How we chose our Road Bike of the Year 2021 winner

Freda Walters

With thousands of miles ridden on roads and gravel tracks, and some 32 bikes tested, our 2021 Bike of the Year test has, once again, been gruelling but rewarding, intense but inspiring, and plenty of fun. The 2021 edition has also been far from normal with a backdrop of a […]

With thousands of miles ridden on roads and gravel tracks, and some 32 bikes tested, our 2021 Bike of the Year test has, once again, been gruelling but rewarding, intense but inspiring, and plenty of fun.

The 2021 edition has also been far from normal with a backdrop of a global pandemic, unprecedented shortages and pricing pressures from a combination of global factors and political decisions.

My usual collaborative efforts when it comes to whittling down to the winning bikes have also been disrupted, with group riding and round-the-table discussions over coffee, beer and good food in Gran Canaria or San Remo replaced with Microsoft Teams and plenty of hard yards in the Wiltshire countryside that serves as my usual testing ground.

That hasn’t made our discussions any less deep or the arguments less heated, though, with myself and my three test pilots all in agreement that the final four bikes are the best on offer in 2021. And yet we all have our own favourites among this glittering group.

We’ll be bringing you full reviews of all 32 bikes tested for Bike of the Year 2021. For now, however, it’s time to reveal the final four – and tell the story of how we chose this year’s winner.

2021 Road Bike of the Year | The final four

  • Boardman SLR 9.4 AXS disc carbon: £2,700
  • Cannondale SuperSix Evo Carbon disc Ultegra: £3,950
  • Giant TCR Advanced Pro 1 Disc: £4,199
  • Rondo HVRT CF1 Ultegra: £4,699

Giant TCR Advanced Pro 1 Disc

The first member of the final testing group to introduce is Adrian. He’s smitten by the cheaper version of the nine-grand Giant TCR Advanced SL 0. In fact, Ade is in awe of the £4,199 TCR Advanced Pro 1 option we tested for Bike of the Year and I’m a huge fan of this TCR too.

Ade and I are in firm agreement that Giant’s TCR Advanced Pro 1 package, while not cheap, is of exceptional value. The finishing kit is top-grade, the SLR-1 wheelset is superb and the Ultegra groupset is completed with Giant’s own dual-sided power meter built into the crankset. Ade has a history of training with power meters when riding some of Europe’s toughest sportives.

  • Price: £4,199
  • Weight: 7.65kg (L)
  • Frame: Advanced-Grade composite
  • Fork: Advanced-Grade composite
  • Gears: Shimano Ultegra 52/36, 11-30
  • Crank: Giant integrated crank-based Power Pro power meter
  • Brakes: Shimano Ultegra hydraulic disc
  • Wheels: Giant SLR-1 42mm Carbon Disc WheelSystem
  • Tyres: Giant Gavia Course 1 Tubeless 25mm
  • Saddle: Giant Fleet SL
  • Seatpost: Giant Variant composite
  • Stem: Giant Contact SL
  • Bar: Giant Contact SL

Cannondale SuperSix Evo Carbon Ultegra

Cannondale SuperSix EVO

The Cannondale SuperSix EVO was once again a contender for the Bike of the Year title.
Russell Burton / Immediate Media

Next up it’s our resident ultra-marathon runner and Cycling Plus magazine’s senior art editor, Steve. He’s chuffed with the updated Cannondale SuperSix Evo (£3,950) with its light frame, carbon wheels and improved cockpit over 2020’s Bike of the Year-winning bike.

Steve reckons the bike suits his riding because it’s such a great climbing companion and has the comfort his marathon endeavours in the saddle deserve. Well, that and the looks. “I love the understated Cannondale graphics that contrast with the bike’s metallic plum colourway,” says Steve.

  • Price: £3,950
  • Weight: 8.13kg (58cm)
  • Frame: BallisTec Carbon
  • Fork: BallisTec Carbon
  • Gears: Shimano Ultegra (52/36, 11-32)
  • Chainset: Cannondale 1 chainset with 52/36 FSA chainrings
  • Brakes: Shimano Ultegra hydraulic disc with 160mm Ice-Tech rotors
  • Wheels: Cannondale HollowGram 35 carbon disc
  • Tyres: Vittoria Rubino Pro Graphene 2.0 25mm
  • Saddle: Prologo Nago S
  • Seatpost: HollowGram SL 27 KNØT carbon
  • Stem: HollowGram KNØT
  • Bar: HollowGram SAVE SystemBar carbon
Contenders for the BikeRadar Road Bike Of The Year 2021

Ade powers to the front of our test crew on the Giant TCR Pro 1.
Russell Burton / Immediate Media

Rondo HVRT CF1 Ultegra

Last year, CP’s art editor Rob was also a huge fan of the SuperSix Evo’s handling, which gave Rob confidence descending the fast mountain roads in Gran Canaria, where we chose the final winner of last year’s test.

