It's surprising what you can find if you keep your eyes peeled. During a recent visit to Cannondale's headquarters in Connecticut, I found myself in their test lab, a building that's usually off limits to media types like myself, for obvious reasons. Not that day, though. High above my head, hanging in the rafters were countless prototypes, test mules, and rolling proof of concepts that have, for the most part, never seen the light of day.
There's a good reason for that: Many of these creations weren't intended to be ridden extensively or ever be seen by the public, and calling some of them less-than-pretty would be a bit like calling the Lefty strut just a wee bit different. The Lefty is a lot different, and many of these mules are a lot ugly.
The purpose of their short lives certainly wasn't to look good, but rather to suss out whether a concept might fly or flop, and they were shuffled off into a corner to collect dust once their job was done. If the idea showed merit, then engineers and industrial designers would have worked to package it in a much more appealing way, and the final product on the showroom floor might not resemble anything shown here, even though it could have traced its roots back to these odd-looking parents.
Much of Cannondale's history is filled with these madcap creations and even crazier ideas, but this is especially true when you look at the late '90s to early 2000s. It was all a bit wild, wild west back then, and while the three frames shown in the video didn't birth anything on the production line, calling them failures wouldn't be doing them justice.
After all, the very fact that none of us ended up riding around on a full-suspension bike with its rear-end controlled by square stanchions (rather than pivot bearings) shows that the test mules served their purpose.
All three are extremely rough prototypes that are more proof (or not) of concept than anything a company would usually show, and they employ an interesting mix of existing and fabricated bits and bobs that let engineers build the frames cost-effectively and relatively quickly. These ain't no shiny media samples that were ever intended to be photographed and, for the most part, it looks as if the ideas behind them didn't pan out. But you don't know unless you try, right? And trying is something that Cannondale doesn't shy away from. The Pivot-Less Full-Suspension Cross-Country Bike / 1998 - 1999
Where we're going, we don't need pivots. This cross-country prototype employed square stanchions from one of Cannondale's forks to control its 50 to 60mm of travel. Check out the single-piston Coda brake caliper, too.
You're forgiven if the above image looks confusing to you - it took me a few seconds to figure out what the hell is happening, too. Using a hardtail's modified front and rear triangles, along with a few square stanchions and needle bearing packs from their Moto fork, Cannondale's engineers created this strange duck.
The rear-end moved near-vertically on the stanchions that also held everything aligned because they were square, of course, and it probably delivered 50 or 60mm of cross-country squish, at most.
Like a lot of the other mules, this one was mostly built by using existing tubing and components.
The idea back in '98 or '99, says Steve Extance, Chief Engineer for Suspension, was to lose the pivot bearings and create a firm-pedaling, relatively simple full-suspension cross-country bike. I also suspect that some of the thinking at the time was that if a cross-country full-suspension kinda looked like a hardtail, it might be better embraced by the spandex and heart rate monitor crowd.
Something obviously didn't pan out - Cannondale never brought anything similar to the market - but it goes to show you that the idea to use things other than sealed pivot bearings to control the rear wheel isn't a new one.The Single-Sided Swingarm / 2001 - 2002
It was functional, but the single-sided rear-end ended up not being rigid enough.
If a one-sided fork can work, why not a one-sided rear-end? Not so much, it turned out. ''This was a very crude mock-up to get test some ideas and to get some ideas,'' Extance stressed, ''To see if it was feasible at all.'' If the concept had panned out, the final product might not have resembled the Franken-bike pictured above in any way, but this thing would have been its genesis. And no, this isn't from Independent Fabrications, although I wouldn't be surprised if the sticker placement was intended to throw off looky-loos. What it is, is an old-style Jekyll front triangle from back when they had less travel and a trick threaded shock mount that let riders tune the geometry. But that's where things cease to be normal, even by Cannondale's standards.
Instead of the Jekyll's normal swingarm and tiny Fox air shock, there's a single chainstay on the left side that's bolted to a complete fork leg from one of their Moto 150 DH forks. Again, the square stanchion tube and needle roller bearings provided rigidity, but it wasn't enough to explore the idea any further. ''This thing had its drawbacks. It functioned, but, obviously, one chainstay wasn't quite enough to deal with chain loads," Extance explained.
