A carbon frame and tapered full-carbon fork. A price of just £800. And you can buy it from a real bricks-and-mortar bike shop rather than the click of a mouse. We’re talking about the Carrera Virago from British auto parts and bike retailer Halfords.
For the last decade Boardman’s Team Carbon and its SLR 8.9 successor have been the go-to budget carbon bikes – introducing a whole generation of cyclists to the joys of carbon. Somehow, though, in 2019 Halfords snuck out this much cheaper carbon bike under the radar – and at 20 per cent less than the Boardman’s £1,000.
Bike of the Year 2020
The Carrera Virago is part of our annual Bike of the Year test.
Head to our Bike of the Year hub for the full list of winners, categories and shortlisted bikes, as well as the latest reviews – or read our behind-the-scenes feature on how we tested Bike of the Year 2020.
It’s not only the least expensive carbon bike you can buy on the British high street, we also believe it undercuts online sellers’ regular retail price for any new carbon road bike.
As with Boardman, Carrera has been the first road bike for hundreds of thousands of British cyclists and the Carrera TdF – though no longer in its range – is still a familiar sight on our streets. But a carbon frame with a tapered full-carbon fork at this price? Surely something’s got to give? Actually, much less than you might think.
Carrera Virago frame
I spoke with Carrera’s head of design, Justin Stevenson, who told me the new Virago frame was developed with its Far Eastern suppliers specifically for this model. “It’s made in Asia with one of our key partners to ensure optimum performance for cost,” he says.
“We really wanted to bring carbon frames to a new price point and customer but were determined not to compromise the frame, ride quality or weight. We also wanted to make sure this frame was good enough to upgrade to better components at a later date.”
The Carrera Virago has an alloy bar and stem. David Caudery / Immediate Media
Stevenson also tells us the Virago was designed from the start with modern features such as thin, dropped seatstays and “a profiled top-tube to allow vertical compliance over rougher roads”.
Its all-round and commuting credentials are bolstered by clearances for 28mm tyres and front and rear mudguard bosses.
Carrera Virago testing
I first rode the Virago last year in a multi-bike test of similarly priced machines and I put in more days and more miles on this than any of its competitors just to ensure I hadn’t missed anything on the first, second, third and fourth ride.
This Virago is a real treat. There’s little to distinguish its ride quality from the big names’ entry-level carbon bikes, which is itself impressive given the price and the Carrera’s Halfords provenance.
The Carrera Virago’s saddle sits on a 27.2mm seatpost. David Caudery / Immediate Media
The Virago’s modern frame profiles really do result in a comfortable and compliant ride.
The angular frame with its oversized trapezium-shaped down-tube is suitably stiff but the flattened top-tube that slims along its length, as featured on Specialized’s Allez for years, and those skinny dropped stays – as seen on just about every 2020 road bike after being pioneered by BMC – keep things very smooth and comfortable however hard you ride.
The tapered fork and head tube also deliver great control when you crank things up, no slop, no play, just confident power transfer.
Carrera Virago kit
Shimano’s 9-speed Sora groupset is a solid performer, but I did have a very occasional glitch with some less-than-precise shifting, the chain feeling as if it wasn’t sitting in the cassette perfectly every time.
It was a slight annoyance when it happened but not enough to detract from the overall quality of the ride. It may be a result of the Virago’s internal cable routing and could well be improved by upgrading to a Shimano outer gear cable.
The Carrera Virago is kitted out with Shimano Sora gears and FSA Tempo chainset. David Caudery / Immediate Media
The rest of the finishing kit is all the standard stuff you see on most £500 to £1,000 bikes – functional aluminium stem, handlebar and seatpost – but its 27.2mm diameter is always welcome for its extra comfort over a 31.6mm post and the saddle is from the experts at Velo, so no complaints there.
The 32-spoke wheels are pretty basic and the same is true for the 25mm Zaffiro tyres. When the latter wear out, I’d up to more supple 28mm tyres for their comfort-boosting volume. Though given that there is clearance for these wider tyres I’d like to have seen these fitted as standard.
Carrera Virago ride impressions
The Virago’s top tube is reasonably short at 55.5cm, so you’re not in a super-stretched-out riding position, but that’s balanced with steep frame angles and a sub-metre wheelbase (just 990mm on my medium model) that ensure quick, lively handling, though not too lively for the novice road rider likely to be looking at this bike.
It has a good weight for the price and though you will feel its 9.71kg when you’re climbing, the Virago’s 34×32 bottom gear – perceptibly lower than the Boardman SLR8.9c’s 34×28 – helped me out on my local climbs, which nudge into double digits even on my daily commute.
I’m a big fan of the bottom 32 or 34 sprocket, especially on a bike that’s likely to be bought by a less experienced rider who may need all the help going on hills. Yes, there will be bigger jumps between gears, especially on a 9-speed setup such as this, but that’s a trade-off worth making every time.
The Tektro caliper rim brakes do the job just fine. David Caudery / Immediate Media
Get down into the drops and it’s a confident descender too, though I’d upgrade to cartridge brake blocks to make the most of the Tektro caliper rim brakes, which are okay as they are but not inspiring.
Carrera Virago bottom line
I know that some tend to favour aluminium over carbon at £1,000, and would probably scoff at my praise for an £800 carbon bike, but this is the real deal, a proper carbon road bike and at an almost indecent price.
In nearly 25 years testing many hundreds of bikes from £200 to £10,000, few have surprised me more than Carrera’s Virago.
This Virago may not be the most elegant-looking bike out there, and you may also have to overcome prejudice about buying from Halfords – but you’ll nab yourself a bargain if you do.
Internal cabling keeps things slick. David Caudery / Immediate Media
It’s big and powerful in the right areas, slim and forgiving where it needs to be and has internal cable routing.
Carrera’s Virago is a practical day-to-day bike that’s also suitable for longer days out, and it not only comes with a lifetime of safety checks but the frame and fork are guaranteed for life, which may help ease some purchasing doubts.
One more thing. At present it’s down to £700, making it even more of a bargain. What’s not to like?
Carrera Virago geometry
Seat angle: 73 degrees
Head angle: 73.5 degrees
Seat tube: 54cm
Top tube: 55.5cm
Head tube: 14.5cm
Fork offset: 4.5cm
Bottom-bracket drop: 6.6cm
With thanks to…
BikeRadar would like to thank 100%, Q36.5, Lazer, Garmin and Facom for their support during our Bike of the Year test.