Cannondale Synapse Hi-Mod Red eTap 2018 first-ride review

It’s been 11 years now since Cannondale first released the Synapse, a road frame that promised increased comfort on rougher surfaces compared to its stiffer counterparts. The bike has seen two facelifts in the years since then — one in 2009 and one in 2014 — and now Cannondale has revealed the latest iteration of its “endurance race” frame.

CyclingTips’ Australian editor Matt de Neef was at the launch in Como, Italy, and spent some time riding the new Synapse.


More comfort

At the heart of the Synapse concept is what Cannondale calls its Synapse Active Vibration Elimination (SAVE) system. The system comprises micro-suspension flex zones within the frame and fork to damp vibrations and unwanted road buzz. The first Synapse featured SAVE and the system has been updated with every iteration of the bike, including the 2018 Synapse.

All of the innovations that marked the previous iteration of the Synapse have been carried over for the new bike. That includes the bowed seat tube that splits into a fork above the bottom bracket, a 25.4mm seatpost with a lowered, integrated seatpost clamp, a BB30A bottom bracket, along with the flex zones in the fork legs and stays. According to Cannondale, each of these features has been re-engineered, “creating a holistic system that insulates the rider from the bumps, without isolating them from the experience.”

For 2018, though, the SAVE concept has been extended to take in the handlebars and stem. A new design dubbed “SystemBar” was engineered from the ground up for the new Synapse to enhance the compliance of the bike. To this end, the SystemBar offers a claimed 4-6mm worth of deflection under normal road conditions, but Cannondale reports as much as 15mm of deflection during lab testing — a considerable amount of flex to smooth out the road.

At first glance, the SystemBar resembles an integrated bar and stem with generous Foil-like tops, much like those found on Canyon’s Aeroad and Scott’s Foil, however the SystemBar comprises two pieces. The stem can be separated from the handlebar once the four bolts securing the two parts are removed. Several stem options are available for the SystemBar — 70-100mm in +6º varieties and 80-130mm in -6º varieties — while the bar itself can be tilted up to 8º. All told, SystemBar manages to offer much of the adjustability of a conventional stem and bar while achieving a sleek and modern aesthetic.

Cannondale has also created a detachable mount that connects to the top of the SystemBar for carrying a Garmin GPS unit out front (on top) in combination with the new Fabric Lumaray light (underneath).

In another effort to increase comfort, particularly on rough roads, the new Synapse also delivers an increase in available tyre clearance. Where 28mm tyres were previously supported, now up to 32mm can be accommodated. Bear in mind though that the majority of new Synapse models will be supplied with 28C tyres so buyers will have to resort to fitting aftermarket tyres to take full advantage of the extra clearance. (It’s worth noting that 35mm wide tyres will almost certainly fit on the new bike, albeit with less than the recommended clearance).

Not just a comfort bike

While the new Synapse offers increased comfort compared to a regular racing frame, it has also been designed with racing in mind. Cannondale claims a lower stack and longer reach for the Synapse than some of the frame’s competitors, with industrial designer Ian Surra describing the geometry as “Low enough to go hard; upright enough to encourage you to ride longer.” Indeed, the Cannondale marketing material claims “The new Synapse is System Integrated to be lighter, stiffer, better handling and faster than any other endurance race bike out there.”

In terms of weight, a size 56 Synapse Hi-Mod frame weighs in at 950g, a claimed saving of 220g on the previous iteration (the Carbon edition tips the scales at 1,100g). This puts the new Synapse on par with the Trek Domane and Specialized Roubaix. The Hi-Mod fork is now 367g, down 116g from the previous Synapse.

Meanwhile, Cannondale claims an increased headset stiffness of 9.4%, in line with the company’s aim of bringing the Synapse closer to the SuperSix Evo in terms of its responsiveness.

Other changes

Other changes to the Synapse include asymmetrical stays and fork blades, the latter having been redesigned in order to better cope with the demands of disc braking. The 2018 Synapse also has fender/mudguard mounts hidden on the inside of the forks and seatstays, with a removable seatstay bridge providing another anchor point.

Also new with the 2018 model is what Cannondale calls Size-Optimized Design, an attempt to deliver a consistent ride across the entire size range. This manifests itself as different diameter tubing for the various frame sizes, and an increase in the size of the lower headset bearing, starting with a standard 1 1/8″ diameter for the smallest frame sizes (44, 48) that increases to 1 1/4” for sizes 51 and 54, while the largest frames (56, 58, 61) make use of a very sturdy 1 3/8” diameter bearing.

Cannondale’s Size-Optimised Design also normalises the steering for each frame size, such that the trail steadily decreases yet remains in the range of 56-60mm (compared to 57-70mm for the previous iteration of the Synapse). This is achieved by the combination of three fork rakes — 45/55/60mm — and carefully paired head tube angles. The smallest frames (44, 48) have a slack head tube angle (70.2° and 70.8° respectively) and forks with 60mm rake; the middle sizes (51, 54) have a 71.7° head angle and 55mm of rake; while the largest frames (56, 58, 61) have a 73° head angle and 45mm of rake.

