2021 Canyon Ultimate CF SL Disc 8 road bike review: impeccable value
The past 12 or so months have seen a seemingly endless flurry of new all-round road race bikes that added aero to an existing focus on weight and stiffness.
And while just about every major brand has a fresh bike that fits the seemingly new trend, Canyon’s current generation of the Ultimate Disc came out back in 2017. However, the consumer-direct German bike company was one of the first to aero-ise its all-round racer, and all along the Ultimate has been the type of bike that many others are only now introducing to the market.
And so while our Field Test in Victoria’s High Country sought to pull together a number of hot new road bikes, the well-priced Canyon Ultimate CF SL still stood as an intriguing prospect. And as our testing confirmed, this bike doesn’t feel old at all.
Many versions of the Ultimate, explained
- What: Canyon’s mid-tier version of its low-weight Grand Tour contender
- Key features: One-piece carbon handlebar and stem, flexible 27.2 mm carbon seatpost, aero tube design, consumer-direct pricing.
- Weight: 7.51 kg complete (size small, no pedals), 980 g claimed frame weight.
- Price: US$3,199 / AU$4,249 / £2,699
- Highs: Comfortable ride quality, balanced handling, Canyon’s own cockpit components, stock tyres.
- Lows: Somewhat odd frame sizing, press fit BB, locked into 1 1/4″ stems, narrow rims, fixed stem length and handlebar width.
Canyon’s Ultimate range has been expanded and split into a staggering number of options over the past few years. For 2021 there are now three price tiers of the frame with varying levels of carbon layup. There’s the choice between disc (what we tested) and brakes that use the rim. There are women’s-specific versions (WMN). And if that wasn’t enough, many of the models can be picked with or without aero wheels (creatively designated by the word “Aero”).
This new year has seen the introduction of a fresh headline act. The Ultimate CFR (Canyon Factory Racing) which is made with an ultra-high modulus, and worryingly expensive, carbon fibre. The result is a Ultimate CFR Disc with a claimed frame weight of just 685 g (size medium and includes various small parts) with the matching fork at 270 g. And then there’s the matching one-piece handlebar and stem also at 270 g.
Only a few of the Canyon-sponsored pros at the 2020 Tour de France were on that CFR edition, with the majority on Canyon’s former top dog – the Ultimate CF SLX. In its disc variant, the CF SLX frame offers a claimed weight of 820 g and a fork weight of 320 g.
And finally, we have the Ultimate CF SL (as tested), a frame that shares the same mould as its two more expensive brethren but does so with a lower-cost material construction. The result is 980 g and 395 g claimed figures for the frame and fork.
And beyond the weight differences, things get rather similar between the various levels of the Ultimate CF. Stiffness profiles are closely comparable, the external tube shapes are identical, and the component fitment points are the same, too.
Meanwhile, a vast majority of the Ultimate models – including the model tested – feature Canyon’s own one-piece aero carbon handlebar and stem. Memorably named the CP0010, it sits on the scales at 390 g. That’s not impressively light, but is certainly less than the alloy bar and stem combos found on most bikes of this price point.
The benchmark for how consumer-direct bikes should be
There has been plenty of chatter in the industry about how the likes of Trek and Cannondale are reducing their plastic packaging and easing bike assembling, but really the world’s largest consumer-direct bike company, Canyon, has been doing so for years.
Recently Canyon once again overhauled its packaging, and the new Bike Guard 2.0 (yep, the packaging has a name) is quite slick indeed. The packaging now features a sizeable dose of corrugated cardboard and is said to be 98% free of plastic, and like before, it’s intended for easy re-use (Canyon suggests that you keep the box in case of an issue or if you want to take them up on their 30-day money-back guarantee). One of my favourite aspects of Canyon’s packaging is the reusable foam blocks that feature velcro straps to keep the handlebar and front wheel in place.
Unboxing and building the bike is made as easy as possible, with clear instructions and even the required torque wrenches provided. To get riding you’ll need to install the front wheel, the seat post, the stem and some pedals (not included). Impressively the gears and brakes on my sample were just about perfect without needing intervention.
Often installing a stem requires a basic understanding of headset preload, but not with this Canyon. Instead, the Ultimate CF features a small locking headset top cap that keeps tension on the headset bearings with the stem off, and so really all you need to do is ensure the stem is straight and use that provided torque wrench. Genius.
That one-piece stem and handlebar features a clamp design that’s different to everything else on the market, but again, Canyon provides clear instructions on how to use it. And it’s a similar story for the unique seatpost binder that sits somewhat hidden in the unexpected place between the seat stays. This position can be problematic to reach with certain torque wrench designs, but again, Canyon has you covered.
Fits like a race bike
There’s no mistaking the Ultimate CF’s performance intentions, and all levels of the platform share the same relatively long and low geometry. And the fact Canyon equips a one-piece handlebar and stem means you’re more likely to be locked into the setup than with other bikes of the price range.
