For a – relatively speaking – piffling £950, the Dolan L'Etape 105 is a full carbon fibre road bike with a full Shimano 105 groupset that offers excellent road manners and sporty handling. If you really crave a carbon fibre bike but don't want to spend a fortune, this is one of the best affordable carbon bikes you are likely to find anywhere.
Terry Dolan has pedigree. He began his own bike business a couple of decades ago and has established it as a trusted brand with many amateur racers. He's notable for making some of Chris Boardman's early race bikes. These days, Dolan produces a wide range of road bikes and the L'Etape is the most affordable carbon offering.
You won't find many cheaper carbon road bikes as well specced as this. Carbon bike prices have tumbled over the last couple of decades, going from a super-exotic Space Age material to being just about everywhere you look in the cycle industry. The L'Etape isn't really competing against other carbon bikes at £950, it's competing against aluminium bikes because they make up the majority of bikes at this price point.
There's no suggestion that the performance offered by the L'Etape isn't anything but first rate, and no feeling that you're making a big compromise in choosing carbon over the more common aluminium frames at this price. We've always said aluminium offers better value for money than carbon, simply because there's more money tied up in the carbon frame, which is more expensive to produce.
The Dolan is one of the rare exceptions to this rule. In fact, it's £50 cheaper than the similarly specced Canyon Endurace AL 6.0 with an aluminium frame, Shimano 105 parts and Mavic Aksium wheels, which gives an indication of how aggressive Dolan is being with this model.
But is the ride any good? Oh yes. It's sprightly and energetic, with a really good turn of pace when you apply the power. Steering is well balanced with enough stability to make descending at speed a joyous experience. It's comfortable, too, it adequately irons out all but the roughest roads. Though not the lightest bike in the world, it's not going to massively hold you back on the climbs and the compact ratio chainset helps when the gradient kicks up.
Frame and geometry
Rather confusingly, the Dolan is named after the iconic L'Etape du Tour, the annual cyclosportive that replicates a stage of the Tour de France on closed roads, but the geometry isn't what you'd expect of a modern bike built for comfort and distance.
There are just four sizes and the geometry on the 52cm bike tested measures up with a 570mm top tube and 165mm head tube. Those are the sort of numbers you expect to find on a race bike, not a bike with a name that suggests it is intended for riding long distances in relative comfort.
That's not exactly a criticism of the bike, just of its potentially misleading model name. I felt right at home on the bike, though I am quite used to low-slung race bikes. I loved the turn of speed the Dolan was able to produce, surprising considering the highish weight and low price. If you're fine with this sort of race-style geometry, you and the L'Etape will get on like a house on fire. Just don't say I didn't warn you if you expected a short and high position.
The latter is the only other carbon bike we've tested at this price point, but the Dolan is the better-specced bike, with a Shimano 105 chainset and brake callipers and lighter Mavic Aksium One wheels – though the Mavic wheels are a £50 upgrade over the standard Shimano RS10 wheels, so you can save yourself a bit of wonga if you wanted even more of a bargain.
Those small changes make a substantial difference; the Shimano brakes are much more confidence-inspiring than Ribble's own-brand brakes, and the lighter wheels go a long way to injecting a bit more va va voom into the ride.
It may not be a cutting-edge carbon fibre frame but there are all the modern details you'd expect much higher up the sliding scale of price. Cables are fully internally routed, producing clean lines, and there was no rattling to detect from the cables inside the frame. Contributing to the sharp and responsive ride is the tapered head tube with a large 1 1/2in lower bearing. The fork isn't full carbon fibre – the steerer tube is aluminium – but the only real negative is the increased weight.
As mentioned, the Dolan comes with a full, no shortcuts, Shimano 105 mechanical groupset. I'm repeating oft-used phrases here, but the shifting performance is excellent with light gear shifts and quiet operation. The brakes are solid and reliable. You can choose between a racy 53/39-tooth chainset or a compact 50/34-tooth version when you buy the bike, which is a really nice touch. If you're buying this bike to do L'Etape and other sportives, trust me, buy the compact.
Also customisable is the stem length and handlebar width, a level of detail not often offered on bikes from bigger brands that you more commonly find in your local bike shop. The Deda aluminium stem and handlebar went about their business with no fuss or drama. It's smart looking equipment, a step above the usual own-brand kit commonly found at this price.
The seatpost is an Alpina aluminium item with a simple two-bolt cradle that is easy to adjust. Topping it is a Selle Italia X1 saddle. Now, everyone has their own preference when it comes to saddle shapes, but I'll openly admit the X1 isn't a saddle I really get on with. You might be just fine on it.
I've already mentioned the Mavic Aksium One wheels are lighter than the wheels specced on the similarly priced Ribble. At 1,825g they're not superlight but they're well below the 2kg marker, and what they lack in zipp and fizz they make up for in reliability and durability. You can batter these wheels along the most rutted roads and they just shrug it all off.
