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Other than the leaves—bright in that narrow window of the year that everyone describes as “peak foliage”—it’s as warm as a perfect summer day in Vermont. An old white farmhouse sits on the left side of the road between the towns of Warren and Lincoln. The side of the house tucks into the crimsontoned trees; the other side stretches toward the open field. Gone are the tractors and plows in this rocky place, the only sign of work being the soft whizzing of an electric motor, the leathery groove of low-psi
It’s here, about 3 miles into the ride, that the rough but wellmaintained Vermont asphalt turns into nicely graded, but occasional-washboard dirt. It’s a busy weekend. Many cars grumble past, climbing the road ahead of me to the top of the pass where the Long Trail and Appalachian Trail beat the same dirt. The blog and message board Twitterings say it’s one of the steepest roads in Vermont, the Lincoln Gap, with grades up to 20 percent. The perfect place to see just what Canyon’s electric gravel bike, the Grail:ON, is capable of.
It’s the most illogical conclusion of the diverging trends of electric bikes and gravel riding. A Dr. Octopus combination of geometry, components and motor that seem ridiculous. Sure, it looks like a normal gravel bike—until you notice that the aggressive carbon frame thickens in the down tube to house the Bosch PowerTube 500 Wh battery; the hub is fattened to house the Bosch Performance Line CX motor; and atop those emblematic double-stacked Canyon aero bars a small screen reads out battery life, speed and range. It’s performance that shouts in a package that only whispers.
Normally ominous road signs “Steep Grades Ahead” pop up shortly outside of Warren. Fearful of pushing a dead e-bike up the back side of the pass, I glide past the signs in Eco mode, the lowest of the bike’s four settings: Eco, Tour, Sport, Turbo. Canyon claims that in Eco the bike can take you nearly 70 miles, but with a few thousand feet of climbing over the next 30 miles and grades deep into the double digits I’m content to not strain that battery life so early.
Some e-bikes have an awkward phase. The bike doesn’t know whether to give you more pedal assist or less; they’re always a beat behind, creating a rubber-banding ride as man and machine try to figure each other out. But the Canyon whirs smoothly, encouraging me up these early modest grades.
And yet, the bike maintains the riding characteristics of a gravel bike. Despite weighing more than 17 kilograms (37.5 pounds), it feels light underfoot, darting around the occasional potholes, lingering in a track stand at a stop sign, pulling away as I stand up to put power down from a standstill. The SRAM eTap shifters work through the gears of the 1x drivetrain like any other bike I ride, trying to maximize my efficiency on the climb until the effort gets a touch tougher, the grades a smidge steeper, when I click the motor into Tour mode, downshift and start working through the gears again.
I worried that when the short run of pavement outside of town ended that assistance would end up being a hindrance, spinning the rear wheel in loose Vermont chipstone and dust. But as the road crumbles into dirt, the 50c tires grip and pull me all the same. I won’t see pavement again until the top of the pass.
The Grail:ON wants to go, but it wants to take you with it. It’s like riding with that a friend who’s always telling you to draft behind him, poking a hole in the wind and taking you at peloton speeds down rides where you’ve always meandered. It makes a ride that I’ve always known to be a slog, with only views of spinning rubber and sweat dripping off the tip of my nose, into one filled with wide Vermont landscapes, barns listing to the side and cows chewing the cud, watching me as I pass. It creates this almost childlike joy, reminiscent of endless circles around my cul-de-sac on a 12 speed, on grades that I know should be making me want to puke.
About 7 miles into the ride, the gravel flows back into pavement; it’s an ominous change. The road is too steep for dirt, too little traction for the Subarus, sedans and vans that wheeze to the trailhead at the top. Even paved, the state closes this road for the winter, too steep to plow, too tough to maintain. It’s a realization many don’t make until the nose of their car bumps into a concrete barricade across the road, their GPS telling them to press down an impossible path on a December night. But for now it’s wide open, intimidating even, beneath a yellow atrium of maples.
