One-thousand pounds – it’s the benchmark for the increasingly serious rider’s first serious bike. But there are a few factors that you need to consider before you splash out.
The first is the bike’s intended use. If you’re spending £1,000 there’s a good chance it’ll be used as both a training and a race bike. That means you need to make a choice between a bike with geometry that maximises speed or one that’ll better absorb the bumps and let you rack up the miles more comfortably.
These days, the ‘classic’ thousand-pounder comes with a sophisticated aluminium frame, a carbon fork (sometimes full-carbon, sometimes with an alu steerer tube), has a largely Shimano 105 groupset and rim brakes, which is exactly what Cannondale’s ‘silver bullet’ CAAD Optimo 105 offers, and with Shimano’s new R7000 shifters.
The other two are a little more left-field but each has enviable qualities. The Pinnacle Pyrolite is an all alu, big-tyred road bike with 650b wheels, disc brakes and comfort to the fore. Last but not least is Merida’s Reacto 300. This has the lower Shimano Tiagra to account for the cost of the frame with its wind-cheating, aerofoil profiles, which show it’s possible to buy a genuine aero road bike on a Cycle to Work Scheme budget.
This Cannondale Optimo looks like it means business. It shares a lot of its DNA with the CAAD12, and Cannondale even call it ‘CAAD12’s over-achieving little brother’.
It comes with a largely Shimano 105 groupset, though in this case it’s the Ultegra-inspired R7000 version, albeit with brake and chainset deviations from the complete groupset.
The Cannondale has a more aggressive outlook with geometry leaning towards the racier end of the spectrum. The Cannondale’s top tube is longer than both, the wheelbase a tad tighter, the frame angles slightly steeper and the head tube much shorter.
As a result of the above, the stack is lower so you’ll be more nose down. Yet Cannondale do counter this with spacers, so you’ll be okay even if your lower back isn’t that flexible.
We do miss the lovely smooth look of the American-made Cannondales of a few years ago (this bike’s welds are more basic looking) and it’s a surprise to see external cable routing, though this does make it easier for the home mechanic to service.
The lack of internal cabling didn’t affect the quality of the shifting, either. The updated 105 shifters have smaller hoods with ribbed tops that are designed for better grip, and slightly redesigned paddles, which are easy to use even with thick winter gloves.
The derailleurs have also been redesigned to benefit from a claimed improvement in shifting both front and rear, and a slightly lighter action at the front. Both worked very well. Are they noticeably better than before? Not necessarily, but that’s only because the previous versions were so good. The result is that there is now even less of a gap between Ultegra and 105 shifting in a head-to-head test.
The 11-30 cassette is a good choice for the Optimo, giving you more leeway than 11-28 when you’re climbing. The Tektro brakes are okay, though we’d have preferred the excellent Shimano 105 brakes, given the choice.
The own-brand wheel-and-tyre pairing is also decent without being inspiring. The weight, a mite over 9kg, is alright for the price and combines with the aggressive geometry to deliver a fun, fast and feisty ride.
There’s the expected stiffness from the chunky down tube and tapered steerer tube, and there’s no sense of your energy being wasted when you’re giving it your all. It climbs well and the gearing gives you the option of staying in the saddle or dancing on the pedals. Control is very good downhill, you can throw it into bends confidently and it’s an equally-convincing sprinter on the flat.
It doesn’t quite have the comfort of the other bikes here, with its 25mm tyres providing less plushness than the other test machines’ wider rubber. The frame, too, goes for firmness over comfort, though with Cannondale’s decades of making high-end aluminium bikes, it’s still easily comfortable enough for day-long rides, if not super soft.
The absence of rack and mudguard fittings reduces its versatility, though you could squeeze in some aftermarket blade-type mudguards for a super-sharp training bike.
MORE OR MORE OPTIONS: CANNONDALE
For a little more, the Cannondale CAAD12 105 (£1,400) is a black beauty that’s claimed to be lighter, stiffer and smoother than most carbon frames. The Cannondale Optimo Tiagra (£749.99) looks decent value with its aluminium frame and Shimano Tiagra-based components.
