Canyon Grail gravel bike first-ride review

by Dave Everett


Leave it to Canyon to think outside the box with its new Grail. It’s a gravel bike that should be more than enough for most who want to venture off the beaten track, but before you do so, you’ll have to accept the radical design of the integrated handlebar, and prepare yourself for endless coffee shop discussions from curious onlookers.

Canyon hasn’t just thought outside the box with this one; the box has been stomped on, doused with kerosene, and lit on fire.

While the gravel bike market was once viewed as a passing fad or trend, it’s fair to say it is now firmly established and here to stay. Above all, gravel riding is just damn good fun, and with the perceived increase in road traffic incidents, it’s a way to stay safely away from crazy car drivers. Canyon seemed to be watching the gravel movement with interest from afar, but with the dominant direct-to-consumer European brand now finally entering the fray, it’s only more proof that the scene is now its own thing.

Canyon calls its new gravel bike the Grail, but has the German company really managed to produce a bike that is equally at home on the road as it is off? Does it truly offer that elusive balance: a holy grail of performance for those wanting a do-it-all, go-everywhere bike?

Hover system

Canyon isn’t scared of bold design moves. All you need do is take a look at the Inflite cyclocross bike with its unusual top tube/seat tube junction for proof of that. But with the Grail, Canyon is pushing the boundaries of design even further.

The bike’s standout feature is the Hover Bar integrated cockpit, a one-piece carbon fiber assembly that looks more like a biplane wing than a bicycle handlebar. It’s an unconventionally fresh take on how the cockpit can tackle several jobs.

The Hover bar: not quite the norm. Designed to give comfort and control.

If looking at the bike side-on for the first time, it’s as if the bars are floating in mid-air. The integrated stem joins the bars on a second level, around the middle of the drops. The top of the bars is now un-interrupted, with a flattened section in the middle where the stem would normally clamp.

According to Canyon, the Hover Bar tops offer seven times more vertical compliance than the company’s H31 Ergocockpit used on the Endurace endurance road bike.

Canyon’s engineers say that they’ve come to this design because of the standard bar/stem paradox. Standard bars are at their stiffest next to the stem clamp, with the drops being inherently less rigid since they sit furthest from the stem – the opposite of how they believe a bar should perform.

The Hover Bar’s unique design turns that around completely, and also adds an extra bit to wrap your thumbs around while in the drops, for better control.

Having an additional platform to grip and push against does give you a certain level of added confidence. The added rigidity of the drops, mixed with the nicely sorted geometry (more on that later), has you aggressively tackling rough surfaces, at what seems like higher speeds. But riders who aren’t used to hunkering down low on the drops, or who just have smaller hands, might find that the Hover Bar’s “second level” sits right where you’d normally place your thumbs.

I had to bend my elbows and drop my body a little lower to compensate, but those I spoke to with larger hands didn’t seem to have the same problem.

On the tops, the broad, flat surface and higher seating position was a place where I could see long miles being bashed out; it’s a comfortable position to churn away while climbing steady off-road gradients. The claimed extra vertical compliance isn’t hugely noticeable, though. It’s present, but I’m sure that the comfort could be closely replicated by double-wrapping your bars or adding something like Fizik’s silicone gel padding under the bar tape.

The flex comes more into its own on more significant impacts, but I’d think if you’re taking multiple bigger hits, you wouldn’t want to be upright anyway. Instead, you’d be looking for that extra control the drops offer while using your upper body to absorb the shock.

The drops have a pleasantly slight 7.5-degree outward flare – nothing outrageous, but just enough – and the lowermost section also has a D-shaped cross-section to it. I liked the shape; it seemed ergonomic, but I also wished it had an extra 15mm of length to it as I thought it felt just a little bit too short. This, of course, is just personal preference.

I was surprised by the extra control the second bar offered, but it came at a price. For some riders, that bar sits right where you’d normally place your thumbs, which won’t be comfortable for everyone.

As innovative as the Hover Bar is, it has some shortcomings.

First, Canyon claims a 120g weight penalty over a standard cockpit setup – not massive, but not nothing, either.

Second, the Hover Bar’s unique geometry requires an attachment point much lower down on the steerer tube than usual, which will make fitting other options essentially impossible. Something else might technically fit, but the position would be unreasonably low.

Making matters worse is the fact the Grail comes fitted (depending on size) with one stem length and one bar width. There’s no option for changing it during the ordering process, and buying a replacement would be costly.

Canyon has known this from the outset, so the sizes were chosen to fit a “standard” body shape and size. The medium Grail I rode came with a 440mm-wide bar and a relative stem length of 75mm, but if you fall anywhere outside of “standard”, you’re basically stuck.

