The GT Grade Alloy 105: The Next Step
The GT Grade is a new attempt to achieve excellence as a so-called "gravel grinder," and it hits the mark remarkably well. It's won the Cycling Plus Bike of the Year award for Best Debut, and there's a lot of buzz about it and other gravel bikes. If you don't know why there's so much buzz about gravel bikes, or the Grade in specific, read on...
When cyclocross bikes began making an impact in US cycling, they seemed to represent an aspired-to "in-between” style of bicycle. Wider tires meant better control on the dirt, while drop bars would give riders a road-like feel and ergonomic style, leading casual observers to believe cyclocross bikes were magical hybridized machines, capable of doing everything and doing it all well. This, in turn, has led a lot of people to use cyclocross bikes as training bikes for bad weather, full-on road bikes with what they believe will be a more relaxed feel to the bike, or even as commuting bikes.
However, dedicated riders and racing fans have known for a while that cyclocross bikes, while serviceable for a number of disciplines, are only ideal for one kind of riding: cyclocross racing, which happens on off-road courses with shin-high barriers the racers must clear while carrying their bikes or bunny-hopping, paved sections, hills too muddy and steep for most racers to ascend without dismounting and lugging their bike up on their shoulder, and sharply angled wooden ramps guiding racers around near-hairpin curves, sometimes all within the same course. For the average commuter or casual rider in the Boston area, riding between 5 and 15 miles one way on paved, mostly straight roads, and only dismounting at stop lights or one's destination, a heavily modified cyclocross bike may get the job done, but that's not the ride it was made for.
Gravel bikes represent the result of bike companies taking feedback from riders who've been looking for something more suited to road riding in mixed conditions than cyclocross bikes are. These bikes tend to have a number of tweaks to their frame geometry, parts, and overall style to make them more practical and fun to ride for the majority of cyclists. The Grade is an excellent example of how those tweaks can come together to make a versatile, enjoyable, and overall satisfying bicycling experience.
Regardless of your cycling discipline, controls are always important. Whether you’re on the alloy or carbon fiber Grade, the bikes we carry come with a Shimano drivetrain of at least 105-level shifters and derailleurs, which deserve no comment beyond the usual praise Shimano’s earned for reliability, comfort, and shifting speed and accuracy. It works and you don’t have to think about it; there’s nothing more to ask for from those parts. The gearing’s compact in front (50 teeth on the big ring, 34 teeth on the small ring) and generous in back (11 teeth at the hardest, 32 teeth at the easiest) for steep hills and flat valleys, which makes perfect sense for practically any corner of New England, unlike cyclocross bikes, which tend to keep tighter gears in front to reduce the chances of dropping the chain.
The most interesting component choice on the Grade Alloy 105 is the brakes. The TRP HY-RD brakes are hydraulic at the pistons, but actuated by a cable, like conventional road rim brakes and less expensive mountain bike disc brakes. Although the lever action doesn’t feel as perfectly smooth to me as it does on a full hydraulic system, the biggest benefits to hydraulic brakes - brake force modulation and better maximum stopping power - are still there, coupled with a cable system that doesn’t require hydraulic-only brake levers, resulting in a system with most of the important advantages of hydraulic disc brakes at a lower price.
The tire choice and range of compatible tire widths on the frame is also impressive. The TRP’s stock Continental Ultra Sport 28 millimeter wide tires, which are bald for optimal contact with paved surfaces as opposed to cyclocross bikes' stock treaded tires, and wide enough to guarantee stability, comfort, and an overall confident ride through any road conditions, as well as hard-packed paths. The frame will take up to a 32 millimeter wide treaded tire, or a 35 millimeter wide bald tire, so while most Grade riders won't need to change a thing, if you do, you're an easy tire swap away from riding more technical, looser off-road paths. I haven’t mentioned going narrower because there’s more benefits to wider tires than narrower ones, even for racing road bikes.*
The last component choice worth mentioning is the handlebar. Flared-drop handlebars aren’t new, but they’re usually not found stock on road or cyclocross bikes. Nevertheless, they’ve become popular as an aftermarket change, because the wider position in the drops gives riders greater stability, as well as the ability to pedal while positioned over the front end of the bike without as much risk of slamming one’s own knees into the drops. I liked all the hand positions just fine, and found the bike to be very relaxed, yet responsive. If the bike doesn't fit you quite as well out of the box, we are a full-service shop, and more than happy to adjust the handlebar position to your needs, or if no position feels comfortable with the stock handlebars, to remove it in favor of one more suited for you.
Could there be such a thing as a perfect “in-between” bike? I don’t think so, not with current technology. Different riding surfaces call for different tire widths and tread patterns; some regions need generous gearing for mountains or steep hills, while others are flat or dotted with rolling hills more suited to smaller gear ratio changes. But by taking customer feedback seriously and making intelligent choices with parts and geometry, the Grade manages to reach a new level in overall performance, and perhaps more importantly, to give you the option to try a lot of different things. At the end of the day, while a cyclocross bike might give you a little bit of everything, the GT Grade Alloy 105 gives you a lot more, and at $1410, it gives you more for a lot less money than many of its competitors.
* For more info on why wider is better, click here. From Wolf VormWalde, former R&D engineer for Continental: "When I started with tires it was 20mm. Tires have gotten bigger [on average by 3 mm], so that’s good. Still most of us could stand to go one size larger and would be better off with 25mm tires. It would increase the weight per wheelset by maybe 40 grams, but you would be amazed by how much more cushion and comfort you get out of your bike. Usually, when you ride back roads you go more or less straight, of course there are some turns, but you’re not riding switchbacks all the time, so you don’t need that super fast feeling. It’s easy to keep your bike straight on the wider tires, you get more mileage, and for most of us, it would be the better choice."