For years now, Boardman’s 8.9C has been the least expensive carbon bike you can buy on the British high street. No longer. For 2019, Halfords’ Carrera brand launched its Virago carbon bike that’s £200 cheaper than the £1k Boardman.
It doesn’t look that elegant in the website photos, but it’s better in the flesh – the lines clean and the
finish attractive while not trying to do too much. Weight is a claimed 1.1kg for the Taiwanese-made frame, which would be a decent achievement even on a bike twice the price.
The frame also has a lot of the features familiar from more expensive road machines – the head tube
and fork steerer tube are tapered, the top tube flattens along its length, the chainstays narrow in diameter.
Impressively for the price, the cables are neatly routed through the top and down tube. The bike’s big in all the right areas – the trapezium down tube is chunky, the bottom bracket shell likewise, even if the bottom bracket is a skinny FSA cartridge that looks a little lost in the bulked-up setting. It’s pretty skinny elsewhere, however, with that flattened top tube and 27.2mm seatpost.
The frame geometry is surprisingly aggressive for a budget bike, most of which tends to have more of an endurance bias. The Virago has steepish frame angles and a shortish head tube, though this is balanced by a handlebar with a very short reach, which means you’re not too stretched out. If you want to go really racy, a longer-reach bar or stem will allow you to stretch your body and put your legs to the test.
One advantage that the Virago has over the Boardman is its hill-friendly bottom gear. The Boardman’s 11-28 is outdone by the Virago’s 11-32, a considerable improvement if you ride the Mendips and Cotswolds, and those are just our close-to-home hills. The downside on the Virago is that the shifting wasn’t as sharp as we’d have expected, and we struggled to make it change gears perfectly at times.
The brakes have the non-cartridge blocks – common at this price – and we’d have appreciated 28mm tyres to make the most of the clearance and add a little more comfort. Not that the Virago is uncomfortable – far from it. On good road surfaces it’s smooth, measured and controlled, and on fine grit and gravel – such as canal towpaths – it performs equally well. The only thing that seemed to shake it was when hitting a big bump – you’d feel it through the
bar and the chain skips on the cassette. But generally, road chatter is handled very well.
Our out-of-the-saddle efforts reveal that the frame is sufficiently stiff, too. You could induce a little brake rub, but you don’t need enough for it to be an issue.
The oversized steerer and head tube are solid and resolute, and it climbs as well as any 10kg bike is going to. Overall, we were staggered at the quality of ride the Virago offered. The 27.2mm seatpost and Velo saddle gave no cause for complaint, and the rest of the finishing kit is standard stuff on a £500-£1,000 bike.
Okay, you may have to overcome prejudice about buying a bike from Halfords, but you’ll nab yourself a bargain if you do – and it comes with a lifetime of safety checks and the frame and fork are guaranteed for life. Carrera’s Virago is no dodgy internet knock-off.
There’s little to distinguish this from entry-level carbon bikes from the big names, though it might be worth investing in Shimano outer gear cables to sharpen up the shifting.
Verdict: Budget carbon bikes are few and far between, but the Virago not only has a 1.1kg frame and full-carbon fork, but it comes with a Shimano Sora groupset. Overall, this is a real two-wheeled treat from Carrera
MORE OR LESS: CARRERA
The Carrera Vanquish Disc (£425) has a triple-butted aluminium frame, eight-speed Shimano Claris with a double chainset and Tektro C400 mechanical disc brakes. The rim-braked Vanquish has the same Claris kit with Tektro dual-pivot calliper brakes.
The £250 Carrera Zelos is one of the least expensive ‘genuine’ road bikes you can buy. Available in men’s and women’s versions, it has an alloy frame, hi-tensile steel forks, Shimano Tourney shifting and Tektro R312 calliper brakes. Weight is a claimed 11kg.
Buy from www.halfords.com