Riding the Cannondale Slate: What you need to know

Category bending bike opens new doors, but not without sacrifice

Road Bike
The new Slate defies basic categorization, but is a lot of fun to ride.

The new Slate defies basic categorization, but is a lot of fun to ride (click to enlarge).

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.

For reasons good and bad, this happened while test riding the new Cannondale Slate.

For reasons good and bad, this happened while test riding the new Cannondale Slate (click to enlarge).

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.)

Bumpy pavement such as this was a non-factor on the Slate.

Bumpy pavement such as this was a non-factor on the Slate (click to enlarge).

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.

650b wheels + 42mm tires = the same as it ever was, sort of.

650b wheels + 42mm tires = the same as it ever was, sort of (click to enlarge).

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.

The 42mm slick tires are a collaboration between Cannondale and Panaracer.

The 42mm slick tires are a collaboration between Cannondale and Panaracer (click to enlarge).

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.

Continue to page 2 for more first impressions of the new Cannondale Slate »
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About the author: Jason Sumner

An avid cyclist, Jason Sumner has been writing about two-wheeled pursuits of all kinds since 1999. He’s covered the Tour de France, the Olympic Games, and dozens of other international cycling events. He also likes to throw himself into the fray, penning first-person accounts of cycling adventures all over the globe. Sumner, who joined the RoadBikeReview.com / Mtbr.com staff in 2013, has also done extensive gear testing and is the author of the cycling guide book "75 Classic Rides: Colorado." When not writing or riding, the native Coloradoan can be found enjoying time with his wife Lisa and daughter Cora.


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  • DrSmile says:

    Jack of all trades, master of none. This reminds me of the hybrid bikes no serious biker would want. It’s going to suck on the road because of big tires and low pressure, and suck on the trail because of not big enough tires and too high pressure. This whole adventure bike fad is really only useful if you live in a place that either doesn’t maintain pavement on roads or substitutes dirt for the pavement..

  • Zed Fechten says:

    DrSmile,

    Considering that depaving roads has become a thing in less affluent communities, maybe bikes like this will become more useful in the future.

    http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748704913304575370950363737746

  • 7rider says:

    “For a rider new to cycling (and perhaps afraid of skinny road bike tires), a bike with wide rubber, disc brakes, and suspension could be just the ticket for overcoming those initial fears.”
    Really??? How many fearful new cyclists do you know would lay out $2,900 for a bike? Every time I get asked for bike-buying advice, no one wants to spend more than $4-500. C’dale made a bike in search of a niche.

  • Mike says:

    A bike like this is perfect for places like Marin County, which have hundreds of miles of beautiful dirt roads (and paved sections of road linking them up). Riding a mountain bike on these fire roads is boring and slower than this bike, and even more so on the road. This bike could make 30-60 mile mixed rides a joy.

  • AOhammer says:

    As a training bike for XC racing, how will this benefit? I understand great for intervals on road sections but off road? Cornering, braking, turning? Very curious on actual feedback. I assume makes you smoother on lines, gentler on braking points, etc. Thanks.

    • Jason Sumner says:

      Based on our one test ride, I think you’re spot on. The Slate would be a good bike for doing any kind of road work, and it could help sharpen your tech skills. If you can rip your local XC loop on this bike, it’ll be a cinch on your standard XC set-up. We’re actually contemplating a run at the Leadville 100 on one. It’ll be slow(er) going on any of the route’s tech downhill sections, but it could save loads of time on the flats and climbs, none of which are overly technical.

  • AOhammer says:

    Interesting idea on the Leadville project! I could imagine this bike would fly on most flatter sections when lightened. DO keep us posted with upgrades, tips and tricks! Write up an article.

  • ducatirdr says:

    Here in New England the roads are more rural in design than probably what the west coast would ever imagine. Less than 40 miles from Boston and most roads around me are sand and oil construction, aka Chipseal. Oil truck drops heavy hot oil on surface followed by sand/crushed rock trucks that lay down the crushed stone chips. Let traffic ride on this for a few weeks in the hot summer and presto, your road is resurfaced with the most evil surface a two wheeled device would ever want to ride on. Then push over to the non existent shoulder and you have a prescription for a Cannondale Slate.

    The Paris Roubaix of the northeast – http://www.highwaysmaintenance.com/Surface%20Dressing%20Nu%20Pics/SDedge1-1000.jpg

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