Part of a new breed of adventure road bikes that lets you keep riding long after the pavement ends.
The biggest development on the road this year, other than disc brakes, is the rise of so-called “adventure road bikes.”
This category is an outgrowth of the gravel-grinder movement, but manufacturers have finally recognized that the "gravel" label is limiting. The overall gist, however, is the same: long wheelbases and lower bottom brackets for stability, taller head tubes for more comfortable positioning, and ample tire clearance. These are bikes that are plenty fast on pavement but, unlike a traditional roadie, are just as at home on fire roads and even easy singletrack.
Of course, bikes like these aren’t exactly new: steel randonneuring machines have been around for a century or more. What is new is the breadth of offerings—almost a third of the road bikes in our 2015 Buyer's Guide bike test fell into this category—as well as the introduction of modern tech, including carbon frames, hydraulic disc brakes, and tubeless wheels. Specialized is even spec’ing a short-travel dropper seat post on their top-end Diverge.
The GT Grade Carbon Ultegra was among the tester favorites. The frame uses the company’s tested Triple Triangle design that, with its super-thin, flattened out seat stays and chunkier shaped chain stays, adds excellent vertical compliance. The triangle at the junction of the top and down tubes creates an inflection point to add rearward cushion when seated, and the reverse camber of the thin carbon fork helps silence the bumps, too. All together, the frame hissed along with the confidence of a race bike on pavement and hummed smoothly over pocked desert asphalt and rough, washboard dirt roads.
Parts picks are excellent, too, including Shimano hydraulic disc brakes, a full Ultegra drivetrain, and Stan’s new tubeless Grail wheels built around burly DT Swiss 240 hubs. Most testers (though not all) liked the flared, shallow-drop bars, though we’d rather see these in carbon for additional muting effect. The 28mm Continental Grand Sport tires did surprisingly well, even on the four miles of single track on our test loop, but we’d argue that GT should have spec’d at least 32mm rubber. And while the clearance for 35mm tires is solid, space for even wider ones would have further increased the Grade’s versatility.
The all-around nature of the Grade is precisely what we like. No longer does a road ride have to come to a grinding halt at the pavement’s end, but the low weight (19 pounds for our size 55) and high-end parts make for a bike that’s spritely enough for group rides and fondos. It won’t work for the most demanding road racing applications, but other than that we feel that the majority of riders will benefit from an easygoing, wider-tired, but still fast bike like this one, rather than a longer, racier road machine.
It’s not cheap at $3,580, but that price represents excellent value. And GT is selling the same carbon frame with 105 for $2,820, as well as four even less expensive alloy builds, all the way down to $870.