While range-topping Scalpels get the full carbon treatment and feature Cannondale’s proprietary single-sided Lefty fork, the £2,099 Scalpel 5’s more familiar looks are courtesy of an alu main frame and conventional fork, but most of the other quirky design features remain.
Ride & handling: Fast but bouncy out back
Any doubts about the Scalpel 5’s intended use are quickly dispelled by its arse-up, head-down ride position and firm-feeling rear end. A long cockpit combined with steepish seat angle and surprisingly slack head angle make for a bike that’s more straight-line dragster than nimble trail tamer. All that weight over the front wheel translates into excellent high speed stability, at the expense of a less nimble feel when carving through singletrack.
What about those clever pivotless stays? On the one hand, they allow the rear wheel to track over obstacles that would have a hardtail skittering around and losing traction. In terms of keeping the power down and speed up, that’s definitely a good thing. Big gear mashers may notice some pedal-induced bob, but it is mostly kept under control by the Fox shock’s aggressive compression damping tune – although this does tend to restrict the rear end’s ability to absorb smaller bumps.
On the other hand, the lack of pivots means that the chainstays don’t just act as part of the suspension linkage, but as springs in their own right – springs with a very steeply rising rate, for that matter. In practice, the full 100mm (4in) of rear wheel travel is only really achievable with minimal air in the shock and thoroughly abusive riding – in normal use, you can expect to achieve perhaps two thirds of the available travel.
Whether or not this matters to you depends on how you ride. For committed cross-country racers looking for a minor traction and comfort advantage, the fact the Scalpel 5 doesn’t deliver on its promises of ‘buttery smooth travel’ may be outweighed by its race-winning credentials. For the rest of us though, it looks rather more like an over-ambitious attempt to turn a limited-use softtail into a more versatile full susser, an attempt which, unfortunately for Cannondale, hasn’t quite worked.
Frame: Oversized tubes and a unique rear end
The massively oversized head tube will accept a Lefty upgrade, while the BB30-compatible bottom bracket shell (which houses a standard Shimano SLX unit on the Scalpel 5) is supported by a down tube that – contrary to the norm – swells from a thinner front end to a fatter rear. The whole lot is put together with Cannondale’s distinctive fat welds.
It’s the rear end that makes the Scalpel unique. The bonded carbon chainstays and seatstays are flattened around the mid points to allow some flex without the need for pivots. So far, so softtail. What makes the Scalpel different from its hardtail-with-a-shock competitors is its claimed 100mm of rear wheel travel from the linkage-driven Fox Float RP2 shock.
A relatively high level of compression damping tune is designed to prevent excessive pedal-induced bobbing, while a rearward-shifted chainstay flex point helps reduce the impact of brake-induced forces on the rear axle’s movement. Worried about carbon flexing? Well, the Scalpel’s been around for nearly a decade…
Equipment: Wot no Lefty?
Riders with exhibitionist tendencies may bemoan the lack of a Lefty up front, but Fox’s evergreen 32 Float RL serves up 100mm of well-controlled and utterly predictable travel. That’s more front-end bounce than many XC racers will be comfortable with, but the compression lockout makes for a bob-free experience on climbs and sprints.
The Scalpel’s rear end isn’t cheap to make – a fact that’s obvious from the mid-range kit that adorns this version. But heavy hubs aside, there’s little to grumble about with Shimano’s SLX transmission, while the Avid Juicy Five brakes are powerful and reliable after a short bedding-in period. The flat bars are a stark reminder of this bike’s purpose in life, although the Fizik saddle’s long rails and slender Cannondale seatpost add a small degree of bump-absorbing flex.