Group test – junior road/cyclocross bikes (part 1)
18 December 2013
Just two or three years ago the choice of quality junior road bikes and cyclocross bikes was limited. The Islabikes Luath was the clear market leader, largely due to its efficient design, light weight, and proportionally-sized components. However, in 2013 youth cycling has become hugely popular and there’s now a much bigger market. This has created a new wave of competitors offering credible alternatives to the Luath. A keen rider lucky enough to have £400 to £700 to spend now has half a dozen quality bikes to choose from.
We’re looking here specifically at bikes intended for use in both cyclocross and on the road. Bikes like these are very versatile – only a change of tyres or wheels is needed for the bike to switch between disciplines.
We’re also focusing on bikes with full-size 700c wheels, rather than smaller 26” or 650c wheels. The size of a bike should always be chosen according to the child’s height rather than their age, but, as a guide, it’s likely that the four bikes tested would be suitable for typical Under 12 riders and younger Under 14 riders. Tall Under 10s and even small Under 16s might fit these bikes too.
A few weeks ago we published a “first look” article about three of the bikes: the latest Luath 700S; the brand new Juniorworx JA700; and the interesting Scatto J-Cross 28. A Formeula 700 joined them soon afterwards, giving us four strong bikes for this full group test.
This article is the first half of the test, and the second half is now available too.
1. About the bikes
Scatto J-Cross 28 (£600, 9.6kg)
The Belgian brand is supplied by Paul Milnes Cycles in Bradford. The frame is built up into four standard bike specifications ranging from £600 (as tested) to £1000. Alternatively, it can be supplied as frame-and-forks only for £295, or built up to a customer’s individual specification on request. This flexibility marks out the Scatto from the other three bikes which are sold with a standard specification. Scatto also produces a smaller 26” wheel version of the J-Cross.
The first impression of the Scatto is that it’s a little smaller than the other bikes, and its carbon forks stand out too compared to the other bikes’ steel or aluminium forks.
Formeula 700 (£500, 10.6kg)
Formeula is the youth-specific offshoot of Forme Bikes, the bike brand developed by major distributor Moore Large. Alongside this 700c-sized model there are also 26” and 24” wheel models, all of them intended for both road and cyclocross use. Formeula bikes have sold well and you’ll have seen a lot of Formeula bikes on start-lines during 2013.
On first appearance the Formeula is the closest competitor to the Luath, with a similar specification on paper and selling at the same price. However, we found that the two bikes are actually more different than you’d expect.
Juniorworx JA700 (£750, 9.6kg)
Oxfordshire-based Worx Bikes launched recently with an impressive range of adult bikes and it has developed quite a cult following. Its brand-new Juniorworx models share the same attention to detail and high specification of the Worx adult range.
The most obvious features when viewing the JA700 for the first time are its cyclocross-specific details, its individually shaped frame tubes, and its 9-speed Microshift components. The bike fits into Worx’s range above 24” wheel and 26” wheel versions, and below their adult bikes.
The JA700 is the most expensive one here, costing considerably more than the Luath or Formeula. We were keen to find out if it justified that extra cost.
Islabikes Luath 700S (£500, 9.8kg)
For a few years now, when club coaches are asked by parents “Which bike should I buy for my child?” the default answer has usually been “Islabikes Luath”. As a result many races and coaching sessions are a sea of Luaths, usually in their standard red frame colour. The £500 outlay is offset by sky-high secondhand values.
Islabikes carried out a major update of its range twelve months ago, introducing lighter components of its own design and reducing the bikes’ overall weight. Our 700S fits into the range above the 24” and 26” wheel variants, and below the slightly larger-framed 700L.
At first sight the Luath might look quite conservative compared to its competitors, if it wasn’t for its bright green special-edition frame finish. We wanted to find out how well the latest Luath competes against its new rivals.
2. About our test
The bikes were ridden many times over a period of two months in a variety of conditions & terrain. They were used on grass, in mud, on tarmac, and on climbs & descents – everything that would typically be found in youth cyclocross and circuit races. We made sure that the bikes were used in a number of races so that they would be ridden hard for this test.
Our testers ranged from first-year Under 12 riders to second-year Under 14s. All the testers are skilled, successful riders who race on the road in summer and cyclocross in winter.
We kept the bikes in their original specification including the tyres they arrived with (apart from removing reflectors and bells that have to be supplied with most new bikes). Tyres were inflated to the appropriate pressure for each rider and for the riding conditions.
