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This handsome steel tourer is a new entry into the increasingly popular drop-bars and discs category from German company Tout Terrain. Designed by Swiss ex-downhill biker Florian Weismann it boasts exotic kit, unusual design touches and an eye watering price tag. Don't be fooled though, this is a heavy duty touring bike, not the fast randonneur that the Tout Terrain website suggests.
I'm a big fan of disc brakes on road bikes - they are more powerful than rim brakes, more reliable in the wet and don't chew lumps out of your wheels. The weight penalty might preclude them from appearing on featherweight racers but on bikes with more humble aspirations they make perfect sense. A few years ago they were almost unknown, now we have the Kona Dew Drop, the Kona Sutra, the Salsa Fargo and Vaya and the Jamis Aurora that was being thrashed round Bath on test as I was hitting the roads of Devon. Choice of brake is usually limited to either Shimano BL-R505s or Avid BB7s. The Grande Route comes with the Shimano offering and although they do work they lack the bite and crisp lever feel of the BB7s.
With a German company and Swiss designer (his name is emblazoned on the chainstay, just in case you forget) you'd expect immaculate engineering and Design with a capital D. You'd be right too, the Grande Route is designed to within an inch. In some ways I felt like I was riding a bike that had been fully customised to someone else's spec. The bosses under the top tube had me scratching my head, as did the little rubber plugs in the rack. Then it dawned, they were there to carry the wiring to a rear light, via the inside of the rack tubing. Not a problem that I'd ever needed a solution to, but sort of neat. The integrated rack also had me confused. Yes, it's strong, stiff and tidy, but it adds weight that can never be removed, the painted finish is vulnerable to scuffing from panniers, unless you cover it in ugly tape and it's made from fat tubing that won't accept older panniers, such as my seven year old Ortliebs. Again, it's a somewhat over-engineered solution to a problem that I've never had. The frame, made from Dedaccai tubing, is beautifully finished and also features a fitting for a kick stand, should you want one. It only comes in one colour, a classy dark green which works particularly well with the brown bar tape and saddle, unless you want to shell out an extra £83 for a custom paint job.
Tout Terrain sell the Grande Route in two flavours, Gold and Silver. Ours was Gold (at £2970) which means an upgrade to Ultegra, Brooks leather bar tape and a Chris King headset in addition to the Syntace bars, stem and seatpost, Mavic A317 rims and Middleburn chainset. On top of that lot it came loaded with enough exotic extras to make a road.cc Friday Schwag prize look positively stingy: Chris King bottom bracket, Brooks Swift, Chris King rear hub, SON dynamo hub, Tubus low-riders, Plug USB recharger and a Supernova Airstream front light. Full price with that lot? About £3631....
Leaving the chainset/chain aside for a moment the rest of the kit works just fine. Ultegra shifters are crisp and precise, bar tape and handlebars feel comfortable, the Brooks Swift is an old friend and the Schwalbe Ultremos roll fast. They're an aberration though, regular bikes will come with Duranos which should be tougher and a better match to a touring bike than the fast but fragile Ultremos. Where I did get grumpy is with the mudguards. By coincidence Big Dave reviewed a set last month and while they look smart and are a quality item, their flat profile means they need to be set close to the tyre to work effectively. Not so on the Grande Route - here they are set way too high and as the rear 'guard is bolted to the frame in four (count 'em) places you don't get to fiddle with it. Sure, you don't get a spray stripe up your back but the rest of the bike gets covered.
On a bike that feels like it's been designed to within an inch of it's life that seemed like a weird misfire. I checked with Oliver from Tout Terrain and he explained that the bike we were sent had been set up for larger tyres and that retail bikes would have the mudguards fitted with little rubber bumpers to bring them closer to the tyre. The most interesting extra is the Plug USB charger. It has the potential to be an invaluable touring asset but I didn't make much use of it as the Garmin Edge 800 I'd borrowed refused to work and charge up at the same time. We're hoping to get one in soon for a more thorough test.
Tout Terrain bill the Grande Route as a 'classic randonneur' for 'great distances in a sporty pace' which makes it sound like the perfect choice for audaxes. The full touring rig (integrated rear rack and low-riders, provision for three bottle cages) that it came with suggested that it's true metier lay elsewhere. It's heavy as well, 14kg, including extras like a hub dymano, USB charger and those low-rider racks. I wasn't expecting a nimble racer but nor was I expecting it to be quite so slow and stodgy, this really isn't a bike that likes to be hustled. Load it up with panniers, lose the expectation of speed and embrace a slower pace and it makes much more sense. Weirdly it even seems to climb better with a full load as it's easier to drop into twiddle mode and push against the weight as you chug your way up.
At first I took Tout Terrain at their word and rode the bike as if it were an audax machine. Commuting, evening rides with friends, even an actual audax. Although the upright riding position was always comfy, helped by the Ultegra hoods, the bike felt sluggish and unwilling, especially up hills. The 48/36/24 Middleburn chainset, mated to an 11-28 rear block, should have given a more than adequate range with a 22.9" bottom gear but despite this fighting gravity was more of a chore than usual. As an added complication the narrow 10spd chain and the tiny 24t inner ring didn't get on well. Trying to shift between the inner ring and the middle ring under any kind of load would instantly result in the chain jumping off and wedging itself between the chainrings. And when I say wedging, I do mean wedging. Luckily I had a metal tyre lever (old school Carradice, remember the review?) to act as a de-wedger. Once I'd worked out the trick of slacking off before shifting (and uttering a small prayer to St Andy of Luxembourg) it was fine, but turning a corner to face a sudden sharp rise usually meant a sudden stop followed by a brief oily fettle. And a lot of swearing. It would be annoying enough on a £500 bike, but on a bike costing this much it's unforgivable.