The only adjustment you have at the front is through 27.5 mm of headset spacers, and so if you’re currently on a racing bike with a large stack of spacers or a stem flipped upright, then this isn’t the bike for you (rather checkout Canyon’s Endurace CF SLX). That fairly aggressive fit is accentuated by the fairly narrow handlebar width (39 cm on our sample) that is fixed to the stem.
The sizing is also likely different from your existing bike, and it’s best to use the stack and reach figures when comparing. Here, a small Ultimate CF is most closely matched to a 54 cm Trek Emonda SL or a medium-size Giant TCR Advanced.
The one-piece cockpit also means you’ll want to be fairly confident in your bike fit and the type of reach you prefer. Fine-tuning things like stem length or bar width at a later point will prove a big expense.
Canyon has selected the stem length and bar width which it feels is most appropriate for each of the respective seven frame sizes, and while not advertised, it’s possible to have that choice changed without charge at the time of ordering your bike (you’ll need to contact Canyon for details on how to do this). However, it’s exactly this lack of in-person advice and the ability to try things before you buy (even if on an indoor trainer) that’s the most glaring trade-off you make when buying a consumer-direct bike versus one through more traditional retail channels.
That handlebar offers a fairly short reach and a non-offensive ergonomic bend that creates no unusual wrist clearance issues or cramped hands. Meanwhile, the tops of the bar offer a generously deep surface that’s comfortable to hold onto and the matte finish does a good job of providing traction to what would otherwise be a slick surface with a coating of summer sweat (or rain). And while more traction can be added by wrapping tape further along the bars, neither my fellow tester Andy van Bergen nor I found it necessary given your palms are often in contact with some of the tape.
Fit aside, the Ultimate offers a surprisingly long trail figure in the smaller sizes, with head tube angles around the 72º mark matched with short 41.5 mm fork offsets (rake). Our small sample sits at 66 mm (with 28 mm tyres), which is without question one of the longest trail figures you’ll find used in the WorldTour.
And while in theory that should create a slow handling bike, the Ultimate still feels surprisingly nimble and ducks and weaves through sweeping bends without sign of laziness. A huge part of this is due to the narrow handlebars and shorter 90mm stem that could otherwise create a twitchy ride, but here it just balances things nicely. And as Matt Wikstrom (a former tech editor of CyclingTips) wrote about the Ultimate CF SLX, both Andy and I can attest that the Ultimate is a bike that’s wonderfully stable without feeling boring or slow to change direction.
Larger frame sizes still stick with the short 41.5 mm fork offset, but the head angles steepen well into the 73º range. For example, a large-size Canyon Ultimate has a trail figure of 60 mm (with a 28 mm tyre).
Elsewhere things are pretty normal and consistent. All frame sizes share the same 70 mm of bottom bracket drop, and it’s a similar story for the 415 mm chainstay length (which is longer than the 410 mm stays on the rim brake version). And all frame sizes share the same 73.8º seat tube angle, too.
And speaking of that seat tube angle, our test came equipped with Canyon’s own VCLS carbon seatpost. I’ll come back to this seatpost shortly, but one super-smart feature is that the whole saddle clamp can be slid fore-aft for 15-35 mm of saddle set-back, and then you have the adjustment range on the saddle rails, too. Most other bikes require you to change the whole seatpost for a comparably large fit adjustment.
Oversized this, undersized that
The 2021 Canyon Ultimate continues to use the fourth generation of the frame’s design, one that offers subtle aerodynamic optimisations in the main tubes. Canyon has used truncated airfoil profiles in the down tube, the head tube and top tube, while the rear of the bike employs more traditional rounded shapes in slim profiles. And while all of that looks modern to me, I can’t speak to the actual aerodynamic performance of the Ultimate or how it stacks up against the latest competition.
No doubt the one-piece handlebar and stem is more aerodynamic than the more traditional bar and stem combos found on other bikes of this price, and the narrow bar width certainly provides an even larger advantage.
And that’s about where the aero elements end and the focus on low weight and stiffness begin. The front end of the bike features an oversized 1 1/4″ steerer tube for additional stiffness with minimal weight gain. Both Giant (with its OD2 system) and Canyon have long championed the benefits of this larger size, however, the rest of the industry never followed and as a result, it means you’re more limited in what stems, headset bearings, and headset spacers will fit.
Combined with the one-piece cockpit, this oversized system does indeed produce a stiff structure that gives an obvious sense of your bars holding true to the angle of the front wheel. It’s most noticeable in sprints or when pushing hard on descents, and the outcome is a bike that tracks wonderfully well and rewards your power efforts.
That oversized front end flows down to the bottom bracket, where again like Giant, Canyon uses the PF86 Shimano-type pressfit format. It’s a system that allows for a wider down tube and wider setting of the chainstays (which I can confirm clear 32 mm tyres), but of course, requires a unique set of tools in the event of servicing. Generally speaking, we rarely see tolerance issues from the companies who use this format of press-fit bottom bracket.
