Spend a cool three grand on a bike and you know that things are getting serious. This highly competitive price point – which our reader survey research suggests three in 10 of you will be exploring come your next bike purchase – is where you’ll start to see top-end technology, electronic shifting, deep-section carbon race wheels and wind-cheating carbon frame designs appearing.
- £500 road bikes: 3 of the best reviewed
- 3 aluminium road bikes, priced around £1,500, reviewed for triathlon
But are any of the trio of £3,000 carbon flyers from Giant, Orbea and Vitus featured here suitable for the dual purposes of triathlon training and racing? Will they hit the sweet spot of speed and endurance comfort needed to cover all the bases from sprint distance to Ironman? Do these bikes’ respective spec lists make them stand out from the rest of the carbon race-bike crowd? We hit the flats and slopes of the West Country to find out.
Vitus launched the original ZX1 back in 1991. It was an organically shaped, curvy carbon masterpiece and claimed to be the first commercially available carbon monocoque race bike. Plenty has changed in the intervening years, for the bikes and the brand – formerly a French manufacturer, Vitus is now based in Northern Ireland having come under the ownership of online retail giant Chain Reaction Cycles.
The ZX1 is the brand’s first disc brake-equipped aero frame and, as befits a bike with ambitions for the pro road-race scene, it bears the UCI’s seal of approval. All the ZX1 frames are made with Kammtail-shaped tubes, rather than the traditional ‘teardrop’ aerofoil profile. The Kammtail cuts off the back end of the teardrop. This blunting has little effect on airflow, but offers better stability in crosswinds and arguably a stiffer, lighter shape without contravening the rules of race bike design.
The ZX1 frame is a lot less radical looking than most aero models. The usual details are all there though – a neatly integrated fork crown, smooth sculpted lines and a seat tube that subtly shifts its shape to wrap around the rear wheel. The oversized and asymmetric bottom bracket shell is shaped to allow the wind to smoothly flow over it, while still offering enough mass to provide a solid base under power.
PRIMED FOR RACING
We’d expect a direct-to-market brand such as Vitus to score highly when it comes to value, and the ZX1 CR1 Aero Disc Ultegra Di2 doesn’t disappoint. The full Shimano Ultegra R8070 Di2 groupset with its sweet, sharp and accurate electric shifting is a joy to use. It’s paired with the new Ultegra 8070 flat-mount disc brakes, which are every bit the equal of Shimano’s Dura-Ace units, save for a nominal gain in weight. Here they’re paired with the superb new IceTec rotors, which give loads of braking feel without the noisy feedback you can get with inferior rotors.
This ZX1 runs on Prime carbon wheels, another brand owned by Chain Reaction. We were impressed by them in a previous test for our sister title Cycling Plus and here, paired with Schwalbe’s excellent Pro One tubeless tyres, they delighted once again. The ZX1 CR1 has a plush, smooth ride you just wouldn’t expect from a hardcore, low-slung racing machine – and it’s seriously low slung, the XL/58cm test bike has a lowly stack of just 569mm and a lengthy reach of 406mm. Blend those numbers with a 100cm wheelbase and parallel 73° head and seat angles and you get a bike that’s primed for triathlon racing, but still boasts a sorted ride to smooth out rough surfaces.
While overall power delivery is solid, the steering is very light and you can induce a little bit of flex. The bike isn’t noodly though so smaller, lighter riders might not even notice. Climbing on the ZX1 CR1 is a joy and the combination of the relatively low overall weight, its decent range of gears (52/36, 11-28) and light wheels with lively buoyant tyres, meant we found ourselves getting out of the saddle and dancing on the pedals whenever we got chance. It’s a serious contender for races with hilly bike-course profiles.
The downside of the ZX1 CR1’s uphill prowess is that it makes getting out of the nice Fizik Antares saddle something we wanted to do all too often, which probably negates any of the aero gains the frame may offer. Speaking of the aero-profiled seatpost, there are small textured strips on its front and rear to stop it sliding through the clamp but they’re not enough to prevent it dropping. Plenty of carbon friction paste and tightening the clamp to the higher of its recommended torque settings (8Nm) was needed to keep it at our preferred height.
All in all, the Vitus ZX1 CR1 is right on the cusp of being the do-it-all bike of the year. It’s loaded with excellent kit and delivers a ride that’s a beautiful balance between responsive handling, speed and cushioned comfort that dazzles over poor surfaces.
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More to spend with Vitus?
If you’ve got money to burn, the top of the range ZX1 Team Aero Disc Dura-Ace (£4,199.99) has the same UCI-approved aero, carbon frame as the CR1 but comes with a full Dura-Ace groupset and DT Swiss Arc 1100 wheels.
Less to spend with Vitus?
For those on a tighter budget, the ZX1 Aero Disc 105 manages to stay below the two-grand mark (£1,999.99) and is kitted out with Shimano 105 components and rolls on Mavic’s Cosmic Elite wheels.
