When releasing its new urban range in 2017, Boardman set out to offer cyclists something to take on the unique challenges of city life without riding a bike that – in the company’s words – “looks and feels like a battleship”.
A simple glance at the Boardman URB 8.9 and there’s little doubt that brief – at least in terms of looks – has been filled, its striking frame, carbon fork, deep-rimmed wheels, belt drive system and internally geared hub all more fighter jet than battleship. It looks like a bike of the future, even five years on from its release, and its specs alone pit it against the best budget hybrid bikes on the market today.
The drivetrain, being a belt drive and hub gear setup, is a low-maintenance, low-mess, fuss-free alternative and while such hubs are not new to city bikes – Ridgeback have been making them for years, for example – belt drives are far less common. More likely to be seen on electric bikes, when they are found on mechanical examples they are single speeds such as the Priority Ace (opens in new tab) or more performance-oriented rides such as the Cannondale Bad Boy 1 and BMC Alpenchallenge 01 which both cost more than twice the URB 8.9’s £875 /$1022 retail price.
Available to buy in Halfords – a retailer best known in the UK as a car parts specialist – Boardman bikes may be viewed by some as akin to a ‘supermarket bike’ option, but they in fact have an impeccable pedigree. The company was formed in 2007 by Olympic gold medalist and Tour de France Yellow Jersey wearer Chris Boardman and – informed by his time as R&D director at British Cycling – has produced bikes that have been ridden to Olympic gold and Ironman World Championships. Boardman was acquired by Halfords in 2014 and as a result of that relationship its bikes – which include performance road, mountain and gravel models as well as the leisure & commuting range the URB 8.9 sits in – are often considered excellent value for money.
Design and specification
The Gates Carbon Belt Drive is the headline act here. Instead of a traditional chain with chainrings and cassette, the belt attaches to single sprockets at the front and rear. An eight-speed Shimano Nexus internal hub on the rear wheel gives the gearing options, which Boardman claims makes the bike “almost maintenance free”. Unlike a chain, the belt requires no lubrication, can be cleaned solely with water, and won’t rust. The system as a whole is lighter than a traditional drivetrain, which helps to keep the Boardman URB 8.9 to a claimed weight of 10.7kg
Gates launched this particular model of belt – the CDN – in 2015 aimed at city bikes and using the same carbon fiber cord technology as its premium CDX system. Todd Sellden, a director at Gates, said at the time: “CDN is our value-oriented belt drive for people who want a clean and stylish city bike for getting into town or around the neighborhood. It’s for bicyclists who ride in jeans or skirts and casual shoes, not spandex and race gear.”
Well the Boardman URB 8.9 designers certainly got the “clean and stylish” memo. The lack of derailleurs or cassettes, the internal cable routing and disc instead of rim brakes all add up to a very clean, no-fuss feel to the bike. That is reflected in the livery, with ‘Boardman’ written in small white lettering at the top of the down tube and the only other markings at all on the frame and fork – which comes in a single metallic grayish blue color option – being the company’s logo on the front of the head tube.
The frame itself, created specifically for the URB range, neither resembles Boardman’s road bikes nor its more conventional hybrid HYB range. While the seat tube, thankfully, remains cylindrical, the top tube and down tube have what can only be described as a nod to the modern aero carbon frames with an angular shaping that widens where it connects with the head tube. This sculpted effect is replicated in the carbon fork and, while clearly largely form over function (the down tube in fact rather resembles the top tube on the new Trek Madone) it does achieve its aim of being pretty striking and unlike the vast majority of hybrid bikes out there.
The rims are also specific to the URB range and, at 35mm, are deeper than any of the other Boardman bikes apart from the top end SLR 9.6 Disc Carbon. Again, this is likely more to complement the look of the bike rather than for any performance benefits, but it does that job very well paired with 32mm Vittoria Randonneur Tech tires.
The saddle and grips are another area where Boardman perhaps opts for style over substance. Made from canvas, they look and feel great but may suffer in terms of durability in the long term.
That said, putting the attention-grabbing, style-focused aspects to one side, the URB 8.9 quickly gets serious. The standout specs of under-11kg weight, tapered carbon fork and Shimano BL-MT201 disk brakes are all above average for a hybrid at this price point and are more akin to performance-chasing fitness bikes. This is echoed in the geometry of the frame, which, far from easy-going town bike, leans towards the more aggressive with a lower stack height and longer reach.
