In recent years aluminum has made a bit of a comeback, with BMC, Specialized, Trek, Canyon and Rose among those developing lightweight alloy bikes. Cannondale had the very successful CAAD10 in its lineup, and now the promise of its best ever lies with the new CAAD12 – which has scooped our sister title Cycling Plus's coveted Bike of the Year 2016 award.
We think aluminum never quite got a fair crack at the top. Just as bikes were getting lighter, and stiff enough for pro riders to race on, they were swept away by carbon.
In aluminum alloy's turn-of-the-millennium heyday Cannondale was the biggest innovator with bikes such as the R4000 (CAAD4) on which Italian sprint king Mario Cipollini, after winning a stage of the 1999 Tour, declared to the cameras, "Cannondale makes the best bikes!"
Bring it on
With the new CAAD12, Cannondale seems to be throwing down the gauntlet to the competition in high-grade alloy. The numbers are compelling: the frame weighs just 1,098g, which is 52g lighter than the CAAD10, while the fork – based on Cannondale's new EVO design – weighs a mere 300g. More expensive CAAD12 models get the HM fork, a scarily light 280g.
The CAAD12 features the 25.4mm diameter seatpost that Cannondale pioneered on the Synapse, and more recently the new EVO. The new Si crankset is also a Cannondale design.
The new Si crankset weighs just 735g complete with FSA chainrings
This isn't as light as its SiSL2 and SiSL predecessors, but the hollow-forged alloy construction – a process Cannondale pioneered before Shimano – results in a weight of just 735g complete with the FSA chainrings. This is lighter than Ultegra and even SRAM's carbon Force.
But in the real world, winning the weight battle is less important than the quality of the ride. Thankfully the CAAD12 won't let you down.
Our initial rides were at the bike's summer launch in Austria, but we're aware that riding on glass-smooth roads in some of Europe's most spectacular mountain ranges can cloud your judgment – so we wanted to take the CAAD12 out for hard rides on more typical territory, Britain's poorly maintained, grit-surfaced tarmac.
Bossing the rough stuff
The 12 did not disappoint. In fact, we found it even more impressive on rough roads than we expected. The new frame has all the rock-solid stiffness that we expect of good quality alloy, but it's combined with the ability to float above the noise and vibration that bad British tarmac offers.
The slender carbon fork eats up buzz yet tracks with the same directness that impressed us so much with the new EVO. More impressive still is the back end. The compliance coming from the combination of the slender seat-tube and slimline seat stays is jaw dropping, to the point that after a few hours in the saddle we had to keep reminding ourselves that this bike was not only aluminum, but also a modestly specced model with an alloy – rather than carbon – seatpost.
The CAAD12 wowed us with its composure and comfort on rugged UK roads
On the flat the CAAD12 translates every ounce of your pedal stroke into speed and acceleration, and when the road starts to rise it simply flows with your input. If you want to push on and attack, crest a rise and start to descend the CAAD12 is your ideal wingman.
It holds its line brilliantly and feels both planted yet nimble reacting to mid-corner corrections. We'd go so far as to say it's one of the most impressive-handling bikes we've tested this year, irrespective of price.
Predictable kit compromises
The CAAD12 has the typical kit compromises that we'd expect at this level. The Mavic Aksium wheels are solid performers, but they do feel narrow, and the middling Lugano tires feel none too compliant.
The Schwalbe Luganos are adequate but middling performers
It's testament to just how accomplished the Cannondale chassis is that the running gear didn't hamper the ride too much. We dropped a set of wider carbon wheels running 25mm tires onto the CAAD12 and it feels every inch as good as bikes three times the price.
The biggest issue we think Cannondale faces is punters comparing the CAAD12 to its similarly priced Tiagra-equipped SuperSix EVO – we still think we'd plump for the metal.
Its handling, weight and the wonderful ride quality are compelling reasons why aluminum is still with us long after carbon's rise to prominence. It's also worth emphasising that the CAAD12 isn't just a great alloy bike – it's an exceptional machine regardless of its material.
The minimal seatstays combine with the slim seatpost to deliver ridiculous levels of compliance
After all, any bike that has us questioning whether to choose it over the SuperSix EVO has to be something very, very special.
We think that Cannondale's canny designers and engineers deserve a round of applause for giving us proof that aluminum is far from finished in the world of high-performance road bikes, and even now is a discerning choice for those who prefer to keep their costs low and their cycling speeds high.