We tested GT's flagship carbon fibre Grade Ultegra earlier this year and were very impressed with its versatility both on and off road. For 2017 the model has had a few tweaks, making it even more suitable as a gravel and adventure bike straight out of the box, without really compromising the tarmac side.
Even with the slight price and weight increase, the Grade is still a bike that should be near the top of your 'do it all' list.
I've been riding road bikes since the turn of the century, and other than one dabble into the mountain bike world for a couple of months – after being wiped out by a car on my commute – I've never really got the whole off-road thing.
For me, the issue has always been either driving to somewhere to ride off-road or ride on the road to get somewhere on a bike that isn't really suitable for miles on the asphalt. Over the last few weeks I've been testing three 'gravel' (or whatever you want to call them) bikes, and to say I'm a convert is an understatement. I haven't had such a giggle in years.
Why have I been having so much fun? Well, because the Grade is so easy and engaging to ride pretty much everywhere, without having to spend a single penny on an upgrade for the majority of terrain.
Ride and handling
The frameset for the 2017 model is exactly the same as the 2016 model apart from the paintjob, so a lot of what David Arthur said in his original review still stands:
"Take your pick of gravel roads, bridleways, beaten up old farm tracks, potholed country lanes, old mountain bike tracks... the Grade tackles them all, and more, just fine. Its 28mm tyres (which appear much wider on the Grail rims) provide good comfort and traction (in the dry), while the carbon frame and fork take the edge out of bumpier tracks but maintain a nice bit of zip when sticking to the tarmac.
"The geometry, with a longer wheelbase and slacker head angle than a road bike, instills a huge amount of confidence in its ability to be stable and steady, traits that mean it's very composed at high road speeds or when hurtling down a dusty tree-lined track dodging roots and rocks.
"Don't think that it's slow and ponderous on the road. Granted, it doesn't have the razor sharp direction changes or acceleration of a race bike, but it's far from a slouch when used mainly as a road bike, and it'll cruise along the road just as fast as the best endurance bike. You can ride it for long distances or load it up with some bikepacking bags and go on a multi-day adventure."
The main difference for 2017 is that the Grade comes with 32mm Clement Strada USH tyres. The wider rubber and slight tread means this latest model is much more confident on the rough stuff in its standard spec than previously.
We've tested a few Clement tyres recently and they are very good, with these USHs not letting the side down. They gripped and handled brilliantly on the hard gravel tracks of Salisbury Plain, with excursions onto the grass or hardpacked mud trails doing little to upset things.
Wet mud and chalk would see them slip a bit, but on the whole they punch well above their weight, or should that be tread pattern?
If things do get a little sketchy then that long wheelbase and slack angles mean the Grade is easy to control as it squirms about.
Picking up on what David said about the handling not being as razor sharp as a road bike was quite interesting for me. When I read the review I thought, are you sure?
If you've ever read any of my previous bike tests you'll know that I like a bike that handles with a bit of aggression. I don't mind a bike that'll keep me on my toes in terms of having to tame the steering a touch. I like to be in tune with the machine.
I never found the Grade to lack directness or speed in its direction changes. In fact it was only when I went back to a race bike after a couple of weeks of riding the GT and promptly nearly binned it into the kerb while applying the same amount of steering input that I realised its 'limitations'.
The Grade is very good at balancing high speed handling on the road as well as being easily controllable off, when the surface may be moving about beneath you.
Comfort is key on a bike like this and this is where the GT Grade really pulls a masterstroke. The seatstays are carbon fibre wrapped fibreglass cores, which GT claims is the perfect balance of stiffness and comfort.
They are pretty thin, which allows for quite a bit of flex, to the point that a few times you look back to see if you have a rear puncture. Get out of the saddle, though, for a bit of aggression and the rear end feels tight without any flex at all.
Frame & fork details
The Grade follows a common theme that we see on lots of bikes whether they are road or this gravel/adventure genre: basically oversized front and lower sections for stiffness with narrow, more flexible upper tubes for comfort.
Up front the head tube is tapered from top to bottom at 1 1/8 to 1 1/4in, which increases stiffness due to the larger cross sectional area to cope with the braking loads coming from the disc brakes.
The down tube also has a large profile, that oversized bottom section of the head tube meaning a larger junction there, while the oversized Press-Fit 30 bottom bracket shell means more surface for the join at the other end. What you're left with is a very stiff frame when you get out of the saddle to really press on the pedals
BB30 bottom brackets don't have the greatest of reputations for use on bikes that are likely to see some service in wet conditions, thanks to the tight tolerances needed on the frame to match the bearing fitment. If it ain't right, you're going to get movement, which results in creaking – which normally shows up worse when grit and water make their way in.
