The photo below goes a long way to explaining the good (and bad) of the new Cannondale Slate, a bike without clear definition but plenty of potential for two-wheeled fun.
In early December, RoadBikeReview spent one long day in the hills outside Malibu, California, test riding this new drop-bar bike that’s hitting bike shop floors across North America right now. We spun on smooth pavement along the Pacific Ocean, climbed and descended steep (and sometimes bumpy) tarmac, and rallied up and down the loose-over-hard Backbone Trail, which is relatively tame by traditional mountain bike standards, but rowdy for a road bike.
The Slate, with its 30mm of front suspension and bulbous (but treadless) 42mm tubeless tires, fits somewhere in between the two categories. And that’s why I was going fast enough around that loose off-camber corner to wash out the front wheel and hit the deck. Fortunately, no harm was done to body or bike.
Had I been on a road, or even cyclocross bike, speed would have been checked long before the turn. But the Slate all but dares you to take chances and push harder than you normally would. This metaphor of challenge speaks volumes both about the bike and the company which built it. Cannondale has a long history of pushing boundaries, sometimes for the better, sometimes because it wants to get into the motorcycle business. Time will tell which camp the Slate ends up in.
To better understand this bike and the methods behind it, here are the key things we learned during our one day speed date with the new Cannondale Slate.
It’s more road bike than mountain bike. Despite the 30mm Lefty suspension fork, wide tires (1.65 inches in MTB speak), and 20’ish-pound weight size XL alloy frame, the Slate leans toward the skinny tire realm. (Note: A carbon frame version is possible, but for now Cannondale says only they’ll look at it, but keeping cost down was important for the first iteration of the bike. They also say the frame is coming in under 1200g, size Large.)
In the seated position, the Lefty fork is 2×4 stiff, with nary a hint of bob. Stand up and you can get it to move, but that’s easily remedied via the easy-to-access lock-out button at the top of the single fork leg. (Which is also no cause for concern. Cannondale long ago figured out how to eliminate flex from its unique suspension platform.) Same goes for the tires, which despite their girth, roll easily on pavement, making a swift spin on the flats just that.
Roadies will also find the frame geometry familiar, and even aggressive if you spend most of your time pedaling a steed with “endurance” angles. Chainstays are a short and snappy 405mm (versus 410-413mm on the company’s Synapse endurance road bike), the asymmetric BB30a bottom bracket and Cannondale SI forged cranks are sprint-to-the-line stiff, and handlebars are standard road spec, not some flared out mustache model. Indeed, on numerous occasions, Cannondale staffers used the term “New Road” to describe their latest creation.
However, the Slate does make one huge departure from “road.” In order to accommodate the short’ish stays — and still allow enough room for the wider tires — Cannondale spec’d the bike with alloy 650b wheels instead of the traditional 700c. The combination of smaller wheel and taller tire nets roughly the same roll-out as a 700x23c set-up, which in turn keeps the bike slanted to road side of things.
One immediate issue, though, is tire choice. While plenty grippy on pavement and more loamy singletrack, the spec’d Panaracer-Cannondale rubber didn’t inspire confidence on loose dirt during our test ride. Instead the lack of side knobs meant that when traction gave way it went all at once. (Again, see lead photo.) The good news is that there are already a few viable alternative treaded options on the market (Schwalbe G1, Surly Gnard 650b, Bruce Gordon Rock n’ Road), and one Cannondale staffer hinted that WTB was about to release its own 650b 40-42mm tire.
If I owned this bike, I’d quickly ditch the stock tires and install something with a little more bite. Reason being is that if I was going to spend a lot of time on the road (where the stock tires would perform best) I’d just ride a road bike. For me, the Slate is about off-the-beaten-path adventure, and that means dirt, which necessitates a little tread. Who cares if the spin to get there is a little slower.
Tire pressure was another area of great discussion. The recommended range was 35psi-50psi, but it was quickly apparent that were you reside on this spectrum has a significant effect on performance. The higher pressure kept the bike rolling fast on pavement. But lower pressure was definitely preferable on the loose dirt trail. The problem is that if you bled air, then returned to tarmac, you’d want to revert to a higher psi. Otherwise, the softened rubber would increase rolling resistance and even start to squirm in corners. Best bet would be to carry a gauge and adjust on the fly, or just accept that you were sacrificing one quality for the other and chose whatever was most important for you.
Here’s a video recap of our test session in California courtesy of Cannondale. Click over to page 2 for more about the new Slate.