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by Matt Wikstrom
December 16, 2015
Photography by Matt Wikstrom
The Ultimate has been a cornerstone of Canyon’s road bike range for over a decade, representing the company’s vision for the world’s best road bike. There have been three generations of the Ultimate since the turn of the century, and earlier this year, the next generation was unveiled. In this review, CTech editor Matt Wikstrom takes a look at the new Ultimate CF SLX.
Update: Canyon added a disc brake version of the Ultimate CF SLX in 2015 and we have a review of the Ultimate CF SLX Disc 8.0 Di2 for comparison with the rim brake version reviewed here.
For those unfamiliar with Canyon, the company began life with a trailer full of parts in the early ‘80s and slowly grew to become a manufacturer by 2001. The company embraced carbon technology and has enjoyed massive growth despite having only one showroom in Germany.
Canyon’s owner, Roman Arnold, has always believed in the merits of customer-direct sales. While his company was criticised early for the approach, it has enjoyed enormous growth, thanks in part to the rise of the Internet. While traditional shoppers might worry about the pitfalls of buying online, there are many more that are enjoying the convenience, providing Canyon with an annual turnover of nearly 85 million euro for 2013.
Canyon’s first carbon bike broke while under review by a magazine and the embarrassment was enough for Arnold to create his own R&D department. Now the company has a strong reputation for the quality of its composite engineering. Canyon is equally fastidious about quality control, so while the company continues to rely on Asia for manufacturing, all quality control testing takes place in Germany.
One of Canyon’s missions is to build the perfect bike, and the Ultimate has embodied that effort for the last ten years. Weight, stiffness, and comfort have always been important priorities for the bike, but when Canyon’s engineers undertook the design of the next generation Ultimate, the fourth, they were charged with an additional concern: aerodynamics.
The goals for the fourth generation Ultimate CF SLX frameset were clearly defined from the outset—reduce aerodynamic drag by 10% and increase comfort by 10%—seemingly modest goals, but both had to be achieved while preserving the stiffness to weight ratio of the third generation frame.
In order to reduce aerodynamic drag, the Ultimate’s tubing profiles were overhauled with a view to reducing the frontal surface area of the fork legs, down tube, head tube, and cockpit. Canyon relied on extensive wind tunnel testing to validate and refine the new tubing profiles, eventually arriving at a slender oval shape with some resemblance to a truncated airfoil.
The third generation Ultimate was largely traditional in design with squarish tubing that provided a large measure of the frame’s stiffness. The new aerodynamic profiles could not provide the same innate stiffness, so the choice of fibres and layup were redefined for the new frame. The fourth generation frame utilises a blend of high-tensile, high modulus and intermediate modulus fibres, where the heavier high-tensile and intermediate modulus fibres are necessary for improving the strength and durability of the frameset.
Most readers will already understand the importance of layup to the final physical properties of the bike. Each layer of carbon fibre improves the strength and stiffness of the bike but it also adds weight. Canyon’s engineers said that they paid close attention to the stacking of each carbon fibre layer so as to minimise overlap, save some weight, and improve the stiffness to weight ratio of the bike. In this regard, finite element analysis was critical in determining the final structure of the frame and forks.
Canyon claims that its wind tunnel testing found that the new design provided a saving of 7.4W over the third generation frameset at 45km/hr. Another 5.5W was saved by the addition of the Aerocockpit, an integrated stem and handlebar that was initially developed for the Aeroad CF SLX. All told, the fourth generation Ultimate CF SLX offers a 14% reduction in aerodynamic drag when compared to the third generation design.
A pragmatic approach was taken in order to increase the comfort of the new bike by improving the compliance of the seatpost. Thus, a 27.2mm diameter was selected, and then the seatpost clamp was lowered into the frame to extend the effective length of the post. A novel sleeve was designed for the post that allows extra movement and the result was a 15% increase in compliance when compared to the third generation Ultimate.
Canyon has long made use of an oversized 1.25inch fork steerer for the Ultimate, and it continues to serve the fourth generation frame. However, whereas the third generation fork tapered to 1.5inch at the crown, the new fork uses a straight gauge steerer. The slimmer crown helps reduce the frontal area of the head tube, as does low profile bearings in the headset.
