaging and visceral than the sinfully effortless performance of a modern wünderbike’s shifting and braking.
If you want a bike like this, you have to work for it and build it yourself. But the reward is a machine with a ton of gritty performance and no small amount of defiant flair.
Cannondale | Synapse Carbon 1 RLE
$9,000 // 18.2 LB (54CM)
With the new Synapse, Cannondale has simultaneously made its most and least Cannondale-like bike in quite a while. The original Synapse, introduced 15 years ago, was the first all-carbon road bike from the brand that popularized aluminum as a frame material for many riders. It was also one of the early bikes in the now-expansive “endurance road bike” category. This was essentially manufacturers quietly admitting that the geometry and features needed by most road riders were not the same as those for World Tour professionals.
The new Synapse is a ground-up redesign of its predecessor. The design language is shared with other drop-bar Cannondale bikes—like the SuperSix Evo—with dropped seat stays and subtle aero shaping throughout the bike. What’s missing are many of the proprietary designs that, to some, represent marginal performance gains and to others, maintenance headaches. The bottom bracket goes from BB30 to standard BSA threaded. Instead of a proprietary seatpost held in place with a hidden wedge-type clamp, riders now find a standard round 27.2mm post and an external clamp. Cables are also run externally from the bars to their entry ports on the down tube, making for easy maintenance and customization if riders switch bar sizes or stem lengths.
Geometry also goes through minor revisions, although you wouldn’t know it by looking at the stack and reach figures, which remain mostly unchanged. Trail hovers between 59 and 56cm, while the size-specific head-tube angles get a bit steeper. The chainstays add 5mm in length and are now 415mm, while the seat-tube angle has been slackened to 73 degrees across the size range. The resulting position is pleasantly neutral but leans towards sporty, and the handling is intuitive without being dull. In short, the Synapse is a great-riding road bike that can handle the steepest climbs, as well as plenty of dirt roads.
The new Synapse ditched pretty much every inconvenient tech trend that has become commonplace on many modern road bikes. But this is Cannondale, after all, so naturally, something needed to be integrated. Enter what Cannondale calls SmartSense. The system consists of front and rear lights, along with a Garmin Varia radar system, all powered by a down-tube-mounted battery.
David Devine, Cannondale’s Senior Product Director, tells us that based on the brand’s survey of customers, SmartSense adds features that many riders want on their bikes. Cannondale also believes that it can help riders feel safer and more at ease while out on the road by streamlining the hardware on the bike. Devine also acknowledged that the Synapse is not intended for riders planning to pin on numbers and race, but it’s meant to be a road bike in the term’s broadest sense.
Using the SmartSense system is effortless and straightforward. It is quick to set up, and functions as advertised, basically fading into the background and becoming part of the ride experience. However, riders who already own lights and radar might find it frustrating that only the lowest-price Synapse model is available without these features.
Argonaut | RM3
$15,500 // 15.5 LB (53CM)
Bikes do not need to be expensive. Bikes do not need to be expensive to ride well. I want this to be unequivocally clear before I say that this $15,500 Argonaut RM3 is one of the best-riding road bikes I’ve ridden in my more than 25 years of working for Bicycling because I can’t pretend that this Argonaut is anything other than a masterpiece.
The typical ride of a mass-produced, high-end carbon bike is damped and smooth, but there’s an ever-present sense of fragility, that unmistakable brittle quality that signals you’re on a very light frameset. The RM3 certainly glides over road surfaces but does not have that archetypal carbon feel. It’s light and darty in the best way because it’s communicative and predictable in its quickness. It’s smooth and also feels substantial, like it’s digging into the asphalt while simultaneously floating above it. I know this sounds like I’m trying to wax poetic with meaningless phrases, but the RM3 feels at once heavy and light in a way I can’t recall ever previously experiencing.
While the RM3 leverages carbon fiber’s best attributes, there’s also a subtly not-carbon feel to it. Argonaut founder Ben Farver started by building steel frames, and previously told me that he wants to maintain the feel of his favorite steel frames, but with the lightness of carbon. And while I think that few people, when blindfolded, would mistake the RM3’s ride for that of a steel bike, neither would they mistake it for the ride of a typical carbon race bike. It’s something other, something uniquely Argonaut—its RM1 and RM2 also had this quality—to the way the RM3 rides that works exceptionally well.
The RM3 frameset is $6,500 in one of 12 “pre-designed” (a.k.a. stock) geometries. But even if you go with a stock size, you still get customized tubing that considers, among other factors, your power output and weight. An extra $1,500 unlocks custom geometry but also doubles delivery time, from six months to 12. Stock or custom, you can pick from an array of solid colors, fades, metallics, or candy finishes (some cost extra), and choose among five stock build kits with custom upcharge options.
Though it’s expensive, the stock-geometry, custom-tubed, U.S.-made RM3 seems like a decent value when compared to some totally stock Asian-sourced frames such as the Pinarello Dogma F ($6,950), Bianchi’s Oltre XR4 disc ($6,175), the De Rosa Merak ($6,000), and a Sagan Collection Specialized Aethos ($6,000). Even my $15,500 RM3 review bike with SRAM Red AXS is not far off top-of-the-line builds from Specialized, Pinarello, or Colnago.
In some ways, it pains me to love an expensive bike so much. For one, I can’t afford this bike. I’ll be thinking of it and yearning for it for a long time after it goes back to Argonaut. I also don’t want the world to think that only high-end bikes ride well. But a bike this great, this special, must be given its due. The RM3 is a truly exceptional bicycle that sings, as did the RM1 and RM2—each version better than the last. Argonaut is able to create something extraordinary while also elevating their craft. There’s a word for that: Brilliance.—Matt Phillips
Canyon | Inflite CF
$2,200 // 17.0 LB (Large)
Purpose-built cyclocross bikes are increasingly rare, with many brands putting development efforts into the booming gravel scene. But powerhouse Canyon-sponsored Alpecin-Fenix stars like Mathieu van der Poel and Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado needed a bike capable of carrying them to World Championship wins.
The Inflite CF is just that bike. While production models now ship with 11-speed Shimano GRX components, we built this team replica frame up with a SRAM Force AXS 1x drivetrain and Zipp 303 S wheels for the race season. Though the Inflite will not transform you into a World Champ, thoughtful features such as an easy-to-shoulder top tube, tall bottom bracket height to reduce pedal strikes on off-camber terrain, and steep head-tube angle for tight, slow-speed turns certainly help when pushing your limits between the tape.
Liv | Avail AR 1
$1,950 // 20.9 LB (Small)
Trends come and go in road cycling, but workhorse bikes like the AR 1 are timeless. A great aluminum frame, carbon fork, and Shimano 105 components combine to form a solid foundation for discovering the many facets of road riding. From long weekend rides, to exploring some light dirt roads, to centuries, or even trying some racing, the Avail AR 1 (or the similar Contend AR 1 from sibling brand Giant) is great for those new to the road, or those who simply want a dependable bike with modern conveniences. With hydraulic disc brakes, tubeless wheels with 32mm tires, front and rear thru-axles, and a wide-range drivetrain, the Avail AR 1 is a thoroughly modern road bike without the exorbitant price tag often associated with bikes that have these features.