I don’t get the opportunity to ride lightweight race hardtails so much these days. It’s probably got something to do with living in Calder Valley, where most of our mountain biking involves winching up steep, narrow and rock-laden bridleway climbs in order to plummet back down steep, narrow, rock-laden bridleway descents to the valley floor. Much of the riding here certainly favours a bike with a little more ‘chunk’ to it, that’s for sure.
Another reason is that we just don’t get sent that many hardtails these days. Marketing departments seem to want to send us chi-chi carbon fibre trail bikes, or whatever enduro bike is the flavour of that particular month, rather than good ol’ fashioned hardtails.
But as good as full suspension bikes have gotten over the years, I still think there’s a place for a nice lightweight hardtail, even if the market for them has diminished somewhat. Simply because whenever I get the chance to swing a leg over something like this high-tech Canyon Exceed, I’m promptly reminded of just how wickedly fast and agile these bikes really are – and how much fun that can be.
Exceed Two Ways
As Canyon’s flagship carbon hardtail, the Exceed is split into two versions based on two different frames; the Exceed CF SLX, and the Exceed CF SL. The Exceed CF SL is the newer of the two, and is brand new for 2017.
Sharing the same frame shape and geometry as the existing SLX, the SL utilises a different grade of carbon fibre that ends up adding a bit of weight, but more importantly, helps to lower the price. As such, you can now enter Exceedlandia™ from as little as £1799 for the Exceed CF SL 6.9. There are six more Exceed SL models above that, including two women’s specific options. The bike I’ve been testing here is the range’s ceiling, coming in just shy of three grand and assembled with DT Swiss wheels, a Fox 32 Step Cast fork and Shimano Di2 shifting.
As some of you may recall, we reviewed the Canyon Exceed CF SLX 9.9 last year. It was a scorching fast bike with an impressively low weight and a bump-smoothing ride quality, though I wasn’t a big fan of the RockShox RS-1 fork, and the stock tyres left a lot to be desired for riding outside of dry and dusty hardpack.
When the team from Canyon UK recently paid us a visit, we asked if they could bring along a new Exceed CF SL 7.9 Di2 to test out. Aside from comparing the SL frameset with its more expensive sibling, I was keen to spend some quality saddle time aboard Shimano’s latest electronic groupset. As well as seeing how the Fox fork would affect the overall ride quality, I also had some other plans to see how much further I could push the Exceed’s boundaries…
Aesthetically, the Exceed CF SL is identical to the SLX. That’s because both frames share the same moulds. There’s the same boxy downtube and oversized chainstays, while the top portion of the frame cuts a much sharper profile with a flattened top tube and asparagus-thin seatstays. All the same features are present, including modular internal cable routing, a PF92 bottom bracket shell, and 142x12mm rear thru-axle. The SL even gets the Impact Protection Unit – a clever headset that uses two notches on either side that limit bar rotation so as to avoid frame damage during a crash.
The only real difference is weight. Canyon claims the Exceed CF SL frame weighs 1050g for a medium, which is still rather floaty for a device that’s meant to be hammered underneath a rider up to a 120kg (that’s the maximum recommended weight limit). It’s not quite as impressive as the 890g claimed weight for the Exceed CF SLX frame, but then that is one of the lightest currently on the market. And with the Exceed CF SLX frame selling for £1599 on its own, those 160 grams will cost you. Weight aside, both frames are built to offer similar levels of strength and stiffness.
Geometry also remains the same. That means you’ve got a reasonably-slack-for-XC 69.5° head angle, and a steep 74° seat angle. Bear in mind those numbers are based on static measurements – so both will get steeper once you’re sitting on the bike and the fork sags 20mm or so. The chainstays are nicely compact at 427mm, and the bottom bracket has a healthy 63mm drop below the hub axle line, meaning your centre of gravity sits lower to the ground, with the rear wheel tucked in nice and close.
