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Claud Butler's Primal is just about the cheapest gravel bike we've encountered but anybody with limited funds won't feel short-changed as it provides an impressive ride experience across a wide range of terrain. However, while it puts forward a good argument for being all the budget drop-bar bike you might ever need, a look at the price-point-focused spec sheet suggests it's not necessarily all the drop-bar bike you'd ever want.
A Claud Butler gravel bike for a little over £500, eh? Bet you're not exactly salivating at the prospect. Well, you might want to hold fire on your prejudices there, kemosabe, because this is a multi-surface drop bar bike whose performance belies its budget price. The Primal is a fantastically fun machine that takes open roads, urban rat runs or even moderately slippy and slidey trails in its stride. It's comfortable, reactive to your efforts and quite a joy to ride.
Boasting a fairly solid-looking aluminium frame, it should come as no surprise that power delivery is decent. It can't rival high-performance road bikes but, as a jack-of-all trades, there's enough reward for your effort to keep you enthusiastic, whether climbing or sprinting on asphalt, or even tackling roots and rocks off it.
That enthusiasm is heightened by excellent overall control and stability, and there's a very reassuring quality to the bike's handling. I tested the Primal on roads and rather lumpy but dry trails, and I never felt like it was ever going to come unstuck. Again, it's a more relaxed proposition than the kind of pinpoint precision of a top-end sports bike, but it nevertheless instils in you a confidence that the bike is always going to head where you point it. Even when you're bumping along, balance is exemplary.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is comfort. The combination of moderately chunky 38mm tyres and – for me at least – a perfect position in the saddle meant the Primal felt great to ride. Over rough surfaces, very few things felt too hard or jarring, and on a long, smooth road cruise, the Primal is a veritable drop-bar armchair. In fact, while I could wax lyrical about its off-road performance, I suspect the majority of most Primals' lives will be spent on tarmac and there's very little to criticise there – this feels like a thoroughly capable mile-muncher.
When it comes to that performance, the aluminium frameset can take the vast majority of the plaudits. However, while I'll talk about the frame in a moment, the fork is something of a slightly compromised hero because, although it helps keep the front end on course and contributes to the surefooted control, it can clunk and crash a little with big hits and feels just a little less sophisticated than the rest of the frameset.
The main body of the frame is budget beauty, though. I'm not naturally a big fan of non-round tubing, and there is some serious square-edging going on at the top tube with a fair bit of tear-drop manipulation at the down tube, but it all goes together rather well.
The use of internal cable routing and undersized rear triangle also keeps the Claud Butler up to date with most contemporary frame design expectations, although it does miss out on a tapered head tube.
It's a small point, but the Primal looks very handsome in the flesh – significantly more enticing than online catalogue images might suggest.
Claud Butler says the Primal could be a decent tourer or commuter and there are rear rack mounts to make good on this promise. However, it's a bit of a shame that the fork doesn't feature low rider mounts, although you can fit mudguards front and back.
The all-up weight of just over 12kg is okay, and it would hard to criticise too much, anyway, as the Primal doesn't feel heavy or leaden in the saddle.
Here's a titbit of trivia that's of interest to no one but me. One of the first bikes I ever tested, almost a decade ago now, was a Claud Butler Criterium budget racer. That was available back then for a cheap-as-chips £329 and came fitted with Shimano Tourney A050 bar-top mounted plastic butterfly gear shifters. Proof, if any is needed, of my stratospheric career progression over the last 10 years can be found in the fact that on this 2020 test machine I am spoiled with luxurious Shimano Tourney A070 Dual Control levers. Don't worry – I won't let it go to my head.
Of course there's a touch of sarcasm there – this, after all, is Shimano's lowest possible road groupset. But that plain fact does Tourney a little injustice. Yes, you only get a 7-speed cassette with 11-28t sprockets, and it's paired with a fairly basic compact chainset, but you should still find enough range for most purposes.
Perhaps most surprisingly, gear changes are far more assured than its bottom-rung status on Shimano's hierarchy might have you believe.
