As the adventure road bike sector keeps expanding, we’ve seen some intriguing and often excellent machines at the top end of the market – bikes such as GT’s Grade, Genesis’s Datum and Cannondale's Slate.
Gravel grinding on a shoestring
But what really keeps catching our eye are the quality machines at much more affordable prices – bikes such as Calibre’s all-new Dark Peak, which is available at GO Outdoors' shops or online. After all, not everybody wants to part with well into four figures for a branch of cycling that’s still very much in its infancy.
The Dark Peak is based around a slickly welded, double-butted and hydroformed aluminium frame paired with a carbon fork – pretty similar to what you’d get on any 750-quid road bike. But this also gets mudguard and rear rack mounts, which takes it into all-round, commuting and light touring territory, especially if your regular rides includes byways and unsurfaced canal towpaths, which is the case for several of our testers.
The Dark Peak is specced with the sort of branded kit that is good to see on a bike at this price, including a Ritchey stem, bar and 27.2mm seatpost, and a Selle Royal saddle that’s as long as Fizik’s endurance-friendly Arione.
The compact drop handlebar has a good shape that’s friendly to bigger hands, but on our 58cm test bike we’d have expected a 44cm width – which GO Outdoors has informed us will be the case on production models. Instead our test ride came with a narrow – and cramped-feeling – 42cm offering. It was however wrapped in plush, thick, cushioned bar tape for when things get a bit bumpy.
The drivetrain combines Shimano Tiagra with a basic FSA Vero cyclocross-friendly 46/36 chainset. Paired with an 11-28 cassette, it provides an ample range for most conditions.
A bike that wants to stay off-road
The combination of WTB rims, 40mm WTB tyres and Shimano disc hubs is simultaneously both one of the Dark Peak’s best assets and its biggest flaw. The ChrisCross i19s rims are wide, 19mm internally, and are well suited to the voluminous 40mm Nano tyres. The tubeless-compatible rim is good to see at this price, too.
Take the Dark Peak off road and you’ll find the wheels stiff, strong and smooth running, and though the tyre tread is designed for aggressive riding on hard-packed dirt and gravel, we found that the WTBs cut through the wettest slime with very little mud packing. The bike tracks straight, corners well and the tyres keep you well cushioned. It feels refined off road and allows you to tick along at a decent speed when other drop-barred bikes would be floundering in the sludge.
Off road the Dark Peak tracks straight and corners well
Even the Tektro Lyra cable disc brakes worked well, whereas they have felt a little wooden on other bikes. There was a little initial play in the levers before they bite, but after that they offer plenty of progressive feel.
But on the road – where you’d expect to spend a lot of time – it’s different. The tough rims weigh 372g each and are wrapped with 470g tyres. Add around 250g for the tubes and you’re shifting a lot of rotating weight. This is something you really feel when climbing, when slightly lower gears might also be welcome.
With the chunky tread adding inertia, and the skinny bar not helping matters, the steering feels sluggish, with the result that any corrections or direction changes require plenty of muscle to get over the dulled response. Hopefully the wider bar on the bike you'll find in the shops will go some way to mitigating this.
We do have to say though that GO Outdoors knows how to build a budget bike. Its well-considered contact points and kit make it obvious that the Dark Peak is put together by enthusiasts, not beancounters. And its £799 price becomes an even better £699 if you buy a GO Outdoors discount card – yours for just a fiver. Result.