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First Ride: Canyon Grail CF and that unusual ‘Hover Bar’

By Spencer Powlison • Published
Canyon's Grail CF gravel bike features an unusual handlebar design, but that's only part of the story. Photo: Spencer Powlison | VeloNews.com

NICE, France (VN) — Radical innovation is much rarer than it used to be in the bike industry. While a lot of new products come from evolutionary development, Canyon’s new Grail CF didn’t.

The Grail’s head-turning design largely comes down to that unconventional “hover bar.” This cockpit contributes to the bike’s personality in a generally positive fashion. However, that’s only the starting point. Canyon packed a number of other features into the Grail that makes it a strong showing as the German company’s first gravel bike.

We won’t make you wait any longer, though — the handlebar. Why does it look like a space-age biplane?

Canyon wanted to add compliance on the tops as well as better control while holding the drops. It was also aiming to integrate the stem more smoothly with the head tube, avoiding the need to cut the fork’s steerer.

For compliance, Canyon says the tops of the bars afford seven times more flex than a traditional bar/stem combination. This is due to the absence of a stem clamped in the center of the carbon bar. Instead, the moderately oval-shaped ergonomic tops should flex more freely. This construction adds about 120 grams over a conventional assembly, according to Canyon.

Down below, where the lower bar joins the drops on either side of the integrated stem, the bars are stiffer, due to the reinforcement. Additionally, when your hands are in the drops, near the brake levers, you hook your thumbs over the lower bar, which distributes weight beyond the heel of your hand. The drops are also ergonomically shaped, a bit like the letter “D” and they sweep out at 7.5 degrees without altering the angle of the brake hoods.

We didn’t notice a lot of additional compliance while riding on the tops of the bars. Perhaps it could afford the sort of subtle vibration damping that works its magic on long days when bumpy terrain gradually adds up. We’ll need more than just one first ride aboard the Grail to tell.

On the other hand, we immediately felt a difference while riding in the drops. The steering felt more precise, especially on loose dirt descents. Depending on the demands of a particular corner or terrain, you can use the lower bar to apply pressure for precise line corrections. The grip diameter is thicker than an ordinary handlebar, which might be a concern for riders with smaller hands. We appreciated the ergo shape down toward the end of the bar, which was comfortable for cruising when you didn’t need to reach the shifters or brakes.

As a whole, the hover bar is good — certainly a conversation starter — but you might want to seek them out for a test ride if you’re a traditionalist.

The seatpost is Canyon’s second notable compliance feature on the Grail. The VLCS 2.0 also sports an eye-catching design, but it isn’t new. This is the same post on Canyon’s excellent Endurace road bike. Split into two carbon fiber leaf springs, the post is joined at the head and in the frame. It flexes more than any other we’ve ridden, offering lots of comfort in an unobtrusive manner. Saddle angle remains constant as it moves. While the fixing bolt is a bit inconvenient, placed between the seat stays where they join the seat tube, we were able to raise and lower the seat without much trouble. Also, that clamp design allows Canyon to seal out water with a rubber grommet where the post meets the frame.

If the biplane bars and split seatpost didn’t dominate the conversation, that frame would get a bit more credit, which it is due. At 830 grams for the SLX model, you’d be hard-pressed to find a lighter gravel frame. The SL model clocks in at 1,040 grams — also impressive.

Beyond the obvious benefits of a light frame, the Grail’s geometry strikes a nice balance between stability on rough terrain and agreeable handling. Its 72.5-degree head tube is fairly steep relative to other gravel bikes. Trek’s new Checkpoint, for instance, has a 71.8-degree head tube (both size M). Canyon opts for a long wheelbase — 1,029mm for size M — which seems to mellow out its high-speed handling. For comparison, a 54cm Specialized Diverge has a 1,004mm wheelbase.

When it comes to handling, the Grail is a reflection of Canyon’s background with pure road bikes. As such, tire clearance is a bit stingy. Frame and fork won’t fit larger than a 42mm tire, and there’s no option for 650b wheels with larger tires. (Note that sizes XS and 2XS come with 650b wheels and 40mm Schwalbe G-One tires.) In most cases, it’s unlikely a rider would find the limits of a 42mm tire. Nevertheless, given the overall trend toward more clearance and bigger tires, it’s a little disappointing that Canyon didn’t find ways to afford a bit more room at the seat and chain stays.

Canyon’s Grail won’t satisfy rabid gravel riders, but it will suit the needs of most riders who are starting to venture away from pavement. It won’t slow them down on the pavement much either.

Plus, it has a few additional features that could encourage exploring — fender mounts and the option to buy special Topeak bikepacking bags that are tailored for the Grail. Canyon also worked with 3M to develop adhesive frame protector stickers that can be applied where the packs strap to the carbon frame.

The greatest question a Grail-seeker will need to answer if those handlebars will be the right fit. Without them, the frame’s cockpit geometry would be much lower and longer — ungainly. So don’t plan to install a conventional stem and bar.

There is one Grail model that comes with an ordinary cockpit, the alloy model. Otherwise, there are five models (including one women’s model) to choose from with varying parts builds. Pricing ranges from 2,199-4,599 euro, and there are four color options. Final USD pricing has not been confirmed.

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