These £500 road bikes might not have the latest digital gearing, carbon fibre construction techniques or wind tunnel wisdom, but they’re possibly the most important cycling species of all.
For many riders, the £500 road bike is their first ‘proper’ bike purchase. The one that takes mileage into double or maybe triple figures, gets accessorised with Lycra kit and leads to entering sprint and Olympic-distance triathlons. This could be the bike that gets you hooked on multisport racing for the rest of your days.
We realise that £500 is a lot to spend on a new hobby, so you have every right to expect a great experience in return. These bikes have to deliver an enjoyable, performance-enhancing ride that you’ll want to repeat over and over again, allowing you to get fitter, go further and open up a whole world of serious biking. Tackling all the same routes and challenges we’d put a superbike through and going through all the potential options, upgrades and adjustments to fully explore their potential, or lack of...
Like most industries, bike building budgets are being squeezed tighter and the price of parts is rising. As a result, putting a bike together for £500 this season is a harder act than ever.
That’s why none of the big name global brands sent in bikes when we asked them, so we’ve got a line-up from bike/outdoor superstore brands (Carrera and B’Twin) and still arguably the most famous brand name in British cycling, Raleigh. The good news is that they include some really good bikes, with diverse character and performance options. So, read on to work out which of our half-a-grand bikes is the best for you.
REMARKABLE REP FOR VALUE
Halfords house brand Carrera is always a good place to look for a great ride if your wallet is on a short leash. Now it has opened up the latest stopping trend to a whole new audience with the Vanquish Disc (£425). If you’re after all-weather control for day-to-day commuting rather than conquering epic climbs or rumbling down rough tracks, it’s well worth a look.
Seeing as disc brakes are the big sell, we’ll cover them first. They’re cable operated rather than hydraulic, but the cables are decent quality so they don’t feel too spongy. Cable operation also means you’ll have to compensate for pad wear by winding the inner pad plate inwards; hydraulic systems adjust automatically. They also need to be set up carefully to stop them squealing loudly at first. Rim damage doesn’t matter, you won’t get debris in the pads and they’ll take standard Shimano pads as well as Tektro ones if you need spares. Most importantly, having the pads working on a dry, clean rotor means far better bad weather control and power than wet rim brakes, particularly rim brakes with moulded pads.
Carrera’s remarkable reputation for value is reinforced by the fact that, while the discs add £50 over the rim-braked Vanquish, the general kit levels are still competitive with the other more expensive bikes here. In fact, the mix of old style Claris gears and shifters with smooth functioning but awkward looking side sprouting gear cables, driven by an FSA Tempo crank, is exactly the same as that on the £500 Raleigh.
Despite being heavier, the Carrera gets a harder bottom gear. The single-bolt saddle clamp also needs checking occasionally to stop it coming loose and it definitely deserves thicker bar tape to add some comfort. The Vanquish does get a colour-coded saddle and stem, though, and the Kenda tyres are decent quality.
The carbon fork legs give a reasonable ride quality, which is lucky as there’s very little room in them to contemplate running a bigger tyre. Mudguard space is limited too, even though there are mudguard mounts high up inside the fork legs. There’s a bit more space between the straight A-frame rear stays but, just because it has disc brakes, don’t assume that it’s ready to take on any rough road ‘gravel’ adventures.
The frame is also the place where the cost compromises of the package become clear in ride terms. A super narrow teardrop down tube and top tube and a slim non tapered head tube translate into obvious flex when you’re descending or turning hard. Together with the slim stays they suck power out of the Carrera on climbs, too. As it’s the heaviest bike here, and with the heaviest wheels, that generally means it’s vanquished rather than victorious on hillier rides.
On a positive note, that flexy frame feel means less punishment comes through to the rider than normal on poor road surfaces. Bigger lumps still slap you about, and the cheap, thin handlebar tape really undermines hand comfort on longer rides. While geometry of the 54cm version is relatively conventional for that size, it’s only available in one other smaller 51cm option, which restricts its appeal to, according to Halfords, anyone smaller than 183cm tall.
BEST FRAME POSSIBLE
Raleigh is at a price disadvantage compared to the other bikes here, as it’s the only brand selling into normal shops rather than its own high street or online outlets. The unavoidable extra margin has been offset in the best way it can with the Criterium (£500), by concentrating on providing the best frame possible, rather than going toe-to-toe on kit cost.
The good news starts up front, with the larger bottom bearings of the tapered head tube and fork adding steering and tracking stiffness. The cola bottle-shaped head tube is broadest at the top just where it meets the diamond-shaped top tube, continuing that steering stiffness into the mainframe. The triangular to diamond cross section down tube is stout and the base of the seat tube is oversized for pedalling stiffness.
Internal cable routing uses big external entry bulges and exits just ahead of the cranks. The chainstays are relatively slim to start with and taper down to the dropouts, while the seatstays use a dead straight A-frame design joining the seat tube just below the top tube junction. There are mudguard mounts front and rear but no rack fixtures. The welds are semi-smoothed but still look rough with small cosmetic pin holes in places. The seat collar is neat and the Criterium uses a small diameter seatpost to add a bit of flex and compliance under the basic but comfortable saddle. The bar also gets plump and comfortable tape.
The rest of the spec is okay but not outstanding for the money, with FSA Tempo crank arms in frame size-matched lengths on a square taper cartridge axle and bearings driving old-style Shimano Claris gears, which provide a smoother function than the tucked-in cable design of the latest Claris shifters. Raleigh also fit an 11-32 rear cog cassette for a more forgiving bottom gear for the steepest climbs or longest days.