All testers used clipless SPD off-road pedals, and we weighed all the bikes without pedals fitted.
3. Geometry and Fit
A good junior bike with 700c wheels intended for this size of rider shouldn’t just be a smaller-framed version of a bike designed for adults. We were looking for proportionally-sized key components such as crank length, saddle size, handlebar dimension, and brake lever reach. Easy-action controls are important for youth-sized hands too.
Light overall weight is important for smaller riders who might weigh as little as 30 kg. Although Under 12 cyclocross events don’t typically include hurdles nor any need to shoulder a bike, Under 14 riders generally would expect to tackle those kind of features, so a light bike is desirable.
Relatively small bikes designed for youth riders can suffer from toe-overlap with the front wheel when steering sharply, so we looked at that. Bottom bracket height and standover height were examined too.
Scatto J-Cross 28
It’s obvious that the Scatto is a smaller bike when it is standing next to the others. The tape measure confirms that at 385mm (measured centre-to-centre) the seat tube is indeed quite a lot shorter than the others. As such, the Scatto suits the smallest riders well, as it allows them the benefits of a 700c-wheel bike (e.g. less rolling resistance and more comfort than a 26” wheel bike, a wider choice of replacement tyres & wheels) but still gives them the lower standover height and the agility of a smaller frame. Obviously the flipside is that the Scatto doesn’t suit the tallest riders that the other three bikes cater for. The top-tube (actual length 485mm) is only a little shorter than the others though, and it combines with a short 60mm stem. The relatively long top tube does mean that there is little issue with toe overlap.
The Madison saddle is proportional for this size of bike, and the handlebars are well-suited too – 400mm wide (measured outside-to-outside), with a shallow drop and a short forward “throw”.
The cranks are the shortest here at 155mm. This is an ideal length for riders who fit the Scatto.
The non-groupset Shimano STI brake-levers/gear shifters are easily reached by youth-sized hands.
The Formeula is the biggest bike here – not particularly because of its frame size (430mm seat tube) but because the top tube is 500mm long. As you’d expect with that long top tube, there’s no problem with toe overlap.
The stem is 65mm long and the cranks are a sensible 160mm in length. The saddle is branded with Formeula’s own “One23” finishing kit and it is sized well for the bike. The bars are 400mm wide and have a good proportional shape.
The Shimano Claris brake levers/shifters are easily managed with small hands.
Although the Juniorworx’s 430mm seat tube was a similar length to the Formeula and the Luath, the tube extends 20mm higher above the top tube than those bikes. Coupled with that, the topmost 30mm of the seatpin has a gentle curve to it, which limits the extent that it can be lowered into the frame. The combined effect is that the minimum saddle height of the Juniorworx is about 40mm higher than any of the others, so it’s important to bear that in mind when choosing a bike for a smaller child. Of course, if your child is borderline, it would be easy to swap to a straight seatpin which could sink lower into the frame.
The 480mm top tube is a similar length to the Scatto and the Luath though. The bike gains extra reach by using a 85mm handlebar stem though, which is significantly longer than the stems fitted to those two.
The distance from the bottom bracket to the front hub of the Juniorworx is 20mm shorter than the other bikes, and its cranks are the longest of the group at 165mm. Our testers noticed the resulting toe overlap when steering the bike tightly around technical cyclocross features.
The Worx own-brand saddle is well-proportioned, and the handlebars are the narrowest here at 380mm – a suitable width for young riders, we think.
The Microshift brake levers/shifters were a favourite with our testers who had never used them before. They found Microshift’s system of two shifting levers separate from the brake lever itself easy to reach whether riding on the brake lever hoods or on the drops.
Islabikes Luath 700S
Islabikes built its reputation on its understanding of appropriate geometry for young riders, and the Luath’s dimensions are spot on – all of our testers could fit it correctly. Its 420mm seat tube combines well with the 480mm top tube and short 65mm stem. There’s no toe overlap issue either.
The handlebars are 400mm wide, the same as those of the Scatto and Formeula. The bars share a similar shape with those too. The neat Islabikes saddle suits the rider’s proportions too.
Like the Formeula, the cranks are 160mm long which we think is ideal for this size of rider. The Luath uses the same Shimano Claris brake levers/shifters as the Formeula, too, which work well with less powerful, small hands.
Low weight is particularly important for bikes intended for youth cyclocross – they are likely to be carried or pushed up steep ascents or steps, and they will also be accelerated from low speed out of tight corners many times in every race.
