Gravel Under a Grand? Three Bikes Tested.
I set out on this test to find three bikes for under a thousand pounds. Not just a cycle-to-work-scheme friendly £999.99, but a good margin under £1000. More like £750. The kind of price where, perhaps, a new bike for a new niche might just sneak into the shed without the bank balance really registering it had arrived. Could I find a bike which would allow gravel adventures at this price? And then, to make sure that this was a bike that was so cheap and useful that it was futile trying to argue against buying it, I thought maybe this bike could also double up as a winter commuter. Summer #dirtydropbargoodness and winter commute practicality? Surely such a bike at such a price would make the n+1 equation easy to square.
So, as well as price, I set some criteria. I wanted disc brakes. This eliminated a good few bikes from the field – if you want something with decent tyre clearance and caliper brakes, there are plenty in the market for £750 or less. But as this would be a budget bike, I didn’t fancy having the prospect of buying a new set of wheels every spring having worn through the rims. Also, I rather like being able to stop. So. Disc brakes. Check.
The other criteria: I wanted mud guard bosses. A proper winter commuter needs proper full length mudguards, something along the lines of SKS Longboards. Not only do they keep your feet, ass and rucksack dry, they also help keep grime off your drivetrain. As a winter commuter, your bike is unlikely to be subject to a daily clean, so anything you can do to reduce the grime and prolong the life of your poor and abused drivetrain is going to save you buying new bits more often than necessary.
Having set my parameters, I set about finding bikes which met them, and this is what I found.
GT Grade Alloy Sora
With an alloy frame and carbon fork, this is the bargain end of the GT range. My mostly roadie husband owns a GT Grade Carbon Ultegra, so I was curious to see how this budget version would stack up. As a bike from a large manufacturer and available from your local bike shop and internet stockists, I also wanted to see what the traditional distribution model gets you for your money.
Mango Point AR
Another alloy frame with carbon fork, but at the higher end of the range offered by Mango. Better known for their student friendly singlespeed city bikes, the Mango Point AR takes the Mango Point Road, mixes it up with a little Brant Richards design input, and offers an ‘All Road’ riding machine. It is available at a range of price points according to the brake and gearing choices made – I went for the Tiagra option as this came in on my target budget and I wasn’t convinced that a higher specification would be necessary for a winter commuter. Mango sell direct via the internet only – these bikes are not available in your local shop.
Revolution Cross 2
Price: £579.00, currently reduced to £399
This is an alloy frame with steel fork. Similar to the Mango, this is at the upper end of the range offered by the Edinburgh Bike Co-op who offer their products through their website and their high street stores. The range of bikes is more limited than the Mango Point AR, with this being the only disc brake equipped option. While the Edinburgh Bike Co-op stocks a range of bikes across disciplines and price points, the own brand Revolution range is perhaps best known for functionality and practicality.
So three bikes from three different pedigrees. How do they compare?
First up on this, a note on sizing. I ordered this test bike in a 56cm size – the size I would usually ride – and it is pretty big. Certainly very long. The stem is huge, and the bars are wide, flared, gravel specific bars. On his carbon Grade, my husband sized down, and I think this may be worth considering if you have the opportunity to try different bikes for size in your local shop. That said, I am a but a slip of a girl, and burlier blokes might find the the bars are a better fit for their shoulders – and swapping for a shorter stem is no great difficulty.
On the road, the ride is smooth. I was pleasantly surprised, and would compare it favourably to the smoothness I get on my own titanium but skinny tyred road bike. Rolling along at a fair lick without too much effort is a real pleasure and the wider but fairly slick tyres felt confident on the road without dragging. For soaking up the chatter of the road, this was the best bike on the test.
However, while it travels along at a good old pace, the test bike I had was severely let down by the Tektro brakes. They seemed to take a fair bit of setting up, and then when braking it gave a pulsating sensation that was not confidence inspiring, to the extent that I didn’t feel able to give this the same off road thrashing as the other bikes on test. The bike does stop, but braking really affects the handling of the bike, so steep and rough descents became quite a test of nerve. Possibly further workshop time sanding down rotors, replacing pads, and trying the bedding in process again would help, but this was not a level of fussing that the other bikes required.
The Sora gears felt fairly clean – smoother than the Claris on the Cross 2, but rougher than the Tiagra on the Point AR. The wheels have stayed true, although in fairness it hasn’t been thrown down the same rough trails as the other two bikes in the test.
