Two weeks ago, Canyon launched three all-new 2018 women’s road bikes: the Ultimate WMN CF SLX carbon road race bike, and the Endurace WMN CF SL carbon endurance model, and the Endurance WMN AL in aluminium. We got a first look, and first rides, on the carbon Ultimate and Endurace in USA over the weekend.

These new models represent the first Canyon bikes with frames designed specifically for women. Previously, the brand’s WMN bikes had used unisex frames and changed touchpoints (saddle, handlebar, cranks). But women’s specific geometries and frames had always been the game plan, says Canyon.

Canyon’s take on women’s bikes

We’ve been very impressed by the Canyon bikes we’ve tested so far, and along with its direct-to-consumer model and competitive pricing, the German brand seems determined to  to really compete with Specialized, Trek, Giant, and Cannondale. Though both Specialized and Trek have backed off a totally dedicated women’s-specific approach in the past few years, launching women’s road and mountain bikes that use unisex frames, Canyon’s new models show that women’s-specific design isn’t going away.

To design the Ultimate and Endurace WMN, Canyon used fit data from over 60,000 riders, information amassed from all of the prospective customers that had visited its website to size themselves up and purchase a bike directly. From this, Canyon drew the following conclusions: that women are generally shorter and lighter than men, but didn’t have shorter legs. They did find that women have shorter arms (about 2cm, on average), putting them in a more stretched-out position on the same frame than a man of the same height.

At the same time, the company’s engineers and product managers didn’t believe that women should have to ride in a different position than men. “The really comfortable position for women was too comfortable for racing,” says Katrin Neumann, women’s product manager at Canyon. “Why shouldn’t she sit in the same position as a man for racing?” This philosophy drove the goal of putting a woman in the same riding position by targeting the same bend at the hips and arms as her male counterpart. This was generally achieved on the bikes with a shorter reach and a slightly taller head tube than the equivalent unisex models.

Canyon’s new WMN bikes also come in smaller sizes than its unisex models: from 3XS up to a size M, covering riders from 150cm to 185cm tall (unisex models range from 2XS to 2XL). But very small sizes (anything smaller than a 52cm-ish for most brands) have always presented geometry problems as the smaller frames start to butt up against the limits of the diameters of the wheels. Traditionally, these smaller frames have had to resort to longer wheelbases (usually achieved through a slacker head angle) to avoid toe overlap, but this led to the smaller bikes having different handling characteristics than intended for the line overall.

Canyon’s answer to this: Smaller wheels. Both the Endurace WMN and Ultimate WMN feature 650b wheels on 3XS and 2XS bikes, which enables them to hit the same riding position and handling across the size run.

But don’t big wheels roll faster? Yes, acknowledged Canyon product engineer Lukas Schuchnigg. But, according to Schuchnigg, Canyon’s testers - who included petite pro rider Trixie Worrack of Canyon-SRAM - found that the advantages in handling (the bike is easier to corner), aerodynamics (with smaller wheels, they can get a rider into a lower position), and acceleration (small wheels spin up easier) of the 650b wheels made up for the differences in rolling speed. The smaller bikes also get stiffer gearing - 52/36 chainrings instead of the 50/34 compact crankset that comes on the larger frames. (This is to compensate for the smaller wheel size, as distance travelled in one pedal revolution is a function of wheel size and gearing.)

Of course, there will be equipment issues to contend with for buyers of the 3XS and 2XS bikes. Currently, the 3XS and 2XS bikes are equipped with Schwalbe Pro One 650b road tyres, made specifically for Canyon. No other brand makes 650bx25mm tires at the moment, and choices for spare wheels (and even spare tubes) will be limited too. But Canyon believes that more options will become available as the bikes mature in the market.

Better than the guys' bikes

Impressively, in designing the women’s Ultimate, Canyon achieved better aerodynamics than the unisex Ultimate. At 45kph, the Ultimate WMN CF SLX saves two watts compared to the Ultimate CF SLX, a three per cent saving. (The unisex Ultimate already had aerodynamic shaping that provided a significant savings over the version before it.)

Part of this is slimmer tube profiles, which results in less frontal surface area: Like other brands, Canyon was able to make the tubes on its women’s bikes more slender and still achieve the same stiffness-to-weight for lighter riders. But the tubing on the Ultimate WMN is actually also shaped more aerodynamically, says Schuchnigg, innovation that Canyon plans to bring to the next version of the unisex Ultimate. Another benefit of the smaller tubes: The bike is 6.5 per cent lighter than the unisex Ultimate at the same size—claimed weight on an XS Ultimate WMN CF SLX frame is a feathery 765g.

Other forward-looking features that came to the WMN line first: Both the Ultimate and Endurace WMN are disc-brake only. “We think this is the future, it makes no sense to develop any bikes with rim brakes, to be honest,” says Schuchnigg. Both bikes also feature Canyon’s new one-piece H31 aerodynamic bar and stem, built to fit riders with smaller hands and narrower shoulders. Canyon says this new cockpit saves five watts compared to a traditional bar and stem combo, and provides 10 per cent more compliance than its predecessor, the H11 Aerocockpit initially developed for the unisex Endurace last year. Different frame sizes of the WMN bikes come with different sized cockpits, though riders can swap the one-piece bar and stem with Canyon for a better fit, free of charge.