What most immediately struck me about the URB 8.9 when taking it out on its first ride was not the unique drivetrain but the responsiveness of the frame. I was concerned that getting the bike weight down to under 11kg might result in a certain lifelessness – which I had experienced in similarly specced hybrids – but the Boardman offered easy, fun acceleration. Coupled with seamless shifting from the Shimano Alfine Rapidfire shifters and Nexus internal gear hub, it ticks all the boxes for an urban city bike without question – getting from A to B with effortless, enjoyable style and a bit of swagger thrown in.
Pushing its boundaries, I took the URB 8.9 further afield into the Hertfordshire countryside and found the limitations of the single ‘chainring’ and eight gears were offset somewhat by the weight of the bike and that responsive frame. I had enough for medium-difficulty climbs (up to about 8% gradient) without too much trouble and for one ride even strapped on some SPD pedals and took it up a climb that had sections over 12%.
While that certainly felt like I’d reached its limits, the URB 8.9 was already far exceeding my expectations. Back on flatter ground, its acceleration and responsiveness was comparable to BMC’s Alpenchallenge range, which are considered some of the fastest aluminum-framed hybrids available and retail at a much higher price. The Shimano MT-201 hydraulic disc brakes were another area where the URB 8.9 had a noticeable step up from the mainly Tektro offerings found on other bikes at this price point, especially in terms of modulated braking.
The downside was that the stiff frame did lack comfort at times – and this is where I saw, or rather felt, a marked difference from the likes of the Alpenchallenge. It was OK when taken on very light gravel but I felt the vibrations from any cobbles, potholes or generally uneven road surface far more than I would have liked to. It came with 700x32mm tires and there was room to go bigger to reduce the effect of this, but it did not seem like a bike that would ever be comfortable in the rough stuff.
With a name like URB, belt drive and look-at-me aesthetics, there is no getting away from the fact that this bike is aimed at a city life; a town bike for the 21st century, perhaps. And there is equally no doubt that it lives up to that billing in spades. It’s fun, it’s fast and it’s fuss-free. The kind of bike that you can just grab and go; off to the shops, to meet a friend for coffee, to return a library book, and just feel good riding it from start to finish.
The problem I have is that the ‘URB’ nametag feels as if it sells the URB 8.9 too short. I didn’t feel at all restricted taking it out on a decent country ride on undulating terrain. Yes, I’d feel nervous if I ventured too close to the Chilterns and hit an unexpectedly big climb, but this isn’t the type of bike on which you’d be straying too far from what you know. And maybe that’s where its limitations lie – not at the city limits, just the limits of your particular cycling territory. It’s no adventure bike, that’s for sure but if you know where you are going – and you know that it’s going to be tarmac and not too hilly – then its got you covered.
I would consider the URB 8.9 to be a great option as a commuter bike. It has the fixings for a pannier rack or fenders, an all-weather, low-fuss drivetrain and it might just put a smile on your face before you start work in the morning – what’s not to like about that.
|Design and aesthetics||Unique, striking and clean||9/10|
|Components||Novel belt drive offers huge point of difference to competitors and 8-speed hub offers surprising range of gears||8/10|
|Performance, handling and geometry||Responsive and fun in urban environments – as per MO – but also decent on small climbs due to weight. Let down by discomfort on poor road surfaces and off-road was a no-go||7/10|
|Weight||10.7kg is very light for an aluminum hybrid below £1,000||9/10|
|Value for money||Great value when compared with alternatives fitted with Gates belt drive and on frame alone would still be competitive||9/10|
Logbook: Boardman URB 8.9
- Temperature: 15 to 20 degrees
- Weather: Dry, warm
- Road surface: Mainly tarmac with some light gravel
- Route: Tarmac, bike paths
- Laughter: 3
- Mileage: 64km
Tech specs: Boardman URB 8.9
- Price: £875 / $1022 / €1009
- Frame: Boardman URB X7 Aluminum, carbon fork
- Size: Large
- Weight: 10.7kg (supplied)
- Groupset: Shimano Alfine/Nexus
- Crankset: Gates CDN S150, 50T
- Cassette: Gates CDX 24T
- Wheels: Boardman URB
- Tires: Vittoria Randonneur Tech 700c x 32mm
- Brakes: Shimano MT-201 hydraulic disc
- Bar/stem: Boardman Alloy 90mm / 7 degree
- Seatpost: Boardman Alloy
- Saddle: Boardman URB Canvas