Overall: This is a smooth rolling road machine, which will comfortably take you onto gentler trails. Perhaps better suited to touring, where you’re not sure how good the roads might be, rather than out and out rough riding adventures.
Mango Point AR
The fit on this is completely different to the GT Grade. It feels compact, the bars feel narrow, even the diameter of the bars feels slim, and the back end feels short. For me, this added up to a bike which, from the first ride, had me riding just to see what it could do. Not being a huge fan of being clipped in off road, I even rode this bike with flats for the first few rides, as I found myself clattering down trails I usually consider a challenge on my mountain bike. I can’t do tail whips, but this bike makes me feel like I want to do them.
While the balance and handling of the bike are such that it has a ‘go anywhere’ feel about it, I’d say it is more confident than it is comfortable. That’s not to say it is uncomfortable, but there’s certainly not the smooth rolling feel of the Grade, and it is a touch rattly and noisy. With internal cable routing the rattling is perhaps not surprising. On longer off road descents I found that my hands would start to ache, and I’d be tempted to swap the bar tape for something more generous.
This bike comes with tubeless ready wheels – although you’d need to tape them and buy tubeless tyres to take advantage of this, it’s a great upgrade option to have waiting for you. I’ve tested this bike with the basic Vee Baldy 32C tyres, although other gnarlier options are available as upgrades upon purchasing.
If I’m going to be really picky – and with a bike this great at this price point is seems a little churlish to be so – I’d say the the gears are a little stingy. Given all the other options there are at point of sale, I think a larger rear sprocket option would be good for getting up those steep hills. There’s very little clearance for the left heel, so wonky footed folks may not get on with the compactness of the ride, and similarly if you ride with your foot forward you may encounter some toe overlap.
The Tiagra shifting has been excellent, and I’d struggle to tell it apart from the higher 105 standard, while there is clear water between the Tiagra and lower Sora model. Well worth the extra cost if you can spare the cash I reckon. That said, in the very final rides – where honestly I was riding it for fun rather than required testing – the rear shifter developed an intermittent fault, where it doesn’t catch in order to shift up the block. Then, apparently at random, it will start working again. It’s an odd one, and I suspect a mechanical fault of the warranty kind, so I asked Mango what they’d do in this situation and the response was:
We have tested the new Tiagra fairly thoroughly and have never come across this. For events like this with our customers (say a faulty shifter) we have them pop to a bike shop and have the issue assessed (paid for by Mango Bikes). Failing that we will have the entire bike back, collection arranged and paid for by Mango bikes, replace the parts and ship the bike back to the customer. We then consult Shimano and send the faulty parts back for assessment.
Which seems as sensible a way of dealing with it as can be expected from an online supplier. Otherwise I’ve had no trouble at all with the bike, despite giving it what can only be described as a thrashing. The Avid BB7 brakes have smooth and effective, and the wheels have remained pretty true.
Overall: I have enjoyed every minute of riding this bike. I’ve ridden it places I didn’t think possible on a gravel bike. An ideal bike for teenagers who want to ride anywhere, or adults who want to feel like teenagers.
Revolution Cross 2
The fit on this sits somewhere between the other two bikes on test. It feels longer than the Point AR, but not so long as the Grade. Curiously, it has what I would consider a very wide QFactor, which my measurements put at 190mm. The flared cranks will be a contributing factor, and it’s odd that they are flared because there looks to be loads of clearance for heels, even with a straight crank. I found on longer rides my knees would be affected, but this clearance will suit the heel turners out there.
The ride is heavy, and indeed it is the heaviest bike on test, but it is comfortable enough. It doesn’t have the agility of the Point AR, or the responsiveness of the Grade, but as a trundle along workhorse this does the job nicely. I’ve taken it down the same tricky trails as the Point AR – there’s not quite the same sense of fun, but the handling is still confident enough that I enjoyed the challenge and sense of ‘oh, this bike can do that, and that…and will it do that?’.
With no QR releases on the wheels, I fear you’ll suffer if you get a flat in cold wet conditions, although this is possibly a theft proofing bonus for city dwellers. The front wheel is somewhat less than true after what has been a pretty intensive thrashing – I’ve been pretty unrestrained about where I’ve taken this, and a trail centre skills course may not be the intended terrain for this bike. I also found that the tyres got better with use – initially they felt hard, plastically and slippery in damp conditions, but over time they seem to have roughed up nicely. The TRP brakes have been very good during the test period – they feel smooth, and they stop the bike effectively.
