GT Grade Project: Searching For A Gravel Bike – by Grannygear
Editor’s Note: In recent times we have noticed that there are more and more folks looking for a gravel bike. They are seeking advice and looking for tips on how to go about this. In this post, and the following, Grannygear walks us through the process of how he and Mrs. Grannygear found a gravel bike that would work for Mrs. Grannygear’s needs. Then we will also get a look at what upgrades they made to tailor the bike for her.
A few years ago, when Mrs. Grannygear first indicated that a gravel bike was of interest to her, she was also having shoulder issues and I was concerned about the impact that type of riding might have on a bum shoulder. The Cannondale Slate had just come out and that seemed like a good solution to muting the abuse that the combination of So Cal dirt roads and gravel bikes give out. The Slate did exactly that…added comfort…with that Lefty small travel front fork. (Cannondale named that fork “Oliver”, Editor) She loved that bike, using it for a season as a road bike and even riding it from San Fran to L.A. on the Arthritis Ride. Those 650bx42 slicks are surprisingly fast on the road, and talk about confidence with potholes!
But as time went by the Slate was also a bit limiting, something I kind of expected. It was heavy, it had that odd bottom bracket (we had adapted a Shimano crank to it), and I thought it handled poorly. But the nail in the coffin was that small wheel and tire size limit. Yeah, you can run a 650bx47c tire in there but it is really close at the chain stays. And how many 650bx42 tires will there ever be on the market? Not many. That Lefty front hub means you can forget about using wheels you have laying around. Why Cannondale never took the Slate to 700c and made an adventure focused bike out of it just beats me. I think it would be a fun project to have a custom 700c frame built around that Lefty fork. Maybe someday.
So it seemed like a good idea to look at another gravel bike to replace the Slate. We wanted to accomplish a few things with a new bike. She wanted it to be lighter. I wanted to be able to run any set of gravel wheels that came along. She wanted lower gearing. I wanted to be able to run both a fat 40mm 700c tire and at least a 47mm wide 650b tire. We wanted rack mounts and light touring capability. Neither of us wanted to spend tons of money on all this.
So I began looking at what was out there and what fit our needs and budget. The Giant Revolt in carbon was a real screaming deal, but that year, in the Shimano 105 model, it had those odd brake matchy-matchy gargoyles on the bars and only came with a Praxis 48/32 crankset. The Salsa Warbird was mired in recall limbo and was poorly spec’d for the money. I did not really like the Diverge as the bottom bracket drop was excessive and that is death for 650×47. The Trek Checkpoint had a rep for being harsh riding. The Cannondale Topstone in aluminum was only sort of light and perhaps was not as compliant as I was after. Honestly, a Lynskey GR frame like I have, but in the latest version, would have been really good, but those are not light frames either, so that was not quite right.
Then the revised GT Grade in carbon came along and it caught my eye. I always thought the composite seat stay design was quite a good idea and the bike seemed to have gotten a worthwhile update: More tire clearance, great all-day geometry, increased compliance, and lots of braze-ons.
The early reports on the Grade from the media were encouraging. The testers seemed to be impressed with the ride quality and the handling. I was very interested in not having Mrs. Grannygear be beat up in this new venture. I had a plan for softening the front end of the bike, but a lot of carbon gravel bikes are just too, too stiff overall. I had a feeling the Grade was not that way. Buying a bike sight unseen and unridden is a gamble. No shop in sight was carrying this bike and the size I would be buying would not be my frame size, so my evaluation of how it handled or rode would be impossible. I was a bit worried about that.
Looking at prices, we were attracted to the Shimano 105 level in the Carbon Expert model. GRX was not quite yet on the market, we did not want to spend for Ultegra, and Di2 did not really interest me either. Also, I was not buying into a 1x gear set-up. Not versatile enough for this bike project, so no SRAM. I planned on upgrading wheels and touch points, but not replacing the entire drive train. If that was the case, I would have bought into the Ultegra version in the Pro model. The stock gearing on the Grade was very well thought out. I had been spinning a 46×30 crankset on the Topstone and had been won over. The Grade with that crank ratio and an 11-34 rear cassette was a great start and I could go a bit deeper in gearing with little effort as a SRAM 11-36 cassette will run on the stock Grade. There was no need for a taller gear than a 46×11.
The biggest concern I had was the sizing of the Grade. Reach and stack. Reach and stack is the best thing to come along in ages as far as predicting how a bike will fit you. The sizing on the Grade is quite odd really, and we had to go to a 48cm frame in the Grade in order to get to where a 51cm or 52cm would be (her normal size) in comparable bikes. Because of this the stack was a bit low for her in the 48cm, so ultimate fit was a worry and a poor fit is never a good thing. As well, the seat tube angle on smaller frames typically gets steeper as compared to larger frames. A 74 degree (or steeper) seat tube angle would be more in line with a frame in this size. Yet the GT Grade keeps a 73 degree seat tube angle across all the frame sizes. I had to flip the stock clamp in the seat post to the ‘less offset’ position and a zero offset post would have been better to get Mrs. Grannygear in the right position over the crank. I would like to steepen the seat tube angle and chop some length out of the top tube on the Grade, but it is what it is.
I thought about this a lot but felt I had solutions to the grey areas that concerned me. Pressing ahead, the order was placed and the delivery day came. Unboxing it was a surprise as the color was much nicer looking than I thought it would be. Honestly I find the lines of the bike to be a bit homely in the smaller size frame, perhaps it is that triple triangle deal, but sleek is not a word that comes to mind. Up on the scale of truth and justice, I saw a complete bike weight of 21 pounds and 3 ounces (no pedals). The Slate is more like 23 pounds sans pedals. So 21 1/4 is a good place to start. Some of the upgrades we have planned will take weight off and some will add weight, but I expect to be at least a pound under stock weight when done.
The frame is well equipped with rack and fender mounting points and the fork is designed to handle some load carrying duties as well. I am not sure if we will ever front load it heavy enough to care about the dual position fork offset, but we have it in case. Tire clearance seems generous enough to run at least a fat 40mm, and 650×47 should be eezy-peezy.
The stock carbon seat post is quite compliant and if you press down hard on the saddle and look, you not only can see the post give, but also the frame, most notably at the point where the seat tube is shaped/cut away. It flexes quite a bit. Excellent! At 130 pounds dressed to kill, it’s not like she is a threat to sprinters everywhere, so a hugely stiff frame would be silly. However, the down tube and chain stays look well sized to keep things in line when pressed. Did I say that most gravel bikes are too stiff?
So far so good. Next up we get to the upgrades, why we did what we did, and how it fared after some road work and 50 miles of mixed surface riding including some pretty rough jeep road in the Sierras. Hint: It’s a win so far!
Next: The Upgrades
Note: The GT Grade was purchased by Grannygear. We were not paid, nor bribed for this review and we always strive to give our honest thoughts and opinions throughout.