Reach on our medium test bike is 425mm, which is similar to what you’d find on some full suspension trail bikes. As an example, it’s actually longer than the 418mm reach found on the Evil Following I recently reviewed. For sure the Exceed has a longer front centre than most other XC hardtails, and the goal here is to increase high-speed stability and confidence while descending. After all, this is a hardtail that’s being piloted by World Champ marathon racers, as well as the short-distance sprinters.
Being a Canyon, the build kit on the 7.9 Di2 model is very impressive for the money. You’ve got lovely DT Swiss XR 1501 wheels, a Canyon-branded cockpit, a 100mm travel Fox 32 Step Cast fork, and Shimano Di2 electronic shifting. Save for the SLX cassette, the entire groupset comes from the Deore XT stable, including the brakes.
Out of the box, the complete bike without pedals tipped our scales at 9.74kg – just 120 grams more than the Exceed CF SLX 9.9 I tested last year.
My only real beef with the build kit was the choice of non-tubeless Continental tyres, which seems to be a theme for Canyon (indeed it was the same on the Exceed I tested last year, and the Neuron Antony reviewed here). It’s frustrating that the rims come pre-taped for tubeless conversion, and Canyon even includes tubeless valves in the box with the bike, but the tyres ain’t playing the same game. I suspect it’s a cost issue, but the fact that in 2017, a £2700 carbon XC race bike is still fitted with non-tubeless tyres honestly boggles the mind.
Not being a big fan of inner tubes and looking to explore the capabilities of the Exceed chassis, I fitted a chunky set of Bontrager SE4 tyres and swapped each inner tube for a scoop of sealant. Measuring 2.4in wide, the SE4s just squeezed into the frame and fork, though mud clearance is pretty limited around the chainstays. They’re also considerably heavier than the paper-thin Contis they replaced, coming in at 902g per tyre, compared to 541g for the X-King Racesport tyres. Better skip that 4th pint at the pub on Thursday night then…
Another change I made off the bat was the addition of a dropper post. With a 30.9mm diameter bore rather than the more traditional 27.2mm diameter than most other hardtails utilise, the Exceed frame is primed for a stealth dropper post. And as I’ve not had any experience of riding an XC hardtail with a dropper, I figured this would be the perfect opportunity to try one out. Matching the all-black Fox 32 fork, I fitted a Performance Series Fox Transfer dropper post. With 150mm of travel no less.
The Fox Transfer dropper post is available with either a 2x or a 1x remote. The 1x remote sits underneath the handlebar, and is significantly more ergonomic to use. Trouble is, you can’t run a left-hand shifter and the 1x remote together. However, with the Exceed using a Di2 drivetrain, I decided to unplug and remove the left-hand shifter completely to fit the 1x remote. And by flicking the Di2 system into ‘Synchro’ mode, I was able to operate all 22 gears with just the right-hand shifter. More on how that works later.
With the chunky tyres and dropper post, the weight of our Exceed test bike swelled a whole kilo to come in at 10.78kg. Probably not the best changes for XC racing, but how would the Exceed fare on more technical trails?
For all intents and purposes, the ride quality of the Exceed CF SL is identical to the SLX frame. It’s got that same eager attitude that many good carbon hardtails possess, with sprightly acceleration and excellent power transfer through the lower half of the frame. Of course some of the bike’s zippiness was sapped by the heavier tyre choice, and that kept the pace on the climbs a little steadier overall. Still, the broad range of the 2×11 drivetrain allows you to maintain a nice and smooth cadence most of the time, and the calm steering and roomy cockpit mean that very little shifting in position is required when you’re en route to higher altitudes.
What I did find with our souped-up hardtail was just how well it dealt with technical climbing. The added traction from the Bontrager SE4 tyres helped to latch on to loose and broken-up surfaces, allowing the stiff carbon frameset to lay down the power with less risk of rear wheel slippage. As things turned more questionable and line choices became more optimistic, the lightweight Exceed was quite partial to the odd power-move in order to push and thrutch the bike up the sort of chunky trails that most people prefer to ride down on. Clearing those kinds of tech climbs became terrifically rewarding.
