Last year’s Cannondale Scalpel 3 was a carbon framed, 80mm (3.1in) travel, lightweight whippet with 26in wheels, a sub-11kg (23lb) weight and a £3,000/US$4,100 price tag.
It’s all change this year, with a move to big wheels and 100mm (3.9in) travel for the entire Scalpel range – and you’ll need to cough up a hefty £4,500/US$5,550 to score the carbon-framed Scalpel 29er Carbon 2. The new 3 gets an alu chassis instead, but retains Cannondale’s proprietary single-sided Lefty fork. Is it still a worthy racing snake?
Ride & handling: Plush rear but heavy for a race weapon
The classic zero pivot, carbon-stayed Scalpel has a ride quality all of its own. Less full-blown full-susser than hardtail with added traction and comfort, the suspension’s unique geometry works with the bike’s low weight to deliver a fast, comfortable and ground-hugging ride. It’s an acquired taste. It’s also in a class of one. No other production bike offers quite the same combination of pace, weight and comfort.
Replacing the carbon rear end with a conventional alu suspension setup has changed all that. The Scalpel 3’s suspension does everything that it ought to do without fuss, delivering 100mm of rear wheel travel with no nasty surprises.
In that respect it’s arguably an improvement on the pivotless carbon alternative, which, last time we tested it in its 100mm travel guise, struggled to deliver the full range of travel. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the extra weight over last year’s carbon bike significantly blunts the Scalpel’s performance.
With its conventional rear end and conventional weight, the Scalpel 3 doesn’t stand out in the way that it used to (or that the more expensive carbon versions arguably still do). It’s fighting for attention among a plethora of similarly priced and specced mid-travel bikes.
And, although the Lefty fork gives it crowd-pulling potential, that’s not matched by the on-trail reality. The Lefty’s accurate steering and sound engineering principles aren’t in doubt, but it needs better internals to deliver on the promise of details such as roller bearing smoothness.
All of which begs the question – what’s the point of the Scalpel 3? Without the comfort and weight advantages of a pivotless carbon rear end, it’s just another mid-travel mid-ranger with a below-par fork up front.
If you want to race and you can afford the extra, the Scalpel 2 would be a better bet. But if you want a bike for more rounded trail duties, the harsh truth is there are better options available than the Scalpel 3.
Frame & equipment: Alu chassis has piled on the pounds
Cannondale’s original Scalpel concept was all about a pivotless rear end. Carbon chainstays, shaped to flex at a certain point, were supported by the usual air shock and made a compliant rear end that’d stay better planted in the rough than a race hardtail.
At the higher end of 2013’s Scalpel range, the same principles still apply, even if the wheels are now bigger and the travel – nominally, at least – a bit longer. But the budget-minded 3 and the cheaper 4 both feature alu frames, which changes more than the price.
Carbon Scalpels of the past pivoted partway along the chainstays. No normal full susser does that (for good reason – it’s not a great place to put the main pivot). So the Scalpel 3 has a traditionally positioned main pivot at the bottom of the seat tube and a four-bar system driving a Fox Float shock with CTD. It gives the Scalpel 29er 3 a much more conventional suspension setup than previous incarnations – which is a good thing in terms of rear suspension performance.
The trouble is that the conventional design and aluminium build pile on the pounds, literally. This year’s Scalpel 3 is more than 2.3kg (5lb) heavier than last year’s. That’s a huge difference that radically changes how it rides – more on that later.
The Lefty fork combines odd looks with a rather mixed performance. Despite appearances, it actually tracks more accurately than most similarly specced conventional forks – and the mud clearance is effectively limitless.
Cannondale’s spring and damper design has always lagged though, and 2013’s Lefty is no exception. Our sample felt particularly sluggish whatever we did to it, packing up on successive hits and limiting our willingness to take the Scalpel down lines it should have shrugged off.
A flat bar and a 2×10 SRAM X9-based transmission make perfect sense for a race-focused bike, while light wheels help mitigate a little of the Scalpel 29er 3’s middle-aged spread.