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by Dave Rome
October 14, 2019
Photography by Dave Rome & Tim Bardsley Smith
If the lines between road and gravel bikes were already blurry, then the way things are trending is likely to confuse you even further. All-road bikes are relatively new and aim to do everything a good endurance-style road bike does, albeit with a pinch of additional versatility. As the name suggests, they’re designed to handle all roads. If you can point the family sedan at it, then an all-road bike can go there too.
Recent examples of this include the Allied Alfa Allroad, a gravel bike that’s just as happy on the road. And certainly, Trek’s new Domane, with room for 38mm tyres, fits the bill. But amongst all of those options, you’ll notice a common theme – they’re all premium models.
Enter the Giant Contend AR, a bike that clearly aims to simplify the decision process for newer or budget-minded riders, and one that seeks to be capable of going wherever it’s pedalled. The new Contend AR is part of a larger Contend range overhaul for 2020, and where the Contend name was traditionally kept for endurance-style entry-level road bikes, the AR adds an obvious all-road flair.
On paper, this new model appears to be a case study in diminishing returns, where bikes that cost two, three, or even five times as much, at least on paper, don’t offer a whole lot more. And so I got my hands on the 2020 Contend AR 1 to see just how much bike you can get for less than the cost of a premium wheelset.
Just as gravel means different things to different people, so will all-road. To help simplify the conversation, we created the gravel gradient. And in my opinion, an all-road bike should (and does) excel on everything from a one to a three. Sure, you can “under bike” onto more treacherous terrain, but it’s at that point where a gravel bike shines, and an all-road bike runs out of, well, road.
Most importantly, an all-road bike should handle tarmac like a dedicated road bike does. You shouldn’t feel like the handling or rolling speed is greatly sacrificed for the chance that you go off-road; it should be a bike you’d happily grab for the weekend bunchie. And that’s exactly what the likes of Cannondale, Trek and Focus have realised with their latest endurance road bike offerings.
While subjective, the Giant Contend AR is a perfect fit for its all-road designation (even if AR stands for all-rounder in Giant’s marketing literature). With geometry that’s well in line with a good endurance-style road bike, and tyre clearance for up to 38mm rubber, the Contend AR is a road bike sprinkled with a fine coating of versatility magic dust. It’s not simply a cheaper, tuned-down version of the Giant Revolt Advanced gravel bike, but rather a progressive take on where road bikes are headed.
The Contend AR is a road bike that’s ready for more than tarmac.
Straight from the bike shop floor, all Contend AR models are fitted with 700x32mm rubber, a size that’s on the edge of good for road, but not terrifyingly off-road. Similarly, all models are equipped with a compact crank (50/34T) and an 11-34T cassette out back, gearing that even just last year would have looked good on a gravel bike.
Add in the disc brakes which allow for such wide tyre clearance in the first place, and there’s not a whole lot to differentiate this from a disc-equipped road bike, or a performance-seeking gravel bike. It’s really the small details that make this a handier tool than a traditional road bike.
While every bike with the Contend name gets an aluminium frame and carbon fibre fork, the Contend AR features its own unique frameset which, from afar, offers the same sloping toptube and thin angular shapes as Giant’s more premium offerings. And looks can fool, as the Contend AR is, in fact, a second-tier aluminium frame for Giant, built using straight-gauge and mechanically shaped tubes, with welds left untouched. Compared to the top-tier alloy used in the Contend SL, the Contend AR frame is, in theory, less compliant and less stiff, but in reality, it’s just the weight that offers a measurable difference.
Fender mounts, a D-shaped composite seatpost and slender tube profiles – the Contend AR doesn’t look like the budget frame it is.
While those tubes may be simpler and heavier than more expensive options, the frame doesn’t lack in features – with (partly) internal cable routing, provisions for racks and fenders, 12mm-thru-axles front and rear, flat mount brake mounts, a threaded bottom bracket and even Giant’s D-shaped seatpost with integrated clamp, the frame ticks all the same boxes as the price-no-object options. Another premium feature is the full carbon composite fork with tapered steerer tube – so many bikes of this price point still use a fork with an alloy steerer.
And then there’s the most impressive element: space for up to 38mm tyres. Just how wide is 38mm? Well, many great gravel bikes can only handle two millimetres more, and it wasn’t that long ago that 35mm was considered wide clearance for a cyclocross race bike.
That’s an actual 32.5mm tyre inside the rear triangle. I wish my apartment had this much spare space.
The Contend AR can certainly be used on gravel, but it has limitations. That 38mm tyre clearance is getting pretty close to a firm limit, and you’ll risk scraping paint if you run wider. I did try a 650×47 setup with the Contend, and while it fit, the first sight of mud would be problematic.
