2020 GT Grade Carbon Pro long-term review: A big improvement over v1.0
The original GT Grade was an ambitiously forward-looking machine that was quick to jump on the all-road and gravel bandwagons that were then just starting to gain traction in the mainstream. This revamped version might not be considered as innovative as the original, but it’s a far better example of the genre, now offering competitive tire clearance, a full suite of mounts, and a fully redesigned frame concept that finally delivers on the promise of a pillowy-smooth ride.
- What it is: The second coming of GT’s flagship mixed-surface drop-bar bike
- Frame features: Carbon fiber and fiberglass construction, unique Triple Triangle rear-end design, external cable routing
- Weight: 8.77 kg (19.33 lb), as tested, 51cm size, without pedals
- Price: US$3,900 / AU$5,400 / £3,900 / €3,800
- Highs: Superb ride quality, confidence-inspiring stability, lots of accessory mounts, elegant graphics
- Lows: PF30 bottom bracket, not the most efficient-feeling
Back to the drawing board
I reviewed the first-generation GT Grade in 2016. That was just a couple of years after its debut, but even in adolescence, it was already feeling past its prime. That wasn’t necessarily GT’s fault, per se, but more a consequence of a segment that was evolving at warp speed. While meant to be a hyper-versatile drop-bar bike capable of tackling tarmac, dirt, and gravel roads with equal aplomb, the ride quality was compromised in smaller sizes, the tire clearance wasn’t as generous as it perhaps should have been, and the frame in general didn’t move the needle enough relative to more conventional setups.
But all that has changed with version 2.0.
GT retained a few of the original Grade’s features, such as the solid fiberglass-core seatstays for additional rear-end flex, and the distinctive Triple Triangle frame layout, where the seatstays meet with the top tube well forward of the seat tube. But whereas before the small and extra-small sizes instead made do with a conventional seat cluster, the new Grade now uses the Triple Triangle design across the entire size range.
More importantly, GT has since realized that there’s a lot more to ride comfort than skinny seatstays. Equally as important — perhaps more so, in fact — is seat tube flex. The old Grade has a nominally round seat tube from top to bottom, but the new frame features a dramatically flattened cross-section from about the mid-point down so that the entire section is more free to arc rearward when you hit a bump.
Carrying over is the distinctive upward kink in the chainstay, although, in reality, that’s likely more to reduce annoying chain slap than to provide any pseudo-pivot point for the rear end.
As expected, tire clearance has gone up substantially, from the modest 35mm on the original Grade, up to a far more generous 42mm, front and rear. Oddly, GT doesn’t make mention of 650b compatibility on its web page for the Grade or in any press or marketing materials I’ve seen, but GT senior PR manager Sofia Whitcombe confirmed with me that the frame is officially approved for 650b setups up to 47mm-wide.
There are far more accessory mounts on tap, though, including the usual front and rear fenders, as well as attachment points for three water bottles, a rear rack, a top tube feed bag, and “anything” mounts on each carbon fiber fork blade.
Somewhat less expected, however, was the move toward more relaxed handling, although it’s well in keeping with GT’s decision to take the Grade even further off-road.
Chainstay length has gone up, from 430mm on the original Grade all the way up to 445mm on the new model, and reach has lengthened on all sizes as well, both of which combine for fairly substantial increases in wheelbase. Stack heights have increased slightly across the size as well for a more upright riding position.
Interestingly, GT is bucking one big trend and sticking with external cable routing, using a mix of bolt-on and zip-tie anchors throughout the frame and fork. Models with Shimano Di2 electronic drivetrains feature internal routing for the wiring, however, and there’s also now dedicated ports for stealth-style dropper posts.
Claimed weight for the new Grade Carbon frame is 985g, plus 490g for the matching fork — a decrease of 35g from the previous year’s frame (although the additional features on the new fork likely make the total a wash).
That carbon frame is offered in three complete builds, with prices starting at US$2,000 /£2,000 / €2,000 with Shimano Tiagra components, and topping out at US$3,900 / AU$5,400 / £3,900 / €3,800 with Shimano Ultegra Di2, all with sub-compact cranksets from FSA.
