Canyon Inflite CF SLX 9.0 Pro Race - first ride review
Canyon's first carbon fibre cyclo-cross race bike impresses across the board
"There are some good cyclo-cross bikes out there, so we had to think about how we could make our bike better," says Julian Biefang, Canyon's product manager for competition bikes.
The introduction of the Canyon Inflite CF SLX in August saw the German firm apply its performance-driven philosophy to the brand's first carbon fibre cyclo-cross machine. The result is a striking design which attempts to satisfy the demands of modern cyclo-cross racers - and a bike which, in terms of both aesthetics and design, is a significant departure from the norm.
Until now, the Inflite has existed in the Canyon range as an aluminium frame, occupying a middleground between cyclo-cross durability and all-weather reliability, with a choice of CX and road specifications to match.
- Price: £3,599
- Sizes: XXXS-XXL
- Size tested: M
- Website: Canyon
"These bikes are for cyclo-cross, commuting and gravel riding," says Biefang, referring to the aluminium Inflite. "This [the Inflite CF SLX] is the best cyclo-cross race bike out there because we haven't been distracted by anything on the side."
You won't find any mudguard mounts or clearance for super-wide gravel tyres here.
Instead, the Inflite CF SLX is focused on race performance, according to Biefang. The result is a bike which provides the low weight (claimed frame weight 940g) and responsiveness demanded by racers. At the same time, Canyon's engineers have sought to ensure the bike is as easy as possible to carry, while also adapting the geometry so it's in tune with today's technical cyclo-cross courses and maintaining an appreciable level of comfort.
When the devil rides out
We've already brought you the story on the technical specification of the Inflite CF SLX from the launch in August, now it's time to deliver our initial impressions on how it rides. We joined Canyon's UK team at the Devil's Punch Bowl in Surrey, a large amphitheatre with a web of inter-connecting trails seemingly made for cyclo-cross, to get to grips with the latest Inflite.
"The small details have a big part to play in the overall bike," says Biefang, and his team has sweated the small stuff in designing the Inflite CF SLX. Some of those details are discreet, like the reduction of the frame's surface area by 8.5 per cent (compared with the Ultimate CF SLX road frame), particularly around the seatstays and chainstays, to reduce the build-up of mud. Other design features are much more obvious, not least with the kinked toptube.
It's a polarising design aesthetically but serves two purposes. Firstly, the kinked toptube provides a ready-made position for the rider's shoulder when carrying and running with the bike, as is often required in 'cross races. Secondly, it has allowed Canyon to leave more of the seatpost exposed, in turn dropping the clamp to the junction of the seatstays, just like the Ultimate and Endurance. Unlike those road frames, however, the clamp is accessed from inside the main triangle to keep it out of the firing line of mud kicked up by the back wheel. Small details, indeed.
The Devil's Punch Bowl sinks steeply into the Surrey countryside and, as well as providing numerous technical descents, includes unrideable pitches lined with roots, ruts and rocks. The kink in the toptube comes close to the bike's balance point and helps the Inflite to sit naturally on the shoulder when hopping over logs, fallen trees and up steep, muddy banks. It also provides an effective grab handle when lifting the bike.
As a result, when shouldering and running with the bike, the Inflite feels stable and, perhaps more importantly, there's ample space within the frame triangle to get it there in the first place. Canyon has also made the downtube angle 1.5 degrees steeper to increase the gap between it and the front tyre - a boon for riders who wrap their arm between the downtube and tyre to grab the opposite handlebar drop. If you're one of them, clearance is generous, with less chance of catching the tyre with your arm, though there will still be plenty of 'cross racers who have alternate ways of carrying the bike.
Rough and tumble
In designing the Inflite CF SLX from the ground up, Canyon has sought to meet the needs of the cyclo-cross racer in 2017 and beyond. 'Cross courses are more technical than ever, according to Biefang, and Canyon has taken inspiration from the mountain bike world to evolve the Inflite's handling.
"Cyclo-cross courses are getting more challenging for both the rider and the bike," says Biefang. "Courses are changing so the handling of a 'cross bike is even more significant to the rider."