Mounting levers to the bars is achieved via the preinstalled clamps. There’s still plenty of adjustment, so finding the right lever hood angle shouldn’t be a problem. Installing all major manufactures offerings from Shimano, Campagnolo and SRAM are all compatible.

The Hover Bar is the most visually striking feature on the Grail, but it’s only half of what Canyon calls the Hover System. The other half is Canyon’s trusted and proven VCLS 2.0 seatpost, a clever leaf spring-like carbon fiber seatpost that flexes much more than a conventional round post. The floating saddle clamp allows the saddle tilt to remain consistent throughout its flex, too. It’s comfortable and well-suited to the Grail.

The seatpost clamp is also lowered (similar to what Specialized does on the Roubaix and Diverge), effectively lengthening the seatpost by 110mm and giving it more room to flex. The binder is tucked down between the seatstays, and it’s simple and tidy. A silicone insert and rubber cover keep the seat tube watertight.

Between the Hover Bar, the VCLS 2.0 seatpost, and the 40mm-wide Schwalbe G-One Bite tires, the system does what it’s supposed to do: smooth things out while providing control.

Extras and hidden gems

There are several patents on the new bike, the bars being the obvious one. But there are also two features that aren’t immediately noticeable; features that engineer Daniel Hayder was only too pleased to show off. An integrated clamp on the top of the headset locks the bearing adjustment in place independent of the stem. Once established, it’ll stay put, no matter if you remove the cockpit for servicing or travel, or change the stem height (which has 15mm worth of adjustability).

There’s a separate low-profile clamp that locks the headset adjustment in place, so adjusting the stem won’t change the bearing preload.

The second feature is an inbuilt protection system, which will be a welcome inclusion for anyone that’s ever been unlucky enough to have their bars swing around and wallop their top tube during a crash (I know I have). Instead, the new system limits bar rotation to about 45 degrees. In theory, this should prevent cracked or damaged top tubes and bars in a significant fall. It’ll be interesting to see how robust the system is long term, too.

Long, self-supported days in the saddle are a big factor in what makes gravel riding appealing for some, and the Grail may have missed a trick here. The Hover Bar lends itself well to mounting a handlebar bag, since the two bars work well in keeping the bag from excessive bouncing or flopping about. But otherwise there are only mounts for fenders — there are no bosses to attach pannier racks.

Canyon has partnered with Topeak to offer a set of Grail-specific bikepacking bags, though, along with pre-cut clear vinyl decals to protect the paint and carbon from wear and tear when the bags are mounted.

Other items worth noting are inbuilt protection on the frame to guard against chain slap and chain suck, plus internal cable routing, which looks tidy and clean. Adding to the clean look are flat-mount disc-brake callipers, matched to 160mm rotors. Thru-axles are 12mm in diameter at both ends.

The lines of the bike are in keeping with the rest of Canyon’s design language.

Weight

At 830g for a medium SLX frame (claimed), and 1,040g for the SL version, the Grail is impressively light for a gravel bike. A fully built medium SLX 8.0 with Shimano Ultegra Di2 and Reynolds Assault ATR Disc Carbon wheels tips the scales at a claimed 8.2kg. Even the base model only comes in at 8.6kg with its Shimano 105 Disc groupset and DT Swiss C 1800 wheelset. The rest of the range sits snugly between these two figures.

There’s plenty of room for tyres up to 42mm-wide. For those that prefer wider Road Plus wheels and tyres, they’ll have to look elsewhere.

Geometry

The Hover Bar’s unique design renders standard stack and reach dimensions useless, so Canyon instead uses “Stack+” and “Reach+” figures that reference where a conventional stem would normally clamp the bars. Either way, the bar position on the “Gravel Pro Geometry” slots somewhere between Canyon’s aggressive Ultimate range and the more relaxed Endurace models.

What is very different is the wheelbase length, which is approximately 40mm longer than the Endurace for a given size so as to allow extra room for wider tyres – up to 42mm, according to Canyon – without having to worry about toe overlap. Seat tube angles are the same as the Endurace, too, at 73.5 degrees across all sizes, and head tube angles just a touch slacker than those found on the Endurace.

To achieve a universal ride quality across the sizes, Canyon decided to build the two smallest sizes (2XS & XS) around 650B wheels, claiming it was the only way to replicate the same ride characteristics as the larger sizes.

Bottom bracket drop is on the more stable side at 75mm on the S-2XL sizes, and 60mm on the 2XS and XS.

