Inspired by the Tour de France? A “proper” road bike makes a massive difference to how far you can get, and how much fun you’ll have doing it. It doesn’t have to cost a fortune either as our sub £500 quartet proves.
To be honest we shouldn’t be surprised that a £500 bike works really well, as to most people that’s still an eyebrow raising amount of money to spend on a push bike. Not long ago it still would have left you a long way short of getting up to date tech, and a comparable ride to higher price machines.
But the last few years have seen alloy frames get dramatically better. They’ve always been stiff enough to get a shift on, but recently they’ve got lighter, and much more comfortable.
That engineered ability to soak up rough sections and random potholes is a big change from the bone jarring battering that you would have previously expected from an alloy frame, especially if you’re planning long rides or events on your new road warrior.
Cheaper bikes used to mean separate gear shifter and brake controls too, but now you can expect integrated “Shimano Transmission Integration” (STI) controls.
There’s still a big variance between how many gears you’re getting to play with though, with 7, 8 or 9 speed set ups here, and 10 or even 11 speed kit available for a bit more money, if you pick carefully. While it’s easy to get drawn in by headline kit don’t forget that utility details such as mudguard and rack mounts make a big difference to the versatility of your bike, particularly if you’re going to do some wet weather riding or cargo carrying work – whether that’s commuting or a multi-day road tour.
Overall character obviously matters here too, so it’s great to see that our quartet includes every type of ride from focused racer to comfortable cruiser.
Read on to find out which is which, and what bike will give you the ride you want for a bargain price.
Verenti is the house brand of online bike, swim and run megastore Wiggle, and it can always be relied upon to deliver good looking, well-equipped bikes that won’t break the bank.
FRAME AND KIT: The Verenti frame uses simple round tubes rather than fancy pressure formed pieces but carbon bladed forks are a good score at this price and dissipate shock as well as save weight. Detailing is hit and miss though, with incomplete rack and mudguard mounts and only one set of bottle mounts on the frame.
The Shimano Claris shifters and gears have the same integrated brake and sub lever actuation as more expensive Shimano gear sets and smooth, quick shifting across an 8- speed cassette at the rear.
The unbranded double chainset uses climb-friendly 50 and 34 tooth chainrings but the square taper bottom bracket and heavily scooped arms feel soft and flexy when you put the power down. The Jalco rimmed wheels are a reasonable weight compared to the others her.
But the Kenda Kontender tyres are a standard volume 23mm size rather than fatter 25mm like the other
bikes. The Tektro R312 brakes get cartridge brake pads in a metal shoe rather than moulded rubber pads, which sounds a small detail but makes a big positive difference to braking power, control and confidence.
THE RIDE: Despite the small tyre volume, the front wheel combines with the front forks to create a smooth ride in terms of vibrations through the handlebars. A relaxed 72-degree steering angle and low bottom bracket height keeps the bike stable, and inspires confidence on speedy descents. The low handlebar height and a steep 74.5 degree seat angle pushes plenty of the rider’s weight forward for reassuring front tyre grip, and together with a short head tube sets up a naturally racy position.
Unfortunately the back end doesn’t deliver on the promise of this position nor the road smoothing effect of the carbon forks. Regular thumps and bumps through the saddle make for anunforgivingly stiff ride from the
frame in a vertical sense, but the cranks, frame and wheels don’t convey a similar sharpness when you put the power down.
That left the Verenti at an obvious disadvantage when group rides turned into group races, and while it was the second lightest bike on test, it was the least enthusiastic on climbs. It’s definitely worth keeping an eye on Verenti though as there are significant changes to the line up for the 2016 season.
Thanks to the weird way the bike industry works that probably means you’ll be seeing them not
long after this issue hits the shops.
VERDICT: Sporty ride position, Claris gears and carbon fork are great for this money, but the technique lacks the smoothness and enthusiasm of the other bikes on test.
The 14-speed specification of the Fuji looks poor on paper but the outstanding ride quality of the frame and forks plus some really neat detail design shine brightly when you hit the road.
FRAME AND KIT: The 2.5 is the cheapest bike in the Fuji range that gets the custom double butted A2-SL Sportif frameset and it’s a beauty.