The Scatto, Juniorworx and Luath all have a very similar weight (9.6/9.8kg excluding pedals) but at 10.6kg the Formeula is noticeably heavier. The Scatto is actually the lightest by a fraction, helped by its carbon forks and its relatively small frame. Although the Formeula is the heaviest, a little of that excess weight must be due to it having the largest frame of the four bikes.
5. Frame & forks
The four bikes all use aluminium as the material for their frames, but there are significant differences in their design, construction and features. In this group test we’re looking for versatile frames which help make the bikes as effective as possible for use both on tarmac and for cyclocross.
Scatto J-Cross 28
The Scatto’s frame generally has round tubes with a teardrop-shaped down-tube and a slightly hourglass-shaped head-tube. It’s the only bike in the group with stylish carbon forks (including a carbon steerer too) which reduces the bike’s weight a little and gives it a quality feel. The frame’s welding is neat and it’s finished well in white paint.
There’s plenty of tyre clearance front and back for cyclocross tyres.
The rear brake cable is routed along the top of the top-tube. That’s what you expect of a proper cyclocross bike, so that the cable and its braze-on fittings don’t interfere with the rider when shouldering the bike. The cables for the front and rear derailleurs are routed underneath the bottom bracket shell – that’s standard practice on road bikes, but it does mean that the cables can suffer in the long term from mud, water and corrosion when the bike is used for cyclocross.
The Scatto has no facility to use full mudguards for those who want to use it for touring or on winter clubruns. There are no mudguard eyes and the fork has no drilling for a brake bolt.
The Formeula’s frame has a straightforward design. Its welds and the black finish are perfectly acceptable but not quite as neat as the other three bikes. The forks are steel.
As with all these bikes, there’s no issue with tyre or mud clearance.
The rear brake cable is routed along the underside of the top-tube which is a pity, as that interferes with shouldering the bike in cyclocross. It’s actually routed slightly to the left, too, so its braze-on fitting is positioned exactly where the frame rests on the rider’s shoulder. That isn’t an issue for Under 12 riders who very rarely need to carry their bikes, but Under 14 riders would probably want to attach some foam padding underneath the Formeula’s top-tube to provide some cushioning.
The front and rear derailleur cables are routed below the bottom bracket, like the Scatto.
Sensibly, there are threaded mudguard eyes front and back ready to accept full mudguards. Most youth riders would own a single bike only, so the ability to fit mudguards for winter road training helps make the bike as versatile as possible.
The Juniorworx frame is completely different to the others, and here you start to see why the JA700 costs a lot more than its rivals in this group test. Every tube is beautifully shaped according to its specific purpose within the frame, just like you see in today’s high-end adult road bikes. Of course, it would have been a lot easier for the Worx designers and factory to use a straightforward, round tubeset. However, the end result is that the JA700′s frame not only looks terrific but feels very strong without adding unnecessary weight. The oversize, tapered headtube and the massive bottom bracket area are very modern features – we couldn’t flex the bottom bracket even with an 85kg adult standing on the pedal. Even with the oversize tubes there is plenty of tyre clearance front and back.
The broad, straight aluminium forks are as exquisitely shaped as the frame itself, and they fit very neatly into the headtube using a “hidden” headset.
The frame’s black satin finish and its contemporary graphic design reinforce that the Juniorworx is a very serious bike. Over the course of our test we found that the chain started to chip the paint on the upper surface of the chainstay, so we’d recommend fitting a chainstay protector.
Again, the JA700 justifies its price premium with the approach taken to cable routing. Not only is the rear brake cable routed along the top surface of the top tube (which is necessary for shouldering the bike in cyclocross), but both derailleur cables are routed there too. That keeps them completely out of the way of mud, sand and water, helping the transmission run smoothly in bad conditions and avoiding deterioration over time. There’s also a nice flat underside to the top-tube to make shouldering the bike comfortable.
This is the way that serious, full-size cyclocross bikes are made but it all adds complexity to the design & build of the frame. It’s admirable of Worx to take such a “no compromise” approach to a junior bike.
Although there are clearly serious racing intentions behind the frame’s design, there are also discreet eyes on the forks and seat-stays so that full mudguards can be attached for winter club riding.
Islabikes Luath 700S
No-one has as much experience of designing & producing quality frames for children as Isla Rowntree, and the Luath is one of her most successful models. The design and the construction of our Luath 700S frame are as high a standard as you’d expect. In comparison with the hi-tech JA700 the Luath’s frame looks quite conservative with its round tubes and its traditional curved cro-moly steel forks. However, a lot of thought has clearly gone into its design – the frame’s proportions are just right, it isn’t heavy, and everything is very functional.
