The UK's largest bicycle retailer this afternoon showed us the new models in its middle Carrera brand. There are road bikes as before, an increased emphasis on hybrids and a cool £450 singlespeed. As ever, you can't touch them on price.
We met Ed Hurrell, the chap responsible for all the 'premium' bikes including Boardman and Voodoo as well as Carrera. He said he was 'first to admit that Halford's has been behind the curve on hybrids' but buoyed by the success of Boardman-branded city straight-bar bikes and aware that commuting is booming, he showed us at least two hybrids that wouldn't look out of place on a ride to work from Kensington to Mayfair.
The difference is that the new bikes fall under the next-tier Carrera brand, neatly filling the huge £350-£850 category between Apollo at the bottom and Boardman at the aspiring end. It's territory where Halfords is strong and the £369.99 Gryphon and £429.99 Crossfire 'multi-surface hybrid' aren't going to do them any harm at all.
There are three race bikes; starting with a £349.99 model named TDF - yellow, naturally - with an 'aero' chunky-welded - that's a technical term there, hope you're keeping up - alloy frame that, while lacking external refinement, had us scratching our heads and thinking that for a Shimano 2300 8-speed drivetrain and decent enough spec you couldn't beat it.
The next two are based on a much better 6061 alloy frame, a butted number with a very tidy and sorted appearance, geometrically. The £399.99 Virtuoso has Shimano Sora gears - which means 2 x 9 speed - and an FSA chainset and Tektro brakes. In other words, the sort of headline spec you'd expect to see on a host of entry-level racers but for more like £500. The Vanquish, which comes in at £549.99, has an aluminium fork and Mavic CXP rims and claimed weight of 10.9Kg including the pedals.
Also hardly quiet in the 2012 Halfords premium range is a bit of a cult machine; the Lager model from SE Bikes - the same folks that bought us the PK Ripper - and for which Halford's have the the UK distribution rights. For £450 you get a tidy steel frame in the urban fixie genre, a flip-flop rear hub and a really cool 'bar. We definitely want.
Hurrell seemed reasonably satisfied that Halfords is achieving its goal of 'offering the best spec and performance at any price' but acknowledged that 'the next step is offering the right level of service.'
In what its city spokesmen described as a 'a solid performance in a challenging environment' Halfords recently published sales figures up 4.6% to a total of £869.7 million for the year to 1st April 2011, with profit up 7.2% to £125.6 million. Sales of car stereos and satnav are down but, not surprisingly for anyone who's been to a Sky Ride recently, sales of bikes especially the Boardman and resurgent Carrera and Voodoo brands are up.
In a shaky economy, car maintenance is a Halfords growth area which is reflected in their bike servicing operations with a 28.3% hike in sales of their Bike Care Plans. These provide 'free' labour on servicing and repairs, starting at an annual charge of £19.99 for an adult bike or £39.99 for three years.