Published by Lyn on 28 October 2015
Richard Peace goes in search of dirt trails on the new Raleigh Mustang Elite gravel bike.
Raleigh Mustang Elite, rrp £1,000
New genres of bike seem to be cropping up quite regularly in recent times. Some of these may not seem all that practical – witness the recent trend for enormous-tyred 'fat bikes'. Far more practical are gravel bikes. These are road bike-based (drop handlebars, fairly racy geometry, quite highly geared), but changes to the frame design mean wider tyres are used and the handling is more forgiving for unpredictable non-tarmac track surfaces. As a general rule, they also feature disc brakes.
Superfast road bikes limit the riding surfaces available; even poorly maintained, potholed UK roads can be a challenge on a road bike at speed. The gravel bike is much more a do-it-all beast and while it will struggle on more severe out and out mountain bike tracks, it's ideal for towpaths and forestry commission roads, and tailormade for going at speed on unsealed French voies vertes.
In short, great for light commuting on a variety of surfaces, light touring (assuming the bike has braze ons for a pannier rack, as my model did) and 'adventure' riding away from tarmac and roads. Indeed, gravel bikes have also been branded 'adventure bikes'.
Raleigh's Mustang Elite sits in the middle of their 2016 crop of gravel bikes, in between aluminium and steel-framed bikes of a slightly lower spec and high-end carbon frame models. The huge expansion in their gravel bike range shows the confidence they have that the idea really is here to stay.
The Mustang Elite appealed to me for ease of use on tracks and trails; a single chainwheel drives an 11-speed rear sprocket with a gear range of 386% and a lowest gear of around 29 gear inches. That's a huge range off a single chainwheel. Impressively, it's all operated by single gear change lever. With a carbon front fork, I weighed the bike in at around 10.5kg; that's perfectly competitive against gravel bikes of a similar spec.
How did it ride? Despite the pimply, 40mm wide tyres, which have a very off-road look, the bike streaked away on tarmac, no doubt helped by the very racy, head down and forward body postion you adopt. So any off-road pretensions certainly don't sacrifice a great deal of road speed. Even on the steepest and longest of local hills, I rarely felt the need for top gear. My only quibble was that finding the lowest gears up steep hills wasn't as crisp clean and as quick as you might expect; but this was a small price to pay for the advantage of having a great gear range off a single chainring. Perhaps the cable just needed to bed in and may well settle down over time.
On local tracks – literally gravel tracks and wide compacted bridleways – the transition from my usual mountain bike to a much more head down approach took some getting used to. But once I'd practised getting my weight more over the back wheel, handling felt predictable and reliable and I would feel confident riding on most surfaces except for perhaps large loose boulders and drop offs, or in really deep mud.
The semi-hydraulic disc brakes were excellent with nice gradual control in the early stages of braking giving way to quick and solid stopping power as you squeeze harder on the levers.
Value for money looks good and certainly on a par with other similar spec gravel bikes. The spec, decent quality SRAM single drivechain, TRP brakes, superb Schwalbe G1 tyres and tubeless ready RSP wheels are all certainly what you would expect for the £1000 price tag.
It would make a great tourer if you wanted to go fast and light, though if you want more of a leisurely, comfort orientated sightseeing style of riding, you might opt to fit a more upright handlebar stem. And for loaded touring in hilly country, you might want to swap the 44-tooth chainwheel for a smaller one to give a more appropriate gear range.
There are many species and sub-species of road bike out there and they appear to be be breeding unchecked. However, the gravel or adventure bike looks like a welcome addition that adds genuine potential to the range.
Before the advent of gravel bikes, you would have been restricted to a much narrower choice of cyclo-cross machines (more designed for racing and with generally narrower capabilities) and touring bikes (maybe better for heavier loads or more leisurely touring but not as suitable for riding faster).
So it looks like gravel bike could well be here to stay.
Raleigh Mustang Elite, rrp £1,000