Press-Fit BBs are the same size, but with the bearings in races they don't need the same tight fit. I had no issues at all with creaking over the test period and this frame was certainly put through loads of gravel and singletrack abuse.
I've already mentioned how the seatstays flex for comfort and GT has also kept the carbon seatpost at 27.2mm diameter for added movement. It's minimal but it all adds up.
The fork for me is right on the edge of the comfort-stiffness balance. Heavy braking on the rough stuff would see some movement at the bottom of the legs, which caused a lack of precision on technical sections where you'd need to be on the brakes between tight, close bends.
Riding another gravel bike with a very stiff fork made me appreciate the flex in the GT's for the majority of the time.
Build and prices
This is the flagship model in the Grade range, offering a full Shimano Ultegra groupset. Well near enough full – the excellent hydraulic brake/gear shifters, callipers and rotors are not model-specific but are aimed to cover bikes using Ultegra and Dura-Ace.
The shifting is light and instant, with the braking very controllable in terms of modulation. For me, as a very late braker, I find SRAM's hydros have better braking power but are a little progressive; I like Shimano's 'grabbiness', the on or off kind of braking style while still being able to feel exactly where the grip limits are.
Most gravel bikes come with either a wide-range 1x11 groupset or a road compact setup, 50/34 up front, for example, with an 11-28 or 11-32 cassette. The Grade goes for a more racy setup of a 52/36 semi compact chainset albeit with an 11-32 at the rear. That does mean that off road, where grip can be compromised and the climbs steeper, it would be nice to have the slightly lower bottom gear of a 50/34, though it's only a small difference. On the road it does work well, though.
Wheel-wise, the 2017 model swaps from Stan's Grail and DT Swiss hubs to Mavic Aksiums. The Mavics are on the tubby side, and along with the added heft of the bigger tyres explains the slight increase of overall weight.
That aside, the Mavics will take a proper kicking hitting rocks and water-filled potholes. The number of times I winced at an impact on rocks or sharp tarmac edges only to see the wheels were still rolling true was quite high.
As far as the finishing kit goes, GT has decked the Grade out pretty well. You get an FSA carbon seatpost (a proper one too, none of that carbon-wrapped alloy business) and GT's own alloy bar and stem combo. The bar has flared drops to give clearance for your knees, and the added width gives you more stability when you're riding in the drops over rough terrain.
I was mightily impressed with the ride quality of the GT Grade. It really does tick so many boxes, and I reckon if I went back to commuting full time I'd definitely go for one. The versatility of just taking any route home, paved or unpaved, is a massive bonus and one that'll bring a smile to your face.
The price increase over the 2016 model does push things a bit though. With the way the world is, a rise in RRP isn't a massive surprise but it puts the Grade up against some big opposition. We've got the Wilier Jaroon and Mason Bokeh in on test at the moment, plus the Ribble CGR, so the competition is pretty fierce in terms of value for money.
If money is a concern, the Carbon 105 model does look much better value, even if you do take a downshift in gearing and wheels. Not too sure about the paintjob though...
Versatile, fast and capable multi-terrain bike that's impressive straight out of the box, but it's pricey
road.cc test report
Make and model: GT Grade Carbon Ultegra
Size tested: 55cm
About the bike
State the frame and fork material and method of construction. List the components used to build up the bike.
Frame: GT EnduRoad carbon frame and fork, disc specific triple triangle with Tapered head tube, full carbon fork, PFBB30 bottom bracket, removable fender bridge
Fork: GT Carbon with tapered 1 1/8 to 1 1/4 threadless Carbon steerer, disc specific, 15mm thru axle
Headset: Integrated TH sealed bearing
Bars: New GT DropTune Ultra Light double butted 2014 alloy bar with 16 degree flairBlack Marble Cork
Stem: New design 3D forged alloy SL
Front Mech: Shimano Ultegra
Rear Mech: Shimano Ultegra
Shifters Shimano Ultegra STI 11-speed
Chainset: Shimano Ultegra 52/36 with Praxis Works PF30 BB adapterN/A
Bottom Bracket: Praxis Works PF30 BB adapter
Cassette: Shimano 105 11-speed 11-32
Chain: KMC X11
Front Brake: Shimano R785 hydraulic w/ cooling fins, 160mm IceTech centerlock rotors
Rear Brake: Shimano R785 hydraulic w/ cooling fins, 160mm IceTech centerlock rotors
Rims: Mavic Aksium Disc Allroad Wheelset
Tyres: Clement Strada USH 700x32c, Tubeless Ready Front, Clement Strada USH 700x32c, Tubeless Ready Rear
Seatpost: FSA K-Force Light carbon 27.2, 25mm set back
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?
GT says: "Ready for everything from smooth tarmac switchbacks to gravel roads and everything in between. The GT Grade Carbon Ultegra is a road bike that knows no bounds.
