PINKBIKE FIELD TEST
Cannondale Scalpel SE 1
Words by Mike Levy, photography by Margus Riga
Calling a bike a "scalpel" is a well-worn way to say that it's a fast and sharp handling ride, which is sorta the definition of a cross-country bike. But Cannondale has been offering the real Scalpel since way back in 2001 when it debuted as a focused, sharp bike made for, you guessed it, cross-country racing. The newest 100mm-travel Scalpel continues to fill that role, but the version I tested gets a bump up to 120mm on both ends, a dropper post, and more relaxed geometry.
There are only two Scalpel SE models to choose from, the $4,000 SE 2 and my grey test bike, the $5,500 USD SE 1. That gets you an XT drivetrain, RockShox’s SID Select+ RL fork and SIDluxe shock, as well as Cannondale’s alloy Hollowgram cranks and carbon fiber rims.
Scalpel SE 1 Details
• Travel: 120mm rear / 120mm fork
• Carbon frame
• Wheel size: 29"
• Head Angle: 67°
• Seat Tube Angle: 74°
• Reach: 450mm (large)
• Chainstay length: 436mm
• Sizes: S, M, LRG (tested), XLRG
• Weight: 25.27lb / 11.46kg
• Price: $5,500 USD
That adds up to 25.27lb, including the Schwalbe control tires that were installed on every bike. At 67-degrees, the SE 1 is a degree slacker up front than the race bike, and the seat angle is half a degree more relaxed at 74-degrees. My large-size bike sports a modest 450mm reach and a not so modest 480mm seat tube.
Cannondale has a long history of doing things their way, and while the Scalpel is a relatively conventional bike by their standards, there's no way it was going out the factory doors without being just a little bit different from everyone else. Check out the flex-zone at the rear axle; many bikes use engineered flex back there, but Cannondale's employed a wide, flat section of carbon to act as the bending point where there'd otherwise be sealed bearings. This is said to mimic the action of a Horst Link pivot for more active, better suspension performance, and the flex occurs at a precise location smack dab in the middle of the flat bit.
The downbeat grey paint (that I do like) seems to hide some neat details on the rest of the frame, including the massive box-section chainstays and captive main pivot. This thing looks beefy, and Cannondale says that a frame and shock weigh in at 1,900-grams. Another detail that's hard to spot: The bike's offset drivetrain. Everything sits 6mm to the right compared to other bikes, with the idea being that it provides more tire clearance and makes for a stiffer package. It does mean that the rear-wheel needs to be dished slightly differently than usual, although that's possible to apply to most wheels.
Cable routing is internal, and there’s a clever open non-drive-side dropout so you don’t even have to pull the axle out to remove the wheel. Remember, this is the same frame as the race-focused Scalpel, so it gets the same race-focused dropout. Given the choice, who here actually wants to wear a backpack? Or any pack at all? Cannondale’s solution is a pint-sized Fabric multi-tool, Dynaplug’s lightweight tire plug kit, and a CO2 all ready for you by the side of your bottle cage. If you need the tool, you just pull the rubber band and it pops right out. And like any good cross-country bike, there's room for two bottles inside the front triangle. Climbing
My lineup of test bikes shows there are at least five different ways to get the job done, with each of them having some distinct pros and cons that make them very different on the trail. In the case of the SE 1, its best asset has to be its climbing abilities, and it's especially adept at the slow, methodical jumbly stuff. I'm picturing those perfectly ill-placed rocky steps spaced just close enough to test your timing and the bike's traction, or maybe your usually simple spin to the top has more in common with a greased up telephone pole than singletrack after a recent downpour. Whatever the challenge, the SE 1, along with the Yeti SB115, seem to claw their way up with a bit more persistence than the other bikes, a trait that always wins me over if I'm honest.
The Scalpel's spider monkey impressions are surely helped by two factors: It's a relatively compact bike, and its active-feeling suspension seems to give the Schwalbe Racing Ralph rear tire superpowers. Remember, all of them were fitted with the same rubber, and I used a digital gauge to ensure tire pressures matched for each day's back-to-back laps. Given the even fight, the Scalpel spun out fewer times than the other bikes in the slippery conditions, and I dabbed less while riding it.
Does active suspension mean a slow bike? Not on the Cannondale, as it had the second-quickest total loop time, all of which was gained on the way up. It was the second-quickest bike over the entire climb, but it made up even more time on the trickier, steeper technical section near the summit where it was basically 8-percent quicker than the other four. I'll admit that it didn't feel
quicker on the way up, as I don't think our brains equate a slightly more forgiving ride with more speed, but that's what clocks are for.
Might as well get down to it: The Scalpel SE 1 can't match the Revel, Transition, or Specialized on the descents, and the more the trail angles down, the larger the gap. To be fair to Cannondale, the SE was never meant to keep up with a bike like the Spur in the same way the SB115 wasn't; they're looking at the challenge from opposite angles, so it's no surprise to end up with opposing results.
Some good stuff first. A friend of mine built this amazing trail atop a desert mesa in Utah, and it always impressed me how he was able to shoehorn what feels like roughly 150 miles of singletrack into an area the size of a football field. It's almost maddening how many times you zig and zag tightly to see the same cactus that jabbed you an hour ago while on a different section of the same trail. It's tight as hell, but there's flow to be found on the short, sharp descents. This is where bikes like Scalpel SE 1 and the SB 115 like to live, a place where the speeds don't reach eye-watering levels, regardless of if its a slow, technical downhill or if you've managed to find some elusive desert flow. It is out there.
But the eyes start to tear up right around the same time the Scalpel begins to feel a bit short and pointy. When the ground is rough and steep, it just doesn't have that calmness where the bike almost seems to float invisibly under you as it deals with the rocks and roots. Instead, the SE can get flustered when said rocks come hard and fast and, ironically given the praise I heaped on it above, lose traction sooner than you'd prefer. I also have to point out the 480mm long seat tube that doesn't leave you with enough room to use a long-travel dropper post, a minus that can be traced back to this being the same frame as the race bike.
Some context: Both the SE1 and SB115 really would leave the four race-focused bikes (Sarah Moore reviewed those last week
) wondering which way they went on every kind of descent, no doubt there.
Speaking of intentions, we never set out to break anything, but sometimes that's exactly what happens. This time around, the SE's Hollowgram carbon fiber rear rim was a victim of my crappy line choice, maybe a bit too much speed, and the rather light-duty Racing Ralph rear tire that'll never be the same. Sure, more pressure might have prevented the knife-like rock from being fatal, but I hadn't been rolling the sidewall or burping the tire, so who knows. Anyway, here's Cannondale's response in full: ''We are glad to see Mike enjoying the new Scalpel SE and putting its capability to the test. We agree with Mike that the combination of tire pressure, rowdiness, and an untimely rock strike exceeded the durability of the rim (which is considerable). While this is not technically covered under our warranty, we evaluate each situation and in this case, the wheel would be replaced to get the rider back on the trail with as quickly as possible.
Every bike has its strengths and weaknesses, and it's no surprise to see the SE 1's is its climbing ability. Yeah, that means that it's not as exciting as the Spur or Ranger, but it'll better suit many cross-country riders who want more bike but don't need something so focused on descending.