The Inflite has a longer reach, extended wheelbase and greater fork rake to provide additional stability when tackling fast, technical courses, Biefang says. Combined with the additional flex afforded by the exposed seatpost - and there is a discernible amount of comfort-enhancing flex - the Inflite CF SLX offers a highly assured ride, both in the allowing the rider to stay seated over rough, traction-testing terrain, and in holding a solid, reliable line when pushing the bike through a loose, leaf-covered corner or hitting sections of sand.
And there's plenty of that at the Devil's Punch Bowl, with sandy descents and and long stretches of soft stuff to test the handling of any bike. The Inflite's handling is extremely accurate - it's a confidence-inspiring machine on which to tackle technical trails, whether you're an experienced 'cross rider, or relatively new to CX racing, as I am. Drive the Inflite through sand and the front wheel quivers as it searches for a line but tracks predictably.
Canyon has also specced its integrated H31 Ergocockpit carbon fibre cockpit on all Inflite CF SLX bikes and it has drops flared by three degrees, and swept-back tops (to the measure of six degrees), again to promote confidence. On top of that, each bike size has a 10cm shorter stem than on an equivalent road model, while handlebar width had been increased by 10mm, again to increase control.
Finally, as far as the handling is concerned, Canyon has made the Inflite CF SLX available in eight sizes, with the smallest two (XXXS and XXS) designed for 650b wheels to reportedly offer the same ride as the 700c bikes.
On the attack
The Inflite CF SLX may be a bike primed to tackle the rough stuff, but it's no slouch on the attack. The 940g frame is impressively light for a cyclo-cross frame - the "benchmark" in Biefang's words - and contributes to a 7.7kg overall weight for the flagship Inflite CF SLX 9.0 Pro Race we rode in Surrey.
The result is a machine which is eager to accelerate and, when the rider does stamp on the pedals, the bike responds immediately. The Inflite is a race bike at heart and it provides an extremely solid platform to go on the attack.
Canyon offers the Inflite CF SLX in three specifications, from the £3,599 9.0 Pro Race here to the £2,499 8.0 Pro Race, while you can also get the frameset for £1,799 if you want to put together your own 'cross build.
All three bikes are equipped with tubeless-ready wheels and tyres - and Biefang believes tubeless is the future for many amateur cyclo-cross racers. "We strongly believe in tubeless in this category," he says. "Tubeless tyres are getting better and better, and wider rims mean you can run lower pressures without burping."
Tubular tyres have long been the choice for cyclo-cross racers, given the low pressures they can be run at without worrying about pinching the inner tube. However, Biefang believes a tubeless setup offers the same benefits of low pressures and high grip without the expense and upkeep of a tubular setup.
"For most people, tubeless tyres with a wide rim is the best," says Biefang, while adding a tubeless tyre can be run as low at 19psi (1.3 bar) for a 70kg rider. We ran the 33mm Schwalbe X-One tyres on our test bike at 22psi (1.5 bar), setup tubeless on the 25mm-wide Reynolds Assault LE Disc Carbon wheels - simply not possible on a standard clincher setup, given the rooty, rocky terrain in the Devil's Punch Bowl. The Reynolds rims stood up to a lot of punishment and the tyres, which provide good levels of all-round grip, held strong.
The Inflite CF SLX 8.0 Pro Race comes with a SRAM Force 1 drivetrain and the 40-tooth chainring combines with the 11-36t cassette to provide a suitable spread of gears, providing a low enough ratio to tackle steep slopes. Canyon also provides a chain guide to keep things in order.
So far, so good
This initial ride provided the opportunity for us to form our first impressions on Canyon's entry into the carbon 'cross market in a near-perfect setting, with the kind of varied terrain the Inflite is designed for.
It's a comprehensive package with a clear focus on performance and all the design details covered in Biefang's launch presentation, from the kinked toptube to the exposed seatpost, via the mtb-inspired handling and tubeless rolling stock, manifest themselves in the ride. This is a machine where form follows function - the look of the Inflite will undoubtedly divide opinion - but the result is a thoroughbred cyclo-cross bike which combines race-focussed responsiveness with controlled handling. We look forward to finding out more.