Few bikes stand out as much as Canyon’s carbon fibre Grail with its unique double handlebar design, but under those divisive looks lurks a bike that's seriously fast across all terrain thanks to great handling and comfort.
About a year or so on from its launch, the radical Canyon Grail (and its mind-bending handlebar) continues in the German company’s range, with 2020 models being unveiled recently.
That range includes the Shimano GRX 800 Di2-equipped model we have here, which goes for £3,149. That also gets you DT Swiss G1800 Spline db wheels with Schwalbe G-One Bite 40 mm tyres – both tubeless – and a comfy Fizik Aliante R5 saddle.
The pictured bike is the top-of-the-line CF SL model. The SL bikes are one rung down from the SLXs, as while they share the same frame designs they're constructed with lower grade carbon fibre. The benefit is a lower price for the smallest of weight and ride quality penalties; claimed frame weight for a medium CF SL is 1,045g, compared to 830g for a CF SLX.
The frame has maximum clearance for 42mm tyres on 700c wheels - Canyon makes no mention of 650b. The frame, fork, stem, handlebar and seatpost are all made from carbon fibre and there’s full internal cable and hose routing. It’s neatly done apart from a fair jumble of cables on the side of the head tube, though this presented no issues.
There’s a 1 1/4 to 1 1/2in tapered head tube, oversized down tube and a press-fit bottom bracket – all for extra stoutness – and flat-mount brakes with 12mm thru-axles at both ends.
The internal seat clamp is easily adjusted between the seat stays, but it’s right in the firing line from the mud and water thrown up by the rear wheel. A rubber bung or cover would be a nice detail. The seatpost itself has a rubber cap to prevent crud getting into the frame, and I had no problems with seatpost slippage.
If you want to fit mudguards you’ll have to use Canyon's own design, which you can see here. Also, there are only two bottle cage mounts, and no other accessory fittings.
Ride and handling
This bike is really all about the handlebar. It divides opinion, but there’s engineering sense behind it: the top section is designed to be soft and provide comfort, while the drops are stiffer for responsive handling when you’re smashing along in a gravel race or hauling ass out of the saddle.
The thing is, when you’re riding along and looking where you’re going, you don’t really notice the funky biplane look. Lay your hands on the tops and you find superb comfort – it really does iron out the bumps. Yet when get in the drops or hoods there’s no flex, so the bike feels direct and immediate under your inputs. I found it easy swapping hand positions, too.
The Grail feels solid when you really thwack it into an obstacle. There’s no erratic flex or unnerving twist I can detect, in any situation. Any time the track is flat and rough I grab the tops, and when I need more control and access to the brakes and gears, onto the hoods I go.
The downside is that if you do spend a lot of time in the hoods (likely when riding challenging trails because you want your fingers near the brakes and gears) the comfort benefits of the top handlebar are lost. There’s still some flex evident in the hoods – pushing hard down on the stationary bike reveals this – so it’s not a totally rigid setup at all.
After a while, you really do forget you’re riding a bike with such a dramatic handlebar. Until you catch a passerby raising their eyebrows as you ride past, and not just because you’re covered in mud.
Another benefit of the top section is that it brings the handlebars higher and closer to you, providing a very relaxed position when you’re just bimbling along. When you want to get a wiggle on, the drops provide a suitably aggressive and aero position.
I liked being able to hook my thumbs around the lower handlebar when in the drops. It provides excellent security when skipping down rocky descents. A mention for the grippy bar tape too, which is excellent if riding without gloves.
Matching the comfort of the floaty handlebar is Canyon’s proven VCLS 2.0 seatpost. It’s two carbon fibre halves joined by one bolt at the bottom and the saddle clamp, and amplifies the range of rearward deflection. You can feel (and see) the seatpost bending when riding over rutted tracks.
Together, the handlebar and seatpost provide a nicely balanced ride feel. The handlebar does have its drawback though; if you never ride on the tops you don’t benefit from the compliance as much, though there is some give at the hoods on bigger impacts.
It’s a simpler solution than Specialized’s Future Shock or Lauf’s carbon leaf-sprung fork, though doesn’t provide quite as much bump absorption as either. It gives more than a regular handlebar however.
Away from the handlebar, the speed of this bike is highly addictive. The low weight, the high stiffness of the frame and the fast-rolling G-One tyres all combine to create a seriously fast bike across all terrain. If you want to do some gravel races, the Grail will surely be a hot contender.
It picks up speed alarmingly quickly and devours climbs on any surface. You can approach decent road bike speeds on Tarmac, while off-road it’s thoroughly capable of carrying speed through everything you point it at. There’s enough stability to ensure you feel relaxed when dealing with slippery or loose surfaces when tyre grip is at a minimum.
The geometry provides great handling. The long wheelbase and slack head angle give the stability you want when battering along quick gravel tracks, stopping the steering getting too lively. Short chainstays contribute to decent agility when turning sharply through the woods, between trees and around other avoidable obstacles.
Overall though, the smoothness is a big appeal here. Everything from rough country lanes to bumpy forest tracks is handled extremely well.
Shimano’s GRX groupset is aimed at the rigours of gravel riding, finally introducing lower ratio gearing for scrabbling up steep climbs laden with luggage.
A 48/31 chainset coupled to an 11-34t cassette goes a long way to helping you tame challenging off-road terrain, and is backed up by the flawless electronic shifting and tremendous hydraulic stopping power we’re used to in Shimano’s road bike groupsets.
The reshaped hoods have grown taller and gained larger rubber ribbing (stop sniggering at the back), and are angled back towards the rider. Along with larger brake levers, they provide a lot more control off-road when you’re being bounced around. They’re really comfortable to clasp your hands around for long rides too. A real improvement over regular Di2 hoods.
The DT Swiss wheels are worthy of the Grail’s performance. They are reasonably light, easy to turn tubeless and they’re tough, able to withstand the punishment when you’re slamming the tyres into rocks. The freehub makes a high pitched whirr which you’ll either love or hate.
The 40mm-wide G-One Bite tyres are a very popular tyre, for good reason. They're excellent all-rounders, fast on the road and grippy off-road until you’re hub-deep in mud.
Even then, when you reach the limits of the G-One tyres (easily done in the thick mud of my local trails), the bike is easily controllable. The tyres break away predictably, and you can get some graceful slides going through the mud and leaves. Then you tidy it all up and get back on the gas. Big grins are guaranteed.
You might want to fit a more aggressive tyre if tackling lots of mud, and may I suggest the Teravail Rutland tyres I recently tested?
Note that if you're doing as much road as off-road, the stock tyres are a good balance. Even with 35-40psi, the Grail is surprisingly quick on the road. The handling makes it a joyous bike to batter along country lanes looking for your next off-road fix, so you don’t feel heavily penalised when riding the hard stuff compared to some gravel bikes.
The Aliante saddle is a top choice. Obviously saddle preference is very much a personal thing, but the scooped shape and generous padding should ensure it works for many people. The ramped back section also helps keep you in the saddle on tricky climbs.
It’s a divisive looking bike and it won’t be for everyone, but if you’re intrigued and open-minded, I urge you to at least demo one. You might be surprised. The speed, comfort and handling are all standout qualities of the Grail and, if you can live with the looks, you’ll find an almost alarming quick gravel bike that is pretty well-rounded.
It does lack the versatility of other gravel bikes – tyre clearance isn’t the most progressive, you can’t easily adjust stack/reach with that handlebar/stem, and it doesn’t take aftermarket mudguards – but it makes up for these issues by absolutely shining in so many other departments. It all comes down to what you want from your gravel bike. If it’s speed and comfort, look no further.
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