Thursday, March 15, 2018

The Canyon Grail Gravel Bike: My Take

Canyon range topping Grail 8.0 Image courtesy of Canyon
NOTE: Large doses of "my opinion" will be handed out in gloppy dollops today. You've been forewarned.....

Canyon Bikes is a German outfit that is a "disrupter" in the bicycling marketplace. They are a very well engineered and produced bicycles sold 'consumer direct", meaning- this won't be sold through a local bike shop. I don't mind their business model, so I've no axe to grind there, but that is a huge part of Canyon's DNA and something that needs to be thought of whenever you see their bicycles. In some ways, the "checks and balances" that a traditional retail model brings to design choices is not present with Canyon. That can be a good thing or a bad thing.

That said, here is my take on Canyon's gravel bike, the "Grail". Besides the obvious religious reference the name brings up, it also conjures up the thought of earnest pursuit and desire. An interesting moniker for such a bike. Unless Canyon thinks this is the "holy grail of gravel bikes", in which case I'm going to strongly disagree. I'll get to that later......

Of course, the bike is carbon fiber, a fact barely mentioned by most media coverage of the bike so far. I looked at a few reports, but this one from Cyclingtips is the best, most detailed I've found yet. Then again, with the oddball "Hover" handle bar/stem system, one might be forgiven for focusing on other fare here. Yes, that's an innovative take on vibration management. Yes......it is also proprietary. That can be good or bad. A few media folks have already stated their misgivings on the design, which may reflect deeper negativity towards the design, since when your host flies you out to a swank media camp for the unveiling, it isn't easy to be harsh on the product. At any rate, early commentary by others is interesting in that it doesn't go all in for the Hover system.

A look at how the Hover bar geometry works in relationship to traditional set ups. Image courtesy of Canyon
I won't get into details about the design. Go read the Cyclingtips article, but the bottom line here is either it fits you, you like it, and you won't ever want to change, or it is a big ask from Canyon to have folks compromise on fitting and ergonomics. I'm betting on the latter, but I still tip my hat to Canyon for trying something different. Beyond the striking, shocking design, here is my take on the Hover Bar system, and that will lead into why I feel Canyon missed the boat on the geometry here.

First off, they tell us that the Hover Bar is most comfortable when you ride on the hoods or even more so with your hands nearer to the stem. This is very traditional roadie positioning for rougher sections of riding in road races. Okay, fine, but.......those sections typically don't last a long time. Obviously, if road races were chock full of sections so rough that riders needed to use this position to survive them, and sit upright, not being very aero, then we would see a sea change in design to allow for more aero positioning in the drops. In fact, that's how road racing was pre-World War II. Front end design was extremely different then as compared to today.

In gravel racing, the "rough sections" are often times the entire course. Then we throw winds into the equation. If you are thinking about racing and sitting upright to make the bars work their best on this Canyon you won't be cheating the wind like the other riders around you. Even having to sit on the hoods all day isn't optimal, so Canyon's claims of great compliance may be true, but not entirely practical.

Secondly, this also leads to Canyon's choice of traditional road geometry in the front end. Weight off the bars and on your butt allows for the use of a steeper head angle with a shorter offset fork, which according to the numbers posted in the Cylingtips article, I think they are using here. That's fine until you weight the bars and the front wheel gets planted. The steep head angle (stated at 72.5°) with the short offset will make impacts want to "tuck the fork under" the rider. This was what was wrong with 29"er geometry in the beginning. Designers wanted a quicker feeling front end for 29"ers so they steepened the head angles and used the shorter offsets to achieve that. They were successful, but when used in practice it was a horribly unstable, harsh, crash prone way to get better handling due to the way forks would want to bend backward under impact, effectively making the trail figure less and therefore more unstable.

This problem was solved by using longer offsets with slacker head angles, putting the fork more in line with impacts and ridding the bikes of the mechanical trail issues while riding. This is exactly what is going on with the Canyon bike. They are effectively doing the "29"er v1" geometry mistake for a bike that is meant to be ridden in rougher terrain. The trail figure they reached is fine, but just like early 29"ers, when the rider is in the drops and fighting rough, gravelly roads in a headwind, this bike won't handle as well as a bike with a slacker head angle and longer offset with similar trail figures. Having that front wheel "out there", floating above the gravel instead of digging in is also a factor to consider here.

Otherwise I like the deep bottom bracket drop and chain stay length looks fine. The tire clearances aren't optimal, but if this is a racing bike then......fine. If it is a do everything-go anywhere at anytime bike, well then they screwed up here. You decide what they mean by limiting tire/mud clearances.

Bottom line- A striking bike that will have its fans but misses on a few key points in my opinion.


7 comments:

Ed said...

Off topic, but can you expand on your comment about the difference in front end geometry before WW2? I am curious how things have changed. Thanks

Guitar Ted said...

@Ed- I already touched on this in the post regarding 29"er geo. Just think road instead of 29"er and it is essentially the same thing here.

bostonbybike said...

I agree that geometry of most of modern gravel bikes seems off. But that's maybe because they are designed as racing road bikes with just wider tires.

Regarding the Hover bars - the thing I find most difficult to accept about this design is that is effectively locks you into using these bars only on the Grail bike. It would be very difficult to swap them with another bars as you would need some wacky, non-standard stem.

Barturtle said...

Where does one mount anything on those bars? All non-standard shapes mean that a lot of light mounts won't work. Zipties don't like tapers. Also that crossbar is right where I put my hands...

Barturtle said...

I feel like something should also be said about their front luggage harness.

They have it "Up and Out" which is pretty much the worst place to mount a front load. And, that strap going around the stem and over the upper crossbar means that even if you could get something to mount to those non-standard shapes, you can't because of the straps.

Also, I see a lot of aerobars in ultra length gravel events, how does one begin to mount those?

Robert Ellis said...

Canyon is sponsoring the Belgian Waffle Ride this year. That's kind of a BFD.

Daniel Lemke said...

How do you wrap bar tape on those things?