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 (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.)
In the seated position, the Lefty fork is 2x4 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.
Continue to page 2 for more first impressions of the new Cannondale Slate »
Former U.S. cyclocross national champion Tim Johnson was heavily involved in the bike's development (click to enlarge).
This split personality also emerged in the bike's handling. Suspect traction aside, I felt reasonably comfortable pushing hard in and out of dirt trail corners, appreciating the bike's snappy handling and small bump compliance courtesy of the Lefty fork. Don't expect to take down any Strava descent KoMs, but the Slate felt perfectly at home, playfully high-marking tall berms and hopping over small obstacles. Think cyclocross bike on steroids and you get the idea. It was absolutely a ton of fun.
Same goes for going downhill on pavement, where the wide tires delivered traction a traditional road bike could only dream of, and eliminated all manner of road chatter, even on the decidedly beat up tarmac above Malibu.
However, truly engaging this traction took muscle and even a little nerve. For reasons not entirely clear, the Slate doesn't willingly dive into paved corners like a regular road bike. Instead, you need to really push it over hard, and stay off the brakes, which immediately caused it to stand up and straighten out.
Whether you can overcome this issue will come down to technique. If you understand and are comfortable with the finer points of aggressive countersteering, say hello to your inner Paolo Savoldelli. Otherwise, your friends on standard road bikes may disappear into the distance.
Along with swapping out tires, I'd install a dropper post, which is indeed possible thanks to the Slate's bump-absorbing 27.2mm seatpost diameter and built-in routing ports. Getting the saddle out of the way would pay obvious benefits on the dirt, and aid in some of the handling issues mentioned above. You could also get more aero during straight line descents. It's also worth noting that if you opted for the top end Slate ($4260) that's spec'd with a SRAM Force CX1 drivetrain, you could hack the left brake lever so that it could be used for dropper post actuation.
Other possible changes include bumping rotor size from the stock 140mm to 160mm for better braking, adding a wider front tire, where unlike the rear, clearance is not an issue, and even playing around with gearing. The stock set-up on the 1x bike is a 44t Cannondale thick-thin chainring paired with an 10-42 SRAM cassette and clutch rear derailleur. But you could go up or down on both ends to suit your riding style and terrain. Or just opt for one of the other two build options, Shimano 105 ($2980) or Ultegra ($3250), which both come with 52-36 mid-compact 2x chainring set-ups paired with an 11-28 cassette. Indeed, there is a lot of room for personal interpretation, which seems to be what this bike is all about.
The fork is cleverly named the "Oliver" as in "all over" which is where this bike is meant to be ridden. Claimed fork weight is 1170 grams or roughly twice the weight of a decent carbon road fork. Recommended pressure is body weight-10psi and sag is just a few millimeters to ensure a very firm feel even when not locked out. The net effect is a 400mm axle-to-crown that's similar to Cannondale's CX bike, meaning you don't feel overly propped up or upright. Twelve clicks of rebound adjustment allow for some fine tuning, and if you forget to unlock there's a blow-off valve in case of a hard hit.
Other notable features include ride stiffening thru-axles front and rear (142x12, so you can conceivably use an MTB wheel, too), flat mount hydraulic disc brakes (including a clever forged piece in the rear that allows for the use of thinner tubes), and on the top end model, undoubtedly polarizing purple anodized stem, cranks and hubs. The frame also boasts some very unique shapes, with both sets of stays dramatically flattened, which Cannondale claims adds compliance to rear end to keep it in line with the 30mm travel up front.
So who is this bike for? The short answer is, that depends. When asked that question, Connondale product lead David Devine said simply, "It's for people who want just one bike that can do a bunch of things. It's a kids' bike for adults that will get you into everything. And it's a more approachable bike that hits the sweet spot in the market's middle ground."
Some will argue that's simply a euphemism for "jack of all trades, master of none." And maybe that's okay. 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. In the city, the Slate would certainly be more efficient than a mountain bike. And on dirt roads or trail, it'd be safer (and a lot more fun) than a road bike.
For the more seasoned rider (road or mountain), I see the Slate offering a diversion from the norm. Some days we're just looking for a different experience. We want to roll out our front door and not be constrained to this way or that way because of the road or trail surface. But I personally don't see that need for diversity replacing the need (or want) for a true road bike, true cyclocross bike, and/or true mountain bike. The question then remains whether that diversion will be appealing enough to justify buying another bike? The answer to that N+1 proposition will be entirely personal.
For more information visit www.cannondale.com
Continue to page 3 for complete spec and pricing information and a photo gallery »