Tucked away in a quiet area up in the hills above Lake Garda, Cannondale set out a fleet of 2017 Scalpel Si Team bikes, a few looping routes in the woods, and invited us to go ride.
There was a long loop, a short loop, and a climb I came to refer to as “the murder climb”, because my body skipped wanting to puke and felt like it was dying the first time I went up it (as I later found, this had nothing to do with the bike…)
At a shade under 5’8″, I’m awkwardly on the cusp between medium and large sizing for the Scalpel, so I tried both sizes. Starting out on the medium for a couple of laps, I found the course was a bit more adventurous than I expected, with some big rocks, tight steep switchbacks, and some technical rooty sections more advanced than most trail centre trails. I kept reminding myself it was a 100mm XC bike, and I reigned in any hoonish urges accordingly. As long as I bossed the bike around though, it was fine at clambering over things, up and down.
After a few laps I switched to a large, and that’s when it really started to make sense. The longer wheelbase suited my riding style more, filled me with confidence, and I started clattering over the rocky stuff with a bit more abandon. A steep descending switchback that took some practice and care on the smaller bike surprised me by just rolling with this one, and the only tradeoff was that the large bike was noticeably less gazelle-like for the murder climb.
It set me thinking that some bike companies are starting to talk about not just size, but also riding styles that suit different lengths of bike. I’ve always been more of a descender than a climber, so if I were going to buy one of these for fun I’d go for the large without a second thought. If I were more of a whippet and enjoyed climbing (like some kind of weird pervert), then it’d be the medium because it was noticeably easier to ascend on. These things might not be true for a bigger rider than me; as I said my height puts me right on the cusp of medium and large. Both felt like they fitted, they just each rode a little differently for me.
A part of Cannondale’s outlook for the new Scalpel is that XC bikes shouldn’t have to feel sketchy or squirelly, and for me this was true with the large: rock solid handling, nothing twitchy about it.
A quick stop for lunch, and then back onto the medium bike. Filled with confidence from the large one, plus familiarity with the course, I gave it the beans then immediately struck a pedal and high sided off the top of a big roller. No significant damage, though after the ride I did have a lovely* time peeling bib shorts off my hip and picking gravel out of it. Suitably chastened, I stuck to the 80% rule for the rest of the day.
(* Painful, wincy).
The course was really not the kind of loop I expected from the XC label. The downs had big rocks, a few drops, and the climb was absolutely brutal: steep and technical with a sequence of switchbacks one after another. Cannondale have dubbed this “XXC”, with the first X standing for extreme, and it’s exactly what they’ve built the new Scalpel for. The idea is that XC courses are getting more extreme, and while the races are still won on the climbs, they can easily be lost on the descents.
To that end, the new Scalpel has plenty of travel for XC, but also a hydraulic lockout. The remote is made by Rock Shox, looks somewhat like a Reverb remote but bigger, and simultaneously locks out the Lefty and the shock. It only has two modes, between which the difference is profound. You feel the bike change instantly underneath you, from squishy to rigid, and I heard more than one astonished bike journalist swear out loud on trying it. The locked out settings don’t really have any noticeable give when you bounce on them, certainly not enough to make it feel dissimilar to a rigid bike, but will let you blow through some travel if you accidentally leave it locked out and take a big hit. A few people said they wanted a third mode for technical climbing, but I think two modes is the right shout: it’s a much lower cognitive load than figuring out three lever positions during tricky sections, the remote makes it visually really obvious which setting it’s in, and it works quickly enough that I could easily switch as appropriate for technical or smooth sections while climbing.
A few years back Cannondale owner CSG quietly hired Jeremiah Boobar, a 17 year SRAM veteran who’s also known as Mr. Pike, and appointed him Director of Suspension Technology. He’s largely responsible for the new 100mm Lefty this is sporting. After a few minutes of setup with Cannondale’s mechanics, it felt plush and I didn’t have to adjust it all day apart from a rebound tweak. Throwing the bike off stuff it very occasionally bottomed out, but wasn’t harsh when it did and mostly just soaked up the trail without complaint.
At the end of the afternoon, we nipped under some course tape and set off for a long ride down to the lake with a few members of Cannondale staff. One of them had been given a dodgy GPX file to navigate by, so we took, um, a few detours and put in a few tens of kilometres more than planned. With extra climbs! By the last half we were out of food, out of water, starting to get low on energy, and then the trails got, for want of a better term, gnarly. Rock gardens, roots, drops, steep smooth limestone slopes crossing the trail diagonally; by no means a downhill world cup track or anything, but this was much more than the idea of XXC the Cannondale guys had been talking about. I’d normally want a trail bike for this kind of riding; it really put the Scalpel through its paces.
We had to handle the not particularly knobbly 2.25 tyres drifting a bit, and we had to ride within the limits of the 100mm travel, but the bikes were astonishingly capable. Warm sun, lake and mountain views, and a good bike: there are worse circumstances in which to accidentally do a 50K ride and bonk near the end. After a few impromptu coffee-plus-much-sugar stops, we eventually got down to the lake for dinner and put the bikes on the truck. While my body was pretty broken, I felt like I was looking at the bike with fresh eyes.
In 2012, when the last Scalpel was launched, I wouldn’t have thought any XC bike this capable. My conclusion is that the 2017 Scalpel is more bike than you probably think it is.