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.
Either way, you’ll probably be excited that carbon fibre – the material the pros’ bikes are made from – is now within reach. But should you be? Aluminium and other metals are isotropic, meaning their properties are the same in all directions. Carbon, on the other hand, is formed of fibres arranged in a particular orientation and tightly held together by resin. That means while it’s incredibly strong in certain directions, it not so strong in others. In other words, it lacks the all-round strength of metal.
Then again, because carbon tends to be manufactured in a monocoque – moulded as a single structure – designers can play around with the fibres to add strength, improve aerodynamics and cut weight. Aluminium, like steel, is limited in this respect because frames are made by welding tubes together.
But, as is the case with all frame materials, there’s good carbon and, well… not so good carbon. And at this price the argument for carbon against other frame materials, particularly aluminium, is less persuasive. Especially as, when it comes to comfort, there are often greater benefits to be had by choosing the right sort of tyres and running them at the right pressures for you and the terrain you ride on.
TWO CARBONS, ONE METAL
With all that in mind, this month’s test pits two carbon-framed bikes – BMC’s Teammachine SLR03 Tiagra and Boardman’s Road Team Carbon – against one aluminium model in the form of Specialized’s Allez Elite (in its 2018 spec).
Regular readers will be aware that all three brands have made their mark in multisport. Specialized provides bikes for Gwen Jorgensen, Tim Don and Javier Gomez; Boardman helped the Brownlee brothers to four Olympic medals until Alistair and Jonny moved to Scott this year; while BMC sponsors the BMC-Etixx team, which has a roster that includes Liz Blatchford and Will Clarke.
The Specialized Allez gets updated geometry for 2018 so it’s more relaxed and sits closer to the brand’s Roubaix range of endurance bikes than the racier Tarmac models. Its standout feature is that sloping top tube, which looks steep enough to rival the climb to Alpe d’Huez. Its precipitous angle is partly due to a head tube that’s grown from 205mm on 2017’s model to 215mm on the 58cm 2018 bike tested here.
Chainstays and, consequently, wheelbase have also been extended, and together with the 73.5° head tube and 73° seat tube, it all adds up to a frame that’s made for a long day in the saddle. Yes, the Allez takes a while to accelerate, but it will bowl along quite happily all day.
Thankfully, despite the extra material required for all that length, Specialized has managed to cut more weight than its added, to the extent that the 2018 bike is around 500g lighter than 2017’s. Frame material remains Specialized’s E5 Premium aluminium. Historically this was reserved for the top-end Allez bikes but is now employed at the bottom of the range too. The fork has enjoyed the greatest weight loss, however, and is now fully carbon, meaning both
the fork and steerer tube are constructed from FACT carbon, whereas previous versions employed an aluminium steerer.
At the other end of the geometric and material spectrums is the BMC Teammachine SLR03 and is a result of the Swiss manufacturer ‘compressing years of physical testing and prototyping into Finite Element Method cycles’. That’s just another way of saying BMC used computational fluid dynamics to explore thousands of potential cross-tube sections, carbon lay-up arrangements and geometrical structures to create a light, stiff and comfortable frame.
The Teammachine’s racier than the other two bikes here – its 170mm-long head tube alone is ample evidence of that, when compared to the Boardman’s 195mm and the Specialized’s 215mm monster. But it’s still comfortable despite the racey stiffness that comes courtesy of the oversized, hexagonal down tube that flows into a tapered seat tube and chunky chainstays.
The top-tube to head-tube junction is similarly beefy but is just one part of a frame that’s been designed to resist flex and maximise each and every pedal stroke. And it seemingly works as this bike practically takes off with every pedal stroke. It’s also damn fun, which ultimately is what it’s all about.
Boardman’s Road Team Carbon isn’t quite as responsive but that’s hardly surprising as it’s built around the brand’s SLR Endurance frame.
So it’s fairly relaxed and, like the Specialized, prioritises comfortable mileage over maximum speed. That said, the original Road Team Carbon provided the platform for Nicole Cooke’s gold-medal-winning ride at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, intimating that the geometry doesn’t entirely sacrifice speed in favour of comfort.
In fact, the Boardman’s geometry sits neatly between that of the Specialized and the BMC. Take that 195mm head tube, for instance, or the top tube, which slopes more gently than the Eiger-like top tube on the Allez but more steeply than the BMC’s almost horizontal one.
Like the BMC, the Boardman features broad, sturdy tubes upfront while the rear triangle pairs boxy, stiff chainstays to slim, supple seatstays. The fork’s also full carbon with a tapered steerer. It’s all stiff enough to spark into action easily on the climbs and hold pace well.
A MIXED BAG
At this price point, it’s common to find blended groupsets to cut costs. That’s certainly true of the Specialized, although the 11-speed Shimano 105 gears are the most impressive here. But the money Specialized has spent on the gears has been recouped on the brakes and the Allez runs Tektro’s Axis callipers instead of Shimano stoppers. They perform fine, though the completist in us would have preferred 105 brakes, which are lighter. The chainset is another component that’s been chosen to cut costs, hence there’s a Praxis part where you’d expect to see something from Shimano. It’s a standard 50/34t ‘compact’ set-up – the traditional mix for endurance riding. Although it’s possible that in the future Specialized might switch to Praxis’s new ‘sub-compact’ 48/32t chainset, which has had plenty of positive feedback.
