Gear: Endurance bikes, for those who've endured

Although it is said that cycling is the "new golf" for aging baby boomers, it's clear that the low, aerodynamic position of a Tour de France racer doesn't work for old bodies burdened with stiff backs and diminishing flexibility. Enter one of the hottest cycling categories: the "endurance" race bike. Built for comfort, it's got a raised handlebar, a sloping top tube for more stand-over clearance, some shock-absorption in the frame and a slightly longer wheelbase for better stability. Although these are bona fide race bikes designed for rough roads and long stages on European tours, their comfort has proved ideal for people taking on century rides and all-day challenges. Several new breakout models, including three reviewed below, sport intricate vibration-eating designs and bold manufacturer claims that they'll keep you fresh through endless days of cycling abuse — er, fun.


Joys of cobble-gobbling

Specialized S-Works Roubaix SL4: Latest version of the groundbreaking carbon-fiber bike that rewrote the rules on comfort, with shock-absorbing inserts on the fork and seat stays and, for this year, a strange and effective shock-absorbing seat post called the COBL GOBL-R (pronounced "cobble gobbler").

Likes: It works quite well, smoothing out rough pavement without seeming to reduce pedaling efficiency. I found it a big improvement over earlier Roubaix models, which had decent shock absorption but lots of lateral flex that slowed it on hill climbs. This doesn't. The frame is stiffer and faster, but the shock absorption is far better due to the funky COBL GOBL-R, an odd-looking carbon seat post with an arrow-point-shaped kink near the top. The kink compresses like a leaf spring as you go over a bump — imperceptibly on the little ones and more obviously on big ones — angling the seat back as much as 0.67 inch, according to Specialized. That will take the sting off for pros using the bike for the famed, cobblestone-riddled Paris-Roubaix race, for which the bike is named, and average folk grinding away on rough roads and long rides. The bike includes internally run cables and 20-speed SRAM Red components.

Dislikes: Right now, the COBL GOBL-R comes only on Specialized's top $12,000 and $8,000 Roubaix models. But in January you can buy it separately for $200 and stick it on any old clunker — easily the must-have accessory of the year.

Price: $8,000. http://www.Specialized.com


Trek's Roubaix Fighter

Trek Domane 6.2: This belated answer to the Roubaix includes a typical comfort-oriented endurance geometry (tall head tube, short top tube, longer wheelbase) and a very atypical Isospeed Decoupler, a design in which the top tube splits just in front of the seat tube and continues around it to become the seat stays. The seat tube floats between them, pivoting on an axle backward as much as 0.54 inch when you hit a bump or pothole.

Likes: It keeps you fresh on long rides by taking the edge off big bumps (like cobblestones) and other jarring terrain. Flex is also built into the seat mast and seat stays. Supposedly aiding steering is a thin-legged fork with rearward-set dropouts, which absorb vibrations and bumps without sacrificing steering precision. Like all these bikes, it's hard to tell when the suspension is working, although it clearly smoothed cracked pavement better than a Madone, Trek's non-flexing race bike, when it was immediately tested back-to-back on the same road. Light at 15.5 pounds. Aluminum models with a cruder decoupler start under $2,000.

Dislikes: None.

Price: $4,619. http://www.Trekbikes.com


Beauty, safety, variety

Volagi Liscio: The sleek carbon-fiber design targeting long-distance riders is from industry veterans Robert Choi and Barley Forsman, champion double-century riders who started Volagi 18 months ago. It features a tall head tube, short top tube and its signature flattened LongBow Flex seat stays, which wrap around the seat tube without touching it, then join the top tube. The LongBow has 6 millimeters (1/4 inch) of built-in flex to cushion the rear wheel as it goes over a bump. Disc brakes, a rarity on road bikes, are included.

Likes: Fast, comfortable, strikingly beautiful, not too expensive (compared with the Specialized and Trek) and exclusive at this point (only 50 dealers in the U.S). Great for someone who wants the traditional endurance position with a very subtle cushion. The bike's 0.25 inch of travel is under half the shock absorption/seat-post deflection of the previous two bikes. A great feature is the disc brakes, which are not only safer than rim brakes but combine with a wide wheel spacing to allow you to use a 1.5-inch tire, making this a decent cyclocross or do-anything multi-surface bike. On a budget? Look for Volagi's new steel-framed Viaje ($2,000 with SRAM Apex), which has 1/8 inch of seat-stay and rear wheel movement.

Dislikes: While the body positioning is superb, it may not have enough shock absorption to make you feel the benefit on short rides.

Price: $4,500 to $6,200, depending on components. http://www.volagi.com.


No bells and whistles

Bianchi Infinito: The conventional carbon-fiber endurance race bike has the comfort-oriented geometry found on most models in this category: higher hand position, angled top tube, slightly longer chain stays and wheelbase. It has no additional shock-absorbing technology built in to the design.

Likes: Nimble, fast and comfortable riding position due to destressed and straighter body positioning. I have been riding endurance-style bikes for a long time, and this fit like a glove. After all, it does not matter how much fancy cushioning technology an endurance bike has if it isn't comfortable to start with, which is the key to tolerating long hours in the saddle. For racers, this bike delivers, with a record of success in the Giro and the classics.

Dislikes: No fancy cushioning technology to amaze your friends and smooth out miles of rough stuff. Advice: Start with this bike — and stick a COBL GOBL-R on it if you'd like.

Price: $3,499; http://www.bianchiusa.com.

Wallack is the coauthor of "Bike for Life: How to Ride to 100" and "Barefoot Running Step by Step." roywallack@aol.com

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