Gravel bikes: Field Test

Four contenders.

One winner?

This is the very first time when I had the opportunity to test at the same time 4 very interesting gravel bikes. Test and compare under the same condition to find out which is best. The contenders are Cannondale Topstone Carbon, Canyon Grail CF SLX, Specialized Diverge Comp 2021, and titanium Enigma Escape (my own build). This is the first of the series of articles about those bikes but it is also the most important one because I will tell you which is the comfiest and which offers the most fun when riding.

Lets start with the comfort (compliance)

Having all of those bikes at the same time created a great opportunity to compare them under the same conditions. By this I mean primarily the same tires at the same air pressure (Rene Herse Barlow Pass 38c, which measured 39 mm on each wheel I installed them and with an air pressure of exactly 30 PSI, both front and rear). But also I used the same saddle (SQlab 612 Ergowave Active) to be sure that I can really compare the seatposts and frame compliance of each bike. The same conditions mean that the saddle height and distance between the saddle and the middle of the tops of the handlebar was the same in each and every bike. Finally, I did all of my measurements in very similar weather conditions (dry and mildly hot). All of this means that the results I got are really comparable and based on them we can draw some real conclusions.

Front of the bike

I like Redshift suspension stem (which I use on my benchmark bike) but like I said many times before I really believe that Specialized FutureShock 2.0 is the best front end suspension solution that I have tested to this day. Yes, 2021 Cannondale Topstone Lefty brings a real front suspension to the game but until I will be able to properly tested it, I honestly think that FutureShock sits at the top of the front suspension game. Especially when we consider fast gravel riding with a lot of high-frequency chatter. Specialized Diverge with FutureShock 2.0 was 11% more effective in reducing vibrations than the second-best bike in this comparison (my titanium Enigma Escape with Redshift Suspension stem and carbon Wave handlebar). The Cannondale Topstone with its flat SAVE handlebar was third in that department and the last was Canyon Grail SLX with its unique hoover bar (23,5% more vibrations than Diverge). And you can definitely feel the difference when switching from Diverge to Enigma Escape, not to mention Canyon Grail. But Grail has something unique to offer when the front end comfort is considered – double-decker handlebar that was created to be the most comfortable not at the hoods (where I measured the vibrations) but at the tops (a flat, flexing area). Does it work? Yes. Although it is tough to get the repeatable results when riding on tops (a lot less weight on the bar means that your hands are moving much more freely generating more movement which is recorded by my app as more pronounced vibrations) I can tell you that I recorded the lowest ever readings at tops when riding on Grail hoover bar. But the difference was not that huge (when compared for example to Ritchey WCS VentureMax handlebar when riding on tops on gravel at 20 km/h it was only 1% and when riding on a bumpy forest route at 15 km/h Canyon Hoover Bar was reducing vibrations 6% more effectively than Ritchey carbon handlebar) so there is a real and important question to be answered here: would you trade off the hoods compliance for the best tops compliance? I think I would stay with hoods compliance, simply because vibrations coming from hoods are much more tiring, at least for me, and when on tops, your arms are simply working as an additional suspension.

When the forest bumpy road is considered, the overall results were similar: still, the FutureShock 2.0 from the Specialized Diverge was the best but this time the same level of vibrations I recorded also with my Enigma Escape titanium bike equipped with Redshift suspension stem (hard set of elastomers). The Canyon Grail was again the worst in terms of hoods and the best in terms of tops but the biggest surprise was the result I got from Cannondale Topstone. Its carbon SAVE handlebar does not flex that much but, in tandem with the carbon fork, it definitely works well to reduce the overall level of vibrations (it was only 4% less effective than Specialized Diverge 2021 with FutureShock 2.0). This, I did not expect, and to be honest, it makes me wonder if we really need the proper suspension fork when already Cannondale Topstone carbon with SAVE handlebar offers so good level of front end comfort…