Comfort is another significant performance attribute of the refined Exceed chassis, with flex through the slender seatstays and top tube helping to wash away vibrations and mute the bigger impacts before they’re felt through the contact points. The alloy rims and high volume tyres help no doubt, and with pressures set at 18psi on the front and 20psi on the rear, the wheels did a commendable job of diluting much of the smaller rubble. Although wider rims are quite trendy these days, I actually quite liked the bulbous tyre profile delivered by the 22.5mm internal width of the XR 1501s. It actually helped to add a bit of spring in the Exceed’s step.
Really though, it was the Exceed’s descending capabilities that skyrocketed thanks to the addition of the dropper post and chunkier tyres. In riding many of the same trails that I tested the CF SLX 9.9 on last year, this guy here blitzed all of my descending times my some margin. Not only is it faster downhills though, it’s also proven to be a heck of a lot more fun too – ‘fun’ being a relatively alien term for most carbon hardtails.
With the saddle slammed out of the way, the low-slung Exceed mimics something of a hyper-nimble dirt jump hardtail. And with more freedom for your body to stretch and contort over the cockpit as needed, it becomes a whole lot more intuitive to get low and jockey the bike as it bounces around underneath you. Without a saddle jammed halfway up your arse, it’s also considerably more willing to be leaned over, and that let me push the Exceed much harder both in and out of each turn.
Grip is excellent from the Bontrager SE4 tyres, which feature a gently rounded profile that makes them happy being tipped over through most lean angles. Edgy cornering blocks help to dig in to soft and loose terrain well, and while they’re not strictly a mud tyre, they surprised me with their predictability even when the ground was sopping. Having run these tyres on a wide variety of bikes in a wide variety of conditions over the past year, I’ve become a very big fan of their dependable performance.
As the riding speed increases, one thing that stands out in the Exceed’s handling package is that it is most certainly not twitchy. The steering is decidedly on the slower and calmer side, so it does need more work to pass it in and out of tight S-bend corners. Part of this is due to the slacker head angle, but it also has to do with Canyon’s choice of a 44mm fork offset, rather than the more popular 51mm offset that most brands use for their 29ers. The shorter offset has the effect of increasing trail, and that increases the front tyre’s resistance to turning. This lowers agility somewhat – most brands use the longer 51mm offset (Trek and Gary Fisher call it ‘G2 Geometry’) in order to speed up the steering of the bigger wheels on a 29er. In the case of the Exceed though, Canyon kept the shorter 44mm offset to trade some of this nimbleness in exchange for more stability and confidence when descending. The result is a much less angry feel to the handling.
The Exceed’s roomy front centre also helps with stability, and I’ve found the steering to be surprisingly steady when skating down steeper pitches. The slender Fox fork also impressed with it’s supple action, ironing out small and big hits alike. I had it setup at 65psi with one volume spacer for my 70kg riding weight, which put me at 25% sag while standing up on the pedals. The Step Cast is certainly one of the smoothest performing XC forks I’ve ridden, and not only does this help with front end traction and control, it also helps with comfort on your wrists too. Despite the willing action and incredible small-bump sensitivity though, the air spring does well to ramp up in the last third of the travel to avoid bottom-out, keeping the front end feeling nice and sporty.
The sporty feel does extend to the chassis though. It’s a rather bendy fork when copping bigger impacts at speed, and I had plenty of moments where I could feel the front wheel tucking underneath the head tube as the bike was slamming into chunky granite rocks. Compare it (unfairly) to the Fox 34 Float, and there’s certainly a whole load more twist and shout going on with the skinny legs on the Step Cast lowers. That said, we are talking about an XC race fork that weighs just 1389g (confirmed weight with the QR15 thru-axle). And as a credit to both the fork’s damping and the bike, the Exceed never bucked me off from pushing it too far, even when I was taking it well outside its comfort zone. My only concern would be for riders pushing 90kg or more, who would benefit from a stiffer and chunkier fork.
