Q&A WITH THE BRAINS BEHIND SHAPESHIFTER
While riding and studying up on the Canyon Strive and the tech inside, we decided to reach out to Canyon Bikes for some official answers. Vincenz Thoma, the original lead designer for the Strive and man behind the ShapeShifter was kind enough to get very in-depth with us. Read on to learn about the concept, testing and eventual development of Gen I and Gen II ShapeShifter that help make this bike on of the most fun and versatile in the category
TLW: WHEN WAS SHAPESHIFTER FIRST CONCEIVED AND WHAT LED TO ITS DEVELOPMENT? WAS IT A SPECIFIC REQUEST OF THE RACERS?
Vincenz Thoma (VT): The thing that might surprise people is that ShapeShifter’s origin really wasn’t connected to racing at all. It was about going on big rides, looking for big descents, and trying to find a way to make the existing bikes of the time better climbers without sacrificing their downhill performance.
ShapeShifter was born from my daily rides. I live in the alps. And here, when you want to get to a great downhill, you generally have to start with a pedal up a lot of steep trails. And back then—this was 2011—long-travel bikes were really compromised when it came to finding a balance between climbing and descending. No single bike could really do both well.
So, I was playing around with very different shock set ups to try and hit that balance. It was never a satisfying experience. I was over inflating air shocks, so that I could sit up higher in the travel and reduce the shock’s tendency to squat, but, no surprise, increasing the spring rate like that led to poor downhill performance. It was always a matter of gaining one thing and sacrificing another thing.
TLW: WHY NOT JUST USE A SHOCK REMOTE? THAT’D BE LOADS SIMPLER…
VT: Because I wasn’t looking to just reduce suspension bob (squat). If you wanted to really create a great climbing bike, the geometry needed to change as well and a handlebar-mounted rear shock “lock out” didn’t do much in that regard—sure, it changed dynamic sag slightly, but that wasn’t nearly enough.
TLW: OKAY, SO WHY NOT USE A “FLIP CHIP” TO CHANGE THE GEOMETRY?
VT: Because no one ever uses those things in the middle of a ride. No one. A flip chip is something you fiddle with once or maybe a couple times a season, but it’s of little practically use when you are in the middle of a ride and want your bike to ride differently.
TLW: TAKE US THROUGH THE BASIC DEVELOPMENT PROCESS OF THE CANYON STRIVE’S SHAPESHIFTER.
VT: I realized that changing shock orientation could achieve both the geometry and suspension characteristics that I wanted to be able to alter, on the fly. Originally, I had the idea of changing rear shock orientation in a mechanical way, from the linkage, really. So, I had prototypes of upper shock mounts that let me position the shock in different ways.
This was way back in 2011. I took the Nirve AM, which was sort of like our Spectral, and I put this adapter piece on it to simulate different positions. It was realty a lot of effort just to assemble it and disassemble it from the shock and the rocker. So, every time I wanted to adjust the shock position it would take like 10 or 15 minutes to change the position before and after each climb.
It was a pain…but it also immediately became clear that doing that changed a lot of things—geometry, leverage curve, travel—because the shock leverage is different. It became clear that all those changes happening at once, could make for a bike that climbed much better or, after you changed back, on descents.
This was really cool. Because it meant that we were no longer forced to pick a single setting that would be a good balance between climbing and downhill performance. We could use this thing that would become ShapeShifter to give the Strive two ideal settings—one for uphill and one for downhill.
Originally, I planned on using a mechanical device—such as a spring—to move the shock, but it became clear that such a device would have to be quite big and heavy—nor would it be something that you could cleanly integrate into the frame. So, to make it more compact, I knew I needed to go with a hydraulic system. The nice thing about hydraulics is that they are able to manipulate super high forces in a super small space. Going hydraulic enabled us to create an actuator which changed shock position that was compact, light, and effective.
But the other thing that I liked about going with a hydraulic actuator was that it allowed you to use any rear shock with the correct eye-to-eye measurement. Other systems, in the past, that tried to achieve on-the-fly geometry and suspension changes, required complicated, proprietary shocks. We wanted to give riders more flexibility and options—we didn’t want to tie anyone into have to use expensive, custom shocks. Creating a separate, hydraulic actuator to move the rear shock lets people use just about any air-sprung shock they want.
TLW: SO, HOW DID THE RACE TEAM WIND UP EVENTUALLY GETTING INVOLVED?
VT: In late 2014 or so, Fabian Barel contacted us, and I showed him the prototype at our headquarters in Koblenz. He was really amazed by it and wanted to try it. And from that point on, we were developing the bike together. That was a real departure because, again, we weren’t originally developing this for racing. ShapeShifter was really for anyone who just wanted to ride serious descents but who had big climbs to put away before each descent. But when Fabian came on board, he immediately saw how this could be an asset in competitions. He was like, “Why don’t you build an enduro bike with this technology”. So, we did. That bike became the Strive and it was immediately successful on the toughest enduro courses.