That's mainly thanks to a rear mech that – although relatively low-rent in terms of Shimano's hierarchy – actually looks pretty funky and functions very well.
If there is one weak-ish point in the system, it's those Dual Control levers that feel just a little floppy and imprecise compared with higher end kit. It's far from being a big deal, although it's a definite area where you feel a slight sense of penny pinching.
A bigger deal comes into focus when we consider what else those levers are connected to: Tektro mechanical disc brakes. Considering how positive this bike feels at speed both on and off road, it's a shame that I was constantly having to slightly temper my enjoyment to take into account potential stopping distances. Not only do the brakes feel spongey but they simply have nowhere near the outright stopping power one would want.
That's a real pity, because most of the other important parts in the system would suggest more effective deceleration is perfectly possible. The frame, as I have mentioned, is eminently controllable. And the Schwalbe CX Comp 38mm tyres are just about perfect for this bike, offering good comfort, fairly efficient rolling resistance with a slightly reduced central tread, and very decent grip with heightened nobbles at the tyre shoulders. Add in the K-Guard puncture protection and you've even got a little something for commuters. For a bike that aims to do almost everything, they're a sensible choice.
The wheels on which they sit are nothing particularly exotic, but then very few hoops on £500 bikes are and, overall, I was quite impressed with these. They roll very nicely and, despite being classed by Claud Butler as road rims, never felt overly fragile even when twigs and gravel were pinging off them.
They do use QRs rather than thru-axles, though; an added bit of stiffness at the hubs might spice up the ride even more and improve that braking performance.
One of the areas where lower-budget brands have really come on in recent years is with their harmonised finishing kit, so here we have an anodised blue CB-branded steerer tube top cap and even matching blue highlights on the saddle.
In function, while not greatly different to most saddles fitted as standard these days, it feels perfectly fine with no need for an instant swap out.
Most of the aluminium hardware is standard stuff, too, although I do have a particular complaint about the cockpit setup. As a fastidious cyclist who likes his handlebar perfectly central to the nearest nanometre, it's something of a frustration that the stem has no cutout and the bar is decidedly short in the way of markings. It makes centralising it a little bit of guess work.
There's a slightly illicit thrill that comes with taking a drop-bar bike off road: you're doing something a little naughty, something you're not really supposed to do. Strangely, that thrill only intensifies when you realise your drop-bar bike doesn't just handle the trail, it positively revels in it. Add in a further realisation – that all this fun has cost just £530 – and the Claud Butler Primal looks almost unbeatable.
However, while it's easy to praise the Primal in isolation and there are very few dedicated gravel bikes at this kind of price, it's worth noting that – on the spec sheet at least – spending a little more can get you a lot more bike.
For example, the Merlin Malt-G seems to be perennially on sale around the £700 mark and provides a carbon fork, Mavic wheels and a huge jump up to Shimano Tiagra 10-speed gears. More mainstream, the Genesis CDA 20 is £699.99 and comes with Shimano Sora gears and a refined ride. And the £750 Boardman ADV 8.8 also features Sora kit with improved Tektro mechanical discs.
You don't even have to search too far to find something that trumps the Primal, there's something in Claud Butler's own catalogue. For just £649.99, you could buy the Radical, which follows the same overall design ethos as the Primal but offers a better engineered frameset with tapered head tube, a better Shimano Claris drivetrain, and even improved Tektro mechanical disc brakes.
And that's probably the biggest problem facing the Claud Butler Primal. If it was the only bike you could buy, it will do almost any job you ask of it with some aplomb. It's fun, sufficiently quick, comfortable and boasts great manners both on and off road – I've really enjoyed my time with it. But there are a lot of well-resolved gravel bikes on the market and unless your budget is strictly limited to around £500, it would take a strong will not to want to spend more.
Excellent budget gravel bike that offers fun times on road, track or even the commute
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road.cc test report
Make and model: Claud Butler Primal
Size tested: L
About the bike
List the components used to build up the bike.