The rear of the bike

This was an interesting comparison because of the Cannondale KingSpin suspension (the only bike with “proper” suspension in this field test). I had very high hopes for it but the truth is that KingPin is no magical solution that will create a magic carpet ride. On bumpy forest road (where it should shine the most) I recorded the same level of vibrations as with Canyon Grail equipped only with VCLS 2.0 flexing carbon seatpost and on fast gravel route, VCLS 2.0 proved to be even slightly more effective in reducing vibration than the combination of KingPin suspension and SAVE carbon seatpost from Cannondale. Yes, you can say that KingPin is not only about improving the ride comfort but also wheel traction but to be honest, when I look at the chainstays of the carbon Topstone, I have a hard time figuring out where it could flex enough to feel any difference when riding on a bumpy road. I am not saying that it does not flex at all but for me, the main benefit of the KingPin suspension is the additional flex possible at the level of seat tube (but this you can achieve at much lower engineering cost just by adding a flexing seatpost, like Canyon Grail with VCLS 2.0 seatpost is doing). The last and final argument, in this case, is my Enigma Escape titanium bike, that with VCLS 2.0 seatpost absorbed more vibrations that both Cannondale Topstone and Canyon Grail bike (and with Redshift suspension seatpost I even managed to get for the first time ever, below 2,0 mark on a forest bumpy road). Again, without any frame trickery at all, just titanium at works. The worst in terms of rear-end compliance was Specialized Diverge (which becomes a theme for Specialized, because previous Diverge and also electric Creos shined at the front and were somehow lacking when the back of the bike is considered). But you can easily cure this by adding something like VCLS 2.0 or even Redshift suspension seatpost. The front of the bike is much more challenging and there FutureShock 2.0 rules there.

Now it is time for the FUN!

Talking about comfort was easy because I had a meaningful measurements that I can rely on. Talking about fun is a much more subjective thing but still I think I can share with you my thought just to make the choice for you slightly easier. To be as close to the real observations I set up a 30 minutes ride combining forest bumpy road, fast gravel, and a pure road section and then I rode it one bike after another to have the best possible environment for real-life comparison (this time each bike was on its stock tires and stock saddle, but the saddle position and saddle to handlebar distance was in each case exactly the same). So, what do I think?

Naked carbon looks rather cool!

Let’s start with Specialized Diverge. 2021 model is very different from the one I tested last year and even from Creo that I had the opportunity to test in March this year. By different I mean it is much longer and slightly shorter at the head tube level. It is also heavier and this year it uses a threaded bottom bracket instead of (some say more power-efficient) press-fit bottom bracket. Why do I mention this? Because the new Diverge feels more like a cruiser than a bike created for sprinting (in this regard I still consider the previous Diverge as one of the best). Longer and heavier Diverge 2021 accelerates good but it is noticeably slower than for example Canyon Grail or even Cannondale Topstone with its KingPin suspension. But at the same time, despite the long wheelbase, Diverge is very flickable and eager to change direction so when moving, you don’t really notice the extra weight. The extra length makes it also very stable and predictable bike and with the FutureShock 2.0 addition, you can really hammer through any road with it (OK, the with a small addition of a proper suspension seastpost to be able to stay seated all the time).  New Diverge is also not that tall like the previous one so you can get quite a sporty, expanded position on it which adds to the nice feeling of riding a fun bike.

Top model with Force AXS drivetrain – more suitable for road than off-road.

Cannondale Topstone Carbon is a different beast and in some ways, it resembles more the previous Diverge (it is rather tall and has a very short chainstay). This short chainstay makes it very agile, but Cannondale added to the mix rather long top tube which resulted in a very interesting experience. You feel like you are on the rear wheel and you can even lift off the front wheel when accelerating hard but lean more on the handlebar and you will quickly discover a nice, sporty feel and a lot of agility. The steering is not that fast but more than enough for navigating through tight forest roads with speeds above 25 km/h. When you add to this a very well balanced front and back comfort and very good power efficiency from the thick bottom bracket area you get a bike that really encourages you to go further and faster than before.

