In this day of ornate 'look at me' paintjobs and acronym-laced whizz-bang tech features, you might be forgiven for overlooking the Ultimate CF SLX from German direct-to-consumer outfit Canyon, what with its stark white finish, plain black graphics and no-nonsense frame design. But in doing so, you'd be cheating yourself out of one of the best road bikes we've ridden in recent memory.
Ride & handling: Ultra-efficient and surprisingly comfortable with brilliant handling
Lots of companies are engrossed in all-out weight wars, with claimed frame weights now hovering well under 900g. The 1,028g (2.27lb) actual weight of our 52cm tester might almost be considered heavy in comparison, but Canyon engineers have taken that bit of extra mass and created an extraordinarily efficient machine. It's a difference you can feel out on the road, and in reality it's still plenty light, especially when you consider most of those claimed weights are lowball figures.
Pedalling stiffness on the Canyon is superb and power delivery notably direct but the front triangle stiffness is what really wowed us during testing – there's an instantaneous quality to the front-end reactions that's a notable step above many other top-end bikes we've tested lately. It's certainly obvious when sprinting or climbing out of the saddle (especially on steeper pitches and at low cadences) but it lends itself to more precise high-speed handling, too, where even slight bits of flex can manifest in decreased confidence.
Not so on the Canyon where the versatile stage-race geometry was perfectly translated from paper to the road – on one of our favourite descents, our Garmin GPS confirmed an effortless 82.2km/h (51.5mph) top speed and not for a single moment did we feel uneasy. Right at the end of that particular pitch is an especially fast, sweeping left-hand turn (with some precarious exposure for good measure) and we were able to tackle that with more gusto than usual, too. Overall, the Ultimate CF SLX did exactly what we asked of it with no argument or hesitation – think it and it's done.
That fantastic rigidity doesn't come at the expense of comfort, either, as the spindly seatstays and extra-soft 27.2mm-diameter VCLS (Vertical Comfort Lateral Stiffness – okay, fine, there's one acronym) carbon and basalt fibre custom seatpost do an excellent job of taking the sting out of rough roads – and likely contribute to the bike's reassuring traction, too. Fitted with the stock tubulars the ride is flat-out pillowy and yet still decidedly cushy with our reference Easton EA90 Aero alloy wheels and Continental Force/Attack clinchers.
Front-end comfort is good, too, though definitely not to the same degree as there's simply no disguising the enormous cross-sections used around the head tube and front triangle. It's by no means objectionable, though, and the generous tyre clearances front and rear mean you can easily drop in wider 25mm rubber (as we did for a few weeks).
Considering the incredibly high performance, the fit is surprisingly sedate. Our 52cm tester came with an unusually tall 140mm head tube, which was made even more so by the stock Acros bearing preload adjuster that fits beneath the stem. Less aggressive riders might not care too much but it's no surprise to us that much of the Canyon-sponsored Omega Pharma-Lotto team go for -17° stems and more conventional headset setups.
Frame: Big sections and pure function
'Understated' is perhaps the best way to describe the Ultimate CF SLX's carbon frame construction, with oversized and rounded tubes used throughout, and not a single abrupt transition to be found. The tapered 1-1/4 to 1-1/2in front end (yes, as in not 1-1/8in up top) is especially stout, though, and the down tube-head tube area is almost ridiculously well reinforced – no question where the front end stiffness comes from here.
Further back, the 'Maximus' asymmetrical seat tube is flared out on the non-driveside and out back there's the usual big chainstay/small seatstay combo but interestingly, given the excellent pedalling performance, not a dramatically enormous bottom bracket. Looking for press-fit cups or an integrated seatpost? Sorry, you won't find either here, and it's worth mentioning that all of this performance comes with none of the typical doodahs that currently permeate the high-end marketplace – just solid engineering, and it works very, very well.
Equipment: No nonsense, pro-level gear
It's difficult to find chinks in our Canyon's 'Team' build kit, and seeing as how it's a near carbon copy of the bike that Omega Pharma-Lotto ride, that's perhaps no surprise. The Campagnolo Record Ergopower levers knock off smooth and reliable shifts front and rear and in both directions, and the system remains the undisputed king of multiple changes.
Though perhaps not quite as precise and mechanical feeling as SRAM Red – the shift detents are effective but somewhat vague compared to older Ergopower, almost as if it already has a few thousand kilometres on it out of the box – many riders will appreciate its more soft-handed approach. It's far quieter with its heavily chamfered chain and cassette teeth and rubber coated pulley wheels, too, and the shifts are definitely more consistent than Shimano's latest 10-speed options.
The Campagnolo Record front derailleur is bolted to a stout four-rivet mount.
The dual pivot front and single pivot rear brakes are a little disappointing, though, offering great control but lacking in power compared to the competion, even with the impressively potent Mavic carbon sidewall and made-by-SwissStop pads. Though they're far from weak – and worlds better than many of the borderline-dangerous weight weenie stoppers we've tried in the past – we still had to start dumping speed earlier in corners than with other callipers.
The Mavic Cosmic Carbone wheels are awesome all around, being wonderfully light, very responsive and yet reasonably aero, too. Wrapped around them were Continental Competition tubulars, which provided great road feel and grip in a wide range of conditions but durability could be a little better – we suffered a glass puncture just a few weeks into testing.
Cockpit and seating components are personal preference items. But with that being said, the classic Selle Italia Flite continues to provide a firm and comfortable perch that suits a wide range of body types and Ritchey's WCS 4-Axis stem is lightweight and reasonably rigid. More aggressive riders will likely want to skip the anatomic Logic II handlebar, though, as it offers a too-short reach when in the drops.
Mail order? Really?
Canyon's online-only business model means they can offer their frames and bikes at fairly attainable prices given what you get in return. The flipside is that there's no brick-and-mortar store to run to when something goes south. We can't comment on the quality of support first-hand but a quick browse online suggests it's pretty decent, and if the packing job is any indication (easily the most thorough of any company we've seen) things are looking promising.
In fact, the biggest downfall we can find is with Canyon's distribution network, which covers a wide range of locales from Azerbaijan to Yemen but thus far doesn't include the US. Our apologies if we've cruelly tempted you up until now, but rather than dwell on the negatives, consider it an excuse to book that European holiday you'd always been thinking about.
Price: €5,299 (as tested); €1,799 (frame, fork, headset, seatpost, stem)