Despite the name, Cannondale describes the Trail SL as “a racer through and through”. The SL1 is the most expensive of the Trail SL series – Cannondale does 29er versions of the bike, but we’re looking at the 26er.
There’s a lot to like about the Trail SL1 – it looks great, the frame is well designed and finished, and it’s got lively handling. The parts spec is only adequate, though.
Ride & handling: A lively feeling bike with agile handling
Cannondale’s not kidding with the racer thing – the SL1 is long, low and lively. It’s not all that light (12.5kg), which dulls acceleration a bit, but its race-day DNA shines through. In some senses it’s a demanding bike, but it’s also a rewarding one – it compels you to pedal hard all the time, and requires your full attention as speeds rise, but it reacts to power and steering inputs with alacrity, allowing for the extra bit of weight it feels like it’s carrying.
The Cannondale is agile, and feels close to an old-school cross-country (XC) bike. And that SAVE (Synapse Active Vibration Elimination) back end? Without riding a bike that’s exactly the same apart from the stays, it’s impossible to say how effective it is, but the Trail SL1 isn’t a harsh bike despite the relatively low-volume tyres. The flattened stays don’t do it any harm.
Frame: Well designed and finished
The SL1 shares its frame with the rest of the Trail SL series. Despite that range starting at just £500, the chassis has an impressively high-end look and feel. Cannondale has used generally straight pipes in the front end, with just a little bit of a curve at the front of the down tube and a flared top tube.
Out back things get considerably more interesting thanks to Cannondale’s SAVE chain and seatstays with flattened mid-sections. SAVE is described as micro-suspension, which roughly translates as flexes a tiny bit. Flattened stays at the back end are claimed to yield a bit of comfort-enhancing give. While it's hard to filter out any effect from seat post flex and tyre cushioning, the Trail's a pretty comfy bike.
There’s reasonable clearance around the 2.1in Schwalbe tyres fitted, but you wouldn’t want to go much bigger than that. And, if you’re tall, take a good look at Cannondale – many bikes don’t even come in XL, but the SL1 can be had not just in XL but also a super-sized Jumbo variant.
Equipment: Merely okay in the value for money stakes
Cannondale has always tended to deliver a high-end frame at a given price point, usually compromising on components to do so. That’s not a bad approach, given that components wear out, but it does leave the SL1 looking merely okay in the value for money stakes. Up front is a RockShox Recon fork, which Cannondale has specced with a full 1.5in steerer to take full advantage of the frame’s oversized head tube.
While none of the Trail SL range comes with Cannondale’s Lefty fork, the frame’s 1.5in head tube is ready to accommodate one should you want to upgrade. With a suitable headset it’ll also take a tapered steerer, or use a straight 1.125in steerer and play with Anglesets.
No complaints about the all-Shimano transmission set-up, which is smooth and reliable. We’re not massively enamoured of the Hayes Stroker Ryde brakes, which are a little over-firm in feel, if adequate in power. Finishing kit is Cannondale’s own, and none the worse for that.