If you ever doubted that grand touring bikes were destined to become a sub-category of road bikes taken seriously by the industry, it’s time to stop. With the introduction of the Trek Domane and now the new BMC GF01, basically every one of the cool kids has one. Some of the early efforts weren’t particularly successful (no names mentioned) because the designs contained one or more flaws that either compromised the feel or the handling of the bike.
BMC has spent the last 18 months developing the new GF01. The GF stands for gran fondo. This is BMC’s first not to a bike meant to embrace the needs of the more recreational rider. Grand touring bikes such as the Specialized Roubaix (and the women’s Ruby) have had an easy time gaining traction with the disease-ride set, but they have lagged a bit with more serious riders. For the most part, I think the problem has been one of marketing. In defining the bike as one appropriate to the needs of the less avid cyclist, avid cyclists frequently come to the conclusion that the bike won’t meet their high-performance needs.
So how do you overcome that misperception? Easy. Put your sponsored pros on it at Paris-Roubaix. The tactic has worked well for Specialized. It was serving Trek well with Fabian Cancellara this spring with his win at l’Eroica, but his crash at Flanders will make the rest of his spring campaign a what-might-have-been and the Domane won’t get all the attention it could have. What you may not have noticed was that Team BMC rode the new GF01 at Paris-Roubaix. Had Thor Hushovd turned in the kind of performance he was shooting for, you would certainly have heard more about the bike by now.
Last night I attended a technical presentation on the bike, followed by a Q&A before riding the bike this morning. For those who’d like me to cut to the chase, I’ll tell you this: This is a seriously great bike. I’d put the GF01 up against the best bikes in this category.
So how come?
To make a good grand touring bike, a company must deliver three things. Miss any of these and the bike deserves to be an also-ran. The first thing the bike needs to do is accommodate a less aggressive fit. Whether the issue is one of spare tonnage or lack of flexibility, or even just being new to the sport, these bikes should accommodate a higher bar position relative to the saddle. For stack/reach types, that’s more stack and sometimes a bit less reach. The second thing one of these bikes needs to do is offer greater comfort than a similar road bike. Comfort that isn’t tied to fit is managed by reducing vibration and increasing compliance. Finally, these bikes must remain stable when riding on the bar top, but also offer crisp handling in turns and on descents.
The GF01 comes in six sizes, 48, 51, 54, 56, 58 and 61cm. Sizing geometry was based on reach and stack and the corresponding increase in top tube length and head tube length results in a very linear progression through the sizes. My 56cm review bike had a 55.6cm top tube paired with a 17.6cm head tube. I’d have liked a 12cm stem with this combination, but the fit wasn’t bad. Compare that to the 55cm frame in the Race Machine (that’s the most comparable size) and the GF01 features a 4mm shorter top tube and an 8mm longer head tube. Definitely a less aggressive fit. Like previous BMC models, this bike uses the same 73.5-degree seat tube angle found in the Team Machine and the Race Machine. What’s different with the GF01 is that this model is available with three different seatpost setbacks: 3mm, 18mm and 30mm. In the 56cm frame that range gives a fit tech effectively 2.5 degrees of adjustable seat tube angle (that’ll be less in the 61 and more in the 48), and that doesn’t even figure in the fore-aft adjustment of the saddle rails, so if nothing else, the GF01 will be easier to fit more different riders correctly than previous BMC bikes.
