Bike Test: Canyon Grail CF SLX

Gravel Uber-Alles

By now, most of us know the story behind Canyon Bicycles. The fast-rising German brand is the brainchild of Roman Arnold, whose earliest days were spent growing up in a cycling family. Eventually, under the tutelage of his father, and along with his brother Franc, the Arnold family took their enthusiasm for cycling and opened their first bike business back in the mid-’80s. 

A decade into Radsport Arnold’s existence, the Canyon name eventually emerged with Roman at the helm. In the two decades since, the brand has enjoyed meteoric success, owing not only to a price-conscious, consumer-direct sales model and a string of major race wins in every category of cycling, but especially its embrace of modern design cues and technology that have been the envy of the bike industry at large. 

THE FRAME

Just a bit late to the gravel game, Canyon nonetheless shook up the genre last year with the introduction of the Grail series of gravel bikes. Available in both aluminum and carbon versions, the Grail CF SLX 8.0 Di2 was the bike we were lobbying to test.

Once the bike arrived at the plush, well-lit RBA office, everyone was immediately attracted to the novel dual-plane handlebar, but as with most Canyon bikes, there was an abundance of small details that kept the intrigue level high.  

The SLX is the lighter version of the two Di2 bikes, with a claimed frame weight of 830 grams. With its sleek, sharp-edged lines, the overall design is one of the more modern, post-industrial interpretations of a gravel bike on the market today. Internal cable routing, flat-mount brakes, 12mm thru-axles and fender mounts are standard affairs. 

The stem/handlebar is a proprietary design and cannot be swapped out for any other combo.

Where the Grail veers wildly off the gravel road most ridden is with its radical, truncated head tube design, which borrows from many modern aero road bikes. To counter the lowered rider positioning, which is not a traditional gravel-friendly position, Canyon created their own (one-piece) dual-plane handlebar that serves a two-fold purpose of not only bringing the rider back up into a less-leaned position, but also creates a designed-in compliance feature. 

THE PARTS

In addition to the proprietary stem/handlebar combo, the Grail also features Canyon’s own leaf-spring suspension seatpost (originally seen as an Ergon-branded product, a company owned by brother Franc). The adjustable VCLS post epitomizes Canyon’s philosophy of a clean but functional aesthetic.  

The Grail is available with either Shimano’s mechanical or electronic Ultegra drivetrain with a $1200 price difference. Both versions use the hydraulic disc brakes.

Unlike most builds, we liked how Canyon chose to place the Shimano Di2 battery in the downtube and not the seat tube. Canyon’s placement of the seatpost binder bolted on the backside of the seat tube was also notable for its simplicity and effectiveness. For anyone wanting a simpler bike, Canyon sells a less expensive Grail that runs the mechanical version of Shimano’s Ultegra drivetrain for $3600, but still with Hydro disc brakes and 160mm rotors.

Accessory accoutrements included a Fizik Aliante saddle and the proven Reynolds Assault ATR wheels that were mounted with Schwalbe tires. 

THE RIDE

If the unique handlebar is intended to provide a smoother ride over the rough stuff as advertised, it doesn’t. We hate to be blunt (not really), but in short, while it’s great for a marketing angle, it’s pretty silly for its intended use. In fact, the only time we ever relied on the higher hand position was when we’d be cruising along on a climb, when hitting bumps and rough stuff at speed were never part of the equation.  

We came away far bigger fans of the suspension seatpost than we did the suspension handlebar.

When the desired/needed compliance did enter the fray, it was only as we descended at speed when—yep, you guessed it—our hands were instead on the hoods or in the drops where we could quickly apply the brakes! 

There were two more disadvantages of the handlebar that we found fault with. The first was that even in the drops the junction of the drop position and the lower-plane bar prevented us from having a full-palm grip. Second, in the anything-can-happen world of cycling, we tend to shy away from bike components that are so special that they can’t be replaced easily at the local bike shop. When it comes to gravel, if the handlebar is damaged in a crash, there’s no standard accessory stem or handlebar that can be found at a local bike shop that could be used on the bike. This, of course, is a problem that afflicts many bikes these days, as so many brands are opting for special, model-specific, one-piece bar/stem combos.

As much as we weren’t fans of the handlebar, the seatpost was a hit. Simple, elegant and effective—what more could we ask for when trying to accelerate over the stutter bumps in the saddle?! The seatpost should be an accessory item for anyone to use.  

As big of fans as we are of 1x drivetrains, everyone did appreciate the gear combos available with the 50/34 chainrings mated to an 11-34 cassette. 

THE VERDICT

In many ways the Grail is a fascinating bike. The design was somewhat divisive (some thought it was too angular), but no one could argue about how clean it looked, and the build quality was tops. There’s no doubt that even beyond their hard-to-beat consumer-direct pricing, Canyon is winning the hearts and minds of many cyclists due to their impeccable styling on all fronts.

We spent as much time on fire roads with the Grail as we did group road rides. Overall handling in both environments was consistent and fast. As the broader gravel category continues to define itself, the Grail easily finds itself in the performance segment. The 102cm wheelbase brought excellent stability over the stutter bumps and never hindered fast cornering. 

In the end, we found it most ironic that the standout feature of the bike—the handlebar/stem—was the one thing that held the Grail back from enjoying a higher overall score. We could even live with the two-bar system if the drops had enough room for a full-fledged grip. Although most likely done for price considerations, it’s worth noting that the two entry-level aluminum Grails (starting at $2299) run standard stem/handlebar combos.

As is Canyon’s standard operating procedure, any way you look at the Grail, you get an awful lot of bike for the dollar. For us, a little less handlebar would be perfect.

PUNCH LINES

  • As usual, the price
  • As usual, the design
  • Novelty handlebar

STATS

Price: $4899

Weight: 17.87 pounds

Sizes: XXS, XS, S (tested), M, L,
XL, XXL

www.canyon.com

THE GEAR

Helmet: Rudy Project Race Master     
Jersey: Danny Shane
Bib: Danny Shane   
Shoes: Gaerne G-Sincro
Socks: Vans
Glasses: 100%
Gloves: Troy Lee

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