How low can carbon go? Carbon fiber, the ultra-light, ultra-strong, ultra-shock-absorbing and ultra-expensive frame material once limited to exotic, $5,000 bikes, can now be found on dozens of road bikes retailing for around $2,000. This hot-selling category is made possible by manufacturing efficiencies in China and by pairing lower-end components with carbon frames, forks and seat posts often found on pricier machines. With sloping top tubes and taller head tubes/handlebars, these bikes are a bargain both for casual riders moving up to century rides and for serious, over-40 bike geeks looking for more upright-position comfort with no performance penalty. Here are four versions of the concept across the comfort-performance spectrum – all available for less than $2,000, despite list price.
Mattress on wheels
Specialized Roubaix Elite: The pioneer in this comfort road-bike category is endurance-oriented, with shock-absorbing inserts (called Zerts) on the fork, seat stays and seat post.
Likes: Unparalleled comfort — the best of the four bikes tested. From the Zerts to the extra-cushioned handlebar tape to the 1/8-inch shorter reach to the bars (compared with the Giant and Cannondale), this bike pampers you in plushness, soaks up road vibration and begs for long rides on rough roads, such as the cobblestones of Paris-Roubaix, for which it's named. Includes a giant-diameter down-tube for power transfer; Shimano's excellent 20-speed, mid-range 105 shifters; and a gel-padded seat with anti- impotence cutout.
Dislikes: Heaviest bike of the group at about 20 pounds in a 56-centimeter. Slowest hill climber of the four bikes, based on identical rides on the same course.
Price: $2,200. (408) 779-6229; specialized.com.
Scott CR1 Comp: A low-cost, lightweight racer's delight that puts speed first.
Likes: It flies. It was so much faster up the hills than the other three bikes that I thought I was on a performance-enhancing drug. My co-tester called the bike a "blur" that seemed to have an extra gear — even though it has fewer. It's an 18-speed hybrid of Shimano's mid-range 105 rear derailleur and low-end Tiagra shifters, which have convenient visual gear indicator windows. The lightest of the test bikes at 18 pounds. Advice: Do a century on it, but only if you want to win it.
Dislikes: Harsh, harsh ride. I felt every crack in the pavement. I felt my kidneys rattling. This bike is the antithesis of the Specialized. Even the seat, which lacks a pressure-relieving center groove, is uncomfortable. Advice: Put your old seat on it and add thick handlebar tape.
Price: $1,699. (208) 622-1000; scottusa.com.
Sweet middle ground
Giant Defy Advanced 3: Stylish bike that combines comfort and speed with massive triangular down-tube, aerodynamic seat post and beginner-friendly 30-speed drive train.
Likes: Fast (but not as fast as the Scott) and comfy (but not as comfy as the Specialized). Upright positioning makes it a great all-round bike for short and long distances, hill-climbing, you name it. Includes Shimano 105 drive train. The granny gear helps newbies on hills. Weight: 19 pounds; slightly less with regular two-ring drive train. Comfortable anti-impotence seat.
Price: $2,075. Giantbicycles.com.
Even more sweet middle
Cannondale Synapse Carbon: Very comfortable and fast bike that includes a unique shock-absorbing frame design, wide down-tube, aerodynamic seat post and solid Shimano 105 20-speed drive train.
Likes: A plush ride that is almost as smooth as the Specialized (blindfolded, you'd be hard-pressed to tell) yet as fast uphill as the Giant. The shock absorption apparently comes from the SAVE (Synapse Active Vibration Elimination) design of its flat chain stays and its flexible seat stays, which bow in on impact to lift the rear wheel over bumps, similar in concept to the seat stays of the Specialized. Good pressure-relieving, channeled saddle. Weight: 18.6 pounds.
Price: $2,150. (800) BIKE-USA; cannondale.com.
Wallack is the co-author of "Bike for Life: How to Ride to 100." firstname.lastname@example.org