As mentioned, the bike’s geometry is quite typical of an endurance-style road bike, something that aims to place you in a more upright position compared to racier choices. Giant hasn’t taken that upright position too far, and the resulting stack and reach figures are well within the same vein as more premium-priced endurance rides. The angles are on the faster side, too, and in most sizes sit less than a degree away from what you’d expect of a tarmac-focussed race bike. And likewise, even the chainstay length of 412mm is within the vicinity of many disc-equipped road bikes.
The Contend AR’s geometry is closely inline with Giant’s other endurance road bikes.
Giant has lowered the bottom bracket to save the large tyres from raising the bike. The three smallest frame sizes offer a 75mm drop, while the three largest offer a reduced 70mm drop. The bottom bracket drop on the larger sizes isn’t actually low, but makes sense for ground clearance given the longer crank arm lengths used on these sizes.
The specific model options vary depending on where you are in the world. For those in Australia and the United States, Giant has three price tiers for the Contend AR, starting from US$1,000 / AU$1,399 for the Contend AR 3 with Shimano Sora, US$1,300 / AU$1,799 for the Contend AR 2 with Shimano Tiagra and going up to US$1,550 / AU$2,299 for the Contend AR 1 as reviewed here.
That middle Contend AR 2 is likely to see the most interest, and a shortage of stock is the only reason why I wasn’t on one. It comes straight from the factory set up with tubeless tyres, a composite seatpost, and a unique hydraulic disc brake converter that connects a Shimano Tiagra mechanical brake lever with a hydraulic disc brake caliper. Still, the frame, fork, handlebar, stem, saddle, seatpost and tyres are all the same as the Contend AR 1, and plenty of the lessons learned from this review can be applied to the price point below.
If it’s not branded Giant, it’s from Shimano.
Sitting at the top of the Contend AR range, the AR 1 offers an almost complete Shimano 105 11-speed groupset, including 105 hydraulic disc brake calipers. The only departures are seen at the generic 160mm brake rotors and Shimano non-series (but 105-level) crank, likely done to increase the pedal stance width for the wide rubber clearance.
The AR 1, like the AR 2, rolls on Giant’s own tubeless wheel-and-tyre combo. Plenty of brands are now offering tubeless-ready wheels with their bikes, but Giant is the only company at this price point to force the decision – they don’t even bother including tubes. Those wheels are built solid (and heavy at 2,050g for the pair), too, with cartridge bearing hubs, 28 spokes and 17.2mm inner width alloy rims. The tyres measure at an actual 32.5mm width (at 65psi).
And the rest of the build offers the branding of the world’s largest bicycle manufacturer, too. All the parts are what you’d expect to find on Giant’s road bikes, and even the saddle is a more performance-focussed model.
So many features crammed into such a price point comes with an obvious limitation – weight. My medium-sized Contend AR 1 weighed 9.71kg once set up with tubeless sealant (without pedals or bottle cages) — certainly not light, but in the realm of what other disc-equipped bikes of this price offer.
On the tarmac, the Contend AR feels much like many other road bikes at this price point, just more comfortable with what you can point it at. The fit is designed to put you in a sporty position without requiring you to attend yoga classes, and there’s a healthy stack of stem spacers for handlebar height adjustment.
The handling is about as neutral as it comes, and this is a bike that even newer riders should be able to feel at ease with. It can be sporty and tipped into corners at whatever speed you choose, and at the same time, feels happy cruising along when there’s no urgency in your legs. And with a geometry that follows a proven and common approach, this at-home feel shouldn’t be too surprising.
The endurance-style geometry may create a comfortable riding position, but it’s the big tyres and clever D-shaped composite seatpost that create the comfortable ride. Those tubeless tyres, although somewhat cheap and lacking suppleness, still soak up much of the terrain, and I found myself aiming the front wheel square at potholes and imperfections simply because the bike wasn’t fazed by them.
Giant’s D-shaped composite seatpost works miracles for soothing rough roads. Obviously, it only works while seated.
In the saddle it’s the Giant D-Fuse seatpost – the same that’s found on Giant’s Revolt Advanced, Defy Advanced and other more premium bikes – that absorbs whatever the tyres don’t, and it’s quite mesmerising to see the post flex under your weight and over road imperfections. In combination with the sloping toptube, there’s enough post flex for experienced riders to likely feel the movement when pedalling, but it’s not enough to impact your pedalling stroke. Such post flex is a lovely feature, and it goes a long way to masking what would otherwise be a stiff-riding frame.
One of my favourite features is the tubeless wheel and tyre package, and setup couldn’t be easier – I just added the supplied tyre sealant (made by Stan’s No Tubes) through the valves and it was ready to ride. Giant provides its own 32c Fondo wire bead tyres, and they offer a surprisingly tacky tread. I’ve found them to be comfortable and controlled on broken pavement, and the large volume offers enough hold on gravel, too.
Yep, there are faster and more supple tyres out there, and at 560g a piece there are certainly some major weight savings to be had, but I still wouldn’t be in a hurry to swap these durable treads out.
Giant’s own Fondo rubber feels like it will roll over anything. And at 560g a piece, they’re not lacking in material.