I really liked the orange color of this particular Grail.

Canyon Grail CF SLX is a very interesting bike indeed. Interesting, because Canyon did not try to make the frame very compliant (it is stiff and very efficient) but to make it also comfortable, they put on top of the frame a very good VCLS 2.0 seatpost and a flexing Hoover bar. As a result, Grail is the fastest and the most road-like bike in the whole field test. It is the best when sprinting and in general, you fill that there is no power wasted when pedaling hard on this bike. It is also long and rather slow at turning (it can surprise you with the amount of perceptible understeer when cornering ah high speed) but it is also fast enough to make the fast rides in the woods quite enjoyable (but I sincerely recommend going for the smaller frame like I did, just to make the bike much more flickable). The frame stiffness is very well balanced at the rear with VCLS seatpost but there is no denying that at the front when riding on hoods, you take the biggest beating (when compared to all three others bike I tested in this field test). Fortunately, Grail’s fork can take 700x50c tire (Soma Cazadero 700x50c worked nicely) and when you put this kind of tire and pump it to something like 21 PSI, then all of the sudden, you get a very comfortable, but still also very fast gravel bike. Just a thing to think about…

Orange, at least in terms of the fork. But titanium also looks quite nice!

Lastly, there is my new benchmark bike, titanium Enigma Escape. I bought a titanium frame because I was tired of too much flex of my previous, steel Jamis Renegade benchmark bike. Especially compared to carbon gravel bikes, my Renegade felt slow and not fun at all. Enigma Escape is far superior in that department. There is no question about it but it is still not that efficient like proper carbon gravel bikes like Canyon Grail CF. But it is somehow in the ballpark of bikes like new Specialized Diverge Comp 2021 (which interestingly enough also uses a threaded bottom bracket). Titanium compared to steel feels at least as comfortable but this great level of comfort is achieved with much less perceptible frame flex so you get a much more enjoyable, efficient ride without sacrificing the comfort. When looking for a word describing the ride feel of my titanium bike, I would say it feels meaty. By this I mean it feels heavy (and my new benchmark bike is surprisingly heavy) but also it feels strong, agile, lively whereas carbon bikes tend to feel muted: fast and very efficient but also somehow lifeless (if you know what I mean 😉). In terms of handling my Enigma Escape is very comparable to my previous steel Jamis Renegade (because the geometry is very similar), just the handling is a tad slower (because of the slacker head tube angle) but this means that I felt at home the moment I started riding it. For me, Enigma Escape is a really fun bike to ride. Fast, supremely comfortable (especially with Redshift suspension stem and seatpost) and confidence-inspiring (but again like with smaller Grail, it would not be the case if I had bought the bigger, 56 size frame). If I had to compare Enigma Escape to other bike I would say that it is somehow close in ride feel to the new Diverge 2021 (both in terms of power efficiency, and in terms of the handling and weight feel).

Which is the best?

It is tough. Much tougher than I thought it would be. Each and every one of those bikes is really good and you can’t go wrong choosing any of them. But… and there is always a but, there are not the same. If you are after fast, most road like gravel bike, then I would recommend buying Canyon Grail but not with 1x but 2x setup to make the most of the bike performance. If you look for something fast, but also very well balanced in terms of comfort, then I would suggest you buying a Cannondale Topstone Carbon (but with SAVE handlebar because without it, the front of the bike could be much harsher). If you are after the best possible comfort and something like the jack of all trades, then Specialized Diverge 2021 will be the most interesting option (especially, when you upgrade it with a proper suspension seatpost). And titanium Enigma Escape? It is a great all arounder, both in terms of speed, power efficacy, and comfort but you can achieve more comfort with Diverge, and more speed with Grail, and also you can have much lighter gravel bikes. And definitely, less expensive. So Enigma Escape is a choice for someone, who is looking for uniqueness and exclusivity. Or, like me, want to have a very comfortable, but also fast bike, that will be able to carry a child seat on rear rack…