Should you buy a cheap road bike?
Guy Kesteven takes on one of the toughest sportive courses in the UK on two budget road bike that cost less than £300 to find out which breaks first – us, the bikes or our snobbish price preconceptions. Pictures: Russ Ellis
There’s only been one ‘The Struggle’ event, but billed as Yorkshire’s hardest sportive, it already has a fearsome reputation. At 108 miles it’s short enough to trick you into thinking it’s relatively doable, but its elevation profile is a hungry parade of brutally sharp fangs. It doesn’t take long to show those teeth, nipping at our heels with the 260ft climb of Bedlam Bank only five miles in. It properly sinks its jaws in with the wall-like 21 per cent peak gradient, 435ft climb of Hartwith Bank at 10 miles. We’re facing some really tough moments as I’m straining against the 21-tooth lowest gear already, and even climbing specialist Sam has twist shifted into the smallest ring of his bike’s triple chainset.
As we balance torque against the minimal traction rock-hard rubber compound tyres that threaten to slip for at least half of every pedal revolution, we try to work out why we’re doing this. The short answer is that editor, Rob, has stitched me up. He’d bought the Vitesse Sprint that Sam is riding, when it was available from Tesco for £170 (it’s now available from Argos and Machine Mart!), with the idea of seeing how well it coped with his general club run, Strava chase and commuting compared to his usual, more expensive bike. He realised that hogging all this potential price-busting pleasure was selfish so gifted both the bike and a “go and do something stupid” remit to me. After a couple of tentative outings to test whether it was rideable I started looking for a challenge for this mighty 21-speed supermarket road warrior.
It turns out bike snobbery runs deeper than disparaging looks. Our first choice of legendarily tough Lake District epic politely declined our request for an entry on the basis that the organisers had enough problems with idiots turning up on unsuitable bikes and causing support crews disproportionate amounts of grief. We understood.
So, to cheer things up I thought I’d get the Vitesse a friend, and Wiggle didn’t falter when it came to providing a bike to prove that economical could mean enjoyable. The enigmatically named Road arrived in a box the next day.
The Struggle is based out of Harrogate, whose streets hosted Stages 1 and 2 of the 2014 Tour De France, and will be home to the World Championships in 2019. The event website is full of pictures of people looking gritty and heroic on steep hills that promise to “bury you into the darkest depths of bike riding”. Even better, organisers Matt and Victoria were happy for us to copy their route on whatever bikes we were stupid enough to ride.
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As the gradient of Hartwith Bank eases we’re still in a buoyant mood. My tights have managed to keep my straining kneecaps in roughly the right place and Sam only accidentally changed the twist shift gears with his knees a handful of times. As we roller coaster west towards the butchers and bunting of Pateley Bridge we’re shunted ahead of a dark curtain of incoming weather by a healthy tailwind. So far the bikes aren’t nearly as bad as our spoilt brat preconceptions feared.
The steel forks and alloy frames are heavy, but we’ve ridden much less comfortable carbon bikes. While confident grip is an alien concept for the Wiggle’s Kenda tyres, and braking only loosely related to heaving the levers on the supermarket express, the frames are a reasonable shape, the hefty wheels roll well once you’re turning and whether by side stub STi or stem side twist the gears clunk dutifully to and fro.
By the time we heave up Greenhow Hill (934ft vertical) we’re both quietly smug about our steeds. Sam because he has a 30-tooth inner chainring to offset the leg-snappingly small 21-tooth largest sprocket we both share. Me because I know his bike weighs over 1.5kg more than mine.
The wow factor
As we clunk into the big ring with the wind on our backs and the Dales unfolding in an Instagram filter vista of late autumn sunlight, we feel on top of the world. Okay, so Sam has to brake as hard as he can all the way down the treacherous Devil’s Bridge dip, but the soft moulded pads don’t actually catch fire. I don’t crash on the corner at the bottom as tyre trust runs out either, I just get maximum value out of the available road width and a bit of grass verge for good measure.
By the time we’re up, over, down, up, over, along and down again through Hebden and Grassington I’ve forgotten I’m on a cheap bike. I’m just on a bike, bowling along beautiful Yorkshire Dales back roads past ancient barns, farms and villages that make the set of Postman Pat look like a gritty urban drama. Sure the 544ft grunt up past the limestone wonderland of Malham Cove is a strain, but I don’t have to
swerve across the road to cope with my lack of ratios and it’s over sooner than I expect.
It’s a sign of the severity of The Struggle route that the switchback climb over to Arncliffe doesn’t even register in the road book, but with the wind now in our face it’s enough to remind our legs they’ve already done 40 lumpy miles. Particularly for Sam, who’s grinning gear banter as I gurned out of Malham is replaced by some serious grunting and groaning, as the Vitesse decides not to let him have the inner chainring for a while.
Brakes so soft-armed you can flex them with your fingers mean he can’t make the most of the “Aero Blade” (it says so on the side) fork on the swooping descent towards Arncliffe either. While the Wiggle Road’s brakes are easily enough to lock the wheels they’re not sentient enough to tell you when, so I’m relying on feeling them going sideways to work out when to back off.
