By Paul Norman
Look at any cycling website and the focus always seems to be on expensive new bikes and new tech with wild price tags. Heck, you can easily spend more than £300 on a pair of cycling shoes, so looking for a complete road bike under £300 sounds like a tall order.
But surprisingly there are bikes out there that come with decent enough specs and will hit the £300 mark. We asked Decathlon and Halfords how they managed it.
A lot is down to the brands’ economies of scale - Halfords is the largest seller of bikes in the UK and Decathlon has worldwide reach, so both can put in huge orders. And Decathlon has its own factories that assemble bikes, shipping them to the UK from Portugal and France.
Decathlon’s Peter Lazarus says that buyers’ requirements are getting more sophisticated though, so that whereas a few years ago it had three sub-£300 bikes, now it’s got just one, the Triban RC100, priced at £280. There are slightly different men’s and women’s specs, both with 28mm wide tyres for added ride comfort and better grip.
Halfords too has upspecced its Carrera bikes in response to user demands. Head of bike design at Halfords, Justin Stevenson, points out that buyers of the £300 Carrera Zelos aren’t just new cyclists. They also include experienced MTB riders who want to dip a toe into road riding and practised road cyclists who want a second bike for commuting duties. “They want comfort, they want flexibility, they want safety, they want light weight,” he says.
“We’ve designed the Zelos to meet those needs. So for comfort, we’ve specced memory foam saddles. They’re really comfortable and shaped so that beginners can sit on them in unpadded shorts, but they will still work for a more experienced rider wearing cycling shorts.”
Puncture protection is another important consideration, so Halfords has its own 28mm tyres, made by established bike tyre maker Kenda, built with a Kevlar layer to help avoid flats.
Halfords has specced disc brakes on all its Carrera 2021 road bike range. As well as the extra stopping power, Stevenson points out that this allows it to fit much wider tyres, with enough clearance to go up to 40mm wide gravel tyres if a rider wants to take the bike off road.
Both Decathlon’s £280 RC100 and the £300 Carrera Zelos have alloy frames with external cabling. And both have a steel fork. That might not be as plushy to ride as the carbon forks both brands spec further up their ranges, but both point out that it’s fine for the bikes’ target audience.
“We focus on making sure that the bike is designed for the real world and rideable as sold,” says Decathlon’s Lazarus. “Buyers don’t have to change the tyres or other components. Bikes have to be low maintenance, simple and reliable.
“These bikes are typically used frequently for short distances at moderate pace,” he continues. “We use the UK rider as the benchmark for the Triban range. There’s no other market where so many riders use a drop bar road bike to commute and in all weathers.” For both brands, that means mudguard fittings, while Decathlon has rack mounting points too.
At this price, you get robust, entry-level components. The Carrera Zelos has a 2x7 speed Shimano Tourney groupset, with a compact 50/34 chainset and 11-28 cassette. “It had to have combined shifters and brakes,” says Halfords’ Stevenson, “so that beginner cyclists don’t have to take their hands off the bars to change gears.
“There’s enough range there to get most people up most hills,” he continues. “We’d like to offer a greater range, but we’re constrained by Shimano’s components.”
Decathlon meanwhile has a single 40 tooth chainring set-up on the Triban RC100, with a Microshift eight speed 11-28 cassette and derailleur. That helps with maintenance and reliability and keeps the bike’s weight down to 10.8kg, says Lazarus. The women’s bike has the usual combined brake and shifter levers, and even comes with bar top secondary brake levers, whereas the men’s RC100 has a bar top gear shift lever separate from the brakes.
Decathlon’s Lazarus points out that even at £300 it’s important to give riders a great experience. “We want them to enjoy their ride and come back to us when they’re looking for another bike,” he says.
Move up both brands’ ranges and bike weight drops, while you get extra features like more gear ratios, butted frame tubes and carbon forks. Size options may increase too. The Carrera Zelos comes in S, M or L in both men's and women's versions, which cater for the majority of riders, whereas some of the more expensive bikes sold by Halfords offer a wider size range. Decathlon, meanwhile, sells the RC100 in four women’s and five men’s sizes.
“Buying a bike that fits you is the one thing you’ve got to do,” says Stevenson. “Even with internet sales many buyers will come into a Halfords store to collect the bike, so we’ve got the opportunity to spot when buyers have ordered a bike too large for them. We have size advice on the website too to try to get people to order the right size.”
So yes, you can buy a new road bike for £300. And it’s likely to be better suited to the needs of the modern rider and more comfortable and reliable than ever. But look further up the price range for features like a wider gear range and a carbon fork, if you’re planning to ride further or over more hills.
Shop around in the sales
Whilst some brands are beginning to move away from this model, most still produce a new bike for each model year. Sometimes, this has had a major facelift - in which case we'd likely cover the launch with a detailed article. But brands won't do this for every model, every year - so sometimes the latest version is simply sporting a new paint job with a few changes to the specification such as the newest version of the groupset or a saddle or handlebar swap.
Regardless if the bike has had a major facelift, or simply a new colour scheme, there will likely be deals to be had on the outgoing model - so shopping towards the end of the year may allow you to pick up a healthy saving on a bike that was previously closer to £500.
When buying sale bikes, add a pinch of salt to review score - remember that the tester was assessing that bike based on its RRP, and not the new price that you're looking at.
The other option is to look for a secondhand bike. We've got tips for how to go about this with dos and don'ts. It's a little more tricky and involves more legwork than buying a new bike from the likes of Decathlon and Halfords - but you do sometimes get more for your money if the bike has been well looked after. If you're a member of a cycling club, for example, you could do very well out of a club mate parting ways with their bike to make way for a replacement.
You don't want to buy a used bike sight-unseen and it's a good idea to get a second opinion from someone who knows what to look for when it comes to wear and tear before parting with your cash.
Bear in mind that you're going to have to pay for any maintenance or new parts required to bring your bike up to par too, whereas you should get a free tune-up for a new bike from a store - Halfords offers free lifetime safety checks on its bikes. You've also got somewhere to go back to if there's a problem. Plus, you can use the Cycle to Work scheme when buying a new bike from a retailer, saving you some cash and offering the chance to upspec without additional outlay.
But put the effort in and there are some excellent bargains out there, which might see you on quite a new road bike with a good spec without spending too much.
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