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This aero road bike from the Taiwanese bike giant (who manufacture over two million bikes a year) inherits its straight lines from their Reacto Evo carbon bikes, ridden by the Bahrain-Merida team, so forget curves, this is all wind-cheating profiles and a super-sized carbon aero seatpost.
The technology involved has swallowed a fair wodge of cash, so there’s a step down in the choice of componentry, and at nearly 10kg it’s heavier than the Cannondale on the previous page. But weight is actually something of a red herring when it comes to performance.
It’s lovely to pick up a bike and find the weight is barely detectable, but if Chris Boardman had been attempting his cycling hour record on a bike a kilogram heavier, the difference in his distance would have been measured in tens of metres at the most.
Contemporary bike science says that aerodynamics virtually always trumps low weight, the exceptions being when you’re accelerating and climbing, fighting against gravity rather than just air resistance. Okay, if you’ve got the budget you can have low weight and aerodynamics, but at this price aerodynamics should be king.
On our regular test routes, taking in long, largely flat commutes and longer rides with some challenging Mendip climbs, this was the fastest bike of the lot. The differences were small and without a power meter there’s always a subjective element to the effort, not to mention the impact that wind and weather can also have. Still, saving a few seconds over a 25km commute isn’t bad if you’re looking for marginal gains.
This raciness is matched by the gearing. The 10-speed Shimano Tiagra is a level down from the groupset giant’s 105 but mechanically it’s similar, and for an unashamedly aggressive bike the pro-compact 52/36 and 12-28 pairing makes perfect sense; this isn’t a bike for Sunday afternoon dawdles.
This set-up does make hills more of an effort, though, and the 36/28 bottom gear will see you cranking rather than spinning. In fact, steeper climbs are the only place we lost time, and even then, only fractionally.
In keeping with the Reacto’s aero credentials, the rear brake is a direct mount unit tucked behind the bottom bracket, which gets an upgrade to cartridge brake blocks unlike the non-cartridge front. The result is average braking and a rear block that fills with road crud thanks to its low-slung position. Yet the Reacto 300 is much more positive when it comes to handling and comfort. We thought this bike would be brutal – it isn’t. The large blunt-backed carbon seatpost actually soaks up a fair bit of road buzz, though the frame can’t disguise some of the bigger bumps.
The seatpost echoes the shape of the seat tube, which along with the down tube and fork has a teardrop profile that delivers aerodynamic efficiency without causing air turbulence. It’s stiff, too, aided by the tapered head tube, but it handles impeccably. The handlebar has flattened tops, for another marginal aero gain and added comfort when you’re on the tops.
So the Merida Reacto is a bit of a surprise. It overcomes its weight handicap to deliver a fast, fuss-free ride, and, although its braking is a minor gripe, it provides more comfort than we expected. So if you have a grand to spend and want to go fast in your next triathlon race, then this aero machine would be a great purchase.
MORE OR LESS OPTIONS: MERIDA
The Merida Reacto Disc 4000 (£2,000) has a carbon frame with aero profiling, a Shimano 105 groupset and hydraulic disc brakes. For less, the Merida Scultura 300 (£850) is more of an all-rounder than an aero machine.
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If you have a grand to spend on a bike then you’ll have loads of options to choose from. The familiar ones come with an aluminium frame, skinny carbon fork, rim brakes, 700c wheels and 25mm tyres. Not this bike from Evans Cycles’s in-house Pinnacle brand, though; it’s a very different beast with cable disc brakes, super-chunky tyres and rarely-seen-on-a-road-bike 650b-sized wheels.
Pinnacle designer James Olsen’s plan for the Pyrolite was to create a bike “that rolls fast on good roads and makes rough roads no longer a concern… a really smooth, efficient ride,” that’s also kitted out for touring, bike-packing and more.
