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A Sharper Shape Shifter

Paul Ingpen tests Cannondale Scalpel

Cannondale has completely overhauled its 2021 Scalpel, giving it a brand-new frame with four-bar-linkage suspension. Paul Ingpen hit the trails to discover if the new flex pivot lived up to the hype.

Moments before the highly anticipated scalpel was to be secretly 'prevealed' at Cape Epic 2020 under title chasers Mani Fumic and Henrique Avancini, the event was stopped in its tracks by Covid-19. Then the official pre-Olympics launch was moved online. Now we’ve just

seen Avancini win his first World Cup XCO on the Scalpel at Nové Mesto.

Let’s hope Mani will get to ride it at a lastdance showdown with Nino in Tokyo next year, before both likely retire.

The Scalpel has been in Cannondale’s line-up for almost 20 years, with the first version launched in 2001.

In a fast-evolving era for the sport, that even saw the introduction of downhill speed suits,

Cannondale wisely believed full suspension could be faster than the then prevalent hard tails. The 80mm Scalpel was never far from World Cup podiums.

That first model, with soft-tail suspension using carbon flex stays and a very small vertical

seat tube shock was an iconic bike, incredibly innovative for its time. It also featured the

bizarre looking ‘Lefty’ fork.

"This 100mm race bike rides like a 120mm trail bike, but it's faster."

Some at the time considered it a marketing gimmick, but today it’s recognised as simply years ahead of its time. The weapon came with tubeless wheels, disc brakes and a 2x9 drivetrain – all cutting-edge stuff back then.

We’ll start by saying that, having heard so many bike manufacturers rave about

‘breakthrough’ designs, we were a little sceptical about whether the innovative new frame

suspension would match the hype. We already have knees and elbows that bend a long

way, plus excellent front and rear suspension, never mind improved hand grips (ESI are

great) and high-grade shock absorbent carbon materials.

What more could you add that would effect comfort without adding weight and thus improve performance?

We waited a while to receive a test bike. In the interim, we heard that some lightweight racing snakes who want razor sharp steering and prefer to hear and feel their teeth clatter on rocky descents to know they’re sending it to the max, had found it a bit spongy. I’m 90kg and have relatively short legs and a longer torso, so I often end up adding longer 100mm stems to large size frames.

This forward-weighted combo has seemingly contributed to my sense of crushing the bike into turns because I was fitted by Cannondale SA’s in-house bike aficionado Steve Bowman with an XL frame and a short 50mm stem – and it made a very noticeable improvement

to handling. Kenda’s 29x2.4in faster-rolling Booster tyres on the rear, and sharp cornering Regolith tyres in the front, bulletproof HollowGram •25mm rim carbon wheels (yes, we tried and crashed hard, twice – the wheels rolled on, we needed chiro straightening!), Shimano XT1 x 12 (32T Cannondale chainring with 11-51 cluster) delivered more control and gearing than I needed on any course, ranging from freeride parks to farm roads.

Now let’s chat about why the technical design changes count, without getting lost in techno babble. What this more subtly balanced frame suspension mix means is that we could now afford to drop front tyre pressure and calm the fork rebound settings because the subtle addition of frame suspension provides lateral suspension without bobbing.

This is especially noticeable when using force to make up for lost momentum as most

amateurs tend to do, especially heavier units. The lateral chainstay rear suspension is

much more forgiving if you don’t end up on the ideal line coming into corners in the Scalpel 2021’s more upright position. Same thing with climbing, where you can stay seated pedalling longer when you stray from the line.

For most of us that’s a big plus!

The acid test of the above is that I only used the remote dual lockout on tar sections where

I like to max rigidity. I simply never thought about altering my suspension, on either steep

ascents nor descents. That for me is the ultimate compliment to this bike design – I have never experienced that before.

Now for the tech babble. We can safely say that the nerds in Connecticut have designed

a game-changing suspension layout by incorporating the skinny but seemingly indestructible chainstay flex zones (flex pivots) – which, having ridden the bike, make sense. They added suspension while removing the need for a traditional bearing and bolt style pivot. This modernised geometry involves an entirely new carbon fibre layup that Cannondale says is 200g lighter than the previous frame.

Here's the Lowdown

They flipped the suspension link. The upper shock link no longer swings from the top tube, it’s driven by a tiny alloy link that mounts to a forward strut on the seat tube. Each bike size position is different, which means there’s a different location for each pivot point which affects the squat and rise levels for each of the four frame sizes.

With a 68° headtube angle, the Scalpel is a degree and a half slacker than the 2017 bike, designed for increasingly technical courses. Combined with the offset lefty fork we end up with 10mm longer reach. The seat tube angle is 74.5º with a slightly higher bottom bracket than other racey XCO bikes, which means you feel more ‘on top’ of this trail-like bike. For me this position delivered road bikelike pedalling momentum on flats and climbs but the added reach and wider handlebars means you don’t sacrifice the control associated with sitting ‘inside’ the bike, like you might with a plush DH or Enduro bike. You don’t get the feeling you’re getting tossed over the bars when things get steep and gnarly. For our long Saffa stage races and play time with frenemies, this bike ticks every box.

Important Changes

1. On-frame tool storage and comfortable room for two water bottles.

2. Tube-in-tube cable routing that should make maintenance easier.

3. Cannondale employs its “Asymmetric Integration” offset drivetrain to give more tyre clearance by moving the drivetrain 6mm to the right, making fatter 2.4in tyres in muddy conditions no longer a stop-and-scrape-off affair.

That said, you would need to re-dish a new set of wheels, but they will be more robust.

Additionally, the left-side dropout on the rear wheel is open, meaning you don’t need

to pull the thru-axle out to remove the wheel, saving you time if you flat.

4. As mentioned in our 2018 Ocho fork review, we’re fans of the one-sided, upside-down, offset 100mm fork, but this new single crown rendition is smoother.

That’s because it’s more plush, making the entire ride more subtly compliant.

5. Lastly, there’s a nifty front-wheel sensor, which us non-logbook-type riders really enjoy for checking service intervals and the distance of the epic rides we write about.

"The Scalpel is both fast and comfy. What more could you ask for?"

The Verdict

There are very few downsides to this extremely impressive XCO or marathon-suited bike.

It’s both fast and comfy – what more could you ask for?

Those seeking milliseconds on railing berms may not enjoy the on-top vs inside feel. The

120mm SE trail version is not available in SA, but you have the option of adding 2.4in tyres

like we did, a 120mm fork and a dropper post. As someone who enjoys trails and values

comfort, I’m happy with more robust tyres, which I feel safer on, and don’t miss the weight

savings of the hi-mod carbon frame or carbon lefty of the Scalpel 1 – though I did prefer

that paint job. I never felt the need for more travel – this 100mm race bike rides like a 120mm trail bike, but it’s faster.

At under R100k, we’d roll this out the door for sure.

For more, see Mountain Bike mag (Summer 2020)


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