Compared to the industry norm of 43-45mm, a fork rake of 55-60mm is quite unusual, but it ensures riders won’t be troubled by toe overlap, even when using larger tyres. At the same time, the Synapse promises to be very stable, regardless of the frame size, while offering reasonably agile steering.

Finally, it’s important to note that Cannondale will continue to offer gender-specific versions of the new Synapse and that a size 44 frame will remain in the line-up at various levels.

Changes in hardware

In the past, the Synapse was offered in both rim- and disc-brake versions, but that will no longer be the case for the new Synapse, which becomes disc-only. And where the previous disc-equipped bikes featured quick-release axles for the wheels and post-mounts for the disc callipers, the new Synapse now adopts what is becoming de rigeur for road disc bikes — namely, 12mm thru-axles for the wheels and flat-mounts for the disc callipers.

All cables/hoses/wires are routed internally in the new frameset with interchangeable fittings to suit mechanical and electronic groupsets. The new Synapse is compatible with Shimano’s downtube junction box (see image below), while the braze-on mount for the front derailleur is removable. As such, the new frameset does well to accommodate the range of groupset options now available on the market.

New Synapse models

In all there are 14 new Synapse models available, including four Synapse Hi-Mod Carbon varieties which use the company’s BallisTec Hi-Mod carbon:

– Men’s Dura-Ace Di2
– Men’s Dura-Ace (mechanical)
– Men’s Red eTap
– Women’s Red eTap

And then there are 10 Synapse Carbon options, which feature the lower-grade BallisTec Carbon:

– Men’s Red eTap
– Men’s Dura-Ace (mechanical)
– Men’s Ultegra Di2
– Men’s Ultegra SE
– Men’s Ultegra
– Men’s Apex 1 SE
– Men’s 105
– Women’s Ultegra Di2
– Women’s Ultegra
– Women’s Apex 1 SE

Note that only seven of the 14 Synapse models feature the SystemBar: the four Hi-Mod builds plus the Carbon Red eTap, Carbon Dura-Ace and Carbon Ultegra SE builds. Likewise with the SAVE seatpost.

The majority of the models feature 2x transmissions with compact cranksets (34/50T), 11-32T cassettes, and 28C tyres — sound choices for all-road riding. For riders that see themselves tackling rougher terrain, the new SE models feature wider tubeless tyres (WTB Exposure, 30C) and the choice of a 2x Ultegra transmission (34/50T x 11-34T) or SRAM’s Apex 1x transmission (44T x 11-42T).

At the launch event in Como, Italy I had the opportunity to ride the Synapse Hi-Mod Red eTap. The bike was built up with Cannondale’s tubeless-ready HollowGram Si Carbon Clincher Disc wheelset (35mm deep, 19mm inner rim width), 28mm Vittoria Corsa tyres, and, as you might expect from the name, a SRAM Red eTap groupset. While a SRAM Red crankset will feature on production models, the build I was riding featured a HollowGram SiSL2 SpideRing SL, which can be found on other builds in the line-up.

The total weight of the build was roughly 7.3kg with pedals.

Pricing and availability

The availability of the 2018 Synapse range will vary from country to country, but Hi-Mod models will arrive in Australia from late September and Carbon models from mid-November. Be sure to check with your local bike shop or distributor for the particular models available in your region.

The Synapse Hi-Mod Disc Red eTap as described above retails for AU$10,999/US$7,999, with the range-topping Dura-Ace Di2 sitting at US$9,999 (Not available in Australia) and Dura-Ace mechanical coming in at US$6,499 (also not available in Australia).

The Synapse Carbon options range in price from AU$3,499/US$2,499 for the Disc 105 and Disc SE Apex versions, to the Disc eTap which retails for AU$8,499/US$5,999.

Riding the bike

Over the course of two days in northern Italy I managed a couple of rides on the new Synapse, covering a total of 135 hilly kilometres. That’s not enough to paint a complete picture of any bike, but first impressions are always instructive.

The thing that most immediately caught my attention was the SystemBar cockpit. The design is clean and sleek, and took almost no time to get used to. And, with a noticeably smaller circumference than other similar designs, I had no trouble wrapping my hands comfortably around the tops of the bar.

But as aesthetically pleasing as the design was, I found that the tops of the SystemBar quickly became slippery when covered in sweat (something that will tend to happen when you’re tackling the famous Madonna del Ghisallo climb in 35ºC+ heat), and I found it hard to keep hold of the bar. It’s an easy problem to solve, though — simply cover the entire bar in grip tape, not just the hooks and drops.

