Hearing the GT brand, older mountain bikers look back with gleam in their eyes. The long-established American bicycle maker was significant figure in the technical development of MTB bikes in the 1990s. On the other hand, not many are aware that 30 years back GT has been offering an out-and-out gravel bike as well. Though a direct descendant of its forebear, the Grade is miles ahead regarding technology and design.
The past few years saw gravel bikes gaining wide-spread popularity. Nowdays almost every major brand has such a model in its lineup, the gravel segment made long ways from a niche product to becoming one of the hottest trends. GT was among the first manufacturers to embrace this style of riding. They didn’t just jump on the bandwagon as most, GT has always believed in the raison d’etre of gravel riding. The Grade model series is the latest embodiment of this endeavor.
The soul of the Grade is the HIGH MOD CARBON MATRIX frame, which bears marks of GT’s hallmark triple triangle design. GT bikes use to exhibit this unique shape for decades, which clearly set them apart from the competition. Technological advancement caused this visual cue to become somewhat vague lately, but has resurfaced here on the Grade much to the delight of onetime fans of the iconic American brand.
I wholly embrace that engineers at GT haven’t overcomplicated the cabling. The external routing on the Grade promises easy maintenance and servicing, which is always a useful trait for a gravel rig. When you’re far away you are from civilization, it does make sense to be able to repair shifting and braking without disassembling the complete bike. And although the bottom bracket adheres to the PF30 standard, it utilizes reliable threaded adapters. There are not a lot of attachment point for bags and accessories, but this shouldn’t be noticeable deficiency: nowdays most bike touring accessories are mounted directly to the frame, the handlebar or the saddle so installing a rack is more or less unnecessary. Hence the threaded eyelets found on the frame could be used for mounting mudguards.
There are many model variants of the Grade, set apart purely by the finish and the choice of components. So the frame is the same all across the range. Our test model was set up with a Shimano 105 group set, save for the brake system which is the RS505 non-series hydraulic variant. Disc brakes are mandatory for this bike category, as ride conditions on gravel trails can be dicey.
Concerning the wheelset, GT took the unmatched route by putting a 15mm thru-axle on the front and conventional QR axle at the back. In fact both solutions are somewhat outdated as the 12mm thru-axle became the prevalent standard for gravel bikes. Not a major problem for now, but perhaps in a few years’ time sourcing spare wheels may become a challenge. (The recently introduced revamped Grade adopts the 12/12mm thru-axle!) The tire choice demonstrates that GT didn’t anticipate this model version to be an out-and-out off road bike. The Clement Strada USH 32 has a very low tread qualifying them primarily for asphalt and well-maintained gravel roads. In fact the tires proved to be less than capable on tougher trails, and there is not much room in the frame to mount wider rubber either. (I recon a 36mm wide tire just about fits.) This may limit the capabilities of the Grade somewhat, but it all depends on what the rider wants from a gravel-oriented bike…
The carbon seat post relaxes the rear end, and it’s topped by a WTB Silverado saddle. At the front the hallmark flared drop bar shows the gravel nature of the Grade. This setup offers more stability for off road ventures, and comes especially “handy” on steep descends. The bar shape may appear a bit strange or road bike riders, but the functionality it offers is undeniable.
The GT Grade handles exactly the way a modern gravel bike should. It’s fast and easy to maneuver providing sufficient comfort to boot. The relatively narrow 32mm tires are not as harsh on gravel roads as the low volume would suggest. As they may actually fit into some modern road frames with disc brakes, demonstrating that the line between gravel and road bikes are getting narrower. Apart from the comfort-enhancing accessories, the frame itself has good dampening properties as well, maybe due to the triple triangle design.
Although the Grade is marketed as a proper gravel bike, frame geometry is far from sluggish like in case of a touring bike. Quite the contrary: it’s fast and agile, furthered by the low tread tired. It doesn’t quite reach the handling character of performance road bikes, but most road riders would miss very little in this regard. On the other hand it affords the chance to ride on unpaved roads, possibly tackling some well-maintained trails as well. If you’re looking for this experience, the Grade might be your best choice among the new crop of gravel bikes on the market.
The Grade has just one weakness: the frame cannot take properly wide rubber. As a consequence it’s not suitable for technical trails and gravel roads enshrouded with coarse rocks. This limitation may not relate to your surroundings or riding style. Of course 650B wheels topped with 47mm tires have a place on the market, but riders looking for such equipment may be served better with a proper mountain bike. Actually the drop bar setup might be more limiting than tire size. (Editor’s note: We’ve just got word that the new Grade soon hitting the stores will be able to accommodate wider tires for enhanced functionality.)
The GT Grade could be considered a universal bike. It’s on the light side of the current gravel trend, making it more apt at touring, road training and everyday bike riding than some of the more specialized models. It’s a bike which could be ridden around Balaton, taking into consideration the quality of the road surface in some of the lakeside areas. Aboard the Grade there is no need to turn back when the paved road suddenly ends!