The EnduRoad carbon fibre composite frame is lightweight tough, and offers a smooth ride on less than perfect road surfaces. With a slightly-more-upright endurance style riding position the Grade will keep you comfortable in the saddle on long rides as well as giving you a little extra stability for off-road excursions. The Grade full carbon fork and flattened rear stays help to smooth rough roads while the tapered head tube adds front end stiffness for precise steering. Drop tune bars and 32c tyres are ideal for rough road cycling.
The Shimano Ultegra 2x11 speed drivetrain offers slick shifting and features a mid-compact chainset with wide range 11-32 cassette so that you have all the gears for everything from flat out hacks to steep gravel climbs. The Shimano R785 hydraulic disc brakes offer confident all-weather stopping on every road surface. Mavic Aksium Allroad wheels deliver the dependable performance you need to ride anyroad.
The GT Grade Ultegra is a high-tech road bike for low-tech roads."
The Grade in my eyes embraces the adventure ethos by being able to take on virtually any terrain in its standard spec with little in the way of compromise.
Frame and fork
Tell us about the build quality and finish of the frame and fork?
The frame is cleverly designed with a lot of strength where it's required and comfort where you want it. The narrow carbon seatstays, for example, bring so much to the ride quality.
Tell us about the materials used in the frame and fork?
Full carbon fibre frame and fork with carbon wrapped fibreglass stays.
Tell us about the geometry of the frame and fork?
Very long and relaxed compared with a road bike, but while you compromise a little of the performance on road it means off-road ability is way stronger than you'd expect.
Full sizing details here - http://www.gtbicycles.com/gbr_en/2017/bikes/pavement/enduroad/grade-carb...
How was the bike in terms of height and reach? How did it compare to other bikes of the same stated size?
A very well balanced bike where the stack and reach put you in a great position handling wise for both on and off road.
Riding the bike
Was the bike comfortable to ride? Tell us how you felt about the ride quality.
Very much so, those seatstays do an excellent job.
Did the bike feel stiff in the right places? Did any part of the bike feel too stiff or too flexible?
The fork is just on the edge, but the frame is spot on for varied terrain.
How did the bike transfer power? Did it feel efficient?
Was there any toe-clip overlap with the front wheel? If so, was it a problem?
Yes, but no.
How would you describe the steering? Was it lively, neutral or unresponsive? Very neutral but it doesn't feel it when you are riding.
Tell us some more about the handling. How did the bike feel overall? Did it do particular things well or badly?
Very balanced, engaging and easy to ride on all terrains.
Which components had the most effect (good or bad) on the bike's comfort? would you recommend any changes?
The saddle was stiff enough for road use and forgiving enough off road.
Which components had the most effect (good or bad) on the bike's stiffness? would you recommend any changes?
The Mavic Aksiums and Shimano Ultegra groupset provide all the stiffness you need, where you need it.
Which components had the most effect (good or bad) on the bike's efficiency? would you recommend any changes?
The tyres offer a great balance between grip and speed.
Tell us some more about the drivetrain. Anything you particularly did or didn't like? Any components which didn't work well together?
The Ultegra drivetrain is a great setup and the hydro brakes are hard to fault even if they are on the pricey side.
Wheels and tyres
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?
The Aksiums are perfect for the type of riding you're going to go for on the Grade. They aren't the lightest but boy can they take a hit.
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?
The Clement USH tyres are near brilliant, no issues with punctures and they roll fast and grip on and off road.
Tell us some more about the controls. Any particularly good or bad components? How would the controls work for larger or smaller riders?
It all works well as a package.
Did you enjoy riding the bike? Yes
Would you consider buying the bike? Other models in the range look slightly better value.
Would you recommend the bike to a friend? Yes
Use this box to explain your score
It's a great bike and one I enjoyed riding very much – exciting to ride on road and off. The price increase isn't ideal, but as a 'one bike does all' it's actually quite hard to knock and there are plenty of models in the range to suit other budgets.
About the tester
I usually ride: This month's test bike My best bike is: Kinesis Aithien
I've been riding for: 10-20 years I ride: Every day I would class myself as: Expert
I regularly do the following types of riding: time trialling, commuting, club rides, sportives, fixed/singlespeed
Stu knocked out his first road.cc review back in 2009 and since then he's chucked the best part of seventy test bikes around the West Country, a couple of them quite literally! With three alloy and two steel bikes in his fleet he's definitely a metal man (that'll be the engineering background) but is slowly warming to that modern carbon fibre stuff along with fat tyres & disc brakes.
It's not all nostalgia though, after spending the last few years in product design Stu keeps banging on about how 3D printing is going to be the next big thing and he's a sucker for a beautiful paint job too.