Canyon MTB Review: Strive vs Spectral vs Neuron
July 7th, 2017
July 7th, 2017
How different can three mountain bikes be? Well, with the umbrella genre of 'mountain biking' ever expanding, the answer should be 'very different'. Within Canyon's mountain bike range is a plethora of arrows for your mountain biking quiver, from the super lightweight cross country hardtail whippet, the Exceed, to the super burly downhill monster, the Sender. Having tested both of these bikes and covered the far ends of the mountain biking spectrum, I was keen to see just how different the bikes in the middle could be.
Much like our Canyon road test, we took three bikes of similar price ranges, around the £3.5k mark here, to keep the test as unbiased towards weight and spec as possible and simply focus on how they ride. With mountain bikes having more complexities than road, with rear suspension adding weight and cost to the equation, and these bikes varying in groupset brands as well as speeds, it would be hard to compare them technically anyway, so expect to read more of a riding comparison so that you can choose that right Canyon for you. So, with that in mind, enough waffling, let's ride...
The Canyon Strive
The Canyon Strive does not look overly burly on first appearance, but the 150mm of travel front and rear makes this suitable for most trail centres, bike parks and enduro races. In fact, it's quite the favourite amoungst enduro racers in Europe and can be seen smashing through big-Alp races like the Trans Provence and the Enduro World Series; which obviously harbours trails that are a lot fruitier than many of us will ride in the UK. This bodes well for it's intended purpose as a long travel, big-hitting, trail-taming tool. On test was the Strive CF 8.0 Race, retailing at £3,999 and weighing around 13.4kg, which comes with Fox 36 Performance Float CTD forks and Fox Performance rear shock, SRAM X01 Eagle 12-speed groupset and SRAM Guide brakes, plus E-Thirteen TRS+ wheels, as well as a few special extras.
Out on the trail I was pleasantly surprised by how well it climbs. I did notice I was having to put a bit of extra effort in to keep up with those on the other two bikes, but this was likely due to a little extra weight and it was nothing so bad that I felt I'd have to get off and push. The 'Shapeshifter' switch is there for 'XC' (climbing) and 'DH' (descending) mode. On the Forest of Dean cross-country loop I didn't feel too hampered by having the switch set to black/DH mode for the majority of time, but it was a nice relief to flick it up into green/XC mode for the long fire-road climbs, as it gives you a more up-right position for settling into the rising gradients. I did have to give the bike a good shunt to engage the Shapeshifter into DH mode, so I wouldn't say it was a real 'on-the-fly' kind of tool, but nonetheless it's a nice feature for anyone who takes a minute to set up before a descent, or for a racer who'll quite rightly want DH set throughout their entire race stage, then pop back into XC for only the transitions.
Once gravity was on my side, the Strive really came alive, and more so than most, I must admit. The back end was incredibly manoeuvrable, popping sideways around corners at the slightest of requests, manualling through technical features with minimal effort, and generally making me feel like I'd hired a new set of skills for the day. In fact, it gave me skills I don't usually have on the trusty, slack, low-slung 170mm enduro bike that I have at home, and yet it descends with just as much conviction. I can see why this is an enduro favourite now, but it is equally at home mucking around in the woods and being your best friend when it comes to play time.
The Canyon Spectral
Being shorter travel than the Strive, I expected a faster yet more nervous ride. Yes, it was fast, but nervous doesn't appear in this bike's dictionary. Watching it being whipped over the bigger doubles of the Forest of Dean in the hands of Canyon sponsored rider, Freddie Pulman, it's clear that this bike is capable of more than just generic "trail riding". On test was the Spectral CF 9.0 EX retailing at £3,899 with 150mm RockShox Pike forks and 140mm RockShox Monarch RT3 rear shock, DT Swiss XM 1501 Spline ONE wheels, plus SRAM X01 Eagle 12-speed gears and SRAM Guide brakes.