Now the proud father of two young children, Rob’s priorities have changed somewhat and he’s looking for a bike that’ll be fast but also versatile with it, due to space being at a premium.

The Rondo HVRT (£4,699) hits the right notes. With its Twin-Tip forks, this clever piece of design can be an aero-road bike with speedy handling or a long-distance endurance bike that’s more stable; a swift switch of wheels makes it a gravel bike par-excellence, too.

  • Price: £4,699
  • Weight: 8.41kg (L)
  • Frame: Carbon
  • Fork: Carbon
  • Gears: Shimano Ultegra, 52/36, 11-30
  • Brakes: Shimano Ultegra Disc
  • Wheels: Hunt/Rondo Carbon Limitless Aerodynamicist 44 carbon tubeless-ready
  • Tyres: Continental Grand Prix 5000 25mm
  • Saddle: Fabric ALM Ultimate
  • Seatpost: Rondo CF aero
  • Stem: Rondo CF
  • Bar: Easton EC70 aero carbon

Boardman SLR 9.4 Rival AXS

That just leaves my own contender, the Boardman SLR 9.4 AXS Disc Carbon (£2,700). It’s the least expensive bike in this final shootout and, next to the Cannondale and Giant, it doesn’t have the same ‘premium’ brand reputation. (Rondo may be a smaller brand, but it does have the 2019 Bike of the Year award under its belt for the original HVRT).

And yet the Boardman genuinely surprised me. I tested the mechanical Ultegra-equipped 9.2 last year and the chassis, frame and fork combination, drivetrain efficiency and compliant comfort all made for a bike that rides beautifully. That the sub-900g frame and sub-350g fork are respectably lightweight only adds to the charm.

  • Price: £2,700
  • Weight: 8.01kg (L)
  • Frame: Carbon
  • Fork: Carbon
  • Gears: SRAM Rival eTap AXS (46/33, 10-30)
  • Brakes: SRAM Rival hydraulic disc
  • Wheels: Alexrims RXD3 30mm
  • Tyres: Vittoria Rubino Pro Graphene 2.0 28mm
  • Saddle: Boardman SLR
  • Seatpost: Boardman SLR carbon
  • Stem: Boardman Elite alloy
  • Bar: Boardman Elite alloy

Ebb and flow

I’ve struggled so much to pick an overall Bike of the Year winner. During the online debates, I’ve found myself ebbing and flowing between these four brilliant bikes.

The Giant TCR’s ride is second nature to me. I love its responsive handling and the way it climbs is out of this world. The Pro 1 package is pricey at £4,199, but believe me when I say that it’s a great-value package.

The tubeless wheelset (which comes set up tubeless with excellent tyres) weighs just 1,452g a pair and alone would set you back £1,200. Add in a carbon seatpost, carbon bar, full mechanical Ultegra groupset, a dual-sided Giant Power-Pro power meter built into the Ultegra crank (which again retails for £800) and you’re getting a serious amount of bike for the money. The Pro 1 is such a complete package that the thought of upgrades should be put far from your mind.

The Cannondale SuperSix has handling that I tend to judge all other race-style bikes by. It’s a bike that gives me absolute confidence when heading downhill, knowing that it’ll fly through corners holding its line with pin-point accuracy. It also refuses to be flustered on less than ideal surfaces.

Contenders for the BikeRadar Road Bike Of The Year 2021

After months of online debate, the BOTY jury finally met in the flesh.
Russell Burton / Immediate Media

The Rondo HVRT is adaptable, versatile and rapid, and in the new Ultegra package with Hunt’s Aerodynamicist wheelset it’s an impressive package. Add in the Easton carbon bar and Fabric ALM saddle, which on its own retails at a penny shy of £200, and you can rest assured that the Rondo also isn’t in need of upgrades anytime soon. You’ll just want to get your hands on that all-important second set of gravel wheels for some guaranteed off-road fun.

We’ve all come to feel very positive about the Boardman 9.4 SLR. The red-to-black fade paintwork is a great-looking design, and the wireless drivetrain gives the bike a clean and uncluttered finish.

The great debate

Our online debates centred around me and my three fellow adjudicators arguing their corners. Steve talks about setting PBs on the Evo; Rob dreams of hitting the road one day and gravel the next on the HVRT and Ade enthuses about making the most of his training rides with power measurement on tap, thanks to Giant’s all-in package. I, meanwhile, celebrate the Boardman and its ace in the deck: SRAM’s new 12-speed wireless Rival AXS groupset.

