Cannondale’s Trail SL 3 29er deﬁes cost, materials and tyre tread convention to create an enjoyable and highly amusing trail bike. Sizing needs care, but otherwise this is an outstandingly agile, smooth, naturally fast and entertaining bike that’s a blast straight from the box, but well worth upgrading in the future.
Ride & handling: Big-wheeled smoothness, grip and speed in an agile and affordable package
While ‘vibration reducing engineered ﬂex’ is a very fashionable frame claim, few bikes – particularly alloy ones – achieve a noticeably softer feel. The back end of the Cannondale, however, is remarkably resilient, with a spring in its step that many steel bikes would be envious of.
This stops your backside getting bludgeoned by blocks, drops and trail trauma and gives the compact Trail SL 3 an agile and lively feel. Add the super-quick Kenda Small Block Eight tyres and stiff steering, and it’s a blast to chuck about, ﬂick off lips and charge between sections in a way that shames a lot of 26in-wheeled bikes.
While the RST Deuce coil fork only occasionally went beyond 70mm of stroke and felt decidedly basic when battering over roots and rocks it wasn’t enough to kill our enthusiasm for the overall ride.
As you’d expect there's some payback in terms of power delivery from the ﬂexy stays and the Cannondale won’t grind out a gear with the same brutal purpose as stiffer bikes on smooth ground. On anything bumpy though, the chassis compliance gains you more traction than the bounce loses. The further you ride, the more signiﬁcant the fact you’re staying fresher becomes, too.
Frame: Impressively springy, agile and responsive
Cannondale have been making bikes from big aluminium tubes for longer than any other company still in existence and they're still pushing the limits even at this pricepoint. The massive externally reinforced 1-1/2in head tube can cope with any type of fork, including Cannondale’s unique Lefty. There’s a long shared seam between the main tubes for extra strength and the sloped top tube means plenty of crotch clearance.
Open gear cabling is neat and easy to clean, there’s plenty of mud room out back and the stays use Cannondale’s ﬂattened centre SAVE (Synapse Active Vibration Elimination) design. The only thing to be wary of is that the seat tube is short and the top tube relatively compact, so if you don’t like showing a lot of post or want a long stretch to the bars you’ll need to size up
Equipment: Well chosen kit including outstanding tyres
The RST fork gets a 1.5in steerer to match the head tube and while the coil spring rate is ﬁxed, you do get adjustable rebound. The fat SI stem comes with the Cannondale logo on the small crenelations of the CNC machined top cap, which adds a quality look. There are colour ﬂashes on the rims, and while hoop and hub quality are unknowns, they gave us no issues on test.
The Alivio and Deore transmission is par for the price, but it’s good to see a proper Shimano chain and cassette rather than compromise choices. The Cannondale ﬁnishing kit is all decent stuff too, with the non-twist semi-lock-on grips deﬁnitely being a control bonus in wet conditions.
One component choice that worked implausibly well even on the slipperiest woods and rocky trails was the Kenda Small Block Eight tyres. If you lock them up, all control vanishes, but keep them rolling and the multiple tiny block tread with its sticky shoulder dual compound composition nibbles traction out of steep climbs, roots and rock heaps. They roll phenomenally fast, more than offsetting the ’dale’s weight in acceleration terms.