The main tubes ensure maximum pedalling stiffness at the bottom bracket, while the combination of a broad, shallow, subtly curved top tube, skinny seat tube and 27.2mm seat post deliver comfort. Built in rack mounts as well as front and rear mudguard fixtures add versatility.
However, the Shimano Tourney gears and shifters are functionally and mechanically very different from the Claris and Sora gears on the other bikes here, and the seven relatively crude gear cogs mean noticeably more grumble and rumble from the drivetrain. The shifters also use a side button rather than a sub lever behind the brakes and while that works fine when riding on the brake hoods, it’s awkward to reach if you’re descending on the drops.
On the plus side, 25mm Vera Helios tyres underline the smooth, easy speed ride of the Fuji really well. And there’s a touch of subtle class in a number of the smaller details too.
THE RIDE: Where the class really shines through on the Fuji is the ride. As soon as you’re aboard the Sportive there’s an unmistakable sense of spring and buoyancy that we’d praise in a bike at the £1000 mark, and really didn’t expect from a bike well under half that cost.
The way the fork and frame flow and float over potholes, frost fractures and other rough road sections easily overrides the feint chuntering of gears and chain.
Remarkably it stays the right side of taut and lively when you put the power down too, with a real bounce and pounce in it’s stride despite the cheap Fuji branded cranks and the heaviest wheels on test. The tall head tube and short stem definitely create a more casual, cruiser vibe but that chimes well with the smooth ride and Sportif
While the short stem means the steering is also more lively and sensitive than the more stretched bikes here, the wheelbase is long enough to stop feeling nervous on descents. That tall front means getting down into the drops is less intimidating/orthopedically challenging if you’re a nervous newbie or just stiff backed. As much as the frame and ride quality are excellent, there’s no escaping the gulf in gearing performance compared to the
other bikes here.
That makes stretching to afford the £485 Claris and Sora equipped Fuji Sportif 2.3 well worth it (and much cheaper than trying to upgrade the 2.5 model to an 8-speed yourself).
Plus you’d have a brilliant, effervescently enjoyable all-rounder for a bargain price.
VERDICT: Superb frameset for the money but undermined by cheap componentry that makes the Fuji Sportif 2.3 the one to go for.
Boardman has been the benchmark for low price, top performance bikes for years and the Road Sport uses a great frame to deliver a first class ride for the money
FRAME AND KIT: You’d be forgiven for thinking the Road Sport’s frame is actually carbon fibre, thanks to all the main welds being filed down, and the tubes adopting a flowing shape, including the aerodynamically efficient teardrop downtube.
The rear brake is internally routed, and the spliced wishbone seatstays look very slick. Nor has Boardman skimped on utility fixtures either, with front and rear mudguard mounts as well as a complete set of rear rack
An all-metal fork is a big part of why the Boardman is the heaviest bike on test, but the slim alloy blades mated to a steel top end actually ride remarkably well. The Boardman may be the most expensive bike here by 10 – 20%, but that extra investment brings 16-speed Shimano Claris gears, CXP22 rims from French wheel specialist Mavic, and 25mm Vittoria tyres which are a real bonus to ride quality.
The FSA Tempo crank and square taper bottom bracket are soft underfoot though, and the moulded rubber brake pads of the Tektro R315 brakes can’t match the power and control of the cartridge pads of the Verenti’s R312’s.
THE RIDE: While it’s the heaviest bike on test and the FSA crank and axle are pretty flexible when you
give them full gas, the triple butted frame tubes and short rear end of the Boardman still lends it a positive attitude to climbs and sprints. The combination of the FSA chainrings and Claris front mech shifts up slightly better than the cranks on the Fuji and Verenti so it’s easy to lever the chain into the big ring.
Once you’ve pedalled the Boardman up to top speed, the big volume Vittoria tyres really seem to multiply whatever momentum you’ve got, gliding impressively well over rough road
The handling of the Road Sport is excellent too. The front fork is surprisingly smooth without being obviously wayward in its tracking and the generous top length gives a roomy feel to the bike without stretching out stiff backs uncomfortably.
Tyre quality and the precise yet forgiving ride quality of the Road Sport’s mainframe tubes also builds an easy surefooted confidence in the Boardman. That meant we were always happy to carry plenty of pace through corners even though the brakes and tyre grip are merely adequate rather than amazing.