We all agreed on the Boardman’s brilliant frame and fork, and that it’d cleverly gone outside of the standard brands and sourced a light, great value alloy wheelset. The Alexrims, which offer tubeless compatibility and a low weight without the price penalty of carbon, help keep the SLR down to more than £1,000 cheaper than its closest finalist.

The real proof, however, was judging everyone’s thoughts on the bike as a whole. The Boardman has great handling, located in the sweet-spot between endurance stability and a nimble race feel – I compared it to both Cannondale’s sporty Synapse and BMC’s ground-breaking GF01 (which Steve agreed with wholeheartedly as his own bike is a GF01 Disc) in our round-laptop talks.

The addition of Rival AXS, with its eTap shift logic (right-hand button harder gear, left-hand lighter, both buttons together shifts the front mech) was celebrated as soon as everyone became accustomed to its intuitive, accurate and dependable shifting.

Ade and I soon delved into the SRAM AXS specifics of the Boardman. Ade has previously spent plenty of time on a Canyon with Red AXS, and one of my own bikes is equipped with Force AXS, so we’re both used to riding with AXS in its more expensive forms. And both of us genuinely couldn’t feel a difference in shifting performance between SRAM’s three Rival, Red and Force AXS groupsets.

Impressive stuff for the Boardman’s ‘cheaper’ Rival setup and the weight increase for the lower groupset is less than you’d think, only 233g heavier in a similar 2x setup than Force.

Things become clearer

Every year I say that it gets tougher for us to pick a Bike of the Year winner as the standard of bikes is increasing and improving annually. This year we’ve got a stunning display of bikes.

The Cannondale as the 2020 Bike of the Year currently wears the crown. The Rondo HVRT has form in being the winning bike from 2019. The TCR is also a former champion (in a previous form) from 2018, and each is a deserving winning bike in its own right. If we get hyper-critical – and we really have to – then things become a little clearer.

The Rondo, with its anomalous attitude in the world of road bikes, has plenty going for it. As we see more and more niches and sub-niches – from race bikes to all-road bikes, aero-road bikes, endurance bikes, gravel bikes, fast-gravel, bikepackers – this polished bike hits so many targets with impressive competence that I’m sure it has versatility as the first marker in its DNA.

The only downside with the 8.41kg Rondo is that it’s heavier than its rivals (though by no means a porker).

Contenders for the BikeRadar Road Bike Of The Year 2021

Every year it gets tougher for us to pick an overall Bike of the Year winner.
Russell Burton / Immediate Media

Cannondale’s SuperSix Evo Carbon Ultegra takes the (very minimal) criticism we had of the bike last year and makes upgrades using the aerodynamic KNØT stem and matching aero HollowGram KNØT Save bar.

The new cockpit looks superb and makes the most of the Evo’s internal cable and hose routing to its fullest. The stem, with its cradle design and bolt-thru clamp, still offers rotational adjustment but loses the forward-facing clamp, and the integrated GPS mount unit keeps everything smooth and clean.

You’re getting the full Evo experience here, in a bike made famous by Cannondale’s pro-tour EF riders. Yet money is an issue. Cannondale has been hit hard by pricing pressures, meaning this Evo has seen increases and, in flat terms compared to the 2020 bike, it’s nigh-on £1,000 more. If you can stretch to the £3,950 price tag you won’t be disappointed, it’s just a lot of cash for most of us.

The Giant TCR Advanced Pro 1 is also a heap of money at £4,199, but the latest TCR is absolutely the finest race bike Giant has ever produced. You’ve no idea how crushing that feels to someone whose pride and joy is the previous but now-not-quite-as-good model that’s had a huge amount spent on it!

For the UK, though, I’d like to have seen Giant complete the bike with 28mm tyres rather than the narrower 25s it comes with. Similar to the Cannondale, it offers a pure-race experience with a specification that (besides the slimmer tyres) is nigh-on flawless. Plus, it comes with an accurate power meter that’ll help you improve your fitness and riding prowess. These gains come at a price but they are worth it.

Coming up like a true underdog is the Boardman SLR 9.4. Yes, its three rivals all come with pretty special carbon wheels, hence the jump in price from the SLR’s £2,700 to the Cannondale’s £3,950, Giant’s £4,199, and Rondo’s £4,699. Yet the numbers on the Boardman’s ‘modest’ Alexrims wheels impress as the RXD3 are fully tubeless compatible and weigh in at a very respectable 1,550g a pair.