I can’t say I’m a fan of the three-position remote lockout. It’s high position doesn’t make it particularly ergonomic, and it’s difficult to access the medium setting. As such, I only ever locked it out completely for riding on the road or particularly smooth dirt road climbs, otherwise I left the fork wide open the whole time. If it were my personal bike I’d ditch the remote lockout for a crown-mounted adjuster.
And what of the fancy electronic drivetrain? Well for my first proper experience with Shimano’s latest Di2 groupset, I must say I was quite impressed with the Deore XT shifting. It’s uber-reliable, and each shift feels efficient and accurate. It also makes great zapping noises too.
For the first couple of rides that I rode the Exceed with its stock rigid seatpost and both shifters, the Di2 system performed fine, but I wasn’t sure it was really giving me anything different from a well-tuned mechanical drivetrain. Sure the shifting was crisp and the electronic wires are largely impervious to contamination, but what else are you getting? Once I unplugged the left-hand shifter to fit the Fox Transfer 1x remote however, the benefits of the Di2 system started to become more apparent.
Setup in Synchro mode with just the single right-hand shifter, the front derailleur shifts automatically. Once you reach the biggest sprocket on the cassette as you’re clicking down the gears on a climb, the head unit emits a double ‘beep’ to warn you of the next step. Then as you click down once more, the front derailleur automatically downshifts off the big ring all on its own. At exactly the same time, the rear derailleur upshifts one sprocket to keep the cadence smooth and consistent. One shifter, and 22 gears. Now THAT’s what I’m talking about!
Being the newer Di2 system, it’s possible to pair the control unit with Shimano’s E-Tube app on your smartphone. I did this in order to change the settings on the right-hand shifter, as I found the stock configuration put the upshift on the wrong paddle. I did run into an annoying pairing issue with the Bluetooth system, as E-Tube requires you to have a unique 6-digit password – presumably so you can’t hack into your competitor’s Di2 system and lock them into the granny ring for the entire race. Some Googling delivered me the answer, which was to ‘forget’ the device on my phone, before re-pairing again. After I was able to dive into the app and change the protocol for the shifter, I now had the small paddle performing the upshift, and the bigger inboard paddle controlling the downshift. Sweet. Inside the app, you can also play around with the shift-mapping for the Synchro mode, which alters when the front derailleur shifts.
Each paddle can also be physically adjusted by about 10mm side-to-side, but I still found the paddles to be less ergonomic than a mechanical shifter. Perhaps it’s just that I’ve gotten used to using mechanical shifters for the past twenty years. Also, the right-hand shifter can only fire off one up shift at a time (unlike mechanical Deore XT and XTR).
Due to the sharp climbing gradients surrounding our local ‘hood, I would have been quite happy to have downsized to a 36/26t chainring setup for a little more low-range gearing. But I coped, and I most certainly appreciated the smooth shifting from the 11-42t cassette, which offers a marginally tighter range than SRAM’s 10-42t cassettes, and the 11-46t Shimano XT cassette I’ve been using a lot lately. Overall, the wide range 2×11 drivetrain meant I could keep a steadier cadence on the sorts of longer grinds you can encounter on big all-day cross-country rides. Oh and battery life? Well, I didn’t need to charge the Di2 system for the entire six-week test period, and even had 20% juice left in the tank at the end.
Overall I was pretty impressed with the Di2’s performance, but then the Exceed is an ideal candidate for electronic shifting, and really any XC/marathon type bike is going to capitalise on the system’s benefits. We’ve currently got an XT Di2 groupset on longterm review on a completely different type of bike, so stay tuned for a more in-depth review.
The Fox Transfer dropper post has to be my favourite dropper post on the market right now. Particularly this all-black Performance Series version, which comes in £50 cheaper than the Factory model. Aside from the gold Kashima coat, the posts are structurally identical. We’ve had zero mechanical issues with the Transfer posts we’ve tested over the past 18 months, and this one was no different. Travel is silky smooth, and there’s an audible ‘clunk’ at both full compression and full extension, so you’re kindly alerted to the saddle’s position. The twin-bolt clamp is sturdy, and cable attachment at the base of the post is refreshingly easy to install and remove. The remote is discreet and low-profile, and it has a low-friction action that requires minimal effort to actuate. It’s a very pleasing piece of kit to use.
