ALUMINIUM BIKES UNDER £1,600
Three aluminium models that are hell bent on shedding off its questionable reputation. But is the road feedback as invigorating as the marketing claims?
The £1,500-plus price point – we’re talking serious bike territory now. You’ve ridden rough shod over the government’s £1,000 rideto-work scheme and are looking for a bike that reflects your growing stature as a triathlete. That means one thing and one thing only: carbon. Or possibly not…
The three bikes we’ve got for you this month are all constructed from aluminium, the material that once dominated elite triathlon and cycling before carbon and its unrivalled strength-to-weight ratio arrived on the scene. Today, carbon dominates tri at the top end, seen by Cervélo once again clearly topping the Ironman World Championship bike count with 570 competitors scorching around the lava fields of Hawaii on their bikes. Alu, on the other hand, and its reputation for
relatively affordable manufacturing processes and material sourcing mean it’s normally the preserve of those spending less than a grand.
But not anymore. Gone are the days when tubing and unwieldy welding processes limited geometry and looks. New manufacturing techniques and advancements in material technology mean alu can now be shaped to impressive aerodynamic effect, while retaining a strength-to-weight ratio that’s stronger than many steels. No longer do many strains of alu result in a harsh ride; in fact, for this price point, arguably you’re buying a better bike than if you went for a cheaper grade of carbon. Of course, the proof is in the riding so it’s time to put Trek’s Emonda ALR 5, the Specialized Allez Sprint Comp and Hoy’s Alto Irpavi .003 to the test.
No matter how much we deny it, aesthetics is a key factor in purchasing a bike. Part of carbon’s appeal is its monocoque composition, meaning the joins are incredibly smooth. Alu tubes, on the other hand are often unsightly lumps that might add strength but look second rate. That’s not the case with Trek’s Emonda ALR 5, thanks to what the Wisconsin brand term ‘invisible weld technology’. Trek hydroform each tube, meaning pressurised fluid changes its shape to suit the bike’s aim, which here is comfort. Each tube is then shaped so that it fits the next tube like a glove, resulting in less welding material. Not only does it look smooth but reduced welding cuts weight; in fact, the only sign it’s not of monocoque construction is down at the bottom bracket, that highstress area requiring more weld.
As for the aluminium itself, that’s all-new ‘premium 300 Series Alpha’. Trek say that the manufacturing of the 300 results in a more comfortable ride, and they’ve a strong argument. It coped admirably with our usual test routes, including from Bristol to Clevedon and back, providing comfort as well as a kick on the occasional hill. That comfort is heightened by the head tube – 19cm for our 58cm test model – and the relatively compact 57.3cm top tube. It’s what Trek call performanceoriented geometry but it’s a little more relaxed than their racier H1 set-up. Throw in the gently-sloping compact geometry and carbon fork, and you have one comfortable ride. It’s certainly smoother than many entry-level aluminium bikes…
Smooth is certainly a tag you’d apply to Specialized’s Allez – well, the £1,000 Elite model we tested in issue 343. But what about this slicklooking Sprint Comp, which comes in £600 more expensive and has the Morgan Hill brand calling it the ‘most advanced alloy road bike we’ve ever made’? That’s quite a claim for a 43-year-old company. Or maybe not… as our 58cm model came in at a pretty floaty 8.3kg. Like Trek, core to the build is Specialized’s high-grade of alloy – in this case, E5 Premium aluminium. Like Trek, it’s the welding that draws your attention. Unlike Trek, it’s the explicit nature of the joins that catches your attention. It’s Specialized’s trademark Smartweld technology, created by one of their designers, Chris D’Aluisio.
A FASHIONABLE SHOW
Instead of using mitred aluminium tubes that are TIG-welded together, the hydroformed tubing is ‘rolled’ and welded in what he calls a valley where the tubes meet. Take the bottom-bracket shell, where two enormous hydroformed ‘clamshell’ pieces are brazed together to which the down tube, seat tube and chainstays are welded. The result is a BB shell more akin to carbon fibre than aluminium. Visually, Specialized have made a fashionable show of the joins, drawing your eye to them rather than away.
That Smartweld technology plus the E5 alu composition is visible on the ride, too, delivering arguably the stiffest alloy ride we’ve ever experienced. Specialized claim that lateral stiffness is right up there with the racier Tarmac SL4 in this respect and it’s certainly evident. Accelerating away from traffic lights is comparable with many carbon bikes we’ve tested.
Balancing that firm energyprojecting stiffness with comfort is
the eternal balancing act and, despite the FACT carbon fork they’ve swiped from the pricier S-Works, this is one rigid ride. It’s the alu equivalent of barefoot running with first impressions focusing on every bump and stone. Over the testing period, it’s something you partially become more attuned to, though it’s probably more at home with clipons attached and trouncing a smooth, closed-circuit triathlon (Eton) than as a mileage-consuming training bike. Its speed-seeking DNA’s also clear in the seat tube, which is gently shaped around the rear wheel. It’s not as pronounced as some bikes but is pretty impressive for alu tubing. Whether it makes a difference is answered in the labs… but this is fast.
