Friday, 28 December 2012

Carrera Virtuoso 2012/2013 review

Back in June 2011, I wrote a review of what seemed to me to be the cheapest "proper" road bike money could buy. That bike was the Carrera Virtuoso, retailing in your local Halford's for the princely sum of £379.99 - and I was pleasantly surprised, because it proved to be a considerably better machine than I'd believed it could possibly be. In fact, apart from a few cheapo components here and there, the only bad thing I could really say about it was that it was ugly; which I still stand by because it was.

The other day, when I locked my old shopper bike up outside the local purveyor of ferret food, rather a nice-looking white and ice-blue aluminium bike happened to catch my eye. "Wossat?" I thought, before moving in for a closer look. Lo and behold, it turned out to be a 2012 Virtuoso - and it really is a far prettier beast than the 2011 model. In its older guise with black and blue paintwork the Virtuoso looked rather old-fashioned, reminding me of a budget racer from the early 1990s, which wasn't a real issue, of course, and may even have been a selling point for some people. After all, some people have no taste: I saw someone wearing those hideous denim-effect cycling shorts last week. The 2012 model, however, looks as up-to-date as next year's summer fashions - the glossy white and blue gives the impression of a considerably pricier bike, but it's still only £379.99 You can tell a lot about the quality of the paintwork by close examination of the lower end of the down tube, where stones flicked up by the front wheel tend to make contact with the frame - as I knelt down to have a look, I became aware of a hulking presence leaning over me.

The bike's owner. Who, one glance told me, was a lot harder than me (as are five-year-olds, and the majority of sparrows). Fortunately, he only looked like a thug and was equipped with a fully-functioning brain; as such he had realised that I was looking at his bike rather than nicking it and thus with-held from killing me pending an explanation. When I told him I'd reviewed an earlier model he seemed quite impressed, possibly because I failed to mention the review was for a blog rather than for a magazine, and once I'd handed over anything of worth as a deposit (wallet and contents, value not much; half a packet of Polos, value about twice that of my wallet and its contents) he agreed I could have a go round the car park on it.

The 2011 Virtuoso's frame was made of 7005 aluminium alloy, which they advertised as light-weight - the real reason it was chosen is more likely to be the relative ease with which it can be welded in Carrera-manufacturer Merida's Taiwanese factories, thus keeping production costs low. The 2012 frame has been upgraded: your money now gets you 6061, which has a lower density and is lighter as a result - yet the claimed weight of the 2012 bike is 700g greater than that of the 2011 bike at 11.2kg, which I suspect is due to the replacement of the older machine's Kalloy components with unbranded versions. However, nobody's going to enter an official race on a Virtuoso and 700g isn't really a problem; what matters more is that the new model is stiffer, meaning that it can hold its own in an unofficial traffic light drag race against the 125cc scooters - probably the only sort of race the bike will see. This has been achieved partly by the addition of an internal headet (the 2011 bike had an external headset) and largely by a much better fork - the curved 2011 version has been replaced with a more up-to-date straight-bladed effort. It's cromoly (you didn't think it'd be carbon at this price, surely?), but again the weight compared to carbon won't be an issue for most riders. The frame geometry has received some little tweaks here and there, too: Halfords called the 2011 Virtuoso semi-compact, this one is compact. All in all, it works - this bike is a genuine pleasure to ride, mimicking more costly machines in its responsiveness and ability to track through a tight corner, and not as sluggishly as you'd expect.

Some of the components have been upgraded, too. Gone is the old Pro Wheel Gloria Compact chainset, in its place is a square taper FSA Tempo with 50/34 rings, just like you get on a Giant Defy 4 and several other bikes that cost £200 more than this one does. Last year, Halfords were keeping quiet about the mechs; this year you've got a Shimano FD-2300 up at a front while a Sora handles the chain at the back. The brake and gear levers are STI 2300 - many riders find these make it difficult to change gear when riding on the drops, but it's something most people can learn to live with. On a bike as new as the test subject - a month, the owner told me - everything was working crisply, but as tends to be the way with budget groupsets the mechs and shifters are going to need looking after. Halfords offer a free service after six weeks; if you're new to cycling ask the shop mechanic if he or she will show you how to adjust the cable tension and derailleurs, then you should be able to keep everything working smoothly without any problems. The brakes are workable Tektro jobs and do what they're supposed to do; the 8-speed cassette is 12-26 and should be capable of getting you up any hill you put in front of the bike for a year or so, which is perfectly acceptable for a budget component.

As with the older models, the cheap plastic pedals and toe clips are a let-down. However, most Virtuosos are likely to be purchased by people new to road cycling and the one thing you'll hear again and again from people in that category is that they were surprised they needed to fork out for a pair of pedals when first buying a bike. Also, many new-comers are put off by clipless pedals; Halfords have therefore stuck these ones on in the full knowledge that serious riders will probably upgrade them to clipless before too long. The saddle - Carrera-branded - is cheap and a little too flexible but comfortable enough - some riders will swap for a fatter seat, mistakenly believing it will offer greater comfort, while those with a bit of nous will swap for their preferred racing/touring model. With that in mind the fact that it's cheap becomes an advantage -  it won't break your heart if you decide to get rid of it. Since many quality wheelsets cost more than this bike the wheels are unbranded and heavy as you'd expect, but they feel as though they'll do their job unless you hit a pothole at high speed. Cheap replacements would be my second upgrade and doing so might well make the bike lighter than the 2011 model. First upgrade for me after the pedals would have to be the tyres: Kenda make some top-quality rubber, but these are far from their finest offering - they look to be the same as those on the 2011 bike, which some riders complained rolled off the rims.