I tested the flagship Grade Carbon Pro here. Actual weight for a 51cm sample was 8.77kg (19.33lb), without pedals or accessories.
Moving up the ranks
As I stated earlier on in this review, I was hardly blown away by the performance of the first-generation Grade. Although ostensibly billed as a cutting-edge drop-bar bike for everything from tarmac to rugged unpaved backroads, it felt like little more than an endurance road bike with so-so ride quality and ho-hum tire clearance.
I don’t feel that way any longer.
First and foremost, ride quality has dramatically improved on this most recent version. The vastly more flexible seat tube does a superb job of tempering the jolts of imperfect road surfaces, washboarded dirt, and unforeseen potholes, and it’s an effect you can both feel and see. Although there are no mechanical devices included here, the end effect isn’t entirely unlike Trek’s IsoSpeed setup, albeit perhaps with a bit less sensitivity and obviously without the adjustability Trek incorporated into the most recent versions.
As always with these sorts of arrangements, there are some potential downsides. Riders that are heavier, run a lot of saddle setback, or have particularly rough pedal strokes might notice some degree of bounciness to the Triple Triangle Setup, but the upside of the system being less sensitive than IsoSpeed is that it’s also a little less prone — but not wholly immune — to those after-effects, too. In my case, I run a pretty modest saddle height and minimal offset, and have a decently smooth pedal stroke, so it’s not something I noticed during normal test rides.
More impressive is how GT managed to grace the new Grade with an enviably balanced ride, too. Whereas a number of bikes I’ve ridden recently with extra-smooth rear ends often feel comparatively harsh up front, the Grade does nearly as good a job pampering your hands. The effect is more subtle than out back — and the built-in suspension otherwise known as your arms helps a lot, of course — but it’s nonetheless impressive how GT has dialed in the vertical flex pattern of the front triangle.
On pavement, the ride quality is sublime. Washboarded dirt is little more than a mild nuisance. And on blown-out jeep roads, the cushy chassis makes for far better control and composure than one might otherwise expect of a bike with such modestly wide tires.
But once again, you don’t get something for nothing.
The Grade is comfortable, but also rather soft-feeling when you apply the power. It’s a bike that rewards a high cadence and smooth pedal stroke, and just a touch of patience when you signal the engine room for a little more steam. Speed builds precipitously, not instantaneously, but it does build. Whether that’s a bad thing will depend on your perspective, but in this genre, I personally will give it a pass.
Handling is expectedly on the more stable side, particularly given the unusually long rear end. But should you want things a little quicker, it’s only moderately arduous to swap the fork to the other offset option.
Combined with the cushy ride, relatively low weight, and the fast-rolling characteristics of the supple 37mm-wide WTB Riddler tires, the Grade is an outstanding companion for long days of uncertain “road” quality when your legs start to grow weary and your mind starts to wander. Thinking of getting a Grade for doing some ‘cross racing, too? Er, maybe not.
The component mix here is fairly straightforward, so there aren’t many surprises.
The Shimano Ultegra Di2 transmission rattles off shifts with relentless precision and accuracy, and the clutch-equipped Ultegra RX Di2 rear derailleur does an excellent job of minimizing chain slap. The brakes — with 160mm rotors front and rear — offer up heaps of power and good control, albeit with a bit of grabbiness typical with Shimano hydraulic calipers. Pad rub wasn’t an issue for me, but yes, they do still squeal when wet.
Kudos to GT’s product manager for the sub-compact 46/30T gearing on the FSA Energy hollow-forged aluminum crankset. Between that and the Shimano 105 11-34T cassette, there’s no shortage of climbing ratios on tap, but still enough top-end in most situations you’d encounter with this type of bike.
Another highlight for me were the WTB Riddler tires (which I recently included as one of my ten favorite products of 2019). At 37mm-wide, they’re still sufficiently light and narrow for a fun time on smoother surfaces, and the tightly spaced center tread makes for a fast roll. But there’s also a healthy footprint on rough ground — especially paired with the 23mm-wide WTB KOM Light i23 tubeless aluminum rims — and the generous side knobs grip tenaciously when leaning the bike over on loose dirt.