Prices and specs

Starting prices kick off at US$2,140 / AU$3,200 / £2,000 / €2,200 and top out with the SLX 8.0 model at US$4,480 / AU$6,600 / £4,200 / €4600. The unisex bike comes in five standard builds and seven sizes, with each available in three earthy tones: storm green, meteor grey, and carbon copper. The lone women’s-specific model is built around the base SL 7.9 model, but with the inclusion of a zero-setback seatpost, and a restricted XS-M size range. It also comes in one additional copper red colour scheme.

Much like the recent Trek Checkpoint, Canyon has also gone with full Shimano builds on each of the models, without any deviations. The top-tier SLX 8.0 we rode came with Shimano’s Ultegra Di2 Disc groupset, while base models come with Shimano 105 Disc, a groupset that I’ve used on my personal gravel bike for the past year and rate highly. It’s cheap, works well, and is pretty fuss-free to keep running smoothly. The Ultegra Di2 on the SLX 8.0 models tested is a groupset that needs no real review: it has it all, and I honestly can’t find a good reason why anyone would want more.

All models come with a 50/34T chainset and 11-34T cassette out back, which was more than wide enough for what we tackled on the test day — an undulating and challenging ride with plenty of elevation gain. For those looking for a single-chainring option, you’ll have to go elsewhere, or build your own Grail as a frame.

Speaking of which, Canyon will sell the Grail CF SLX as a frameset (including Hover Bar), for US$2,530 / AU$3,700 / £2,350. An aluminium version – that uses a standard cockpit – will arrive later.

Bearing preload is adjusted (and locked) at the base of the headset.

Ride report

Overall, the Grail’s performance is unquestionably up there with other gravel bikes I’ve had the chance to ride already. It hits what most will be looking for in this market, and it doesn’t stray too far from what the other major manufacturers are offering. If anything, it’s more than capable of what it’s asked to tackle.

The surfaces we tested the bikes on were in some places far rougher and in worse shape than I’d usually ride with my own gravel bike, with wet weather adding to the trickiness of the day’s ride. And yet the bike took it all in its stride.

It all makes for a well-planted and predictable-handling bike. On the road, the Grail is not a racing snake in corners, but there’s still bags of fun to be had with it. The wider and slower tyres hold it back some when descending on the road, but it’s when riding off-road that the bike comes alive.

As is usual with any ride (and especially when the group is made up of journalists from rival publications), all hell broke loose as soon as we hit the dirt and the road tilted upwards. People shot off the front and gave the bikes a really good thrashing. My first impression was that the Grail climbed well, sitting solidly on the ground with a positive “oomph” when putting the power down. The lightweight build helped, as did the stiff bottom bracket junction. The rear end responds well, yet never feels harsh. It’s a stand-out part of the overall package.

Some more adventurous or extreme riders will want wider tyres, but the 42mm width the Grail is designed to accommodate should be sufficient for most, and the stock 40mm-wide Schwalbe G-One Bite did offer a well-rounded balance. Sure, they’re not whippet-like on the road, but they’re not slug-like either.

Overall, the Grail certainly felt more relaxed and not as aggressive as the Orbea Terra I’ve recently had the chance to test. Both positions I like, but I felt the Grail was more suited to all-day, long-distance rides.

The Shimano Ultegra disc brakes worked faultlessly. I honestly can’t understand why anyone would want more.

Conclusion: A welcome entry to the gravel scene

Canyon’s first foray into the gravel market is brave and bold, and clearly shows the market isn’t just a US-based phenomenon. But to answer the question I asked at the start of the article: is the Grail the Holy Grail of the do-it-all, go-everywhere gravel scene?

The answer is no, not really. It’s a huge ask to be perfect across both dirt and tarmac, and there are a few issues, such as the missing rack mounts, the lack of fitting options for the integrated Hover Bar, and the struggle some will have in getting a comfortable thumb/wrist position with the crossbar. Needless to say, the looks won’t be for everyone either.

But the Grail is a damn fun and hugely capable bike for gravel enthusiasts. It offers something a little different, especially in looks, to what’s already out there. The Hover Bar addresses a challenge that gravel riding throws up, and solves it, for the most part, in a unique and straightforward way. Canyon’s been brave with its design choices and, overall, the final result is what a gravel bike should be … just with a few little twists.

Test-ride route file

In the video above, I promised to include the route file for our test ride. Here it is. The route took us though some of the most amazing landscapes that the south-east of France has to offer. The gravel tracks were interspersed with a minimum of road sections and there’s plenty of good places to grab some French cuisine along the way.

If you happen to find yourself in the area, it’s a great day’s riding. I just hope you get better weather than we did!

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