Remember when gravity-focused short-travel 29ers were edgy? When a brand would give one to their most decorated downhiller, and it would break YouTube? Now, this subcategory has become a staple. Every brand has one. But not Canyon. They have three. And the black sheep among them is the Spectral 125. Find out why Travis Engel still doesn’t want to send his test bike back in this detailed review below…
Canyon crossed the pond to the U.S. in 2017. In the high-end consumer-direct bike game, that’s like dialing the logistics difficulty from hard to hardcore. To keep things lean, several bikes in Canyon’s lineup aren’t even available here. But we do get three bikes whose rear travel numbers span just 20mm. There’s the 110mm Lux Trail, the 130mm Neuron, and this 125mm Spectral. I’ve ridden each, and they could not be more different. Although the Lux Trail is built around its own unique frame, it’s a close sibling to the race-only 100mm Lux. It’s fast, not forgiving. And the Neuron offers more rear travel than the Spectral 125, but it has more subdued ambitions. It’s great for stacking miles in comfort and safety. The Spectral 125, on the other hand, is about throwing caution to the wind.
Corny catchphrases aside, I love this bike. It takes a refreshingly measured approach to the short-travel shredder. Other bikes in the category like the Transition Spur, Pivot Trail 429, and even the Evil Following all ride noticeably lighter. I mean, they’re down to go hard if you’ve got the skill, but none can meet you halfway if you don’t. I’d put the Spectral 125 more in the category of the Commencal Meta TR, the Norco optic, and (I’ve heard) the Chromag Darco. Part of that is thanks to the generous 140mm-travel fork, but there’s more to it. Because Canyon already covered their semi-racer and semi-casual bases with the Lux Trail and Neuron, they were able to tune the Spectral 125 to be something truly unique. The existing 150mm-travel Spectral rides more like a lightweight enduro bike than a long-travel trail bike, so Canyon slimmed down the 125’s tube diameters to make its frame stiffness more travel-appropriate. They also tweaked the suspension to be more progressive than the 150 model, both to soften its bottom-outs and to lean into its playfulness. And to lean into its pedaling prowess, they gave it slightly higher anti-squat values.
So, How Does it Ride?
Pedaling is the perfect spot to start going into detail about how the Spectral 125 rides. It pedals well, but most moderate-travel bikes pedal well. The question is what type of pedaling does it do well. The Ibis Ripley and Revel Ranger, for example, are magic carpet rides. Efficient, but supple. While the Yeti SB120 and Gen-4 Santa Cruz Tallboy are more designed for mashing. All these bikes have some sort of witchcraft in their linkage, but the Spectral just has a Horst Link. What it also has is a recommended 25% sag (though I ran it at 30%). Combined with the progressive leverage curve, I’d call it “rewarding” under eager pedaling, but not in a way that made me want to go race-pace all ride. I didn’t feel any of the wingfooted joy that I feel when I get on a bike more committed to the short-travel schtick. I could see that being a problem if you’re a fitness-focused rider choosing this bike for drastically undulating terrain like plateaus of southwest Utah or the rolling corduroy of some of my old midwestern haunts. But you wouldn’t need a bike like this on terrain like that. It was built with big, sustained descent in mind, so it really shines on big sustained climbs.
Now, I pretty much always want seat angles to be steeper, but Canyon did a lot of things right in that department. Especially if you look at it through my snobbish, nerdy eyes, which we’re about to do. Canyon measured the Spectral 125’s 76-degree (ish) effective angle at a reasonable saddle height for each frame size, not level with the head tube like many brands do. This makes for a steeper angle and a more useful, accurate number. And Canyon made sure to avoid slackening the effective seat tube angles at ride height in larger frame sizes, which many brands do, much to the chagrin of taller riders like myself. All numbers below are in the flip-chip’s “Low” setting.
Geometry and Suspension
What I’m getting at is that the Spectral 125 feels like it was optimized for making long climbs as easy and (if I really wanted) as quick as possible. That’s also true of how the bike positions you over the front end. I left all the spacers below the stem, and some shreddy-er riders may opt for a taller bar, but as-is, the cockpit left me plenty ready to put the power down. I never needed the shock’s Climb mode, but it was just so easy to reach that I did use it on smooth fire roads. It’s especially easy to reach on the Float X specced on the CF 9 that I tested, which has a bit more gravity-focused build than some other models in the Spectral 125 lineup. But what stood out to me on this bike goes well beyond fancy damping.
I used to be a chronic over-biker. Long travel got to be so practical, I just took it everywhere. But it got boring. I wanted to feel the fear a little, but that meant reaching dangerous speeds on my big bike. Like I said, the Spectral 125 met me halfway, and it does so in some interesting ways. Like the 64-degree head angle. That’s as slack as the Specialized Enduro. I couldn’t suddenly reach Enduro-level velocity, but at least I could stay in control when things went sideways. On less capable bikes, there’s sometimes a sort of feedback loop in post-chaos corrective steering. It all happens in an instant, but that’s all it takes to oversteer just a tad and lose the plot completely. On the Spectral 125, the bike seemed to default towards rolling in the direction of my body’s inertia. That also means it wasn’t eager to change directions quickly, especially at low speeds. Maybe that was just a wordy way to mansplain what slack head angles do, but it’s a special sensation on a bike with such moderate travel.