Claud Butler lists:
Frame: Claud Butler 6061 hydro-formed T6 aluminium, multi-butted, internal cable routing
Fork: Claud Butler 6061 alloy, post mount
Headset: 1,1/8in Aheadset, semi-integrated
Bottom bracket: Cartridge BB 119mm axle
Handlebar: Alloy 31.8mm butted racing bar, 72mm reach, 120mm drop, 400mm wide (50cm), 420mm wide (54cm), 440mm wide (58cm)
Stem: Alloy 31.8mm clamp, rise +/- 7 degree, 80mm extension
Grips: Velo cork tape
Shifters: Shimano ST-A070 Dual Control, 2 x 7-speed
Front derailleur: Shimano FD-A070 2-speed
Rear derailleur: Shimano RD-A070 7-speed
cassette: Shimano 7-speed, 11-28T
Chainwheel: Alloy, 170mm crank, 50 x 34T
Chain: KMC Z-7
Brakes: Tektro MD-M280 mechanical disc brake, 160mm rotor
Front hub: 28H quick release, alloy
Rear hub: 28H quick release, alloy
Rims: Double wall alloy road rim profile, disc specific
Spokes: 14G stainless steel
Tyres: Schwalbe CX Comp, K-Guard, 700 x 38mm
Seatpost: Alloy micro adjust, 30.9mm x 300mm, 15mm offset
Saddle: Claud Butler Custom Road
Tell us what the bike is for and who it's aimed at. What do the manufacturers say about it? How does that compare to your own feelings about the bike?
This is a multi-terrain drop bar bike, designed for road and light off-road riding and commuting.
Claud Butler says: "Following the success of our Claud Butler Radical we saw a huge influx of interest at this pricepoint of adventure bike. So we hit the drawing board to come up with the new Primal model offering even better value for money. Built around the same chassis as the Radical, we've tweaked a few components to shave off cost wherever possible, without piling on loads of weight. The result is pretty impressive! The Primal model makes for a great commuter bike, weekend adventure bike, long distance tourer or just the occasional spin... it's so versatile that it'll cater for riders who would usually own 2 or 3 different bikes for different terrains; making it even better value for money!"
Pretty fair comments, I'd say.
Where does this model sit in the range? Tell us briefly about the cheaper options and the more expensive options
Claud Butler only has two gravel bikes in its line-up: this Primal model and the higher-spec Radical, which costs £649.99 and is fitted with a Shimano Claris drivetrain, better Tektro mechanical disc brakes and a more sophisticated frame design.
Frame and fork
Tell us about the build quality and finish of the frame and fork?
I thought the overall quality of the Primal's frame was very good. My one gripe would be that some of the paint is flaking off following minor damage in transit, so I have some concerns about how it'll bear up with long-term use.
Tell us about the materials used in the frame and fork?
Both the frame and fork are made from 6061 alloy.
Tell us about the geometry of the frame and fork?
Really nice balanced geometry – enough to keep the rider enthusiastic and progress positive but still feel relaxed on the bike.
How was the bike in terms of height and reach? How did it compare to other bikes of the same stated size?
Reach and height are both very good and exactly what I would hope for in a bike of this size.
Riding the bike
Was the bike comfortable to ride? Tell us how you felt about the ride quality.
Yes, surprisingly so given the all-aluminium build. Ride quality was rather refined – it doesn't ride like a cheap bike – great both on and off road.
Did the bike feel stiff in the right places? Did any part of the bike feel too stiff or too flexible?
No problems with undue flexibility, but not too stiff either. Off road, it was compliant enough not to be bouncing about.
How did the bike transfer power? Did it feel efficient?
Very well but it's more of a satisfying high-speed cruiser than and stop-start sprint machine.
Was there any toe-clip overlap with the front wheel? If so was it a problem?
How would you describe the steering? Was it lively neutral or unresponsive? Very neutral.
Tell us some more about the handling. How did the bike feel overall? Did it do particular things well or badly?
The Primal felt very easy to handle whatever I threw at it. Nicely stable on road, and very easy to manage on trail, too. Might not be as inherently exciting as some bikes, but that makes it more able to handle different terrain without drama.
Which components had the most effect (good or bad) on the bike's comfort? would you recommend any changes?
