Bike test: affordable adventure bikes
Bike test: affordable adventure bikes
As the cost of living continues to rise to ever more painful levels it’s taking the prices of bikes and holidays with it. So can you still get an enjoyable and capable adventure bike at a remotely affordable price and rescue the idea of a touring/exploring/ bikepacking trip as an economical escape? I tested couple of £500ish gravel bikes from Schwinn and Voodoo to find out.
There’s no traditional touring bike in this test because there aren’t any at this price. The Dawes Galaxy is now a flat-bar hybrid and frame-only touring bike options from specialists like Spa Cycles and St John Street Cycles are the same price as the complete bikes featured here: a Voodoo Limba from Halfords and a Schwinn Scree from Decathlon.
Frame and fork
Like many budget brands, both bikes only come in small, medium and large sizes. The main separator between the test bikes is the riding position and handling balance. The Limba looks and feels like a conventional gravel bike, with a 410mm fork, short head tube, and the stem fitted flat to give a relatively low handlebar height. In contrast the Scree has a 430mm fork and a 30mm longer head tube, so even when I switched the headset spacers out the bar was still significantly higher. The top tube slopes down dramatically like a mountain bike’s so there’s lots more seatpost exposed for a given saddle height.
In terms of tubing both bikes have aluminium frames but the Voodoo is chunkier in nearly every dimension, with a kinked down tube and an angular cross-section top tube. While cable guides are external it gets a neat pipe chainstay bridge and a shaped head tube with an actual physical head tube badge for a high-quality feel. Practical wins include a forward-facing seat slot to fight spray, both bottle cage mounts inside the mainframe to keep nozzles clean, rack mounts at the rear, and mudguard mounts front and back.
The Schwinn gets a much shallower, rectangular-section top tube than the Voodoo. Brake and gear cables are internally routed but there’s nothing to stop them rattling inside the frame. The straight head tube with external bearing cups and the flat-plate brace between the chainstays point to a cheaper chassis cost. There’s only 1.5mm clearance between the fat 45mm tyre and the chainstays too, which wouldn’t take much to clog on a dirty day on the Ridgeway. While there are rack mounts and mudguard mounts at the rear, the Schwinn doesn’t have front mudguard mounts. That means that any bottle put in the cage mount under the down tube is going to get filthy even more quickly.
The cosmetic wins keep on coming for the Voodoo when it comes to the components. The Shimano Claris shifters have both gear and brake cables exiting under the hoods and tape for a clean look to the front end. The handlebar has an ergo, teardrop top profile and is slightly flared at the drop; while it’s only 410mm on the top it’s 480mm at the tips.
The Schwinn uses lumpier-looking Microshift levers with external routing, so there’s a long length of shift cable dangling in the wind before it gets to the frame insertion point. The one lever controls all ten gears as the Scree has a single 42-tooth chainring (with alloy guides either side) on a chunky, 3D-forged ‘Chariot’ arm and spider. While I’d normally champion single chainring setups for gravel, as the sequential shifting is a lot easier to predict, it lacks the wide-ratio cassette essential for a good gear range. In fact it has the same small 11-28 tooth spread as the Limba, but over ten sprockets rather than eight. However, the Limba also has two (non-replaceable, pressed steel) chainrings, giving 46- and 30-tooth options up front.
The tyre choice and wheel builds of the two bikes are noticeably different. The Voodoo gets 35mm WTB Riddler tyres with a small-knob, ‘semislick’ tread and retro-look skinwall carcasses; the Schwinn uses much fatter but unbranded 45mm rubber with a very shallow tread. Neither bike’s tyres or rims are tubeless compatible. The Schwinn’s wheels have 36 spokes threaded into hubs with a crude metal plate seal over the bearings, while the Voodoo has 32 spokes each end and rubber-sealed hubs.
Both bikes are specified with cable-operated disc brakes with 160mm rotors front and rear. The brands are different (JAK and Tektro) but the single-piston design and (eventually) adequate function are basically the same. It’s well worth bedding in the brakes on both bikes by following an alternating pedal-hard-and-brake- hard protocol until you can feel the rotors and pads scrub in and start to work properly.
Saddles and seatposts are different. The Voodoo has a centre-channeled, kevlar-reinforced WTB Volt saddle on top of a tidy looking twobolt seatpost with a fully forged head. In contrast, the Schwinn has a long, amorphous white-striped saddle on top of a long post with a pressed steel upper cradle.
With the frame and components all looking like they’ve had more time and money spent on them, you’d be forgiven for presuming the Voodoo Limba was the runaway winner of this test. It certainly rides very well for the money if you’re looking for a conventional all-rounder with decent tyre space and off-road capability. The lower-set handlebar gives a ‘proper’ bike fit that stokes the speed in terms of a more purposeful position. The handling is well balanced too, with enough weight on the front wheel for tracking loose or otherwise slippery corners well.
The Schwinn’s taller fork and head tube give it a much more upright riding position. This makes it lighter on the front wheel, so even though the head angles are only 0.5º different, it didn’t feel as determined to take higher speeds through corners. Headwinds are more obvious too. Some of my testers did prefer the more upright position – the ‘sit up and enjoy the view’ vibe is great for less hurried riding, whether that’s in town, rolling along back lanes, or on the trails. It also takes weight off the wrists and more strain off the lower back if you’re not used to ‘assuming the position’. With less weight on the front wheel and a noticeably less grippy tyre, it’s much more tentative through turns. As the bars aren’t flared, there’s no increase in leverage if you drop your hands either. The higher position obviously maintains the more ‘heads up’ advantages even when you switch to using the drops to get more leverage from the brakes.