The welding is neat and the paint finish is durable, judging by the evidence of other Luaths which have been well-used over a period of several years.
As with the Scatto, the Luath’s rear brake cable routes out of the rider’s way along the top of the top-tube, while the two gear cables route underneath the bottom bracket.
Versatility has always been one of the key design objectives for Islabikes, and the Luath not only has braze-on fittings for mudguards but also for front and rear carriers too. So the bike is ready to take its owner touring or youth hostelling with family or clubmates.
6. Wheels & tyres
There’s not a great deal of difference between the wheels of the Scatto, Luath and Formeula. With the price of each of these bikes around £500 to £600 the manufacturers are unable to supply them with particularly light, highly specified wheels. The Juniorworx wheels are a little different as we’ll see below. Bear in mind though that it’s very easy to upgrade the wheels of any of these bikes as the rider becomes keener and saves up their pennies.
Scatto J-Cross 28
The Scatto has Alex rims – a respected budget brand. The unbranded hubs are well-finished and smooth enough for a bike of this price. It was supplied with Continental Twister cyclocross tyres which, at 28mm wide, were a lot narrower than those supplied with the other bikes. The current trend is for wider 35mm tyres which can be run at slightly lower pressures in slippery conditions, but the knobbly Twisters gripped and rolled perfectly well during our test.
Paul Milnes Cycles will tweak the Scatto’s specification to order anyway, so if you want different tyres they will be fitted instead of the Twisters.
Formulea’s wheels have red anodized hubs, quick-release skewers and spoke nipples which match minor components elsewhere on the bike too, such as the seat-post clamp and the headset spacers. It gives the bike an attractive integrated appearance. During our test period a lot of children admired the Formeula’s “bling”.
As for the wheels’ functionality – the basic Rigida Snyper rims and the unbranded hubs are perfectly aqeduate and strong.
Formeula provides quality 30mm wide Schwalbe CX Pro tyres. However, note that road tyres are bundled with every bike too – that can be a £40 saving against the bike’s rivals.
The JA700 is fitted with Worx’s own-branded hubs and rims. The hubs were noticeably better finished than those of the other three bikes, and the bearings were extremely smooth. Hub bearings get a lot of abuse in cyclocross, with mud making its way into the hubs during use and then the repeated washing with water afterwards. Traditional cup-and-cone hub bearings need disassembly, cleaning and re-greasing now and again to keep the wheels turning well, but the Worx has cartridge bearings. It would be interesting to see how the Worx hubs perform after a full season’s use, as cartridge bearings can be better sealed than traditional bearings.
A lot of attention has been given to detail, such as the smooth action of the JA700’s intricate quick-release skewers. It’s clear that the higher-spec wheels contribute to the bike’s higher price.
Continental CycloX King 35mm tyres are supplied, although Worx does offer a road tyre option instead.
Islabikes Luath 700S
Islabikes own-brand hubs and rims are used throughout their range and they have earned a reputation for robustness and for decent quality. The wheels don’t jump out at you visually like the Formeula’s, and they don’t feel special like the Juniorworx wheels, but they do their job very well.
By default the Luath is supplied with Kenda Kontender road tyres (which we have found a little prone to punctures in the past) but our test bike came fitted with quality Continental Cyclocross Race 35mm tyres as an extra-cost option.
There’s quite a lot of variation here between our four bikes – different brands, gear shifting methods, number of gears, and gear ratios. Bikes like these need to have strong, reliable drivetrains to withstand botched gear changes and the effects of muddy cyclocross courses. We’re looking for well-chosen specifications which meet the needs of both cyclocross and road riding, and which suit riders of this age and size.
Scatto J-Cross 28
The Lasco junior chainset has 155mm cranks and is thoughtfully fitted with close-ratio 42/34 tooth chainrings which is an ideal combination for youth cyclocross racing. There’s unlikely ever to be a need for a bigger chainring than 42 teeth in cyclocross, and it means that there’s a more useable spread of gears than with a larger chainring. There are no ramps or pins on the largest chainring to help gear-changing but none of our testers had any shifting issues.
However, bear in mind the unusual chainring size when working out how to restrict the gears when the bike is used for Under 10/12/14 circuit racing. Scatto’s supplier Paul Milnes Cycles will no doubt fit a different sized large chainring if you prefer a less cyclocross-focused specification.
