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Bargain Buy - Calibre Dark Peak
With a solid spec that wouldn’t look amiss on a bike the next price bracket or two up, the Dark Peak is a super value for money gravel-cross-adventure-do-it-all bike that is also reliable and fun to ride. Specced with branded components throughout and built around a double-butted 6061 aluminium frame with carbon forks, if you are looking at dipping your toes into the gravel bike market on a budget, then this is a great place to start.
The Dark Peak from Calibre is a bike that on paper doesn’t look possible with a price versus spec comparison that makes you double take. There is not a single own brand component or piece of finishing kit to be seen - it's all branded and from the likes of Shimano, Ritchey and Selle Royal. Whilst it may not be the highest-end, it all consists of well made, reliable parts with good reputations.
It's a struggle to see how Calibre has delivered a bike spec at this keen price point. You’d expect to see some corners cut, but the only slightly off element is the bottom bracket which is a square taper with internal bearings as opposed to a more update external cup style - and in all honesty this is still going to last pretty well, it just feels a little more flexible than other cranks and bottom brackets.
Elsewhere are good tyres for its intended gravel/adventure use - the WTB Nanos are fast, tough and offer a surprising amount of off-road ability. The wheelset features Shimano hubs with WTB ChrisCross 19mm rims, which are tubeless compatible. One thing that marks it a little bit as entry level, is the additional bar top brake levers, which make the handlebars feel cluttered - but for riding in busy traffic, some riders may feel more comfortable with them.
The ride of the bike is pretty predictable, and more road biased with the head angles and wheelbase. It's not especially slack, but its stable enough when riding and the handling is didn’t bring any surprises - just a neutral and easy to adapt to feel, and as Calibre refers to it being suited for ‘comfort and stability’ the actual riding reinforces that. The sizing seems spot on, perhaps a little short on the top tube, but that's more my arms than an unusually short tube set. There is little toe overlap, and I had no big surprises with my heels clipping the frame or wheel. The geometry is such that it offers stable and predictable handling, whilst also feeling a little nippy and not too sluggish if you want to get playful.
Out and about on gravel and forest tracks, I found myself quite happily spinning about with the bike getting on with the job. It will let you travel from tarmac to trails, and back again, and you can load it up for a weekends adventure, or ride light and go faster. I always felt the Dark Peak was a hoot to ride, mainly because of the feeling that it was so much bike for its price tag, but also because all the parts fully functional and shouldn't wear out or let you down as they aren’t at all compromised even at the price point.
Read the full review here
Runner up - Merida Silex 700
Sitting in the upper end of the gravel range from Merida, the Silex 700 delivers a no-nonsense package of reliable components, parts and a geometry that brings a stable ride feel. Its geometry vaguely references mountain bikes, which makes for a really excellent ride feel, on road or off, blurring the line between road and mountain in a fast, fun bike.
This exact model isn't available in the UK currently, so our focus is mostly on the frame, fork and ride. Built from AL-6066, which has marginally better fatigue strength that more common 6061, the frame features some heavily manipulated and shaped parts - namely the head tube and main tubes, which are bold and striking, with an ‘is-that-carbon?’ look at first glance.
This solid and shaped head tube keeps everything feeling tight and together, and despite what looks like a slightly too high head tube, only encourages you to ride in the drops more. This position of being in the drops is comfortable and gives the bike a stable, but quick handling feel - especially on more rough gravel, with potholes or large bumps. Riding on the tops is also good and stable, especially when climbing as I found my chest and arms are more open, and helping my lungs a little, as opposed to being more cramped in.
Immediately from the first clip in, it feels great, and more so sunk into the drops and pointing it downhill. This planted ride feel is down to the long top tube meaning I could work the bike around me, with plenty of room to move the bike around with just little movements, but without it feeling nervous. It's a size large and perhaps a tiny bit tall for me, at 5ft 10” but the bike felt fine and it wasn’t a particularly large issue, save for the reduced top tube clearance.
Out of the saddle, climbing was good on road, feeling surprising spritely for the larger tyres - the slick centre tread helping. On loose off-road climbs, the slight side edges gave a little more confidence, but are obviously limited if things get really muddy. On twisty fast single track or gravel paths, its happy with quick weight transfer, and the stability of the ride is helpful in that.
I really like the way Merida has thought about geometry and not been too afraid to move on the idea of how a gravel bike could be, or even more how a bike capable of doing a lot of things well. Saying the bike is capable and fun is underplaying it - this bike happily takes on gravel and milder offroad surfaces, and is fun and rewarding on smooth off-road trails where the geometry encourages you to explore beyond the capability of the tyres.