An exchange of e-mails with my new friend Oliver revealed that the problem is down to the front mech being pushed to it's limits by the tiny 24t chainring. Although the current set-up allows closer gear ratios on the larger rings (Tout Terrain's rationale behind retaining the arrangement) I feel that on a touring bike, and that's what this is, the twiddly ring is more important than ever, so compromising it makes no sense. A 26t small ring combined with a 30t rear sprocket should solve the problem while maintaining the smallest bottom gear ratio and Tout Terrain have said that they are going to look into the possibility of changing the set up - I'll post back on here if I hear any more news.
STOP PRESS! Another e-mail from the tenacious Oliver explains that not only is the front mech being stretched to capacity, the spider that was fitted to our test bike was from a faulty batch with posts 1mm too long, hence the chain sized gap between rings. It's safe to say that production bikes won't suffer from this and should shift just fine.
To be honest I spent a good portion of my 600 odd miles with the Grande Route feeling grumpy, bewildered and wondering what on earth this extravagant, over-engineered gin palace of a bike was actually for? Speaking to the company went a long way to fixing that - the mudguards will be different on retail models, it should be possible to resolve the shifting issue and they also made it clear that the bike is indeed a touring bike, not the fast randonneur that the website suggests. At the end of the day, if you want to blow your redundancy money/lottery winnings/pension on a high-end tourer with all the whistles and bells you could do worse than take the Grande Route.
Super high-end touring bike with price tag to match. Production models should be free from drivetrain woes
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Make and model: Tout Terrain Grande Route
Size tested: M
State the frame and fork material and method of construction. List the components used to build up the bike.
Frame - Dedacciai EOM steel tubing
Rack - stainless steel
Fork - steel
Chris King headset, bottom bracket and rear hub
Shimano BL-R505 disc brakes
Shimano XT rear mech
Schwalbe Ultremo 28c tyres
Tubus low rider front racks
Syntace Racelite 2014 bars
Syntace Force Road stem
Shimano CS6700 11-28 cassette
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?
Tout Terrain say: "The Grande Route is a classic Randonneur who enables long distance riders to cover great distances in a sporty pace without abstaining from a comfortable seating position."
I say: Comfy yes, fast, no. Works better as a full touring bike.
Tell us about the build quality and finish of the frame and fork?
Tell us about the materials used in the frame and fork?
Custom Dedacciai and Columbus tubing.
Tell us about the geometry of the frame and fork?
Reasonably relaxed - what you'd expect for a bike like this.
How was the bike in terms of height and reach? How did it compare to other bikes of the same stated size?
High front end, very similar to Kona Dew Drop. Comfortable reach and drops easily accessible.
Was the bike comfortable to ride? Tell us how you felt about the ride quality.
Very comfy riding position but not a plush ride.
Did the bike feel stiff in the right places? Did any part of the bike feel too stiff or too flexible?
Quite a stiff ride actually, but the 28C tyres take the sting out.
How did the bike transfer power? Did it feel efficient?
It always felt a bit sluggish.
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? Neutral, almost to the point of being lazy.
Tell us some more about the handling. How did the bike feel overall? Did it do particular things well or badly?
Upright position means centre of gravity is a little higher - this isn't a bike for flicking round tight corners.
Which components had the most effect (good or bad) on the bike's comfort? would you recommend any changes?
Ultegra hoods are very nice.
Which components had the most effect (good or bad) on the bike's efficiency? would you recommend any changes?
Constant problems with the drivetrain but this is most likely down to the particular chainset fitted to the test bike - production models should work fine.
Like a boulder falling uphill.
More carthorse than mountain goat.
Constant niggles with dropped chain - assume a score of 8 for production bikes
Tell us some more about the drivetrain. Anything you particularly did or didn't like? Any components which didn't work well together?
The chainset/chain/front mech combination wasn't a happy match but should work fine on production models.
Regular bike comes with Schwalbe Durano tyres, not Ultremo.
Tell us some more about the wheels and tyres.Did they work well in the conditions you encountered? Would you change the wheels or tyres? If so, what for?
Schwalbe Ultremos were lovely - very fast rolling and smooth. Not the standard tyre though and probably too fragile for a bike like this. Schwalbe Duranos are the regular tyre and a better match for a bike like this.
Ultegra 10 levers are excellent, comfortable and perform well
New Ultegra hoods are very comfy
Anything else you want to say about the componentry? Comment on any other components (good or bad)
Mixture of the great, the good and the weird. Mostly high to super high end stuff. Middleburn crankset had me tearing my hair out - gap between small and middle rings just wide enough to thoroughly wedge a 10-speed chain but this was down to a faulty spider on our test bike.
Did you enjoy riding the bike? As a heavy duty tourer, yes. Unloaded it's frustrating and slow.
Would you consider buying the bike? Probably not
Would you recommend the bike to a friend? Maybe - but as a touring bike
Anything further to say about the bike in conclusion?
Frustratingly slow and ponderous, until you load it up. Then it all makes sense.
Age: 41 Height: 5' 8 Weight: er....86kg
I usually ride: Kona Dew Drop My best bike is: Guess SC1 scandium
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, general fitness riding, fixed/singlespeed, Audax and long distance solo rides