Like the Formeula and the Luath there is a 8-speed cassette fitted to the Scatto. The largest sprocket has 30 teeth which gives a sensible bottom gear of 34×30.
Shimano 2300 integrated brake lever/shifters are fitted, with a stubby thumb-lever controlling shifting to the smallest chainring and the smaller sprockets. Some children like the simplicity of these thumb-levers and they’re certainly convenient when riding on the “hoods” of the brake levers, but they can’t easily be used when the rider is holding the drops of the bars. There’s a simple indicator window on each lever showing approximately which gear the rider is using, and young riders or novices tend to like this feature.
The front derailleur on our test bike was a Shimano non-series item and the long-arm Shimano rear derailleur is from its Acera low/mid-range MTB groupset. Both changed well with the STI gear shifters.
The Formeula’s 160mm cranks are fitted with 48/34 tooth chainrings, giving a slightly higher range of gears when using the big ring compared to any of the other bikes on test. The right hand crank and its spider (i.e. the five arms that the chainrings are bolted to) are not forged from a single piece of alloy like the ones fitted to the other three bikes, but are composed of two separate components. The spider is stamped from a sheet of aluminium and is not finished as well as forged cranks. This kind of crank construction used to be common but most quality bikes nowadays use stiffer, forged cranks.
The Shimano 8-speed 11-32 teeth cassette gives a low 34×32 bottom gear, and a low ratio is important for young riders in cyclocross racing. They’re often riding more slowly than senior riders and, although it’s often best to dismount and push or carry the bike up steep ascents, it’s wise to also give them the option of staying on the bike and pedalling.
The Formeula uses the STI brake lever/shifters and front derailleur from Shimano’s new Claris groupset. Claris was launched earlier this year to replace the 2300 groupset, and it works well for junior bikes of this price range, particularly as it was designed with moderate spring tensions so gear shifting needs only a light effort. The Claris STI shifters don’t use a separate thumb-lever (as used with Shimano 2300 levers) but have the same kind of dual-lever mechanism operated by the index finger, as used on all of Shimano’s higher end shifters (such as 105, Ultegra, etc.). However, the 2300’s simple gear indicator window is retained on the Claris shifters.
There’s a rear derailleur from Shimano’s entry-level Altus MTB groupset, one level below the Scatto’s Acera derailleur.
The drivetrain components all come together well to shift easily and positively.
The JA700 has smart FSA Gossamer CX cranks fitted with 46/36 tooth chainrings. It’s a good-quality chainset often fitted to cyclocross bikes costing around £1000.
At 165mm long the cranks suit riders at the taller end of the bike’s size range but we think they’re a little long for smaller riders.
46/36 is a typical choice for senior cyclocross riders, and the use of a 36 tooth smallest chainring reflects the serious racing focus of the bike. Smaller, younger riders might find the range of gears on the small chainring a little high, though, especially as the cassette has a 28 tooth largest sprocket. They might wish for a lower bottom gear than 36×28 in heavy conditions.
The Juniorworx also takes a different approach to the other three bikes when it comes to gear shifting. Interestingly, Worx has chosen Microshift products instead of the more mainstream Shimano or SRAM. It also uses a 9-speed cassette instead of the 8-speed cassettes fitted to the other bikes. Microshift uses a separate gear lever to shift into a larger chainring or sprocket, rather than Shimano’s approach of using the brake lever itself to do this. And it uses another separate small lever to shift into a smaller chainring or sprocket. In other words, it’s quite a different approach to Shimano or SRAM. Our testers had never seen Microshift before but they all adapted to it immediately, and they all liked it. They managed to change gear easily using the quite small levers even when wearing gloves. There’s a very positive click and changing is accurate.
Islabikes Luath 700S
Islabikes is now a large enough business for it to design or commission its own components and have them manufactured, instead of having to buy in third-party components. The 160mm long forged cranks are an example of Islabikes own, and very smart they are too. They’re fitted with quality 46/34 tooth chainrings with ramps & pins to help shifting. We think these are ideal chainring sizes for this kind of bike, especially when married to the 11-32 cassette, giving a bottom gear of 34×32. SRAM supplies the 8-speed cassette.
The Luath uses Shimano Claris integrated brake lever/shifters and front derailleur, just like the Formeula, and this is a recent upgrade from the Shimano 2300 parts that were previously specified. The published Islabikes spec includes a Shimano Altus rear derailleur – again, also just the same as the Formeula – but our test bike was actually fitted with a Shimano Sora unit.
The Luath’s gear shifting works just as well as it does on the Formeula.