Overall: I don’t think this a bike that screams fun, or that anyone would truly love as a ride experience, but as a budget workhorse to use and abuse you could do a lot worse.
I had noble aims here. With SKS Longboards being what I consider to be the gold standard of winter commuting mudguards, I duly ordered a set in both the 35mm and 45mm sizes, with the full intention of fitting them to all three bikes. Oh how my colleagues laughed. And they were right. Life is too short. For anyone buying one of these bikes and expecting to fit mudguards themselves, I would strongly suggest they allow a little extra in the budget in order to get their local bike shop to do the job for them. Here’s why:
Clearance both front and rear is not truly sufficient to accommodate the 45mm versions of the Longboards. With a bit of careful cutting and bodging you might just squeeze one in, but really you probably need to look for something with a different profile. At the same time, the 35mm set – which do fit the frame at both ends of the bike – are going to require the patient of a saint to get them perfectly aligned so your only-ever-so-slightly-smaller-than-the-guard tyre doesn’t rub. Or you’ll end up going for a narrower tyre (the 28mm tyres fitted are the maximum suggested size for the 35mm guards). That said, all the necessary bosses to attach the guards to your bike are there, although some of the threads may take a bit of cleaning up before they’ll take a bolt. Also, the positioning of the front brake seemed to me to offer the least impediment to getting the guards attached to the front fork. All in all, I think this will take guards, but the Longboards are possibly not the best profile for the frame so leave it to your local bike shop to find the best solution.
Mango Point AR
There’s ample clearance for a 45mm Longboard both front and rear. However, while there are bosses all over the bike for racks and guards, it wasn’t until I came to try and fit guards that I realised the front fork does not have a boss for guards at the end of the fork. A bit of cunning bending and I suspect you could use the rack mounts half way up the fork, but you might just want to opt for a different model of guard. It’s also worth noting that the hole at the crown is substantially deeper than the longest bolt included in the Longboard fitting kit – not an uncommon problem with steerer tube shapes these days. In any case, I suspect that a full guard at the front may well exacerbate the potential toe overlap issues. At the rear, the 45mm will fit, but the bosses are poorly threaded, so expect to take a fair bit of time getting the bolts to mate with their intended locations.
Revolution Cross 2
There’s plenty of clearance for the 45mm option, and the threaded bosses were well defined and took bolts easily. However, only the fork ends and chainstays have threaded bosses – the other are simply holes, so you’re going to need a different set of fittings than come with the standard pack of Longboards.
Anyone with a decent collection of bolts and zip-ties (like your local bike shop doubtless has) should manage to get there in the end, although it’s going to take a bit of creative bending to accommodate the front disc brake caliper.
Obviously I’ve only attempted to fit one model of mudguard, and there are others out there, but the observations above should serve as a warning to anyone who sees ‘mudguard compatible’ on a spec sheet and thinks life will be simple from there. I suspect that in practice the Grade is best suited to a ‘race blade’ type guard designed for bikes with less clearance, the Point AR would end up with a full guard on the rear but probably not the front, and the Cross 2 would take the full guards but it might not look too pretty on the fittings.
If you’re not planning on riding the rough stuff, and your main purpose is a winter commuter, the Grade is a smooth and swift roller. As a sale bargain, a frameset only, or possibly if future editions have different brakes, it’s worth consideration, particularly if you are a tall rider.
During the test period the Cross 2 has been reduced to £399, which for a workhorse with occasional trick pony trail action is a pretty fabulous deal. I don’t think you’ll whoop with joy upon seeing it or riding it, but it will get you pretty much anywhere you want to go.
The Mango Point AR is the clear winner for me. The heel and toe clearance isn’t going to suit everyone, but if that’s not an issue then this is a truly excellent bike at the price point. It would work well as an entry level bike that could then become a winter bike when you buy something ’nicer’, as well as something you want to razz around the countryside on. It looks like it should cost more than it does, and it packs a lot of value into a nimble little bundle. This bike has made me late for everything, because it’s too much fun to just ride from A to B – you need to take the long way round, every time.