Orbea’s Orca has for decades been the Basque brand’s top of the range race bike and it’s seen plenty of action on road racing’s biggest stages under the Euskatel-Euskadi and Cofidis teams. But Orbea have established their credibility in the world of triathlon too, thanks to America’s Andrew Starykowicz setting the 4:09:13 bike course record at Challenge Roth in 2015 aboard the brand’s Ordu tri/TT rig (although it was bettered by Jan Frodeno’s 4:08:07 the following year).
Orbea have taken the template of the lightweight Orca and turned it into a thoroughly modern aero race bike. The new Orca Aero chassis has been developed to combine light weight and cutting-edge aerodynamics, with the end result tipping the scales at just 7.8kg for our 57cm test bike.
The frame’s shape follows current aero bike trends, with a sloping top-tube and oversized down tube meeting an aero-profiled seat tube, which closely follows the rear wheel’s radius. The seatstays are minimal and dropped low, while the tubes are based around the Kammtail profile.
At the front, Orbea use their own ‘freeflow’ fork design, with legs that each have a slim leading edge, a deep profile and trace an extremely bow-legged path up to the crown. According to Orbea, this is to reduce turbulent interference between the fork legs and the spinning wheel. The front and rear of the bike are designed around Shimano’s direct-mount rim brake standard, which means a lower profile calliper with improved tyre clearance, and in our experience a far superior feel at the brake lever, too.
The geometry combines parallel, steep 73.2° head and seat angles, a short wheelbase of 100cm and 408mm chainstays that look even shorter thanks to that cutaway seat tube. That adds up to an aggressive racy ride position, but not one that feels as stretched as some aerodynamically optimised road bikes. In fact, the Orca has quite a nimble feel, with a ride that’s much more akin to classic racing all-rounders such as Cannondale’s Super Six Evo, Specialized’s Tarmac and Trek’s Emonda.
The standard Orca Aero M20 Team retails at £2,799 but, as with pretty much all of Orbea’s range, you can take advantage of the MyO (My Orbea) options list. We certainly did by upgrading to DT Swiss’s new 32mm-deep aero-profiled alloy PR1600 Spline wheelset. These tubeless-ready, 1,725g-a-pair hoops are built around DT Swiss’s excellent straight-pull hubs while the rims have a wide 18mm internal width that helps to shape the tyres beautifully. Speaking of tyres, we opted for Vittoria’s brilliant Corsa G+ 25mm tyres and splashed out on a carbon-railed Selle Italia SLR (only £19 more). For a final flourish we added Vision’s brilliant one-piece bar-stem combo, the Metron 5D, as found on Orbea’s pro-level Orca Aero. It’s only a £51 upgrade through the MyO scheme, despite being a cockpit that retails for £550.
You can also choose your gear ratios with 11-25/28/30 options for cassettes and 50/34, 52/36 and 53/39 for the chainset. We stuck with the standard 50/34, 11-28 set-up, but with the benefit of hindsight we think the Orca Aero would have benefited from being run with a 52/36 chainset paired to either the 11-28 or 11-30 cassette.
AT HOME ON THE HILLS
On flat ground the Orca Aero holds speed willingly and its responsive handling makes throwing it into sharp corners a thrill – the bike’s agility allows you to make subtle corrections confidently. We love Shimano’s latest direct-mount brakes, which offer better levels of feel than any other rim brake we’ve tried. Combined with the machined brake tracks on the DT Swiss wheels, they offer oodles of power and impressive performance in the wet or dry.
When the gradient rises, the Orca Aero feels like it was built for climbing, more so than an aero bike has any right to. It descends very well and, while it may not have the stability of a longer wheelbase, the handling is fast without ever drifting into being twitchy. Those Vittoria tyres inspire confidence with their high levels of grip too.
The Orca Aero is definitely on the firm side compared to bikes such as Cannondale’s Super Six Evo or the Specialized Tarmac, and is leagues behind more endurance-biased bikes along the lines of Specialized’s Roubaix, the Cervélo R3D or the Cannondale Synapse. That firmness doesn’t mean the Orca Aero is harsh, even though it feels so good when you’re pushing it hard or sprinting. It’s solid and flex free without a hint of brake rub, and is impressively responsive.
The new Orca Aero is an accomplished bike, it takes the advantages of an aero-optimised frame and combines them with an agile race machine, and manages to do so without dulling the handling, adding extra weight or introducing too much flex in crucial areas. We also love Orbea’s MyO customising options that allow you to eke out extra value for your money, choose the gear ratios you want, customise the colour scheme and even add your name to the top tube.
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More to spend with Orbea?
The only other M20 model is the Orca Aero M20iTeam, which carries an electronic Ultegra Di2 groupset and rolls on Vision Team 35 carbon wheels. In its stock guise, it’ll set you back £3,499.
Less to spend with Orbea?
If that’s a little too steep for you, there’s the Orca Aero M30 Team, which is only a tad cheaper than the stock M20 Team (£2,799) at £2,599, unless you start adding your preferred parts, in which case, that price will rise.
The original Propel was one of the pioneers of the aero-road bike niche. The new Propel Disc has the DNA of its rim-brake forebear but none of the tube shapes. If you want a rim-braked Propel for 2018, you’ll be getting the previous-generation of the frame.