Wrapping the aluminium rims are Continental Ultra Sport II tyres in a 25mm width. The German tyre brand has a fabulous reputation for producing high-quality tyres, and this is a very popular option on low-cost bicycles. It's not a light tyre, with a steel bead contributing to the higher weight compared with a folding bead version. Continental's own PureGrip rubber compound provides good traction in the dry and wet, and they feel secure when you push the bike fast through the turns. What they lack is the puncture resistance of Continental's more expensive tyres, and I did suffer a few flats while riding in good weather.
One of the key attractions of buying a Dolan – besides the fact that you're getting a cracking bargain – is that you can customise the build to your exact specifications. The cheapest L'Etape starts life at £899 with the same specification as the test bike bar the cheaper Shimano RS10 wheels, but you can change any part and upgrade to an Ultegra Di2 groupset, Mavic Cosmic Carbone wheels and lighter Deda or Pro finishing kit. There's also a choice of frame colours, and you can choose the colour of the bar tape.
Should you buy the Dolan L'Etape? If you really crave a carbon fibre road bike but don't want to spend more than a grand, this is a commendable choice. Better yet, it doesn't ask that you take any massive compromises, with a full Shimano 105 groupset, a thoroughly decent ride and performance of a level I would expect on a much more expensive bike. I'm impressed.
Entry-level price, top-level performance
road.cc test report
Make and model: Dolan L'Etape 105
Size tested: 52cm
About the bike
State the frame and fork material and method of construction. List the components used to build up the bike.
Frame: Dolan l'Étape Carbon Road Frame.
Fork: Dolan Carbon Road fork 1 1/8 Top - 1/2 Bottom Int, Carbon Fibre Blades, Alluminium Steering Column.
Seat Post: Alpina Aluminium, 27.2mm.
Headset: FSA 1 1/8 Top - 1/2 Bottom Integral.
Colour:Yellow/White/Black or Blue/White/Black.
Front Mech Clamp: Braze On.
Seat Clamp: Alpina - Alloy - Black, 31.9.
Weight: 1.20kg (48cm).
Tell us what the bike is for, and who it's aimed at. What do the manufacturers say about it? How does that compare to your own feelings about the bike?
From Dolan: The New Dolan l'Étape, with 4 frame sizes available from 44cm (Small) - 56cm (XL) makes the l'Étape very versatile. The lightweight, responsive and very comfortable l'Étape is the ideal weapon of choice in a variety of riding disciplines from general riding to road racing. The l'Étape carbon road frame is also designed with internal cable routing and is compatible with Di2 and EPS groupsets.
Frame and fork
Tell us about the build quality and finish of the frame and fork?
Very high quality for the price.
Tell us about the materials used in the frame and fork?
Full carbon fibre frame with a carbon fork and aluminium steerer tube.
Tell us about the geometry of the frame and fork?
It's akin to a race bike and four sizes does limit your chances of getting a good fit, but you can customise the stem length to suit.
How was the bike in terms of height and reach? How did it compare to other bikes of the same stated size?
I found it a good fit, but then I do prefer a low-slung race bike.
Riding the bike
Was the bike comfortable to ride? Tell us how you felt about the ride quality.
Impressively comfortable. It's not the most cushioned ride but it's not at all harsh. The 25mm tyres, even though they are steel beaded and heavy, provided a bit more squish.
Did the bike feel stiff in the right places? Did any part of the bike feel too stiff or too flexible?
It certainly doesn't lack stiffness when you demand it.
How did the bike transfer power? Did it feel efficient?
Was there any toe-clip overlap with the front wheel? If so, was it a problem?
How would you describe the steering? Was it lively, neutral or unresponsive? Neutral.
Tell us some more about the handling. How did the bike feel overall? Did it do particular things well or badly?
Very agile and responsive with good high-speed stability.
Which components had the most effect (good or bad) on the bike's comfort? would you recommend any changes?
I'd change the saddle, but that's personal preference.
Which components had the most effect (good or bad) on the bike's stiffness? would you recommend any changes?
The parts package came together really well, I thought.
Which components had the most effect (good or bad) on the bike's efficiency? would you recommend any changes?
I'd change to some lighter and more puncture resistant tyres.
Wheels and tyres
Did you enjoy riding the bike? Yes
Would you consider buying the bike? Maybe
Would you recommend the bike to a friend? Probably
Use this box to explain your score
We usually advocate aluminium at this price point, but the Dolan proves you can get a decent carbon bike for a very reasonable price. It's a great upgrade or first road bike.
About the tester
I usually ride: My best bike is:
I've been riding for: 10-20 years I ride: Every day I would class myself as: Expert
I regularly do the following types of riding: road racing, time trialling, cyclo-cross, commuting, touring, mountain biking
David has worked on the road.cc tech team since July 2012. Previously he was editor of Bikemagic.com and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds.