Bike review: GT Grade Carbon Ultegra
GT launched the Grade two years ago, billing it more as an endurance bike with extra versatility, rather than just a gravel machine. The tire clearance, geometry, and feature set were decidedly progressive then, but how does it fare today? After more than three months on a top-end Grade Carbon Ultegra model, U.S. tech editor James Huang has found that GT’s do-all road bike is still quite accomplished at a wide range of tasks, but it’s nevertheless ready for a refresher course.
Making the Grade
The Grade’s progressive design garnered plenty of fanfare, but also a bit of confusion. On the one hand, its longer, slacker, and taller geometry differs little from conventional endurance road bikes. However, whereas most bikes in that genre are built around medium-volume 28mm-wide tires, the Grade will take 35mm tires for a much more comfortable ride on poorly maintained pavement and dirt paths. Even cyclocross racing and light trail duty isn’t out of the question.
Not surprisingly, the carbon frame’s unusual design was penned with rider comfort in mind. The insanely skinny seatstays — less than 9mm-thick at their narrowest point — are particularly innovative, built with carbon fiber wrapping around a solid fiberglass core. According to GT, this allows them to be smaller and more flexible than conventional hollow tubes while still retaining sufficient strength for long-term durability. Those stays are also pre-curved inward and downward, and combine with the kinked chainstays and flattened seat tube to supposedly allow for tangible rear-end flex when hitting bumps.
More cush is promised by the relatively slim 27.2mm-diameter setback carbon seatpost used by all Grade Carbon models and the GT-signature Triple Triangle seat cluster configuration found on larger sizes, which the company claims makes for a more compact and vertically flexible rear triangle.
While the back end of the Grade frame may be all about a smooth ride, everything from the seat tube forward is more akin to a full-blown race bike in terms of stiffness.
The huge, non-tapered down tube suggests a stout backbone while the similarly constant-diameter top tube isn’t far behind in terms of girth. Inside the bulbous head tube is a tapered 1-1/8-to-1-1/4in steerer, and those pencil-thin seatstays are broadly spaced where they join the main frame to keep rear-end wag at bay.
Disc brakes are featured exclusively at both ends for their added control and tire clearance, and at least for now, GT is sticking with conventional post mount caliper interfaces. Further combating off-plane flex is a 100x15mm thru-axle up front, while the rear makes do with traditional quick-release open dropouts. GT doesn’t aim the Grade at loaded touring, so you can’t easily install racks, but there are fender mounts front and rear.
GT offers the Grade in seven aluminum-framed models and two carbon versions; I tested the flagship Grade Carbon Ultegra model, which comes equipped with a wide-range Shimano Ultegra mechanical drivetrain, Shimano R685 hydraulic disc levers and matching brakes, Stan’s NoTubes Grail tubeless aluminum clincher rims laced to proven DT Swiss 240s hubs, and a smattering of finishing kit from Continental, fi’zi:k, FSA, and GT’s own house brand.
Total weight for my 51cm test sample was 8.58kg (18.92lb, without pedals) while the bare frame tipped the scales at a respectable 1,090g with all requisite fittings. The matching tapered 1 1/8-to-1 1/4in fork added another 420g with the carbon fiber steerer trimmed from the factory to 190mm.
Retail price is US$3,500 / AU$4,300 / £2,600 / €3,600.
Putting the Grade to the test
I spent nearly three months on my Grade tester, and on a wide range of surfaces that included pavement, dirt, gravel, and even some typical Rocky Mountain singletrack — just as GT intends. Overall, I found the Grade to be a refreshingly versatile and capable machine but one that was also starting to show its age in a rapidly evolving market.
As promised, the Grade Carbon is a very good endurance-style road bike straight out of the box. It’s enviably comfortable on broken pavement and reasonably well-maintained dirt roads, the handling is unflappably stable and confident, and the slightly more upright positioning afforded by the taller head tube is well in keeping with the genre.
That smooth ride isn’t just due to the stock 28mm-wide Continental Grand Sport Race tires, either — especially considering they measure closer to 31mm on the wide-profile NoTubes rims. Even when they’re pumped up to unreasonably high pressures, the supple chassis still feels as if a few millimeters of micro-suspension were baked right into the mold.
That suspension does have limits, however, and in keeping with the analogy, you hit the bump stops hard once that travel is exhausted. Airing the tires down to a more logical 55-60psi instead yields a pillowy ride that absolutely glides across the road — paved or otherwise.
Although somewhat heavy and a bit slow to accelerate, the Grade is also no slouch under power with an efficient feel and fast-rolling tires that faithfully carry speed. It’s also a steady and capable climber (especially with the low stock gearing) and an ace descender with stable handling manners and powerful brakes that lend supreme confidence at high speed. The longer and slacker geometry requires a more aggressive lean to initiate corners, though, and the Grade is also less apt to alter its line once set — but with that smooth ride and generous tire contact patch, there’s often little reason to do so, anyway.
As competent as the Grade is on roads, it’s only when you replace the fast-but-limiting 28mm-wide slick tires with ones that better reflect the bike’s capabilities that it really starts to shine. After a few weeks on the stock Continentals, I switched to Clement’s lightly treaded X’Plor MSO with their more voluminous 36mm casings (1mm larger than what GT says is the clearance limit for the Grade).
Interestingly enough, I added not a single gram to the Grade’s overall weight in the process, even when accounting for sealant (although it also highlighted GT’s annoying decision not to install airtight rim tape to the otherwise tubeless-ready rims, or include the requisite valve stems).
What those tires did add was heaps more fun to the equation.
True, the Clements’ stiffer casings rolled a touch slower on pavement but what they returned in enjoyment more than made up for it. So equipped, I easily rode up to the Flagstaff Amphitheater just outside of Boulder, Colorado, via Chapman Drive — a decidedly rustic dirt road originally built in the mid 1930s that has long been closed to vehicular traffic and was recently decimated in a massive 2013 flood.
Likewise, I also tackled some rocky singletrack at a surprisingly brisk pace — something I never would have considered on a typical endurance road bike — occasionally bottoming out both rims but without any flats to speak of, and with almost no chain slap on the dramatically dropped chainstay. The Grade’s more stability-focused geometry didn’t quite afford the same nimbleness as a proper cyclocross machine, but then again, it didn’t also require quite as much mental attention at the tiller.
GT’s product managers have done a mostly excellent job with the component specification on the Grade Carbon Ultegra, too. The drivetrain’s 52/36T chainrings and 11-32T cassette provide ample top-end for bombing down paved descents but still plenty of range for some light off-roading, and Shimano’s hydraulic road disc brakes are still without equal in terms of lever feel and power.
The wheels have also held up well to abuse with only minimal touch-ups required and — so far — no dents despite the rather thin extrusions. The freehub is slow to engage with the stock 18-tooth ratchets but save for off-road excursions, it’s only been a minor irritant.
Perhaps more polarizing are the drop handlebars, which flare outward to provide more width and leverage in technical terrain. Despite preferring wider handlebars on my mountain bikes, I never got used to the feel of the flared drops, nor the fi’zi:k Aliante saddle for that matter — although as always, saddles are highly personal so it’s almost not worth mentioning.
Not quite a straight-A student
While the Grade may have been somewhat of a forward thinker when it was originally launched, the segment in which it competes has evolved rapidly — and when comparing to some newer entries, the Grade is definitely starting to show its age.
Most critically, newer and more gravel-friendly options such as the Salsa Warbird can fit tires up to 44mm-wide, as compared to the Grade’s comparatively modest 35mm. GT’s choice of 28mm-wide road slicks seems especially odd, too, given that they frustratingly limit the bike’s otherwise diverse capabilities. In fairness, all-road bikes like the Grade were still new territory for mainstream companies two years ago, and such a tire spec would have perhaps seemed less radical for potential buyers considering the Grade over a more traditional endurance machines.
Either way, GT has since rectified the oversight and MY2017 bikes will now come with wider Clement rubber from the factory (albeit matched to non-tubeless, and narrower, Mavic Aksium wheels).
The old shop mechanic in me appreciates the externally routed cables and hoses but from a visual standpoint, they feel a little antiquated compared to cleaner-looking internal setups that may be trickier to set up initially but are often better shielded from everyday dirt, water, and grime. The aluminum housing clamps on the underside of the Grade down tube also leave much to be desired; it’s too easy to overtighten them on sensitive derailleur housing, but snugging them up just so without some sort of thread retaining compound almost guarantees that they’ll fall off somewhere.
Likewise, PF30 bottom bracket shells may offer some benefits on paper but I still prefer the mechanical predictability of threads, extra grams be damned. GT has thankfully paired the Ultegra crankset specified here with Praxis Cycles’ excellent conversion bottom bracket, which uses a unique expanding collet design to firmly anchor it inside the shell. I’ve used it myself on many occasions and enjoyed months of creak-free pedaling, but alas this one eventually developed a persistent tick about 10 weeks into testing. It was easily rectified but annoying nonetheless. Threads, please.
Finally, there’s little measurable stiffness difference in using a thru-axle on a non-suspended rear triangle, but I still would have preferred one as they more consistently locate the rotor between the pads when removing and reinstalling the wheel to combat rotor rub — and if you really want to nitpick, the front thru-axle and rear quick-release levers don’t match visually.