2021 Canyon Exceed CF SLX 9 hardtail review: a bike for MVDP
A mountain bike so clearly intended to win World Cups that it carries a number of significant compromises for the recreational racer.
A mountain bike so clearly intended to win World Cups that it carries a number of significant compromises for the recreational racer.
With 2020 scheduled to be an Olympic year we saw a flurry of new cross country race machines hit the market. The world’s largest consumer-direct bike company, Canyon, was just one brand to unveil a new XC race hardtail.
The overhauled 2021 Exceed is an unashamedly race-focused machine for cutting laps of a cross country course, and it offers a number of tell-tale signs that it was built for a skilled powerhouse like Mathieu van der Poel (MVDP).
I’ve been testing the new 2021 Exceed CF SLX for a number of months now and have formed something of a love-hate relationship with it. There are a great deal of interesting and unique elements to talk about with this fast 29er.
Canyon released the new Exceed in three distinct price levels. Regardless of price, all models feature identical geometry that’s based around a 100 mm front suspension fork and 29er wheels. And while all three model levels feature a full carbon frame, the specific grades of materials used differ a whole lot.
For the pros and deep-pocketed, there are the CFR (Canyon Factory Racing) editions which use the highest grade carbon stolen from the hides of unicorns to produce a frame that weighs just 748 g without paint or removable pieces.
Add paint and the small bits of hardware and Canyon has a medium CFR frame at a claimed 835 g. This is impressively light, but not the lightest. The rare Unno Aora, at 730 g, remains the lightest offering in the hardtail mountain bike sphere, Mondraker’s new Podium frame is quoted at 775 g, while Specialized’s S-Works Epic HT isn’t all that far off at 790 g.
The CFR models are fitted with Canyon’s own CP08 one-piece carbon handlebar and stem in a similar concept to what’s become popular on the road, and there are a number of other technical flourishes that you’d expect of the German company. Mathieu van der Poel (among other Canyon-sponsored athletes) had a direct hand in the outcome of this model and the attached handlebar. The complete bikes employing this frame are said to tip the scales at under 9 kg and start from US$NA / €5,699 / £5,349 / AU$8,899.
The mid-tier Exceed CF SLX version shares the same moulds, technical features and retains that one-piece handlebar and stem, but does so with a lower grade carbon construction that sees the frame weight increase to a claimed 1,015 g. That increased weight also brings with it an increase in frame stiffness, something I’ll get to shortly. Complete bikes using this mid-tier frame start from €3,699 / £3,499 / AU$5,799 / US$NA.
And finally there’s the base-level Exceed CF offerings which retain a carbon fibre frame, but tip the scales at a claimed 1,312 g. And while many of the frame features carry over, the fancy one-piece carbon handlebar and premium componentry do not. Complete bikes in the Exceed CF range start from €1,699 / £1,599 / AU$2,649 / US$NA.
Personally, I was most intrigued by the mid-tier CF SLX, a bike that has all the trimmings of a bike the pros would ride, but with some cost savings that lead to more weight. And so I called in the CF SLX 9.0 for review, the top-equipped bike to use the CF SLX frame. At AU$7,349 / US$4,499 / €4,699 / £4,449 it’s not a cheap bike by any means, but it’s wonderfully well equipped and race-ready nonetheless.
This model is fitted with SRAM Eagle XO1 AXS wireless drivetrain, a RockShox SID Select+ RL fork (with remote lock-out), and DT Swiss XRC 1501 Spline carbon wheels. Additionally, you get a DT Swiss dropper post and Canyon’s own 332 g one-piece carbon handlebar and stem, the exact same as what the CFR model uses. All told my medium-sized sample weighed 9.75 kg (21.5 lb) without pedals. What really boggles my mind is that Canyon sells two models above this one.
The new Exceed has a long list of unique frame features, and it’s easy to get lost in the finer details.
A broad look over the frame reveals a number of frame tube shapes and design decisions that are reminiscent of Canyon’s Inflite cyclocross race bike or even that of an aero road bike. There’s an obvious sleekness to the Exceed, and according to Julian Beifang, Canyon’s Senior Product Manager, aerodynamics were a design consideration.
Beifang gave the example of the (unexpectedly) tall and flat profiled top tube that flows into an integrated seat clamp. And while I thought this element was done to replicate the easy shouldering of a cyclocross race bike, that apparently was a happy coincidence. Additionally that tall top tube means that even the extra-small frame size can fit two water bottles within the front triangle, and larger sizes offer room for a bikepacking-esq frame bag.
Also borrowed from the Inflite CX is the open and shelf-free shaping that stops mud from building up and becoming transported mass.