At 51 miles in, Park Rash climb isn’t even halfway round the route, but it’s a truly brutal 684ft vertical, 10 per cent average beast starting with a 25 per cent switchback segment that, of course, we’d love to do three times to make sure we get the shot. With no option but to just try and strain the bottom gear round without spinning the tyre, it’s actually a less stressful experience than normal. There’s no temptation to clunk into a higher gear as I grind past the muddy wash spilling out of the farm on the right as it eases a little, and I’m actually glad of a sudden burst of rain to keep me cool.
With the triple ring behaving again, Sam’s also glad of the tyre equivalent of a farmer’s wellies on the filthy tarmac. You couldn’t ask for a better reward than the view ahead to Middleham as the clouds split onto the shoulders of Great Whernside and Buckden Pike, and the descent is even more delicious. There’s more early braking and baited breath cornering than usual but we’ve done three of the biggest climbs in the region without dabbing, vomiting, sobbing or having a strop. Frankly, nothing is going to stop us now.
The moulded foam saddle of the Wiggle would definitely be on my early upgrade list and the bent single-gauge gas pipe and screw-on ribbed centre shim that pass for a handlebar in the quill stem (Google it if you’re under 35) of the Vitesse are both geologically heavy and wrist-threateningly inert. The STi on the Wiggle is impressively smooth if you don’t need to upshift in the drops and Sam is even finding positive things to say about the Shimano Revo Shift despite the fact he normally rides SRAM eTap. Even the evil turn away from home and back into the hills at Masham with 30 miles still to go can’t put us off the scent of success.
These were roads dubbed too tight and challenging for the pro peloton when the Tour de France came through Masham, but we’re having a hoot on bikes that cost less than some pro bib shorts. It’s deserted as we crest the watershed into Nidderdale, but in our heads we’re Jens Voigt parting the crowds of Buttertubs. Ten miles later I’m actually savouring the sparks of cramp in my quads and calves not telling my legs to shut up as we snake up Two Stoops, following the wheel tracks of a national hill climb event only the week before. Lactic-laced muscles are massaged away by disbelieving laughter as we top out of this last monster hill with a clear view to the Harrogate finish, and it’s smiles all round as we shift
into pressed steel big rings that we expected to feel like crap but right now make us feel like champions.
It’s a wrap
For a bike tester like me who gets his seat pad in a twist over the tiniest sense of lost torque or has a hissy fit over tyre carcass thread counts to make a pea-sensing princess sound a saint, it’s a real, and welcome, reset. As we arrive back at premium Harrogate bike shop, Prologue, we admire the Rotor cranks of Cervélo’s R3 and the shoes on display that cost more than our bikes.
We’re not expecting the pristine Parlee, Colnago, Look or Enigma bikes to come off the walls in favour of the Vitesse. But, at the end of the day, we’ve had the same experience of battling monster hills and rapidly changing weather, while balancing speed and strain against survival and snacks, as we would on the superbikes we’re surrounded by.
While it’s been a lot more fun – and faster – than we expected when we were halfway up Hartwith Bank, we deserve a bloody big piece of cake as a reward for our day’s work. Plus by buying the Wiggle we’d have saved enough to afford 3500 more slices of cake than if we’d bought that beautiful Colnago C60 on display, and that doesn’t even have a bell on it like the Road does.
Wiggle Road £289
The Road gets a neatly welded, slim-tubed alloy frame with full rack and mudguard mounts, stable handling and a well-sorted position, available in five sizes. The steel fork is slim too, giving a surprisingly comfortable ride despite skinny Kenda tyres. The Shimano Tourney 14-speed gears are changed via impressively smooth STi combined brake and shift levers and the dual-pivot brakes are adequately powerful. At 11.3kg it’s relatively light for the price too. The tyres are frighteningly grip free, the 21-tooth sprocket is gruesome on gradients and the soft saddle lacks support over long distances, but those issues are relatively inexpensive to sort out. For the price the Wiggle is an amazingly competent, comfortable and enjoyable ride. wiggle.co.uk
Vitesse Sprint SE £270
The alloy frame of the Vitesse gets geometric section main tubes, curved rear stays and even a sort of aero fin in the seat-tube. The steel fork has chunky legs for a noticeably more blunt ride than the Wiggle. Ride position of the single 55cm size is relatively short, upright and forward biased but handling is okay and the saddle is usefully supportive. The reflective sidewall tyres grip fine on wet tarmac or rough tracks and there’s room for bigger rubber and/or mudguards. A triple chainset with 30/40/50-tooth rings makes climbing more bearable too. The single-pivot (not dual pivot as advertised) brakes are pathetically power and feedback-free and the Shimano Revo shift is easy to knock accidentally with your knees. The shimmed bar is shockingly crude and the quill stem is an upgrade dead end. Heavy bolted wheels push overall weight up to 12.8kg, which even the lower gears can’t offset on climbs. argos.co.uk
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