Looking at the other options in the range, the Boardman Road Sport Ltd gets a carbon bladed
fork upgrade for £599.99, while the Road Comp gets a full carbon fork and 18 speed Shimano Sora gears for £699.99, which will be significantly better performing options if you can afford them.
VERDICT: The Boardman may look off the pace on paper, but its smooth, surefooted, easy speed and ride quality make it one of the most popular bikes on test.
B:Twin are the house brand of French sports hypermarket Decathlon and the new Triban 520 doesn’t just carry a serious component payload for the price, it also delivers a great performance for a wide range of riders
FRAME AND KIT: The heavily tapered carbon blade forks plus integrated headset and semigeometric
frame tube sections immediately show that B:Twin haven’t cut corners on the chassis. It comes complete with mudguard and rack bosses, plus a lifetime warranty but it’s still the only sub 10kg bike here.
Most noticeably, there’s a real step up in performance between the Sora gears of the B:Twin and the Claris gears on the other bikes in this test. A close ratio 9-speed rear block matched to triple 50, 39, 30 tooth chainrings offer enough gears for surviving the last- groveling-climb-of-a-coastto-coast epic or bombing downhill to home.
The fixed axle and external bottom bracket of the Sora crankset also adds noticeable stiffness under foot. The B:Twin Sport wheels are the lightest on test and shod in quality Hutchinson Equinox 2 Reinforced 25mm tyres for easy
The geometric cross section stem and two colour bar tape match the frame tubes, and the firm saddle sits on top of a shock absorbing 27.2mm seatpost.
THE RIDE: B:Twin has created a ride that’s every bit as versatile and user friendly as the impressive component list. The generous cockpit reach and mid-length head tube let you drop low for racing or sit up high for cruising depending on your mood. If you want to pick an easy spinning option from the massive 27 gear range then it’ll spool along happily on the fast rolling Hutchinson rubber.
Click into a stiffer gear and pedal hard and the bike’s low weight, light wheels, plus stiff chainset and decent frame rigidity will fire the B:Twin forward with real enthusiasm. It’ll hold onto the charge as hills steepen and even when we were taking photographs on climbs in the Yorkshire Dales at the end of a long day it never felt
as tired or unresponsive as we were starting to become.
The handling is well balanced and precise whether whipping it round a corner or flat out down a
twisty test route. Having decent rubber sticking us to the ground also made a big difference to confidence, although we’d definitely upgrade to cartridge brake pads as soon as possible to add some more bite to braking.
The only other complaint is that the frame can occasionally feel blunt and bumpy compared to the
smooth carbon fork. Thanks to the 25mm tyres, bar tape and saddle though it’s still composed and comfortable enough for long rides, although it can’t match the Fuji for smoothness.
VERDICT: The Triban’s lightweight, well-balanced chassis and outstanding specification sets a new benchmark for bikes in the sub £500 price category.
And the winner is…
After a few weeks on the road with our four hundred pound something foursome the one over riding verdict from all of our test team was how impressed they were with all the bikes here. Inevitably some bikes impressed more than others though so let’s take you through the knockout process.
While our more aggressive testers liked the competitive position, Claris gears and powerful brakes of the Verenti, this couldn’t prevent it from being slightly underwhelming when the pace picked up or the road kicked upwards.
In contrast the Fuji blew us away with its buoyantly enthusiastic, charismatic ride quality, neat detailing and all round practicality to match. Unfortunately there’s no escaping the much lower gears of the Sportif 2.5, but if you
can stretch £85 to the Sportif 2.3 it’s a super package.
Despite being the heaviest bike here, the Boardman consistently impressed with wheels and a frame that delivered a smooth and naturally fast yet practical ride. For us though, we’d strongly advise saving up for one of the better specified Boardman bikes built around the same frame.
B:Twin’s new Triban 520 looked the bike to beat on paper, and it never put a foot wrong on the road either. It’s not the most charismatic or comfortable bike here, but it’s light, responsive, really well balanced in terms of handling and fully fitted for commuting as well as playing at the weekends.
The specification is absolutely outstanding too, with Sora triple gears plus well-chosen wheels, tyres, cockpit and saddle completing the best sub £500 bike we’ve ever ridden.