As well as its more orthopaedic position, the Schwinn is the more comfortable bike to ride on and off road. Most of this comes from the fatter tyres, which I ran at 30-35psi with a 70kg rider. Also, the longer, narrower-legged fork doesn’t jab and jar as much as the Voodoo’s can. My less experienced test riders preferred the long, soft saddle. On longer riders, however, the WTB Volt saddle on the Limba offers more support and its flatter handlebar top, flared drops and cork tape offer more cushioning.
When I switched wheels (there’s actually more tyre space in the Voodoo than the Schwinn), the overall comfort gap was far narrower, with the Limba noticeably benefitting from more bounce and the ability to run lower pressures. It was still faster, so upgrading to a larger volume tyre offers useful versatility if you’ll be riding off-road – or on rough roads – regularly.
While the Schwinn delivers a more enjoyable ride than its frame and feature suggest, it falls down very badly in one area: gearing. The Microshift 1× gears are intuitive but the compact cassette is a killer on even gentle climbs. The range of 42-106in is more suited to the Low Countries than loaded riding on any gradients. You could switch the chainset for one with a smaller chainring but that loses the taller gears. What’s frustrating is that the medium cage R10 rear mech will happily cope with a 34-tooth maximum sprocket, and an 11-34 10-speed cassette is right there in the Microshift catalogue. It should have been on the Schwinn.
In contrast, the double chainset arrangement on the Voodoo seemed clumsy and noisy to our novice riders but its gear range (30-117in) was more forgiving of fitness limitations and closer-spaced contours. I still want a bigger cassette. The rear mech can take a 34t sprocket, which would enable pedalling rather than pushing up longer, steeper slopes off-road.
I didn’t have high hopes for the Schwinn initially but it delivered a smoother, comfortably upright and more enjoyable ride than expected. It particularly appealed to the less experienced testers who liked the softer saddle and the intuitive single-ring shifting. The choice of chainring size and close-ratio cassette hamstring it horribly on hills or with loads, however, and the lack of front mudguard mounts is annoying for commuting.
In terms of both everyday riding and weekend exploring, the faster, wider-gear-range, full mudguard- ready Limba is the more versatile bike. If you find its ride harsh over rougher terrain there’s plenty of space to add the float of fatter tyres. The frame and overall spec are good enough to make upgrading the transmission or even fitting a lighter carbon fork a viable option in the longer term. Aspects like the better-sealed hubs, twin-bolt seat post, WTB saddle and superior bar tape that might seem trivial now will be more important further down the line too.
Triban Road Bike RC120 £449.99 at the time of writing
Sitting next to the Schwinn in the French-based sports supermarche is their excellent own brand all-rounder. Tyres are thin and gears are tall, but a carbon fork and tubeless ready rims give it great gravel potential.
Merlin Malt G2 Claris £649 at the time of writing
Lancashire direct-sell stalwarts Merlin offer an entry level version of their Malt G2 gravel bike that still gets a carbon fork. While the Claris gear range is more on road than off, 35mm Kenda tyres provide a good off-piste start.
Our test promise
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Price: £299.99 at the time of writing
Sizes: S, M (tested), L
Frame & fork: Schwinn 6061 aluminium gravel frame with internal brake and gear cable routing, QR dropouts, and fittings for two bottle cages, rear rack and mudguard. Schwinn steel gravel fork with QR dropouts.
Wheels: 45-622 WD gravel tyres, double-wall 700C rims with 36 plain gauge spokes laced 3-cross on QR hubs.
Transmission: Chariot aluminium chainset with 170mm cranks and 42 tooth chainring with twin alloy guards, 10-speed chain, square taper bottom bracket. Microshift R10 10-speed gearing with 11-28 tooth cassette. Ten ratios: 42-106in.
Braking: JAK Super Brake cable-operated callipers with 160mm rotors.
Steering & seating: 410mm aluminium drop bars, 95mm stem, threadless headset. Aluminium single-bolt seatpost, Schwinn colourcoded saddle.
Price: £535 (Cycling UK members get 8% off at Halfords)
Sizes: S, M (tested), L
Frame & fork: 6061 aluminium frame with QR dropouts and fittings for two bottle cages, rear rack and mudguard. Steel fork with QR dropouts and mudguard fittings.
Wheels: 37-622 WTB Riddler Comp tyres, Voodoo aluminium rims with 32 plain gauge spokes laced 3-cross on QR hubs.
Transmission: Prowheel double chainset with 175mm arms and 46- 30 tooth chainrings, Shimano CS-HG50 8-speed 11-28T cassette. Shimano Claris R2000 shifters and derailleurs. 16 ratios: 30-117in.
Braking: Tektro Mira cable-operated discs with 160mm rotors
Steering & seating: aluminium 410/480mm flared drop bar, 80mm stem, threadless headset. WTB Volt saddle, 27.2×350mm aluminium seatpost.