The heady days of the Saeco team's supremacy in the sprint may be over for Cannondale - certainly since Mario Cipollini bowed out - but the company is still very much at the cutting edge of bike technology. With benchmark setters like the R900 and the sublimely smooth Six-13 Team - used by the up-and-coming Barloworld squad - innovation and success is still a massive priority for the Cannondale crew.
Not content with resting on their laurels, the people from Pennsylvania are competing head-on with the best team issue bikes available, through the creation of a new frame, with a strong emphasis on the stiff and responsive end of the ride spectrum - the SystemSix.
So, just how does it stack up against stiff competition at the high end, and can Cannondale's hunger for innovation set it apart from the crowd as it did for the Six- 13 Team bike? Read on to find out.
The SystemSix has been created using the unorthodox method of co-moulding an aluminium back end that resembles the CAAD 8, to that of a moulded carbon front triangle.
Looking like a set from the Roswell Project, Cannondale have a huge walk-in refrigerator at their factory for storing the raw aircraft-grade pre-preg carbon. This is then formed into tubes, through which the ends are folded back to become one with the massively oversized head tube. Before curing in the mould, the carbon ends are placed inside the welded aluminium rear triangle. Inflatable bladders then ensure that the carbon squeezes into windows that are cut into the sides of the tubing, thus locking the carbon tube to the aluminium tube just in front of the seat tube and bottom bracket.
The frame is constructed in its entirety at their Bedford, Pennsylvania factory, and Cannondale's industrial designer, Torgny Fjeldskaar, says that weight considerations were secondary to getting a satisfactory balance of stiffness and shock dissipation. Saying this, at 1,112g they don't appear to have sacrificed low weight in their quest, with few high-end frames being much lighter.
The key to the frame's inherent stiffness lies in its hugely oversized tubing, with its one-inch lower bearing race, and a steerer that tapers down to one and one-eighth inch at the top. A sleeve is used to pack out the difference between the upper head-tube and the bearing, and it was necessary to create a massively oversized stem to properly integrate the look.
The frame eschews the trend for compacts, with a barely noticeable 2cm sloping top tube (3cm on sizes 54cm and less), and the geometry in terms of numbers is pretty much what we have come to expect, with no unpleasant surprises across the range of eight sizes.
Straight out of the crate, the new Cannondale has an overriding sense of lateral stiffness that initially fools the rider into thinking the ride is harsh. But hit a patch of poorly surfaced road and that thought is immediately banished, with the frame dissipating shocks very effectively before they get through to your contact points.
The exceptional torsional stiffness when climbing, and the speed with which the bike swallows up gradients in a gear higher than most of our testers felt they would normally use, will be hugely beneficial in a race situation. The ride even went a fair way to reconciling Cannondale's claim that the SystemSix is 44% stiffer in torsion and 45% stiffer in the bottom bracket area than their Six-13 (and indeed most of the bikes that we have tested in the past two years - with the exception of the Storck CD1.0).
Just to show that outright stiffness isn't everything, though, one of the testers said that he was on the brakes earlier than normal on the approach to a slow corner, as the directness of the steering can unnerve a cautious descender.
This trait is typical of high-end 'team issue' carbon frames and in this respect it can be compared more closely to its rivals than any of Cannondale's previous models. The Six-13 Team's steering has a tendency to feel remote at times, but the new SystemSix is more direct when feeding in the brakes hard into a slow corner and is simply the most stable race bike we've ever encountered on descents at speeds over 70kph.
If you fancy getting your hands on the SystemSix, there are three price options. First up is the Campagnolo Record Superlight tested here, which is a cool £6K. This includes Fulcrum Racing light carbon wheels. The Dura-Ace costs £4,149 and includes Mavic Ksyrium ES wheels. And at £2,649, the Ultegra-equipped bike represents the best value, with a Cannondale Si carbon crankset and Mavic Ksyrium Elite wheels.
The finishing kit on all three versions is as good as it gets, with USE Alien Cyclops carbon seatpost, the much-loved Fizik Arione carbon-railed saddle, Reynolds carbon oversized handlebars and matching carbon stem. The stem is specially oversized to match the chunky frame tubing dimensions, and a choice of five sizes is available, from 80-120mm. There are no triple-chainset options on this bike but a compact chainset with 34/50 tooth chainrings is optional for no extra cost on Dura-Ace and Ultegra models. Note that the Barloworld version to be released in September will get power measuring SRM data-logging kit.
Now to that all-important question of wheels. The Fulcrum carbon wheels are very similar to the Campagnolo Hyperon Ultras, and use angular contact bearings that, in our experience, promise a longer life than is typical of a cartridge bearing.
The stainless steel spokes are crossed on the drive side, with the remainder built to the radial pattern. To improve strength - by equalising the differences between left and right-hand spokes - the rear carbon clincher rim has spoke holes that are biased to one side. This virtually eliminates chain rub on steep gradients and only occasionally requires trueing up.
We figured that a weight saving of 238g per pair over the Mavic Ksyrium SSC's of the Dura-Ace versions would make a difference that we could feel, but it was not sufficient to justify the expense of the Superlight.
The Vittoria Diamante Pro Light tyres are mid- to high-end on the comfort scale and their super-soft compound grips well in dry conditions and, despite a bout of heavy weather prior to testing, there were no signs of cuts in the tread.