So, why 650b? It’s an old French touring size that fell out of fashion, but it started appearing on mountain bikes a few years ago and has also been adopted for some wide-tyred gravel/adventure bikes. The 650b wheels have a slightly smaller diameter than 700c ones, but when they’re paired with high-volume, wide tyres, their diameters are roughly the same, meaning frame geometries can remain largely unchanged while accommodating the wider tyres and the broader range of ride applications they bring. The difference between riding on 700c tyres inflated to 100psi and the 650b tyres on Pinnacle pumped up to just 50psi is massive, especially if you’re dodging broken road surfaces.
Onto the road and the Pyrolite absolutely bombs along, smoothing out even the worst bumps without a flicker of discontent. Gravel, grit and cobbles are tackled with equal equanimity, as is not-too-gnarly singletrack, though the tyres aren’t so hot on muddy surfaces. But that’s about their only limitation. The comfort is further aided by the gel-backed bar tape, while handling is taken care of by the slightly flared bar, which helped over the more challenging surfaces we faced.
The gearing is equally well considered, pairing a ‘sub-compact’ 48/32 chainset and 11-32 cassette for a slightly lower set-up than usual. This helps when you hit the hills, which is when the bike’s 11kg weight becomes noticeable. Shimano Sora is a couple of notches down from the Shimano 105, and is nine-speed rather than 11-speed, but worked faultlessly.
Braking from the Tektro cable-actuated discs is very good, if not as smooth as hydraulics. Sora is also on a par with other disc-braked bikes around this price, such as Cannondale’s Topstone and Giant’s Anyroad, and while the Pyrolite is £50 dearer than those two, the excellent WTB tyres do cost £45 each. The Pyrolite has all the fittings for touring or bike-packing, with bottle bosses everywhere, including the fork, and there’s plenty of room to add some mudguards.
As it stands it’s a lovely, comfortable commuter-cum-touring machine that laughs in the face of potholes, tackles kerbs with a knowing smile and zooms along tarmac, track, towpath and much more with
Get yourself a decent budget set of 700c wheels with 30mm or so tyres and you’ve also got a great trainer or sportive bike. And with the WTB rims being tubeless ready, you could shave a few more grams and increase comfort further by going tubeless. In short, the Pyrolite was a big surprise; it’s very well-thought out and a real treat to ride.
MORE OR LESS OPTIONS: PINNACLE
The Pinnacle Arkose Alfine 8 (£1,000) is more mud-friendly, maintenance-free, big-wheeled fun. Drop your budget to £700 and you’ll find Pinnacle’s impressively priced Laterite 3 (£700), which comes with an aluminium frame, a carbon fork and offers you a budget entry into the world of Shimano 105.
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THE FINAL VERDICT
Three bikes, one winner. But as you can see from the uniformly decent marks, these have proved hard to separate and the top two even more so. With £1,000 being such a crucial price point (and the Cycle to Work Scheme cap), companies put a lot of effort into creating very good bikes, and this close-fought battle is the end result of a painstaking design process.
Pinnacle’s Pyrolite is an absolute blast, as well as being ultra-comfortable and very versatile. You could employ it on tarmac and trail as a commuter, an old-school tourer or a new-age bikepacker. It’s fabulous fun, too. But if you’re looking for speed over everything else, Merida shows that it’s possible
to make a genuine aero road bike at this budget. While it’s slightly heavier than the others here, there are good handling traits and enough comfort for longer rides.
It’s a similar story for the Cannondale Optimo. It’s fun, fast and feisty, and has Shimano’s updated 105 groupset. So if you’re looking for something racy for triathlon, it’s a great place to start… which also means, it takes the 220 win.
Bike to work scheme
The Cycle to Work scheme in the UK, created way back in 1999, can save you up to 42% off the cost of a bike up to £1,000. Essentially, your employer buys a bike for you to ride to work, you ‘hire’ it through salary sacrifice – which is where you save by not paying tax and National Insurance on the monthly fees – and at the end of the ‘hire’ period you buy the bike from your employer. In other words, your salary sacrifice is made from your gross salary, not your net salary.
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