BMC has stuck with Shimano components throughout, although they’re from the more affordable Tiagra family. Criticism has been levelled at the SL03 in the past because it has mixed and matched components in the interests of cost-saving– 2016’s model featured 105 but only the gears. Aboard this BMC, however, Tiagra performs well. Its 34-11t cassette offers a slightly wider choice than the other bikes here, albeit with larger jumps between sprockets.
Boardman has plumped for 10-speed Tiagra for its Road Team Carbon, although with FSA’s Gossamer 50-34t chainset. At the back, however, the Shimano 12-28t cassette offers a narrower range of gears for climbing. FSA produces an impressive range of componentry so they’re perfectly acceptable substitutes for Shimano parts. It also means that there’s very little to separate the three bikes as far as shifting is concerned.
At this price point, we’re looking for all-round comfort. Despite the R&D thrown at frames, the contact points remain the most important factor. The Specialized comes specced with the brand’s own 25mm Espoir tyres hooked on to DT Swiss R460 wheels but could easily accommodate 28mm tyres thanks to the clearances between the fork and stays. Unlike the Boardman and BMC, there are also mounts for mudguards and panniers.
Ultimately, if your one-grander is going to be pressed into service as a commuter or you’re looking to occasionally deviate into touring, that feature alone could eclipse all the advantages of the other two bikes. The Espoir-DT Swiss R460 tyre and wheel combination is better suited to racking up off-season miles than for racing so you’ll want to swap in a set of race slicks if you’re planning on pinning a number to your back.
For a frame with such a racy geometry, the BMC gets wheels that are closer to being carthorses than racehorses. Shimano’s R501 weigh 1.9kg for the pair, are durable, robust, reliable and… ready to be upgraded with a set of deep rims for racing. The tyres are livelier, though: Continental’s Ultra Sport II. They feature a supple 180 threads per inch (tpi) casing, upgraded from the 84tpi casing of the previous model to offer more speed. BMC has also defied the current 25mm convention and stuck with 23mm. In all honesty, 25s on the rather more genteel Specialized and Boardman give the impression of comfort over speed, so the thinner tyres prove a wise option here.
As for the Road Team Carbon, over smooth roads it flowed as nicely as the BMC and Specialized, but over pockmarked and potholed tarmac the bike dampened vibrations less effectively than the other two. Carbon’s established a reputation for comfort, so we looked at the wheels for an explanation as to why the Boardman felt so comparatively unforgiving.
Now, we’ve used the Mavic’s CXP-Elite wheels in the past and found them fine. So we turned our attention to Vittoria’s Zaffiro Pro tyres. They’re 25mm so, should, provide greater comfort, but further research showed they’re just 26tpi. That’s great for durability and protection against cuts but makes them roll noticeably slower. Your first upgrade should be to swap these for a faster set of rubber.
SADDLES AND CABLES
Across the board, saddle choices proved to be comfortable. BMC’s Selle Royal Sirio S1 saddle has been criticised for being uncomfortable on long rides but we had no problems. Specialized and Boardman’s own-brand saddles were also impressive.
Each saddle also proved adequate enough when we added a set of clip-on aerobars and slid forward onto the saddles’ tips, though you could always purchase a tri-specific perch for races. Despite the differences
in their geometry, we could nestle into a comfortable, sustainable position on all three bikes; in fact, Specialized’s more upright position and sloping top tube provided possibly the most sustainable position of the lot.
The other standout feature was the cable routing. What Specialized has proved repeatedly in its wind tunnel is that for such an apparently small piece of equipment, cables can create relatively large amounts of drag. To that end, all the cables on the Allez bar the front brake are routed internally. Yes, this makes maintenance more challenging but it makes the bike more aesthetically pleasing as well as more aero.
All the BMC’s cables run externally, which increases drag. But, of course, it makes them easier to faff around with. And as with so many other aspects of this test, the Boardman lies in-between, with an internally routed rear brake cable but external routes for the gears.
All three bikes have different characteristics that’ll suit different ambitions and anatomies. But which one comes out on top?
THE OVERALL VERDICT
Hats off to BMC’s Teammachine SLR03, which takes the victory in this test. Why? Well, we expected a fast ride with its WorldTour DNA but were surprised at the comfort it offered. Over rough roads, the BMC absorbs vibrations very well. The Specialized Allez Elite also scored high in the comfort stakes, its aluminium frame and carbon fork working well to smooth out the bumps.
But it’s definitely one for racking up the miles rather than chasing race PBs. Although it’s a wise choice for those lacking flexibility but looking to use tri-bars. Boardman’s Road Team Carbon needs new tyres and is the least inspiring here visually. So it’s the BMC that takes the honours because… well, it puts a smile on your face with every ride.
Yes, you could argue that it’s unfair to its rivals on test here as Evans has permanently dropped its RRP from the £1,500 mark to £1,050, so, strictly speaking, it doesn’t really belong in the £1K class. But to that, we’d say all the more reason to snap one up now.
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.