Summing up: the 2012 Carrera Virtuoso will never hold its own when pitted against exotica and it would be unfair to expect it to do so - after all, the complete bike costs less than some derailleurs - but for £380 it's a very good buy indeed. Many people dislike Halfords, but if they can build a bike like this at this price then they're doing something right. Upgrade the components when necessary and, so long as you can out up with stupid people telling you your bike's rubbish, the Virtuoso isn't a bad bike at all. Taking the price into consideration, I'll give it eight out of ten.

Buy this bike if: you watched Wiggo win the Tour and fancy giving this cycling lark a go but aren't certain you'll stick with it for long (hey, if you decide it's for you you can always buy a more expensive bike later); you want a cheap, fast, light commuter that'll get you to work with far less effort than a cheap MTB and be up for some leisurely jaunts if the sun's out on the way home; you want a cheap and cheerful winter bike - there's plenty of room between the fork blades and stays for a 25mm tyre, but be prepared to carry out regular services on the brakes and gears in bad weather.


  1. Thanks for the review, it has helped me make my decision to buy one.

  2. You won't regret it: I happened by chance to meet the owner again a few days ago, and he says he still loves his bike and hasn't had any serious issues with it. :-)

  3. Great Review and very interesting to read. I have ridden this model for the past 4 months and only notice the weight when swapping to a Trek 2000 (not mine). The Kenda tyres distorted and died in the middle of a long ride. Really disappointed in those and expected better from Kenda after using their Nevegal tyres for on my mountain bike. You didn't finish off the paintwork aspect though - is the paint job adequate or should I be spraying some sort of protector on the lower parts of the downtube and BB shell? Also, what would be an obvious bike upgrade from the Carrera on a tight budget? Cheers. Mark

  4. I'm also surprised to hear the Kenda tyres let you down, because I've used one of their models on my own MTB and found them to be every bit as good as tyres from the more well-known companies. I can only assume that the tyres fitted to the Virtuoso are the lowest-quality Kenda make, and it's a compromise that was necessary in order to get the bike down to the low price.

    I reckon the paint would be up to normal wear and tear, but it's obviously impossible to say for certain without having a Virtuoso for a long-term test. Perhaps somebody who owns one might be able to tell us more...?

    As is always the case with upgrading to a better bike, it all depends on how tight your budget is, Specialized and Giant have some tempting machines from around £500, or you could go back to Halfords and have a look at the Boardmans. Stick another hundred quid on top and you could have a GT GTR4 - but, while I've been a huge fan of Gary Turner's MTBs ever since my first Zaskar, it's my opinion that their road bikes are not enormously good value for money. If you'd rather have something a little more unusual, save up for a little longer and have a look at Ribble's website - the Sportive 7005 costs £600 with Tiagra and ITM Aero 4.2 wheels, but it looks like a bike worth at least a grand more, and once you'd bought one you could always start saving up for a new groupset etc (I haven't ridden the Sportive, but I'm trying to wangle a test ride of their carbon Gran Fondo and, if what I've heard from owners is right, I expect to be impressed (especially as it goes for under £1000 in its most basic form).

  5. great review and I think your bang on with what you say , people who say Halfords bikes are rubbish are just snobs in my opinion . on my virtuoso limited edition I have to keep stopping and waiting for my friend who rides a 8kg full carbon bike ... cant be that bad .

  6. Anonymous, you prove what we all know - even if some of us pretend otherwise: a fast rider on a £400 bike is still faster than a slow rider on a £4000 bike.

  7. Good review and I agree, having bought last June and riden weekly since for fun with others. Question - I ride a MTB with more gears and find the 12/26 comes up quite hard on steeper hills. Can I put a 10-speed Shimano/SRAM cassette on the hub (yes, I know about shifters, chains, etc to be changed if I do)

  8. Not something I've tried, but my suspicion is that it's possible - Shimano's 10-speed cassettes and hubs are, to the best of my knowledge, incompatible with 7, 8 and 9 speed cassettes and hubs, but can be made to work with a spacer (which you can probably get from Shimano, though in my experience getting hold of anything like that tends to involve a long wait).

    Like I say, though, I've never tried this and sometimes two Shimano products from different ranges that are supposed to be compatible aren't; so I'd do a bit of Googling first and see if anyone knows more.

  9. I have had this bike for 18 months nows and have done a fair few miles on. Am now having major problems with the gears to the extent that I wanted to lob the bike in a skip last week but as the bike was to see if I really liked road riding, I am now looking at upgrading to a better bike - mindfield!!!

