In this era of internet shopping we buy a lot of things without seeing them first. Books, electronic gizmos, even clothes and shoes. But bikes? Can you really decide on a bike – especially a flashy carbon fibre-framed one costing north of £1,000 – without first having a test ride?
The answer is yes, and a lot of people do. There’s a few reasons. Firstly, if you already own a bike of roughly the same style you can compare the frame dimensions and angles and have a pretty good guess at what might work. Also, the fiddly elements – stem length, saddle adjustment etc – can be amended or swapped without too much fuss. Then, as with most internet shopping, if you get the frame size wrong you can return the whole bike, albeit in a very big box. Finally, the internet is awash with bike reviews, giving an impression of how a particular model feels, its strengths and quirks.
But most of all, people buy bikes over the internet because it can bring astonishing value for money. A series of web-only bike brands have sprung up over recent years, eschewing the cost of showrooms or retailer mark-ups to offer significantly more bike for your cash.
Overall, is it worth it? I decided to see by testing out road bikes from three predominantly web-only marques (all do have showrooms, but only one or a handful, so of little use to most customers).
The plan was to focus on bikes costing about £1,000. However, the limited availability of test machines in my size meant they ended up that bit more posh, a hardship I endured as best I could.
In each case I tried to act as much as possible as a paying customer, browsing the size guides on the websites and deciding on a frame and stem I thought best. Overall, it worked pretty well. With two of the three bikes the fit was perfect, and with the third I was almost exactly between frame sizes anyway, so even a brief test ride might not have helped.
These are, on the face of it, broadly similar bikes, all with carbon frames, and featuring components from industry behemoths Shimano or Sram. But they are very different to ride.
Finally, the usual caveats apply. I’m not arguing that anyone, let alone everyone, “needs” an expensive, high-tech road bike. That 30-year-old steel-framed clunker you rescued from a skip (or, as in my case, a £150 second-hand Dutch bike) might be perfectly fine for everyday needs. But the bikes below are generally used for longer-distance sport or leisure riding. Yes, £1,500 is a lot for a bike, but not so much when compared with, say, a car, or a jet ski. It’s all relative.
Despite their anglicised name, Canyon are based in the German city of Koblenz. As with all the bikes tested here, while they’re designed by the company, the frames are manufactured in Asia, in this case Taiwan. Canyon’s top-end bikes are used by two top-level professional teams, Movistar and Katusha, and if you have more than £3,000 burning a hole in your bank account you can ride an identical machine.
The model I tried out is a bit less gung ho. The Endurace, as the name suggests, is designed more for long-distance comfort as flat-out sprinting, more specifically the sportive, those often long but generally relaxed one-day events increasingly popular with road bike riders.
Canyon have a flashy gizmo on their website to gauge your perfect bike size from body measurements you enter. This told me I needed a large frame, which sounded too big for my 5ft 10ins. Guessing the result might have been skewed by the fact my tape measure assistant was my four-year-old son, I instead went for a medium, or 56cm, frame, which was perfect.
As with many modern carbon bikes, the Endurance frame is shaped in all sorts of clever ways, some parts large and super-stiff so your pedalling power is transmitted efficiently, others slim and reed-like, to make the ride that bit less bone shaking.
Further increasing the comfort level are 25mm-thick Continental GP 4000s tyres – if there was ever a Nobel prize for bike tyres these would surely win – and a space age-looking split carbon seatpost, which works as a sort of leaf spring.
Overall, you get a lot of of bike for your £1,300. On to a £900 list price frameset go some fairly posh DT Swiss wheels and an 11-speed Shimano 105 groupset. Even the tyres would officially set you back £80 a pair.
The effect is quite magical – one of the most intuitive, trustworthy and comfortable lightweight road bikes you can imagine. I tried the Canyon out on a sopping wet, hilly, 70-mile April sportive, on back roads sufficiently covered in muck to leave the new brake pads half-flat by the end.
Throughout it all the bike didn’t flinch or falter, with every corner handled confidently, every gear change a satisfyingly precise click. Almost as notable was how the bike felt nearer home. Carbon-frame bikes are known for being forgiving, but the Canyon made the rutted, potholed south London roads feel as close to comfortable as you’ll get on such a machine.
With all this comes some compromise. By most standards the Canyon is super light – a claimed weight without pedals of about 7.5kg – and very nippy.