As is the man behind the final bike… Hoy Bikes have been at an Evans store near you since 2013. As for the Alto Irpavi, it takes its name from the high-altitude velodrome where Chris Hoy broke the 500m world record. That might sound a touch self-serving but, well, if I did similar, it’d be emblazoned across my tri-suit, wetsuit and office suit.
As well as having the most grandiose name, in our opinion it’s the most stylish bike here. We’re a sucker for glossy silver and it flows into the darker down tube, top tube and seat tube with appreciated elegance.
NEAT AND TIDY
Hoy and Evans has kept the road brief simple with each Alto Irpavi –
“The Hoy Alto Irpavi begs to be ridden for hours and hours”
there are four – and each Aomori (named after the Japanese venue where sentimental Chris won his first keirin race) – there are three plus a junior’s bike – constructed from alu. In all but the two most affordable models, the alu used is like on our test model – 6066 triple-butted. What does butted mean? Simply that, during the tube-manufacturing process, the tubes have added thickness on areas of stress. Double butted is when the tubes are thicker at the end for added strength. Tripled butted means it has three different wall thicknesses along its length. For instance, 0.9mm, 0.5mm and 0.7mm with the thicker measurement at the end of greatest stress, like where the seat tube reaches the bottom bracket.
And we can’t ignore the welding. In summary, they’re as neat and tidy as Hoy roaring past his rivals. And as for the ride, it’s really rather good. Yes, it’s not as sharp as the Spec in a 0-60 (okay, 0-40km/hr) contest but it’s no slouch, either, and any acceleration deficit is easily counterbalanced by comfort – assisted by the carbon fork – as it begs to be ridden for hours and hours, its slightly more languid geometry easing aches and pains.
We don’t apologise for such focus on the welding and tubing this month as these are potential aluminium groundbreakers, but clearly the groupset plays a key role, too, with all three dressed with the reliable 11-speed Shimano 105. The only major difference is that while Spec and Hoy have gone for a 52-tooth/36-tooth combo upfront, Trek has chosen a slightly more laid-back 50-tooth/34-tooth mix.
COMPONENT HIGHS AND LOWS
Yes, that’s a lower top-end than the other two, but it’s useful for steep hills, though thunder-thighed triathletes might prefer the 52-tooth upfront, depending on their preferred cadence.
Mind you, studies show that generating 100rpm with the 50/34 set-up here results in a pretty swift 35.5mph. Hit 120rpm and you’ll eclipse 42mph. A higher cadence is often preferred with a run leg to follow as there’s less muscular demands than a high gear and lower cadence; then again, multiple studies have come to the rather uninspired but understandable conclusion that you naturally cycle at your preferred cadence, based on subtle physiological signs, including signals from your cardiovascular system and skeletal muscles.
Whatever your chainring desires, we all want wheels that are fast, durable and relatively lightweight. Trek’s effort, as is standard across their bikes, comes from their component brand Bontrager. Its ‘TLR’ name essentially means it’s tubeless ready, ensuring it can be used both with and without an inner tube. That’s down to the tyre and rim being designed so that they directly seal to each other. The benefits of going tubeless are that removing the inner tube means you can lower tyre pressure without sacrificing speed. That adds comfort, albeit adding the special sealant milk can be a particularly messy affair. The 25mm wide tyres also add comfort. That said, they lack a little oomph, so unless you’re thinking of going tubeless, your first upgrade should be here.
Specialized’s choice, the DT Swiss R460, roll adequately, but they’re a little uninspired as it’s the same wheelset we tested on the £600-cheaper Elite model; in
fact, the component list is near identical apart from the tyres, which means almost the entire extra outlay goes on the welding. It’s an impressive innovation but £600 worth? Questionable.
Hoy’s wheel of choice – Alex ATD470 rims and Joytech hubs – also lacks a little speed, though they’re adequate for winter use. If you’re looking to double up for racing, you’d definitely be seeking a lightweight upgrade. But just remember you’re after disc wheels as these are brought to a halt via Shimano’s RS505 hydraulics.
MIX AND MATCHING
Those of you who regularly ride mountain or cyclocross bikes during the winter months will be aware of the mooted benefits of hydraulics over caliper brakes, including improved, more reliable performance in the wet and better braking modulation. Both are apparent here and, when it comes to braking, it’s hard to beat discs at this price point. Yes, that 160mm rotor (smaller on smaller models) upfront and out back adds a modicum of weight, but with no calipers, Hoy has saved weight by removing the seatstay bridge. Just beware that some races still don’t accept disc brakes because of apparent scything rotor issues.
Shimano 105 and Tektro Axis proficiently cover caliper braking duties on the Trek and Specialized, respectively, although marks are gained for Trek for sticking to the same model as the groupset. Mix and matching is never ideal in our puritanical books.
Further highlights from across the three bikes include: Trek’s Bontrager Montrose saddle whose gel filling and cut-out centre is extremely comfortable; neat internal cabling on the Spec; and the Bluetooth-ready chainstay on the Trek that’s just ripe for fitting a speed or cadence sensor. Yes, the trio has their pros and cons, but which is best?
“The Trek strikes the perfect performance/ comfort balance”