Tyres and saddle did a good job but geometry had a big part to play, too. The fork was very, very slightly crashy/clunky at times – mainly on road, surprisingly – and perhaps could be upgraded.
Which components had the most effect (good or bad) on the bike's stiffness? would you recommend any changes?
I don't think I'd want it much stiffer, although thru-axle hubs might help things.
Which components had the most effect (good or bad) on the bike's efficiency? would you recommend any changes?
Efficiency generally felt very fair considering the multitude of roles it can perform.
Nice dependeable power transfer – not much lost between legs and road.
Steady acceleration is fine.
Perhaps the Primal's weakest point and even then not much to complain about.
Really solid stability.
With good grip from the tyres and excellent balance, corners can be taken with confidence.
Despite its weight, the Primal is actually quite an easy bike to climb with. Stable and efficient in or out of the saddle.
I didn't have any problems with the Shimano Tourney drivetrain, but it's a bit lacking in available ratios.
Should be solid and reliable.
There's no getting away from it being Shimano's entry-level offering, so you really can't go much lower from a reputable brand.
Tell us some more about the drivetrain. Anything you particularly did or didn't like? Any components which didn't work well together?
I can't deny the drivetrain worked well but, as only a 7-speed option, it does feel just a little behind the times.
Wheels and tyres
I thought the wheels put in a decent performance and certainly didn't let down the overall package.
They look solid and have dealt with multiple off-road excursions quite happily so far.
Wheels at this point in the market are never going to be featherlight.
Again, very good comfort.
Tell us some more about the wheels.Did they work well in the conditions you encountered? Would you change the wheels? If so what for?
Of course thru-axle hubs rather than QRs would improve things, but otherwise very decent budget wheels.
I really liked these Schwalbes and thought they contributed positively to the bike's overall ride experience.
They feature K-Guard puncture protection so should hold up to commuting.
The 38mm size is a good option for added comfort.
Cheap tyres, but they over-perform.
Tell us some more about the tyres. Did they work well in the conditions you encountered? Would you change the tyres? If so what for?
I was very impressed – good traction off road, decent rolling resistance on it.
Nothing unexpected – all standard alloy kit.
Nothing to go wrong.
Cork bar tape and saddle are both comfy.
Slightly better than average at this price point.
Tell us some more about the controls. Any particularly good or bad components? How would the controls work for larger or smaller riders?
Tricky to get the bar aligned with relatively little markings and no cutout in the faceplate.
Anything else you want to say about the componentry? Comment on any other components (good or bad)
Tektro mechanical disc brakes are pretty woeful.
Did you enjoy riding the bike? Yes
Would you consider buying the bike? Yes
Would you recommend the bike to a friend? Yes
How does the price compare to that of similar bikes in the market, including ones recently tested on road.cc?
The Primal is one of the cheapest gravel bikes we've encountered, but spending a little more might make better sense. The Merlin Malt-G seems to be perennially on sale around the £700 mark and provides a carbon fork, Mavic wheels and a huge jump up to Shimano Tiagra 10-speed gears. More mainstream, the Genesis CDA is £699.99 and comes with Shimano Sora gears and a refined ride. Meanwhile, the £750 Boardman ADV 8.8 features Sora kit with improved Tektro mechanical discs. In Claud Butler's own catalogue, for just £649.99 you could buy the Radical, which follows the same overall design ethos as the Primal but offers a more refined frameset with tapered head tube, a better Shimano Claris drivetrain, and even improved Tektro mechanical disc brakes.
Use this box to explain your overall score
This is a fantastic entry-level road, gravel and fast commuting bike that provides a surprisingly good ride experience in almost every situation. While Claud Butler has made some tricky speccing choices to get the price down, I do wonder if more expensive bikes actually offer better value for money. In isolation it's a great bike, though.
About the tester
I usually ride: Islabikes Beinn 29 My best bike is: 25-year-old Dawes Galaxy
I've been riding for: Over 20 years I ride: Most days I would class myself as: Experienced
I regularly do the following types of riding: commuting, touring, sportives, general fitness riding, mtb, Leisure