This is compared to the Giant’s 1,404g a pair with the same 19mm internal measure, the Cannondale’s just shy of 1,500g weight, and the Hunt wheels on the Rondo tipping the scales at around 1,300g, so they aren’t that far apart for a much lower initial outlay.

When it comes to the complete bikes, the Boardman’s light sub-900g frame and feathery 350g fork come into play – only the flyweight 7.65kg Giant beats out the Boardman’s 8.01kg weight, with the Cannondale at 8.13kg and Rondo at 8.41kg.

Deep data dive

Weight is only one factor, of course. When it comes to victory, what the Boardman does and does exceptionally well is ride. The handling is swift, so it’s exciting when riding fast, but it never feels unsettled or twitchy. When it comes to gearing, the SRAM Rival AXS controls – and some may call this sacrilege – are simply better than the mechanical Ultegra, which has long been the benchmark of bikes between £2,750 and £4,500.

Mechanical Ultegra is superb for cable-operated gear changing, and none of us four could find ourselves justifying upgrading to Dura-Ace, for instance, but Rival AXS is just simply easier to live with. Maintenance is simpler because there’s no complex internal cable routing and the motorised shifting doesn’t deviate because a cable is rubbing, stretched, contaminated or any other external factor. With AXS, the smart electronic brain simply tells the motors in the mechs to move the designated amount.

Rival AXS gears on the Boardman SLR 9.4 AXS Disc Carbon road bike

Rival AXS offers fast, accurate shifting without the need for cables.
Russell Burton / Immediate Media

The app integration that comes as standard with AXS brings the humble bicycle right into the modern data-driven age. It warrants plenty of praise for the way it offers more analysis opportunities for your riding because the app will record a ride with all the usual metrics: speed, distance, moving time, heart rate (if paired with a heart-rate monitor) and full GPS tracking, which it uploads to Strava automatically. It also adds in useful component data.

Contenders for the BikeRadar Road Bike Of The Year 2021

The Boardman has great handling that’s located in the sweet-spot between endurance stability and a nimble race feel.
Russell Burton / Immediate Media

So if you’ve ever wondered how many times you shift gears in a ride, your overall gear usage, or the time and distance you spend in each gear, then you’ll wonder no more.

If you’re using a power meter (and SRAM offers a Rival power meter upgrade for just £230) it’ll add those metrics. If you run a Quarq TyreWiz (a Bluetooth device that fixes to your tyre valves to measure and transmit pressures) then even tyre pressure is relayed.

SRAM’s Rival chainset on the Boardman SLR 9.4 AXS Disc Carbon road bike

Getting a wireless electronic groupset for this price helped set the Boardman apart from its rivals.
Russell Burton / Immediate Media

The app can also provide both power and heart-rate analysis, so with the AXS app you can take a deep dive into your ride data before learning from it and using it for constructive training improvements.

The app even helps take the guesswork out of getting the right gear. You can set the bike up in compensation mode, so that when you shift the front mech to the other chainring it’ll automatically shift the rear to put you in the next best gear. Or you can go full-assist and you only need worry about rear mech shifts because it’ll change up or down at the front for you.

All of this tech was only available previously on SRAM Force- or Red-equipped bikes starting at prices around £7,000 and up. That you can get these kind of tech advancements, that truly offer a better ride experience for much less outlay, is impressive. Especially when bike pricing has been under so much pressure.

Underdog story

Boardman should be praised for not only taking a leap into the unknown but being one of the first brands to get on board with SRAM’s affordable AXS.

It’s also worth noting that Boardman was also one of the first brands to use SRAM road components back when mechanical Double Tap launched, as well as the original eTap.

Male cyclist riding the Boardman SLR 9.4 Rival AXS

The 9.4 scores Boardman’s first overall Bike of the Year win.
Russell Burton / Immediate Media

It also deserves just as much praise for producing a chassis made from high-grade carbon that’s superbly designed for all-riders, all-year-round with its big tyre clearances and proper mudguard provisions not dimming the excitement of a race bike and the comfort of an endurance machine.

That you can buy a bike this good to ride, this great-looking and packed with this much value from Halfords, the same place as you can buy a pine-scented dangling tree for your rear-view mirror, is perhaps even more remarkable.

The British-designed SLR is the epitome of the plucky underdog beating out more established competition, just as its founder Chris Boardman was the plucky time trialist from a small island taking on the world’s best riders back in Barcelona at the 1992 Olympics.

When it comes to 2021’s Bike of the Year, it’s been a stellar competition and each of the final four could take the overall title. Yet the Boardman SLR 9.4 represents a perfect mix of performance, speed, comfort, agility and prudence to your pocket. In these uncertain times, it’s the bike to buy with your head and your heart.

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