In addressing comfort, BMC likes to point to their Tuned Compliance Concept (TCC). The idea is that tube shapes and strategic layup will allow the seat tube and seat and chain stays plus the fork to flex vertically. We’re talking minute distances here, but every little bit can help. Those angles in the chainstays, seatstays and fork are designed to increase flex ever-so slightly. While I didn’t get exact numbers, BMC reports that the GF01 has 40 percent more vertical compliance than the SLR01 Team Machine. I need to be honest and say I was expecting something more like 100 or 150 percent more. How much movement is there, really? A 1000Nm load will move the axle 4mm vertically. What they ultimately settled on was no accident, though. After considerable modeling, four rideable prototypes were produced, and ridden by the BMC Team before settling on a final design. The comfort story doesn’t end there, though. There are, fortunately, two other components that come into play in the bike’s comfort. First is the seatpost. Each of the posts is designed to include some vertical compliance. BMC produced roughly a dozen different rideable prototypes; the first ones that went to the team were, reportedly, too soft. And because of the different offsets, the flex is adjusted accordingly so that they each offer the same flex pattern whether you’re using the 3mm offset or the 30mm offset. Last, but not by any means least, The GF01 has clearance for 28mm tires. After my recent post The Bell Curve, this is a pleasant piece of news.
To make a bike handle predictably, the designers must build in enough stiffness that the bike’s behavior in turns doesn’t change as speed increases. That was a far bigger problem with bikes in the 1990s than was stiffness at the bottom bracket. Those early aluminum and carbon fiber forks flexed sideways more than the average steel fork and often left you feeling like you were sliding around on a mover’s dolly. Whereas bottom bracket flex was a nuisance, fork flex had the ability to turn even the most confident bike handler into a timid kitten. To make sure the GF01 would provide performance up to the standards required for racing by the BMC team, the bike was built around a massive down tube, head tube and chainstays. The idea was build the compliance into the top tube, seat tube and seatstays, while making the spine of the bike—the head tube, down tube and chainstays—stiff enough for pro racing. It seems to work as advertised; on short climbs it responded well to input while I was out of the saddle.
In my size, the bike handled well on the twisting roads around Monterey. But here, I do have a bone to pick with BMC. In six sizes, the bike gets four different head tube angles and only one fork rake—50mm. As a result, the trail is all over the place. Here’s a rundown of each size with its head tube angle and resulting trail:
- 48cm: 71˚, 6.42cm
- 51cm: 71.5˚, 6.1cm
- 54cm: 72˚, 5.79cm
- 56cm: 72˚, 5.79cm
- 58cm: 72.5˚, 5.48cm
- 61cm: 72.5˚, 5.48cm
Four of these sizes are going to handle very well. The 54 through 61cm frames will all handle with great response, though the experience of someone on the 61 will vary some from someone on the 54. Moving on, the 51 is going to be a slightly sluggish handling bike. I have my doubts that its handling will be particularly confidence inspiring. Unfortunately, from what I see on paper, the 48 is a school bus. That thing will have all the inclination to turn that a flying cannon ball does. That’s really my only serious knock against this bike, though.
A note on weight: This is roughly a 1kg frame. The 54 is said to come in at 995g. Most of the bikes in this category come in a bit heavy due to efforts to make them more comfortable. What’s interesting to note from BMC’s numbers is that this frame is 11 percent heavier than the Team Machine, yet it possesses a third more torsional stiffness and almost 20 percent more stiffness at the BB, all while offering a 40 percent increase in vertical compliance.
The bikes we rode were well-spec’d. They used a full Ultegra Ui2 group with an Easton EA70 cockpit and Easton EA90 tubeless-ready wheels. The drivetrain included a 50/34 compact crank with an 11-28 cassette. While this may not be entirely necessary in Florida, newer riders who live near any sort of hills will find this gearing to alleviate the humiliation that comes with many race-spec’d bikes. I was surprised to learn that BMC’s engineers were able to position the brake mounts carefully enough to avoid long-reach calipers while spec’ing that 28mm tire. That’s a neat piece of work.
As built, the bike will retail for $6599. Not cheap, but not crazy expensive, either. I’m told stores will begin receiving demo units following Sea Otter and the bikes will be available in June.
After my experiences riding the Race Machine and (albeit more briefly) the Team Machine, I’m inclined to say that this is, so far, my favorite BMC bike. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to spend some more time on one in the near future.