With a shorter top tube and a slightly less laid-back geometry to the Strive (as well as shorter handlebars), the handling of this bike was noticeably different straight out of the car park; it has a very agile front end with responsive steering and a 'light' feel to its movements, undoubtedly helped by it weighing a kilo less than the Strive at 12.2kg. The second thing I noticed was how fast it accelerated. It was an absolute cinch to climb, especially in comparison to the Strive, and got up to speed with very little effort at all. Large roots and square edge rocks were certainly more noticeable than on the Strive, but they didn't seem to stop the Spectral in it's tracks at all. In fact, it took no time at all to realise that the Spectral was just as capable as the Strive, even on the steepest of descents carved into the back hills of the Forest of Dean. Half an hour later I was on the downhill tracks, getting sideways in the mud and completely forgetting I had switched bikes! Sure, it didn't plough through rough terrain with as much quiet confidence as the Strive, but it wasn't far off, and yet the speed on singltrack and technical climbs was outstanding. The Spectral was incredibly capable everywhere I took it. It's one of those rare gems of a bike, much like the Canyon Ultimate on the road side, that offers you one bike to fit most riding situations without much fuss at all.
The Canyon Neuron
This is a notch up from the Spectral in the cross-country department, but it is still more 'adventurous' than it is 'xc'. With the Lux being the ultimate full-suss race whippet, and one that has helped team Topeak Ergon win the prestigious Cape Epic marathon stage race, the Neuron is better suited to exploratory cross country jaunts and long-distance capers. Currently only available as an aluminium frame, with two options of 120 mm suspension and 27.5” wheels or 110 mm and 29” wheels. I played with the latter in the Neuron AL 9.9, which retails at £2,649 with Fox 34 Performance Elite front and rear suspension, DT Swiss XM1501 Spline ONE wheels and Shimano Deore XT groupset, including brakes. This model weighs around 12.8kg, which is pretty good considering that is half a kilo over the above Spectral, which is carbon, and this model costs a grand less. To get this bike up to the price range standard I promised, we needed the Neuron Al 9.o LTD top spec model, which would lose you that half kilo and upgrade your suspension with Fox Kashima products with Shimano XTR Shadow dripping off of it instead.
The big wheels obviously roll incredibly well and pick up speed with ease, like a good 29er should. It is super light and the spec for the budget is pretty incredible too. There won't be many complaints when chomping up the longest of climbs, nor will you feel cheated on value for money. Canyon say it's a "trail" bike, but I would say this blurs the lines between the Lux XC and the Spectral. It's not as nippy as the Exceed hardtail, or even the Spectral 650b on test above, but the Neuron's main motivation is to keep up the momentum with the least of effort, so it forgoes the aggressive racer stance of the Exceed in favour of a touch more comfort to withstand the longest of adventures. It is definitely a comfortable and capable bike that keeps it's excitement under wraps in order for you to inject more speed without even noticing it, and there's a lot to be said for having a bike that is not "too exciting" when it comes to riding through tiredness. And, as Tina Turner quite rightly said; big wheels keep on turning!
The verdict on all three
The Spectral's short top tube and short travel may (and I really emphasise the "may") get out of depth in alpine enduro adventures, but this will largely depend on your abilities and speed. The Spectral certainly doesn't hamper Canyon sponsored rider, Freddie, from hitting all the biggest of jumps on his Spectral. I couldn't help pushing it to it's limits either, and I was constantly surprised by how far it would let me take it. One thing is for sure, the Spectral is fast everywhere, and really eggs you on up the climbs too. The Strive's wider bars, longer top tube, slack geometry and longer suspension travel means that roots, rocks and descents are lapped up with ease, making for smooth and confident riding, particularly when gravity is on your side. It is just as playful as the Spectral, but with the ability to plough through rough terrain without having your eyeballs shaken up like olives in Bond's martini. When the going gets vicious, the Strive makes a forgiving and confidence inspiring enduro race partner, and one that will quite graciously let you get away with a lot of mistakes. Handy for me.
For mile-munching speed with minimal effort the Neuron is clearly the cross country king in this line-up. The Strive for bump-munching speed on the descents. The Spectral for speed in every direction, and a heck of a lot of smiling. It's no surprise then that the Spectral, much like the Ultimate road bike from our other Canyon test day, was my absolutely my favourite of the day. Sure, if I wanted to focus on racing enduro or forgo fast climbing in favour of 'French lines' down all the gravity bike parks, I'd have the Strive, and the Neuron if I wanted to clock up miles on Strava or race long-distance cross-country, but the Spectral was an utter hero on everything I had put it through, and above all, made me smile from start to finish, and that's what it's all about, isn't it? If you only want one hot bike, and don't spend much time racing in either extremes of mountain biking, then the Spectral is unlikely to leave you wanting more; long cross country rides in the trail centre, enduro weekends in the Lakes, jumps in the local woods; it'll play on anything you want and will be as confident as you are with the trail. Go fun yourself!