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May 23, 2012
The SLR 9.8 is a lightweight carbon bike with high-end componentry. All that is missing is the high-end price.
Chris Boardman should be well known to all but the newest of road riders. Olympic gold, world championships, time trial victories, a yellow jersey at the Tour de France, and a world hour record, Boardman has an impressive list of achievements. In 2007, he started up Boardman Bikes and the brand has been growing rapidly in the UK. Now, thanks to a new partnership with Wiggle, Boardman Bikes are available internationally and there is a complete range of bikes for both on- and off-road use. The brand employs words like quality and performance in their marketing but after perusing the range, their value really stands out. Indeed, every bike has an asking price that has the potential to re-define market expectations. So it goes for the top of the line SLR 9.8, a purpose-built race bike with all the fruit that can be bought for ~$6,000 (~$7,000 including GST and duty).
The SLR 9.8 is equipped with a full SRAM Red groupset; Ritchey carbon bars, stem, and stubby seat post; a Zipp 202 wheelset with Vittoria Corsa CX tubular tires; and a Fizik Arione saddle with carbon rails. Add to that a very light frameset that features a BB30 bottom bracket and a tapered steerer tube, and you have a bike that is very similar to the Scott Foil Team Issue that we reviewed recently. Now compare the bottom line for each: Scott, $9500; Boardman, $7000. There are other bikes that can be added to the comparison (eg Cannondale SuperSix EVO Team, $10000) to help you appreciate the value of the package on offer, or you could just sum the cost of the parts to find that you could throw away the frameset and still come out ahead. The frameset is far from disposable, though.
The SLR frame and fork are made in Taiwan using high modulus carbon fibre and a monocoque construction process. The goal of the design was to save as much weight without compromising stiffness of the frame, particularly in the down tube and bottom bracket, while slender stays are employed to provide extra dampening at the rear of the bike. The frame lacks a dress layer of carbon weave and is largely unpainted aside from the inner face of the forks and stays, which have a thick coat of bright yellow. Interestingly, the SLR 9.8 frameset has an integrated seatpost, whereas a conventional seatpost is found on the other models in the SLR range. The rear brake and derailleur cables are threaded internally, and there is a Union Jack at the base of the down tube to remind you of the country of design. A quick inspection of the inside of the frame from the bottom bracket and heat tube revealed a very tidy finish and provided some appreciation for the layup employed. The claimed weight for the frame alone is 895 grams (6.44kg for the bike) and it comes with a two-year warranty.
If you live outside the United Kingdom, you can buy a Boardman SLR 9.8 online through Wiggle, however this presents a buyer with two significant hurdles: first, no test ride, and second, no after sales support for bike assembly and adjustment. As for after-sales service outside of the UK, Wiggle is partnering with local businesses to take care of this problem, including the first free service for the bike.
I received the SLR 9.8 in the same manner as any customer would, boxed up after assembly in the UK, and even though the cardboard had clearly suffered from some time in the rain or a puddle on the tarmac of an airport runway, the Boardman arrived in perfect condition. More importantly, the bike was essentially ready to ride straight out of the box; all that was needed was to fit the wheels, handlebars, and the rear derailleur hanger. I didn’t find any loose nuts or bolts, the brakes and derailleurs were adjusted near perfect, and the tires had been glued. The only challenge was to cut the integrated seatpost to the right length to set my saddle height. I chose to make my first cut a conservative one then I cut the post again after my first ride. I thought it was a nice touch that a carbon-specific hacksaw blade and cutting guide were included with the bike.
Frame geometry (all lengths are in mm):
The geometry of the SLR 9.8 is aggressive. The relatively short head tube allows plenty of handlebar drop while the long top tube favours a stretched out position. Less flexible riders will have to resort to multiple spacers under the stem, and in some cases, a shorter stem too. I found that swapping out the 120mm stem for a 110mm compromised the handling of the large frame on test by making the steering unstable when I was out of the saddle. In retrospect, the medium frame (with a longer stem) may have served me better, though I would have required at least 3cm of headset spacers to set my preferred handlebar drop.
To view the full specs and geometry for the SLR 9.8, visit Boardman Bikes.
The first thing I noticed about the SLR 9.8 was its weight. It was an easy bike to ride, uphill and downhill. The handling was stable and predictable at all times, though I found the steering a little slow and had to direct the bike through corners when descending. The frame felt reasonably efficient, especially through the bottom bracket and head tube, though I found the chain stays were a little too supple when I was out of the saddle. The integrated seatpost seemed to provide some extra rigidity to anchor my efforts while I was in the saddle, and indeed, the bike seemed to work best when I was seated. As noted above, I had trouble with the handling of the bike after I fitted a shorter stem, so that may have altered my impression of the bike’s handling and efficiency. However, I remain convinced that the geometry of the bike is best suited to those riders that have an aggressive racing position (ie high saddle, low bars, and a long stem).
The Ritchey cockpit benefits from a classy aesthetic. The handlebars feature both a deep drop and a generous reach.
The Red groupset worked well despite its noisy cassette, however the front shifting was a little rough and sluggish compared to other groupsets. There is no word on when the SLR 9.8 will be equipped with the revamped Red 2012 groupset, but considering that it improves on both the noise of the cassette and the quality of the front shifting, I would be tempted to bide my time.
The highlight of the SLR 9.8 was the wheelset. The light and lively Zipp 202s are a perfect match, they brought out the best in the bike. I went for a few rides with a heavier aluminium wheelset, and while the nimble liveliness of the frame was still evident, it was a little like a dog with a muzzle on. Save the 202s for racing and long rides and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the transformation every time.
The SLR 9.8 suffered from just one detracting feature: the derailleur cables made a racket inside the downtube. They would twang, not from sudden hits, but with gentle road buzz, so the bike was only silent on the smoothest of roads. My guess is that the cables are too close to the wall of the down tube and any vibration is amplified, so I would try threading some fine lining tubing over them or installing Gore’s sealed cables to dampen the noise.
Once the derailleur cables exit the down tube, they follow a very clean pathway to their destination, but an excess of vibration in the down tube creates a lot of unnecessary noise while riding the bike.
In summary, the SLR 9.8 offers a buyer considerable value, however, while the price may have wide appeal, this bike will not suit all riders. The SLR 9.8 is essentially a privateer’s race bike and will find favour with hill-climbers, though it is versatile enough to serve as a reliable and effective race bike for any kind of road racing except criteriums.