First Ride: Canyon Endurace WMN CF SL

The “SL” in “Endurace WMN CF SL” indicates a mid-tier carbon that weighs a bit more than the superlight, top-tier “SLX” carbon featured on the Ultimate CF SLX.

When the unisex Endurace launched last summer, it was an exciting bike because it represented one of the “new school” endurance road bikes that blended the aerodynamics and speed of a race bike with the slightly more relaxed position of an endurance model, disc brakes, and clearance for bigger tires. The Endurace was the bike for riders who like to go fast, have fun, and ride mixed surfaces from time to time, but who didn’t need the unforgiving stiffness and razor sharp handling of a race bike - in short, most riders. In his review of the Endurace, test director Matt Phillips said of the bike, “It challenges the notion that an ‘endurance’ model has to be sluggish or boring.”

I rode the Endurace WMN CF SL Disc 9.0 with SRAM Red eTap (it was XS, so it had 700c wheels) on a 35-mile test loop that included a couple of longer climbs, a twisty descent, and some chopped-up roads. Some bikes just feel natural and easy to ride right away, and the Endurace was one of the them. Part of this is the riding position. Comfort is a relative term: If you’re accustomed to riding race bikes, hopping onto an endurance model with a very tall headtube and a super upright position can actually feel somewhat uncomfortable. Despite being an endurance model, the Endurace still puts the rider in a sporty position so that hopping off of a race bike and onto the Endurace felt like a seamless adjustment, and getting in the drops allows you to get low enough to rally downhills. Others in our group who typically prefer race bikes also commented that the Endurace was comfortable, but not overly staid.

The bike is also easy to handle, with a predictable feel to the steering that doesn’t come at the cost of fun on the descents, where the Endurace swooped around corners easily and stayed planted even when the turns got a little chopped up. Just riding along at around 28km/h, the ride is smooth but communicative enough that you’re aware of changing road conditions - a really nice balance between compliance and feedback.

Acceleration on this disc-brake endurance bike was lively enough to not feel sluggish, and the bike ascended efficiently and responded quickly when I got out of the saddle. Along with a wide-range 11-32 cassette in the back with a spin-friendly climbing gear, the Endurace WMN encouraged me to go for it on one mile-long stretch that averaged 11 per cent. On a longer climb, where I fell into a rhythm, the Endurace sort of just disappeared - a good sign that a bike isn't holding you back.

More riding will suss out more nuanced impressions, but I can already say that of the women’s endurance models I’ve tried in the past year, I found the Endurace WMN to be the easiest to transition onto from my personal bike, a race model, and can already think of all the different types of rides I’d love to take the Endurace on. I’d pick this bike for big all-day climbing affairs that take on our steep gravel roads, but would also happily throw it into one of the playful town line sprints on our lunch ride.

First Ride: Canyon Ultimate WMN CF SLX

I rode a size XS Ultimate WMN CF SLX Disc 9.0, with SRAM RED eTap and the same carbon Reynolds Assault LE wheels that come on the Endurace WMN CF SL 9.0 for about 70 total kilometres over varied terrain that included some longer climbs and descents. I’ve also spent a fair amount of time on the previous Ultimate WMN, which shares the same frame as the current unisex Ultimate, with women’s touchpoints.

We really liked the previous women’s Ultimate. The unisex frame always felt like it worked fine for me, and in terms of riding position and fit, I didn’t perceive a drastic difference when I hopped onto the new bike. (The reach is 1cm shorter than the unisex model in XS). In the drops in particular, though, I noted that the new Ultimate WMN puts you in a low, aggressive position.

For a race bike, the Ultimate WMN CF SLX Disc felt surprisingly easy to pilot and not overly quick-handling or nervous dodging potholes or flowing along in a group. It also did an impressive job taking the sharp edge out of washboard-like stutters on one fast descent, and stuck to the ground very well for a light race bike through the chatter. I think part of it is the wheels; while the Assault LE carbon rims don’t sport a crazy wide internal width (17mm) compared to the widest modern road rims they still plumped up the 25mm tyres a bit. SRAM’s very good top-of-the-line road hydraulic disc brakes were also powerful, modulated consistently, and helped provide confidence on this long and unfamiliar descent.

Upon initial impression, the Ultimate WMN Disc seemed to preserve most or all of that fluid and responsive feel that made the rim-brake Ultimate such a fun bike to ride too. On climbs, it rides light and and accelerates quickly when called upon. On flats, it was solid and unified when I was out of the saddle pedalling hard. In these two short rides, I didn’t really get to properly observe cornering on this bike, but Canyon-SRAM pro rider Alexis Ryan says that, to her, this is the new bike’s standout trait: “It really carves corners.”

How to get one

The Ultimate WMN CF SLX Disc 9.0 Team CSR with SRAM RED eTap and the Reynolds carbon wheels is just $8,899, but an Ultegra build is available for $4,899. The Endurace WMN CF SL Disc 9.0 LTD is $8,499, but the carbon line goes down to $2,899 with Shimano 105 and DT Swiss aluminium wheels. Aluminium Endurace WMN AL Disc bikes, with the same geometry as the carbon version, start at a price tag of $2,199 with Shimano 105. 

These first rides pretty much just whet the appetite - we’d definitely like to spend more time on both the Canyon Ultimate WMN Disc and the Endurace WMN Disc.