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Gravel cycling has enjoyed a meteoric rise in popularity in the last decade, but especially the last few years. Perhaps nothing better reflects this than the UCI, the sport’s governing body and purveyor of rainbow banded jerseys for nearly a century, organizing the first world championship race for the discipline.
However you feel about UCI worlds and where it fits into the spirit of gravel, this weekend’s events, spread over Saturday and Sunday, represent a milestone for the fledgling discipline, and they’re attracting big names like Mathieu van der Poel.
Van der Poel is fresh off of a devastating Road World Championship run in Australia — filled with an arrest, abandonment of the race one hour in, and bookended by a three-year ban from the country — that he would like to put behind him. Winning rainbow bands in gravel won’t come close to making up for the disappointing showing down under, but it certainly can’t hurt.
With a couple days left to go before the men’s elite race Sunday, the Dutchman’s Alpecin-Deceuninck team showed off the Canyon Grizl gravel bike it has built up for him as well as Belgian teammate Gianni Vermeersch.
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Canyon makes two gravel bikes: the speed focused Grail complete with distinctive double decker handlebar design, and the Grizl, an adventure focused model that features greater tire clearance and a slacker geometry.
After a cursory glance at the parcours, a 190km race with 800m of climbing spread mainly over the strade bianche white gravel roads of Italy that feature in the namesake Strade Bianche spring classic, the Grizl seems to be an interesting choice. Racers in Strade Bianche make do with aero road bikes with slightly wider slick road tires. There are some cobble sectors factored in for good measure, but even still the lighter Grail seems like a better choice on paper.
But who am I to argue with pro riders? Even if it is their first time in a gravel race, or on a gravel bike for that matter.
This Grizl is built up with a 12-speed Dura-Ace Di2 drivetrain, rather than the gravel specific GRX group, reflecting the flatter nature of the course and less need for wider cassettes or the wider 17-tooth gap between chainrings in the front for GRX, versus 16 for Dura-Ace. Opting for Dura-Ace also loses out on the clutch on the rear derailleur that helps keep the chain from falling off on bumpy terrain. The crankset here appears to have 52-36T chainrings.
Of course, it is also very possible that Alpecin-Deceuninck, as with TotalEnergies for Niki Terpstra at SBT GRVL, simply built up the bikes with what was on hand in the service course, which for a road team would be Dura-Ace.
Shimano also supplies its Dura-Ace C36 carbon wheels, which measure 36mm deep and 21mm internally, giving them a good balance of low weight, aerodynamics, and the ability to run somewhat wider tires, though many gravel specific sets are reaching 25mm internally these days. Those hoops are set with Vittoria Terreno Dry tires.
One pro move you won’t see on many Grizls is swapping out the usual traditional bar and stem for an aerodynamic one-piece cockpit from Canyon, giving the bike a much sleeker look befitting a world class rider like Van der Poel.
Selle Italia provides a Flite Boost Kit Carbonio Superflow saddle complete with carbon rails. Elite cages will hold the bottles in place Sunday.
Notably, there are also Shimano road pedals instead of SPD-style pedals, indicating that the team doesn’t anticipate any sections with mud or where dismounting will be necessary.
After this weekend, you’ll be hard pressed to find another rider who makes more use of the entire Canyon range of bikes than Mathieu van der Poel, who adds gravel to his already successful road, cyclocross, and mountain careers.