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by Anne-Marije Rook
November 3, 2017
Photography by Anne-Marije Rook
WOMEN'S CYCLING BROUGHT TO YOU BY ORBEA
Canyon introduced the new Ultimate WMN CF SLX family of road bikes to the Canyon-SRAM women’s team back in May, which not only featured disc brakes, but also the company’s first women’s specific geometry. The German bike manufacturer has since started operating in the United States, making the customer-direct bikes available to the American market for the first time. Canyon USA sent the top-of-the-line Ultimate WMN CF SLX Disc 9.0 for a more thorough testing to Ella CyclingTips editor Anne-Marije Rook, and she has spent the past few months really putting the bike through its paces.
When Canyon launched its all-new line of women’s specific bikes earlier in the summer, I had the chance to briefly test the endurance-focused Endurace as well as the all-out race machine that is the Ultimate CF SLX. Both are built exclusively with a new women’s specific geometry and disc brakes.
There were two models to try out on three different rides, and we were free to choose on the last one. The Canyon engineers on hand eagerly awaited our picks, but when I chose the slightly less aggressive and more comfortable endurance model over the race bike, engineer Lukas Schuchnigg looked positively deflated.
According to Canyon, this new women’s model was the most aerodynamic and lightest Ultimate yet, so why wouldn’t I take the opportunity to ride that one?
Well, at the time, I liked the bike just fine but I was more intrigued by the Endurace – a bike that genuinely surprised me as the only endurance-oriented bike I have actually liked to date.
But when the launch came to end, the Canyon reps send me home with a promise that an Ultimate would soon make its way to my doorstep for a more thorough testing.
“You will love this bike,” they said, in a way that made me question whether that was confidence, a promise or a directive.
The Ultimate series has stood at the pinnacle of the Canyon road bike range for over a decade, and while engineers have been tinkering with weight, stiffness, and aerodynamics, pro teams like Katusha and Movistar have been providing WorldTour feedback for at least six years.
On the women’s side, Canyon-SRAM has been racing the Ultimate and the Speedmax for the past two seasons, and in 2018, Movistar’s new women’s team will bring more of Canyon’s WMN line to the Women’s WorldTour.
At a time when Specialized, Trek and other manufacturers are stepping away from their gender-specific approach, it’s interesting to see Canyon embrace it so fully. Like many other brands, Canyon previously used a unisex frame for its male and female bikes, but with different finishing kits. For the new WMN line, however, engineers went back to drawing board to make a frame unlike any other in the Canyon line-up.
Guided by the biological and anatomic data of their more than 60,000 customers, Canyon came up with a geometry that generally have slightly higher stacks and shorter reaches than the unisex models.
A first ride on Canyon’s new women’s specific bikes
They’re also lighter.
Canyon believes that women are lighter and have lower power outputs on average than men of the same height, thus the engineers were free to design the new bikes with slightly less stiffness. To the eye, this is noticeable in the tube shapes, which are narrower than on the unisex Ultimate. The narrower tube profiles also reduce frontal surface area for improved aerodynamics.
Canyon claims that at just size 765g (for a size XS), the new Ultimate WMN frame is 6.5% lighter and 3% more aerodynamic than the unisex model, and while there is some loss of geometric stiffness, the reduction in mass means the stiffness-to-weight ratio remains largely unaffected.
With its WMN line, Canyon’s bike size offering now serve riders as short as 152cm (5’ 0”). The 2XS and 3XS bikes also come equipped with proportionally smaller 650b wheels. Adopted from the mountain bike world, these allow those smaller sizes to keep the same agile handling and high-speed stability as larger ones, but reduce the toe overlap so common for shorter riders.
The demo bike I received was the top-end Ultimate WMN CF SLX Disc 9.0 Team CSR, equipped with SRAM’s intuitive Red eTap wireless electronic groupset and hill-friendly gearing with 50/34T chainrings paired to an 11-32T cassette. Also included are confidence-inspiring flat-mount hydraulic disc brakes, zippy Reynolds Assault LE carbon wheels with 12mm thru-axles, and cushy 28mm-wide Schwalbe Pro One tyres (although the bike is usually supplied with 25mm ones).
Retail price is US$7,000 / AU$TBC / £6,200 / €6,200, but lower-end models of the Ultimate WMN CF SLX start at less than half that. Actual weight of my test sample was 7kg (15.5lb), with a single bottle cage, but without pedals or other accessories.
While also available in “stealth” black, the demo came arrived in the Canyon-SRAM pro team colourway, which in my opinion, has got to be one of the best looking bikes in the pro peloton – men’s or women’s. The colours and the whole package as described above makes for one sleek-looking bike that begs to be ridden.
