Sports megastore chain Decathlon has unveiled its 2014 range of B’Twin road bikes. The new selection stretches from the Triban 300 - successor to the popular Triban 3 - at £350 all the way up to a new lightweight carbon fibre machine with Ultegra D12 for £3000. Highlights of the range include a Shimano 105-equipped bike for £700 on a new aluminium frame, two bikes with Campagnolo groups for £1300 and £1750 and an ultra-modern new carbon fibre frame.
One of the most notable things about the new B'Twin range is what's not in it: No Gran Fondo/sportive machine, aero road bike, or a super light climber. B'Twin's design philosophy is very much based around racing. B'Twin's road bikes, the Alur, the Mach and their new range topper, the Ultra are designed to meet a set of performance criteria for different types of races and riders.
The Mach is built to be stiff and efficient for big powerful types bashing out the miles in spring classics type conditions while the Ultra is a the grand tour all-rounder or Ardennes classics specialist - designed to be smooth, light and responsive - oh and stiff, the sort of bike you can ride fast all day but without the sportive bike's longer head tube and shorter top tube combo. The Alur meanwhile is B'Twin's aluminium all-rounder designed to be both versatile and durable.
Decathlon product engineer Andrew Lorenzi talks us through the range. He joined Decathlon in 1993, and then spent five years working for Look, including a stint in the company’s Tunisian manufacturing plant. He rejoined Decathlon in 2011, and given the lead times of designing, testing and speccing a bike range, if seems likely we’re looking at some of his babies today.
Andrew starts with what might be the best-equipped sub-£400 bike of 2014, the Triban 300. For your £370 you get an aluminium frame, a triple chainset and rarely-seen MicroShift gears. The latter are an intriguing choice that Andrew says have proved more reliable than Shimano’s similarly-priced entry-level options.
Next up the Triban 500SE at £450 has a full Shimano Sora group. It’s a special edition for the UK, and therefore won’t be found in any of Decathlon’s European stores or elsewhere in a retail empire that now extends to Russia, India and China as well as the 14 UK shops.
The Triban range is Decathlon's biggest selling bike by a country mile, it's certainly their biggest UK seller, and a stalwart of the 'I ride' section road.cc user profiles. It's a bike that obviously inspires a great deal of fondness in those who ride it - there's a Triban owners club, (who had a representative at the launch asking all the best questions), we're struggling to think of many modern bikes with their own owners clubs - especially ones costing less than £500.
Alur 700 range
What would you expect to pay for a medium-weight aluminium frame with Shimano 105 gears and shifters and and a carbon fork? There are plenty of bikes like the new Alur 700 out there for over £900, which makes the £700 price tag of this bike distinctly eyebrow-raising. For your seven hundred notes you get frame with internal cable routing, press fit bottom bracket, clearance for 28mm tyres and Shimano’s direct-mount brakes, with the rear brake under the chainstays.
Andrew Lorenzi came back to the theme of direct-mount brakes several times. He’s a big fan, and both of B’Twin’s new frame platforms have them. They’re a “step-up in brake feel” he says. With the brake arms firmly mounted on the fork blades or chainstays, there’s certainly less to flex than with the spindly 6mm main pivot of most brakes.
The Alur 700 is even UCI-approved, should you decide to try your hand at racing, and comes with Look-compatible VP pedals. The frame weighs a claimed 1400g for a medium and the internal cable routing means it can be upgraded to Di2 if and when a cheaper Di2 becomes available, something B'Twin designer Andrew thinks is inevitable.
B'Twin Cyclo Cross
Between the Alur 700 and B’Twin’s carbon bikes we take a quick detour into the mud with the simply-named Cyclo Cross, of all the bikes we saw at the launch this is the one that is available to buy now, the rest will be in Decathlon stores in February.
The Cyclo Cross is an £800 crosser with Tektro Oryx cantilever brakes, Shimano 105 drivetrain and levers and Mavic Aksium wheels. Unlike most cyclo-cross bikes in this price range, this is a race-orientated rig, with no rear mudguard eyes, rack mounts or even bottle cage bosses. Great if you want to start racing ’cross on a budget, but perhaps a bit limiting if you want to use it as a bomb-proof pothole-basher, although there are always p-clips I suppose. Its racing DNA though does bestow one big advantage - it's relative lack of heft, Decathlon are claiming 9.9Kg for a 55 which makes it a chunk lighter than bikes costing a chunk more cash.
None more Mach
The three bikes in the Mach line up share a carbon fibre frame based on last year’s Facet frame. While the Mach platform is the same shape as the Facet, a new lay-up means the frame is 100g lighter and the front end is a little more comfortable, according to Andrew. The base model Mach 700 is hung with Shimano 105 components, and while there are a handful of cheaper carbon-framed bikes with similar spec out there, few claim an 1115g frame and 360g fork at their heart.
Another £200 gets you a full Campagnolo group in the Centaur 10-equipped Mach 720, which even uses a Campagnolo crank and wheels. With the red highlights in the Campagnolo parts, it looks like it costs a lot more than £1300.
