It wasn't that long ago that Cannondale was a big part of top-flight downhill racing, with names like Myles Rockwell, Cedric Gracia, Anne-Caroline Chausson, Brian Lopes, and Missy Giove racing US-made bikes in the heyday of the sport. Back then, it was like the wild west of bike design, and no company could out-wild Cannondale
on that front.
There was the dual-link Fulcrum that had five chainrings
and more chain than a tandem; the Gemini had two shocks and a secondary linkage that let the rear axle move in a 'travel envelope' of sorts; and that weird hardtail-suspension thing for Aaron Chase
that used a Lefty strut for a top tube.
Simmonds used the split-shock system at the first World Cup in Maribor (above), but he chose a single shock for Fort William, where he finished 23rd.
Sure, there were a few strange ones but that's what happened back in the 1990s and early 2000s when anything might be possible. It seems as if Cannondale is re-visiting the dual-shock path with their yet-to-be-named carbon downhill bike being piloted by Matt Simmonds during this year's World Cup season.
Technically, it's a "split-shock" system, not dual-shock, and the idea behind it is much different than those outrageous Cannondale machines of two decades ago, but the bike isn't any less wild.
Split-Shock System Explained
Without the split-shock setup, the Cannondale uses a single Fox damper mounted low in the frame that's compressed from above by the rocker arm.
So, what the hell is going on with this thing? Pinkbike's Ross Bell cornered Tom Duncan, Cannondale Factory Racing Mechanic and the guy who's been wrenching for Simmonds during its development, to figure out exactly that. Straight from the horse's mouth:
''It's pretty complicated, but the basic idea behind the split shock is that if you have a bike that's really progressive... The Fox DHX2 damper is speed-sensitive, so high-speed compression and low-speed compression, and that damper is designed to work within a range of speeds. A lot of bikes now are really supple at the beginning of the stroke, which is very low shaft speeds, and this is really progressive at the end of the stroke, which is very high shaft speeds. That range could, if you have a really progressive bike, be outside of what the shock is designed for. Therefore you lose some control of the damping in the stroke. So the idea with this is that we can keep the range of speeds smaller, and then retain full control of the damper through the whole stroke."
The front triangle (left) has all the holes. With the split-shock layout, the empty but coil-sprung unit is mounted to the top rear of the rocker (right) via geometry-adjusting chips. The damper is compressed from the front of the rocker, and the whole thing pivots from close to its center.
Cannondale put a focus on adjustability, but how much of it will we see if and when the bike is produced?
As you can imagine, there are many, many different ways to set the bike up: "We can change the leverage rates of these bikes so much, we can absorb those different spring rates. We can go with a highly sprung, very linear bike, or we can go for a very progressive bike with a lower spring rate."
Got all that? Yeah, me too, but here's an easy way to think about it regardless. Cannondale can separate the spring rate duties from the damping duties, effectively creating different leverage rates for each. When it's set up with the split-shocks (which Simmonds isn't running in Fort William) the Fox unit with the coil spring on it is actually empty - it offers no damping whatsoever. In that configuration, the damping comes from a Fox shock that's tucked into the bottom of the downtube, which kinda makes this thing look like an e-bike.
The idler pulley seems to be positioned lower on the Cannondale than on other high-pivot bikes like the Aurum HSP and the Supreme DH, which gives away its lower instant center.
''The idea being that you don't over-work the damper, which is a problem that quite a few modern downhill bikes seem to have,'' Duncan explained to Bell in the CFR pits. ''Or you can run it as one as we've decided to do here, and there are some slightly different characteristics from the single shock to the split shock.''
Sure seems like a lot of work when you're going to run 'only' one shock at a World Cup race, doesn't it? "We ran it as a split shock at the BDS and then stayed for a couple of days afterward; strapped this [single shock] on and was going pretty much the same speed with a lot more comfort,'' Duncan readily admitted before laying out the strategy. ''We just go with the fastest at each race. Not to say that the split shock won't return at some point. Very much so, depending on what you need from your bike at that particular track. Fort William has some very unique characteristics that lend themselves to how the bike is set up now.'' It'll be interesting to see where - and why - Simmonds chooses to go with the split-shock system.