The Tektro brakes get metal cartridge pads, which give more confident and controlled braking back down the hills. Raleigh own- brand wheels have an ‘aero’ style rim and are ballpark on weight, but the 26mm Kenda tyres are only 24mm wide in reality.
It’s a real credit to the ride quality of the Criterium that skinny tyres – not renowned for their smoothness at the best of times – don’t stop the Raleigh being a joy to ride. While weight is mid-pack it was the only bike on test with a sense of surge when we pushed hard on the pedals. Initial enthusiasm is maintained in a muscularly sprung character up through the gears or when digging deep to hold speed over rises on rolling terrain.
Of the bikes here it’s the happiest attacking on climbs or doing anything else aggressive, and if we had to pick a ‘racier’ option the Criterium would be it. The tapered carbon fork, fat bar tape, skinny stays and seatpost help to dilute disturbance from rougher surfaces without losing enthusiasm. Handling is keen for a lively feeling bike, although both traction and smoothness would be improved even further with a tyre swap to something less plasticky and larger in volume. Otherwise, the ride quality is good enough to shade any slight shortcomings in spec.
SAVOURING THE SORA
Bikes from B’Twin have been under some of the pro World Tour peloton, but where they really win is delivering awesome value at an affordable level via their nationwide Decathlon superstores. That’s the case here with the Triban 520, delivering a package that doesn’t just kill on price but performance too. The fact that this is the only bike here with a full Shimano Sora transmission is the immediate headline, but there’s a lot to savour before you even ride it.
The choice of a triple chainset might seem odd to more experienced riders, but having a wide range of closely-spaced gears is no bad thing for less-trained or less-experienced riders who might struggle on climbs without them. The Sora crankset is a thing of high stiffness beauty, with lightweight, hard-wearing and slick shifting chainrings that sit flush with the four-arm spider. It’s the only chainset here with a built-in axle for extra stiffness as well as external bottom bracket bearings, which also add broad stance rigidity when you’re grinding out the revs.
Crank arm lengths are matched to frame size, which is a great touch at this price. The B’Twin-labelled Tektro brakes come with upgraded TRP (Tektro Racing Products) cartridge pads for sharper, more easily controlled stopping power. The ‘Aero’ rims have an angular coffin profile rather than anything obviously drag reducing but they do have eyelets to spread stress. The Michelin Dynamic Sport tyres are fast rolling, slightly fatter than the stated 25mm and grippier in grim weather than you might expect for a totally slick tread.
The two-tone bar tape gives an eye-catching look while the saddle is a dead ringer for the classic Selle Italia SLR, with a thin skin over a pressure-relieving cutaway section.
As we’ve seen with other bikes here, impressive spec doesn’t always translate into a similarly impressive ride. But B’Twin clearly hasn’t skimped on frame quality. The head tube is straight gauge rather than tapered but the 12K carbon-legged fork features bosses for both mudguards and ‘Low Rider’ pannier racks, matching the ’guard and rack points out back. The angular, squared-to-hex down tube and rectangular top tube use external cables with built-in tension adjusters to keep servicing simple, so you’re looking at a practical package.
A skinny 27.2mm seatpost keeps life in the saddle smooth, while tapering D-shaped chainstays and shelved dropouts holding the rear wheel promise decent performance.It’s a promise that the Triban 520 is keen to deliver
on. It’s the lightest bike on test here and feels that way when you’re climbing, accelerating out of corners or just turning up the wick on a group ride. Handling is similarly keen and usefully precise. All this encouraging acceleration and accuracy sits on a backdrop of surface-smoothing buoyancy that a bike double the £499 price would be proud of.
The fork received a lot of praise from our test team for its compliant yet confident character even down sketchy wet and twisty descents in the North York Moors. As well as great performance and kit value, seven frame sizes mean a finely graded fit; you get a choice of black/white or grey colours; and frame, fork and cockpit come with a lifetime warranty.
THE OVERALL VERDICT
Whether you’re a new rider or experienced triathlete who regularly gets asked for advice by cycle-curious civilians, this £500 test is an interesting one. The great news is that there are some impressive ‘posh bike’ details spread among the three test subjects. These include internal cable routing, concealed cable shifters, high-volume tyres on wide rims, cartridge brake pads and quality bar tape and saddles.
Even more important than cartridge brake pads are some good ride characters, and they’re all at least pleasantly competent. We need to start naming names and picking an order, so here goes. Halfords take a hit with the Carrera Vanquish Disc as, while the brakes stop well in all weathers, the frame is too flexy to make the most of them on descents and it’s sluggish under power. The Raleigh Criterium frame adds a real sense of encouragement to every effort and is comfortable enough to carry that all day.
The test winner was never in doubt once we realised that B’Twin backed up its outstanding value equipment levels with an excellent all-round ride. Lively, comfortable, practical, versatile and a full groupset ahead of the rest
on test, the B'TwinTriban 520 is the best £500 bike we’ve ever ridden.
The Vanquish tops Carrera’s current range, but Halfords also sell the Boardman Performance range. If you’re after disc brakes, the CX Comp (£650) is brilliant. The Raleigh TI Raleigh Team Replica (£699) boasts Campag kit and harks back to the glory days of Raleigh. The B’Twin Triban 540 (£679) features the 520’s frame but comes with 22-speed Shimano 105 transmission and Mavic Aksium wheels to make the 540 worth stretching your wallet for.
Where to buy the road bikes
Buy the Carrera Vanquish Disc from Halfords for £425
Buy the Raleigh Criterium from Evans Cycles for £500
Buy the B'TwinTriban 520 from Decathlon
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