I switch into Sport mode. The kick is instant, not that the bike goes any faster; it sits near 10 mph, impressive, but rather my heart rate ticks down. The road twists up the last dredge of the climb, each turn adding a few degrees to the grade. My heart rate climbs as well, I begin to huff, until I finally switch into Turbo. I might as well be pedaling along a canal or down Main Street. The bike pushes up the pass, no weaker than the 30-year-old motorcycle I dragged up here last year. I’m driving to the top of the mountain. The road thickens with hikers coming off, or preparing to get on, the trail.
After 7.5 miles of climbing, as the rear wheel finally evens out with the front, the battery still shows four-fifths life. A group of older women give me a whoop, “You’re stronger than us!” they shout at me. “It’s an e-b-i-i-i-ke,” I yell as the front wheel comes to the end of the flat and noses over the back side of the gap, pulling me away from them. You can hear their deflation, a sort of disappointment, like they wanted to see some Superman going up this gap at 10 mph, faster than the KOM. But that’s not me, and it doesn’t bother me. It’s not why you ride this bike.
The Department of Transportation has seen my type before. Signs on the side of the road, far bigger than those at the bottom of the pass, warn of the upcoming 20-percent descent. They even have a pictograph of a careening bike to be sure I get the point. It’s the kind of sign that lets you know you’re about to have a lot of fun.
I turn the motor off for the descent and tuck my thumbs over the second layer of the drop bars. The pedals spin, unencumbered by any underwater feeling you get from some e-bikes under your own power. The handling is aggressive; it’s easy to forget I’m on an e-bike as I lean the bike into banking turns. The weight of the bike shoots me out of the apex of one turn and into the next. Oh, this is a descender! It’s like taking the lift service to ride your mountain bike down.
As soon as I come out of the third turn, I know I’m going too fast for the fourth. Way too fast. It’s steep…and coming quickly. I can see sky through the thin layer of trees that line it. I stand the bike up, throw my weight backward and clamp down on the brakes, asking too much from the discs, flying too close to the sun. The rear wheel locks; the sound of rubber scraping off the tire is no comfort. The trees come quickly. I kick an unclipped foot into a rock, absorbing some of the speed, and scoot to a stop beside a foot-thick maple tree, only a few feet off the road…and only a few feet from the side of the mountain. You can buy the nicest bike in the world, but you still have to ride it. My brakes sing for the rest of the descent, my heart pounding in each turn, reminding me to be less of a dumbass.
The road twists through Lincoln, Vermont, a small town with its white church and sheriff’s car sitting sleepily behind the first turn into town, before hugging the New Haven river down the mountainside. In the summer it’s a dangerous ride, cars dart in and off the dirt shoulder looking for coveted parking spots at the popular swimming and diving spots. Today, only a handful and just a single splash as one brave swimmer gets her last jumps in for the season.
The road flattens, so I turn the bike into Tour mode for the last push into Bristol. It won’t be a long stay. For all my preparation, charging the bike, charging the eTap battery, pulling on my kit and filling my bottles, I failed to check what time the coffee shop in town closed. Having missed it by 15 minutes, I turn the bike around and head back toward the gap. But, as it turns out, I don’t need the extra energy. With only 15 miles left, and half of them descent, I switch the bike into Turbo, content to blast up this side of the mountain like I’m looking for the Donner Party. I’ll coast down the backside of the mountain with a dead battery if I have to. The second battery bar flickers out. Three-fifths left.
It’s silly almost, the way the bike tears up the road, unbothered by varying road surfaces, grades or potholes. It’s the kind of ride that makes you whoop out loud, just to yourself. It feels silly, gleeful. It makes me smile, a smile so big I almost feel bad as I whiz past a non-e-bike rider grueling up the final quarter mile to the top. Almost. And for all that speed, another 7.5 miles of climb, kicking up leaves on Turbo the entire way, I crest the gap, and the battery still has twofifths life. It would stay there all the way down the gap, over the old covered bridge and back into the town of Warren.
It’s hard to imagine a road that the Grail:ON wouldn’t absolutely dominate, a group ride that it wouldn’t lead, a 70-mile cruise that it wouldn’t delight in. This isn’t the bike for sadists, the Strava route obsessed, the cadence trackers or those who live at threshold. It’s for the riders who’ve always envied their rides, their climbs, their views, but never had the ability to do them. Until now—so long as you have $7,000 to spend on this particular e-bike.