Review: Canyon’s high-falutin’ carbon gravel bike – the Holy Grail? Or just a carpenter’s cup?

by Tom Hill 3

  • Tested: Canyon Grail CF SL 8.0 SL
  • From: Canyon
  • Price: £2,549.00
  • Tested for: one month by Barney

When it was launched back in March 2018, the Canyon Grail CF caused a bit of a stir – not least because of the one feature that everyone was tailing about, but for the sake of a small amount of delirious anticipation for a minuscule minority of you I am not going to talk about that just yet.

Just a normal looking bike. Nothing to see here.

The Grail is the sum of more than a single part – it’s a whole bike, so let’s look at the other pieces in this gravel shaped jigsaw.

A normal bike for doing a bit of this

Frame, frame against the grain

So what do we have, then? We were sent a lovely, stealthy black Grail CF SL 8.0 to play around with for a couple of weeks; and initial impressions were very good. Well, first up, it’s an extremely unusual, but still extremely pretty thing, eSvelte. Low standover. Lots of interesting angles.

Funny things going on here… more on that in a second

There’s a dropped head tube to accommodate the thing I’m still (redundantly) going to avoid mentioning. And yes, as expected, it’s light – the SL frame we have here is reputed to weigh in at a scant 1040g for the medium (sorry, I didn’t disassemble the thing to find out how much our test XL frame weighs), but if you’re slavishly obsessed with dropping weight to the point of clipping your toenails and having a poo before every ride, then you can also get an SLX frame which is an almost preposterous 830g. Indeed, the fork on our bike also benefits from the SLX epithet, and looks as sleek and graceful as you’d hope on a bike of this calibre.

The frame has all mod cons, plus good standover

Attached to all this sleekness we find a pair of DT Swiss’ finest 1800 spline wheels delicately slathered in Schwalbe’s finest G-One Bite tyres in 40mm width, and a SRAM Force 1 groupset (10-42 at the back, 42 at the front) with 160mm rotors. A Fizik Aliante R5 saddle is borne triumphantly aloft by the graceful twin arms of Canyon’s VCLS seatpost. 

There are plenty of 2x options in the Grail range if you prefer.

Odd, even

And then there’s the front of the bike. Now I’m going to talk about it. Yes, THAT handlebar/stem/thing: the Hover Bar. Perforce, most things that attempt to break the norm have an unusual visual aesthetic, and this bar/stem wossface arrangement is no exception.

That bar… clever, but maybe not clever enough?

The idea is that the stem extends to a primary bar which meets the drops handy down, so to speak. The ‘traditional’ crossbar hovers above this arrangement, made of especially blade-shaped carbon, and the flexibility this offers apparently bestows increased levels of comfort when you’re on the tops, grinding up the climbs or whatever. 

Barney liked the seat post. The saddle? Not so much.

You don’t (indeed, can’t) rest your hands on the lower bar; the top bar gets in the way, but the whole shebang is kept at the same relative height to a regular bar by designing the frame and stem much lower. Which in turn keeps the standover height nice and low. And the whole frame has been lengthened so that the stem can be kept nice and short, offsetting that increase in wheelbase somewhat, and eliminating toe overlap. It’s really rather clever.

The Grail is really well specced for the price

Everything is easy!

But wossit actually *like*? The lightness of the whole is immediately apparent as soon as I set off; this is no trundling monster. A few stabs at the pedals and I felt I was approaching near roadie levels of speed (swiftly belied when I was abruptly overtaken) but with huge levels of comfort. Once the saddle height and level was set (not terribly intuitive, this last, as I didn’t have a manual to furtively read; you need to adjust the seat angle by loosening a bolt at the *bottom* of the seatpost) everything fell nicely to hand; the increase in reach of the frame nicely offset by the shortness of the stem. 

The Grail wills you to attack climbs

Nothing felt overly long or cumbersome; the 72 degree head angle works well within the confines of the design and gave a direct feeling to steering without feeling overly twitchy, and I was grateful for the increase in wheelbase when things pointed downwards and I was able to pick up some proper speed.

And is composed, if not comfortable on rough terrain

On road, the tyres worked extremely well; plenty of comfort, and good grip even when cornering on greasy tarmac. When things became somewhat more gravelly, they performed vey  well, too – up to a point. Anything beyond ‘damp’ – mud, loose trail sections and lower traction regions generally created traction and cornering issues for the tyres – and riding anything approaching wet singletrack would necessitate a change of rubber. In short, great for road and light gravel, but put something more knobbly on for rougher stuff.