Perhaps most importantly, I never felt that the bar and stem combo flexed under load — something I’d been concerned about upon hearing of Cannondale’s claimed 15mm of flex. Instead the SystemBar felt as solid as a regular cockpit.

Being much more at home with Shimano groupsets and having never ridden SRAM Red eTap before, I was interested to see how quickly I’d adapt to the unique shifting protocol. For those unfamiliar, the single button on the right shifter moves the rear derailleur towards the smaller cogs, the single left shifter button moves the rear derailleur in the other direction, and pressing both buttons together shifts the front derailleur (up or down, depending on which ring you’re in).

It took me mere kilometres to adjust to this shifting method and before too long I was changing gears smoothly with little conscious thought. (This proved a little more challenging while suffering on long steep climbs, and a couple of times, with my brain in an oxygen-depleted state, I shifted the rear mech in the wrong direction.)

Overall, I found eTap enjoyable to use, thanks to the satisfying click of each button press and impressively smooth shifting.

Braking was predictably impressive with SRAM’s hydro disc option, with the 160mm rotors providing plenty of stopping power and plenty of confidence when tackling the long, twisty descents in the region. With disc brakes, braking requires noticeably less effort at the levers and can be left quite a bit later.

I experienced some squealing of the rotors, particularly on the second day once the brakes had bedded in, but that’s not an uncommon complaint with disc brakes. In all though, the combination of disc brakes and wide rubber gave the bike a sense of being impressively sure-footed whenever the road tilted down.

The Synapse was designed with rider comfort in mind and so it was this aspect of the bike I was most looking forward to testing out. In short, the Synapse does a remarkable job of smoothing out the ride, absorbing an impressive amount of road chatter on rougher surfaces.

Whenever a rider ahead of me in the bunch pointed out an imperfection in the road my temptation was not to avoid it, as I normally would, but rather to aim straight for it, to best test the capabilities of the Synapse’s SAVE features. I was frequently impressed by the bike’s ability to soak up vibrations large and small, and relished the chance to test out the dampening features when the opportunity presented itself.

Of course it’s worth noting that the amount of feedback a rider enjoys is very much a matter of personal preference. Some prefer the plushest ride possible, while others prefer to experience a little more of the vibrations, to feel better connected to the road.

It’s hard to tell which parts of the Synapse contribute most to its impressive damping effect — the micro-suspension flex zones, the seatpost, the SystemBar cockpit, the wider tyres, or the lower tyre pressure — but the combination delivered a considerably smoother ride than I had expected. Two rides of less than four hours isn’t enough to assess whether the Synapse does indeed provide “all-day comfort”, as Cannondale claims, but I certainly wasn’t left feeling the effects of surface roughness on either ride.

It’s worth noting that, on both rides, we remained almost exclusively on sealed roads. To fully assess the Synapse’s dampening capabilities, and to see whether the Synapse does indeed give riders the “capability to confidently attack any road”, significant testing on gravel roads and other surfaces would be required. The little riding I did do away from bitumen did leave me impressed, however.

Cannondale is keen for the Synapse to be seen as a racing frame, claiming increased stiffness for the new model. While that’s hard to verify out on the road, the bike certainly felt responsive. It didn’t feel as light or as snappy as the SuperSix Evo Disc, however I always found the Synapse ready and willing whenever I jumped out the saddle to punch up a small rise. There was no sensation of power being lost to the frame’s dampening features whenever I was putting in an effort — rather, I always felt as if the power I was pushing through the pedals was being used as I intended.

As mentioned above, Cannondale has made an effort to lower the gear ratios offered with the new Synapse. I wasn’t convinced I was going to make much use of the 32T cog when I set out, but whenever the road tilted up I was always grateful for the extra gear and indeed often found myself reaching for another, bigger cog.

My least favourite feature of the bike was the Fabric Scoop Shallow Pro saddle which, while aesthetically pleasing, wasn’t to my liking ergonomically. Saddle choice is, of course, very personal but I’d prefer a cut-out saddle — a Prologo Kappa Evo, for example.

Finally, I was impressed with the overall aesthetic of the Synapse. This too, is a matter of personal taste, however I enjoyed the flashes of bright green in the frame’s colour scheme.

In summary

The fourth iteration of Cannondale’s Synapse can be counted as a reasonably significant overhaul for the long-running model. The company promises the new version is smoother than ever while still delivering the sort of performance that racers will find satisfying. While the latter is somewhat open to interpretation, I certainly found that the new Synapse does indeed make for an impressively plush and comfortable ride.

As ever, it’s hard to get the complete picture of a bike after just a few hours of riding, but initial impressions are strong. We hope to get our hands on a new Cannondale Synapse for longer-term testing and, in particular, to put the bike through its paces on much rougher roads.

Disclosure statement: Matt de Neef travelled to Lake Como as a guest of Cannondale. CyclingTips would like to thank Cannondale for their hospitality and for the opportunity to ride the new Synapse.