Another carry-over from the third generation Ultimate is the BB86 bottom bracket. Canyon also continues to offer two versions of the frameset, one to suit mechanical groupsets and another for electronic transmissions.
The fourth generation Ultimate CF SLX is available in seven sizes, as set out in the table below:
Canyon continues to adhere to a single seat tube angle for all frame sizes along with a uniform chainstay length (410mm) and fork rake (41.5mm). Overall, the Ultimate is a race-oriented bike. Stem height adjustment is limited to a maximum of 27.5mm for each frame size, so riders looking for a more upright position may want to consider the Endurace CF instead.
As for women, Canyon does not produce a women’s-specific frame (though that may change now that the company has put its name to a professional team) but its WMN models are have shorter stems and narrower bars.
The overall profile of the fourth generation Ultimate CF SLX hasn’t really changed with the new aerodynamic tubing, though the hidden seatpost clamp and integrated Aerocockpit add to the bike’s clean lines. There is a choice of two colours for most models in the range, however matte black predominates. Regardless, the quality of each finish is very high and consistent with Canyon’s distinctive styling.
Australian customers have a choice of six different builds for the Ultimate CF SLX (https://www.canyon.com/en-au/road/ultimate/) starting at $4,699 for the Ultimate CF SLX 8.0 (Ultegra mechanical groupset, Mavic Ksyrium Pro wheelset) and topping out at $9,999 for the Ultimate CF SLX 9.0 Aero (Dura Ace Di2 groupset, Zipp Firecrest 303 clinchers). There is also the Ultimate CF SLX frameset, which includes the H36 Aerocockpit and a carbon seatpost, for $3,499. All 9.0 series bikes are supplied with Canyon’s all-carbon H36 Aerocockpit, while 8.0 series bikes are fitted with a conventional stem and handlebars.
The third generation Ultimate is still part of Canyon’s catalogue as the Ultimate CF SL, albeit as a more affordable bike that it a little heavier. There are six models available to Australian buyers starting at $2,299 (105 groupset, Mavic Aksium wheelset). Alternatively, buyers can purchase the Ultimate CF SL frameset for $1,999.
It is worth noting that current availability for the Ultimate CF SLX varies considerably depending on model and size. As such, some bikes are ready to ship immediately while others won’t be available until well into the new year. Once a bike is placed into the shopping cart, buyers will see the expected shipping dates for all colours and sizes.
As mentioned above, shoppers will not get a chance to test ride the Ultimate CF SLX unless they travel to Canyon’s showroom in Koblenz, Germany. However, the company offers all of its customers a 30-day right of return, which translates into a one-month test-ride on the customer’s own terms and terrain (according to Canyon, it’s a policy that gets abused occasionally, while only a tiny number of legitimate buyers have ever taken advantage of it).
All of Canyon’s road bikes are covered by a 6-year warranty for the frame and forks. All customer orders are dispatched from Canyon’s headquarters in Germany and shipped in their Bikeguard box that allows the quick reassembly once unpacked. For more information, visit Canyon.
I spent two days aboard the Ultimate CF SLX 9.0 Aero while attending Canyon’s official launch for the Australian and New Zealand market in November.
I was impressed with the third generation Ultimate, which I described as “one of the best carbon bikes I’ve ever ridden.” It had a near perfect blend of agility and responsiveness with a low weight and enough comfort so that it could be enjoyed all day long. As such, it wasn’t a bike that was in need of improvement, but the fourth generation manages it anyway, albeit in the form of small refinements.
Before I touch on those improvements, the big picture: in general terms, the fourth generation Ultimate has retained all of the traits that defined the third generation bike. I presume that has a lot to do with Canyon’s dedication to adhering to the same stiffness to weight ratio. While it’s hard to imagine how a single number — a specific stiffness to weight ratio — can define an entire bike, the new Ultimate CF SLX seems to prove the point.
The Ultimate CF SLX continues to excel on any climb, accelerating and surging with ease, especially when I was out of the saddle. Of course, it wasn’t enough to transform me into a different kind of rider, but this bike made me want to be a better climber.
