For those who ride fast!
In the field test overview, I said that Canyon Grail is the fastest and the most road-like gravel bike in my comparison but there is much more about Grail that you should know about. In this review, I will tell you more about hoover handlebar, advantages and disadvantages of SRAM 1×12 drivetrain and overall handling of this bike.
Gravel bikes term has evolved quite a bit in the last two years. It has expanded in every possible direction, starting from MTB-like gravel bikes like BMC URS or Merida Silex, through full suspension solutions like Niner MCR RDO or new Topstone Lefty to very road-oriented, very fast but still gravel bikes like new 3T Exploro RaceMax. Everyone should find the right solution in that wide range of different offerings but for me, whichever end of the spectrum a particular bike represents, it should always allow you to ride in different conditions. In one moment you are riding on the road, the next moment you are hammering through the twisty forest path, and the next one you are on the quick gravel route. Of course, there is no real jack of all trades there so you have to be honest with yourself when deciding which conditions you will ride most of the time. If you say that road and gravel and you are not that interested in taking your bike to a really bumpy, MTB-like territory, then Canyon Grail carbon is a great solution for you. Why?
The first thing you notice when riding on it is how effective it is in transferring the power from your legs to the wheels. Canyon took a very interesting approach when designing this bike. Instead of trying to incorporate in the frame a lot of flex, they focused on making a very stiff, light, effective base, and then supplement it with a comfort improving additional parts (flexing seatpost and hoover bar). This results in a very quick to accelerate and easy to climb gravel bike that can easily be ridden on a Sunday ride with your road cycling friends. Especially, when you put a properly narrow, road-oriented tires on carbon wheels, that are provided with this top of the range, SLX version of the Grail. On-road, both flexing VCLS 2.0 seatpost and hoover bar do not make you any slower but the moment you decide to leave your friends and explore some off beaten path you will realize that you can do so much more with your bike than they can. Especially at the rear, thanks to VCLS 2.0 seatpost, you will easily ride seated even on very bumpy sections and the front, when on tops, will provide also a lot of additional cushioning. Yet, when I can only say good things about the seatpost, I have mixed feelings about the Hoover bar…
The idea behind this hoover bar was that you can feel very comfortable when riding on tops (thanks to a flat, flexing section of the carbon handlebar) and very secure and confident when riding on hoods and drops (thanks to increased stiffness in that areas). This increased stiffness is a result of the unique design of the tops. To make everything works, hoods had to be stiffer. And you can definitely feel it. When on tops, there is no other handlebar (off all I tested so far) that can provide better cushioning but at the same time, the hoods are the worst of all handlebar I tested (in terms of reducing vibrations). What is worse, subjectively you feel that the comfort gained from the tops is not worth the reduced comfort of the hoods. Why? Because when riding on tops, you usually put much less weight on the bars and your arms are more relaxed working as a very effective, additional suspension. It is when riding on hoods or drops, you benefit most from any comfort improving solutions. Yes, increased stiffness on one hand gives you more direct and confident handling, but at the same time, more vibrations and hits are reaching your hands making you more tired and sooner than on other bikes. For me, this trade-off is too big and I would like to have more comfort on hoods rather than on tops. But yes, flexing tops works and if you enjoy riding on tops a lot, then you will have a hard time finding something better (even shockstop suspension stem will not help, because it works best when the weight is applied as far from the steerer as possible, which means hoods and drops).
Apart from the comfort trade-off, there is another one that you have to consider when buying a carbon Grail bike. This is the difficulty of finding the right position on the bike when the stock set-up will not work for you. Normally, you can change the stem length, stem angle and use a different amount of spacers to find the best fit but with Grail carbon what you see is basically what you get and any additional changes (apart from the small possibility of lifting the handlebar up – 15 mm) are very hard to make. Fortunately, you can change the handlebar for free when you are making the order (for wider and/or with longer stem) or exchange / return the whole bike if you feel it does not fit you (a nice benefit of buying a bike online). But, should you be that worried about Grail not fitting your needs? I can stay that the stock Grail in size S worked nicely and I would not make any changes (I am 178 cm height) and I would definitely not trade it for size M with a wider, 440 mm handlebar. So there is a good chance that you will be fine too!
I liked the S size also because Grail is a rather long bike with the steering on the slow side, even for the gravel bike spectrum. Size M has a steeper head tube angle which, at least in theory, should make the handling quicker, but size M is also longer, bigger and heavier which makes me think that you will be better off with a slightly smaller size of Grail (especially, when like me, you are always in between sizes). Smaller size compensated for the slow handling and the bike was quite nimble when making quick turns. Yet there is no denying that this bike is no champion in the fast handling department. You can feel it the most when cornering fast on the road – the front understeers. At first, I thought that this is due to the Schwalbe G-One Bite tires, but after changing them to Rene Herse Barlow Pass, the understeer remained. When we are on the tires subject, the G-one bite tires from Schwalbe are surprisingly good both on gravel and on the road. They roll fast, they are grippy and offer a decent amount of comfort. Even the 40c size feels like the best compromise between traction on the road and off-road capabilities.
Grail is fast. Especially on the road. 1x is not fast, especially on the road. After this I could move to the next section but of course there is more to it than that. I really enjoyed riding on SRAM 1×12 Eagle AXS drivetrain. The shifting is quick and crisp. Very satisfying. As is using left and right leavers to change gears. Simplicity at its best! But I cincerely do not recommend buying Grail carbon with 1x drivetrain. Why? Because it shines of fast rides and exactly then the 1x drivetrain, even with 12 gears, lacks the most. The gear differences are simply too big to find a perfect, most satisfying cadence. So in the result you either are pushing too hard or ride slower than you could if there was another, in between gear. This was apparent the most when I rode back to back Grail with 1×12 and then Topstone with 2×12 eTAP AXS drivetrain. Boy, Grail would be so much better with that drivetrain. But even a standard 2x solution from Shimano (ideally GRX Di2) will be more than enough to make full of the Grail’s abilities. 1x is great for its simplicity and definitely can work on serious offroad but Grail is not ideal for that scenario in the first place, so really, do yourself a favor and go with 2x drivetrain with this bike!
DT Swiss GRC 1400 carbon wheels are very nice. Light, fast and for sure suits the Grail character. But the Fizik Aliante R5 did not win my heart. After trying SQ Lab saddle, or even Brooks C17 one, I did not find it comfortable enough to make it my real companion on longer rides. Pressfit bottom bracket did not make cracking noises not once during my testing so I don’t have a problem with it and the color…. Yes, Orange is reserved only for the top of the range Grail but, oh, boy! I would have a hard time convincing myself not to get one if I was to buy a Grail…
Yes, would I buy it?
No, not really. And this has to do with the beginning of this interview. I said there that we now have so many choices of different gravel bikes that everyone can easily find the best fit. For me, the gravel bike is about finding the best possible compromise between different riding scenarios. Grail is for me too much on the fast, road-oriented side to consider it a truly all-around bike. For sure, you can take it on the bumpy roads and even singletrack but, mostly due to the harshness of the hoods, you will not enjoy it as much as on other bikes, for example, Cannondale Topstone Carbon with SAVE handlebar. But, Topstone is, on the other hand, is slightly slower on the road so if the road is your main environment then Grail for sure should be on your shortlist…
To find out more about how this bike performed in my comfort measuring tests just read this gravel bikes field test introductory article.