2021 Field Test: Our favourites of the mid-tier road race bikes
It’s time to wrap up the findings from our small 2021 Field Test of mid-priced all-rounder road race bikes (but not the whole Field Test!).
As a refresher, this group consisted of the Giant TCR Advanced Pro 1 Disc, the Trek Emonda SL 6 Pro, and the Canyon Ultimate CF SL 8 Disc. All three aim to be do-it-all performance road bikes that come with claims of high frame stiffness, low weight, aerodynamic benefits, and all-day comfort. And they’re intentionally closely comparable in the parts they’re built with, too.
Additionally, we had the highly versatile Cervelo Caledonia Ultegra Di2 as an odd duckling in the bunch.
What we didn’t have was the exhaustive Field Test of all the new and interesting mid-priced all-rounder racers that we’d initially planned. The COVID bike boom got in the way of this, and I’ll include a list below of the other road bikes we tried to get in for review.
In any case, so many new versions of these all-rounder bikes have been released over the last 12 months, but most of the attention has focussed on the top-tier offerings. In this Field Test, we wanted to find out how the mid-tier version of each bike performed.
Trends of the Field Test
Small it may have been, but some clear trends arose from doing back-to-back testing of these all-round racers.
Perhaps most importantly is that while these bikes are being pitched as well-rounded machines, it’s critical to note that they’re performance products. The geometry is aggressive and the handling fast – matched with what the pros race. And so more endurance-style road bikes still remain the better pick for those who seek a more upright and relaxed riding position.
There’s also no looking past the fact that these bikes featured Shimano Ultegra 11-speed groupsets with hydraulic discs. Shimano absolutely rules the roost in this price category, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything else.
Shimano Ultegra just works. It’s impressively smooth and functional in use and wear parts aren’t terribly expensive to replace. Really, the only obvious thing Ultegra loses to Shimano’s pro-level Dura-Ace groupsets is the battle for low weight. Most will struggle to detect the minute differences in function.
That leads us to disc brakes. A growing number of bikes in this category are moving to disc-only, and it could be argued that buying a rim brake bike in 2021 is investing in what the industry has already deemed to be old technology. I know that remains controversial, and at least for now, a few of the bikes tested are still available in rim-brake variants, namely the Canyon Ultimate and Giant TCR Advanced.
Disc brakes are unquestionably a better product for controlling your speed, but they do come with a few compromises and a learning curve. There’s simply no arguing that they add weight compared to a rim brake setup (typically about half a kilogram all up at this price point). Additionally, they can be more difficult to set up correctly in order to provide rub-free riding and the intended braking control. New to spinning rotors? Be sure to check out our Endless FAQ to all things road disc brakes.
Increasingly wide tyre clearance is another clear trend in these road race bikes, and despite what the brands may claim, all the tested bikes cleared 32 mm tyres without issue. However, do be aware that the geometry of many race bikes is optimised for use with 25-28 mm tyres, and so going wider will slow the handling and raise the bottom bracket beyond what the bike’s designers consider to be ideal.
Speaking of tyres, almost all race bikes in this category are still being fitted with 25 mm tyres (some measure closer to 28 mm). Everyone on the CT team agrees that these bikes are only made better by fitting 28 mm tyres. The wider tyres add a little weight but improve ride comfort and control; in some cases they even reduce rolling resistance. Feel free to use those stock tyres, but consider going wider once they’re worn.
And finally, there’s the trend we’re seeing with saddles. No longer do stock saddles suck; rather we’re now seeing short-nose saddles with greater widths across nearly all bikes. This trend was spearheaded by Specialized’s Power saddle and should make for less polarising stock saddles.
Personally, I had two favourites out of the three tested race bikes. Still, we do have a winner.
The Giant TCR Advanced Pro 1 Disc won me over for being such a complete offering that was race-ready with great aero wheels, a dual-sided power meter, and a competitively low weight.
However, it was near impossible to ignore how the Canyon Ultimate CF SL 8 Disc managed to offer both impressive pedalling stiffness and wonderful seated comfort. This bike is a screaming deal. However, as the review warns, I truly don’t believe buying consumer-direct is the right call for all – this is only a great buy for those that know exactly how they like their bikes to fit.
My fellow tester Andy van Bergen’s preferences were a little different to my own. He loves the feeling of a stiff, fast, and near-twitchy race bike and for that his first preference was the Trek Emonda SL 6 Pro. And despite the many comments on that review, the half a kilo weight difference over the competition really wasn’t a deal-breaker.
However Andy also couldn’t look past the value for money offered by Canyon, and therefore it’s this bike that wins in a photo finish amongst this small group.
Perhaps what’s most apparent and important to mention is that it’s hard to find a bad bike at this level. These bikes are just so close to each other in so many ways.
So where does that leave the Cervelo Caledonia? Well, it doesn’t really fit. It’s not a race bike like the others but rather a well-rounded do-it-all road bike with a geometry that’s somewhere between a race bike and a relaxed endurance bike. If you’re the type of rider that lusts after a race bike but needs a slightly more upright riding position (that’s most of us, really), then this is exactly the type of bike that you should be looking at. Check out the review of this bike for recommendations of closely comparable bikes.
The bikes we couldn’t get
When putting together these Field Tests we look to the bikes that lead the market, the bikes the market is most interested in, the bikes that intrigue us the most, and the bikes that are perhaps the new version of something that’s impressed us in the past.
In addition to the bikes we reviewed, there are a number of bikes worth considering in your research; bikes we specifically asked brands to send our way. These are the Scott Addict RC 30, Cannondale SuperSix Carbon Disc Ultegra, Specialized Tarmac SL6 Comp, Cervelo R3 Disc Ultegra, BMC Teammachine SLR Three, and Focus Izalco Max 8.8 Disc. Yep, COVID-related bike shortages are no joke.
Of course, there are countless other bikes that you could also add to this list depending on where in the world you’re based. Feel free to leave your suggestions in the comments below.
More to come
This isn’t us closing the curtain on our 2021 Victorian High Country Field Test.
Iain Treloar is currently typing up a storm (seriously, he smashes those keys) to bring you a number of gravel bike reviews. And I have a few more bike reviews on the way, too.
We’ll also be producing a few useful buyers guide pieces that will hopefully assist those that are either new to the sport or looking to take on a new riding discipline.
In the meantime, I’ll close this out with a huge thanks to Ride High Country for hosting and supporting us for the Field Test and for their ongoing efforts in growing cycling in the region. Be sure to check out what the Victorian High Country has to offer, whether you’re in Australia or dreaming of an Aussie escape (if those international borders ever open again).