Though short on distance, my first ride on the newly updated GT Grade was big on views and gravel, and enough time to convince me that the US company has retained everything that was good about the original but made some appealing changes, namely more comfort, bigger tyres and extra mounts for bikepacking adventures.
It was off to Girona that I travelled for the worldwide launch of the new GT Grade, which made travelling a bit easier than the trip to Utah back in 2014 for the launch of the original. This small Spanish city might be reasonably well-known as a haven for current and retired professional cyclists, but a few miles away from the bustling narrow streets and trendy coffee shops are large forests packed with dirt and gravel tracks that according to our local guide, are all accessible to cyclists. I can highly recommend Girona for a gravel/adventure cycling trip, I'll be going back for some more exploring (and coffee and ice cream) soon.
Rolling out through town provides a bit of time to get used to the new bike. The handlebars feel a bit high at first - I’d have flipped the stem and shuffled some spacers around if the tight schedule has permitted time to carry out this adjustment - but the Grade has a warming familiarity and I soon settle comfortably into the Fabric saddle and find the WTB Riddler tyres rolling along with acceptable pace on the tarmac.
It’s immediately obvious it’s an easy and relaxing bike to ride due to the long and slack geometry. There are no hidden surprise in its handling when you flick off the road onto a cycle path or weave around a suddenly braking car ahead of you. When we finally swap tarmac for gravel and a bit of blessed tree shelter from the intense sunshine, the tyres are excellent at finding grip in the loose dirt and scrabbling up steep climbs with thick tree roots tentacled across the path.
That relaxed geometry, and now the high handlebar position, is a benefit on downhill trails. Whether in the hoods or gripping the flared drops, the GT is a fun and easy bike to swoop along a twisty trail chasing the rider in front. The tyres prove a good match for the ground conditions.
Comfort is excellent with this new Grade. The new ‘Floating Stays’ provide detectable saddle movement - you can everything moving when you look between your legs or on another bike when following behind someone - and it helps on all sorts terrain.
Over rippled dirt, chunky gravel on dried out river beds, menacing roots or some cheeky airtime, the amount of flex the new Grade offers is a tangible benefit over the old bike and puts it right at the top of the current gravel bike category for sheer comfort and bump absorption. And yet GT has achieved this sort of comfort without any complicated devices or gimmicks. It’s ingenuity masked behind simple design.
Talking of gimmicks, the FlipChip might at first appear like it is one, but that’s because it’s just not something we’re used to seeing on road and gravel bikes. Plenty of mountain bikes offer adjustable geometry with flippable chips, offering the customer the chance to tailor the bike to the riding they are doing.
GT’s FlipChip switches the fork offset from the 55mm default setting to an optional 70mm setting, which has the effect of reducing the trail and quickening the steering. In theory, the option of having the adjustment to speed up steering when riding a heavily laden bike makes good sense, but only testing will reveal whether it’s the game-changer GT probably hopes it is.
In the stock setting the geometry felt well-honed for off-road rides with good stability from the long wheelbase and slack head angle, yet agile enough to be all the smile-inducing-engagement you want from this sort of bike. But I can't wait to try out the FlipChip when I hopefully get the chance soon.
The 1x versus 2x argument will likely roll on for years, but the spec on the top-level GT Grade Carbon Pro (£3,499) I rode provided a usable spread of ratios that catered for every situation I found myself in. The FSA Energy Modular Adventure 46/30t is much more suitable than the 50/34 compact so often specced on these gravel bikes, and the Ultegra RX Di2 mech kept the drivetrain quiet and working sweetly.
True, Shimano has just launched its first dedicated gravel groupset with GRX but it clearly wasn’t ready in time for GT to factor it into its range. Hopefully we’ll see a mid-season model introduced when Shimano’s new groupset becomes available, otherwise, we’ll have to wait until this time next year when 2021 bikes are introduced.
I’ve waffled on a bit about the WTB Riddler tyres, which at 37mm proved a good choice for the terrain we were riding the new bike on. They don’t make full use of the extra clearance the new Grade has been upgraded with so I’ll be keen to try the new bike on some 40 or 42mm gravel tyres when I get my hands on a test bike for testing in the UK.
This is a bike the road.cc team have always enjoyed riding whether it’s a high-spec carbon model or a more affordable aluminium version. It’s a bike that can be ridden with 28mm slicks for cruising country lanes and city commutes, to fat knobblies for exploring long forgotten trails, bridleways and further afield.
The original Grade was a forward-looking bike. And so too this new Grade. GT clearly hasn’t rested on its laurels, it has looked at what gravel, adventure and bikepacking cyclists are doing and delivered a bike that meets those needs.
The new Grade ups the tyre clearance to bring into line with current tyre width expectations then adds in more versatility and adjustment than we’ve seen from just about any other gravel bike, amps up the comfort factor and does all this at a pretty competitive price.
Granted, the Triple Triangle frame design isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but as someone who has a 1996 Zaskar hanging up in their garage, I say it looks ruddy ace. GT might not have the cachet or kudos of some brands operating in the gravel bike sector but to overlook the new Grade would be to miss out on a real gem.
Now I can’t wait to get a longer test on it so how about it GT?
David has worked on the road.cc tech team since July 2012. Previously he was editor of Bikemagic.com and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds.