Highly capable, with a performance that shines on any surface as it smooths out bumps with the skinniest of skinny rear stays – and a very competitive price – the new GT Grade Carbon Expert is a top choice in an increasingly crowded gravel bike market.
First launched in 2014 into an emerging gravel scene, GT's Grade hit all the right notes for roadies just beginning to venture off-road. An update quickly became overdue, however, but at last it's here... or at least, it is for the 2020 model year.
Some key changes ensure it’s still as relevant now as it was all those years ago, whilst retaining everything that was so loved of the original.
GT Grade Review | One of the best 2020 gravel bikes?, by Dave Arthur
Ride and handling
The Grade is brilliant fun and highly capable, and doesn’t cost the earth. That’s about it really – we could end this review here.
Okay, let’s expand a bit. The Grade is brilliant at being fast and comfortable on rough roads, and right at home on forest trails and gravel roads. The new frame, with its 'floating stays' design, is impressively smooth at the saddle. Rough tracks, jagged roots and rippled fields are soaked up exceptionally well thanks to the seat post flexing backwards. It's freer to do this on the new frame since the seat tube can bow forwards, unhindered by the seat stays.
GT makes no claim for how much flex there is, and it’s obviously not tuneable, plus variables like rider weight and aggression influence just how much you get. However the stays actually flex visibly, either when you press hard down on the saddle with your elbow, or look down when you’re riding. At the worldwide launch event in Girona, riding next to another Grade revealed that it's even noticeable from afar.
Geometry defines a gravel bike, with stability a key focus. The new Grade gets a lower bottom bracket across the size range, along with 15mm longer chainstays, and feels extremely surefooted on any terrain at any speed.
Also important are the adjustable fork dropouts, which let you switch the offset between the stock 55mm and 70mm, to give 57 and 39mm of trail, respectively. Shortening the trail will, GT says, counter the impact of strapping heavy loads to the frame and claw back the agile handling you lose to the mass of bags, camping gear and cargo.
To put those numbers in context, a Specialized Diverge and Cannondale Topstone Carbon have 58mm trail, Cervelo Aspero has a 62mm trail and the Trek Checkpoint has 61mm trail. So you can see they’re all in the same ballpark as a stock Grade.
The default 57mm trail produces very calm handling. It’s almost docile, and that makes smashing along rough tracks a breeze. GT has also increased the stack and reach, but added shorter stems, to ensure a good rider weight distribution and balance with the longer wheelbase. It all makes riding a wide variety of tracks and surfaces fun and easy.
Switch to the shorter trail and the steering is much quicker. It’s not intended to be used with an unladen bike, but if you like faster handling there’s nothing to stop you trying it out. It’s a bit of a handful on steep climbs because the weight transitions to the back wheel very easily, leaving the front wheel light. Probably best saved for fully-laden adventures.
Actually changing the offset is a piece of cake, and the easiest of the latest crop of adjustable geometry gravel bikes: remove the wheel, flip the chips, move the brake spacers and refit. It really opens up the Grade for weekday commuting / weekend bikepacking micro-adventures.
Frame and equipment
Affordabililty and accessibility were two big strengths of the original Grade, and they're still here with this latest model. The five-spec range starts with two aluminium framed bikes, while full carbon frames and forks adorn the top-end models.
The Carbon Expert on test here is the mid-range carbon fibre model costing £2,000, and gets all the features of the top-end version. It carries the hallmarks of the original bike, too, including the iconic (if divisive) Triple Triangle design.
gt-grade-carbon-expert-seat-stays-detail.jpg, by Dave Arthur
Those pencil thin seatstays are still carbon fibre wrapped over solid glass fibre cores, but now attach only at the top tube rather than the seat tube as well. The resulting flex is further enhanced by flattening the lower seat tube – the new Grade gives a similar range of movement to Trek’s IsoSpeed on the Checkpoint, but with much less complexity.
Tyre clearance has been the big topic of discussion in the gravel world, and here the Grade has been given a generous boost, up from 35mm max to 42mm. The bikes ship with 37mm wide tyres, so there’s upgrade potential.
It’ll also take 650b wheels if you’re into small wheels with fat tyres, with space for up to 47mm rubber. The Grade isn’t pushing boundaries when it comes to maximum tyre compatibility, but GT hopes it’ll be adequate for people still new to gravel and adventure riding.
gt-grade-carbon-expert-fork-detail-2.jpg, by Dave Arthur
Another thing that's increased is the Grade’s ability to carry stuff. The new bike comes plastered in eyelets for adding extra bottles, racks and mudguards. The new carbon fork has three-bolt Anything mounts on the outside, there's a top tube bag mount and three water bottle mounts, and you even get mudguard eyelets – with a removable plastic bridge affixed to the seat stays – and rack mounts.
A claimed frame weight of 980g (size medium) is very respectable, and should allow some pretty light overall builds. Assuming if you leave all those accessories unbolted...
GT has upgraded the rear quick-release to a much more common 12x142mm thru-axle, to match the 12mm thru-axle on the fork. That's a very good thing: we had issues with the increasingly dated rear axle design coming loose on the original model.
gt-grade-carbon-expert-bottom-bracket.jpg, by Dave Arthur
Simplicity remains a focus for the Grade, so cables and hoses remain externally routed. The frame is Di2 and dropper post compatible too, but less impressive is the choice of a press-fit bottom bracket. Why give the easy maintenance of external routing, but not offer the same with a threaded BB?
This £2,000 model is nicely specced with equipment that worked well during the test. It’s based around a Shimano 105 groupset, with mechanical shifting and hydraulic disc brakes. Gearing is an 11-34t cassette paired to an FSA Omega Adventure 46/30t chainset.
gt-grade-carbon-expert-rear-disc-brake.jpg, by Dave Arthur
It’s a good spread of gears, allowing you to get up to some decent speed on the road, and low enough that most climbs are ridable. I found some off-road ascents where I could have done with a few extra low gears though; a wider range cassette would be nice to see.
WTB’s Riddler 37mm tyre is an all-rounder that copes well with a wide range of conditions, from hardpack trails to muddy tracks and smooth roads (if you have any of those where you live). The closely-packed centre blocks ensure it rolls nicely on the road, with little noticeable drag or noise. More aggressive shoulder blocks create reassuring cornering traction.
The Riddlers are tubeless-ready, as are the WTB ST i23 TCS 2.0 rims, but you’ll have to spend a bit of money on a tubeless kit if you want to get rid of the inner tubes. I recommend you do that straight away, however: tubeless really is essential off-road.
It does seem a shame GT hasn’t taken the increased tyre clearance of the new Grade as an opportunity to fit a wider tyre. That said, the frame does go some way to making it feel like it's on bigger tyres anyway, thanks to that flex.
gt-grade-carbon-expert-bar-and-shifter.jpg, by Dave Arthur
GT has developed its own flared drop handlebar, a design which is as crucial to a gravel bike as a beard is to a hipster. I’ve taken a while to warm to flared drops, preferring a shallow bend to anything too extreme, but GT gets it right with this bar. In the drops, control over the bike's direction is increased, and on the tops, it just feels like a normal road bike.
Last but not least, there’s a lovely Fabric Scoop saddle, the shape and padding of which provide superb comfort. There’s also a carbon 27.2mm seatpost and aluminium stem to round out the finishing kit.
Two grand is a lot of cash and for alternatives, there are quite a few choices, as this guide to the best adventure and gravel bikes under £2,000 shows.
From the direct-sales kings, there’s the Canyon Grail CF SL 7.0 with a carbon frame and Shimano GRX600 groupset, rolling on 40mm wide Schwalbe G-One Bite tyres. If you can deal with that handlebar…
For 50 notes less there’s the Specialized Diverge Comp E5, with a carbon frame wrapped around the Future Shock for excellent bump-taming (partner that with GT’s seat stay design and you’d have a seriously smooth ride). It gets a similar Shimano 105 groupset but a taller 48/32t chainset and only 35mm tyres as standard.
If you want 650b and 1x, the Ribble CGR SL costs the same and looks an appealing choice.
It’s been a long time coming, but the updated Grade offers numerous improvements over the original whilst retaining everything that was so good. The ride is more stable with geometry adjustment aimed at bikepacking adventures, it boasts a full complement of eyelets for bottle, racks and mudguards, tyre clearance has been increased and – most impressively of all – comfort is seriously boosted by the floating rear stays.
All that with decent kit and a £2,000 price tag makes this new GT Grade one of the star bikes in the current gravel bike market. It’s not perfect – I’d like to see bigger tyres as standard and an external threaded bottom bracket, plus there’s also no 1x model in the range. But even these criticisms fade away when you ride the bike, because, well, it’s just so much fun.
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