Perhaps the most visually obvious feature is the semi-internal cable routing that directs the brake hoses, gear, and dropper cables through the unique headset top cap and then into the frame. This has quickly become a common feature on the latest road bikes, and clearly Canyon believes the cleaner aesthetic with shorter lengths of exposed cables is the way forward off-road, too. It sure looks cool, but it comes with an obvious negative, something I’ll come back to shortly.
That headset (combined with a small bolt-on chip in the top tube) also hides a bump stop feature that prevents the handlebars from contacting the frame in the event of a crash – a surprisingly common issue amongst lightweight race bikes. And it’s a feature that’s especially important on the Exceed given the impressively wide and thin top tube sits directly in the firing line of the brake levers.
The CP08 one-piece handlebar and stem is Canyon’s own creation and provides the Exceed with an edgy and aggressive aesthetic. For medium sizes and up Canyon equips the same 332 g cockpit with an 80 mm length stem (-6º angle) combined with a 740 mm bar width that sweeps back and up by a relatively minimal 7º and 3º respectively. The two smallest sizes get a -17º version of the same cockpit.
Canyon also produces versions of the cockpit in 70 mm and 90 mm stem lengths, in both -6º six -17º angles. And that more aggressive -17º is available in a 100 mm length, too. Swapping the cockpit can be arranged with Canyon prior to purchasing the bike. Alternatively, Canyon will offer the cockpits for aftermarket purchase, too (pricing and availability was TBC at time of publishing).
Unlike most one-piece handlebars found on the road, you’ll notice that the CP08 lacks any integrated solutions for mounting a computer or similar. Canyon’s answer is a steerer-based computer mount (sold separately) that seems to align nicely with the generous width of the stem.
Let your eyes follow that beam-shaped top tube and you’ll end up at a clean seat tube cluster. Here Canyon uses an integrated seatpost wedge that clamps onto any 30.9 mm round seatpost. Or in the case of my tester, a DT Swiss 232 dropper with 60 mm of travel.
At the lowest point sits a PF92 press-fit bottom bracket shell, and while the down tube doesn’t take full advantage of the extra width offered by the press fit shell, the chainstays sure do. These chainstays are remarkedly tall and slender (just 14 mm at their narrowest), and as a result this frame can handle wide 2.4″ tyres set on modern 30 mm internal width rims. Tyre clearance isn’t an issue here.
The dropouts host the new SRAM universal derailleur hanger for easy spare sourcing, while Canyon provides its own stealthy thru-axle with a fold out handle for tool-free removal of the Boost-spaced (148 x 12 mm) rear wheel.
The geometry figures aren’t a huge departure from the previous version, and the angles certainly trend to the quicker-handling end of the scale compared to a number of other new XC race bikes.
The head tube is only slightly slacker than before, now at 69º. And while that may have been trail-bike-slack a few years ago, we’re now seeing other cross country machines trend into the 67º range.
Canyon has matched this head angle with a 44 mm fork offset which produces a trail figure of 97 mm (with 2.35″ tyres).
The effective seat tube angle is more progressive and noticeably steeper than before at 75º across all sizes. Meanwhile, the reach, now 435 mm for a medium, has grown by just 10 mm to match the 80 mm stems fitted across all sizes. Like the head tube angle, the reach figures aren’t pushing the boundaries, but then Canyon’s choice of stem is still on the slightly longer side, too.
The chainstay length is a whisker shorter than before, now sitting at 425 mm for the three smaller sizes – an impressive feat given that 2.4″ rubber fits. Go up to the large and extra-large frame sizes and the chainstays extend to 430 and 435 mm respectively.
Canyon has kept the bottom bracket drop at a fairly traditional 58 mm, which is on the higher side compared to more progressive steeds. Meanwhile, that bottom bracket drop doesn’t help with a tall standover that sits at 828 mm in a medium. Just how tall is that? Well, the Giant XTC Advanced is another traditionally angled XC racer and its standover is more than 6 cm (over two inches) lower. Yeah … the Exceed is tall.
And that tall standover is absolutely worth paying attention to as it may directly impact whether this bike fits you or not. At 172 cm tall and with a relatively tall saddle height of 735 mm I often find myself on medium mountain bikes with a bunch of exposed seatpost. And it’s for this reason I was so surprised to find that the Exceed only just fit me.
The stock DT Swiss dropper post is quite greedy on the exposed length it requires, and as a result my seatpost height sits just 25 mm above the minimum. This would lead you to believe that someone of my height should size down to a small, but then I’d be on a bike with a short and arguably out-of-date reach figure (415 mm for a small).