Testing, Testing, and More Testing
Are you thinking that the bike might be different just to, you know, be different? Why spend a load of cash to make a downhill bike when people just think that it looks like a Session. ''When you look at bikes, a lot of things have been done already. Then you look at other sports, or motorsports or whatever, things that are on wheels, then there is different technology used,'' Daniel Hespeler, Cannondale Team Manager said.
''You just try to mix things up, and for sure our engineers look into all the little details, and one of their ideas was to separate the spring from the damper. It's nothing new and not rocket science; it's been done in many other sports, and we just try to apply it to the bike.''
While we've only just seen the bike for the first time a few months ago, Cannondale has been at it for the last two years. The first step, Duncan said, was to figure out how they wanted it to behave, so Simmonds spent a bunch of time on competitor's bikes that have been performing well on the World Cup circuit. ''We then tried to take the best bits of each one and came up with this, which we got in December,'' and that bike was immediately packed up and shipped off to Italy where Simmonds pointed it down some on San Remo's testing tracks.
Simmonds' large-sized bike has a 485mm reach when the headset cups are set to the longest position.
"Simmonds and I have done forty days on this bike trying out all its different bits and pieces,'' he told Bell, which isn't surprising when you see all the things that can be changed. The links can be swapped out, of course, as can the upper and lower shock mounts, the axle position, and the reach via offset inserts, and probably a few other things, too. Multiply that by two because of that whole split-shock thing and it sounds like Simmonds and Duncan have been busy beavers during the pre-season. Interestingly, Cannondale has manufactured a single size of idler pulley and its position isn't adjustable at all.
They've stuck with the same front triangle design throughout all of that, however, due in large part to all of those adjustments letting them set it up how they want without needing to make major changes to pricey carbon molds.
After a year away from the World Cup circuit, Simmonds' qualified 16th and finished 23rd on the unforgiving Fort William track.
There's only a single size right now, and Simmonds' bike is said to fit like a "big large," with his offset cups set to maximum length to provide a 485mm reach number. It's nearly as long out back, too, at 455mm with Simmonds' axle set to the longest position for the Fort William track. Bryceland just got his bike as well, and Duncan said that he's likely gone for a shorter, more playful setup. The head angle sits at 63-degrees, so nothing too crazy there, either, but the CFR parts box is full of headset cups to provide Simmonds with a lower number when it's needed.
At this point, it's pretty clear that Cannondale will likely be putting together a full-on World Cup downhill team again (more on that below), but it's still very early days on that front and their racer, Matt Simmonds, took the 2018 season off. That means he rejoins the circuit with a very high plate number, surely higher than his skill deserves, and the team's only goal at the first round in Maribor was for the British racer to qualify and get his hands on a point. Done and done, with a number 44 on his plate this weekend in Fort William.
Cannondale's DH Future
Add Cannondale to the list of companies doing high-pivot downhill bikes, although theirs is much more complicated than anything else out there.
If the mountain bike market was a big pie, entry or mid-level hardtail and full-suspension bikes would make up the very large majority of it. Downhill bikes? That slice is so minuscule that even a World Cup cross-country racer would eat it without guilt. Downhill bikes - and downhill racing - sell a lot of other bikes, though, and it sounds like Cannondale isn't just dipping their toes into the pool.
''Everything we do here is based around testing new things and trying to get faster with it. And then, ultimately try to build one of the best downhill teams in the world,'' Hespeler said. ''But that's a project that'll last over the next three, four, five years probably, and that's our goal.'' Could that mean the return of Bryceland? Cannondale signing some other big names?
Some teams have been experimenting with changing the position of the idler, but Cannondale has a single location and size for theirs.
And if you're going to all this trouble, wouldn't you want to sell the downhill bike that cost you untold amounts of money and time to develop? "Right now, this bike is very much in the testing phase and we're not going to start selling it next week,'' replied Duncan. ''We're still playing around; some races we're on the single shock, some races we're on the split shock, so we need to get that ironed out to make sure it's a proper production-ready item... If it ever gets that far.''
Something tells me that it probably will, and if or when that happens, is the Cannondale going to be on your short list?