A new sports e-tailer is poised to put some serious pressure on the cycling industry with bargain-basement prices on gear. The list includes a short-sleeve jersey for $8, spandex shorts with pad for $11, a raincoat for $14, and thermal bib tights for $42. There’s even a complete road bike for $349.
The French sporting-goods store, called Decathlon, opened its first U.S. brick-and-mortar location in San Francisco in March and commenced web sales this week, extending its low prices nationwide. “It’s frustrating how expensive it is just to try out cycling,” says Jennifer Tetrick, head of U.S. marketing. “By the time you get kitted up, you’re looking at a thousand dollars, even two. At Decathlon, we believe that cycling, and all sport really, doesn’t have to be that expensive. You shouldn’t have to spend a small fortune to live a healthy lifestyle.”
The company keeps its prices low by designing, manufacturing, and selling all of its own gear through its own stores and website, under a range of in-house brands. On the cycling side, the company has two labels, Rockrider for mountain biking, and B’twin for road and apparel. The gear falls into three main categories: 100 level for the least expensive and most basic goods, 500 level for sport and enthusiast-tier stuff, and 900 level for the premium. Mind you, premium at Decathlon means $60 for bib shorts, $80 for a jacket, and $150 for shoes, all of which is still a fraction of what you’d pay for top-line gear from other brands.
Low prices are great, but the real question is: How does the gear fit, feel, and perform? To answer that question, I asked Decathlon to send me a sampling, which I’ve been riding in and testing for the last month. Here are my impressions so far.
Road 900 XRed Jersey and Cycling Shorts 900 ($47 and $58)
This road kit is probably the best of the products I tried. The jersey is built from a range of fabrics—a wicking polyester in the main body, lightweight mesh under the arms, stretch Lycra across the shoulders for fit, and grippers at the sleeves and waist—and the tailoring is pretty good. There’s a full-length front zip, three stash pockets out back, plus a zipper pouch for valuables. The shorts have flat elastic bibs, rubberized grippers at the thighs, and a dual-density pad that did a good job of keeping me comfortable on rides up to three hours. Together, it’s light and comfy and even looks pretty good. You’d probably pay 50 to 100 percent more from other brands for comparable quality.
Cycling Short-Sleeved Jersey 100 and MTB Shorts 900 ($8 and $47)
These two pieces aren’t necessarily intended as a kit, but I wore them as such because they were complementary. The jersey is loose-cut from a soft, lightweight polyester, with a mid-length zipper, two small rear pockets, and a gripper waist. The fit was a touch wonky for me, high in the armpits and tight in the waist, and the fabric wasn’t as breathable as I expected from the feel. But for $8, it’s a heck of a cheap and easy way to get riding. The soft-shell shorts felt like higher quality, with an elastic band out back for fit, rubberized Velcro cinches, and two well-designed zip pockets on the thighs. Fit was a little weird again: tight in the hips but loose in the waist and legs. If these suit your shape, they would be a great pair of mountain-bike baggies.
Rain Jacket 900 ($58)
I really wanted to like this jacket, which uses a three-layer membrane fabric and taped seams throughout to provide rain protection, with bar-tacked back vents for breathability, layered cuffs to keep out spray, a silicone waist gripper, a waterproof zip valuables pocket, and reflective hits on the back and shoulders. A cool magnetized front flap allows you to open and close the jacket quickly against the elements. Unfortunately, I never got the sizing right (Decathlon first sent a medium, which was huge for my five-foot-ten, 155-pound frame, then replaced it with an extra small, which was a touch too tight), meaning I wasn’t able to really test whether the piece is truly watertight.
Cycling Vest 500 Ultralight ($18)
This was another favorite, mostly because I’ve always thought these gossamer wind pieces are horrendously overpriced. B’Twin’s uses a simple coated polyester with a full front zip, a high collar, and a drop waist. It weighs just three ounces, rolls up smaller than an orange, and is nice and affordable. The same design from other brands costs three and four times as much, and few of them offer much more for features.
MTB Shoes 500 ($58)
Maybe my least favorite of the items I tried, these lugged-sole, SPD-compatible shoes worked fine but felt cheap and a little clunky. The shape was boxy for me, and although the problem was alleviated a little by cinching up the straps, the plasticky-feeling synthetic leather upper then bunched up. More important, the hard plastic outsole proved slick on rocks and in stream crossings. These are adequate, but footwear specialists like Shimano and Pearl Izumi make superior products for not much more money.
Bike Foot Pump 900 ($30)
This is pretty much everything you need in a pump: metal shaft and foot pegs, a hard rubberized handle, a built-in pressure gauge, and a reversible head for Presta and Schraeder. I would have preferred bigger foot pegs and a larger, easier-to-read gauge. But all in all, this is an excellent pump for far less than the competition.
Overall, I was reasonably impressed with the Decathlon gear I tried. The fabrics and materials mostly have a nice hand, the breathability and performance are solid, and the styling ranges from inoffensive right up to pretty nice looking. The 100 level gear is definitely basic, but then again, the prices are ridiculously low, so it’s impossible to complain.
None of the pieces I tested, even the premium 900 stuff, is up to the high-performance level of gear from, say, Castelli, Rapha, Assos, or Kitsbow. You notice this most in the tailoring, which is a little boxy, wonky in spots, and lacking in fabric refinements and premium detailing. Having said that, not everyone wants or needs that precision fit. And I truly believe that if you are riding no more than an hour or two at a time, many of the subtleties and advances wouldn’t make any difference to you anyway.
The one big challenge Decathlon faces is fit. I am a solid size medium in almost every other cycling brand, but in B’Twin I could fit only size small, which took several returns to figure out (a bother for anyone ordering online). Decathlon plans to launch an online sizing tool very soon, and it has a 365-day return policy with prepaid return shipping. All orders over $50 also earn free shipping.
In the end, I like that Decathlon is working to cater to the meat of the market, not just the high end. Cycling has become exorbitant over the years, and it’s nice to see affordable, if not perfect, options to alleviate some of the crunch.