Cannondale’s Trail SL 29 SS does away with as much faff – apart from in its name – as possible, and is a purely elemental bike. No suspension, no gears. No nonsense.
Frame: smoothly does it
Cannondale has a long history of building bikes from aluminium, and its experience shows in the frame’s construction. The welds are as smooth as we’ve seen on mass-market frames, and Cannondale claims there’s no filler in the welds under the paint to smooth them out either.
The top- and down-tubes have a decent girth, adding to the stiffness provided by the long welds. Speaking of the head-tube, Cannondale is sticking to its guns with the full 1.5in setup, although it’s ready to take any step-down headset. Moving further back, the seat-tube, chain and seatstays are skinny.
To maintain its smooth lines, the Trail SL 29 comes with an eccentric bottom bracket (EBB) – the bottom bracket is held off-centre in an oversized shell, so its carrier can be rotated to change the effective chainstay length and tune the chain tension (there’s no mech to take up the slack, obviously). Despite handing the bike a fair amount of abuse, we’ve yet to make the EBB slip or creak.
The name suggests trail riding, but with a reasonably long 23.4in (Medium) effective top-tube and 71-degree head angle we found the bike suited an arse-up, head-down style, especially once we’d dropped the stem as low as it goes. This changed the SS from feeling a little ponderous to something ripe for putting the hammer down on.
Equipment: successful compromises… mostly
Eschewing the usual clunky, heavy forks you often find on £750 bikes, Cannondale’s stuck on a rigid Fatty fork. The 1.5in steerer plugs stiffly into the head-tube, giving immediate feedback from your wheels. While the Cannondale fork lacks the extra stiffness of a bolt-through axle, the little bit of twang barely detracts from the riding experience. In fact, the small amount of fore and aft flutter you get stops the fork being unduly harsh on the hands, despite that 1.5in steerer.
The fork is suspension-corrected and, even with 29in wheels in, it looks tall. This means that sticking a suspension fork in the bike isn’t going to mess up the handling. But this rigid one excels in claggy, muddy conditions – the legs are widely spaced for acres of tyre clearance. There’s no chance of clogging up.
With an RRP of £750 and a decent frame and fork, creating a bike with a decent spec is always going to be tough. Cannondale’s approach has been to add an attractive wheel package and a more budget-orientated finishing kit, drivetrain and brakes.
The hubs are Formula, with the rear SS-specific one having wider flanges to aid stiffness (if you wanted to fit gears you’d need a new rear hub). The highlight are the Stan’s ZTR Rapid rims. When combined with Schwalbe’s relatively light Racing Ralph tyres, these are a light and stiff set of wheels. The bike accelerates easily, and yet holds its speed over rougher terrain too. This eagerness to accelerate is helped by the friendly 33:20 gear ratio; it’s slightly lower than the usual 32:18.
The money in the excellent wheels has left shortfalls elsewhere. Cannondale’s Helix 6 brakes lack any significant power, and their minimal levers are flexy, resulting in a slightly mushy feel. The Truvativ E-400 cranks, meanwhile, run on a square taper bottom bracket and are pretty heavy.
The stiffness of the cranks is less of a concern; with only a single ring and no derailleur, lateral flex is barely noticeable, and square taper BBs have a reputation for lasting ages.
Ride and handling: surprisingly flexible
What became apparent while riding the Trail SL 29er is that it’s more adaptable than you’d think. Aluminium doesn’t have the buzz-reducing properties of steel and titanium, but Cannondale’s expertise shows through: the back end is supple, giving that little bit of zing over the trail, without leaving you feeling battered.
Those with masochistic tendencies will enjoy flogging themselves as fast as possible over hills and down dales, and those looking for a cheap, reliable second bike to run when the weather’s bad will enjoy being able to just chuck it in the shed dirty.
But there’s more to it than that. It’s a fantastic platform to upgrade, thanks to the quality of the frame. We raced the bike at the Strathpuffer 24-hour event in Scotland, where its reliability meant absolutely no time was spent between laps cleaning, fixing or lubing.
On ‘bigger’ trails you’re never going to go as fast as a regular trail bike, but smiles per mile are high when you’re knee-deep in mud puddles and you just want to crank out some local miles.