Quirks and oddballs
If you’re getting the impression that I liked the Grade, then you’re getting the right message. As far as gravel bikes go, it’s a solid machine. But it’s not without a handful of curveballs.
For one, Triple Triangle may have a positive effect on ride quality, but the additional width at the seat tube might interfere with some riders’ knees (like mine). And while the old shop mechanic in me is a huge fan of the externally routed brake lines, I’m not a fan of the positioning on the underside of the down tube, where it’s perfectly placed to catch mud, nor the fact that GT doesn’t have its assemblers apply thread retaining compound to the bolts that secure the hose clamps to the frame.
I have mixed feelings on the adjustable fork rake on the Grade, too — not with the idea, mind you, but the way in which GT has gone about it. The Cervelo Aspero incorporates a similar feature, but in the opposite direction. There, you have the option of reducing the offset from the stock setting, which is handy for when you want to cancel out the quickening effect of smaller-diameter 650b wheel-and-tire setups.
But on the Grade, all you can do is make the front-end handling faster, which is not something I ever felt the need to do.
Another aspect of the geometry was a little perplexing to me, too: the seat tube angle. Bike designers will often spec slacker seat tube angles on bigger frame sizes, and steeper ones on smaller sizes, in an effort to maintain a consistent knee-over-pedal-spindle relationship. But on my 51cm Grade sample, the seat tube is fairly slack at 73°, and it’s exacerbated by a setback seatpost and a Fabric Scoop saddle that has a more rearward seating position. Until I swapped to a zero-offset post, I felt like I was sitting in the back seat of the Grade instead of being more centered as I usually prefer to be.
I didn’t have this bike long enough to draw any conclusions about long-term durability, but the no-name nature of the rear hub still gives me pause. It’s literally a no-name hub with no external markings whatsoever, and although the standard pawl internals should be straightforward enough, I nevertheless can’t help but wonder about sourcing replacement parts down the road should something go south.
I also continue to be surprised every time I ride a gravel bike with sparse handlebar tape. The modestly flared aluminum bar on this GT Grade is nicely shaped, but also quite stiff. Surely it can’t cost much more to spec tape with slightly thicker foam, no? A cushy front triangle can only do so much, after all.
Lastly, there’s the small issue of the press-fit bottom bracket. In fairness, this one stayed quiet, but in my experience, PF30 is the format most prone to issues down the road thanks to the narrow bearing spacing and oversized spindle. It’s not a deal breaker, but if you decide to get one of these and yours does eventually start audibly protesting, do yourself a favor and get yourself a thread-together unit with bearings that are more widely spaced. The longer 30mm-diameter spindle on this FSA Energy crankset can handle it, and you’ll thank me later.
Two thumbs up
There was a time when I counted myself as one of those riders that placed an inordinate amount of value on chassis stiffness. Bikes just had to feel quick and responsive when you pushed hard on the pedals; how could it be any good otherwise, right? With age and experience come wisdom, I guess.
Matt Pacocha is a good friend and former co-worker of mine, and someone whose opinion I hold in great regard. Although he hung up his toe spikes several years ago, he was an accomplished amateur cyclocross racer — a US age-group national champion, in fact — with a keen nose for good gear, and a strong filter for bullshit. I remember him telling me once that one of his favorite ‘cross bikes was an old Time. It wasn’t because it was lighter and stiffer than other bikes he’d ridden, but specifically because it was softer and more flexible, which meant he could stay seated and on the gas longer when things got rough, instead of getting bounced around and beat-up because of the questionable “benefit” of a stiffer chassis.
I thought of that story several times as I was testing the Grade. If your preferences in drop-bar bikes tend toward snappier and more reactive machines, the Grade won’t be for you. But in this case, its softness isn’t a detriment; it’s a secret superpower, with the added bonus of being a pretty good value for what you get, too.
Consider yourselves redeemed, GT.