Like the front end, the lower half of the frame is rigid to input and this is a pleasing bike to do bursts of power with. Interestingly I could feel that frame rigidity through the pedals, but Canyon has done an admirable job of isolating the feedback once you’re in the saddle. Here the company’s flexible 27.2 mm VCLS seatpost offers a visible amount of flex and immediately transforms what would otherwise be a harsh bike into the smoothest rolling of our small Field Test.
This seat post strikes a balance of being comfortable without making you feel like you’ve got a flat tyre or are lagging under power. And I say that as Canyon’s split-leaf-spring-type VCLS 2.0 seatpost as used on the Endurace CF SLX is almost like a suspension post in how much it moves.
A single grub screw is used to tighten the integrated wedge onto the post, and my experience has been extremely positive of this system. Not only does the low clamping point encourage additional seatpost flex, I’ve also found the design to hold impressively well and be free of noise – if only I could say the same for many other integrated clamp designs.
And while the front end does feel stiffer than the rear (at least when seated), the flat profiled aero handlebar does lend itself to a small amount of vertical give when you want it most.
Wait, it’s how much?
OK, so it’s time to talk about component specs and showcase just how much bike you get for your money with Canyon’s consumer-direct business model which cuts out the “middle guy”.
The tested 2021 Canyon Ultimate CF SL Disc 8 retails for US$3,199 / AU$4,249 / £2,699 and offers a full Shimano Ultegra R8020 mechanical groupset and rolls on DT Swiss P 1800 Spline db wheels. Our small-sized sample weighs 7.51 kg without pedals, an impressive figure for a disc-equipped bike at this price.
As covered, Canyon provides its own cockpit components which play a large part in how the Ultimate performs, and their quality is nothing to scoff at for a bike of any price, let alone one of this price. That seatpost is wonderful and is responsible for making this bike one of my favourites of the category, while that one-piece handlebar and stem makes the bike feel and look far more expensive than it actually is. However, you’ll want to factor in another US$30 for Canyon’s own out-front computer mount in case you want to mount a head unit to these bars
The saddle is from Selle Italia and it’s great. It’s the relatively new SLR Boost Superflow S, effectively the Italian company’s version of Specialized’s hugely popular Power, and I’m sure many will find it comfortable. I said similar in the Trek Emonda SL review, and I’ll say it again, I love this new trend of saddles that seem to fit a vast number of riders.
No surprises here, but the Shimano Ultegra shifting just works, and wonderfully at that. Canyon has equipped a fairly versatile mid-compact crank (52/36T) with an 11-30T cassette, a combination that’s extremely common on 2021 model year bikes. And while you may think the exposed cable routing ages the Ultimate, the flipside is that replacing a length of gear cable housing is a lot simpler than more concealed designs such as what the new Trek Emonda SL uses.
The Shimano Ultegra Discs are a personal favourite on the road. They offer easy setup, easy bleeding (although such a task is rare) and wonderful modulation.
The DT Swiss wheels feature a low profile aluminium rim laced up with aero spokes and a hub that clicks with the Swiss company’s three-pawl system. These wheels are a fuss-free option but don’t offer a whole lot of performance in the process. These wheels aren’t badly weighted at 1,663 g (770 g front, 890 g rear), but the 18 mm internal rim width and 23 mm rim depth don’t do a whole lot for me. No doubt a set of lighter and aero wheels would be a worthwhile upgrade for this bike, and the bike’s price perhaps offers room to make that improvement.
And those wheels are wrapped with Continental GP5000 clincher tyres in a 25 mm size. Yep, that’s a seriously high-end tyre for a bike of this price and kudos for Canyon for not skimping on this critical component. We did, however, swap out those tyres for the same in a 28 mm version for control testing purposes, and it’s a change I’d make myself if the bike were my own.
A brilliant package
I feel like I’m all praise for this bike, and in many ways I am.
What surprised me most is that despite it being over three years old, the Ultimate CF SL remains impressively competitive with the latest offerings on the market, and manages to strike a wonderful balance of low weight, stiffness, and comfort that some others haven’t quite mastered yet.
It’s a great bike, however, really it’s the price that sets this bike apart. That price will no doubt be attractive to all, but I will offer a firm warning that I truly don’t believe everyone should be buying a bike direct. Knowledgeable staff of bike stores can add priceless value to how well you enjoy the final product, and I can’t emphasise enough just how important it is that the bike and the attached components fit you correctly. And unless you’re extremely confident in your ability to fit and build a bike, then you’ll want to factor those services into the final price of this bike.
The purchase method of this bike isn’t ideal for all, however, there’s no denying that the Canyon Ultimate CF SL remains one of the very best options amongst the mid-level all-round race bikes. Comfortable, stable and totally capable. And that’s more than splendid for a race bike that was effectively released in 2017.