A fellow tech editor and friend, Wil Barrett, wrote of similar sizing issues in his review of the Exceed CFR Team on FlowMountainBike. However, Barrett’s tester had Canyon’s VCLS 2.0 seatpost which made the issue a little less obvious, while most other models feature the DT Swiss dropper which may force riders onto bikes that are perhaps too cramped in reach.
Coming from the leading consumer-direct bicycle company, the Exceed’s packaging and assembly quality is well worth discussion.
As was the case with the recently reviewed Canyon Ultimate CF SL Disc, Canyon’s new BikeGuard 2.0 aims to reduce plastic waste and ease the assembly process. The box and packaging are also intended for re-use at a later date.
Canyon designed its bikes to be easily assembled by those who are comfortable with only basic maintenance tasks. For example, if you’re confident with installing a handlebar, pedals and seatpost, then you should be fine to get yourself rolling here. And Canyon even provides some basic torque tools for the critical bolts.
Perhaps the only tricky part is connecting the dropper cable to the post but even this is made simple with DT Swiss’ design that offers a tool-free connection. The rest was simple, especially given the gears and brakes were fully dialled in from the box.
It’s worth noting that my test sample did arrive with its tyres set up tubeless, while consumer-bought bikes will need this step completed. The only things not supplied for this are the liquid tyre sealant and air. And I can confirm that the combination of these DT Swiss rims and Maxxis tyres makes for simple bead seating.
I’ve been testing the Exceed for almost six months, and in this time I’ve formed a real hot-and-cold relationship with it.
In ideal conditions, when my legs are feeling strong and my mind is buzzing, the Exceed is one hell of a race bike. But add some brutality to the terrain or fatigue to the body/mind and I wanted off it like a toddler having a tantrum during a pony ride. And because of this off-and-on relationship I’ve decided to break up the review into two parts. First, what I loved.
There’s no mistaking the new Exceed for anything other than a thoroughbred racer. From where the end of the handlebar plug sits to the thread of the pedal, this thing is stiff. Its acceleration and power response is more akin to a performance road bike than a mountain bike, and it’s a feeling that begs you to stamp on the pedals like you’re squashing cans.
No doubt that one-piece handlebar assists with this feeling, and it truly feels like you have a direct connection to the fork legs. There is no stem or handlebar flex here to deflect your weight placement from the wheel.
That whole stiffness, combined with the frame angles, translates to razor-sharp handling, too. The bike goes exactly where it’s pointed with impressive precision, and it does so without a whole lot of rider input. Advanced bike handlers will appreciate the Exceed’s ability to nail a line and adjust at a split second’s notice.
That handling, efficient power transfer, low weight, and relatively tall bottom bracket all combine to make the Exceed feel like it’s a magic self-powering e-bike. Ok, that may be an exaggeration, but there are few hardtails out there that climb with such stomping aggression and such ease. On more than one occasion I found myself hitting a 15%+ rocky gradient and thinking I’d be dabbing, only to find the Exceed hang on and let me keep pedalling and pointing wherever traction could be found.
It’s here that the relatively short rear-centre and aggressive angles are most obvious, and this is a bike that can be twisted in an alternate direction without much effort. Similarly, there’s no sign of wheel flop that some slacker bikes can exhibit on truly steep and slow climbs.
Super slow and tight trail sections would typically have me reaching the steering angle limitations of Trek’s KnockBlock (previous generation) steering stopper, but the one Canyon employs in the Exceed’s headset doesn’t get in the way in these scenarios. This is a feature that saves the frame without ruining the ride.
When the gradients simply got too much I was impressed by how easy it was to carry the Exceed. The tall and flat top tube makes the Exceed like a cyclocross bike in how it can be carried. Whether your technique is to grab the top tube and panic run, or shoulder the whole bike, the Exceed is ready for it. No doubt, the general low weight of the bike helps here, too.
There’s also plenty to love on the component spec front. For a start, SRAM’s Eagle AXS wireless shifting is superb and unbeatable in terms of ongoing required maintenance. Yes, the shifting is a micro-second slower than other systems, but it doesn’t take long to get used to that and it makes up for it in repeatability of shift quality.
A quick note on the AXS shifter. I’ve found there to be a lengthy learning curve for the AXS toggle switcher, and I don’t find the ergonomics all that intuitive. Interestingly it seems I’m not at all alone and SRAM recently released an affordable ergonomics upgrade that can be retrofitted to any pre-existing AXS mountain bike shifter. It’s a US$20 upgrade I’d strongly recommend.