Shifting and braking quality is certainly worthy of praise, and when adjusted correctly, the 105 drivetrain doesn’t miss a beat. The provided gearing range is ideal for a bike like this, and the 1:1 low gear (34/34) is a nice bail-out option. Those hydraulic disc brakes provide a huge amount of confidence and a light action at the lever that mechanical brakes cannot.
There’s so much good here, but there are a few reminders of the price. I found the thru-axles to be fussier on tightening torque than ideal, and I really had to crank them down in order to keep the brakes from rubbing in a sprint.
It was actually quite funny — with the axle tightened to what felt tight, simply turning the handlebar with the front wheel pointed in the air would see the front brake rub from one side to the other. Cranking on the thru-axle until it feels overtightened corrected the issue, but I can’t help but compare the situation to using crummy external cam quick-releases which required a great deal of hand force.
The thru-axle levers require a surprising amount of hand force to prevent brake rub.
In a similar vein (and likely an attributing cause to the issue above), the front hub has end-caps which are only loosely held in place, and I’ve found it surprisingly easy to knock them free when trying to reinstall the wheel. Be careful of this one if transporting your bike.
I often find Giant a little too over-reliant on rubber grommets for its cable routing, and the Contend AR is no different. Where the internally-routed rear brake hose enters the frame, Giant supplies a simple slip of rubber to create a seal and prevent the hose from rattling. It works, but I’d love to see a solution that’s retained more securely and that’s less likely to be accidentally detached. No such issues exists for the front brake, with that hose simply zip-tie in place down the backside of the fork blade.
I’m overly pedantic about noise from the bike (it’s a key part of my job), and while everything with Giant’s branding remained silent, my sample did suffer from rattly shifters. Rattling Shimano 105 shifters aren’t at all common, but it’s not impossible in lower-grade components where tolerances aren’t quite as tight. The rattle can’t be heard while you hold the levers, but it presents when your hands are on the tops – a minor nuisance that many won’t even notice.
Saddles are personal. Personally, I don’t like that Giant still equips such narrow saddles on its road bikes.
While highly subjective, I find Giant’s own saddles to be a little too narrow for comfort. Given most owners of a bike like this will take on a more upright riding position, I suspect the saddle may be the first thing many will replace.
And now I’m really nit-picking, but the headset bearings were installed dry on my sample. This isn’t uncommon, and unfortunately, it’ll only present as an issue once corrosion has set in. It’s certainly worth asking the store to add some grease to the bearings for preventative reasons.
And as with most things, if it’s strong and low cost, it’s not going to be light, and the 2020 Contend AR 1 weighs just over 10kg with pedals and bottle cages. And the lower models are even heavier. As a result, it’s not the fastest-accelerating thing, but that’s pretty standard for a budget-minded bike on big tyres. If the weight does concern you, then look to replace the tyres first, and wheels down the track.
That’s how I’ll sum up the ride of the Contend AR. Firstly, it offers natural handling that goes where pointed, but without any nervousness in the process. Secondly, the comfortable seatpost, plus the wide grippy tubeless tyres mean it just motors over stuff that would have you and more traditional road bikes wincing. And lastly, the combination of the gravel-bike-like wide-range gearing and hydraulic brakes means you’re always in control of the speed.
For many riders, a bike like this will be the only drop-bar bike they’ll need. It has enough tyre clearance and riding comfort to handle gravel roads or daily commuting, while still remaining lively enough for road group rides. It’s this versatility that helps to explain why a number of the sport’s premium endurance road bikes are starting to trend in this direction, and examples such as the latest Trek Domane are well in line with what the Contend AR does at a much lower price.
Yep, it’s a bike that’s easy to get along with, easy to ride, and easy to afford.
In some ways, the Contend AR is Giant’s most progressive road bike. Which is pretty weird given it’s the budget option in the line-up.
The Contend AR is in its element on course to broken rolling roads, and it handles smooth tarmac without dragging its heels.
The Contend AR features a regular road handlebar without flare.
The Contend AR is ready to accept racks and fenders.
Where more expensive models see the welds cosmetically smoothed, the Contend AR is left raw.
The front brake hose is routed down the backside of the slender carbon fork.
While the rear brake is routed through the frame’s downtube. I don’t love that this little rubber grommet is all that stops the hose from rattling inside.
Threaded bottom bracket for the win. Also note how the cable routing is spat out at the bottom bracket – it’s a simple design that makes future servicing just that little easier.
The D-Fuse seatpost is held in place with an integrated wedge clamp. The clamp is hidden beneath a rubber cover.
Simply lift the rubber cover for access.
I had a fair bit of fun testing the Contend AR. Wider tyres give confidence to throw the bike around a little more than usual.
The front derailleur is easily replaceable if the need ever arises.
Shimano’s 105 shifting is almost flawless, and there’s little to complain about when paired with a wide-range cassette.
Giant’s own components are all fuss-free and reliable.