TLW: HOW DOES IT WORK INTERNALLY?
VT: At its core, a handlebar mounted remote uses a cable to actuate the ShapeShifter hydraulic unit. There are differences though between the first-generation ShapeShifter and the second generation, which launched in 2018.
The first version was actually a bit simpler, hydraulic-wise. Basically, the hydraulic fluid was just pushed from an insider to an outside chamber and there was just one valve that could basically block that movement. But there were some drawbacks to that design. First and foremost, you had to push the remote and keep it pushed in until you had finished your body movement. You had to time the movement. And that was a big drawback to the first-generation unit.
So, the primary motivation for evolving the original Strive’s ShapeShifter was to make it simpler for riders to actuate it. That meant, having have two fixed positions on the remote and not requiring that you be spot on. with timing your movements anymore. So, for the second generation we developed our own remote that had two positions (uphill and downhill) via two levers. You click either mode lever and it sort of sucks itself into the proper position. It’s much easier to use.
TLW: WHAT’S THE FOX CONNECTION?
VT: FOX builds great suspension, so we decided to team with them. We wanted a lower-pressure unit (which would place less stress on the seals and would maximize ShapeShifter’s durability) and we wanted to create a unit that was easier to use. Creating a FOX-built unit also means that riders can rely on FOX for servicing.
TLW: WHAT IS THE WEIGHT PENALTY OF THE STRIVE’S SHAPESHIFTER SYSTEM?
VT: 200 grams for everything—the unit, lever, cable, and housing.
TLW: HOW MUCH MAINTENANCE DOES THE SHAPESHIFTER SYSTEM ADD TO THE BIKE? DO YOU NEED TO SERVICE IT REGULARLY?
VT: Almost none. Nothing complicated or time intensive. Anything you’d normally do to routinely care for your fork or rear shock applies. Regularly clean the outer surface, so that grit isn’t working its way past your wiper seal. But really, ShapeShifter is pretty hassle-free. The ShapeShifter unit isn’t actuating with the kind of frequency or speed that a shock or fork experiences. Ultimately, it just isn’t going through a lot of cycles. Plus, it’s covered and tucked away. It’s generally a good idea to have it serviced every couple of years if you are riding a lot.
TLW: WE COULD SEE THE “PEDAL”/HIGH MODE BEING USEFUL FOR SOME DESCENTS. CAN YOU DESCEND IN THE PEDAL MODE?
VT: Absolutely. There is no danger of blowing the thing up by descending in “uphill” mode. In fact, a lot of us use that mode on the Strive to give more pop and platform on some flatter downhill sections and flow trails.
TLW: IS THERE AN OPTIMAL AIR RANGE FOR THE SHAPESHIFTER?
VT: ShapeShifters works best when you have pumped up to the same pressure as the rear shock. The max is 200 PSI. Running proper rear shock sag (which should be standard operating procedure for anyone, anyway) also helps ensure that the Canyon Strive’s Shapeshifter performs well. Here’s a quick start guide: https://www.canyon.com/en-gb/support-articles/quick-start-guide-strive.html
TLW: WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO GO WITH THIS STEEPER HEAD TUBE ANGLE ON THE STRIVE?
VT: Fair question.
As it stands, the current Strive’s head angle may strike some riders as conservative. Then again, it’s been ridden to plenty of wins on the Enduro World Series. Clearly, you can ride fast as hell on this bike, even though it’s not the slackest or longest machine out there by a long stretch.
If someone is looking for a rig that they can take on a road trip and handle just about every trail, the Strive fits the bill really well—more so, really, than a bike with a fixed 63-degree head angle. A DH-bike head angle is a blast on super steep and chunky trails but is also a lot less fun when you are trying to clean uphill switchback #7 in the middle of an hourlong climb from hell. That’s where the Strive and its geometry have an advantage. Put in uphill mode, climb like you’re on a trail bike. Put it in downhill mode and you’re riding the same bike that Jack Moir raced to victory at two EWS stops so far this season.
TLW: COULD YOU SEE THE SHAPESHIFTER EVER MAKING IT ONTO OTHER MODELS IN YOUR RANGE? WE’D LOVE TO SEE SHAPESHIFTER ON AN EMTB AS IT’D HELP LIFT THE BB…
VT: Who knows…? Well, we guess we do, but we can’t just cough up the goods. Good try, though. We like ShapeShifter and we always have cool bikes in the works, but we also know that the ShapeShifter concept isn’t for everyone. Some people want absolute simplicity, and we won’t gainsay that. We have bikes like the Spectral 29 and Torque that fit the bill there. We’ll see…the future is an interesting place.