    1. I think you mean MINEFIELD

  10. I think you mean minefield

  11. I have bought one of these bikes, but a different model, Carrea Virtuoso Road Pro, in black and blue. I absolutely love it, and I'd recommend it to anyone. I have definitely got the road racing bug, but I can't put my Carrera down, and I didn't really look after it that well (I hardly oiled, greased, de-greased the bike when I should have), and as a result, my rear wheel bearings have started to make a horrific noise. Now, don't take this the wrong way: This is because I didn't look after the bike, like AT ALL.
    I'm getting replacement parts soon, and I am going to start taking this bike seriously, I've bought some clipless pedals, some new bar tape, (the current bar tape might as well be toilet paper) and I am going to replace all the main components like the cables, chain and brake pads. I am also going to get some new AlexRims DA22's, because I've had them in the past and are nearly indestructible.
    This bike is absolutely perfect for any rider who is starting and wanting to get into the Road Racing bug. Anyone who is determined to take up road cycling and who wants to try something fun, BUY THIS NOW!
    Awesome paint job from a distance, decent when really, really close up and hides scratches rather well.
    Stock rims will survive basically anything, but I wouldn't chance it, upgrade if possible.
    The pedals are very good, and won't wander into the front wheel like other clipped pedals.
    The bike has basic parts that are easily adjusted.
    It looks like a professional bike with some relatively modern parts, such as Shimano Sora flightdeck, Tektro dual pivot brakes and seriously good saddle if you are a more aggressive rider.

    It is weighty in respect to Aluminum bikes. It's not the heaviest, but it's not the lightest.
    It does start feeling..... Tired, so to speak, within a couple of months if you don't look after it.
    The brake levers usually aren't all that secure when you first get the bike, so tighten them right up.
    I don't know whether this will be the same for you out there, but I had to remove my front fork to correctly align the lower headset bearings, so I would get that checked by the LBS.
    The bar tape feels like you're holding onto a rather thin rag on the alloy handle bars, so would swap it out.

    Please, for the love of god, DON'T get white bar tape. It looks ugly after a few weeks of riding.
    Just don't do this: Oiling a chain without cleaning it first. Applying lube after lube after lube will result in a 4th cat' tat' on your calf, the main marker of a novice biker. Not saying to use too little, use enough lube. Pouring Castrol motor oil through a funnel isn't going to do your drivechain much good, and yes, I have seen someone do this before.
    Avoid pot holes and road grids, and don't cycle near anything wood, especially in the wet as it gets really slippery. Drain grids on the road, if straight line slotted ones, will eat your thin tyres and send you over the handlebars into a double forward roll, most likely to land square on your ass.
    Replace your brake pads before they get to the 'worn out' indication line. This will prevent your brake pads from wearing so low, they allow the metal inside to protrude out, causing some costly damage to your rims. Metal on Metal isn't the sound a bike should create, so be careful when it comes to checking parts over.

  12. Bought one in 2012 and immediately changed the pedals...apart from that had no issues with it.
    My other "ride" is an MTB, and in comparison, given the terrain difference, I find it a joy to ride

  13. i bought a virtuoso new in 2002 when they were yellow. all i've done is change the tyres, pedals and saddle. have looked after it, no rust, paint still like new and have ridden thousands of miles. great bike and great value, highly recommended.

  14. I cycle on and off, a runner really. I have this bike and am lucky to have some money to upgrade now. But, I have cycle sportive (100 mile) a few times and did the c2c there and back in two days on it. I have hit 55 mph downhill too. the tyres were poor and actually blew out on a 100 miler, they are now continentals. I also changed the rear cogs and mech to suit a 11-32 for the pennines on the c2c. Makes a great bike now (have tri bars on too). My friends ride specialized and I overtake rolling downhill and can climb any gradient. Does have a Halfords stigma at races but worth every penny if that's your budget.

  15. I cycle on and off, a runner really. I have this bike and am lucky to have some money to upgrade now. But, I have cycle sportive (100 mile) a few times and did the c2c there and back in two days on it. I have hit 55 mph downhill too. the tyres were poor and actually blew out on a 100 miler, they are now continentals. I also changed the rear cogs and mech to suit a 11-32 for the pennines on the c2c. Makes a great bike now (have tri bars on too). My friends ride specialized and I overtake rolling downhill and can climb any gradient. Does have a Halfords stigma at races but worth every penny if that's your budget.

  16. Motorbitz, I echo everything you said. I bought mine second hand a couple of years ago and have subsequently done several century rides, many a swift downhill edging towards 50mph and racked up a good few QOM climbs on it. I am now looking to upgrade it to a nice carbon job but this is not likely to be until summer end so my reliable steed will hopefully see me though my first triathlon too! Interestingly, mine has had a coat of black Pasti-dip (rubberised paint to protect the chips had acquired before I got it) and gets several curious enquiries from MAMILs on their 3k Pinarellos! I proudly tell them it's a Halfrauds special and watch them recoil in horror - I'm not sure if that's in case their's catches an oil infection from mine or because I passed them on a climb!