Dawes has really upped its game in the last couple of years. The Century SE might be the heaviest bike on test, and it might have the least-impressive groupset, but something about the magic of steel, and a sensible focus on practicality, reliability, and a little bit of British style, has produced a machine that seems far more than the sum of its parts.
Traditionally handsome looks
Comes with mudguards
Comfortable ride quality
Heavier than rivals
Conventional cycling wisdom would suggest, in terms of long days in the saddle, only steel is real. Nobody in Britain knows better than Dawes how to market great, mass-produced, ferrous-derived frames.
The Birmingham company is famed for its Reynolds-tubed touring bikes and, although the Century SE is classed in Dawes's Audax section, in reality it's not a million miles away from an old-school Galaxy tourer.
The first similarity is the classic frame shape - no curvy top tubes here. Everything is put together very well. I'm not enamoured by the spot of gusseting where the down tube meets the head tube, but that's counteracted by the cute gold star embossments around the bottle cage mounts. The finish and overall design is also very pleasing. In fact, I would go as far as to say it's possibly the most traditionally handsome sub-£1,000 bike available.
The tubes used to create this refined beast are Reynolds 520 chromoly, which is at the lower end of Reynolds's range, but they're still quality materials. Meanwhile, the Shimano Sora groupset is a full two stops below the 105 kit found on the Norco and Jamis.
At this point, you're expecting me to spit in disgust and talk about maximising budgets, but I'm not going to. I actually think this spec choice is very canny. If there's one thing the Century SE embodies, it's old-fashioned practicality and reliability; indeed, I know many riders who prefer Sora over Tiagra on just those grounds.
Make mine a triple
In gearset terms, this test isn't of a case of like for like, because the Century SE, among our quartet, is the only machine that comes with a triple chainset. That means you're provided with a gear range so wide that you can make full use of the rear rack mounts and saddle up for some long-distance touring, should the mood strike.
You really wouldn't mind spending a full day in the Century SE's saddle. Steel's forgiving ride qualities are all present and correct here; it's a credit to Cannondale, not a criticism of Dawes, when I say the Synapse might - amazingly - just edge it on comfort points.
However, the Century SE does flow and swoop beautifully along, and that bit of gusseting that I was so rude about earlier does a fine job sending you in the direction you want. Riding the Dawes back-to-back with a selection of aluminium bikes, you are aware it has a more relaxed nature, but it's a pleasant rather than unnerving trait.
One area where the Century does lose out to its rivals is power transfer. Despite its helpful range of 27 gears, getting up to speed does seem to require just a bit more effort and patience. It's only a kilo or two heavier than the other bikes here - and who of us couldn't lose a kilo or two? - but it's noticeable bulk. Once up to speed, though, it keeps on rolling, its stability rivalling a steam train.
Sora you coming
Yes, the Sora groupset is a tad more clunky than its posher siblings, and you do have to be more positive with the controls to make things happen, but it all works securely. The Shimano brakes and the Vittoria tyres here - and indeed those found on the Jamis - put up a good fight, handling the slippery, slidy conditions we've had recently. And the cherry on top of the common-sense cake: this bike doesn't just have the option of mudguards; they come fitted as standard.
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