The Ultimate CF SLX is more than a pure climbing rig though. It was equally responsive downhill and on the flats, and in some ways, the bike seemed to get better with speed. The Ultimate also does an excellent job at protecting the rider from unnecessary shock and vibrations, so they can concentrate on their effort, even when tackling demanding road surfaces.
Which brings me to what I think is the most striking improvement for the fourth generation Ultimate CF SLX: a significant increase in comfort while I was in the saddle. I’ve already described the extra compliance that was engineered for the seatpost, which was obvious while I was at a standstill. I had no trouble making the seatpost flex but I was barely aware of the motion while I was riding. Instead, there was a sense that my saddle was suddenly plusher even though it was the same Fizik Alliante that I use for every bike review.
I made the ascent at Arthur’s Seat on both days, and my seated effort felt sure and efficient each time. I didn’t experience any bobbing sensations on the way up, or at any other time, even when I was driving the bike hard into a headwind. As such, I have to consider Canyon’s new seatpost clamp a success.
The other standout feature was the quality of the steering and handling. I can’t really count this as an improvement because the third generation Ultimate was also sure and stable, but it still stands out as exceptional.
The Ultimate gave me the freedom to pick my line through every hairpin turn as I made the descent at Arthur’s Seat, and while there was a hint of oversteer at lower speeds, I was never worried it might tip over. At higher speeds on less technical descents, the Ultimate CF SLX was so well composed as to inspire an extra measure of confidence.
What of the 12W of savings in aerodynamic drag? I wasn’t aware of any free speed even though the test bike had the added benefit of Zipp’s Firecrest 303 wheelset. By comparison, Canyon’s Aeroad was a perceptibly faster bike, and a much better choice for riders that prize speed. Regardless, the new tube profiles do not detract from the performance of the bike, so there’s no downside to the marginal gains they might offer.
While Canyon expounds the aerodynamic virtues of its Aerocockpit, I simply prefer the aesthetics. The H36 Aerocockpit is distinct from the H11 version supplied with the Aeroad: the difference is with the drops, which are rounder and shallower for the H36. I found the tops were a joy to hold onto with an easy reach to the levers, and while the shape of the drops fell short of perfect, it was more than satisfactory. The Aerocockpit adds to the price of the bike, but I think it’s worth it.
The Ultimate CF SLX 9.0 Aero that I was riding during the launch was equipped with Shimano’s Dura Ace Di2 groupset with sprint shifters for the drops. I really appreciated the sprint shifters for the Aeroad CF SLX 9.0 SL, and they were equally welcome on the Ultimate. Now I have to wonder why they aren’t used more widely and why there hasn’t been a growth in accessory shifters now that electronic transmissions are firmly established.
For a bike that wears an “Aero” suffix, Zipp’s Firecrest 303 wheelset is a fine choice, but I’d rather the 202. The low profile rim is more versatile than the 303, and therefore, arguably a better match for the capabilities of the Ultimate CF SLX.
The fourth generation Ultimate CF SLX does an exceptional job at living up to its name and fulfilling Canyon’s mission to build the perfect bike. The new bike is not left wanting in any regard, but to concentrate on any single aspect is to overlook at how well they combine. Indeed, the Ultimate CF SLX is greater than the sum of its parts.
The Ultimate CF SLX is much more versatile than Canyon’s other race bike, the Aeroad CF SLX. The latter is more race-oriented and promises extra speed, but the Ultimate is still race-worthy. I expect climbers and all-rounders will find plenty of appeal in the Ultimate CF SLX; it should also have plenty of appeal for riders that enjoy all-day rides on undulating terrain.
Canyon’s pricing adds considerably to the appeal of the Ultimate CF SLX, which continues to trump many of it high-end peers, so perhaps the only obstacle to the bike irresistibility is Canyon’s sales model.
I started using the Internet during the ‘90s, and while I don’t count myself as an early adopter, I’m very comfortable with online shopping. As such, I wouldn’t have any trouble committing to a bike purchase with Canyon. Of course, I’ve had the advantage I’ve riding their bikes, so I know exactly what’s on offer.
If you were shopping for a new bike, would you consider Canyon?