My test sample arrived when SRAM Eagle meant an 11-50T cassette, and I thought the range on offer was plenty for a bike like this. Now Canyon is supplying this bike with the new 10-52T range. And while that increase sounds like overkill, it does allow you to upsize the chainring and gain some top-end road speed – not a bad thing on a bike like this.
And where a bigger chainring would come in handy, the shape of the one-piece handlebar does, too. There’s a nice central position to hold onto when trying to ride in a narrower and lower aero position.
The RockShox SID Select+ fork is a fine piece of bouncy kit. With the exception of a small production issue (more on this below), it gave me little to worry about. To be fair 100 mm of travel isn’t a great deal to geek out over the damping qualities, but I can say that the fork offers a suitable level of stiffness, it provides a tuneable air spring, and it does what it needs to.
I feel much the same about DT Swiss’ XRC1501 carbon wheels. These feature the undeniably reliable 240 hubs, a wide 30 mm internal rim width, and a quality build. These wheels do have a stiff ride quality that doesn’t assist the overall comfort, but they certainly suit the point-and-don’t-miss character of the Exceed. And importantly they certainly aid in easy tubeless set up.
Those wheels are shod with a well-proven tyre pairing from Maxxis. Canyon has provided a knobbier Ikon tyre on the front matched to the fast-rolling and dry-condition-friendly Aspen on the rear. This is a great combination and the given 2.35″ widths go a long way to taming the Exceed’s hyperactive personality.
I also liked the tooled thru-axles which manage to strike a balance between being low profile while not forcing you to get out a hex key in order to remove a wheel. Here RockShox’s own Maxle QR is found at the fork, while Canyon has supplied its own axle on the rear with a fold-out handle.
The provided DT Swiss dropper is likely to be a polarising item, but I quite like the fact that’s it’s reasonably light (just over 400 g including the lever) and offers a simple design. The 60 mm of travel really isn’t much by modern dropper standards, but I think it’s pretty good given many users of this bike won’t be used to riding with a dropper at all. That 60 mm is plenty for those that stubbornly ride everything technical with their saddles up, and it still keeps the saddle high enough to not feel pathetic when you’re caught needing to pedal with your saddle down.
Finally, there’s no denying that the Exceed looks fast standing still, leaning against a tree, or riding on your car roof. The short lengths of exposed cables, that angular one-piece handlebar, and the general sleek frame profile all make for a bike that shows you what it’s purpose is.
Alright, time for the part where I get quite worked up about all that is wrong with the Exceed CF SLX 9.0. Sorry Canyon, this part is pretty long.
That fast-handling and stiff-riding racer attitude carries some obvious trade-offs once the terrain is littered with rocks, roots, braking bumps, or really any kind of inconsistency. Simply put, this is a fatiguing bike to ride and it only rewards you with speed if you have the energy and power to keep it moving efficiently. No doubt you can feel exactly what the bike is doing with the terrain, but all that feedback can get pretty tiring.
The frame itself is rigid. According to Canyon, the SLX model tested is even more rigid than the pro-level CFR version. This information came as a surprise to me once I’d wrapped up my testing (and written the rest of this review), but it’s news that only reinforces my feeling that the ride often feels too stiff.
There’s no denying the frame is a rigid base, but really it’s the components between you and the frame that really make this stiffness an issue. That one-piece handlebar is extremely rigid, and while that may benefit Mathieu van der Poel in a surge attack or when pinging through a rock garden, it also means your hands feel everything that the tyres and suspension fork don’t absorb.
According to Beifang, the goal was to make a “safe, fast and aerodynamic cockpit”. Saving weight and providing controlled comfort was not the intention, and unfortunately that latter part is pretty obvious. “Our athletes’ feedback to us was that the cockpit might be a bit stiffer, but that the cornering is extremely precise,” said Beifang.
Furthering the issue are the Ergon GA20 grips, a quality product, but lacking in shock absorption. Some softer grips, like ESI Silicon, would be of great benefit here.
I also didn’t get on with the straight shaping of the handlebar and personally I’d prefer one with more backward and downward sweep. Those coming from trail and enduro bikes are likely to note that the bar width is on the narrower side, but personally I don’t think you’ll find too many dedicated cross country racers wanting to go wider than what’s provided. Want shorter? A hacksaw is the answer; just be sure to measure twice.
The other part that doesn’t help with comfort is the dropper post. Dropper posts have created a catch-22 in hardtail frame design, and often bike designers are now having to choose between ride comfort and open compatibility with all popular dropper posts. Canyon has clearly picked the latter by using a 30.9 mm seat tube, and in turn there just isn’t any appreciable flex in this telescoping seatpost.