But it is built for easier riding. Mine came with a relatively vast 11-32 tooth cassette, encouraging knee-friendly sit-down climbs rather than out-of-the-saddle grinds. And it is slightly if noticeably less responsive than more racy bikes. There is just not quite the same visceral connection between the force from your legs and resultant surge in speed.
When this arrived at the office I got a call from the post room. “There’s a bike box arrived for you,” they said. “I think it’s empty.” A short pause. “Oh, hang on, there is something inside.”
The mistake was understandable: this machine from another German web behemoth has a measly claimed weight of just over 6.3kg, below the legal minimum for top-end racing.
To be fair, it is a more expensive bike than I’d intended, as Rose’s tiny UK operation possesses just a handful of test machines. This one was fitted with Shimano’s Dura Ace components, a good £1,000-worth of pro-level kit. But even the more comparable next model down, fitted with Shimano’s Ultegra and costing £1,668 (Rose’s sterling prices are pegged to euro rates, hence the oddly precise numbers), weighs a mere 6.75kg.
I opted for a 57cm frame with a 90mm stem, which felt comfortable if a tiny bit stretched. If I was going to buy this bike – can we pause here for a moment while I idly dream of this happening – I might go for the next size down, the 55cm, but it’s marginal.
Rose don’t have the snob pedigree of Canyon, let alone of the more venerable marques, but they are known for astonishing value, as well as a website that lets you create a bespoke bike from a list of options, built for you at their cavernous facility near the German-Dutch border.
On to the high-tech frame, itself weighing less than a kilo, is bolted a range of shiny kit: aside from the Dura-Ace components you get about £400 of DT Swiss wheels, the same Continental tyres as the Canyon, even about £175 of bling carbon fibre “monolink” seatpost and saddle. Buy a bike with this sort of kit from a high street bike chain and you’ll generally be thinking above £3,000.
My main try-out for this ultra-light machine was 102 hilly miles of a sportive around Surrey, which was, thanks to the Rose, the most astonishing fun. Compared with the Canyon, the Rose is designed more for speed, and that’s just what you get.
For all sorts of legal reasons, sportives are not officially races, but organisers often classify rider’ times into gold, silver or bronze, depending how fast you finish. The Rose led me to my first-ever gold time, which is not a coincidence.
That a 6.3kg bike is nippy up hills won’t come as a shock, but it’s also hugely assured and intuitive, and still pretty comfortable. If Rose UK hadn’t needed it back very quickly I’d still be riding it now.
My plan had been to try out one of the Sheffield company’s venerable Pro Carbon machines, but the company’s founder, Dave Loughran, unexpectedly hijacked the email exchange with his press officer to insist I ride their latest, flashy offering. I tried hard to argue against him ... well, actually I said yes straight away. Loughran’s evident keenness to show off his new creation seems typical of Planet X, very much a firm run by, and for, excitable enthusiasts.
The RT-90 is a cut above the £1,000 bike to work scheme specials on which Planet X made their name. It is avowedly race-based. In fact, the £2,000 model is the bike raced by two domestic teams kitted out by the firm.
Using Planet X’s website guide, I plumped for a medium frame with a 90mm stem, and it was pretty much a perfect fit.
While the Comp usually comes in a somewhat muted black and green look, as pictured above, mine had the same dayglo yellow look of the team model (and slightly different wheels). Wherever I rode, it seemed, I was a beacon, both metaphorically and literally, for would-be overtakers. Being inconspicuous was not an option.
Just as well, then, that the RT-90 is expressly designed to scoot you along as fast as you can possibly manage. The frame is stiff and responsive to grin-inducing levels. It might not actually make you a stronger rider, but it has a near-magical ability to hypnotise you into believing you are.
On a hilly 60-mile ride through south-east London and into Kent I somehow kept up with a friend who usually a fair bit quicker. As we weaved through the backmarkers of a sportive using the same roads, sprinting up the short climbs, it was about as much fun as you can have on a road bike.
As a race machine, the bike comes with a fairly narrow 11-25 cassette. Being more of a spinner than a grinder I feared for myself on the steeper inclines. As it turned out, even York’s Hill in Kent with it’s maximum 25% gradient, proved possible.
Like the other two test machines the RT-90 is exceptionally well kitted out, this time with a Sram Force groupset, officially costing a good £700 on its own. I felt genuinely sad when I had to pack up the bike to send it back to Sheffield. It’s that much fun.
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