Speaking of looks, you might have noticed that there’s a lot of black in the B’Twin range this year. “It’s international and it never goes out of fashion,” says Andrew.
The Mach 740 is the bike ridden by the B’Twin Under-19 racing team and comes with Campagnolo Athena 11 including carbon brake levers and carbon crank for £1750. Andrew Lorenzi says that the 100,000 miles of training and racing the team clocked up in 2013 was invaluable testing; certainly you’d expect strong juniors who perhaps haven’t quite acquired the finesse of age to be hard on gear. To teach them a bit of respect and useful mechanical knowledge, each team member assembles their own bike.
In recent years Campagnolo components have become rare on production bikes, but from what we heard at this launch that may be about to change. The Italian parts maker has historically struggled to deliver OEM components on time and at prices that make them competitive with Shimano. That’s changing, says Andrew. Campagnolo have worked hard to sort out issues in their supply chain “and now there’s just a two month order time for Campagnolo parts. For Di2, it’s more like six months,” Andrew told us.
This range sees Campagnolo return to Decathlon's bikes after an absence of several years. It also sees the company dropping SRAM in favour of Shimano across the rest of the line-up. Because Decathlon’s stores are all linked back to HQ in Lille, product managers can see what components are presenting problems and choose accordingly. That’s a powerful tool for a company that sells four million own-brand bikes per year. Crunching the numbers revealed a much higher rate of return for SRAM than Shimano.
Age of Ultra
According to the B'Twin press pack the Ultra, B’Twin’s second new platform for 2014 is a "light, dynamic, fireball." Yes, we asked for one in on test.
The Ultra is an 850g carbon frame with a 325g fork that’s available in two versions with either mechanical or electronic Shimano Ultegra 11-speed shifting.
Aesthetically these bikes have lots in common with the Alur aluminium frame, with the same gently curved top tube and angular, shaped frame members. But using carbon fibre means the Ultra can take it up a couple of notches with features like a concealed seatpost clamp, custom seat post and, once again, direct-mount brakes, which Andrew Lorenzi says B’Twin chose for both their looks and their stopping power.
The £2000 Ultra 920 has a complete mechanical Shimano Ultegra 11 group with direct-mount brakes, the rear brake once again tucked under the chainstays. There’s plenty of brand-name icing on the cake here too: Deda bar and stem, Mavic Ksyrium Elite wheels with Yksion tyres, fi’zi:k Arione saddle and Look Keo Max pedals.
“Di2 and EPS are the future,” says Andrew, name-checking Shimano and Campagnolo’s electronic shifting systems as he introduces the top bike in the B’Twin range, the £3000 Ultra 940.
“In a few years all bikes from £1,000 up will be Di2,” as the price of the currently-spendy technology comes down. He thinks Campagnolo have some catching up to do, though. “Second generation Di2 is a step above. Campagnolo will have to bring in new features.”
Mind you that much anticipated drop in price is not just around the corner if the thousand pound price gap between the Ultra 720 with mechanical Ultegra groupset and its range toping sibling the Ultra 940 is anything to go by. The Ultra 940 will sell for a penny shy of three grand while the 920 will go for the same amount under two thousand pounds, but you could do that sum.
Andrew likes Di2’s programmability, and the new battery shapes that allow a manufacturer to hide the battery in the frame. The Ultra 940 has the battery tucked into the seat tube and is charged via the control unit under the stem.
He and B’Twin were aiming for a clean, minimal look with the Ultra 940, and the lack of a seatstay brake, and concealed wires certainly add to that.
Given the company’s renewed relationship with Campagnolo, will there be an EPS-equipped Ultra in the future? “When the new battery becomes available,” says Andrew.
You might think of Decathlon as those slightly quirky budget sports stores you drive past on your way to the Alps, but since opening its first shop complex at London’s Canada Water in 1999 it has quietly become a significant player. Look around any town that has a Decathlon and you see lots of Triban bikes in the streets, as well as Decathlon townies and hybrids.
Iniital impressions of the new range are that, with the possible exception of the Di2 bike, B'Twin are certainly delivering a lot of bike for the money. How do they do it? Well they've got two big advantages. Selling four million bikes a year delivers some significant economies of scale - especially when they are all black; and the fact that they are both manufacturer and retailer means there is no distributor margin to include in the retail price.
Decathlon's bikes have been ridden with distinction in the pro peloton but the new Ultra and Alur platforms in particular represent a significant upping of the technical ante by the French outfit, and from what we were hearing yesterday there's a lot more to come yet.
Our official grumpy Northerner, John has been riding bikes for over 30 years since discovering as an uncoordinated teen that a sport could be fun if it didn't require you to catch a ball or get in the way of a hulking prop forward.
Road touring was followed by mountain biking and a career racing in the mud that was as brief as it was unsuccessful.
Somewhere along the line came the discovery that he could string a few words together, followed by the even more remarkable discovery that people were mug enough to pay for this rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work. He's pretty certain he's worked for even more bike publications than Mat Brett.
The inevitable 30-something MAMIL transition saw him shift to skinny tyres and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.