The mantra was "Comfort = Performance," and the product was radical in 2005: A high- performance endurance road bike for aging baby boomers who rode a lot but didn't want to lean over so much anymore -- such as Specialized President Mike Sinyard, originator of the idea. In less than four years, this simple concept -- that normal folk could ride longer and stronger with a stiff but shock-absorbing frame and handlebars raised a couple of inches -- has swept the industry. The 2009 road-bike lineups of the big brands are dominated by these so-called relaxed-geometry models with upright riding positions. And they're no longer targeted only at big-mile boomers -- because, it turns out, riders of every age like to be comfortable.
Likes: Fast, light, solid and comfortable at any distance. You accelerate instantly because there is no energy-dissipating flex in the beefy frame, which features a massive, triangular-shaped down tube and reinforcement at all frame junctures, including an oversized fork/head tube with huge bearings, a wide bottom bracket shell (which houses the drivetrain spindle) and a burly seat post/top-tube/seat stays/brake bridge. Yet the ride is quite smooth because the high-end carbon material naturally soaks up road vibration. The upright riding position minimizes neck and back ache on long rides. Includes bladed spokes and a 30-speed Shimano Ultegra/Dura-Ace drivetrain. Features handsome, lightweight "compact" design with sloping top tube that Giant pioneered 10 years ago and is now copied throughout the industry, including the other test bikes here. 17.2 pounds.
Dislikes: A small thing: The teardrop-profile seat post is aerodynamic and stylish but much harder to adjust up and down than a standard cylindrical seat post, which can be loosened by rotating back and forth. In fact, I gave up.
Price: $3,550; Advanced/Avail 2 and 3 models with same frame/lower-end component $2,900 and $2,150. Lower end Defy models with the same frame geometry and different frame materials start at less than $1,000. (800) 874-4268; www.giantbicycle.com.
Specialized S-Works Roubaix SL 2: The granddaddy of the performance-comfort category and its most radical example, this carbon-framed bike has a tall head tube/steering column, a long wheelbase and unique, built-in shock-absorbing junctures designed to smooth rough roads, such as the cobblestones of the classic Paris-Roubaix road race it is named for. (In fact, the 2008 race was won on a version of this bike.)
Likes: Smooth, stable, powerful ride that takes comfort a giant step beyond that of other road bikes. The shock absorbers, called Zertz, rubberized inserts that are housed in large kinks in the fork and seat stays, help the frame flex as much as one-fifth of an inch. That may not sound like much, but they do a good job of smoothing the small bumps, as I found while riding the bike on both paved and dirt roads. The design maintains great side-to-side stiffness, so you don't lose any power through the pedal stroke. Weighing 15.5 pounds, it rockets uphill. Downhill handling is superb; the shock absorption keeps the bike glued to the road. Includes carbon-fiber cranks, heavy-duty wheels and top-end 30-speed drivetrain.
Price: $8,500 (with Shimano Dura-Ace components) and $7,400 (SRAM Red). Models with similar carbon/Zertz frame design and lower-end components start at $2,200. (408) 779-6229; www.specialized.com.
Organic speed and comfort
Calfee design bamboo bike: Custom-made frame by famed bike builder Craig Calfee is built out of hardened, polyurethane-sealed bamboo tubes joined by hemp-fiber junctures. Includes a carbon-fiber fork.
Likes: Beautiful, exotic, stunning. Do you keep it in the garage or hang it on the wall? The ride's great too, comfortably absorbing road shock as good as, or better than, carbon fiber. Bamboo is durable, crash-proof, has a 10-year warranty and is time-proven; Calfee built the first one in 1996 as a publicity stunt, but was so impressed with the ride that he added it to his line. All bamboo bikes are custom-fitted. Arguably the greenest, most sustainable bike on the market.
Dislikes: Heavier than normal frames -- 4 to 6 pounds, depending on rider measurements.
Price: $2,600, frame only, with various full-bike packages. (800) 965-2171; www.calfeedesign.com.
Econo endurance machine
Trek 1.2: The lowest-end model of a full line of performance-comfort bikes, this one mates an aluminum frame with a carbon-fiber fork.
Likes: Comfy, upright, ride-all-day seating position. Beginner-friendly, triple-chain ring drivetrain includes an easy hill-climbing gear. Gear-indicator windows on the shifters of the Shimano Sora 27-speed drivetrain tell you what gear you're in at a glance. Includes braze-ons for a rear rack. 21 pounds.
Dislikes: The aluminum frame transmits significantly more road shock than more forgiving materials, such as carbon and bamboo. White tape and seat on the blue model get dirty fast.
Price: $879. (920) 478-2191; www.trekbikes.com.
Endurance cyclist Roy M. Wallack is the co-author of "Bike for Life: How to Ride to 100." Join him at noon Thursday for a Web chat on end-of-season endurance events you can use these bikes for, as well as tips on how to train. Details at latimes.com/boostershots.