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First ride: Canyon Grail

Brand new gravel/adventure bike offers a smooth ride and climbs beautifully

The Canyon Grail is a lightweight gravel/adventure bike that climbs beautifully and offers a smooth ride.

For all the details on the Grail’s design, check out our other story on the launch.

Canyon took me out to France a couple of weeks ago and give me the chance to ride Grail for myself. We rode for about three hours in the hills around Nice, maybe 80% of the time on gravelly forest roads, the rest of it on tarmac, usually of dubious quality. We did a lot of climbing, a lot of descending, and we got absolutely soaked. It didn’t stop raining from start to finish (those of you with what I’d call proper jobs – builders, policemen, Punch and Judy puppeteers, stuff like that – are feeling sorry for me now, right?). Despite that, the Grail was an absolute blast (the photos with the grey skies were taken on my ride, the photos with the blue skies are from another day).

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Okay, so first of all I need to talk about the Hover Bar because that’s the component that’s unique to this bike. I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that – how shall I put this? – some people aren’t going to be fully onboard with the Hover Bar’s looks. Call it a gift, but it’s just an inkling that I get based on, you know, life.

That’s your right, of course, but the news is that the Hover Bar works. It does what it’s designed to do.

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As mentioned in our news story, Canyon’s argument is that in terms of stiffness a standard handlebar is exactly the opposite of what you want. The drops, which you want to be stiff when you’re sprinting, are the flexiest part while the tops, where you rest your hands when you’re cruising along, offer the least amount of compliance.

The Hover bar has a double deck and the tops don’t come out directly from the stem section. This allows Canyon to build in much more flex than usual – seven times the amount you get with the brand’s H31 Ergocockpit, it is claimed.

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In use, can you feel that the tops flex more than usual? Yes. Don’t get me wrong, it in no way feels like a mechanical suspension system – not even close – but there is discernible movement helping to keep the front end smooth and altogether less blurry when you hit the rough stuff at speed.

One other thing I like is that the Grail’s front end doesn’t feel too high, even when your hands are perched up on the top deck. The top of the Hover Bar is actually about 10mm lower than the bar on one of Canyon’s Endurace endurance road bikes, so your position feels efficient and reasonably aggressive – as aggressive as I want to be over bumpy roads. Some brands bin off the idea of efficiency when it comes to gravel/adventure, but Canyon has managed to maintain an up-and-at-’em feel here.

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Of course, the Hover Bar isn’t just about that floating top section, you can also rest your hands on the hoods in the normal way, or you can go down to the drops. The position just behind the levers is an interesting one because you can hook your thumbs over the lower deck to give a really secure grip. No matter how bumpy the road surface, your hands never slip.

If you want to move your hands towards the ends of the bar, as promised, you get plenty of stiffness. Even when sprinting out of the saddle, I didn’t feel any significant flex down here. The bar is D-shaped in this area and fits comfortably in your hand, and a 7.5° flare makes for slightly increased leverage and control, and helps prevent your wrists hitting the upper section.

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Incidentally, if you’re wondering whether you can rest the palms of your hands on the lower deck, you can’t. Well, that’s not quite true, you can if you want to flatten your forearms parallel to the ground so that your wrists don’t hit the top deck, but it doesn’t feel anything like flattening your forearms with your hands on the hoods. It feels unnatural and not particularly useful, and coming off with your hands in that position wouldn't be pretty, so forget it.

The Hover Bar might be a key feature of the Grail but this bike is by no means a one trick pony. The VCLS 2.0 seatpost provides more comfort. This isn’t a new design but it fits perfectly with the Grail’s design philosophy. In short, you get a seatpost that’s really two separate D-shaped posts that sit right next to one another and are joined at the top by a floating seat clamp. Hit bumps and the seatpost acts as a leaf spring to help absorb the shock while the tilt of the saddle remains constant. 

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The VCLS design is similar to that of the Hover Bar in that it’s fairly subtle. You don’t really feel it working unless you concentrate on it, but it just cracks on with the job of adding some extra comfort to the ride.

I was riding the Grail CF SLX Disc 8.0 Di2 – the poshest one with a Shimano Ultegra Di2 groupset and Reynolds Assault ATR Disc Carbon wheels which, like all the other models in the range, was fitted with Schwalbe G-One Bite tyres in a 40mm width. My bike was setup tubeless. I didn’t have the chance to fiddle about with tyre pressures but this setup allows you to use a low psi for a load of comfort without running the risk of a pinchflat. The surfaces we rode on ranged from stone to wet and mushy sand and the G-Ones provided a ton of grip, although if you venture off gravel and onto mud you'll want something more knobbly. If you're after a single tyre for riding on both tarmac and gravel, this is a good compromise.

The Grail has a long wheelbase. The medium sized model, for example, with a 52.2cm seat tube, has 42.5cm chainstays and a wheelbase of 102.9cm – about 40mm longer than you get on the Endurace endurance road bike.

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The idea is that this provides the stability you need for holding your line when bumps and holes in the road surface are trying their best to knock you off course, while creating enough clearance for wider tyres and eliminating toe overlap. 

A long wheelbase can lead to a loss of agility but Canyon specs short stems to make sure that doesn’t happen. Although the stem section of the Hover Bar looks long, the distance that the top of the bar sits ahead of the steering axis is short – 75mm on the medium sized model.

I only had one ride aboard the Grail – this isn’t intended to be a full review by any means – but the handling felt about right to me. Of course, a bike designed to tackle a variety of different surfaces will always be a compromise in some senses, but the Grail handled everything I asked of it with aplomb, holding steady over rocky sections and getting me safely around soggy corners when I worried it might waiver. As we descended, I got more and more confident in its abilities to the point that I was getting borderline reckless, knowing that I’d end up exactly where I needed to be.

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In terms of climbing, my early impression is that the Grail is as good as any gravel bike I’ve ridden. It’s lightweight, the rear wheel digs in when you stay seated, and it’s easy to manoeuvre if you decide you need to switch lines to avoid an obstacle or get on to the fastest, most solid bit of track.

Although I was soaked right through in five minutes, I wish my first ride on the Grail could have been longer. It was an absolute blast. Granted, that was partly down to demanding terrain and some fabulous tracks but the bike certainly has loads to offer in terms of performance and comfort. Okay, some people are going to find the look of the Hover Bar to be… challenging. If that’s you, fine, but my experience is that it does its job very successfully.

Mat has been in cycling media since 1996, on titles including BikeRadar, Total Bike, Total Mountain Bike, What Mountain Bike and Mountain Biking UK, and he has been editor of 220 Triathlon and Cycling Plus. Mat has been technical editor for over a decade, testing bikes, fettling the latest kit, and trying out the most up-to-the-minute clothing. We send him off around the world to get all the news from launches and shows too. He has won his category in Ironman UK 70.3 and finished on the podium in both marathons he has run. Mat is a Cambridge graduate who did a post-grad in magazine journalism, and he is a winner of the Cycling Media Award for Specialist Online Writer. Now over 50, he's riding road and gravel bikes most days for fun and fitness rather than training for competitions.

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