But why a single-sided rear-end? Don't forget that Cannondale had the Lefty, which would have made for quite the interesting looking combination. Plus, a one-side rear-end would have just been cool as hell. I also would have liked to have seen how they ended up packaging the cassette and rear derailleur, along with the disc brake, on the only place they could be mounted.
The Three Shock DH Bike / 1999 - 2000
While the older cross-country prototype above this used square stanchions to eliminate the need for pivot bearings, this Jekyll-ish creation still needed one at the axle and another at the top of the fork leg. It's the latter that was apparently most important, with Cannondale using a sealed headset - not just the bearings, but the entire headset - to build the pivot. It's actually a pretty clever way of going about creating a large suspension pivot that wouldn't leave all the torsional rigidity duties to the single fork leg and lone chainstay. A diced-up set of fork crowns were drafted in as pivot hardware of sorts, and the whole thing was mounted to a bracket that was bolted to the back of the seat tube.
If one shock is good, three must be three times as good, right? This prototype spawned a team-only downhill bike designed around the same concept.
Er, single pivot... linkage bike? While I'm not sure how to best sum up this prototype's design, the last frame of our tour back in time turned out to be much more promising than either of the above. It was probably too complicated and expensive to manufacture and ever be available to us peasants and peons, but a more advanced (and simpler) iteration of the design was eventually raced by Cannondale's pros on the National and World Cup downhill circuit.
It might be best to think of the layout as two separate systems, with the single-pivot swingarm driving a normal shock, all of which is pretty run of the mill. But the other system was anything but. On each side of the swingarm, two short parallelogram linkages created a secondary suspension element, each with their own pint-sized shock. All of this rode on the swingarm, and it gave the rear axle the ability to travel in an envelope of space rather than a strictly defined path.
This design let the axle move in an envelope of space rather than having to follow a one set path.
So the main shock might be sitting deep in its travel while the twin smaller shocks could be fully extended or vice versa, and the whole thing was about carrying speed on the race track.
''So these were tuned to be pretty firm off the top so you didn't have crazy pedal feedback,'' explained Extance of how they went about setting up the small twin shocks. ''But this bike, in a straight line over small bumps, would not drop any speed. It was pretty amazing.'' Neato, eh? What eventually came from all this three shock business was a team-only downhill bike that used only (only!) two shocks via a linkage that was long enough to activate a tiny custom shock mounted in front of the rear wheel. If you ask me, the team bikes were some of the oddest looking things around, whereas the older three-shock prototype looks a bit more normal.
It sure looks complicated, but there's only one more pivot than your run of the mill dual-link bike sports.
For a company that many of today's rider most associate with road bikes, Cannondale was also one of the first to the market with an off-the-shelf, production-spec downhill bike. The Super V DH 4000 had 100mm out back, but its 120mm-travel inverted fork, integrated chain guide, and Sachs disc brakes were pretty wild back in 1996. Hell, Shimano debuted their V-brake the same year.
And the Lefty, for all the hate it still gets, offers its own unique performance for riders who're into it, and it's certainly the most obvious example of Cannondale being Cannondale. There was the motorbike, too, that while being an obvious failure, was about as ballsy as it gets: An American-made dirt bike, and Cannondale decided to not only make their own motor but to also sprinkle in some of their, er, Cannondale-ness. This thing has a reversed cylinder layout, an electric starter, and fuel injection, none of which were on the market back then. I should probably mention that it also really sucked, but damn was it interesting. And here's some perspective: Cannondale's first product was a funky bike trailer back in 1972, a full decade before they built a bicycle. To start there and end up looking to take a run at the motorcycle and ATV market is quite the journey, even if they did get booted back to their own non-motorized lane after just a few rough years.
Spot anything interesting? Cannondale was invested in this layout enough to make a number of prototypes, many with different length linkages and even an adjustable version.
It's probably fair to say that out of all the bike brands that have been around for as long as Cannondale, which is over forty years now, none of them have been as inventive, or exploratory at least, as the American company that first called a pickle factory home. Oh sure, you might not be a fan of the single-sided Lefty strut, the aluminum-spined, carbon fiber Raven, or the geometry-adjusting pull-shocks that some of their bikes have employed, but you can't deny that Cannondale's out-of-the-box thinking, and especially their long-standing willingness to explore new ideas, has resulted in some absurdly cool products over the years.