The chain keeper is a nice touch

The frame did take most of the sting out of the back end (ok, yes, *my* back end) on sections such as those, though – aided by the excellent comfy seatpost, although I must confess that the saddle was absolutely not what I wanted under my arse during more challenging sections.

A Mare’s Nest?

The bars, too, were – uh – intriguing when the smooth turned to chop. Granted, resting your hands on the tops was very comfortable, and the flex was noticeable – but am I alone in feeing that that’s not where I want my comfort to be? If I’m resting on the tops, I’m nowhere near the brakes, and I’m either slowly climbing (although I usually ride on the hoods here) or I’m leisurely ambling along somewhere scenic, enjoying the view/resting my unfit carcass (delete as applicable). But when I really could do with a bit of give is when I’m hooning it down something inadvisable – at which point my hands are in the drops. And on the hoods or in the drops, the Hover Bar feels *extremely* stiff. It’s a lovely feeing to be able to hook your hands onto the cross-bar when in the drops, though – the sense of stability and sure-handedness this bestows is gratifying, but at the expense of cush. 

Rarrr! Or Arrrrghh?

The other drawback is that there’s not an awful lot of vertical adjustment to the stem (although there are a couple of spacers); and of course if you do want to play around with it you’re stuck with swapping the bars and stem out at the same time. The design also means that it’s not possible to fit anything useful like lights on them either. Granted, there’s a Garmin mount available that extends from below the front of the stem, but this design does limit the sort of handlebar furniture it’s possible to use.  This also extends to the frame itself. Bikepacking gear is, of course, perfectly possible – you only need to drape stuff off the bars or seatpost, or hang things inside the frame – but there’s nothing in terms of luggage mounting should you wish to mount a rack, and the bar may limit your barbag options too. There’s also nowhere to pin mudguards.

Take the smooth with the rough

A second bite of the cherry

But I get the feeling that enormous versatility is not really what this bike is going for. Rather than being a multi-day epic ‘mountain-bike-with-a-drop-bar’ sort of thing, the Grail seems to me to be a ‘road-bike-plus-considerably-more’. And at this, it excels. For the sort or riding I like to do on bikes like these, it’s utterly fantastic: long, long day rides with frequent exploratory forays into more off-road territory. It’s a complete hoot to ride here; it’s very light, it climbs fantastically and descends with glorious aplomb. But it can quickly feel overfaced on more spicy terrain, and I confess that for me the benefits of the bar are outweighed by the potential drawbacks.

The SRAM stop and go bits worked as they should

Full specification

  • Frame // Canyon Grail CF SL 8.0
  • Fork // Canyon FK0047 CF SLX Disc
  • Wheels // DT Swiss C 1800 Spline db
  • Tyres // Schwalbe G-One Bite 40 mm
  • Chainset // Shimano Ultegra R8000
  • Bottom Bracket // SRAM Pressfit GXP
  • Rear Mech // SRAM Force
  • Shifters // SRAM Force1
  • Cassette // SRAM XG-1175 10-42 11s
  • Brakes // SRAM Force
  • Cockpit // Canyon CP07 Gravelcockpit CF (aka Hover Bar)
  • Seatpost // Canyon S15 VCLS 2.0 CF
  • Saddle // Fizik Aliante R5
  • Size Tested // XL
  • Sizes available // XXS, XS, S, M, L, XL, XXL
  • Price // £2,349

Summary

All in all, if you’re looking for a huge quasi-mountain bike with massive luggage carrying potential that’s also happy with a spot of road riding, it’s best to look elsewhere. But if you’re looking for a hugely light, unusual road/light gravel bike with an emphasis on unique looks, enormous speed and high mileage, this is a great choice.

Comments (3)

    “There’s also nowhere to pin mudguards“

    Someone obviously hasn’t looked on the inside of the fork blades or seatstays.

    Not sure I found it getting too out of shape on wet/rough stuff, it was as good on wet grass as most MTB’s 😉 Most of my riding on one is off road and it’s been great, confidence inspiring and the rubber has been great for me, belted through the hop pre peak event in the pissing rain last summer and only got a bit out of it’s depth in a couple of really rubbley sections which to be fair an XC bike could have struggled in. 2400km down so far and loving it.

    But the Holy Grail was a… oh never mind.

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