One note about the geometry before diving into the ride report:
I’d like to refrain from turning this review into another debate surrounding the necessity or efficacy of a women-specific geometry. It’s been well-discussed already, and personally, I tend to believe more in a size-specific, rather than gender-specific, design philosophy. In my experience, the argument in favour of women-specific builds usually comes down to is the number of parts a rider would have to change on a bike to make it fit properly (such as the stem, handlebar, crank, and saddle).
What Canyon (like most bikes marketedat women) has done here is eliminate or minimize the need to make any of those adjustment.
The Ultimate WMN comes with a sleek, one-piece aero cockpit with an integrated stem, which vary in size depending on bike size. An integrated stem can sometimes be a limiter when it comes to finding a good fit, but between the slightly shorter reach and 15-35mm setback on the seatpost, I had no problems with finding my fit.
The crank length is also chosen according to bike size. My XS demo came with 170mm-long cranks, which seemed right for my 164cm (5’5″) height.
Overall, the bike fit as supplied (or was very close, at least). Nevertheless, I still swapped the stock saddle to my personal favorite upon the bike’s arrival, if for no other reason than familiarity and testing consistency.
My only real issue with the bike’s specs is the shape of the SRAM RED eTap HRD levers. Towering a good 6cm over on top of the bars, their large size not only interrupt the bike’s otherwise-sleek aesthetics, but they also take some serious getting used to, especially if you’ve got small hands.
I feel really conflicted when it comes to the eTap HRD because on the one hand, I am a fan of the intuitive eTap shifting and the undeniably good stopping power of hydraulic disk brakes. But on the other hand, the shifters are exceedingly bulky.
With that said, Canyon does offer a model of this bike with Shimano Di2 for those who still want the ease and precision of electronic shifting, but prefer a lever design with less girth.
I really put this bike through its paces, using it for everything from crit racing to gravel adventures to an 11-hour long haul. And I’m happy to report that the Ultimate WMN CF SLX Disc 9.0 was up for the challenge.
First off, the Ultimate WMN CF SLX Disc 9.0 is a remarkably comfortable bike, equally pleasant over pavement, rutted dirt roads, gravel, and even some singletrack. The 28mm-wide tyres provided helped make for a very cushy ride, no matter what terrain I put it on, but the bike still felt smooth even after switching to more conventional 25s. And if you really want a pillowy feel, Canyon officially rates the frame and fork for tyres up to 30mm-wide.
It’s also very stable.
There are some bikes on today’s market that are so light and so responsive that they become twitchy. This bike, while competitively light, has none of that. It stays planted and goes only where you want it to go – a descender’s dream, really. When thrown into a corner at speed, the bike responds reliably, carving unwaveringly through the turn. Combined with the impressive stopping power of hydraulic brakes, it makes for a very trustworthy and precise ride, even when bombing down the many steep, potholed, and cobbled roads of my Seattle neighbourhood.
Where it impressed in stability and sure-footedness, however, it seems to have compromised its agility. Whether that’s due to the new geometry, the reduced stiffness or the extra rotating weight of the disc-brake setup, I can’t be entirely sure. It’s likely a combination of factors, but some of the snappiness and playfulness of the previous, rim-braked versions of the Ultimate CF SLX was missing here.
The bike is still plenty responsive and, with the Reynolds Assault wheels, spins up to speed quickly; I even set a few personal records on some favourite local climbs. But it just doesn’t quite have that same spark to it, which makes it feel somehow less suited for racing. I think perhaps that is why I didn’t immediately fall in love with the bike at the launch. It didn’t feel like the more traditional competition-bred bikes I’d been used, and we all know that the placebo effect is real in cycling.
With that said, in recent years, we as an industry have also been enlightened to the fact that comfort doesn’t necessarily mean slower: plenty of studies have already shown that even though narrower tyres may feel faster, the stopwatch (and power meter) often say otherwise. And so newer bikes – even ones for racing – are being fitted with wider tyres instead, and with that comes better ride quality as a nice bonus.
For me, the penny dropped one day as I was sailing across a particularly rough section of cobbles that in the past had claimed many a water bottle and rear pocket contents. Instead of bouncing around, the bike stayed planted and the well-damped frame, cockpit, and seatpost took the brunt of the impact. I stayed comfortable and actually came out of that section ahead relative to other bikes I’d ridden.
But what is this bike for? That’s the question I kept coming back to throughout my riding.
Topping Canyon’s Ultimate line, this is no doubt a race-oriented machine. It’s the same bike that’s being raced on the UCI Women’s WorldTour. I’d already proven to myself that it’s ultra-fast, especially on roads that were anything less than perfect. But given the somewhat dulled personality, I would still gravitate toward a different bike for a fast, sprint-heavy road race.