A sensation more familiar on moderate-travel bikes was the Spectral 125’s measured compliance. Now, I didn’t know about its modified tube profiles before I spent most of my time on this bike. If I had, I probably would have really gotten into the weeds slashing and wiggling so I could better capture the frame feel. But by the time I got used to how it responds to lateral forces, I could only describe it as “just right.” No amount of armchair-engineer bullshitting felt any more helpful when trying to put it into words. The Spectral 150 is dead stiff, which makes sense for what a charger it is. But the 125 needed some help to keep things from getting harsh. There was a calmness in how the front end handled oblique impacts that I appreciated when trying to keep the rear end from deflecting at high speeds. Of course, though, speed isn’t exactly this bike’s endgame. Games are its endgame.
It was easy to get the front wheel off the ground and keep it there. Although I think a shorter-stay mixed-wheel setup would have been cool on the size small, I liked that my XL test bike at least maintained the lineup’s moderate 437mm chainstays. So many brands today stretch the rear ends for us tall folk, and I guess that makes sense on some bikes. But not this one. It has that sort of childish, big-BMX-bike feel that had me popping off obstacles with an ease rarely found on bikes this capable. Most of that is because of the short travel, but some of it is how the Spectral 125 carries its travel. Canyon was one of the first brands to make a big deal about its straight progressive leverage curve. Basically, throughout and significantly past its sag, the rate of increase in support stays relatively constant. It makes for a predictable platform to pump and jump with, but also keeps the travel from disappearing in a mid-sized impact. And to get slightly more nerdy, it frees you up to choose the settings that suit you. I was able to run deeper than the recommended sag without sacrificing support. And though I was happy with the rather minimal stock 0.3 cubic inches of volume reduction, I could see harder hitters adding more to start that ramp-up earlier.
Other Build Specs
I won’t go any deeper talking about the suspension spec, or much other spec for that matter, because this flagship CF9 model is in a sort of limbo after the introduction of SRAM Transmission. A few things will stay the same, though, and there are a couple standout features. Like Canyon’s house-brand dropper post, which is specced in 150mm in the small, 170 in the medium, and 200 in LG and XL. If any of those are too long, the post can be adjusted down 25mm in 5mm increments.
Those long droppers are thanks to the frame’s low standover, which is just one of its many perks. I also like that the bottom bracket is threaded and that the cable routing is guided, though in sort of a weird way. Affixed to the ports on either end are plastic tubes that run the length of the frame. I did manage to hear these slapping the frame walls occasionally, so I’d have preferred the in-wall routing most carbon frames use, but this is a clever solution.
There’s an accessory mount under the top tube, which just about fit my ample on-ride necessities pack. But the down-tube bottle mount doesn’t leave a lot of room, even with my 20-ounce bottle. My only other real nitpick on the frame is that it was built around a 55mm chainline. That is, the chainring sits about 3mm further outboard than most Boost-spaced bikes. It results in slightly more drastic crosschaining in the larger cogs. It was a necessary way to give the bike its ample tire clearance without sacrificing stiffness or strength. The problem is, if you backpedal in the largest cog, the chain will immeditely drop off into the next smallest. To be fair, that doesn’t happen often on the trail. And I only once felt some hesitant downshifting that may have been related to this. I should also note that, on the Shimano-equipped Spectral 150 I rode in 2020, both of these issues were less noticeable. But I still could do without it. It’s becoming more and more common though. It’s just one reason why SRAM Transmission was built around a 55mm chainline.
Pricing and Wrap-Up
Again, no idea what the SRAM Transmission version of this bike will cost, but $7,000 isn’t bad for everything you see here. Where the value really gets impressive, though, is further down the line. The next-level-down model has been pulled from the site as availability is updated, but there should soon be a full carbon, Fox-suspended, SLX-equipped CF 8 at around $4,000. Other than the slightly heavier Rhythm-level Fox 36, there’s really nothing on that build that I wish were any nicer. Same goes for the aluminum 125 AL 6, which gets effectively the same spec as the CF7 for $2,999. And what’s more, to save just a little cost, Canyon didn’t equip the AL6 with a flip chip. Instead, they gave it the low bottom bracket and slack head angle of the low setting, but the steep seat angle of the high setting. It’s a smart move. Makes me wish they’d done it on the carbon version, but if you can’t tell, I’m not complaining.
However unique I’m making this bike seem, I think it has pretty broad appeal. The aggressive geometry will allow riders like me to get shreddy, but will also keep newer riders feeling stable while they grow into it. I like the travel numbers for their precision, but those in regions with mellower terrain may find this bike suits it perfectly. And though I’m more of a slow-and-steady-wins-the-race sort of climber, I could see this bike serving those who have something to prove. I know it’s sort of a sub-category within a sub-category, but the aggressive, short-travel, long-distance, slack, supportive trail 29er may be my new favorite.
- Capable without being numbing
- Supportive without being harsh
- Good value
- Even better value at lower price points
- Not as light or sprightly as many 120mm-ish bikes
- 55mm chainline doesn’t play well with some drivetrains
- Cable routing is clever, but not silent
See more at Canyon