The DT Swiss XR 1501 wheels are also excellent, and would be towards the top of my list for a lightweight and compliant XC wheelset. It’s worth noting for potential buyers that Canyon has spec’d the fork with Boost hub spacing, but the rear dropouts run 142x12mm spacing. Canyon states its engineers went to considerable efforts to make the Exceed’s back-end nice and comfortable, and so the 142x12mm rear end was (apparently) chosen to avoid making things too stiff. And yes the wider spoke bracing of a Boost rear hub would no doubt deliver a stiffer rear wheel, but given that most high-end wheels are moving towards Boost-only hub spacing, I reckon this could be a potential point of frustration in the future if you wanted to upgrade.
The Exceed’s cockpit is spot on, with the 720mm wide bars and 80mm stem feeling about right for my build and 175cm height. Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to try out a 70mm stem on there, but I have an inkling it would have given me the perfect fit by shortening up the reach a touch, while also speeding up the steering a little too. I didn’t really liked the Ergon grips, which bulge in slightly the wrong spot for my hands, and likewise I didn’t get along with the Selle Italia saddle, which is too slopey in profile. While I’m sure it would have an impact on the final price, I’d love to see Canyon offer the ability to custom spec things like the saddle, grips and bar width before purchase.
Three Things That Could Be Improved
- Tubeless tyres as stock please
- More adjustability in the shifter paddles and a double up shift would be excellent
- The ability to change/upgrade contact points and gear ratios at the point of purchase
Three Things That We Loved
- High quality carbon frame delivers compliance and low weight
- The cool, calm and collected attitude
- The supple and sporty Fox 32 Step Cast fork
I already knew the Exceed was a great riding hardtail. And although the CF SL frame is the heavier and cheaper brother to the SLX, it still rides just as well. Unless you’re an absolute gram-hunter, most riders will be better off going for the Exceed CF SL and putting those saved pennies into better quality components. Or perhaps a race entry for a multi-day marathon event you’ve always considered doing.
Combined with the bigger tyres, the Exceed proved that it can be more than just a lightweight XC race bike. Sure its responsive and efficient, but it’s also hella comfortable for a hardtail, and it features a level of calmness on the descents that means you can get away with a whole lot more than you really should with a bike this light. And if you’re the type of person that finds something inherently pleasing about cleaning technical climbs as well as sketchy, hair-raising high-speed technical sections on a hardtail – or you want to find out what that feels like – then the Exceed will be be a most worthy tool to help make that happen.
2017 Canyon Exceed CF SL 7.9 Di2 Specifications
- Frame // Canyon Exceed CF SL Carbon Fibre
- Fork // Fox 32 SC Performance Series, 100mm Travel, Remote Lockout
- Hubs // DT Swiss XR 1501 Spline, 110x15mm Front & 142x12mm Rear
- Rims // DT Swiss XR 1501 Spline, 22.5mm Internal Width, Tubeless Compatible
- Tyres // Continental X-King 2.2in RaceSport Front & Rear
- Chainset // Shimano Deore XT 38/28t Chainring
- Front Mech // Shimano Deore XT Di2 High Direct Mount
- Rear Mech // Shimano Deore XT Di2 Shadow Plus 11-Speed
- Shifters // Shimano Deore XT Di2 11-Speed
- Cassette // Shimano SLX 11-40t, 11-Speed
- Brakes // Shimano Deore XT M8000, 180mm Front & 160mm Rear Rotors
- Stem // Canyon V14 80mm
- Bars // Canyon H12 Flat Alloy, 720mm Wide, 5mm Rise
- Grips // Ergon GA30
- Seatpost // Canyon S29 VCLS Carbon Fibre, 30.9mm Diameter
- Saddle // Selle Italia SLS
- Size Tested // Medium
- Sizes available // X-Small, Small, Medium, Large, X-Large
- Weight // 9.74 kg / 21.4 lbs