Interestingly Canyon’s CFR team bike comes fitted with the company’s not-so-rigid VCLS 2.0 post which to me indicates that its professional riders do value some level of seated comfort. I have no doubts that this post works wonders for soothing the Exceed’s unforgiving nature, but sadly that doesn’t apply to any of other models fitted with droppers.
I also didn’t take to the DT Swiss dropper remote. This is highly personal but I would have preferred to have the dropper post more accessible with a shifter-style remote under the bar, and the fork lock-out controlled by a RockShox TwistLoc (grip shift style lock-out remote). Such a setup would push me to get more use from both the fork lockout and dropper post.
The sheer stiffness and razor-sharp handling is no doubt an effective tool in the right hands, but I found the Exceed to be a handful on rocky terrain. On more than one occasion a lapse in concentration had me feeling panicked as the bars tugged away from me and the bike was spat in an unwanted direction. Skilled riders will have plenty to love here, but almost everyone else will be better served by a more forgiving and relaxed-handling bike.
It’s worth noting that the Exceed comes stock with generously wide tyres that fit with current trends of the sport’s top athletes racing on rubber as wide as 2.4″. Such wide tyres certainly aid generously in traction and comfort, but fat tyres simply aren’t the whole solution. Even if you maxed out the available tyre clearance and ran super low pressures (with tyre inserts), you’d still be on a bike that’s arguably stiffer than any other hardtail.
This all of course depends on what your terrain is like. In most parts of Australia, you don’t see too many people selecting hardtails, while I’ve ridden “trails” elsewhere in the world that make full suspension bikes feel redundant. If your trails and race courses are more about high-speed power than technical ability, then the Exceed’s attitude may be quite appropriate and carry some performance advantages too.
Riding on technical terrain also made me acutely aware of the tall standover height. Canyon suggests it considered this in the bike’s design and the feedback was that standover doesn’t matter as much in a bike like this as it does in a trail or enduro bike. Personally, I think all mountain bikes can benefit from some standover for when you botch that steep technical climb.
And that standover height is directly related to the sizing woes of this bike, something I touched on earlier in the geometry section. That DT Swiss dropper requires plenty of exposed post, and I’m not convinced that Canyon has nailed the ratio between the minimum allowed saddle height and the frame reach. A little more drop (stand over) on the top tube and this wouldn’t be an issue.
I ran into other issues too.
The clean cable routing through the headset looks awesome, but it also means you’ll need to disconnect the rear brake hose and dropper remote cable in the event your headset bearing gets gritty. Perhaps more importantly, removing and then replacing a fork for servicing (something that happens extremely often in the pro ranks) is now a fiddly job as you wrangle those cables to fit around the steerer tube. And keep in mind this is with wireless shifting – cheaper models of this bike will be even fiddlier to service.
Servicing woes continue at the PF92 press-fit bottom bracket. I typically don’t have such issue with this Shimano format of press-fit bottom bracket, but here it has severe trade-offs given the equipped SRAM DUB crank. This press-fit system was initially intended for 24 mm crank spindles (e.g. Shimano and SRAM GXP), and so SRAM’s 28.99 mm DUB spindle means there are far smaller and less durable bottom bracket bearings squeezed in between the crank and frame. It also means your options for a thread-together bottom bracket in case of creaking woes are almost nil. Canyon has been using a similar combination in a number of its bikes over the past few years and I categorically hate it.
As a final negative let’s look at the price. Canyon typically offers truly amazing bikes for the given asking price, but the Exceed CF SLX remains quite a bit of coin for a hardtail. It’s not that it’s bad value for money – it’s not – but Canyon’s own Lux dual suspension with equal equipment is only a few hundred dollars more.
In the road world you occasionally get a bike that has so clearly been designed with the input of professional riders that it fails to wow a regular schmo. Normally these machines are unyieldingly stiff with crazy-fast handling and very clearly made for moments of glory. Those bikes aren’t as common as they used to be, and they are certainly a rare sight in the mountain bike world.
However, Canyon has quite clearly done just this with the Exceed. The German company has seemingly created a bike specifically to give its athletes an advantage. Credit is due for taking such a focused approach to design, but the flipside is that the Exceed is such a purpose-built racing machine that few consumers are likely to get the most from it. That quick handling will only benefit experienced bike handlers and that stiff ride quality (which is even stiffer than the pro version) will only be the fastest option on smooth terrain.
I see the Exceed as one very sharp carving knife. And while it may be the sharpest knife in the kitchen, it’s only the best tool in special circumstances. Personally, if there’s a scattering of rock or roots involved, then I’d rather take to the start line with the bike equivalent of a chef’s knife, whatever that may be.
See more of the Canyon Exceed CF SLX at the company’s website.