The new Propel frame is the result of three years of development. It’s been designed using both computational fluid dynamics and wind tunnel testing to not only be adept in adverse wind conditions but to integrate disc brakes as seamlessly as possible.
Some might feel that an aero bike with disc brakes is an anathema; even Giant thought that initially. “When we started the project three years ago, the whole concept of an aero road bike with disc brakes was something we thought couldn’t be done,” says Andrew Juskaitis, Giant’s marketing manager.
Giant’s in-house carbon fibre development team partnered with French company Aéro Concept Engineering, to reshape the Propel from the disc brakes up. The goal was to reduce drag on the bike and rider while still meeting low weight and stiffness targets.
“It’s not just the frame and fork anymore,” Juskaitis says, explaining what elements bike engineers are most concerned with when it comes to current aero designs. “It’s every single component and the effect they
have each other.”
Giant and Aéro Concept Engineering tested frame and wheel prototypes in a wind tunnel using a mannequin with articulating legs, and claim to be the only companies to use a pedalling mannequin to prove their designs. With the moving mannequin’s help, Giant says the final shape they arrived at provides a 10-Watt difference over the old Propel.
According to Giant, the front brake unit and rotor don’t cause much drag, as the air has already hit the front tyre and rim before it passes by the brake. “What’s more important is to keep the fork crown area clean, at the leading edge of the bike, and allowing the air to flow smoothly,” says Juskaitis.
Aside from the new slippery shaping of the chassis, it’s the rise of own-brand equipment that comes to the fore on the Propel. Generally speaking, own-brand bike kit used to be a bit low rent, but things are changing and the likes of Trek’s Bontrager components and Specialized’s Roval wheels are now seen as aerodynamic and lightweight additions to any bike.
Frameset aside, the Propel Advanced Disc’s most notable feature is the stem, which hides the shift and cable lines. “We did a separate stem and bar for two reasons,” explains Nixon Huang, senior global category manager, referring to the trend of one-piece bar/stem combos on some aero bikes. “[Firstly, aerodynamically], the nose cone on the front of the stem acts like a boat’s prow to open up the air. [Secondly], for a proper bike fit with the Propel you don’t need to disconnect the gear or brake lines to swap the stem for the correct length.”
When it comes to an overall package you can see why Giant used its own equipment. If you’re working on an aero bike it makes sense to control all the parts.
Giant doesn’t have a separate brand for its parts, but has partnered impressively with DT Swiss on its wheel programme. The SLR1 carbon wheels have DT Swiss’s excellent 350 Disc hubs, with a 42mm-deep front rim and 65mm-deep rear. As wind has little effect on the handling of a rear wheel, it’s deeper. Up front, the shallower design is less likely to be affected by crosswinds. The tubeless-ready rims have Giant’s Gavia 1 tubeless tyres that come up broader than their specified 25mm size. They allow you to run lower pressures if the road surface is rough with less chance of getting pinch punctures.
The swiftness of the Propel Advanced Disc’s acceleration is stunning and the stiffness through the chassis is impressive. It’s not particularly light at 8.7kg, but the Propel doesn’t feel heavy. The Ultegra groupset is flawless, even though it doesn’t extend to the top-performing IceTec rotors but we didn’t get any noise issues from the brakes. The 52/36 and 11-28 gearing offers a good mix between high cruising speeds and low-end grunt for climbing.
The handling errs more towards the stable rather than rapid and when you thread the Propel Advanced Disc through successive corners or push hard downhill it imparts wonderful confidence. The ride is as firm as you’d expect from a design so focused on beating the wind, but where it scores highly is in the reduction of the sort of high-frequency vibrations that become wearing over longer rides. The Propel is a seriously clever bike.
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More to spend with Giant?
Of the 2018, disc-equipped Propel models, the Advanced Disc (reviewed) is the cheapest. For the ‘money is no object’ crowd, there’s the Advanced SL 1 for £5,499, with Ultegra Di2 and an integrated carbon seat mast, while Lottery winners can opt for the Advanced SL 0 (£8,999). If, however, you can live without discs, you can get your hands on a Propel Advanced (albeit one using 2017’s frame design) for between £1,599 and £3,999.
The overall verdict
Let’s be honest, if you’re spending anything in the region of three grand on a bike, you’re unlikely to end up with something that rides like a donkey. The bikes in this price range are going to be great – anything short of that would be a disaster. And although there are differences between the trio on test here, they’re subtle. Certainly nothing that’s going to ruin your ride or race. So how do they stack up against each other?
Well, the Vitus gets things off to a very good start. It comes with a great selection of parts and a ride that, were it not for some front end flex underneath bigger riders, would be almost impossible to fault. It may lack the more obvious aggressively aero styling of its rivals but that might be because it doesn’t deliver quite as aggressive a ride – it’s comparatively comfortable for
an aero bike.
The Orbea’s most obvious omission, in this company, is disc brakes. But if you can overlook that, you’re getting a brilliantly dynamic bike that provides a myriad of options to tailor it to your specific requirements. But, for our money, neither of those can match the overall package of the Giant, which is not only the cheapest bike here but delivers a ride that makes it feel like a complete system rather than a collection of separate parts.